When neighbors really are family

When neighbors really are family

I had the priceless experience recently of meeting an entire branch of my family — right in my own backyard.

It isn’t every day that you can say your neighbors truly are family, but for me, that indeed was the case when I learned several years ago that a woman with the last name of Calem-Grunat was living in Ridgewood and had joined our synagogue. Shame on me for not picking up the phone immediately, because ever since I was little, I had been told that anyone named Calem was related to us.

Members of the Calem clan, from left, include Lillian Herszkorn Calem; the author’s daughter, Sarah Jacqueline Rosen, named Sarah Ya’akova in memory of Grandpa Jack; Jane Calem Rosen; the author’s father, Dr. William S. Calem, holding an old family portrait; David Calem; Jaclyn Calem-Grunat; and Roberta Calem Lew. Photo by Joshua Grunat

Although that sounded strange — after all, there are tons of families with the same exact last name who are unrelated, Rosens, for example — the story seemed authentic. My father’s father, Jacob, had emigrated from the Russian Pale of Settlement when he was just 11 years old, sent to pave the way for his widowed mother and five sisters and brothers, eager to escape the raging anti-Semitism that sparked terrifying pogroms at the dawn of the ‘0th century.

Frightened and alone at Ellis Island, when asked his name, Jacob answered with the Russian pronunciation, Kay-yem. Immigration clerks, undoubtedly hurried and harassed, must have written down what seemed the closest equivalent: Calem.

The name was certainly distinctive, but growing up, it often felt burdensome, just like my Jewish immigrant heritage, something that set me apart from people who are readily accepted as "real" American, i.e., the Mayflower descendants.

When I had to give my name, I was so often asked, "How do you spell that?" or "Is that with a ‘K’?" that by the time I was in middle school, I just automatically said, "Calem, that’s C-A-L-E-M, Calem." I envied all the Smiths, Joneses, and yes, even Rosens, whose names slipped easily off the tongue.

Yet, in the inevitable ambivalence of adolescence, the name did make me feel somewhat special. I had a story to tell, at least, perhaps a typical immigrant’s tale, but somehow unique, as all such personal narratives are.

Right off the boat, Jacob, my Grandpa Jack, moved in with his mother’s brother, Louis Endelson, and found a job through another distant cousin as printer’s apprentice (a foreshadowing, maybe, of his granddaughter’s career in the newsprint trade?). He started as a "printer’s devil," cleaning the presses. Once he learned English, he was able to get a job as a typesetter, considered a position of real skill. Jack eventually owned his own business, Rapid Service Press on Duane Street near City Hall in lower Manhattan.

Living modestly, he managed to bring his entire family to America — an extraordinary accomplishment for someone with a sixth-grade education, and as I became familiar with the contours of his life, I was very proud of him.

The brothers — Louie, Joe, and Benny — all settled near Jack in the Bronx. Their mother, Eva, remarried and ran a small grocery store with her husband in the Crotona Park section of the borough. The boys, all self-made men, eventually prospered, Joe in the dry cleaning business, Benny as a designer of embroidered handbags he sold to Saks Fifth Avenue, and Louie as a manufacturer of Panama hats. Sister Celia moved all the way to Brooklyn. And venturesome Mary migrated north to Monticello. All married, and each had several children, lucky for my Dad, lonely as an only child, to have a bevy of first cousins. Some even lived in the neighborhood: Marion, Sheldon, and Arthur were Benny’s kids; Joe had Robert, Sonia, and Albert; Louie’s three sons were Sidney, Jesse, and Herbie. (There were more on his mother’s side, but that’s another story.)

My grandfather began every weekday with a stop in shul, davening shacharit, I’m told, but he didn’t raise my father to do the same. Although unspoken, that habit was understood to be a vestige of the Old Country, not fitting for his American son, and a future doctor, at that.

Shabbat, however, was a time for the family to get together, and my father recalls regular large, lively gatherings. There were Friday night dinners, sometimes in Brooklyn, which felt very distant in those days. There were even weekend excursions upstate, where Aunt Mary was raising her brood of four daughters.

Grandpa Jack, always reserved, never spoke to me and my sister and brothers about his extended family, and I remember having to pry the details out of my father, who retreated into the sanctity of his own immediate family and was overshadowed, in a sense, by my mother’s family, which included her two siblings and parents. I met my grandfather’s remaining siblings, at Grandpa Jack’s funeral, when I was 16. The most vivid recollection I have is of these elderly aunts and uncles hugging my father and scolding, "Don’t be a stranger."

But regular contact was not to be. They were frail and infirm and died one by one. Sad to say, my dad lost touch not only with the people in his life, but with a whole sensibility associated with the immigrant generation, the enveloping (sometimes stifling) embrace of family. Not one of his cousins — or my second cousins — ever became part of our day-to-day lives, scattered as they were, some surprisingly far. Sonia ended up in Houston, Texas; her brother, Albert, in Puerto Rico.

The "Houston Cousins" who miraculously appeared at my wedding immediately impressed me and my husband as incredibly fun. I can still see Sonia, with bright red hair, cutting a lively figure with her husband on the dance floor, and I wondered what their lives were like and if they ever really thought about us.

So, imagine my excitement when I decided the time had come to reconnect. Dr. Jaclyn Calem-Grunat was living with her family a stone’s throw away from me, and I noted that her daughter Mollie’s bat mitzvah was scheduled for the weekend of Mother’s Day this year. As a member of Temple Israel, I would simply show up for Shabbat services, as I am accustomed to do, and introduce myself — finally.

It was a wonderful mini-reunion. Not only did I discover that my second cousin is friendly with a close friend of mine who lives down her block, but I also met the whole mispocha: her brother, David, who had flown in with his family from Portland, Ore., her mother, Roberta Lew, who lives in Teaneck, and her aunt and uncle, Marion and Arthur. I knew that her father, Sheldon, my father’s cousin, had died at a young age, years ago. Also a physician, he and my father had a lot in common. But in those days, traveling from Brooklyn, where we lived, to Bergen County, New Jersey, was considered a major trek, especially with four small children. No e-mail, no Internet, and Ma Bell charged a lot for long distance for first-generation Americans struggling to make ends meet.

There was one more thing I felt compelled to do — and that was to reunite my father with his family, after all these years. I suggested that I bring them to Jaclyn’s house the next day when they would all be there for Mother’s Day brunch.

I decided to keep the visit a surprise for my parents, even though I briefly considered the shock effect on my soon-to-turn-80-year-old father.

At the appointed hour, I hustled my parents into the car for the quick trip, convincing my middle daughter, who was in on the secret, to come along.

Sure enough, my father was thrilled to greet his relatives. He did a double-take when he saw David, who evidently resembles Sheldon. The reminiscences began, and my dad told a hilarious story about how President Franklin D. Roosevelt, appearing hatless at his first inauguration, nearly ruined Uncle Louie’s business. Mention of Benny’s gorgeous handbags prompted my daughter to inquire what became of the family heirlooms. Out came one that his granddaughter, Jaclyn, was fortunate to still have.

I have always loved history, and listening to my father that day, a small piece of it came alive. The best part was that this history is mine, and I feel lucky to share it with my neighbors.

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