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The True Adventures of Zussman Bossin

by Bob Bossin

This is the text of a talk I prepared for the Bossin Family Reunion in 2004, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the first of our family to arrive in North America.

  1. Sons of Bathsheba
  2. What the cards told Chaya Gitl
  3. Maidsbride
  4. Zussman and Motl and Moe and Art and David
  5. The new refrigerator
  6. Mir haben nichtfargessen

Tonight I want to tell a story. I call it “The True Adventures of Zussman Bossin… Unexpurgated.” I want to tell it because it is a hell of a story, and it is ours. For every one of us here, Zussman is either our grandfather or grand uncle, for most, with a “great” or two thrown in. And he is the guy who, 100 years ago, left Brusilov for Toronto, some say under a pile of potatoes in a cart. 100 years later, our lives are, well, as they are.

The world we live in and the world Zussman lived in are light years apart. His experiences and ours are chalk and cheese. But in our character, Zussman is just two or three generations away. I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I see how I am like my father. (It’s like Mark Twain said: he left home when he was 15 because his father was so ignorant. He came back four years later and was amazed at how much his father had learned in the meantime.) And my father, who I am like, was like his father – and his father was Zussman. Zussman’s presence in our lives, I would argue, is palpable.  I think that is one of the lessons of the story I’m going to tell.

“The True Adventures of Zussman Bossin” has six chapters, and between chapters I thought I’d play a song from my own corner of the contemporary Bossin family. I am, by trade, a folksinger. It’s not a profession with yitkes, high status, but I come by it honestly. Zussman, my grandfather, was a musician. He was a champion drummer in the Russian army, though he was denied the prize because he was a Jew.

And Zussman loved vaudeville. After shabbat dinner, he would slip over to the Gaiety Theatre. The Gaiety gave him free tickets in exchange for putting up a poster outside his store, so no money changed hands on the Sabbath.

My father loved shows too. And now here I am, up on stage.

So this is a story of how we have come to be where we are. And who we are. It’s going to take about an hour. But it’s got colourful characters, love, sex, violence, the supernatural, heroism and suspense. Kinda like War and Peace.

1. Sons of Bathsheba

Zussman was born in 1866, in Brusilov, near Kiev. His father, Leib was born in 1839, 165 years ago. Leib may have been born with the surname “Bossin”, or he may have been the one to choose it.  Ashkanazy Jews didn’t use surnames. They’d say, “I’m Leib, Issachar’s son.” But come the 1800s, the state wanted to nail downpeople’s identity. So census takers were sent out to collect official names for everyone. People named themselves for their profession, their village, their father, or in our case, their mother. “Bossin” is a corruption of Bussin from Bussie’s son. Bussie, or Bessie, is a diminutive of Botya or Bathsheba, the mother of King Solomon, the wife of King David and object of his desire. So we are named the “Children of Bathsheba”, which, with enough “greats”, we may be – by blood as well as metaphor.

Leib, my great-grandfather, was, of course, an Orthodox Jew,

all Jews were, and he was poor, as most Jews were as well. He was a glazier and sometime book-binder. As a tradesman he would not have had yitkes – high social status. Leib and Surah Leah probably married in 1865, since Zussman was born in 1866. Leib would have been 26 when he married, so he probably served in the army before that time, though he does not appear to have been pressed into service as a boy and forced to serve for years and years, as many Jewish boys of 12 or even younger were. (Ethel and Faye Mendleson’s other grandfather was one of those.)

Leib had a hard life. He was, the story goes, orphaned as a child and raised by grandparents who beat him – as he went on to beat his sons. Faye Mendleson recalled that, one day after the family had all immigrated to Toronto, Leib and her father, Motl, got into an argument. (Motl was Leib’s 2nd son, Zussman was the first.) The argument got hotter and Leib slapped Motl across the face. Motl was by then a middle-aged man with half a dozen children. He had a temper of his own, but to Faye’s astonishment, he simply accepted the blow from his father.

Leib was a forbidding man. None of his grandchildren had fond memories of him. But his strength impressed them all. Leib still pushed his glazier’s cart along Toronto’s streets when he was 80. He must have cut quite a figure, with his long white beard, his black gabardine, his payus hanging down. My Uncle Art remembered a kid taunting him. 80-year-old Leib took after him and nearly caught him.

