Grandpa’s journey

Grandpa’s journey

Remembering a Newark pioneer

Max Adelman cradles Jonathan Lazarus and his sister, Janet, in 1945. At right, The house that he built: 208 Renner Ave., Newark, now, sadly, in foreclosure.
Max Adelman cradles Jonathan Lazarus and his sister, Janet, in 1945. At right, The house that he built: 208 Renner Ave., Newark, now, sadly, in foreclosure.

Just last week, the Trump administration ordered 200,000 Salvadorans to leave the country by 2019.

They had lived in the U.S. since El Salvador was devastated by two earthquakes in 2001, admitted under a program created by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 and administered with compassion and even-handedness until now. It granted temporary lawful status to those from nations suffering armed conflict, natural disasters, or strife.

Past beneficiaries included refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina (civil war), and Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia (Ebola). Last year, as the Trump administration unleashed its restrictive immigration policies, Nicaraguans got the boot. And just weeks before the El Salvador decision, Homeland Security decreed that 45,000 Haitians were losing their protected status. Now the Dreamers — about 800,000 young people whose parents had brought them to the United States as children — are at risk of deportation despite a flurry of White House and congressional negotiations on their future.

The cumulative effect of these actions, plus President Trump’s obsessive efforts to build a border wall, choke immigration from mainly Muslim countries, and appeal to the basest instincts of the xenophobic alt-right, stirred my thoughts about my grandfather’s slog from Ukraine to America in 1903, and how he arrived in the country at just the right time, with the right skills, the right instincts, and the right amount of luck. Although the United States wasn’t necessarily welcoming to the huddled masses, the atmosphere then could hardly have been as fraught as it seems today.

My zaydie, Max Adelman, was billeted steerage class and landed penniless and powerless after a dangerous flight from the continent, a detour to England, and a bumpy Atlantic crossing. He arrived at Ellis Island poor but deeply hopeful. No welcoming ceremony or social safety nets awaited him or his fellow travelers. At most, a relative might show up at dockside or a labor contractor swoop down with empty promises.

Now fast forward almost 50 years. Max Adelman visits Israel in 1952 aboard one of Cunard’s luxury liners, ticketed first class and a fully fledged American. His journey, in both the geographical and experiential sense, seems to me to forcefully illustrate immigrant assimilation at its best.

Yetta Demarsky Adelman and Max Adelman. Her formal portrait was taken in 1931 and his dates to 1924.

The challenge is how to tell his story. Should it be written in the broader context of the diaspora experience? Or should it simply be a paean to the man, filled with the idiosyncratic and loving episodes so important and indelible to me as a youngster growing up during his sunset years?

There are no apparent answers or precise guidelines. Hence, I’ve come up with a sort of hybrid; enough vignettes to satisfy me, and enough context to satisfy you, the reader, who has a grandparent to measure against mine. Where Max Adelman read the Day, maybe yours read the Forverts. Where yours might have been an intense socialist or Zionist, mine was a more measured entrepreneur, whose idea of progressivism was to pay his tradesmen by check so they wouldn’t fritter away their wages in the saloon.

But I can guarantee that this remembrance, though filled with gaps and relying mostly on family anecdotal history (with attendant embellishments) and first-person “interviews” I was lucky enough to have with him, will be warm and unapologetically hagiographic.

Max Adelman (1877-1970), towering for his time at 6-foot-3, literally walked out of Ukraine, made his way to England by stealth and cunning, and booked passage to America. The year 1903 loomed as a particularly bad time for Jews in czarist Russia (if ever there was a particularly good time). Pogroms proved bloodier and more brutal than usual, as Nicholas II tried to mollify his nation’s wretched serfs by scapegoating the even-worse-off Jews and preparing for war with Japan over disputed Manchurian territory, an updated version of Rome’s bread and circuses.

Grandpa’s father had died when he was a boy and memories of a youth spent beckoning merchants to board at the inn owned by his parents and then stabling their horses during incredibly cold winters remained chillingly fresh. The joys and diversions of growing up as we know them were few and far between, but he did recall spending the equivalent of a hard-earned penny to listen to a primitive hurdy-gurdy through a tube held to his ear when the “music man” came to the village. And later, he would walk miles to see one of the first examples of a new machine in Russia — the automobile.

