My grandfather, Irving Dubofsky, had a larger-than-life personality. He spoke or understood Yiddish, Russian, German, Polish, and English. He was a pretty observant Jew, attending services regularly. Normally the rabbi w,ould lead the congregation in reciting Hebrew prayers, but Irving would read faster, throwing off the tempo and making the group unison sound messy. He worked hard in the scrap business, starting with a horse and wagon and living the American dream, overcoming prejudice as a Jewish immigrant. When I was young, he seemed like a giant but, as he aged, he slimmed down quite a bit. I am thrilled to have many vivid memories.
When I was an eight-year-old kid, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. I loved to eat on tv trays in the tv room and I was usually allowed to do that. I watched a lot of tv, mostly sitcoms and cartoons. My grandfather loved pro wrestling. I liked to watch my grandfather watch pro wrestling because he got so animated and excited. He loved all the shtick. We would usually watch before dinner.
I hated when he would help me wash my hands before the meal. My grandfather was a tough guy who worked with his hands, so his skin was tough and leathery. He used to break batteries with a sledgehammer to remove the metal. He would wash with super-hot water just like he would eat super-hot soup. He used lava soap which consisted of granules of ground pumice. I was a little kid with soft skin. The hot water would scald me, and the soap was so abrasive it hurt like hell, but no one seemed to understand or care. Like when I visited the barber shop, the barber would not only cut and brush my hair, he would brush my ears. And when he cut around them, he would bend them in half and hold them down. Then there’s my father. When he put “greasy kid stuff” on my hair, he brushed my ears on every stiff-bristled brush stroke. I never said anything to the barber, but I did tell my father. No matter how many times I said that it hurt, I had no ability to change anyone’s behavior. Thus, I didn’t like having anyone do anything to my hair.
My extended family from my mother’s side had dinner together every Friday night for Shabbat. Along with some of the other kids, I would eat watching tv in the other room. Before dinner, my grandfather would annoy me by interrupting the show and taking his shot glass of schnapps and saying loudly, “Zei Gezeunt.” I, and all the other kids, had to reply, “Allavai.” If we didn’t, grandpa would loudly repeat his statement over and over until we replied properly. As a kid, I had no idea of any concept of a toast, or a shot of liquor, for that matter.
We ate a lot of foods that I have not seen in decades. We had kishke with real casings. We have kishke now, but it tastes and looks pretty different. We had borscht and Russel which I hated because they were made with beets, the worst flavor people ingest. We had schmaltz. We had additional parts of the chicken like the necks and the “pipiks” which we ate boiled. It was a treat to be a person who got to eat a pipik. We had farfel. Every sabbath meal had piping hot chicken soup with matzoh balls and/or kreplach. My grandfather always sat at the head of the table. My favorite thing was that he had large bottles of seltzer delivered to his house. His garage had cases of full and empty bottles. I loved to pour it for him because that meant I could squeeze the trigger at the top of the bottle and seltzer would shoot out noisily from the spout with bubbles actively racing up the water and sides of the glass and sometimes popping in the air, releasing the slightly biting and pleasant smell of carbonation. The only other place I ever saw these kinds of bottles was on the Three Stooges, one of my favorite shows (but only the episodes with Curly.) I loved when they had seltzer fights.
Right after I graduated college, my family, including my grandparents, took a European cruise. One stop was on a Danish island called Bornholm. There, we were served smoked fresh local fish. My grandfather surprised everyone in the family including his wife and two surviving daughters. He nimbly and efficiently deboned all the fish. None of us had any idea he had that knowledge and skill. It was great to see everyone so pleasantly surprised by his deftness and desire to take care of us. Until that time, everything about food service and preparation was done solely by the women in the family.
A couple years after I graduated college, I started to work with my father and grandfather. By that time, my father had taken over the business and my grandfather came to work every day but no longer ran things. Every day, he brought a brown paper bag with a kosher lunch made by my grandmother. Every day he had a sandwich and a bosc pear for dessert. He would scare and impress me with his ability to skin the pear and cut it and eat it. The sharp side of the knife always cut in the direction of his hand, yet he never slipped and injured himself. His ability with the knife reminded me of the way he boned the fish. We assume he had experiences in the old country that gave him lessons he rarely used in the US but could recall and apply if an occasion arose.
He had new favorite tv shows that I loved to watch him watch. The People’s Court, which he just called Judge Wapner, always amused him. I bet he would just love Judge Judy more than anything. His other favorite show was Wheel of Fortune, which he called, “Shpin the Veal.” I always imagined a calf spinning around, one hoof pointing to a point value.
I also started going to visit my grandparents weekly to enter the accounting of their books. This was all done manually, with me looking up stock prices in the newspaper and writing the value of their assets on a paper ledger. My grandmother would feed us, and we would visit. I was not an accountant and often found the bookkeeping stressful until I learned to write out a document listing all the values and giving him a written list and total of his more liquid assets. He held on to those papers until they were updated, and he could compare them easily and get a sense of what was happening regarding his worth.
I think of my grandparents often and I’m so grateful they were part of my life into my adulthood. I just wish I could transfer my love and memories to the next generation, and now the following generation. My grandfather had a lot of sayings. He would read the obituaries every day and say, “People are dying who have never died before.” And then he would state wistfully, since his health was failing, “You get old and you get cold.” “I don’t like this system.” I don’t like it either, grandpa.