“I met your mechuteneste today,” Poppy, my mom’s father stated, as if a simple matter-of-fact.
All of us recognized that Yiddish word, but something wasn’t translating. Poppy’s eyes announced a playful intent and our curiosity peaked as he unfolded the story like a riddle. Soon, we learned that Poppy had visited the mother of his grandson’s girlfriend.
I was dating 16-year-old Linda Donecoff less than a month, when I offered her my mezuzah on a sterling chain, originally a bar-mitzvah gift. Linda tied a “lover’s knot”, which made it way cooler. Like Hugo and Kim, this token was recognized only by a teenaged crowd, eager to gossip as in Bye Bye Birdie: “goin’ steady–goin’ steady for good!” Linda and I tied up our parents’ phone lines, discussing nothing more substantial than what to do that week-end.
Linda’s leather jacket persona intimidated some students at George Washington HS; her softer self, disguised in hard-edged fashion. I commuted on the “El” to matriculate at Drexel University, my brain trained on freshman calculus. On her 17th birthday, should I have known she loved the Jerry Blavat record album, “For Lovers Only”, what we now call Oldies, not the similar title I presented, crooned by Dean Martin? We were discovering our relationship, not contemplating marriage, not ready to be intimate. Linda’s senior prom was not even penciled on our calendar.
A girlfriend is not a partner blessed by sacred vows, not even a betrothed—her mother is not really a mechuteneste! Yet, Poppy was confident in a destiny no one else around our kitchen table could foresee. Life experience and the faith he wore, comfortable as a vest, taught him patient optimism. Linda and I had been “going steady” for three, maybe four months, when he met my other half in the person of her mother, and believed our connection was bashert.
Young Reuben Mazer was unwilling to sacrifice his body for the Czar’s ambitions. Instead, he found his way from a shtetl near Kyiv to the port of Trieste in 1905, never to embrace his parents or two older brothers again. He stowed away on a boat, and eventually, met Sophie Goldstein in Philadelphia, sewing side-by-side in a vest factory. They married and saved to purchase a storefront at 1521 Dickinson Street. The glass-front shop offered sewing and steam cleaning services. Candelori’s grocery store was at the corner, Strolli’s Restaurant & Bar just strides across asphalt. Poppy ventured tailors were in more demand west of Broad Street, than in predominately Jewish neighborhoods. The three-story brick structure sheltered the expanding Mazers into the years following World War II.
Reuben and Sophie raised three children there; Frances and Jacob–born two years apart, and my mom, Esther Mollie, born eleven years later. To explain the decade gap, Poppy asserted that his youngest daughter was conceived in an Atlantic City hotel, a week-end escape with his dear wife. No wonder he always enjoyed ocean breezes and a boardwalk stroll. The three Mazer siblings remained close. Each married and relocated just twelve miles from the South Philly shop that a dozen had once shared. In the “Great NE”, new houses sprouted in rows like bumper crops to accommodate families of returning GI’s. Esther savored the role to provide Poppy a place in her kosher home at 7114 Oakland Street, following Sophie’s passing and sale of their small business.
Attired in sports jacket with vest, his creased hat atop silver white hair, Reuben Mazer carried himself in an erect posture that fooled a diminutive stature. Stretching his legs, greeting neighbors on his way, he was known as “the Mayor of Oakland Street”, not because he won an election or had political ambitions. He did serve as treasurer of the “corporation”, a kind of communal bank that advanced small loans for household needs, usually paid back in $5 or $10 weekly increments. Poppy diligently recorded transactions by pencil in 3 x 5-inch notebooks secured by rubber bands and stored in a box that formerly contained a male protective undergarment. At my bar-mitzvah party, he entered the social hall with both arms raised triumphantly above his head, a commander and statesman like President Eisenhower.
