Monthly Archives: February 2010

Growing Up in Zharnov

by Harry Lazarus (Tenafly, NJ)
(interviewed by Bruce Black)

When I was growing up, I used to love listening to my grandfather, Harry Lazarus, z”l, retell  stories about his childhood in Zharnov, a small village near Lodz and not far from Warsaw, and how he made his way to America. He was a baker with bright blue eyes above a thick nose, a warm smile, and broad shoulders, and he spoke with the thick Eastern European Yiddish accent of his youth. Before his death a number of years ago, I recorded one of our story-telling sessions in his apartment in Tenafly, NJ. In this segment he describes his early years.

BB: So, Grandpa, tell me about growing up in Zharnov.

HL: Well, when I was seven years old, I was a very lively boy. I used to run around in winter without skates–just with my boots–on the ice. I ran up and down the river and everything, and I used to go outside and I used to stay by the fire, and then I used to come home.

And my mother used to work in the bakery. She worked very hard, and I used to help her as much as I could. I used to run to buy everything, to help whatever I could. In the morning before I went to the Hebrew school, I used to carry out the rolls, the orders, to restaurants, and then I used to go to Hebrew school half-a-day, and then I used to go half-a-day in the Russian school, the Russian-Polish school.

And everything was going all right but I was never satisfied with what we had in the house. I always liked to take something more. In the summer the druggist man had a whole wall with grapes, and I went in there and took bunches of grapes. And I had another boy, a partner, and we went out and we had grapes for a whole day. We had grapes!

And it was the same thing with everything. I went in the teacher’s garden and I went over to pick up some cucumbers. I needed cucumbers? But I went there to pick them and I spoiled so much stuff by going in, and that boy was supposed to watch so that we could get away. But the teacher caught me, and he gave me a slap in the face, and took me in to my father and complained.

My father saw that he made me a red cheek and said, “Why did you hit him so much?” And he hollered at the teacher.

But, anyhow, that’s what I used to do in Zharnov.

BB: Anything else you want to say about your childhood?

HL: Then girls and boys weren’t allowed to walk together. Girls used to walk separate and boys used to walk separate. It was a very religious town.

So, I used to take down these stickers from the trees and I used to throw them on the girls. The more wild I was, the more girls I had that loved me.

I went in Hebrew school–there weren’t many students, I wouldn’t say much, about twenty-five boys in the school–and the rabbi’s daughter fell in love with me.

One time we had to give him our papers, and after that we had to write the whole thing over and over. I didn’t like his writing, so I didn’t want to give him the paper. Then he took me and he hit me with his strap. He gave me some slap! Not just me, you know, a few other boys–they didn’t like his writing either, so they didn’t give him the papers. But he knew that I am the leader, so he strapped me.  He hit me very much. And when I came back home, my brother, Izzy, went to the rabbi and told him, “If you’re going to hit him, I’m going to hit your head off, if you’re going to hit him so. You made him black and blue marks from the strap.”

BB: Why didn’t his daughter try to save you from the beatings?

HL: Oh, she was crying. She called her mother over, and they pulled me away. Her father wanted to kill me, you know, he was so mad because I didn’t give him the paper.

And that was my life. I was growing up. When I was twelve years old, I knew how to read Russian and Polish and Jewish, and an uncle of mine came from a big city.

BB: Which city did he come from?

HL: He came from Lodz. He made a theater, and he put together a show in Zharnov. He took one of the finest buildings and he made a show and he put me in the show. And everything was nice, everything was good.

But when I was about thirteen years old, my mother passed away. She was sick, and my brother Izzy wanted to be a doctor. He was in a hospital, an intern, in a big city, and we sent him a telegram to come back. And he came home, and she died in his hands, my mother.

When she died, my brother Izzy decided to get married so he could take care of us. I was twelve or thirteen years old, my sister Yetta was about nine years old, and my sister Tilly was six years old. He figured he would get married and would take care of us.

He was full of life. He made himself a little room where we had three mills and where we made oil for the farmers before Easter. He made there a room for himself to live there, a very poor room.

My father didn’t like that life. He liked to have another wife again, and he started to have arguments with my brother Izzy.

