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Memories of a Beloved Centenarian

My Jewish Father Could Have Been Italian. Here is why

jewish-father
My father lived to be nearly 101 years old. Though he was never able to visit our house in Italy, when I think back on his life, I see many similarities between my father's values and character, and the way of life we have come to love in Italy.

As we near the first anniversary of my father’s death, my sisters and I are clearing through my parents’ things getting ready to sell their apartment.  My mother died in 2004 after nearly 65 years of marriage, and my father passed away just one month shy of his 101st birthday. Being so close to all of the material objects of their lives has been a weighty and poignant rite of passage.  It’s made us think more about the lives they led, especially my father, who crossed that border over the hundred-year mark.

First Generation
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My father as a Marine

To have lived to see an entire century is literally awesome.  My father was a first generation American, born in 1915 to two Russian Jewish immigrants who moved to this country when they were young children.  Their parents left Russia during that turn of the century wave of immigration when for Jews, if you were conscripted into the Tsar’s army, you were in danger both from being killed at war, and being killed by your fellow soldiers and countrymen who hated Jews.  Our family, as the lore goes, obtained stolen papers to leave Russia.  Hence the name “Shubert,” a German name, adopted by my great grandfather, Gedalet, whose first name in Hebrew means “God has made great.”

My father Al was 14 when the great depression hit.  His parents, like many immigrants of that era, were hustlers in the good sense of the word– setting up small businesses and grabbing opportunities as they arose.  My father’s father by turns ran a taproom, a liquor store, a boarding house in Atlantic City…  anything he could do to feed his family of five.  My father remembered selling bananas during the depression to make a few coins, turning over his earnings to his father, and getting a quarter in return to go out with his friends on a Friday night.  My mother remembered the 16-cent special– a hotdog, a cup of coffee and a cigarette, her go-to lunch during her high school years.

Marital Curfew
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My parents at their second (Jewish) wedding.

My parents married young– my mother was 20, my father 25.  They eloped, taking the train to Baltimore to be married by a justice of the peace.  Such doings were posted in the newspaper in those days, and a nosy neighbor brought the item to the attention of their parents.  Al and his bride, Florence were forbidden to see each other past 10:00 pm until they had a Jewish wedding, which took place a month later.  As a young couple, they lived with my mother’s parents in a row house in West Philadelphia.  My maternal grandfather Maurice was also a hustler, who cheaply bought up odd lots of anything he could find, and sold them in his dry goods store.  Lily of France Corselettes, my grandfather would tell the story– he somehow got his hands on a big load of them and sold at rock bottom prices what would have been a luxury item for his customers.

The War

With a new wife, my dad was late to enlist when the U.S. entered World War II.  And so, he was assigned to the Marine Corps, then the least desirable of the three services.  Whether because he was smart, or just extremely lucky, my father became a rifle instructor on Parris Island in South Carolina.  Those guns going off all day right next to his head probably contributed to his hearing loss in later life.  But I guess it was a small price to pay for staying out of combat and surviving the war.  My mother visited him on Parris Island and they lived together in a tiny trailer.  When my sister Michele was born, she became the darling mascot of the soldiers, several of them making her a hand-carved highchair.  My dad was sent to Japan as a military police officer just as the bomb was dropped and the war came to an end.  

Back in the States

After his honorable discharge, back in the States my dad found a job with his father making buttonholes as a garment finisher, and my parents soon joined a new wave of immigrants, this time to the American suburbs.  They faced discrimination as Jews, and when they finally found a $4000 home available to them in Havertown, Pennsylvania, there was just one other Jewish family on the block.  They and my parents became close, my father bought a station wagon and began working at his father in law’s new business selling and delivering office supplies.  

Years pass.  Two more daughters are born– one of them me.  When I turn 10 in 1965, my parents have saved enough money and found a good deal on a bigger house in a neighboring town.  It seems the prior owner has some troubles with the law and is willing to lower the price steeply if he’s paid in cash.  I’m not sure, but I think my parents need to borrow some money from my mother’s father to make this happen.  I remember taking him to see the house– a one-floor rancher with a swimming pool!  My grandfather is highly disapproving, but somehow the transaction goes through and we move.  It’s a big milestone for my parents, but I don’t know what deal they’ve had to make with my grandfather.