Into his mid-eighties, Poppy did alterations and repairs in our unfinished basement, on the manual treadle machine transported from the tailor shop. Nobody in the family sewed a hem or bought clothing for any special occasion without his consultation. Reuben would outlive his Sophie by nearly twenty years, but never re-married. Later, the Mazer siblings donated the vintage Singer to the Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall, an artifact reverently viewed behind plexiglass in the exhibit on immigrant occupations.
When Poppy Met Miriam Donecoff
At that kitchen-table-moment in 1964, Mom collected her thoughts and inquired further, “Did you just go to her front door, uninvited—knock like a peddler?”
Poppy innocently volunteered: “It’s not the first time.”
Mom addressed her father again, mouth wide open: “What—you were there before?”
Poppy explained he approached her house the previous week, but “her gotkes were hanging out”. That Yiddish word less familiar, but Mom understood it to mean underwear. Poppy clarified, “it must have been her cleaning day”. He observed a bathroom rug airing out a second story window, and postponed meeting the woman who he predicted would be his daughter’s mechuteneste.
Dad listened and ate, in a rush to leave for evening appointments with his bar/bat-mitzvah students. Besides, he had learned to avoid getting between his wife and her father. Poppy was free with family counseling, strength and insight his youngest daughter appreciated. To my little sister, Barbara, and I, our Poppy was the best.
Words of a humble tailor often soothed: “Don’t worry, everything will press-ach-oyes!”
Seated around the faux-marble table, we all begged in accidental unison: “PLEASE, Poppy— tell us the whole story!”
At that moment, he shared exciting news of the day easily as the evening meal.
Poppy revealed he had walked to the Donecoff’s home at 7275 Rutland Street, a handful of streets away, that afternoon. Observing no gotkes, he considered it a good day to knock, and introduced himself as Steven’s grandfather. Miriam Donecoff had no hesitation inviting a well-dressed elderly stranger into her home, even though her husband was away at work.
How Poppy knew the exact address we didn’t ask. I don’t recall him asking me during one of our nighttime chats. Our relationship was close as twin beds. Had I confided the nearest corner—the street—the family name? I can imagine Poppy politely stopping someone on their block: “Can you tell me in which house the Donecoff family lives?”
To my Mom and Dad, each born in America and then, in their early forties, his bold pilgrimage was unthinkable and intriguing. Mom was most curious about her father’s visit; maybe, a little envious of his initiative. She had been asking me about Linda for weeks, hinting that I invite her for Shabbat dinner, but tiptoed a nuanced ballet on that subject.
Why he decided to make this visit was more interesting. To Poppy, informed by old-world se’khel, perhaps an intuition to push things forward, this was a normal call of the family patriarch. He was no peddler selling rags. This was his sociable way of checking the kind of household where his grandson’s girlfriend lived. He noted only positive impressions to us.
In Miriam, he discovered a gregarious hostess whose infectious laughter could vibrate a room. She was delighted to sit with him as a guest in her velvet, forest-green living room. No person was ever an uninvited guest. Poppy liked this woman in charge of her neat household, a woman who found his visit not at all bold. Miriam welcomed the opportunity to share a glezel tei and discuss the kinder. I was at her house frequently, since first meeting her daughter at a Sweet Sixteen party across narrow Rutland Street. She already placed me at the top of Linda’s boyfriend list. If only she could convince her daughter that I was “Mr. Right”—a respectful college bokher, in shorthand—an NJB. A nice Jewish boy with a charming Jewish grandfather! Reuben Mazer’s visit, no doubt, enhanced her evaluation. She intercepted me down the block, on one occasion, to smooth over a young lovers’ first quarrel.
Miriam’s mother died tragically during childbirth, in an area of current day Romania. Without the wife he vowed to protect, her young father, Abraham Leibovitz, left suddenly for America. How many years passed until his infant daughter could travel we are not certain. It is possible that Miriam, still too young to remember details, was placed on a ship and tagged for a port, as was not uncommon. Eventually, she arrived in Philadelphia to a complicated reunion with her father. Owing to practical realities, Abe asked his married sister, Anne, and her husband, Morris Balsham, to raise his daughter as their own, providing financial support as he was able. Miriam gained a mother, father and two older brothers, not being told that these good people were really her aunt, uncle and cousins until she reached her thirteenth year.