Grandpa went on to serve a compulsory five-year tour in the czar’s army, where he jokingly said he was assigned to a “tall-men’s battalion,” and then returned to his Anatevka-like village near Kiev to continue running the inn. There he married a shtetl girl, Yetta Demarsky (1883-1943) and they settled into the predictable rhythms and prospects of life that the Jews of the region had known for centuries.

But stories filtering back about the opportunities in America, the prospect of re-conscription for the war with Japan, and the severity of the pogroms changed everything, and hastened his decision to bolt for the United States. He would send for Yetta (pregnant with my mother, Minnie) as soon as possible after establishing himself in the new world. How he managed travel documents, what bribes he paid along the way, or the close calls he dodged are strictly matters of conjecture.

But he made it, first detouring to England and obtaining passage from there. After enduring the numbing, demeaning Atlantic crossing, he had to reckon with the always suspicious and reproachful immigration inspectors at Ellis Island as they looked for the slightest excuse to turn back non-native arrivals still carrying the stench of steerage; the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, the Slavs — in short, the future builders of a dynamic republic.

Grandpa arrived as Teddy Roosevelt charged ahead on the Panama Canal and tangled with the corrupt industrialists of the post-gilded age. The country’s climb to global power was well underway, but Max Adelman’s worldview was considerably narrower as he knocked at the door of his aunt’s house in Brooklyn and asked to be taken in. By all family accounts, she was stingy with food and money and not particularly helpful in showing him how to avoid the pitfalls of a greenhorn.

Grandpa became a plastering contractor during his two years in Brooklyn, and saved enough to arrange passage for Yetta and Minnie in 1905. My mother was about a year old, and by all accounts quite active. This had an unintended consequence at the shipping line offices as she romped about. Since infants could board for free only if they remained close to their mothers, the agents demanded that Yetta buy her a ticket, delaying their departure until Max sent the money.

The newly reunited family soon moved to the Lower East Side, where Nessie, the second child, was born in a tiny apartment that featured crates for furniture. Grandpa earned about $8 a week in those days, with rent $5 a month, and meat for 12 cents a pound. Extra quarters were put into savings.

Nessie would die in infancy, a melancholy, common occurrence among households of that era, when a child often would fall victim to the shortcomings of medicine and hygiene.

Max Adelman was often called on to make the motzi at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Within a year, the Adelmans relocated to Newark to escape the sadness that lingered from Nessie’s death. They wanted a fresh start in a city experiencing a building boom. With the strong frame needed for carrying hods and an intuitive feel for carpentry, masonry, and lathing, Grandpa had little trouble finding work in the construction trades.

Ultimately, two more children arrived: Nathan, who went on to study medicine and became head of ear, nose, and throat at New York Beth Israel, and 17 years later, Evalyn, who taught in Berkeley Heights for decades. My mother, though the oldest, had to push grandpa a bit before he would underwrite her tuition at Newark Normal, now Kean University (class of 1925), and then Fordham School of Social Work for a master’s degree (class of 1933). At that point, he was still old-world enough to believe in male primogeniture. But he was capable of change and adaptability, as the next decades would demonstrate.

When I was adopted in 1942, mom put aside her professional career with the New York City Board of Education and never looked back. Even though she possessed more degrees than my dad (a pharmacist and later a drug manufacturer), the customs of the day prevailed; men worked outside the home, women stayed home to raise families. My sister, Janet, also adopted, joined the brood in 1945.

I’m chagrined to say I know considerably less about Grandma Yetta. She died when I was just over a year old, and I never learned much beyond her steadfastness as a mother and wife. She learned English sufficiently, I’m told, to help newer immigrants in settlement classes. The few photos of her show a woman with strong peasant features and remarkably white hair. She posed for her formal portrait dressed in the finery of the day.

Grandpa spent the next few decades buying land and building homes. The results of his craftsmanship can be seen today throughout Newark’s (that’s pronounced Nork’s) fabled Weequahic (that’s pronounced Weekquaik) section. His three-story structures still stand sturdily in a neighborhood once overwhelmingly Jewish and now a mix of African-Americans, Hispanics, and people of other ethnicities, comprising the newest waves of immigrants.

