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Reflections from my Late Father

Dad (front) age 12

Posted in ChicagoNow, July 17, 2015

July 17 is my late father’s birthday. My father loved writing, history, genealogy, and delivering lectures. So, when I found these reflections he wrote many years ago as part of the readings for my children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvot, I thought this was the perfect time to share them. They provide a window into my children’s heritage and my father’s generation, but more importantly, they allow me to hear my Dad’s voice. I’m proud to have my father be my guest blogger and I miss him, especially today. Happy Birthday Dad.

THE WAY IT WAS – September 1, 1984 (My son’s Bar Mitzvah ironically coincided with the 50th anniversary my father’s)

Year two of the New Deal. June 30th, the red-letter date. The week begins with the onset of an early summer heat wave. Temperatures hover near the triple digit mark. Blazing sun. Stifling humidity. Preparations are under way. Mother, tantes [aunts], neighbors, friends – all are engaged in an orgy of cooking and baking. Chickens are plucked and broiled. Fricasses, chopped liver, tsimmes, kishkas, kasha, lokshen, mandlen, challes, tayglech, mandel brot, and strudels — all are in various stages of completion. Large pots boiling on stoves, ovens are all ablaze. Every icebox and precious refrigerator in the neighborhood is stuffed with the overflow of this productivity.

Meanwhile, the focus of this sweaty, frenzied activity is absorbed in the daily heroics of the new “Samson,” Hammering Hank Greenberg, who has come as a messiah to lead the beloved Detroit Tigers out of the American League wilderness to their first pennant in a quarter century.

Saturday morning dawns with sun and heat unabated. The “man to be” is adorned in the new suit – 100% wool worsted, tan color, belted back jacket and knickers. The neighborhood shul is filled to capacity with 125 perspiring souls — women in the balcony, a collection of bearded elders wrapped in ankle length taleism surrounding the bimah. At the center stands Rabbi Moldowsky, awesome with a red beard and shining penetrating eyes in a stern visage — father of ten or twelve, advisor, interpreter, philosopher, and shochet [kosher slaughter].

Now, in a quick singsong, the blessings are chanted, followed by the Haftorah and the closing blessings. Then comes a five-minute break for “the speech” — obligatory thanks to mother and father and to the United Hebrew Schools for inspirational tutelage, promises to work diligently for the betterment of mankind and Judaism, and to remain steadfast in the study of Torah. Finally, the descent from before the Ark to a shower of candies from the balcony, and it’s over.

Sundown, and all the food comes forth from the secret hiding places and is lugged up to the Parkside Social Hall, a sparse room over the main business street store fronts. Tables and chairs have been set up. A small area has been cleared for the band and dance floor. The music is Morris Witcoff, violin virtuoso, and his Troubadors, specializing in freilichs, waltzes, Russian shers, polkas, and an occasional American fox trot. The endless dinner is punctuated by well wishes and greetings in appropriate order from relatives, friends, and officers and directors of the Landsmanschaft Society. A procession of gifts – the inevitable pen and pencil set, a siddur, a chumash, a tie clasp, envelopes with $2.00 and $3.00 in cash, a rare $5.00 bill, and a Mickey Mouse watch.

The “Bar Mitzvah” and a handful of boyfriends cavort in a corner. Batting averages and individual athletic heroics are loudly discussed. Trading card deals are arranged. Teachers and sundry elders are mocked and mimicked. Across the room are the girls, the older sister and a few daughters of relatives and friends. A constant chatter and giggle prevails. Never the twain shall meet.

By 10:00, the “man of the day” and the older sister are dispatched to the babysitter who has been minding the younger brother and sister at the house about a block away. Their big day is ended. The adult revelers go on and on.

The only memento of all of this is the [Mickey Mouse] watch.

CONTRASTS – November 1, 1986

I wish that I could reminisce about some Bat Mitzvah that I either attended or participated in when I was your age, but there was no such thing. The closest approximation that I remember was being coerced to sit through a few formal confirmation ceremonies for some female acquaintances who survived a Sunday religious school curriculum long enough to graduate. My lasting impression of these affairs was the recitation of a seemingly endless cantata of quickly forgotten verse and an equally ceaseless presentation of floral bouquets.

