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The Zaida (grandfather)
By Leonard Diamond
( This story is dedicated to Celia Gold, my grandmother. It was Celia who cooked, cared for, raised the children and grandchildren, gave emotional support, was a tower of ethical strength, a dedicated model of religious consistency, and a beautiful person who in all ways strengthened and supported my grandfather, the Zaida. )
In the late 1880's my grandfather was still a young man who was born, raised and had lived all of his life in the small city of Minsk in Russia. After graduation from high school, he married his childhood sweetheart, Zipporah whom, until the day he died, he always called Tzippy. They were to be married for almost seventy-five years and during that time, he never raised his voice to her and he was always very grateful to her for being his wife. In Orthodox Judaism men have to work hard to be granted a position that is close to God. They have to study, pray, and do good deeds to be close to God. However, the Torah states that women are born with an automatic ability to be close to God. Therefore it behooves every orthodox man to marry because it is through his positive relationship with his wife that he is also able to attain a seat at the table of the Lord.
While in Russia my grandparents grew and blossomed financially, emotionally, and spiritually. They were certain that they wanted to have a family and after a few years their dreams were realized. Their union during the time they were in Russia brought forth a beautiful little girl, Michla, and a strong and handsome boy, Shia.
My grandfather was not only a very bright man, but also a very learned man. He had studied the Torah all of his life and it was clear that the combination of his intellect and awareness provided him with the wisdom of a seer. He knew that there were political problems not in the distant future but right at hand. He sensed the growing unfavorable political unrest and he also knew that the Czar would do nothing to make his families' life or the life of his community better. In fact he was certain that the life of an orthodox Jewish family would suffer considerably if they remained in Russia.
Based on his awareness, he quietly set about saving money so that he could take his family to America. He wrote to a distant cousin in New York, Sol Gottlieb, to discuss his plans. Sol agreed to sponsor the family but he was unable to help financially. My grandfather knew this and he immediately began to pick up as many side jobs as possible to make additional funds.
My grandfather was a man of many talents. He was a master carpenter who could build a house or do fine interior finished cabinet work. Anything requiring wood, nails, a saw, a plane and a hammer was second nature to him. He had a reputation for being a fast and accurate worker who always measured twice and cut once and never disappointed his clients. He was highly respected for his craftsmanship and many young men wanted to work with him so that they could study his techniques and learn carpentry skills. He made the finest furniture in the city and his work was highly sought after and revered.
In addition to being a carpenter, my grandfather was a deeply religious man. He was steeped in religious theory and he was considered to be the heart and soul of the local synagogue. My grandfather was a poor man's Rabbi. He did not have the benefit of a formal seminary education however; he studied independently more than most ordained Rabbis. He was the only one who was called to lead the early morning prayers when the men would put on their Tephilin (phylacteries). These are small leather boxes and leather thongs that are wound around the arm and placed over the head. The little boxes contain special prayers of love, closeness to God and caring. These boxes are placed over the heart and the head in various structured formats and positions to celebrate the breaking of morning and the individual's relationship with God.
My grandfather would also lead the evening prayers when the men would let God know that they worked hard and ethically that day in His service before returning to their family for the night. When the Rabbi was not available my grandfather would lead the Sabbath prayers and when the Cantor was not available my grandfather would do the singing for the service. My grandfather was also the official Gabbi of the Synagogue. The Gabbi is a combination master of ceremonies and caretaker of all matters concerning the Synagogue. He was called on at all hours of the day and night to offer advice, discuss an interpretation of a Biblical passage, open the Synagogue for special services such as funerals or work with special committees of the Synagogue.
Although each Synagogue always had a large Hebrew school with teachers, my grandfather was also called on to teach the Bar Mitzvah ceremony and service to specific boys. My grandfather was a very unique man who was also highly pragmatic and direct. He understood that the world was changing and he was determined not to let anything happen to his family and not to be left behind. So, he gathered his sheckels, saved them diligently and made his plans to take his family to New York.