Grandpa built the residence at 208 Renner Ave. (sadly, now in foreclosure, I’ve seen by driving by it) for himself and his children. By this time, he had co-founded Channel Lumber Co., a precursor to Rickel’s, with the Slater and Levy families. The enterprise, named for its location along the Passaic River at the Newark-Belleville border, thrived, allowing him to indulge in his one extravagance besides expensive suits: Buicks. (More later on his untamed driving habits). He eventually sold his share in the business during the mid-30s.

Our family, the Lazaruses, moved from Flushing, Queens, to Renner Avenue in 1947, when Grandpa helped my father buy a small drug manufacturing company. This resulted in a rather snug housing arrangement: Dad, mom, my sister, and I lived on the first floor; grandpa, a widower since 1944, was on the second; and Aunt Evalyn and her World War II Army veteran husband, Sam Geftic, were in the third-story dormer flat.

Grandpa, ever the patriot, gave the unused portion of his gasoline ration to Sam when he returned from three-plus years of service in North Africa and Italy. Grandpa’s only son, Dr. Nathan, served in the Army Medical Corps at veterans hospitals stateside. There wasn’t a war bond, scrap metal, rubber, or paper drive in which this proud Yankee Doodle didn’t participate.

Just a block away, on Custer Avenue and unbeknown to me at the time, lived my future wife, Gail Abramson. I still remember following her down the street as she went to violin lessons. But I wouldn’t understand the forces that made me tag along until years later, when we reconnected at a Metrowest JCC social event.

For the next decade, we lived serenely and optimistically in the Weequahic section. It was the 1950s, after all. Dad continued to grow the business through several plant expansions, with Grandpa participating where he could. I still recall him in a white smock, sitting among the African American women, stuffing wads of cotton into the bottles of aspirin and saccharine and then capping them. He also undertook some of the smaller carpentry and masonry jobs at the plant, often with blackened fingernails to show for his efforts.

My family moved to West Orange in 1955 as part of the growing suburban exodus, and my aunt, uncle, and nephew followed, moving to Berkeley Heights a few years later. Grandpa, now alone, doggedly remained as the neighborhood changed, renting the top and ground floors to strangers. He still walked the streets confidently, but there seemed to be fewer and fewer people to greet him.

In retrospect, the years I spent in Newark allowed me to know Max Adelman on an intimate, day-to-day basis. Here are a few takeaways, as warm and winning today as they were 60 years ago:

• Grandpa practiced an open-door policy. That meant Janet, cousin Yale, and I could visit him any hour of the day. He would greet the “chillun” either in his silk bathrobe or fully turned out in an immaculate suit with freshly starched white shirt, tie, and handkerchief. If he didn’t have an engagement, he always seemed game for what we wanted to do, except if it involved running or hiding.

• Being a widower for so long (and apparently not interested in remarriage despite many overtures), he developed a certain self-sufficiency as a cook and housekeeper. I remember him often wearing an apron over his shirt and tie, bearing a dish of his own concoction (vaguely something with farmer’s cheese) prepared on the ancient Roper stove.

• His seder meals were renowned among the grandkids for chicken feathers appearing inappropriately in dishes. But his morning-after matzah brei was legendary. He also exhibited a failing for Moosebec sardines in tomato sauce. We also heard, but never witnessed, the stories of carp swimming in his bathtub until they were clubbed, cooked, and plated. Grandpa didn’t keep kosher and was fond of pork products, always noting that the inspection standards of this great nation would keep him safe from trichinosis.

• Grandpa was a man of rigorous habits and few vices. Before lunch and supper, he would take one shot of schnapps, always Seagram’s VO, never Canadian Club. After supper, he would sit contentedly with a “gless tea,” straining it through a sugar cube held in his teeth. I never saw Grandpa tipsy, although at festive occasions, especially with landsman surrounding him and speaking in blurringly fast Yiddish, he would laugh louder and longer than usual. I never knew him to gamble, and his card games were limited to friendly pinochle or solitaire.

Just recently, a delicious tidbit surfaced about him. My cousins from New York City, now dispersed in Boston, Oregon, and Philadelphia, mentioned that when he visited them he would often head to Radio City Music Hall to catch the Rockettes. He especially loved their Christmas shows, and these must have provided stark counterpoint to his earlier attendance at Yiddish theater musicals and dramas on the Lower East Side.

