by Marianne Goldsmith (Oakland, CA)
“Eat, don’t talk.”
I received this advice from the only grandparent I ever knew – Frank (Papa) Chazanow. The occasion was lunch at Papa’s house, when I was 5 1/2, old enough to manage my own fork, and tall enough to sit (avec booster) in a grown-up chair. Seated next to my younger brother, I observed my grandfather as he ate soup, wiped his moustache with his napkin, and then launched into an intense discussion with my mother across the table.
“Tachter (daughter),” he would say, and proceed to speak rapidly in Yiddish.
Whenever I heard “de kinder” (the children) mentioned, I would perk up, and attempt to join the conversation. I had significant news to share. For example, I could now write my entire name.
Papa responded with a waving of spoon and direct eye contact (his watery grey, mine dark brown). “Eat, don’t talk.”
I giggled and glanced over at my mother, who nodded gently. Papa grinned slightly and then turned to my mother. I played with my soup, stirring the noodles and carrots, smushing the peas until the broth turned a murky green, still trying to make sense out of what was being said. Forever it seemed I would never find out.
I wanted to ask questions. Why was my older sister called the “shayna madel” (“pretty girl”) and I was the “guta madel,”(good girl) which I interpreted to mean “good tomato”?
“Eat, don’t talk” was the cruelest of punishment.
Papa was always in shul before we arrived. He was standing at his shtender against the wall near the bima, the back of his balding head covered with a black yarmulke, the cream colored tallis draped in long folds over his small, bony shoulders. He davened with dignity, swaying back and forth.
When there was a break in the service, we greeted him. He leaned over to embrace each one of us, the tallis falling over us like a curtain as we kissed him, lips brushing against his wiry grey mustache. “Good Shabbos.”
He often took part in the torah service on the bima, reciting blessings or conferring with the Rabbi or the cantor on proper procedure. At times, he even brought the service to a halt.
“Papa’s mad. Must be a mistake,” my mother whispered, with a wry smile. The whole congregation had to wait until Papa was satisfied that the liturgical error was corrected.
I know my grandfather arrived in Texas about the same time as the men he rebuked on the bima, escaping the pogroms of Russia, sailing from Bremen to Galveston during the early 1900’s. The Jewish community helped one another to survive, and Papa was one of many who made his way peddling fruit in the country towns of central Texas. At night, he slept under his wagon.
I wonder, did he recite his prayers before sleeping under the big, flat Texas sky, gazing up at the heavens, the bright stars glinting against a black night?
Marianne Goldsmith grew up in Waco, Texas. She has lived in the San Francisco bay area for over 30 years, and has worked primarily as a communications consultant and writer. Her work has appeared in The Jewish Bulletin, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Dark Horse Literary Magazine, and a self-published anthology.
This portrait of her grandfather, Frank Chazanow, and the community synagogue, Congregation Agudath Jacob (est.1888), is excerpted from a 1979 journal entry she recently discovered and which she hopes to develop and expand in the future.