by Mark Naison
July 9, 2019
(originally published on July 2, 2018)
When I think of how I ended up living a long and relatively productive life despite a troubled relationship with my parents, I think back on the influence that my two grandfathers had on me. Each of these remarkable individuals, who came to the US in their teens without speaking a word of English, and whom I saw at least once a week, gave me love without reservation, but also set examples in their own life which had a tremendous impact on me. In terms of appearance, body type, and personality, they could not have been more different, but the person I am today incorporates portions of each of them in ways that from the outside, may seem controdictory
Grandpa Josef, The Scholar Who Sold Herring On The Streets of Brownsville
Josef Nasofsky, my father’s father, came to the US from Poland at the turn of the century, He was small and slight, having no more than 130 pounds on his 5’5″ frame. But he was deeply religious, with a passion for learning, and had a will of iron. A resident of Brownsville Brooklyn who lived in walk up apartment on Hopkinson Avenue, he was a fixture of the Orthodox synagogue there and practiced his religion every day at home. My most vivid memories were of him davening in his apartment, swaying rhythmically to the prayers he chanted in Hebrew, something he did before every meal he and his wife served for us. He did this with his eyes closed, as every prayer had been memorized. The other thing I remember was him pinching my cheeks with love when he saw me, or when my father, in Yiddish, told him of one of my academic accomplishments Reputedly,. he had been tough on my father, and angry when my father rejected religious orthodoxy, but he was never anything but kind and loving with me. And the more I learned about him, the more impressed I was. He made a living selling herring on the streets of Brownsville, something he did till his late 80’s, but read Shakespeare in Yiddish and practiced the violin regularly. From the outside, he was a poor, non-English speaking immigrant struggling to put food on the table for his family, but to me he imparted the lesson that a love of learning is not conferred by titles and degrees, but is something that can be found among people in all walks of life. .
Grandpa Charlie, the Jewish Strong Man and Justice Fighter
Grandpa Charlie, my mother’s father, could not have been more different from Grandpa Josef in appearance or personality. Charlie, who came here from what is now Belarus at the age of 12, was a Jewish strong man, 5’6″ and 200 pounds of pure muscle. Unlike Josef, he was neither religious nor intellectually inclined; he came from a family with strong links to underground economic activities, both in Europe and the US, and brought in income as a bartender and bootlegger when he was laid off from his “day job” as a presser in the garment trades. But though Grandpa Charlie was was anything but an intellectual, being marginally literate in Yiddish and English, he was a passionate union man willing to risk his life for his fellow workers. Throughout my childhood I was regaled with stories about how Granpa Charlied fought gangsters brought in as strikebreakers in the streets of the garment district, and won! Looking at him, you could see why- he looked like could bend a metal bar with his bare hands. But to me and my two cousins who lived down stairs, he was kindly and loving, cooking amazing meals of steak seared in chicken fat and huge portions of home made french fried which he covered in Kosher Salt. He was also my most reliable babysitter, watching the Friday night fights with me when my parents went out. If Granpa Josef inspired the intellectual side of me, Grandpa Charlie inspired the physical side, helping me become a young person who never backed down from a fight no matter what the odds against me were. Even his death sent a message that has remained with me. When Charlie was stricken with terminal cancer, rather than watch himself waste away, he jumped out the window of his room on the 8th Floor of Brooklyn Jewish hospital. That final act remains with me as much as all that he had done before
It is hard to put in words how proud I am to have been loved and cared for by these two remarkable men. In the course of what has become a long life, I have never met anyone who possessed greater courage and determination than Grandpa Josef and Grandpa Charlie. Two poor immigrants, forced to leave Europe because of poverty and prejudice, came to the United Sates and gave me, and so many others, a legacy to build on, not only in making a life in this country, but in making this country a better place.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University. He founded the Bronx African American History Project.
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