Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

My Angry Grandma Celia Warman, Her Thousand-Dollar Bar Mitzvah Gift to Me on the South Side of Chicago, 55 Years Ago……………….by Robert M. Katzman © April 13, 2018

    by Robert M. Katzman © April 13, 2018

55 years ago today, April 13, 1963, near the top of Pill Hill on the South Side of Chicago at a very large, very square synagogue named Rodfei Sholem or Chadash on 91st and Jeffery Avenue, I was still 12 years old and it was my Bar Mitzvah. But that Temple was so packed with members, that it had to schedule two Bar Mitzvahs at one time. Alan Lantz was my partner that day and I assume he went to Chicago’s Bowen High School a year later. I didn’t.

Many of the Hebrew School teachers were high-strung Israelis, only 15 years after the new country was formed, and they screamed at me all the time. This Bar Mitzvah, this singularly longed for day represented parole for me from my resented ethnic prison. I was free. I was done.

It took me four more years, on my own running a newsstand in Hyde Park by then, to figure out I really did completely accept my Jewish identity at 17, in 1967 and my personal life long self-education began that year and continues today, half a century later at almost 68.

99% of everyone who was at my Bar Mitzvah party are dead now. It is a lonely time to recall any of it, but I do remember the crowds. Now no one left to call and say: Do you remember…?

My grandmother, Celia Warman, born in 1901 in Poland, was born Celia Baumwahl and whose mother’s maiden name was Fanny Turkingkupf, was at that party today, 55 years ago. I know there is no one left alive to type those ancient Eastern European shtetl Jewish names. There is no one left to care.

Celia’s three children are dead and my cousins scattered. I possess the bloody family European history deep within me. I am named after her father, Moshe, who was beheaded in front of her in a 1916 Pogrom of her small village. My middle name “Michael” comes from him. His father, also Moshe, was killed two years earlier in 1914. She saw that killing, too. I think it froze her heart.

Oh, the pain that flowed from within that angry old woman to me, during the long years I was parked in her kitchen as a child on the far South Side of Chicago. I was too young to comprehend the combination of a vivid imagination and empathy, which unbeknownst to me, allowed me absorb all the terror I learned about Celia’s life in Europe.

So many who were in America are dead here now, too, but what happened to her, somehow translated into something that happened to me. I was eight when I first learned about her Jewish family being liquidated by the Nazis in Poland and the Holocaust. Part of me remains that eight-year-old boy, along with echoes of what terrorized my boyhood dreams. I dreamed of one night they would be coming, those horrible Nazis, coming for me. I dreamed of a tortured death. For years.

Hard for me to be completely honest, telling this story. It’s like an emotional striptease.

Grandma Warman, then 62 and a wealthy woman, gave each of her seven grandchildren $1,000 United States Savings Bond when they achieved their bar or bat mitzvah, intended to help pay for their college when each bond matured seven years later. That US Bond she gave me that day is worth about $7,500 in today’s money.

All my six cousins went to colleges. I tried it, didn’t like it, had major cancer surgery in winter 1968, and quit the University of Illinois after one year because I decided the Army wouldn’t want a guy missing half his jaw to be sent to Viet Nam. A year later, the Army agreed with me. Maybe bad for Army morale?

I was still running a wooden Bob’s Newsstand then, seven years after that Bar Mitzvah party, barely educated, or a bum, in my unhappy and unforgiving Grandmother’s cold eyes.

But pleasing her was never possible.

Then, at 20 years old, on a Saturday in January 1970, my dry-as-tinder wooden newsstand burned completely after an 80-year-old employee there tripped and kicked over a hot kerosene heater inside of the small interior packed with dry fat Chicago Sunday newspapers. The place went up like a Roman candle. I lost everything. No insurance for wooden newsstands, of course. So, I was broke.

Then I remembered that long forgotten thousand-dollar bond sitting in a box in my closet. Damn! I grabbed it, ran down to the bank, cashed that sucker in for green cash, then drove my big Chevy van over to a nearby lumber yard, filled the van with sheets of exterior plywood, screws, nails, a lot of two by fours, roofing paper, shingles and glue, and a solid core door. And hinges and handles.

I raced back to my corner, and, since I never fired any of my employees, they were, as usual, standing by the smoking foundation of the burned newsstand still selling a lot of Chicago’s four newspapers. For a week, it didn’t rain or snow. I set to rebuilding that newsstand from scratch, keeping the hundreds of blackened copper pennies when I found them under piles of ash on the floor. Later I washed them, and used them again.

I worked like a dervish by myself through the night to install the framework, hang the heavy door, then frame out the roof, cover everything with the thick rough plywood, pounding and pounding and pounding long steel nails through the cold black night. Then I spread the roofing glue, the tar paper, then the asphalt roofing tiles, my knees killing me by then as I hammered what seemed to me to an endless box of grey flathead roofing nails. Dawn was coming. Sunlight. I could see better and stopped hitting my fingers with the hammer so much. Freezing in January’s frosty air, but I finished it.

At 9 AM I called friends I had in management at the giant Chicago magazine company on Goose Island, then Chicago’s only magazine distribution company, to quickly bring me more magazine racks, more periodicals to replace all the hundreds of uninsured magazines that burned so well, because they knew what I carried on my packed racks in my newsstand from their records.

