I have been so preoccupied the past 18 years with my own grandchildren that I tend to forget that I was once a grandchild myself. My grandchildhood was made possible by the efforts of Max (né Mordecai) and Raizel Silberfarb from Russia and Louis (né Eliezar) and Mollie Wahl from Poland, now Belarus and the Ukraine.
Raizel died when I was a baby, Max when I was 10 years old, Mollie when I was 24, but Louis, Pop Wahl as we called him, lived long enough to become a great grandfather. My youngest grandson was named after him.
This spring evoked a Pop Wahl memory when the Streit’s Matzo Factory, after more than 100 years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, announced it was moving to New Jersey. It was at Streit’s on Rivington Street some 60 years ago that my grandfather and I shopped for Passover provisions. In those days the matzah meal was in bins, not in sterile packaging, and Pop Wahl’s favorite saleslady was a legendary anarchist from the old socialist days.
Pop Wahl knew the mean streets and confusing byways of the Lower East Side like a native, which he almost was, having arrived there as a teenager. He knew the difference between the incongruously named Norfolk and Suffolk Streets, and led me in my bewilderment past the Orchard Street pushcarts to lunch of kasha varnishkas at Ratner’s dairy restaurant, now long gone, or a more modest repast of knishes at Yonah Schimmel’s, now barely holding its own on Houston Street.
When he arrived amidst the grinding poverty of the Lower East Side, the youthful Louis Wahl found work as a sewing machine operator in the garment industry that dominated the neighborhood. Eventually he was able to own his own machine. Later he rented space in the second floor of a loft building, hired two other operators, and created his own mini-factory.
The classic up-from-poverty success story ended abruptly when a representative of the Garment Workers Union paid him a visit. Louie’s personality did not lend itself to calm negotiation. He threw the unionist down the stairs and closed the shop.
His imperial attitude may have evolved from an ancestor, Saul Wahl, who, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, was “king for a day” in 16th century Poland. He was the principal advisor to the king, and when the monarch died Saul Wahl held the reins of government until a successor was named.
But Louis Wahl did not need royalty to reinforce his personality. He had a more powerful inheritance. He was a kohen from Judaism’s priestly class. Saul Wahl was a mere 500 years ago, but the kohanim descended from Moses’ brother Aaron, guardian of Jewish law throughout the ages. Pop Wahl drew strength from that law by which he lived. It may have been that strength that helped him overcome the most daunting of mortal threats.
When he was in his mid-sixties, Pop Wahl’s skin took on a sickly, yellowish pallor. The grim diagnosis was pancreatic cancer, a near death sentence. A remote hope was a radical operation known as “the Whipple” involving a major internal resectioning. Not many surgeons were capable of performing it or willing to try. Dr. Whipple, himself, may have succeeded, but he was not available. Needed was a surgeon who had the skill and the stamina for a full day at the operating table. Dr. F., who did the job, was a big, rawboned young man who looked and talked more like a farmer than a master surgeon. The operation was a success.
On a visit a few days later, with my grandfather morosely recovering in the hospital, the doctor asked, “How you doing, Louie? Are you eating?”
“Nah, who can eat?”
“What you need is a nice, big Jewish corned beef sandwich.”
The nurses were horrified at what would surely poison their patient, but Dr. F. sent for one, and, indeed, it was, as they say, “just what the doctor ordered.”
My parents, children of immigrants, were of the generation that rebelled against the old ways, especially Orthodox Judaism, and so my earliest synagogue memories were accompanying my grandfather. When my parents eventually enrolled me in a Reform Sunday school, and later a Conservative after-school program, my grandfather was appalled and doubted that I would ever meet the demands of a bar mitzvah. It wasn’t until years later, when his son, my uncle, rose to become president of a prominent Conservative congregation, that Pop Wahl quietly conceded, in an aside to me, “Well, it’s a different life.”
During a brief period in my childhood, when we were living with my grandparents, Pop Wahl loomed large — a fierce temper modified by periods of understanding and flashes of wisdom. One day, dispatched to buy a loaf of rye bread, I broke off the end and ate it on the way home. No problem, I thought, because I would give it to my compassionate grandmother, who couldn’t bear the thought of a child going hungry. Instead it fell into the hands of my grandfather. I expected the worst. “What’s the matter with you?” he erupted. “When I was your age I would have eaten half the loaf.”
That year in my grandparents’ home, laws of kashruth were immutable, but then the unthinkable happened. My younger brother, about two years old, was sickly, and the god-like pediatrician decided he should be fed bacon.
It was a crisis of historic proportions. For my grandfather, it was beyond discussion. He didn’t even have words to describe the enormity. My grandmother was torn between her sacred duty as keeper of the kosher kitchen and the needs of her beloved grandchild. For my mother, the only problem was how to stealthily acquire the forbidden, but vital, food. At age nine, I was fascinated by the complexity of the problem, so I confided in one of my fifth grade classmates whom I knew to be an observant Jew.
“No!” he said. “No treif will cure your brother. It will only make him sicker.”
Before it could do lasting damage to the family structure, the episode was resolved when my brother’s health improved. The magical bacon was no longer necessary, and my brother soon developed whooping cough, which was not considered a nutritional problem.
After his proprietorship of a three-man garment factory ended, Pop Wahl took to selling ladies’ hats designed by his sister. Soon they had a chain of one-price millinery shops in Jersey City and Bayonne, which were eventually lost in the Great Depression. The rest of his life Pop Wahl was a salesman, who always appreciated the value of a dollar and guarded his dollars zealously.
One product he sold was heating oil because one of his pinochle partners owned a large commercial laundry, which consumed vast amounts of fuel oil. The owner agreed to buy his oil from the company that hired Louis Wahl, who thus became an ace fuel salesman with only one customer.
His sense of responsibility as a kohen never faltered. When my grandmother died, he made sure her grave was near the edge of the cemetery so he could visit it frequently without passing other burial sites forbidden for a kohen. It was his religious faith that fortified him when two of his daughters predeceased him.
He lived well into his nineties, long enough to perform one of the most prideful acts of his life. As a kohen he presided over the pidyon ha-ben of my son, his great grandson. He even uncharacteristically refunded the five silver dollars I gave him for redemption of the first-born male.
Ed Silberfarb was a reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey, then the New York Herald Tribune where he was City Hall bureau chief. Later, he was a public information officer for the New York City Transit Authority and editor of one of its employee publications.