At that point, her biological father, who she had known only as Uncle Abe, decided that Miriam could be useful to his new wife and infant son. We could view this as a twist on the biblical story of Moses, with a touch of Cinderella. Teenage Miriam helped as she was asked, busing after school to the Leibovitz’s apartment, so they could attend to their thriving baby clothing store. Miriam continued living with the Balshams and always accepted them as her parents.
Miriam met her future husband, Benjamin Donecoff, shortly after World War II. By then, she was 23 years old, working as a perky salesgirl in a local bakery. After making a purchase he shyly asked for a date. One could say he liked her cupcakes. They were married after a brief courtship, the groom proudly stood in uniform, only recently discharged from the U.S. Army. Benji, as he was called, was the only child of Sarah and Abraham. His parents first met on a boat sailing to America, both already in their late-thirties. They wed, for better or worse, and started a family at 108 Roseberry Street, where Benji learned the violin in grade school. He played the trumpet during his Army stint. He remained in uniform—the red, white and blue of the U.S. Postal Service.
He was a man content in his own company. On Sunday mornings, he conducted classical symphonies in the paneled man-cave of his Rutland Street home. Benji also enjoyed an upbeat boogie-woogie and a jazzy Ella “scat”. The trumpet with a red tassel remained in the garage, an attraction to the three children he and Miriam brought into this world. Linda’s Dad also loved to experiment in the kitchen, entertaining the kids with homemade bottled soda that once exploded, and vats of tomato sauce that splattered walls, a messy argument when Miriam returned home from her part-time job at Lit Brothers Department Store. The morning after, Linda noticed a “hickey” love bite on her Mom’s neck, confirming all was forgiven.
Quite the opposite of her Mom, Linda’s Dad was skeptical of my intentions. Linda’s brother, Stephen, appreciated our teaming against his neighborhood buddies in touch football. Our victorious partnership was not a win for Linda or her Dad. She and her brother, only one year younger, were competitive as bear cubs, and Linda wanted my undivided attention. Her Dad did not approve of sneakers while courting his daughter. Late on Saturday afternoons, I sprinted back home to shower, change, and in a flash—returned to take Linda out. Chuck Taylor high tops remained my choice of foot gear, to her Dad’s continued displeasure. After Linda & I returned to the living room sofa, her little sister Ava, eight years younger, glimpsed secretly from the top of the stairs, while the rest of the family slept. Our rehearsal became her learning experience, though Ava never did “tell Mommy”, as was her usual arms-crossed threat, to gain favors from big sister.
Meant to Be
Miriam and Poppy each confronted challenge, suffered loss and bruises that did not heal. They trusted neither bitterness nor fairy tales, but believed in happy endings. They understood the meaning of bashert. Call it random chance or coincidence, if you prefer. However, we make choices. We make mistakes. We change our minds. Throughout family history, circumstances often compelled decisions. Poppy made us believe that everything will “press-ach-oyes”, iron out; that “meant to be” will find a way. Fate is a gem with many facets.
Linda & I, and the generations before (or after) us, would never be born, but for a sequence perfectly aligned. A series of disconnected events—necessary one to the next, launched us on trajectories to connect with each other. We are grateful, but regret not knowing any folks before our immigrant grandparents, those who never boarded a boat. Dry facts do not satisfy my desire for stories—about their struggles and strengths, their character and how each may have found their true mate. Ancestors from bleached beginnings, identified only in names passed forward, or those in Biblical narratives, their seed carried by concubine or wife—their experience inhabits my bones and my psyche. Blessings most fine sift through an intricate mesh. With that sense, I celebrate many flowering branches.