One rainy day in September 1890 my grandfather, Yuntil Shloposhnikoff, his wife Zipporah, his eight year old girl Michla and his six year old boy Shia boarded the boat. They had one small suitcase each but my grandfather also carried his carpenter tools in a special box he had made by hand. In each suitcase they had as many clothes as could possibly fit and my grandmother also carried the Sabbath silver candlesticks, a small silver Samovar and the Passover silver goblets in her suitcase.
My grandmother also carried a large cloth sack with special salamis, jerky and other dehydrated meats and vegetables that she had prepared for the journey. They ate their own food, and shared and traded food with other families. There was a baker on board the ship who would supply them with hot fresh bread each day and a Challah bread for the Sabbath. They also were able to enjoy the Sabbath wine which was supplied by another family in exchange for food. The samovar was going day and night and they had tea whenever they wished. Their tea was
strong, deeply colored like a cross between caramel and cherry wood, and very refreshing.
My grandfather also had his fancy prayer bag in his suitcase which came from Jerusalem. In this decorated cloth bag he carried his bible, his Talis (prayer shawl) and his tephilin (phylacteries). His yarmulkah (skull cap) was on his head during all waking hours. On the boat he easily found enough men for a minion and he led all of the prayers each day and on the Sabbath. They appreciated his skill and he was named the official Rabbi of the ship. He officiated at births, circumcisions, marriages and deaths and he was paid small sums by the owners of the ship. The purser was very happy to have my grandfather on board since his religious skills were so widely accepted and approved by the other passengers. This helped to keep the passengers calm and focused even during times of stress when the crossing would get exceptionally rough.
The trip was not an enjoyable sea cruise. The weather was bad throughout the entire time and the ship tossed and turned day and night. Most of the time the Shloposhnikoff family stayed in their small steerage room, kept to themselves and prayed, laughed, ate, played games and made the best of a nasty situation. My grandfather led the children in biblical study and learning games which made time pass quickly. Soon other children were attending these games as well as their parents. This too helped to jell the passengers and support them in their quest for freedom.
In their room the bunk beds were lumpy but once again this became another part of the game. The children thought that they were on a vacation and they didn't mind the pitching and rolling of the ship. They also found other children to play with in steerage and it was a happy time for them.
The trip went fast and one morning early my grandfather woke the children and my grandmother to come up to the deck. They went outside and the sun was just breaking through to alert all to the beginning of a fine day. He pointed toward the stern of the ship and they turned to see what he was attending to. Each of them breathed deeply as they saw lady Liberty standing tall and holding her torch out to welcome them. It was such an overwhelming sight that the passengers lining the deck were all crying. The statue seemed so close that they felt that they could reach out and touch it. My grandfather had told them about the Statue of Liberty for a long time and he was very pleased that they had such a front row seat for their first view of the symbol of the new world.
The very next day the boat docked and all of the passengers filed down the sturdy gangplank, getting off at Ellis Island. There were hundreds of people in the same section as my grandparents and there were dozens of different languages, clothes, food and smells. My grandfather herded the children and his wife together so that they did not lose contact and they sat on the appointed bench with their suitcases waiting to be registered. They each had tags on their shirts indicating their origin, destination, language and last name.
Finally the moment came. The man with the large file in front of him called the next family. He said to my grandfather "Vas is deine namen" (what is your name). He replied "Yuntil Shloposhnikoff". The registration man looking down at his paper instead of looking at my grandfather's tag, said in English, "Spell that please". My grandfather did not understand and asked in Yiddish "Vas sagst dier?" (what are you saying?) The man was getting agitated and he said "Vilst zeine an Americana?" (do you want to be an American?). My grandfather shook his head in positive agreement. The man said, "All right, du bist nicht Yuntil Shloposhnikoff, (you are not Yuntil Shloposhnikoff), now you are Nathan Gold."
He went to Zipporah and said, "You are Celia Gold." He looked at Michla and said, "You are Mildred Gold." To Shia he said "Du bist nicht Shia Shloposhnikoff, du bist Charlie Gold". The children had no idea what was going on but they smiled because they saw their parents smiling. The registration man wrote new tags with their new names, shook their hands, smiled, pointed to the next desk and yelled out "next family'. Nathan Gold shepherded his family through all of the registration lines and they were proud of the new tags on their clothing with their new American names. And so, my American grandparents Nathan and Celia Gold and my Aunt Millie and my Uncle Charlie stepped out of the Ellis Island registration building and onto free American soil for the first time.
