Jeff and Spencer Tweedy aren’t the first well known performers in my family. Long before their respective successes in Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and The Blisters, we had a bona fide recording artist in our gene pool. He was born in 1884 in a small shtetl in Poland. The recording industry hadn't exactly hit its stride—it had been less than a decade since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. No album covers were being designed yet either—it was only that year that George Eastman invented the first flexible, paper-based film. Republican Chester Arthur was President of the United States which was still recovering from the aftereffects of the American Civil War, Queen Victoria was in the heydey of her long reign, and Czar Alexander II had recently ascended to the throne to become the Emperor of All the Russias.
What future recording artist am I speaking of? None other than my great-grandfather, Itsheh Meyer Korolnek. I’ve written about him before so I won’t go into detail about his journey from a yeshiva bucher studying Talmud in Staszow, Poland, to his adulthood as a successful bottle manufacturer in Toronto, Canada. He and my great-grandmother, Alta Toba (products of an arranged marriage—don't knock it!), were at the head of a family that grew exponentially with each generation. They lived long enough to know many of their great-grandchildren, including me and my siblings, and I have no doubt that they would marvel in the activities of their descendents born in the twenty-first century. Here is a photograph I recently found of the two of them taken at a family event in the 1950s. It is the “jauntiest” of all the photos I have seen. I am flabbergasted to see Itsheh Meyer wearing a patterned shirt, no jacket, and that cute little cap instead of his usual black garb. And Alta Toba looks like a high fashion model in that suit compared to the more somber outfits she would don in later years.
I’ve heard many people talk about my great-grandfather’s flaming red hair and beard, but it had all turned snow white by the time I knew him. This is the only photograph I have of him before his beard turned white. Too bad it’s in black and white. Again, since I was only 12 when he died, I never got the chance to hear him talk about his life in Poland or his memories of the 19th century. While I doubt that we’d agree on certain matters of religion, politics, or lifestyle, I would give anything for the chance to have a long conversation with this amazing man who was such a strong influence on his seven children and all the generations who came after. My grandfather Sam was his second oldest son and the last to be born in Poland before Itsheh Meyer and Alta Toba emigrated to Canada following Alta Toba’s father, Moshe Goldkind. I recently hit paydirt in my research when I found a copy of the actual handwritten ship’s manifest documenting Moshe Goldkind’s (my great-great-grandfather) arrival in Philadelphia on Halloween 1904. He had sailed on the S.S. Friesland from Liverpool, England on October 19. Unfortunately, a double hernia caused the American authorities to reject Moshe and send him back to Europe. The Canadian government was less strict and his family soon followed him to Ontario.
Besides the large number of relatives I grew up knowing in Toronto, Chicago, Israel, and elsewhere, writing in this blog has led to the discovery of countless new branches of the family tree in all parts of the world including Switzerland, Australia, and right here in Los Angeles. Among my newfound relatives are twin rabbis in Jerusalem, the Emmy-award-winning writer/producer of the TV show “House,” oriental rug dealers, actors, teachers, accountants, and enough doctors and lawyers to populate the annual J-Date Convention.
Though he became a prominent businessman and philanthropist, Itsheh Meyer Korolnek was first and foremost a guter yid, a good and honorable Jew. In the early 1960s, partly to raise money for a new branch of the orthodox Eitz Chaim Day School he was opening in Toronto, Itsheh Meyer recorded an album of his favorite Chasidic melodies he’d been singing since he was a boy in the Staszow cheder. This album, in my family’s possession since its release, somehow followed me over the years as I moved from place to place, but I have to admit it was only yesterday that I listened to it for the first time.
Not having owned a record player in decades, I recently purchased a USB turntable that plugs directly into my computer and allows me to easily transfer my ancient boxed-up record collection into digital files. The very first record I brought into the new millennium was my great-grandfather’s. Is it possible that I am the only person on the planet able to listen to Itsheh Meyer Korolnek on my iPod?
One of the reasons for this post is to see if I can add audio clips to my blog, something I’ve never tried before. So here, my friends, is the online debut of Itsheh Meyer Korolnek’s greatest hits. It’s just a short, random clip that I think conveys the passion that overtook Itsheh Meyer whenever he sang these melodies, songs he no doubt learned from the elders in his village, men who may have been born in the late 1700s This is a streaming audio clip so there may be some delay depending on your connection speed. Just hit the “play” button on the bar below:
It is mind-boggling for me to hear this familiar voice booming out of my computer—a voice I haven’t heard since Itsheh Meyer’s death 35 years ago. I’m sure my great-grandfather never touched a computer. The microprocessor and floppy disk were both developed the year that he died. While he’s no Pavarotti in the clip, the intense emotion in his singing comes through loud and clear, and I consider this record a priceless family artifact.
In the album’s liner notes, my great-grandfather is described as a “beloved member of the Jewish community, ardent and devoted communal worker, giving freely of his time, efforts and means to all causes, dedicated to the furtherance of traditional Jewish Education.” Oy, none of that could be said about me unless writing in a publicly accessible blog could give me the title of “devoted communal worker.” I only wish I could digitize the voices of other departed family members. I remember listening to many of my relatives making speeches at my brother’s 1967 Bar Mitzvah in the Catskills which doubled as Itsheh Meyer and Alta Toba’s 65th wedding anniversary celebration. If memory serves, these speeches were all recorded on reel-to-reel audiotape. At the time I was far more interested in getting to the chopped liver course and the night’s entertainment (comedian Jackie Mason!), but today I would give anything to hear these tapes and listen to the living, breathing voices of so many family members who are no longer with us.
I’m now in the process of digitizing the rest of my dusty LPs. Included in the cache are odd selections such as the French language version of “Godspell” starring a very young Daniel Auteuil, Gertrude Berg’s “How To Be a Jewish Mother,” Phil Ochs' "I Aint Marchin' Anymore" (I swear I remember a story about Phil Ochs paying a visit to Itsheh Meyer in the mid-60s when he was appearing in Toronto but I've yet to find a relative to verify this), the complete recordings of Ronee Blakley who played the doomed Barbara Jean in Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” a 1957 takeoff of “My Fair Lady” starring Zasu Pitts, Nancy Walker, and Reginald Gardiner called “My Square Laddie,” and a Mary Kay Place album that features her “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” persona Loretta Haggars. I can’t wait to hear these records again but none of them hold a candle to the rockin’ gyrations of Itsheh Meyer Korolnek.