Girls shared the classes I attended at the United Hebrew Schools where a secular Jewish education was drummed into our reluctant heads. Here, too, if one endured through eighth grade, or in some rare cases to the high school program, the reward of a graduation ceremony could be expected. To put into perspective the advances in Jewish education and recognition for girls, we have to step back another generation and examine a difference that is measurable in “light years.”

For example, it is apropos in this year of honoring Miss Liberty [Statue of Liberty completed 100 years ago in 1886], that we reflect on the life story of Ida Rosenberg Levine, the great grandmother whose name you bear.

Orphaned at fifteen, she had to make her way to the New World under a false name and identity in the care of a family of strangers to join her siblings who had made the passage earlier and were struggling to establish homes in the “promised land.” The priority was to find some menial employment, generally in the needle trades, to contribute to the family’s economic needs. Education was limited to a few night school courses providing the barest rudiments of reading and writing. Only after years of painstaking laborious self-education, was she able to slowly and methodically read and enjoy a novel.

Careers and professions were as alien to her as flying to the moon. Marriage, motherhood, and homemaking were the only outlets for her native intelligence, energy, and determination, traits that you share in abundance. Cooking, baking, sewing, and needlecraft, and managing the budget through good and lean times, were among the acquired skills that were excellently mastered through sheer will and persistence.

My memory goes back to my eleventh year, in the midst of the great depression of the thirties, when the loss of our house seemed imminent through foreclosure. Despite her limitations, your great grandmother confronted a board of bankers and negotiated a new mortgage that preserved our home. In later years, she worked side by side with your great grandfather operating several small businesses that successfully provided their livelihood, despite the onset of debilitating illness.

Looking back, I wonder what my mother could have accomplished in today’s world with the opportunities that are open to you.

Dearest Alissa, you have already “come a long way, baby,” but the road ahead is unlimited. You have all the tools. Grab that brass ring and never let go.

YOUR HERITAGE – January 27, 1990

As we grow older, it is only natural that we increasingly question our existence and our or origins. At the time of your Bat Mitzvah, I am sure that you too are intrigued by family history and your antecedents.

Obviously, my limited knowledge applies to your mother’ s side of the family. As you know, whenever you or Jonathan or Alissa have been confronted with the required school exercise to draw the family tree, we have quickly amended the request to the standard family joke of family “shrub.” Unfortunately, until recently, I could only tell you the names of your great great grandparents, all of whom lived out their lives in poverty and anonymity in the shtetls of Lithuania.

A few years ago, as the result of a casual conversation with a newly met distant cousin, I was happy to learn about your great great great grandfather, Noach. He lived in the same small village from which your great grandmother and my mother, Ida, departed for America. Thus, we have traced one strand that tells us our family was already established in Lithuania at the end of the 18th century, the age of the Chassidic revival in Eastern European Jewry. Undoubtedly, we had ancestors actively participating in the fervor and mysticism of that period.

Of my father Philip’s side of the family, I only know bits and pieces of stories of aunts and uncles, three generations removed from you, who seemed to be intellectuals and revolutionaries. They were caught up in the movements of the beginning of this century to overthrow the Russian Czar and to break out of the ghetto environment. I know of an uncle [David] killed by Cossacks for his activities. Others fled to South Africa to escape conscription [into the Russian army – a 25 year commitment], and a widowed aunt took three small children to Palestine in the mid 1930’s, establishing our Israeli cousins there.

Turning to your grandmother’ s side, we know that your great grandmother Alice’ s family name was Klavir [perhaps taken from “clavier,” the name for a stringed keyboard musical instrument in Germany from the late 17th century], and hints at musicianship in your ancestral past. Perhaps, your talent on the violin is traceable to this genetic transmission.

Your grandmother’ s father (your great grandfather), Philip Krut, for whom you are named, was turned out into the world at the age of ten. He was sent to Riga, Latvia, to be apprenticed as a tailor. Following his mother’ s death, he left his newly remarried father’s household overburdened with siblings from both marriages, struggling to survive in grinding poverty with barely enough to feed them all. You were witness to a part of this story when you met a relative in Israel who was your great grandfather’s stepbrother. He had moved there from Russia after the incredible hardships of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, which took the lives of many family members.

So you see, Dana, even with the little we know of our background, we are a microcosm of Jewish experience so common to all members of our faith. We are also the proud inheritors of a tradition, a religion, a culture, and a people that is destined, with your participation, to continue to spread its beliefs and ideals for all humanity.

From the writing of Sidney Max Levine


by Laurie Levy
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