Setting out to follow the footsteps of my paternal grandparents, Sara (nee. Jaffe) and Julius Seidel, from their birthplaces in Eastern Europe to America, has been a lesson in realizing how few details I know about their lives — and how the specifics don’t matter very much.
Sara was born circa 1900, somewhere in the vicinity of Kaunas, in what is now Lithuania. She came to America in 1908 with her family, and they settled in Albany, New York, where her parents ran a grocery store. Julius was born in 1898 in Postavy, in what is now Belarus. He came to America in 1914, preceded by his older brother and sister.
Sara lived 59 years and Julius 87. Both died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, an institution that had come to symbolize the success of their lives: Their son … the doctor … went to college and medical school at Johns Hopkins, trained to be a pediatrician at the hospital, and spent almost his entire professional life working under its famous dome.
Such pride, you wouldn’t know.
I have only two vivid memories of Grandma Sara. One is of a robust woman wearing a cream-colored apron with a scalloped fringe, in the kitchen of the two-bedroom, Tudor-style, red-brick house in Clifton, New Jersey, where she and Julius lived. The other is of her stubbornly crawling on her hands and knees up the stairs at our home in Baltimore, her body overwhelmed by leukemia, proudly refusing help.
More abstractly, family lore holds that Sara was a saint. I suspect that’s an exaggeration, but I know with a little boy’s certainty of her absolute love for and devotion to her two sons and five grandsons.
Only the best that she and Julius could possibly provide was good enough. As boys in Passaic, New Jersey, my father, Henry (called then by his middle name, Murray), and his younger brother, Kenny, were taken to nearby Paterson to the pediatrician of her choosing. Who knew if he was any good as a doctor, but William Carlos Williams was a famous poet, so he must have been the best.
Grandpa Julius was a severe man. A smile slipped from his lips only when his resolve was sorely tested, but he was always sure with an embrace for his kinderlein.
Julius had the frugality of a man who hard-earned every dollar he ever spent, but he eagerly pulled one from his wallet to buy me a Hardy Boys mystery novel at Read’s Drug Store in Baltimore in the late-1950s — and $1 what what it cost back then. I doubt that Julius believed in reading for pleasure — he didn’t believe in doing anything for pleasure — but reading meant learning and learning meant opportunity. If his grandson wanted to read a book, Julius was going to put the book in my hands.
Read, mien kin, read.
(In so many ways, it would be wildly beyond his comprehension that I write this while sitting in a cafe in Berlin, working on my second beer of the evening. A shot of schnapps was his favored drink, and let’s not even talk about being in Germany by choice.)
I have no idea how it came about, but Julius’s first job in America was in Lanark, Illinois, peddling whatever he could from door-to-door. He soon returned east and settled in northern New Jersey, met and married Sara, and somehow managed to put together the money to enter into a partnership in a dry goods warehouse, supplying small grocery stores.
Business was business, devoid of any room for sentimentality. In the 1950s, Julius saw the opening of a supermarket in Paterson as a precursor of a bleak future for small grocers and their suppliers, and he readily sold out his share in the warehouse to his unsuspecting partner of more than 20 years.
Julius used the money from the sale to quite successfully play the stock market and never “worked” another day in his life. After Sara died, he also sold the house and moved into a dreary one-bedroom apartment, formalizing austerity as the watchword of his life.
Being Jewish was at the core of Julius’s self-identify, but Judaism most certainly was not.
In the early 1970s, when I got a job at Newsweek and moved to New York, I went out to New Jersey one day to have lunch with him. He wanted to know only one thing about my new job: Were there any Jews at Newsweek? I guess he believed that if there were Jews at the magazine, it might somehow be okay — or safe — for me to work there. (He always wanted us to be safe, taking chances was not a smart thing to do.) Still, the business pragmatist in him would have well understood — even condoned — that ethnic affinity was not a factor in professional fraternity.
Don’t trust blindly, be smart.
No matter his being Jewish, Judaism was not important to Julius. My father and Uncle Kenny both had Bar Mitzvahs when they turned 13 — that was expected, even required — but I wouldn’t be surprised if Julius didn’t see the inside of a synagogue more than 10 times in the last 25 years of his life. For whatever reason — there could be so many good ones — he had a healthy contempt for rabbis and their piety. I’ve long forgotten the context, but I clearly recall his once saying dismissively, “What do they know?”
Julius was also at core an immigrant. He rarely spoke of his childhood in Postavy but when he did the memory was deep, especially for a mother he never saw again after leaving home as a 16-year-old boy. His father came to the United States sometime in the 1920s, but Schmuel Seidel didn’t like life in America and returned to Postavy. I asked Julius once what became of his father. He simply answered, “Hitler took care of him,” and it was clear not to press the question.
To Julius, being an immigrant meant being an assimilationist, to cast off the Old World and to embrace the ways of the New World.
Julius and Sara used snippets of Yiddish — sometimes sentences when they didn’t want the children to know what they were saying — but English was the language of their household. You could not be an American, you could not take advantage of the opportunity won by leaving the place of your birth — leaving your parents and enduring the hard journey of thousands of miles across Europe and the Atlantic — if you clung to the language of the Old World. There could be no sentimentality for such a thing. What would be the point?