Sunday, March 21, 2010

My Grandparents

I’ve believed for 16 years that the final paragraph in Ian Frazier’s Family is the most beautiful in the English language, but only today did I start plowing through the dense biographical minutiae of the first chapter, which served to make me ashamed that I know so little of my own grandparents.

I believe my paternal grandfather, Lewis Mendelsohn, to have been the son of a butcher who immigrated to this country from Berlin in the late nineteenth century. Lewis became a father in around 1914, when his wife Rose, whose own parents were from Lativa and elsewhere in eastern Europe, gave birth to their son Irving Philip in New York City, followed in March 1917 by my father, Gilbert Robert Mendelsohn. The family later moved down to the coastal resort town of Wildwood, New Jersey, where Lewis ran his own butcher shop. I gather he did reasonably well even during the Great Depression. I surmise from my dad’s allowing my mother to browbeat him mercilessly throughout their marriage that Lewis’s family was very much a matriarchy, and Lewis pretty passive. The only time I met him, when I was around four, I found him pretty frightening.

As I observed here before, the tradition at the time was for everything to be invested in the older son. My understanding is that my uncle was nicknamed Bunny in infancy because a neighbor supposedly told Rose Mendelsohn that he was as cute as one; in my household, having a brother, brother-in-law, or uncle Bunny was as natural as breathing. He married a gentile woman and served in the U.S. Air Force. I always marveled at how very impersonal were his and my dad’s letters to each other.

The grandfather after whom I was named (Jewish tradition precludes naming a child after one’s self, as is so popular among gentiles, so no Gil Jr. for the author), Jonchif Nissen (I’m guessing at the spelling) Kaufman, and his future bride, Celia Kaufman (no relation) both came to America with their respective parents from the environs of Odessa in the southern Ukraine a generation after Lewis Mendelsohn’s parents came over from Berlin. I’d always bought the idea of fervent Jewish solidarity, and was shocked to learn through my reading that the German Jews who came over in the 1880s treated with naked contempt the Russian ones who came over with my maternal grandparents.

I have no idea why the Kaufmans headed for the Midwest, which was crawling with Scandinavian and German farmers, but they did, winding up in Minneapolis. Celia’s parents ran a boarding house. I have no idea what John Ned’s (his name was anglicized at Ellis Island, I think) did, but I do know he was a roughneck. He and Celia married young and had their first daughter, my mother, in their early twenties. John Ned was commonly brought home bloody and semi-conscious. I suspect he and Lewis Mendelsohn would have found each other immensely distasteful. A little more of his eagerness to put up his dukes would have served me well on the playgrounds of my childhood.

During her girlhood, my mother was repeatedly traumatized, both by her family’s poverty and by her father’s open disdain for his kids. On one occasion, she was sent home from school for smelling, and was forever after painfully self-conscious, and fastidious about her appearance. A conspicuous stain on her clothing one night in around 1996 was the first indication to me of the dementia that would later obliterate her a few years before her death.

The world’s a strange place. After the repeal of Prohibition, John Ned Kaufman made a fortune in the wholesale liquor business; Jews are taught to think of alcohol as the province of the goyim, but it was Jews who started Seagram, for instance. John Ned bought his family a gorgeous home in a swanky part of town, but wasn’t a more loving father than he’d been as a hooligan, and was dead at 42.


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