Zussman was every inch Leib’s son. He was strong, stubborn, hot-tempered, devout and forbidding. We know little about his early life. He learned his father’s trade, and carpentry as well. He taught himself to read. He served in the army, in the late 1880s, when the Russian army was rife with antisemitism. He said little about army life, though he never forgot being denied the prize he had won for his drumming – because he was a Jew.

Zussman was probably 24 when Surah Leah called in the schadchan, or matchmaker. According to my Aunt Becky, they were on their way to a neighbouring town to meet the girl’s family when they stopped at a market. There, Surah Leah spotted an acquaintance, the Widow Slaposnick. With Mrs. Slaposnick was her daughter, Dvora. Dvora was a beautiful girl. Zussman was smitten. Or he may have thought, if his marriage was to be pot-luck in any case, why not marry someone beautiful? He suggested he marry Dvora instead.

Dvora’s family had yitkes. Her father had been a scholar, but after his death, the family had fallen on hard times. Zussman was just a tradesman, but Dvora had no dowry and he was from another village. So the match was arranged. They married  in @ 1890.

I asked my aunts, Faye, Ethel and Becky, if it was love. Faye told me, “Love was never involved in marriages in those days.” I asked if Zussman and Dvora, like Tevye and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, “learned to love each other.” Becky said, “I don’t think so.” According to Becky, her mother didn’t have the intellect that Zussman had. Zussman found intellectual companionship with another woman of Brusilov, the wife of a friend. Whenever Zussman went to visit, Dvora would send one of the children to join them. Intellectual, she may not have been. Prudent, she was.

Between 1892 and 1898, Dvora and Zussman had four children, Chaika, Annie, Mo and Becky. In between, Dvora had twins who died.

She took work as a wet nurse. Dvora died giving birth to another set of twins in @ 1901. The babies did not survive.

In Brusilov, Zussman lived pretty much as his ancestors had. Or so it seems from here. But as the century neared its end, so did that world. In a myriad of ways, the ties that held Russian Jewish life together were loosening.

Motl’s courtship, I’m tempted to say, was one small, sweet case in point. Motl was Zussman’s baby brother, nine years younger than Zussman, and he was Surah Leah’s favourite. When he was in his late teens, his marriage was arranged. Malka Weisberg lived in a village 10 miles from Brusilov. In defiance of the tradition that the groom first see the bride under the chuppa, Motl set out to check out the woman to whom he was betrothed.

On Saturday afternoons, young people would promenade around the town and Motl asked around until someone pointed out Malka. Outrageously, he introduced himself. Malka was shocked. But not that shocked; she agreed to meet him the following Saturday. Motl and Malka would meet in the gentile part of town, where they could walk together unseen. Despite this irresponsible conduct, the marriage proceeded, and lasted 50 years.

2. What the cards told Chaya Gitl.

Zussman left Russia in the spring of 1904, within months of the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war. Mostly, people say that he left to escape the draft. His oldest son, Moe even recalls Zussman saying, “Why should a Jew fight for the Czar?” However, Zussman was 38 when the war broke out. Would the Russian army call up a 38-year-old man? By law, they could, and the fear and rumours were no doubt rife. But, in fact, they did not draft men of that age.

I suspect the war was the last straw. The seeds of emigration were already growing in the rocky soil of the Bossin’s lives in Brusilov.

The Bossins lived on a creek on the outskirts of town. The house had a dirt floor that the women whitewashed every week. It had a hearth for a stove. The furnace was the fireplace. Three Bossin families shared the house: Leib and Surah Leah, Zussman and his family, and Motl and his. Zussman and Motl each had four children. Each family slept in one room, three to a bed. As well, to help make ends meet, they took in a boarder.

All the Bossins spent the Sabbath together. Then the men would leave for the week to sell their services as glaziers. They each headed for a different town with a cart carrying glass, wood and tools, looking for windows to mend. They’d sleep in barns or wherever they could, only returning home for the next Sabbath. Meanwhile, Surah Leah, Dvora and Malka tended the children, the house, the goats and the cow. The boys went to cheder, Jewish religious school, at a very young age. Otherwise the children were unschooled. They stayed indoors most of the winter because they didn’t have shoes. There were no toys, no prized possessions in the Bossin home. Still, there was enough food, even if it was, as my Aunt Ethel recalled, “herring and potatoes, herring and potatoes, herring and potatoes.”  There must have been a little discretionary income, at least enough for the men to build a caladochick, a sun porch, with ornamental glass work. The Bossin caladochick became one of the sights of the town.