A few years later, my father gets out from beneath the yoke of my grandfather, whom I gather has been underpaying him for years, and starts his own office supply business with my mother’s cousin.  My father finally has some independence, though the cousin’s prickly personality clashes with my father’s undying good nature.  My parents are prospering in this period– new house, new business, kids growing up and doing relatively well in school.

Retiring in Florida

By the early 1980’s, the youngest has graduated from college and my father decides to retire– to Florida, as many Jews do, but my parents opt not for Miami and Fort Lauderdale where all the Jews are, but the Florida Gulf Coast near Tampa.  They rent for a few years, then buy a condo in a nicely landscaped gated community.  None of us girls has any wish to live in suburban Philadelphia, so the house with the pool is sold.  The Florida summers are stifling and my parents buy a second condo in southern California.  They are happy there– they meet people, there is a woodcarving and painting studio where my mother can return to her artwork, my father joins a softball team for old geezers.  He loves it– they wear white uniforms with bow ties, play in a small stadium and occasionally make commercials for Nike.  My father also excels at tennis– he’s always been athletic and retirement gets him active again, which he loves.  He plays poker once a week with the guys, he’s on the condo board and uses his expertise to take care of the condo pool.

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My father with his only grandchild.

When 60 years of cigarette smoking catches up with my mother and she succumbs to emphysema, my father becomes her devoted caregiver. He takes on the cooking, shopping, laundry, managing the house, keeping her company and patiently tending to her many discomforts.  My sisters and I, especially my eldest sister, try to spell him, occasionally visiting for a few days and cooking furiously to fill their freezer with food. I bring my daughter, the only grandchild, so that she will get to know them somewhat and they her.  It’s never enough of course, and living so far from them is painful as they get older and more frail, but we’ve all got obligations, families, jobs, homes of our own.

Last Years
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My father with my mother during her illness.

My mother passes away just shy of 65 years of marriage and my dad’s 90th birthday. He has mourned her now for years during her illness and is ready to move on. He’s slowing down, but still active, still driving, still handsome.  We try to visit him more, and when he is 97, my eldest sister moves in permanently to care for him.  We make a big party for his hundredth birthday– we arrange for a letter from the Obama’s congratulating him and thanking him for his service, all his friends from the condo and the poker group are there.  He seems pleased, but his hearing is shot from living longer than humans are rightly supposed to, and he’s had trouble recently finding the words to express himself, so the guests pay homage, and then drift into other conversations.  My dad lives for almost another year under the loving care of my sister, and his body shuts down just a few weeks before his 101st birthday.

My dad always looked wistfully at the pictures of our house in Italy and wished he could visit us there, but by the time we bought it, he was too old to travel.  I know he would’ve loved it.  My dad was cheerful, kind and social– a kibbitzer in Yiddish–  someone who loves to chat and joke around with everyone.  He would’ve loved the small town community and playing cards with the guys at the local bar.  He would’ve loved the food, the friendliness of the neighbors, the evening passegiata, playing bocce, the nighttime concerts and occasional dancing that bring together small town communities.  He would’ve loved the fresh air, the trees and the landscape.  My father loved sports and would’ve followed soccer.  He ate ice cream every night at 10:00 for most of his life and would’ve loved gelato.  

A Family Man

He was a family man, and though he didn’t express it so overtly, he was proud of us and our accomplishments.  Children in Italy stay closer to their parents and live longer in their parents’ homes.  In America, kids leave home sooner– often right after college.  But both Italian and American parents are adamant in assuring their kids have places to live.  When all three of his daughters bought houses with their own resources, coincidentally in the same year, my father couldn’t have been more pleased.  

My father had only a high school education, but ran a successful business, did well in the stock market, raised three kids, always voted for liberal democrats, fought in one war and opposed three others, lived through the depression, cared for years for an ailing wife he loved, stayed upbeat through life’s trials.  He didn’t travel much, but loved seeing the world when he did.  His good nature would’ve made him a popular guy in Penna San Giovanni, and with his handsome looks, he could easily have passed for an Italian– I only wish he could have experienced a long visit to Italy.  

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