They were met by cousin Sol who took them to his apartment on 165TH street and Amsterdam Avenue in the heart of what became Harlem. At that time the area was Italian, Jewish, Greek, Puerto Rican and African American. People lived in harmony in old brownstones which still stand today. Neighbors cared about each other, pushcarts moved about the streets, and the daily hubbub of commerce went on. The ice man was big and carried large blocks of ice on a leather pad on his back holding on with a pair of huge tongs. He ran up and down the stairs and seemed never to tire. The knife sharpener cried out to the people as they came down so that he could sharpen their knives on his large flint wheel. Fishmongers hawked their wares, produce carts moved about with fresh vegetables and the rag man collected old clothes to recycle. Things were exciting, vibrant and very different from the streets of Minsk. Nathan was immediately excited by the activity in each and every neighborhood. Celia was somewhat shy and slightly overwhelmed. The children were enthralled as they immediately wanted to join a group of children who were running from pushcart to pushcart.
Sol introduced Nathan to his Rabbi and told him about Nathan's carpentry skills and rabbinical abilities. The Rabbi asked around and came back to Nathan the next day to offer him work. He said that there was a new community not far away in Washington Heights, and they were looking for a temporary Rabbi as well as someone who could supervise and help to build the synagogue. This was excellent, destined for great success and Nathan snapped it up. The family was given a small apartment a few blocks from the site of the new synagogue so that they could walk on the Sabbath. Next door was the Cantor who was also a tie salesman during the day. He had a small automobile and he and Nathan would drive the three blocks to the synagogue during the week.
The building committee met Nathan and asked him to spearhead the entire project. The Synagogue was to be a midsize wooden building with an Ark to hold the Torah at one end, a dais for prayer and enough room for one hundred chairs in the main section. They also wanted two offices and four classrooms at the other end of the building. The Torah had been purchased and was coming from one of the most famous religious centers in Jerusalem. It was being copied by a special scribe and was scheduled to be completed and to arrive in the new world in approximately one year. They wanted the Synagogue completed by then so that they could consecrate the Torah at the grand opening. In the meantime they would have services in a store front which was donated by a local building owner.
Nathan was a fair but stern taskmaster both as a building supervisor and as a Rabbi. He knew all of his workmen and their families and he knew all of his congregants and their families. He could be counted on to expect that people meet their responsibilities but he also had a very fair and pragmatic approach to the world. When he knew that the wife of one of his workman was very ill, he would tell the man that his talents were better utilized taking care of his wife and not somewhere else where he was thinking about his wife. Nathan would make certain that when this happened the man would get paid for a full day of work.
My grandfather always had an aura of wisdom about him. He built the Ark for the Synagogue, carved the wood ornately with his own hands and instructed the men as to how they should place the main beams. The project was one of dedication and one of great joy for all. When the new Torah finally arrived by special envoy from Jerusalem, the Synagogue was conveniently ready. It was a wonderful night when my grandfather led the congregation in the prayers for the beginnings of this fine place. The beautiful Torah shown with silver ornaments and white silk draping was passed around as prayers were said. The Synagogue was polished and the new dark cherry wood chairs were all filled. The neighborhood celebrated long into the night because now they had their own Synagogue, their beautiful new Torah, and of course, Nathan the Wise Man, My Zaida.
Over the years, Nathan and Celia had two more children. First, was the adorable Fageleh (Frances, the little bird), my Aunt Franky. Then another little girl was born, so beautiful that they had to name her Malkah, (the Queen). This was my mother Molly, truly a beautiful soul in all respects.
Nathan Gold and his family grew with the neighborhood and they all became New Yorkers and Americans. He was quite old when I was young but I remember him clearly since he lived to be well into his late nineties. From about the time I was five years old, I would be roused each morning at about 5:30 a.m. My Zaida, with a firm but at the same time a kind and gentle approach, would remind me that he had an important appointment with God. This was critical and nothing came between him and his appointment. Not even I, his beloved grandson, could keep him from making this morning meeting with God. He gave me the message with directness, determination and kindness.