My brother Izzy said, “Nu, I’ve had enough.” He wrote away a letter to Meyer, our step-brother in New York, and Meyer sent him a boat card. At that time, a boat card was about twenty-five dollars to go with the boat to come here. I don’t remember if he sent him the money or if he sent him a card, a boat card, but Izzy went away to America.

He came to America, and, well, he couldn’t be a doctor in America. So, he went and learned how to be a dress operator. And at the same time he used to go in a place to help out in a barbershop–he knew how to give a haircut and a shave and he used to make a little money, you know?

Then, when he had enough money, he sent for his wife, Lutzie. She was pregnant when he left her, and she had the baby, Morris, in Europe. She had the baby there and then he took over his wife, and he took over Yetta, and he took over Tilly. He brought them over here. And he tried to keep them alive with the money that he made.

BB: Why didn’t he bring you and Manny over?

HL: Me and Manny? He didn’t take us over. We remained there, but he took over Tilly and Yetta.

BB: How did Izzy meet Lutzie?

HL: She was in my mother’s family, and he was in Lodz and got acquainted with her in Lodz. And he went around with her and everything, and then he married her because of my mother passing away. He married her, and then she got pregnant, and he thought he’s going to lead the business and everything and that’s what’s going to be, but my father didn’t like it.

So, he went away to America, and he brought over Lutzie with Morris, Tilly, and Yetta, and he had a poor life here.

And I was in Zharnov with Manny, and he worked with a tailor and he got a few cents and we used to share together, you know?

BB: And your father? Did he remarry?

HL: My father was in love, and he married again, a nice woman. He married, and he put her right away in the bakery, and I knew already how to work in the bakery, too. Everything was going fine, but a year later he passed away, and he left me an order that we shouldn’t leave my uncle in, but my uncle didn’t care. He came and he threw everyone out.

He threw out Lutzie… she was in Zharnov, too, you know? I was thirteen years old, I used to bring her a piece of candy and a little soda or something because I knew that she was pregnant. She never forgot this, what I used to do as a young boy.

When he came, Lutzie had to go back to her town, and she had the baby, and then Izzy took them over to America.

I remained there in Zharnov, and I had to make a living for myself.

For Pesach I went in another bakery and I worked by the matzahs. They made matzahs for Pesach. So I worked by the oven to shovel in the matzahs and bring them out, and I had to be very careful. When you put in the matzah, the raw matzah mustn’t touch the baked matzah. The rabbi would come, you know, and he’d look if I worked the right way. And I worked the right way. Whatever I made–two dollars or three dollars a week–I made a little living. That wasn’t so bad.

BB: And then what happened?

HL: Then the war broke out…

Next: The Austrian army chases the Russian army out of Zharnov and conscripts the village youth to dig trenches.

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The Last Kaddish

by Robert J. Avrech (Los Angeles, CA)

The Kaddish has been called an echo of The Book of Job. Job said: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

The Kaddish is an expression of faith on the part of the mourner that although he is grief-stricken, he still believes in God, still trusts in the meaning of life. It is the ultimate anti-existentialist statement.

Karen and I will mourn forever. We are riven as day follows night. Our son will always be dead, and a central portion of our lives died with him.

This Shabbos I recite the last Kaddish of the eleven months for Ariel.

I stand in shul, eyes closed, swaying back and forth, chanting the words with—I hope—perfect diction and true feeling. I want the b’racha to go on forever. I want to stretch the words like a giant rubber band and make them reach from earth to heaven.

There are at least another dozen mourners in shul, all with much louder voices than mine, but I hear only one sound. Is this my voice? I see Ariel as he used to be: sitting in shul beside me. Is this my voice? I study the delicate contours of his face. I melt as Ariel’s lips move, savoring each syllable, whispering the sacred Hebrew text. Is this me? I study his long tapering fingers as they turn the pages of the siddur. I lean over and bury my lips in the plush groove of his neck. It is my voice. I am close to the end. It is my son.

I take three steps back and three steps forward. I finish the Kaddish. I open my eyes and discover a dozen men in shul gazing at me. Some have tears in their eyes. Several nod, tacitly acknowledging the finality of the moment. I open my eyes and I see light. I open my eyes and I am swimming through layers of memory. I open my eyes and I see splendor. I open my eyes and I see my son, my son, Ariel.

