MEMOIR: My father's Hasidic family
I've always boasted that my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Samuel Reichek, was probably one of the first Hasidim to settle in the U.S. In 1906, he brought his family to this country from the Czarist Russian-ruled region of Poland, arriving aboard the S.S. Fatherland after a brief stay in Antwerp, Belgium. My father, the second oldest of his four sons, was nine years old.
The Hasidim are an ultra-Orthodox Jewish mystical sect whose religious practices display far more emotional fervor than other Orthodox Jews. Their men wear beards, black hats and coats, and their rites are marked by dancing, singing and hearty consumption of alcoholic beverages. Hasidism has been described as being "unique in its focus on the joyful observance of God's commandments."
My grandfather founded and headed what was undoubtedly the first Hasidic American synagogue, Beth Hasidim de Palen (House of Hasidim from Poland). It was originally housed on the second floor of a tenement apartment house on Manhattan's Lower East Side. To my knowledge, the congregation no longer exists.
There are many dozens of Hasidic sects, organized largely on the basis of East European geography and on the leadership of individual 18th and 19th century charismatic rabbis. My grandfather belonged to the Gerer Hasidim. The name stemmed from the Polish home town, Gora Kalwaria, of the sect's founder. According to family lore, the Gerer Rebbe (the sect's leader) personally urged my grandfather to go to the U.S. to establish a Hasidic presence in New York.
My grandfather, whom I never knew, would probably not appreciate my boast about his role as a pioneer Hasid in this country. I do not know of any one in my family who still has links to the Hasidic community. My father, Meyer (Yehiel Mayer) Reichek, was estranged from my grandfather after my father quit a New York religious seminary at the age of 18. My father wanted to adopt a secular life far removed from the provincial Hasidic lifestyle.
My paternal family came from Ostrow (also known as Ostrava), a small Polish town in the province of Lomza. My grandfather, the son of a lumber dealer, was a highly regarded Talmudic scholar. He was ordained as a rabbi but never earned a livelihood as a clergyman.
My grandmother, Gussie (Gelya) Reichek, was born in Grodno, a town that was also in the former Czarist Russian-ruled region of Poland; it is now in the independent country of Belarus. Her maiden name was Kuchiniak. She had a brother who decided to "Americanize" the family name when he came here. He was not very imaginative. He changed his surname to Cohen. Grandma also had several sisters in this country, but I never knew them very well.
Grandma's father was an adherent of another Hasidic sect, the Alexander Hasidim. He was a ritual slaughterer, the religious Jewish functionary who butchers kosher meat. Arranging a marriage to a man with my grandfather's impressive religious credentials was considered a social coup. The couple never met until the night of their wedding.
The newlyweds settled in the groom's home town, Ostrow. My grandfather had a pragmatic, older brother named Mayer, who recognized that Talmudic scholarship was insufficient for the support of a family. He was a prosperous businessman who staked my grandfather and his bride to a venture producing vegetable oil. When asked what my family did in Europe, I've jokingly boasted that they were in the "oil business," without mentioning the "vegetables."
My grandfather's brother and his children never migrated to the U.S. I learned only in recent years that some of his offspring perished during the Holocaust. At least one grandson survived the Nazi death camps and settled in Israel. A grand-daughter, who survived as a wartime laborer in Soviet Uzbekistan, eventually came to the U.S. It was through her that I became aware of the tragic fate of some of my relatives.
Unlike his brother Mayer, my grandfather had no interest in business. My grandmother, however, displayed great talent as a businesswoman. Almost alone, she successfully ran the vegetable-oil business. Meantime, my grandfather continued to devote himself to prayer and Talmudic studies.
When the family settled in New York a century ago, this occupational pattern was repeated. Grandma ran a tiny dairy store while raising five children. Her husband was primarily occupied with his religious endeavors. Their marriage was evidently an unhappy one, and they separated about 20 years after arriving in the U.S. I do not know whether they were ever formally divorced.
In the mid-1930s, my grandfather grew discontented with what he regarded as a lack of religious piety in this country and decided to move to Palestine so that he could die in the Holy Land. My father helped my grandfather board a ship and never saw him again.
My grandfather died in 1950, separated from his family, in a Hasidic home for the aged in Jerusalem. My daughter was born four years later. Her Hebrew name, Avigayil Shoshana (my grandfather's first name, which he never used, was Abraham) is a memorial to the paternal grandfather I never knew.