The street where Moshe and Lena Strakhman live is in Mahwah, but it doesn’t look much like the rest of the town.
It was a dark, wet, nasty day when we went to visit the Strakhmans, and the pervasive gloom didn’t help, but their part of town didn’t look lush and rural and idyllic, as most of it does. The commercial strip where the couple lives looked like a small upstate New York town, one of those towns that prosperity has bypassed for generations. The low hills of Rockland County just to the north looked sullen and leaden and unwelcoming.
When Dennis Gralla walked into the Strakhmans’ apartment, though, the atmosphere inside seemed to light up somehow.
The couple, in their 80s, glowed when they saw him; Mr. Strakhman frequently and energetically shook Mr. Gralla’s hand, as if that were the best, clearest way to express the emotion he felt.
The couple and Mr. Gralla first met four or five years ago, when Mr. Gralla — who grew up in Teaneck, has spent most of his life in Bergen County, and now lives in Mahwah — decided to deliver holiday kosher meals on wheels for the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.
A word about kosher meals on wheels — the need for such food deliveries to the elderly and the disabled is great, far greater than those of us who are comfortable realize, so great, in fact that more than one agency provides them. The Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson and the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey both provide kosher meals on wheels.
The Jewish Home Family’s Jewish Home at Rockleigh prepares kosher meals for three programs — at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, for the still-ongoing program through the otherwise-shuttered YJCC in Washington Township, and at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Fair Lawn. (Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson volunteers also deliver kosher meals on wheels once a week, but that program no longer is affiliated with the Jewish Home’s.) The Rockleigh kitchens produce about 24,000 meals each year, according to the Jewish Home Foundation’s executive director, Melanie Cohen. And then, three times a year, just before Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Passover, in a program funded by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Home Foundation, about 30 volunteers from the Jewish Home bring hot meals to about 300 clients.
Dennis Gralla is one of those volunteers.
It’s one thing to give money, Mr. Gralla — a commercial realtor whose father was one of the founders of the YJCC in Washington Township, among many other local Jewish institutions — said. That’s easy, and he does it often and with a strong sense of obligation and connection to the community. It’s another thing entirely to “do something that gives me an opportunity to really meet people. That’s the real mitzvah.”
Because he is on the board of the Jewish Home, delivering kosher meals on wheels for the organization makes sense to him, he said.
Mr. Gralla has a fairly steady list of clients to whom he delivers kosher meals on wheels, and he has developed somewhat of a relationship with all of them, but it’s nothing like the one he has with the Strakhmans. In fact, he has become so close to them that he calls them frequently, sees them often, and pays some of their bills, out of a sense of obligation — and also of love.
The relationship between Mr. Gralla and the Strakhmans is so real that it demands more than three visits a year. That’s why I found myself on the couple’s doorstep, trailing Mr. Gralla as he greeted them exuberantly.
“They remind me so much of my grandparents, who are gone now,” he said.
It’s easy to see why he would make that comparison. I made it as well, when I met them. Lena Strakhman has the rich, plummy Romanian accent that plunged me back to my early childhood, and Moshe Strakhman wears the kind of kippah — not exactly square, not really pointed — that is not shaped exactly like the ones we see here, but looks exactly like the ones in the few photos our grandparents managed to bring with them from Eastern Europe.
Their apartment is small, a bare-bones kind of place, but it features two wedding pictures hanging on the wall. One is of Lena and Moshe; she’s strong featured, staring proudly at the camera, and he is shier, more reserved. Both look happy and young, and although the photograph is decades old, both are entirely unmistakable as themselves. The other is of their son and daughter-in-law; he lives in Philadelphia and she died five years ago. The pair looks happy in the photo, and it is given pride of place on the wall.
Mr. Strakhman was born in Ukraine in 1934 and Mrs. Strakhman was born in Romania in 1932. Both survived the Holocaust but neither wants to talk about it. Eventually, after the war, both found themselves in Chernowitz, a city that has been ruled by Romania, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and now is in Ukraine. It was a center of Yiddishist culture, but when the Strakhmans were there, it was yet another gray Soviet city, full of Jews but with only one small synagogue.
Moshe “worked in a very big factory” in Chernowitz, he said. “We made flashlights.” Lena “was an engineer of technology. I worked in a lab. I was a food controller — I was the head of five factories, and I did quality control; I worked on salami, bread, and sodas.” While she worked she also went to university, studying from 1958 to 1962. She and Moshe met, through friends, in 1962, and got married two years later.
“Not with a rabbi,” Ms. Strakhman said. “It wasn’t allowed.”
Their son was born in Chernowitz; the mohel was able to sneak into their apartment at night and perform a bris, which was forbidden, the Strakhmans said. “Nobody came to see it, because it wasn’t allowed.” There was no problem having a baby circumcised in the hospital, “but the ceremony was illegal,” she said.
In 1972, the family, under the auspices of an agency called the Tolstoy Foundation, was able to leave the Soviet Union for Germany, and on October 22, 1974, “we came to Brooklyn,” Ms. Strakhman said. “We lived there, on Ocean Parkway, for 20 years.” Their son was 12 when he arrived in this country — “he came here on his birthday,” his mother said — so he could become bar mitzvah in Brooklyn. No sneaking necessary.
Their time in this country did not give them the freedom they craved, however; this time it was not the state but their own bodies that imprisoned them. Ms. Strakhman had developed gangrene in a leg, which led to much surgery and the removal of a central vein, she said. “I didn’t work one day in America. I couldn’t work. They put me on welfare first, and then, since 1982, on SSI.” She applied to Touro College and was accepted, hoping to be able to train to work in this country, hoping above all that her health would allow her to work toward that dream, but she could not travel even to Touro’s classrooms in Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, Mr. Strakhman worked in the kitchen at the Yeshiva Chaim Berliner in Brooklyn, but fairly soon he had to leave work to care for his wife. “The doctor told him that if he couldn’t stay home with me, they would have to cut off my leg,” Ms. Strakhman said matter-of-factly. “So he stayed home.” Eventually, she grew strong and self-sufficient enough to allow him to work as a messenger in a store in Manhattan.
Mr. Strakhman has asthma; in 2000, because “he couldn’t breathe in Brooklyn, they told us to move here,” Ms. Strakhman said. About five years ago, Mr. Strakhman had a stroke, which paralyzed the left side of his body.
The county provides them with services, including a home aide who also shops for them. “Moshe said that they told him that he wouldn’t survive the stroke, but he did,” Mr. Gralla said. “God willed that I am still here, because after the stroke it showed a flat line,” Mr. Strakhman added.
Despite their hardship, they marvel about life in the United States. There is so much Jewish life in Brooklyn, they said. (Because they are Orthodox and housebound, there is less of it in northwestern Bergen County, they added.)
“We’d never seen anything like a kosher butcher shop,” Ms. Strakhman said. “Never in all my life had I seen anything like it.
“My mother would buy a chicken, take it to the shochet” — the kosher slaughterer — “and then wash it in three waters, and we’d see the blood washing away. She’d make it kosher. Here, you just buy a kosher chicken, and it’s all ready to cook. God bless America.”