He was also very pragmatic in the manner in which he would make this announcement. He left nothing to the imagination or to interpretation. He spoke in a soft voice but with great clarity. However, at no time would he insist, or force me to accompany him. He would leave the decision to me as to how I should handle the circumstance so that he would not be kept waiting. There was no doubt in my mind that my grandfather had a schedule and that he meant business. His firm, straight forward and self assured manner immediately conveyed the feeling that he was a successful and highly aware man who was accomplishing what he wanted to do. It was apparent that he had a special relationship with his fellow man as well as with God.
I would dutifully move as fast as possible in the morning since I treasured those times together. We would walk together through the early morning New York haze to the Inwood Jewish Center. For almost all of the years I remember, it was that wooden building built by my grandfather and the other men of the congregation. It had wide-planked pine wood floors and sometimes sand would come up through the cracks in the floorboards. The floors sometimes creaked and the Dias was atop the four beautiful steps one had to climb. The Dias and the whole building were solid, sturdy and very comfortable. The Dias had a beautiful hand-honed railing. There were no lathes available at that time but the railing was straight, regular and heavy. The front of the Ark was always polished and gleaming with the Eternal Light at its base. The dark cherry wood of the Ark shone in fine contrast to the blonde pine wood of the flooring. Many years later when they converted the building from wood to stucco, they left all of the flooring in tact because they appreciated the beauty of old wood.
My grandfather exuded confidence and success. He was trusted by all. He was called "the mayor of Inwood" by the local congressman, one of the congregation. He was revered by the entire congregation; some members would come to see him on Saturday after the services and they would engage in deep philosophical discussions about the meaning of something. Often his statements were shocking because they would appear to be contradictory to biblical teachings. However, his followers knew that this man was true to his God and to his religion but that he also recognized his own humanity. This allowed him to be a wonderful pragmatist.
Nathan Gold was tall and thin, burdened in his old age with Parkinson's disease. Although he walked haltingly, he walked with great pride. When I was young, I would hold his hand and carry his highly decorated silk bag which he brought from Russia with him on the boat. This held his talit and his tephilin. Everyone we would encounter on these morning walks would stop and pay their respects to my Grandfather. The entire community saw him as wise and holy. He was a man who could always be counted on to have an answer as to how to reach success.
When I asked neighbors why they came to see my grandfather for answers to their problems, they did not hesitate to talk and explain. They told me over and over because they knew that he could show them "The Way". He often spoke in parables and offered alternatives. But, above all, he was a realist who evaluated everything in light of the times and what the times called for from people. He was grounded in the present, very much of a futurist, a seer and a seeker of real truth. He never allowed himself to be prejudiced by what had gone on before. He never discriminated against anyone and he was certain that all people were the children of God. He was a man who could be counted on to understand the real world.
When I grew older I still walked with my grandfather in the mornings although considerably slower. His once strong and powerful carpenter's body was giving way to old age and the ravages of his disease. He leaned heavily on his cane then and walked very slowly with very small steps in a typical Parkinsonian shuffle. I held his arm, not his hand, but we walked and talked as usual, and I carried his beautiful prayer bag as well as my own, which he had given me for my Bar Mitzvah.
Every morning, after the service, my grandfather and the other men would sit at a long table (which was no more than plywood planks set up on saw horses). In front of each man was a shot glass, and someone would pour each man a shot of rye whiskey. They would all look to my grandfather, who said the appropriate blessing for whiskey. At that moment, the shot glasses were lifted as one and downed in one swig, followed by a uniform chorus of "Omain" (Amen).
Other than the Passover meal, there was only one other time that I saw my grandfather drink. It frightened me but I had blind faith because I absolutely knew that my grandfather the holy man and the pragmatist had a reason for everything. Therefore, I leaned heavily on my faith very hard and just kept quiet. My grandfather had invited a man from the congregation over after the evening service one day. They sat and talked at the kitchen table. My grandmother left the room but I darted in and out and often stood there leaning against my grandfather's leg. My grandfather sat at the table with a fifth of scotch in front of him. He had a small water glass from which he drank, but he did not offer his friend anything to drink. Instead, he kept filling his glass and drinking. He kept drinking all of the scotch while he and the man talked.