But this news must be taken with a grain of salt, since it comes from a branch of the family that pronounces its name Add-dul-mun, not Ay-del-man, with its sharper New Jersey intonations. The schism still exists and keeps cousinly visits lively, although several of them recanted during the preparation of this piece and now say the go with Ay-del-man. That’s how Grandpa pronounced it, pure and simple. But his contemporaries, no matter what their country of origin, always insisted on going Teutonic with a thumping, drawn-out Ayy-del-mahnn.

• Grandpa apparently had been a heavy smoker in his younger days (Fatimas, with Turkish tobacco) and emphysema dogged him in later life, although it didn’t prevent him from peeling off his suit jacket and digging a trench on property he owned while in his mid-70s. Until the last few years, when he had just turned 90, he was remarkably robust, and rarely made concessions to his health, except for hay fever. Every August, we would see him off at Newark’s Penn Station for the train ride to Bethlehem in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he would spend a month at the camp run by the Hebrew Hay Fever Relief Association, of which he was an officer

• Modern technology both astonished and puzzled Max Adelman. For someone whose trajectory took him from ox cart to astronauts landing on the moon, it must have been both jolting and thrilling to witness the evolution of electricity, the automobile, the airplane, new medicines, radio, and television. Yet grandpa, to the last, would always pick up the telephone, clear his throat, bellow a cheery “halloo,” and seem somewhat surprised when a voice came back.

I wonder if he would have texted or become social-media savvy had he lived today. Probably not. He was a face-to-face, look-you-in-the-eye-kind of guy. His relationships were cultivated personally, not electronically. But I know he would have patiently listened to the grandchildren as they tried to explain the latest app to him.

• Grandpa, a reliably Democratic voter, responded positively to FDR and New Deal reforms. But when talking about the Great Depression, we have to remember that Max Adelman also endured the Panic of 1907, so specificity became the conversational watchword. Grandpa’s only political regret, and he fessed up to it, was not backing John F. Kennedy because of his concerns about JFK’s Catholicism and possible influence from the Vatican. When the young president was assassinated, Grandpa fretted that he would be unable to right the wrong and vote for the man he had grown to respect.

• Speaking of the Vatican and probably mixing religious metaphors, Grandpa did visit the Holy See on his way home from his trip to Israel in the early 50s. The tour of the Jewish State left him both humbled and thrilled; he saw a nation still in its infancy yet imbued with the spirit and energy of the pioneer generation. Grandpa had been born before Theodor Herzl’s Zionist dream crystallized and he was now bearing witness to the assertive age of David Ben-Gurion so soon after the Holocaust.

The same restless spirit that sustained him as he fled Ukraine now reasserted itself as he left Israel, deciding on the spur of the moment to tour Rome. After viewing the antiquities and splendors of the Eternal City, he joined thousands at Pope Pious XII’s general audience on a Sunday in St. Peter’s Square. When he returned home, the grandchildren surrounded him for a debriefing. I asked what he thought of the pontiff and he breezily replied, “Seemed like a nice fella.”

• Grandpa’s only feeling of entitlement, or so it appeared to me, occurred when he drove one of his beloved Buicks. For some reason, he believed he had the divine right of passage. Once, when I was on crutches from a football injury, he was detailed to drive me home from school. It was harrowing. Grandpa sallied into every intersection with abandon, turning the steering wheel from the bottom-up, breathing heavily, and liberally honking the horn. Motoring fascinated him, and he made it his business to wait in line and go through the Holland Tunnel on opening day in 1927.

One night many years later, a driver mercifully plowed into his parked Buick. Grandpa, now in his 80s, threw in the towel, or more properly the ignition keys. The family heaved a collective sigh of relief and the massive vehicle was towed away.

Opening day traffic at the Holland Tunnel in 1927. Grandpa made that “crossing” too.

• Two or three times a year, Grandpa would take me to his Orthodox shul, Agudas Israel, on Custer and Peshine avenues. My family belonged to the Reformed B’nai Jeshurun downtown (now thriving in Short Hills) so the siddur, davening, and niggunim were quite new to me. Heading home, Grandpa would invariably inveigh against the mechitzah and how much fairer it would be to seat the women on an egalitarian basis. Truly a man ahead of his time.

