My Grandpop, Solomon Decker

Today would have been my maternal grandfather’s 112nd birthday.

the little boy in the middle is my Grandpop.
the little boy in the middle is my Grandpop – so cute.

He was living proof that the greatest of people need not be physically impressive. At just over five feet tall and just under a hundred pounds, my grandfather made people nervous with how fragile he appeared. His stick thin arms looked like you might be able to break them just by brushing against him. But he would carry me whenever I asked him to do so, usually on escalators which terrified me for some reason.

My grandfather emigrated to America from Russia in 1922 at the age of 19. He came here with his youngest sister after his own grandmother had passed away. His mother and other siblings came to America before him, but they didn’t have enough money for everyone, and so Grandpop stayed behind with Miriam and the grandmother.

My grandfather's naturalization..
His naturalization petition.

Not that long after he arrived in America, Grandpop met and married Ida, my grandmother. They lived together with her three sisters and their spouses as well as her parents for many years until they were able to strike out on their own, at which point they lived in the misleadingly-named Strawberry Mansions neighborhood of Philadelphia, still known to be one of the most dangerous and economically-disadvantaged locations in the city. He made a living as a presser for a garment manufacturer. I can’t even comprehend how he had the muscles to operate the machinery, but he did that for nearly forty years, providing for his family and even managing to stash away some savings.

The story is a bit fuzzy, but at some point before my grandfather made his escape, the Bolsheviks were systematically destroying all of the Jewish villages, known as Schetls, and as they were going around shooting people, my grandfather hid underneath his grandmother’s bed to evade capture or worse. When they saw how old and sickly his grandmother was, one of the soldiers said to his cohort, “Don’t waste your bullets.”

Someone also told me the story of how my grandfather carried the body of his father in a wheelbarrow to the potter’s field for burial as they could not afford a proper burial. Prior to the revolution, they had some wealth, but that was all taken from them.

Grandpop never told me these stories himself. I was fascinated with the portrait that hung in his home, transfixed by the beauty of the clothing and the richness that emanated from it, but could only ever get him to share the names of those pictured, and sometimes a quick detail about their occupation. He would wave a tiny hand at me dismissively and say, “These were not happy times, no, let us not talk about them. Now are the happy times. We will stay in the happy times.”

I’d like to say that was possible, but having already suffered from the trauma of his youth and then later losing his only daughter suddenly, my grandfather could not help but succumb to his depression.

But on this day, the occasion of his birthday, I will remember the spry fellow who wrestled his dog, Shadow. Who got tipsy from half of a beer. The man who loved to play checkers with any worthy adversary, and who loved his family. The man who helped raise me.

I will stay in the happy times.

My Jewish Easter Bunny

As a child, before I landed in the home in which I was raised, I spent about two years going back and forth between my Irish Catholic grandmother, my father’s mother, and my Russian Jewish grandfather, my mother’s father. If that sounds confusing to you, try being a preschooler.

My grandfather was a wee wisp of a thing, standing tall at about five-foot one, and weighing in at maybe ninety-five pounds. Although he’d never been formally educated past the third grade, Grandpop was brilliant – he had grown up during the Communist Revolution and while his family and community spoke Yiddish, taught himself Russian so he could eavesdrop on the soldiers. I imagine being able to move his tiny self about unnoticed helped in this as well. After emigrating to the states, he then taught himself English.

While I lived with my grandfather in Center City Philadelphia, I attended Hebrew Nursery School. I was presumably the only baptized kid in my class. While he worked very hard to strictly speak English, there were words from his first language that peppered his speech, and I adopted them into my own cobbled-together vernacular.

I can remember walking my grandfather’s giant sheepdog, Shadow, in the middle of what must have been the blizzard of 1979. The snowbanks were taller than I was, and nearly as tall as he was. Thank goodness Shadow was a black sheepdog, otherwise we might have all been lost for good. When we got back into the house, he heated up milk on the stove and poured in Hershey’s syrup from a can, and we sat at the corner diner-style table in his tiny kitchen on the green vinyl booth and drank it together. I still think of him anytime I smell that stuff.

Hanging out in the kitchen nook.
Hanging out in the kitchen nook.

Being downright Lilliputian has a number of advantages, particularly when one lives in a tiny row house. Had we been a bigger people, conditions would have been cramped. The only creature that might have felt the walls closing in on him was Shadow, but fortunately he enjoyed lazying about and being very close to his people.

I’m not sure why it happened this way as I usually spent the religious holidays specific to each side of the family with that side of the family, but for whatever reason, I ended up with my Jewish grandfather one Easter. There wasn’t a yard to speak of at our house, and aside from that, it was raining. I insisted on an egg hunt in spite of the obstacles.

I can remember dyeing the eggs together, something I am certain he’d never done previously. I explained, in the best way a four year-old might, that you put the colored eggs in the refrigerator so the Easter Bunny can hide them while you sleep. I recall agreeing to the terms of indoor hiding in light of the weather conditions.

The next morning, I came downstairs to a lovely basket full of chocolates and candy. The drizzle continued outside, but I was determined to start my hunt for the eggs. As I mentioned, the house was downright tiny and there couldn’t have been that many hiding spots, but as I surveyed the room I couldn’t find a single pastel egg interrupting the grey hue of the cloudy day. No egg in the piano bench, no egg in the china cabinet, no egg nestled on the candlesticks.

No egg to be found.

Grandpop was so proud of himself for hiding the eggs so well, but sensing my mounting frustrations, he began to give hints and direct me. “You’re getting warmer, getting warmer,” as I maneuvered toward the sofa. “Getting hot! Hot!” as I realized the gap between the sofa and the wall had grown significantly overnight.

I scrunched down, clutching my empty basket, ready to snatch up the first-discovered egg. Which is when I spotted the mint green tupperware bowl, draped with an open newspaper page which covered the entire lot of Easter eggs.

Apparently I had neglected to mention to my newly-appointed Jewish Easter Bunny that hiding eggs meant hiding them individually, not collectively.

Really, we should all just be glad he thought to hardboil them!

L’Shana Tova! Happy New Year!

As I mentioned last week or so, I am a big fan of Back to School and consider it my New Year’s Day.

What cracks me up is that it has taken all of my years to realize that might be ingrained in my DNA.

roshhashanah

Yes, today is the first Rosh Hashanah where I stopped to consider that September is the perfect New Year for a little Jewish girl such as myself.

Back when I was four years old, and the only baptized kid in Hebrew school, (story for another day) I rode in the back row of one of those giant station wagons, facing out the back. In lieu of a bus, this ancient woman drove myself and a few other tots to the little school where we took naps on mats, learned our ABCs, and celebrated the Jewish holidays. Aside from some jealousy of a certain red-haired girl who always had better snacks than I did, (why is it always a redhead? why?) I loved going to school.

And on Rosh Hashanah, we ate apples dipped in honey.

Heavenly.

As an adult, I can reconstruct the timeline and realize that this only happened once. The subsequent year, I spent Rosh Hashanah at a Baptist preschool, ignorant to the fact that I was missing out on one of many great Jewish traditions.

But today, and every year, my children will eat apples dipped in honey.

Happy New Year to you all!