12 November 2013

Less Discernible and Growing Greater

My grandmother was a beautiful woman with deep, dark eyes, soft hands and an ample breast.  She retained a slight accent, though had come to America at age 3 or 4, following her father Chaim Siegel, who had paved the way in the late 19th century.  From a small town in Minsk, obliterated of its Jews first by a wave of pogroms and then the Shoah, Grandma retained her Jewishness in her manner, her friendships, and her food.  Though her father Chaim was clearly learned and among the founders of a Milwaukee synagogue, the orphanage, and the Mizrachi Zionists in town, the family seemed to locate its Jewishness with a moderate distancing from faith, far as I can tell.

Like many immigrants at the turn of the century, he cobbled together a living selling things from town to town.  Here is a picture of him with his rig--"one horse heavey, one blind" while traveling upstate near Eau Claire.
The Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers run through town and a hundred years ago, the city was a lumber and milling center.  It's no wonder that a Jew from rural Minsk would gravitate toward business in the small industrial areas outside the big cities.  I once heard from an uncle that Chaim couldn't get out of New York faster after he arrived and even found Milwaukee too large and dirty.  I guess you'd have to hate the city if you'd be willing to peddle junk in the countryside just to get away.

Grandma once told me, while shoveling her sour kugle my way, that while roaming the country scouring up business, he taught a devout upstate Lutheran named Olson how to read Hebrew in exchange for lessons in speaking English.  Eighty years later when I was an aspiring student politician and went to Badger Boys State, I roomed with a kid from upstate named Olson.  He seemed less impressed with the coincidence than I but no matter; in those days I was already assembling the narrative in the manner of a kid who finds a precious toy ship, disassembled in the family attic, and endeavors to reassemble, piece by piece, what had been left in storage for a couple generations.  For a time, everything fit together perfectly.

Dad was silent on those visits, but devoted.  He was present each week when we went to see our grandparents, but somehow out of focus, not quite in view, as his mother told me stories about her father:  from Minsk to Milwaukee, the country peddler, the bag maker in Milwaukee, the community leader, a writer and poet.  "He davened with the Twerskys but kept Shakespeare folios inside his siddur."  I recently started really appreciating that.  (Take no offense, God.  The language soars!)

So while he didn't seem to say much about the Patrimony that was passed my way by his mother via his grandfather, he certainly condoned it.  And in some ways, I suppose, like Joseph bringing his sons Ephraim and Menasheh to his father Jacob for a blessing, perhaps Dad honored his Patrimony by giving that right of passage to a more worthy generation.   It worked.  At fifty I can still feel my grandmother's hands on my head, lovingly trying to fatten me up; and my grandfather, the doctor, lifting me confidently for a kiss from his stubbly chin.  The sheer physicality of the conveyance.  Judaism--the faith of action and deed.

Dad's reticence used to mystify me until I started studying pictures of his grandfather, who I began to understand must have been a kind of towering and moderately terrifying figure.  The sheer heroism of picking oneself up and making the journey across the sea; the fear of leaving your family behind; the singular focus on making money to send for them four years later; and the decades long drive to survive financially while establishing and leading Jewish institutions, creating the building blocks for a thriving Diaspora community in relatively welcoming, industrial, heartland city; and Americanizing your children and grandchildren to not only survive but thrive in the New Land.  When Dad went off to join the service, he wrote letters back home to his mother.  I have some of those.  I wonder if he ever wrote his grandfather, the Patriarch, who was alive until 1949.  If so, they're lost to history.  That's a dialogue one can only imagine in most families.  A chapter of time, etherized.

Sometimes I think Chaim Siegel was too much for my father to face.  Dad carried his middle name, he looked a bit like him, but that's where it seems to end.  It frustrates not to know, to fill in the blanks with speculation, to encounter the ellipses and be left, alas, with a shaky narrative built more on image than words.
Here's Chaim in 1925.  He cleaned up nice after the horse rides out in western Wisconsin.  He has the look of a man of success, steely focus and strength.  But in a curious twist of neo-Abstract Expressionism, the painted grays that surround him in this photograph have always represented for me that image of man quite conscious of his image, both covering up and making larger than life the precious few mundane details that, for whatever reasons, remain a mystery.  An absence: less discernible and growing greater with time.

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