Along the way, he would be greeted by neighborhood residents of all faiths, always respectfully, as “Mr. Adelman.” After talking to each, asking about their children, loved ones, or jobs, he would resume walking, his heavy footfalls marking another journey through the streets in which he felt so comfortable.

• I think I saved Grandpa’s best attributes for last — his charities and civic involvement. Whether it was the Hebrew Sheltering Association, Hebrew Passover Relief, Israel Bonds, the United Jewish Appeal, the Hebrew Free Loan Society, Workmen’s Circle, New Jersey Verein, or the Community Chest, Fresh Air Fund, or Boys and Girls Clubs, Grandpa felt connected as a stakeholder in the community.

He kept meticulous records of his donations in notebooks that reflected his eclectic concern and activism, and took great pride in being a charter member of Newark Beth Israel Hospital and the Newark Museum, and a director of the Daughters of Israel Home for the Aged. In all, his self-written obituary referenced more than 50 organizations that benefitted from his philanthropy

My unforgettable experience with him in this regard came after helping out at the Hebrew Passover Relief storefront on Avon Avenue. Poor families would arrive for their matzah, farfel, vegetables, kosher wine, and all the fixings necessary for the seder. Then the head of household would sit at a bridge table with three leaders of the organization. They would interview the person, usually in Yiddish, and write figures on notepads.

The men (fedoras always worn indoors) swapped the figures, and Grandpa would sometimes get red-faced and animated. He remonstrated with his colleagues before cash would be counted out and handed to the family. On the walk home, I asked him what caused the heated discussions.

“Jonilah, they don’t want to give enough,” came the brief but elegant answer. HIs gold standard for tzedakah was an intuitive feeling about the needs of others. He naturally grasped the paradox that the only way to keep “it” was by giving “it” away. He never forgot the poverty of his early years, making it the touchstone of his behavior toward others.

Max Adelman would not recognize the institutional and structural underpinnings of today’s megacharities, with call-athons and computer-based models. For him, it was personal, not coldly solicitational. It came more from the heart than the wallet.

I wish I could write that Grandpa’s final years played out as golden ones. But by the time he turned 90, his once ramrod bearing had become stooped and shrunken. His mind remained keen but the osteoporosis and arthritis took a toll, literally reducing his height by inches.

After my parents and aunt and uncle moved to the suburbs, Grandpa tried to carry on bravely in Newark. But the tenants could be irresponsible, and the one elderly male companion he engaged proved quarrelsome. And so he began to spend more time with us in West Orange, my aunt in Berkeley Heights, and my uncle in New York, continuing to take public transportation unaided to his destinations.

Then the inevitable and dreaded day arrived when he and his children (who ultimately became the parents) decided that the best course would be a nursing home. They chose one, in Neptune, at the shore. I’ll never understand and was too timid to ask why the location seemed so out of the orbits of his loved ones.

I visited several times (really not often enough) and in his small room I encountered a man still immaculately dressed in blue-serge and starched shirt but essentially alone, one whose peers had mostly died, supplanted by two generations of Jews who were thoroughly assimilated and Americanized. The visits were short and subdued, not the buoyant experiences of my youth with him.

We both understood.

I recently visited the New Jersey Verein cemetery in Newark, where Grandpa and Yetta share a common headstone, tilting slightly with age and erosion, but so far immune to the vandalism that has affected the cluster of cemeteries in the area. Grandpa must have loved the irony and juxtaposition of the location, just to the rear of the now-razed Pabst brewery along South Orange Avenue.

On the day I visited, workers with weed-wackers were scything their way through the densely packed rows of graves. But the background noise didn’t interfere with my thoughts and feelings. I lingered at the site for only a short time, however. My memories of Grandpa, just like those of my parents, are continuous and sweetly etched in my memory bank.

Perhaps the highlights of his journey will stimulate similar thoughts about your immigrant grandparents. What an exciting, enriching generation! Their likes will never come our way again, and more’s the pity. Remembering their contributions is especially relevant as new émigrés to our shores often encounter a climate of hostility and vilification. Surely these folks deserve the same opportunities afforded Max Adelman. The economics and societal realities may be different, but courage is still the common currency.

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