Digging for another root of my family tree, my paternal grandparents’ marriage was arranged while living near Krakow. They had no choice in the match, little communication before their wedding day. After their first child was born, Charles and Anna decided to separate, able to reunite nine years later—after the “Great War” and violent revolution remade the map of Europe. Known to friends as Chaninah, Charles Pollack changed the family name from Polashuk and earned his living in America as a carpenter. Anna supported herself and son by working in a grocery store owned by her family, the Doidicks. Their relationship survived his long absence.
Anna and Charles were blessed with five sons: Harry–first-born, Max & Jack–twins, born in America, Alex–delivered twelve months later, David–youngest, but don’t call him “kid” brother. One of my earliest memories is the Passover seder Chaninah led, while reclining in a billowing white robe and silk Cantor’s yarmulke. By then, generations of Pollacks gathered with wives, children and invited guests during that uniquely Jewish ritual of freedom and feasting. As we pondered tribal millennia, those present on a full moon, at that table of crystal and cloud, were miraculous as Miriam’s song of gratitude at the Red Sea. Anna placed pillows at her husband’s back, a water bowl beside his hands. Her quiet character cloaked inner strength like a shawl. Matzah balls in her chicken soup were light enough to ascend into heaven. Seven years younger than her husband, Bubbe Anna outlived him by nearly twenty years.
My Uncle Dave, now ninety-four, recalled returning home when he was 14 years old, to find his mother sitting on his father’s lap. This was embarrassing to a young boy, accustomed to reserved parents protecting modesty, even in their own living room. He had intruded on a moment intended to be private. Anna and Charles had a traditional marriage—arranged by family contract, rooted in sacred law, gender roles defined. Together they raised five boys to manhood through the Depression, watched proudly as they each served the U.S. Army in Europe or the Pacific. This eighty-year-old anecdote opened a veil to their intimate side.
Charles and Anna learned to love each other on a new continent and preserved an Orthodox lifestyle. They spoke Yiddish at home and instructed their sons in the strict essentials of Jewish worship and courtship. They also supported secular education and welcomed the freedoms of this goldene medina. They wanted their sons to seize star-spangled opportunities, to assimilate American culture.
That generational transition became evident when my parents, Max and Esther, met during a serendipitous encounter, a bashert stroll on Broad Street one humid summer evening. She described her initial impression of him as “stuck-up”, because he seemed too self-absorbed. Then, he offered to buy her an ice cream. Realizing he only had enough coins for one cone, she happily shared the frozen treat. Their relationship warmed. While attending South Philadelphia High School, it took creativity to arrange a rendezvous on school days. Boys and girls attended separate classes on opposite ends of the large building. Sylvia, a classmate, offered cute advice in my Dad’s autograph book: “Never make love at a garden gate—Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t.”
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the young couple, both twenty years old, decided to marry. Dad was ready to enlist. Mom never forgot how insulted she felt when Dad’s father discreetly asked if she was pregnant, urging them to wait to get married. What if his body returned from war disabled or worse? Cold logic was overruled. Both sets of parents withheld further objection, ultimately shouting “mazel tov” along with invited guests at Uhr’s Restaurant on South 5th Street.
For a year following the ceremony, Mom travelled by train around the country with her future sister-in-law. They were “camp-followers”, renting rooms and finding temporary jobs, as Dad and his twin brother trained at bases in North Carolina and Virginia, Arkansas and California. Mom rushed home when her older sister telegrammed that their mother was gravely ill. The “boys” shipped off to Italy where they served together, capturing Nazis in retreat through northern valleys and towns, including Trieste. That was the same port where Poppy, my Dad’s father-in-law, had boarded a ship for America forty years prior.
Max Pollack returned home a Master Sergeant. I was delivered from Mount Sinai, the hospital at 4th and Reed Streets, nine months and two weeks following the date on his official discharge papers. On my eighth day I was named Peretz, for my maternal grandmother, the three Hebrew root letters threaded from Sprintze. Poppy’s beloved Sophie passed away while I was but a bump in her youngest daughter’s belly. Though I never heard her voice, I have felt her touch my whole life.
