My Great-Grandfather: I Never Really Knew Him

            August 2012    
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Jacob's Ladder

By Barbara F. Lefcowitz

Yankele Tenzer, ne Jacob Nisenson, immigrated to America ca. 1893, leaving behind in a shtetl near Vilna his wife, Bela, and seven kids.

He found work in the Bronx as a house painter, but nightly took the subway down to the Lower East Side to pursue his passion as a performer in Yiddish theaters, where he sang My Yiddishe Mama and strutted across the stage flashing a diamond stick pin in each lapel. Hence the nickname Yankele Tenzer.

The ladies loved him. Not only for his dark wavy mustache and goatee but his snappy dancing. And he loved them back, to the point of fathering two children. Or so went the rumor my mother once whispered to me. If his wife Bela, my great grandmother, suspected anything after he finally brought her and his old world children to America, she kept it to herself. An eydl (refined) woman, my mother added.

I met my great-grandfather Jacob only once, shortly before at age 90 or thereabouts he turned on the gas in his Bronx apartment rather than go to a nursing home. He had stark white hair. A wise and courageous act, I thought, when eventually I overheard the truth about his death. Because he had scant English, we never spoke.

Years later when visiting Vilna I discovered a cracked remnant of a headstone with some of the letters of Nisenson carved in Hebrew. One of many such Jewish headstones the Soviets had hacked to pieces and used to pave the streets.

Of course he had parents. But they were too old to leave for America. More to the point: Did Yankele have siblings? Cousins? Never had anyone spoken of such potential ancestors. Likely any who stayed in the Old Country rather than emigrating would eventually have converted and melded with the Christian population or been killed: if not in a pogrom then certainly in the Holocaust. If only I could have warned them. . .

I want to know about them but realize that talking to the dead is the same as talking to oneself. All I can do was imagine them: artists, scholars, musicians, like a number of Nisenson descendents. Add a few mishuganer and petty thieves, a couple of Luftmenscher An emissary from the present, I would warn them to leave, leave Europe at once before evil forces obliterated them.

I am climbing a ladder in the dark to a balcony illuminated by diamond stick pins.

Jacob is dancing, surrounded by applauding men and women, all of whom resemble him. He beckons me to join them. Just a few more rungs. You’re almost there!

Before I can warn them, everyone, including my climbing self, disappears in the harsh morning light. . . Though Jacob lingers briefly before returning to the faded photo of himself and Bela displayed on a shelf downstairs from my bedroom.


from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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