Wednesday, December 27, 2006

MEMOIR: Grandma and Mrs. Goldenberg's son

My maternal grandmother, who had been a widow for decades, lived with my parents while I was growing up during the 1930s in the Bronx. She was an extremely religious woman who, when not helping my mother with the housekeeping, spent much of her time at home praying and studying the Bible. Her social life was centered on her synagogue, Tefereth Beth Jacob, a small Orthodox congregation located on 169th Street between the Grand Concourse and Walton Ave. It was around the corner from our apartment on the Concourse.

Grandma was the most religiously learned woman in the congregation and functioned as its unofficial matriarch. Every Saturday afternoon following the services, she would read Bible stories in Yiddish to at least a dozen elderly ladies gathered around her in the synagogue's women's section. Often she would be consulted by them on religious matters if the rabbi was unavailable or if the other women were uncomfortable discussing overly intimate subjects with him.

Grandma had the advantage of a religious education that few Eastern European Jewish women of her generation received. She had been raised on a mill located in what is now Belarus, far removed from Jewish communities. Because of its isolation in a rural region, her father employed live-in tutors to educate his five sons. Grandma was apparently an inquisitive young girl and regularly sat in on her brothers' lessons.

The result was that she knew Biblical Hebrew. When I studied Hebrew as a modern language in high school, Grandma was eager to help me with my home work. She would orally translate my Hebrew texts into Yiddish, and I would convert her translations into English. Unfortunately, her linguistic talents never extended to English. She could understand English but never learned to speak the language very well. This was not a serious handicap because her social and commercial contacts were limited to Yiddish speakers.

Grandma had a host of friends among the ladies of her synagogue. One of her closest friends was a Mrs. Goldenberg, who lived alone in an apartment house around the other corner from ours on Clarke Place. Like Grandma, she was a widow. She was apparently more affluent than my family because she lived in an apartment house which, unlike ours, had an elevator.

Indeed, there was other evidence that Mrs. Goldenberg was a lady of means. Grandma was in awe of her friend's lavishly furnished apartment and was impressed that Mrs. Goldenberg could employ a maid to clean her home. And unlike Grandma, who rarely left our apartment except to shop, attend the synagogue, and walk to her younger daughter's nearby apartment, Mrs. Goldenberg traveled frequently.

Her trips were usually to visit her son in California, who was evidently supporting his mother very generously. The son also had a home on the East Coast, and Mrs. Goldenberg would often visit him there. Mrs. Goldenberg's son was a major topic of her conversation with Grandma. He was obviously a very successful man, but from Grandma's accounts, Mrs. Goldenberg did not really boast about his achievements. For years, it was unclear what was Mrs. Goldenberg's son's occupation.

Finally, we found out that he was an actor. Mrs. Goldenberg was not very knowledgeable about the details of her son's theatrical career. So we were stunned to learn one day that Mrs. Goldenberg's son was the famous Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson. (The middle initial "G" in his stage name stood for Goldenberg.)

I do not recall how we discovered Mrs. Goldenberg's son's identity. But I believe that some of her neighbors spotted him arriving in a limousine to visit his mother. He was immediately recognized, and word quickly spread around the neighborhood that a famous movie star's mother lived on Clarke Place.

Robinson, who was usually typecast as a tough guy, started his career on the Broadway stage and appeared in more than 90 films during a 50-year career. My grandmother was not impressed to learn that the son of her close friend, Mrs. Goldenberg, was such a celebrity. She had never heard of him except, indirectly, from his mother who never revealed his stage name. I do not believe that Grandma had ever even been in a movie theater, so Hollywood stars did not figure in her realm of knowledge.


Blogger Joe Mama said...


Hope you had a great Chanukah. A wonderful story about Mrs. Goldenberg. Maybe being an actor wasn't such an honorable profession in those days. Do you think Mrs. Goldenberg may have been a little ashamed of his field, but of course, not of him?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006 1:23:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

So he wasn't a doctor but he did okay, didn't he? God bless Edward G Robinson. He obviously took good care of his mother. Its nice to hear of devoted sons.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006 1:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Another great family history article. I've decided to do a cut and past of all the family related blog articles and create an informal book with each article being a chapter.

Thanks again for sharing these wonderful stories.

Your cousin,


David Fox
Arnold, MD

Wednesday, December 27, 2006 4:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

This was so interesting to me, Mort. Do you remember when I wrote about my grandfather on my blog:
(July 08, 2006...Memories of my grandfather……HARRY LEE)because you had sparked the memory?
Well, as I said in that blog my Papa worked for Warner Bros. and wrote a column on the movies for a NY newspaper. One of the friends that he made then was Edward G. Robinson and he (my Papa) would tell of what a sweet man he was and nothing like the characters that he portayed. They kept in contact for years.
I love to read your memoirs.

Thursday, December 28, 2006 8:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Cousin Mort,
I'm learning more things about Grandma that I never knew before.
I was aware that she was a learned person because I always saw her reading the newspaper. Hope you had a happy Chanukah.

Cousin Ruby

Sunday, December 31, 2006 8:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Able Mart said...

You have an interesting family history and a great memoroy.

Monday, January 01, 2007 5:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Ronni Bennett said...

Happy New Year, Mort - and I'm looking forward to many more great stories from you.

Monday, January 01, 2007 9:09:00 AM  
Blogger joared said...

Glad I didn't miss this story even if I am a few days late reading it. Robinson would have been such a big star in those days, I wonder if he gave his mother explicit instructions to keep quiet lest he be mobbed when he came to visit. Your Grandma had the right idea -- "stars" are just people -- how do you know if you'll like them until you get to know them.

Monday, January 08, 2007 3:07:00 AM  

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