A Ride to the Cherry Hill Mall
On Friday August 7,1964, I went for a ride. Linda and I were each invited, separately and unaware of the other, by Gabriel—not the angel—a friend from Oakland Street. Not a date, “yon teens” as Jerry Blavat would say; guys and girls who had met at a typical house party only a few days before—cake with sixteen candles and vinyl tunes spun at 45 rpm. That Friday, six of us headed across the river to a Jersey shopping mall, compact in a turquoise Mercury Comet, as daylight lingered. The night ended with a slow and lengthy kiss under the maple tree Linda’s Dad had planted, the tree she had watched grow and climbed as a tomboy. That kiss was more than a sweet goodnight. I tailed through the sky like a celestial object, feet landing back on Earth to ask for her phone number!
A birthday party, a borrowed ride, even a kiss—any moment can be easily forgotten or repeated so often as to become routine. We rarely recognize significance in real time. Our relationship grew deeper week by week, but no more committed than the mezuzah with a “lover’s knot”. Linda’s family home became the popular gathering place for our friends. My Mom intuited more than Linda and I were ready to promise. Poppy never returned to Rutland Street as his health declined, his mission fulfilled. He and Miriam, Linda’s Mom, adapted the art of shtetl matchmaking to a modern American model.
Our families met the following June, the azure evening of Linda’s senior prom. My princess descended the stairs gracefully, a vision in white and pink, tiara atop her loosely curled blonde flip, modeling a floor length empire-waisted gown of crepe and chiffon. In white tuxedo jacket and black spit-shined shoes for this event, I received parting instructions from her father. I escorted Linda, with orchid corsage and an attending court of Miriam and Ava, into the green and ivory carriage that my Dad granted. The two-toned 1956 Chevy sparkled, the bench seats were spacious, but embarrassing white smoke rose from its tailpipe.
The entourage were hailed upon their arrival on Oakland Street by adoring crowds—neighbors as well as my parents, little sister, aunts and uncles, and of course, Poppy. He looked on with particular pleasure. This first meeting of the families was incomplete without Linda’s Dad, who remained at home feeling tired. Other couples soon joined us. After final photos, more hugs and kisses, pairs of celebrants were waved off to the prom as others got acquainted.
The Tree Bears More Fruit
Linda’s Dad and my Poppy passed away within three weeks of each other that summer, after witnessing us off to a high school formal, dressed as if bride and groom atop a tiered buttercream cake. Neither saw the young couple four years later, at my college graduation or under the chupah. From those vows, we were blessed with two sons born in the next decade, and named Ben-Tzion and Re’uven, after Ben and Reuben. Through sons, now engineer and teacher with wives and children of their own, those good names live.
Linda says she knew from our first kiss—like the hit Shoop Shoop song of that year chirped:
(Is it in his eyes?) Oh no, you’ll be deceived.
(Is it in his sighs?) Oh no, he’ll make believe.
If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss,
(That’s where it is) Oh yeah!
She keeps the mezuzah, my first gift for her, in a jewelry box filled with precious gems, none as bashert. I learned slowly, how love grows and recognized “meant to be” only in hindsight. Our lives are profoundly different than those of our parents and immigrant grandparents. However, as Sholem Aleichem astutely penned in Yiddish one hundred years ago—lovers must speak an honest dialogue, and children do not always do what their parents expect.
Linda & I have new names, Bubbe & Zayde, old names we choose to honor. We kvell with ancestors, our hearts full with hopes. We call upon Poppy’s satin chutzpah, upon Miriam’s bottomless laughter, as our grandchildren search their own destinies. More family love stories have yet to unfold.
Steve Pollack advised local governments, directed an affordable housing co-op, built hospitals, science labs and public schools. His debut poetry chapbook, L’dor Vador—From Generation to Generation, was published in 2020 by Finishing Line Press. He serves on the committee for One Book, One Jewish Community sponsored by Gratz College and sings bass with Nashirah: The Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia. He and Linda celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary November 2, 2021.