Robert J. Avrech is a screenwriter and producer in Los Angeles. Among his best-known films is the thriller, Body Double, directed by Brian DePalma. His script for the modern Hasidic tale, A Stranger Among Us, directed by Sidney Lumet, was an official selection of the Cannes film festival. Robert won the Emmy award for his adaptation of the young adult classic, The Devil’s Arithmetic, starring Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy. Robert was also nominated for The Humanitas Award for Within These Walls, starring Ellen Burstyn and Laura Dern. Robert writes an award winning blog, Seraphic Secret http://www.seraphicpress.com/. He also writes a regular column for Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/author/ravrech/.

This piece is reprinted here with permission of the author. It first appeared in 2004 on his blog, Seraphic Secret.

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Grandpa’s Shears

by Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)

I have a photograph of my maternal grandfather, Sam Frankel, sitting in the New York City sweatshop where he earned his subsistence living.  He looks rakish, wearing a cap and looking right at the camera, and even jaunty, not like the sour, beaten-down, shuffling old man I knew whose only pleasure was a Hershey bar.

But I never really knew my grandfather; he was deaf, and Yiddish speaking, and he kept to himself, wrapped in an off-putting cloak of bitterness and disappointment.

He only gave me one thing when I was a little girl, an inexpensive cut-glass pendant shaped like a heart.  I value it, even though its sparkle and clarity seem like the exception to our relationship. But I own a piece of my grandfather that’s even more important, which my mother passed on to me after his death more than twenty years ago: his shears.

The heavy, enormous scissors that he used to cut through thick layers of fabric in the sweatshop seem a more appropriate souvenir of Sam Frankel. These are scissors with serious intentions, scissors that would identify themselves as a tool, work implements in an entirely different class than the blunted scissors I used to cut out outfits for my paper dolls.  They’re meant to persevere, and to survive.

The blades are sharp, still, and the scissors are heavy, to be used by an adult who meant business.  As different from kiddie scissors as oil paints are from crayons, it’s clear that the goal of these scissors is to divide things, to separate them.  It would be someone else’s job to join things.  That fits.

Someone–maybe my grandfather, maybe his wife–wrapped both looped handles of the scissors with fabric tape, wound round and round to create a cushion that might soften the irritation of repeated use.  Without it the scissors would undoubtedly have caused blisters or, with time and persistence, calluses, those physical manifestations of surrender.

I never saw him use these scissors; instead, it was the women in his family who I associate with sewing and creating.  My grandmother used her treadle-pedal sewing machine, which was sold at her death when my mother was too grief-stricken to know she’d regret its loss. (She also knitted and made sweaters for my dolls from leftover wool which I still own.)

My aunts were both in the millinery field, crafting hats from all sorts of materials in the era when women seriously wore hats; I have some of these, too.

And my mother has dabbled in needlepoint, rug-hooking, mosaics and knitting.  To this day, she has never used a sewing machine; she sews everything by hand–even, equal stitches that hold together.

I’ve never liked sewing.  I had to take a sewing class in junior high school, and I wasn’t good at it.  I didn’t like the precision it required nor the fact that I had to follow a pattern. But the easiest part was cutting out the fabric.  I used my grandfather’s shears.

Janet Ruth Falon, the author of The Jewish Journaling Book (Jewish Lights, 2004), teaches a variety of writing classes at many places, including the University of Pennsylvania.  At the moment she is teaching journaling and creative-writing classes to people with cancer, and she’s working on a project that she hopes will be published as The Breast Cancer Journaling Workbook.

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The Shul is Dark

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

The shul is still, dark.
Blood-red velvet drapes
Hide cold hard-oak doors
Slide open, reveal
Lonely Torah scroll:
Knitted mantle frayed,
Blushing, embarrassed,
Like town urchin or
Forlorn orphan brought
To Magistrate’s Throne.
Old Jews’ prayers rise
Like illusory
Flickering flames high
Above the gold-hewed
Menorah, curling,
Wispy bony smoke
Rising to gray grime
Of low-hung ceilings:
Here the journeys end

Chaim Weinstein taught English for more than thirty years at two inner-city junior high schools in Brooklyn, NY. “The Shul is Dark” is based on a short story that he is currently working on, one which has long haunted him.

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