Soon, the man became very uncomfortable and my grandfather had consumed all of the scotch but one shot. The parishioner, who was becoming more and more agitated and upset had been pleading with him to stop drinking. My grandfather simply pretended not to hear him. After their talk, the other man, who was perspiring freely, left while repeating over and over again that he promised never to drink again. After the man closed the door, it was with great hesitation that I asked my grandfather if he was all right. He smiled at me and poured the last remaining shot of scotch into the glass. He pushed his glass toward me slowly and beckoned me to drink. I trusted him but I smelled it and tasted it gingerly. It was the best Orange Russian tea in the house.
It quickly became apparent to me that my grandfather had just given his friend, an alcoholic, a classic lesson as he reflected the behavior of alcoholism. The man did give it up and never drank again. He would often talk about his friend Reb Nathan, and how he taught him responsibility. This was a perfect example of how to communicate with great effectiveness without ever saying a word.
Nathan Gold was careful, direct, and always made his point without ambiguity. When I asked my grandfather why he drank the shot of rye whiskey in the morning, he would tell me that it was to celebrate life. He enjoyed celebrating upcoming events rather than lamenting things gone by. From the time I could speak, I would ask him life questions and he would give me life lessons with the wisdom of the ancient rabbis. He would always give me some answer and never dodge my questions. I must admit to not always understanding those answers.
When I was bored and asked him what to do, he would give me nonsense answers until I did something for myself. He would offer in Yiddish a statement such as "Take off you sock and sit in your shoe". Or, he might say "Clop cup offen vant" (Hit your head against the wall). Some of his answers I understood many years later when my own children would ask me the same annoying questions. My grandfather would often remind me to stop wandering around aimlessly and celebrate something. When I would ask him what it was we might be celebrating, he would say that one never needs a cause to celebrate. One should simply celebrate life first and then celebrate the ability to celebrate.
After the service each morning at the Synagogue, we would go to the bakery and buy hot onion bagels and poppyseed Kaiser rolls for breakfast. We would return to the huge grey apartment building located across the street from the power station. We would ring for the elevator (which rarely worked) and then usually walk up to Apartment 4D. When we arrived, my grandmother would be waiting with hot tea, sugar cubes, butter and cream cheese for the rolls. On occasion we would also have white fish or lox which I would eat hurriedly so that I could run across the street and be on time for my classes at P. S. 152. I would leave each morning with the assurance that I had experienced another important life lesson and that someday I would understand everything!
After school I would hurry home because there was a Yiddish radio program that my grandfather and I listened to regularly. It was called "Tzuris Bei Leiten" and it was a soap opera about the trials and tribulations of people and families. Sometimes we would look at each other and start laughing because the dialogue was so obviously campy. Sometimes we would sit there both crying as our favorite characters were getting into deeper and deeper troubles.
Just being with my grandfather helped me to learn independence, values, reverence and achievement. The laws and the rules that I was to follow became clearer each day. I also learned which transgressions would not be forgiven by God and I tried not to waiver from the straight and narrow. Nathan Gold was a great success although he had no money or special possessions. More than anyone I have ever known he knew how to communicate love for his fellow man, love for God and honesty. This is an excellent definition of success - not dollars or toys but as a human quality.
When Nathan Gold succumbed at about ninety-eight years old, the entire neighborhood gathered and spontaneously marched through the streets. The parade was made up not only of the congregation, but also neighbors, black people, Italians, all people that my grandfather had touched in some way. One of his best friends was an old black man who each year for as long as I can remember would "buy" the chometz dishes and glassware before Passover. The cabinets would be nailed shut until after the holiday. After Passover, this man would "sell" everything back to my grandfather and join us for a great ceremonial meal.
The parade through the neighborhood lasted all day. Men, women, and children were dancing while the men held the Torahs at the front of the line. They all sang happy Hebrew and Yiddish songs, danced and celebrated my grandfather's life. There were many tears but there was also glee and thanks for having had the opportunity to know, love and learn from Nathan Gold. It was a celebration to behold. He would have loved it.
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