These were nice people, managers, secretaries, and the guys who moved pallets stacked with magazine bundles in their warehouse. I was nice to everybody and that mattered. I treated the guy loading bundles on the dock and the company’s president exactly the same, with courtesy and respect.

I knew all of them well after five years in the business. They gave a damn about me and early in the morning the following day, a big long moving van arrived to unload and resupply me with new magazine display racks inside the brand new newsstand, and then the driver gave me many bundles of all the magazines necessary to fill them. The big company’s accounting department, whose men and pretty secretaries I also knew well, gave me time to gradually pay for my burned inventory, too. All of this in one week.

Made possible by my Grandma Warman’s long ago gift of a thousand dollars to get me into college, which I didn’t complete. But a year later when I was successful enough to support another person, I married this smart, beautiful girl. I was 21 and she was 18. I paid her tuition from the newsstand’s income for four years until she graduated from the University of Illinois.

My Grandma witnessed this, in 1975, when she was 74 years old. She understood the irony. It was her gift, she knew which kept on giving, despite me. But she was silent about it.

Our only child, a daughter, was born in 1975. She learned to read early because of her smart mother and in 1993 entered college, graduating in summer 1997. Celia lived to witness that graduation as well, at 96 years old, and then dying later that year. She didn’t know my daughter also went on to graduate school, or who knows? Maybe she did know?

But I do know my daughter’s two very smart children go to a very good school, are being read to all the time by their mother and father, and are being raised in two languages with Hebrew on the side.

55 years ago today, April 13th 1963, during the Passover holiday, in that enormous synagogue’s party room, among over one hundred of my family’s relatives and friends, my severely emotionally damaged and remote Grandma Celia Warman, who never recovered from witnessing the shock of seeing her father and grandfather killed by mounted Cossacks on big horses with long sharp swords in Dobra, Poland, gave me a thousand dollar US Savings Bond never dreaming how much education her gift paid for.

I marvel at my immigrant Grandmother even today, for her essential Bar Mitzvah gift, which changed the lives of, so far, her rebellious grandson, his wife, her granddaughter and her two great-grandchildren, 21 years after her death in Chicago.

Though her gift bought me new wood to replace my burned walls instead of a college education, even my doing that frantic rebuilding of my destroyed business, educated her antagonizing grandson about how to be self-reliant, toughen my resolve and to never give up, no matter what. My grandmother’s money may not be the only gift she passed on to me.

It may be the anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah, but what lingers through the decades is the echoing of her generous gift to me. You contributed to your family, and you contributed to America, too. Mazel Tov, Grandma. You mattered so much. Yes, I still remember you, with a difficult kind of love, even today.

 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
A Savage Heart  and Fighting Words

Gritty, corrupt, violent, sexy, and the real dirt.
Here’s how: My new website is under construction. http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
However, I have a PO Box, now and unless you live in Wisconsin (add 5.1% sales taxes), I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
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Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
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Schools and organizations should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books.
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5 Comments »

Comment by Herb Berman

April 13, 2018 @ 10:10 am

Great story, Bob. Your carpentry skills, your grit and resolve, along with your grandmother’s serendipitous gift, kept you going.

You lived your higher education. One way or another, we all do. For me, college was critical: it opened my heart and mind to literature and philosophy, helping to mold a lazy, happy-go-lucky child into a serious student. I also had a helluva good time in those formative years.

You had to grow up fast. I had the luxury of growing up slow. And yet, we both grew up somehow. I guess we had no choice; no matter what, time moves on.

Comment by Bob

April 13, 2018 @ 10:37 am

Oh,Herb, the pain that flowed from within that angry old woman to me, during the long years I was parked there as a child. I was too young to comprehend the empathy which unbeknownst to me allowed me absorb all the terror I learned about her life in Europe. So many are dead here now, too, but what happened to her, somehow translated into something that happened to me. I was eight when I first learned about her Jewish family being liquidated by the Nazis in Poland and the Holocaust. Part of me remains that eight-year-old boy, along with echos of what terroized my boyhood dreams. I dreamed of one night the would be Nazis coming for me. I dreamed of tortured death.
I am going to add this paragraph to my story, Herb. Thanks for inspiring me, as you have done so often. Shabbat Shalom, my friend.
B

Comment by Brad Dechter

April 13, 2018 @ 11:03 am

Great story Bob! Most of us have images of our Grandma’s telling similar stories or stories about how our family fled. We cannot forget, nor should we.
I can only hope someday my kids and grandchildren will tell great, loving stories about “Grandpa Brad”.
Brad

Comment by Charlie Newman

April 13, 2018 @ 6:48 pm

Good stuff…as always…my Friend.
Kudos!

Comment by Jim Payne

April 13, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

A good heart felt story with pain and passion. It feels real. You fully express pain and struggle.
It has many morals to offer. The one I like is that the value of a gift depends as much on the receiver as on the giver. Her precious nugget of a bond became valuable in your hands like a blacksmith pounding it out and using it to provide for others.
Unlike the bond I don’t think your pain came from your grandmother. That I think is hers. I don’t think you know where yours comes from nor where to go with it, just that it is yours.

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