|Nathan Ulin in his late 80s.|
Lee Miller and Steve Ulin have learned a great deal from their father, now 101. Born in Sieradz, Poland, in 1910, Nathan Ulin taught his children the virtues of independence, ethical behavior, and pride in the Jewish people.
“From the time I was little, he always said make your family and the Jewish community proud,” recalls his son Steve, a Hillsdale resident. “He said, ‘My word is my bond and I stand by it. You have to do the same.’ He’s a very ethical and moral person. It’s primary in his life to be thought of in that way.”
“Until just a few years ago, he’s always been a fiercely independent man,” added Ulin’s daughter Lee Miller, a resident of East Brunswick. Her father – whose travels took him from Poland to Massachusetts to New Jersey – now lives at Daughters of Miriam in Clifton.
“From the time he was a teenager and even after his marriage, he contributed financially to his parents,” she said. “He would often tell us that whatever he achieved, it was done on his own. He had a willingness to work hard and not depend on anyone else for assistance. [He would say] a man can do most anything he sets his mind to.”
Ulin’s love of family has also impressed his children.
“Family is probably the pride and joy of his life,” said Miller, “and I’m certain he’d say this is the most important part of a lifetime. He’d [also] most likely tell us to lead a productive life. To him that meant work – he’s never been much of a player.”
Her father, she said, lost his younger brother many years ago, but “his 92-year-old sister is alive and living in Nevada.” His wife Jean died 26 years ago, and he has two children, four grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren, in addition to nephews and nieces.
Steve Ulin said the experience of anti-Semitism played a major role in shaping his father’s outlook. “He always said Jewish boys have two strikes against them,” he said. “You have to be 10 times better in every way because of that.”
Nathan Ulin’s family left Poland in 1923. According to Miller, her grandfather – who had been in the Polish army and a prisoner of war – lost his cabinet manufacturing business, and there was no longer a viable means of livelihood for him in Poland. The family came to the United States, settling in Massachusetts.
Nathan’s early years in Poland left their mark on him, said his son.
“One time his mother sent him and his brother for milk on Pesach. They carried it in a big metal container. Some Polish boys wanted to put chametz into the milk. He and his brother stood back to back with the metal milk canister between them. They took off their big leather belts and kept swinging them, until eventually the boys left them alone.”
Even in the United States, Ulin encountered hostility when he first arrived. “Anti-Semitism was rife,” said his son, citing the influence of then current media personalities such as Father Charles Coughlin. “My father was trying to learn English, and the first thing he learned in school was anti-Semitic words.”
Still, his father noted and appreciated the changes he saw during his lifetime.
“He’s seen a tremendous change from the time when Jewish couldn’t get jobs in big companies,” said his son. “He saw in his lifetime that Jews could be hired by merit. He’s very happy about that.”
After his marriage in 1937, Ulin moved to New Jersey, joining his wife’s brothers in their butcher business.
“He was a very strong man,” said his son. “He had worked for a kosher butcher shop in Brookline, Mass., and after work he went to a gym.”
There he learned to box – a lifelong passion – ultimately participating in a half-dozen professional fights to earn extra money during the depression.
“My zaydie was out of work,” said Steve Ulin. “My father was the oldest of the three children and supported the family.”
Identifying the greatest challenges faced by her father, Miller said they were “learning the language as a teenager, learning a trade, making an income during the Depression to help the family, and putting together a life after becoming a widower.” Her mother died in 1985.
Despite these hurdles, she said, he was able to build a good life, buy a home, and send his children to college.
He is also an ardent Zionist, say his children.
“Israel was always on his mind,” recalls his son. “He was a news freak and was always proud when Israel did anything, like grow hybrid corn. He would say ‘Only the Jews could do that.'”
In North Bergen – where family members were among the founders of both Temple Beth El and Temple Beth Abraham – the Ulins attended Beth El. Keeping their membership there even after they moved, they later joined the Fort Lee Jewish Center.
Even today, at Daughters of Miriam, Nathan Ulin goes to daily minyan, said his son.
“He can’t see well enough to read [the siddur], but he feels proud that he can be wheeled there and counted in the minyan.”
In addition, the 101-year-old has always had a strong sense of social justice.
Because of his own family’s experience, and that of the Jewish people as a whole, “he was sensitized to minorities and those who were disadvantaged,” said his son. “When he opened up his store in Montclair, he was proud that he could hire black truck drivers. He didn’t miss an opportunity to remind us that we should think about people who don’t have.”
Why has he lived so long? “Because he wants to,” said his son. “He never gives up.”