Someone light the candles and call the fire department: today is my father’s 75th birthday and my grandfather’s 100th! What does it say about my mom that she married a man with the same exact birthday as her dad? Issues? I wish I knew the story behind the above photo (my grandfather is in the middle, right next to Henny "Take My Wife…Please!" Youngman) but the image reflects how I love to think of my Zaid—smiling, happy, and with a little bit of mischief in his eyes.
I’ve been dipping into the family archives quite a bit lately but you’ll have to forgive me if I pull out a few items to commemorate my grandfather’s centennial. This is the only photo I’ve ever seen of my grandfather as a boy. He was still known as Shmuel Korolnek when this picture of him and his older brother was taken in Toronto in 1916. My grandfather was born in Staszow, Poland. He emigrated with his parents Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba when he was three years old but for some reason his passport and other official papers always said he was born in Canada. I don’t know if that was a deliberate move on the part of my great-grandparents or if my grandfather rejigged his birth as an adult to avoid red tape when he came to the United States. I don’t know that much about my grandfather’s childhood except that he and his six brothers and sisters grew up at 35 Baldwin Street, then one of the focal points of Toronto Jewry. Why oh why oh why didn’t I ask him more about his early years when I had the chance? I deeply regret that I never sat him down with a tape recorder for an extensive interview. I did do that with my father and I have over nine hours of those conversations recorded.
The next photos that exist of my grandfather jump completely over World War I and the 1920s to the time when he left Canada with his two brothers, Herb and Dave. Here is a photo from back then that I’d never seen until my recent scanning fest in Chicago. My grandfather is 25 years old. His red hair is already thinning, as mine was at that age (thanks to male pattern baldness which passes down from the mother). He had just married my grandmother, Anita, who is 23 in this photo, and they are standing with their friend Gloria Ehrlich, a woman I knew as a child but could never have imagined as a young woman in this stylish garb. Of all the pictures I’ve seen of my grandparents, I am particularly struck by how young and in love they seem here. They had a great relationship but their affection on display in this image seems so unabashed and innocent. My mother was born the following year but in this photo they seem like kids.
Because my great-grandparents lived until the early 1970s, I remember what a devoted son my grandfather was. How I envy that he had both of his parents until he himself was almost 70. Here’s a photo of the three Chicago brothers, my Uncle Herb, my grandfather, and my Uncle Dave, with their revered father. I have often wondered what Itshe Meyer, born and raised in the lost world of the shtetls, thought about three of his sons changing their name and moving far away. Did he support this decision? The three brothers ran Karoll’s Red Hanger Shops for decades. As you can see, all were natty dressers which is not really a surprise considering their lifelong careers as haberdashers. Did Itshe Meyer worry about his sons’ religious practice in the States? Though my great-grandfather retained many aspects of his Ger Chasidism until the day he died, his sons were all clean-shaven and they dressed in a very modern style. My memory of my family’s ethos back then was to devote themselves to Judaism while at the same time blending in with the society at large in order to achieve greater success.
When I was little I thought my Zaid owned Chicago’s State Street. Watching the annual Christmas Parade from my grandfather’s office at Karoll’s, just across the street from Marshall Fields’ flagship store, I felt like the Roman Emperor Titus gazing down at my subjects in the Colosseum. Or at least Titus’s grandson! My grandfather seemed to know everyone in Chicago, from columnist Irv Kupcinet and Lyric Opera maven Danny Newman, to baseball player Willie Mays, golfer Arnold Palmer, and famed Chicago sportscaster Jack Brickhouse, seen here riding with my grandfather in some parade down “that Great Street.” Below that is a magazine ad my grandfather appeared in with the headline “There’s excitement in knits!” I may have inherited my grandfather’s baldness but I sure didn’t get his sense of style. Always dressed to the nines, I sometimes wish I had the Karoll menswear gene instead of my current jeans-only fashion sense which still evokes my sophomore year in high school. I loved going into work with my grandfather. Karoll’s was housed in the landmark Reliance Building, the Daniel Burnham skyscraper that has been beautifully restored and now survives as the classy Hotel Burnham. When I worked there during various adolescent stints, I would often have lunch with him at the still delicious Jewish steam-table restaurant called Manny’s. I loved my grandfather very much and I know he loved me, but I wish we had been closer, I wish I had been mature enough to take more of an interest in his life and beliefs.
We went to Shabbat dinner at my grandparents’ Lake Shore Drive apartment every Friday. As a kid I would often sleep over and accompany him to his orthodox synagogue on Saturday morning. It’s taken me 48 years to say this but I would so love the opportunity to discuss religion with my grandfather. I’d love to understand what he got from his devout faith. Because of his tendency to believe his orthodox way was the only way, I spent a lot of time when he was alive avoiding such conversations like the plague. He knew my siblings and I weren’t into his brand of Judaism and I’m sure that was a disappointment to him. This morning I found a letter that he wrote to me when I was going to school in Paris during college. He went to a lot of trouble to have a letter he wrote to the Chief Rabbi of France translated into French. He wrote me back telling me that arrangements had been made for me attend all of the 1978 High Holiday services at the historic Grande Synagogue de Paris on rue de la Victoire. I would LOVE to do that today but back then I ignored all his efforts and never followed through, idiot that I was. “Thank you very much for your birthday card,” he wrote in his typed letter on Karoll’s stationery. “I enjoyed the sentiment in it.” He then went on to give me some advice about the year ahead. “You tell me that you love the work but it is very hard, but anything that is good is generally not easy. Just stay in there pitching, and everything will work out.” Classic Sam Karoll.
My grandfather died in January 1995, just a few weeks after Leah was born. My mother was out here in California meeting her new grandchild. She had cared for my grandfather since my grandmother had died five years earlier and spent so much time with him it seemed unfair that she missed his final moments. She felt guilty about it but maybe he waited to be alone to die. My grandparents were so dependent on each other during their 58-year marriage that my grandfather was never really the same after she died. I have so many memories of the vibrant, funny, charismatic, kind man I knew as my Zaid. I miss him so much and as I mark his 100th birthday, I am endlessly grateful for the presence of my own wonderful father on his 75th.