My cousin Sam’s recollections of Aunt Leah

Posted on January 29, 2007


I was saddened, like all of you, to hear the news about Aunt Leah. She played a central and formative part in all of our lives, for each of us in our own way. How often is it that one’s Aunt is not only a source of nostalgia, but of values and direction as well? As for myself, I can say that she was largely responsible for why I have been living in Israel for the past 20 years. All of us have so many memories. I’d like to share a few of my own.

To begin with, visiting Leah’s apartment was like visiting “headquarters.” Sure, we all had our own homes and our own lives, but somehow the important things always seemed to come to gether up on Pelham Parkway . Particularly when Uncle Sam was alive, but even afterwards, those dinners were always a gathering of the people who mattered most, who carried with them the collective memories of our family and of our people. The typical group included Alan, Vera and family, Aaron and Muriel and family, Aunt Fanny and David Feinberg. This nucleus, numbering 16, was often joined by others, whether family or friends. Sometimes it was Uncle Myron, whose authentic Hebrew I only now appreciate, and whose special niggun for the Friday night Kiddush I sing whenever I have to occasion. But any guest at Leah’s apartment carried with him or her an aura of importance. Maybe they were a “haver” from the Poalei Zion. Maybe a friend from the old country. In my childhood memories, simply the fact that they spoke English with an Eastern European accent lent them some special authority, some knowledge and experience that I could try to appreciate but never really understand.

Aunt Leah was at there at many critical junctures, especially those involving my father. In most cases, she would end up chiding him with the words “Aaron, that’s no chochme!” But whether or not the matter met with her approval, if it was important – she would inevitably know about it. I remember visiting her apartment with my father on that fateful Yom Kippur afternoon in 1973. She was on the verge of tears. I saw in her an angst that an 11 year old rarely sees in an older person. My father reassured her. “Don’t worry. In 24 hours we’ll cross the Suez Canal .” She was not reassured, and he was wrong. In the end it to ok about 2 weeks and massive casualties. Did she know something? Or was it simply a matter of emotional involvement? For Leah, hearing about every casualty at the Mitla Pass was far more than news; it was like staring in to the abyss. How many people in our generation can sense intuitively that the Middle East conflict is not just about the struggle of a native Palestinian people against some sort of colonialist occupation, but rather about the desire of the Jewish people for the simple right of survival on their own sliver of earth?

Leah was no dreamer. She had her feet planted firmly on the ground of reality. In the mid 1980’s I spoke with a fellow named Debikurer – God knows if I’m spelling his name correctly – who was a big whig in the Poalei Zion, a name I’d heard many times up on Pelham Parkway. Debikurer offered me to serve as Executive Direc to r of the Labor Zionist movement. I mentioned it to Leah. “Don’t you dare!,” she to ld me. The Labor Zionist Movement had been her life, but she would not have her nephew get involved in an anachronistic irrelevancy.

Leah’s house was like a vault containing powerful emotive treasures. I remember the drawer (was it the 2nd or the 3rd?) in her bedroom containing kippot. We only wore them on special occasions, like at a Passover Seder or when Uncle Myron said Kiddush on Friday night. But what self respecting house of a secular Jewish Zionist socialist would be without a stash of kippot? My father seemed to understand this best. He would have a special way of putting on those cheap, nylon yarmulkes. They would never sit well on his head – sort of pointing up, partially covering his bald spot. As if to say to ultra orthodox and ultra assimilationists at the same time, “don’t tell me how to wear this damn thing, my people have been doing this for 2,000 years.”

I remember her bookshelves, covered with framed pho to s and loaded with the most powerful messages of the Jewish national revival. Yes, there was the bible (in Hebrew), but also the collected writings of (Zionist Labor leader) Berl Katzenelson and many by Ben Gurion (all in Hebrew), along with many volumes in Yiddish, including, if my memory serves me well, the collected writings of Shalom Aleichem. The holy of holies, as far as I can remember, was the Drohitchner Yizkor Book. A Yiddish volume, published in the 1950’s documenting the to wn in Byelorussia where our family was born. For those interested, an English translation is available on line: Definitely worth a perusal.

And the pho to s, yes, those infinite pho to s of the family. There was the table next to the couch with the drawer full of pictures, “as numerous as the sands on the seashore and the stars in the heaven.” A visit to Leah’s apartment would not be complete without 10 minutes of sifting through those pho to s. But there were also the framed pictures, most memorably for me, those of Uncle Benny with his violin, and of my father in his army uniform. And of course, Aunt Leah would not let you sift through the pho to s empty handed, and so she would always make sure you had a small beer (half pint Budweiser), a plate of crackers and a dish of chopped liver. Oh, that chopped liver. Has anyone ever been able to reproduce that unique recipe?

And then there were the things I could not really understand, like that sun lamp she had in her bedroom. Who in their right mind, nowadays, would expose themselves to extended periods of electromagnetic radiation for cosmetic purposes? But then again, how many people nowadays live past 100? I remember the Oldsmobile that she always had trouble parking in that underground garage. I remember her dog Dutchess, whom I called “beheyma,” meaning cow in Hebrew. It always made her laugh. I remember that apartment, that “headquarters” was the place to be yourself in the most intimate fashion. I remember Robert Cooper showing a slide show of his visit to Israel – all of us crowded around the dinner table, looking at the screen, listening incredulously to his explanation of a statue with erotic overtones. I couldn’t really understand why this was significant, but I knew that if Robert brought this photo from Israel , it must be important. I remember a photo , from that desk drawer, of Charlotte and Noah, both around the age of 5, wearing in a dress and suit, with my mother in the middle. I assume we had come from synagogue, or were participating in a Passover Seder. Either way, Aunt Leah’s apartment was an appropriate venue to say, “This is a special occasion.”

But Aunt Leah was not just Pelham Parkway . She was Kindervelt, and she was Unzer Camp. Leah and Sam had this bungalow near the road down to the man made lake. I recall it was quite small, but it always had a stash golden apples. It was always a treat to get a golden apple from Aunt Leah. Kindervelt was like any other summer camp for children whose parents wanted to keep them occupied in the summer. Except for that bungalow. As little as I was able to really understand it, I intuitively felt that this place with the Hebrew names and Zionist traditions was more than just a summer camp. It was part of my family identity. This was Uncle Sam and Aunt Leah’s camp. Their retreat. A place where they were surrounded by people like themselves, Labor Zionists from the old country who spoke English with an accent, Yiddish with a fervor, and an occasional modern Hebrew phrase with great reverence.

Aunt Leah meant more to us than we often remember. My brother Noah visited Israel around 1989 or 90. We to ok a jeep to ur along the old 1967 border, south of Qiryat Gat. In the late afternoon we s topped for shade and a bottle of beer at an isolated hedge of trees, sun rays making their way through the branches. A sign indicated that it had been planted by the Pioneer Women. Noah said to me, “I can imagine a young Aunt Leah raising money for this place.” Who knows? Maybe she did?

Life is not always a source of cheer. Each of us has his or her own cup of bitterness to sip. But at this moment of loss, my thoughts of Aunt Leah are a source of happiness. She was part of a generation that believed in something. And she succeeded in passing that commitment to the generations that followed. Would that we all could be so lucky.

Sam Shube

January 30, 2007

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