MY GRANDPA JOE
By Stephen A. Sadow
Let me begin by saying that Grandpa Joe Sadow was and is my idol. That is to say that the following account comes from my own memories of him until I was fifteen, the year that he died. They are enhanced by comments made by other relatives, particularly my parents Lenny and Jessie Sadow—while Joe was alive and thereafter. Therefore, what I am about to relate is how I remember a great man who had an enormous influence on me.
The Sadow family myth is that when Joe arrived along at Ellis Island, after a voyage in steerage from Moscow via Hamburg, he was met by an aunt (probably his sponsor) whose last name was Sadowsky—we don’t know who she was or who else she might have been related to. As the story goes, the Irish immigration changed his name from “Yussel Tchezik” to “Joe Sadow.” Yussle became Joe and Chezik metamorphosed into Sadow. (All of this is highly unlikely, as Ellis Island immigration agents did not, as a practice, change immigrant’s names.)
He spoke only very rarely about Moscow, except to say that a limited number of Jews were allowed to live there. His father was a butcher who sold tref (non-Kosher) meat to Russian Orthodox clients, and that during the long Russian winters the Volga River froze so hard that they laid railroad track and ran trains over it (I’ve never verified this.)
My clearest memory of Grandpa Joe is when he took me into the foyer of the apartment to show me his books. He did this a number of times. He was very proud of his books. He had hardbound copies of the great Russian classics, in Russian, of course; he had a collection of literature and a bunch of pamphlets in Yiddish; and he had what appeared to be some sort of encyclopedia written in English. He also showed me that day’s editions of the Forvertz, the Yiddish daily newspaper and one of New York’s daily. I was about eleven years old, an avid reader myself, and was awestruck. Once, he asked me if I was going to learn Russian. It was, in his words, an “easy” language! Joe had had very little formal education, but he was well read in three languages, no less. To his misfortune, Grandpa Joe was woefully near-sighted, and the eyeglasses of the 1950’s didn’t help him much (though I don’t ever remember seeing him without them.) He once tried out a set of “bottle glasses” which had lenses about ten inches long: they didn’t work well either. When he read, he wore his glasses and used a magnifying glass up close to the paper.
Once, I told Grandpa Joe that, in school, we had read How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, an early photojournalist who recorded life in the slums of New York. I mentioned that the worst conditions were on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side of New York City. Grandpa replied, “I lived on Cherry Street.”
Joe had the habit of humming songs as he went through the day. He urged me to do the same. To my wives’s chagrin, I still do so.
When I was about thirteen, Grandpa Joe took me with him to the Luxor Turkish Baths on 34th Street in Manhattan. In those days, Turkish Baths were a Jewish immigrant institution, and the Luxor Baths were known as about the best around. After we entered, we went into the locker room where we stripped down to our skin and wrapped ourselves in large bed sheets, supplied by the management. To my amazement, the “baths” included steam baths and “the pine-scented room,” that is, a steam bath in which pine oil had been added to the water. There were fire hoses alternately spraying intense bursts of hot and cold water. Most impressive were the masseurs. These were enormous men who were capable of untying the tightest muscles. They spoke no English, but rather grunted in Russian or some such language. Since many men spent the whole day at the bath or even all night, there was a cafeteria that served meals at all hours. Grandpa and I were on line, just behind a huge masseur. Grandpa told the man behind the counter, “I’ll have what he’s having!” What the masseur had ordered was a whole apple pie, a pint of vanilla ice cream and a quart bottle of Pepsi-Cola. Grandpa ordered sandwiches.
Joe and Rose met in New York. He came from Russia, she from Lithuania. As they couldn’t speak together in their native languages, they communicated in Yiddish and later on in English too. Long before I knew him, Grandpa Joe had been a cigar-smoking, burly-chested foreman in a factory that made corrugated boxes. He and Grandma Rose, Saul, Lillian and “Lenny, the student” lived in the Morris Park section of the Bronx. By the time I knew him in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, he was a thin, grey-haired older man, who usually wore checkered or plaid shirts. The changeover had come in 1943, when at age fifty-eight he suffered a serious heart attack, so serious they thought, that my father was summoned back from a ship in the South Pacific. Joe survived the heart attack, but retired so he could receive a small pension from the factory. (Today, he would have gone back to work.)
At some point, I’m not sure when, Joe and Rose moved to a one and a half room (the half being the kitchen) apartment on Brighton 6th Street in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which is where I knew them. –Brighton Beach had been originally developed as a seaside day resort for those New Yorkers who could afford to spend the night at one of its hotels. Though the ocean hadn’t moved and the Boardwalk was still there, the Brighton Beach where grandpa and grandpa lived was made up of aging apartment buildings, inhabited primarily by aging Jews—.
Grandpa and Grandma lived on the sixth and highest floor of their particular building: I have a strong olfactory memory of rancid chicken soup, encountered as we rode the elevator. The apartment itself was tiny, positively suffocating when our families came to visit, which was often. Grandpa did most of the cooking, and his repertoire was limited: grapefruit to start, boiled chicken with potatoes and a vegetable, and ice cream for dessert. On occasion, there was gefilte fish or chav, that is, jellied calves feet (I detested it.)
Grandma Rose suffered terribly from asthma, and often had attacks while cooking. So, in that household, “just what Mama used to make” was often burnt. Grandma did cut the onions. The kitchen window faced the black, iron fire escape. Rose would put the onions and chopping board outside that window, then close the windows onto her wrists, so that the onions wouldn’t make her cry.
Years earlier, Grandpa Joe had done everything he could to help alleviate Grandma’s asthma. There was no air conditioning, of course.
Each late spring and summer, when the pollen count was the high, Rose would spend those weeks at a hotel, built for especially for asthma victims in the piney White Mountains of New Hampshire. Most Friday nights, Grandpa would take the train to the Granite State to visit her; he would return to the Bronx on Sunday night.
Of course, Grandpa was not perfect. He had an explosive temper, and often blew up at Grandma for reasons I could not possibly comprehend. But to me, he was always the sweetest man. Moreover, he was my direct connection to the Old Country, the world of European Jewry that was gone before I was born and to the world of the Jewish immigrants in New York. He attended an orthodox shul around the corner from his apartment. He couldn’t be called a regular, but he knew the service by heart. The only time I remember that he wore a suit when he attended my Bar Mitzvah. That day, Grandma Rose proudly wore the mink stole that the family had bought for her. Grandpa Joe died the next year, age seventy-five. Grandma Rose died a few months later, at seventy-five more or less (no one every knew the day or year in which she was born; she chose July 4 as her birthday.)
I’ve spent a great deal of my career involved in Jewish Studies. When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, in 1972, the Villa Crespo neighborhood reminded me of the Brooklyn of my childhood. I subscribe to the weekly Forward, an English-language reincarnation of the Forvertz. During the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching myself Yiddish. When I study, I think of Grandpa Joe.