So home life was close to the bone, but not impossible. Town life was much the same. Brusilov had a Christian majority and a Jewish minority. The Bossins were wary of the gentiles – as all Jews had to be in 19th century Russia – but they got along reasonable well with their Christian neighbours, taking care to do so.

However from 1881 on, life for the Jews, which had ever been precarious, got harder and harder. The new Czar, Alexander III and his government were fiercely anti-Semitic. Year after year new laws were proclaimed, limiting where Jews could live, where they could travel and what they could do. It was, for instance, against the law for Jews to own a business establishment, which is why so many, including Leib, Zussy and Motl, peddled their skills from a cart.

In 1881 and 1882, there was a wave of pogroms. In 1891, the Jews were driven out of Moscow and other cities. In 1903, the Kishiniev pogrom shocked the world: in two days, 49 Jews were killed, 500 were injured, and there was rape and destruction on a massive scale. The atrocity was international news and must have terrified Russian Jews. In Brusilov, the Bossins would have been particularly aware as Zussman read the newspaper. There were only two copies of the Yiddish paper delivered each week from Kiev: one went to the doctor and the other to Zussman who would read it aloud to a weekly gathering.

That same year, 1903, Brusilov had its own pogrom, though it was abortive. The story goes the ring-leader fell off his horse and broke his leg, and the perpetrators – young toughs from other towns who had converged on Brusilov – quit before they hit stride. But only after two terrifying days. My Aunt Ethel remembered being packed, ready to flee, listening in strict silence and hearing the crash of breaking glass in the town. (Fortuitously, the Bossin house was on the edge of town, and the vandals never got that far.)

Jews, including the Jews of Brusilov, began to take counter-measures. It was a time of secret organizing. Underground self-defense groups started. The Zionist movement grew and held clandestine meetings, which both Zussman and Motl attended. The Jewish socialist organization, the Bund, began. Becky remembers her sister Chaika going to meetings in the forest outside of town. It was a dangerous time.

So there was reason enough to emigrate, but still, Zussman didn’t want to go. He was nearly 40, he had a family to feed and they were, at least, fed. And emigration was a journey from which you didn’t return. Zussman’s choice was to stay.

His mother, however, saw things differently. It was Surah Leah who decided that their future – our future – lay in North America.

Surah Leah’s grandchildren, my aunts and uncles, remembered her as a sweet little old lady. She looked like Whistler’s Mother. She wore a dirndl skirt and apron, with a pocket full of sour raspberry candies to give out to kids whose hands were clean. Faye remembers her plucking feathers,sitting in front of two galvanized tubs separating out the down to make pillows. She was, of course, Orthodox, wearing a bonnet over a shaven head, taking the mikvah baths and upholding the other traditions. Leib was, to all appearances, the lord and master.

But it was Surah Leah who made the decision to emigrate and persuaded her reluctant oldest son.

Chaya Gitl, Zussman’s sister played a role as well. Chaya Gitl was clairvoyant. According to my Uncle Moe, she read Zussman’s cards and told him, “Save your money, you are going on a long journey.” We will never know whether this was a message from the cosmos, or a reflection of Chaya Gitl’s assessment of the situation; whether it influenced Surah Leah, or whether Surah Leah’s view influenced Chaya Gitl. In any case, Zussman bowed to his mother’s wish.

3. Maidsbride

The streets of Toronto, were not paved with gold for Zussman, who would continue to live in poverty into the 1920s. On arrival in Toronto, he built a wooden back pack and again took up work as an itinerant glazier. He also worked as a carpenter and a paper-hanger. Within six or seven months he was established enough to send for his children and his new wife, Chava Wisotsky.

With two loving sons who became newspaper columnists, the life of my grandmother, Chava, is well recorded. My Uncle Hye dubbed her, “America’s Other Mother.” Everybody thought the world of her. For example, Hye gave her a pass book for the movies. The bill changed twice a week in those days, and she would go twice a week to the Victory Theatre. One week, she decided not to go the second time, and my Aunt Celia went instead. But when she got to the box office, Celia was told that the pass was only good for once a week. Celia argued, as any one who knew Celia would not be surprised to hear. Eventually the manager was summoned and confirmed that the pass was limited to one show a week. “But my mother comes twice a week,” Celia insisted. The manager paused. “Is your mother Mrs. Bossin?” Celia said yes. “Ah”, said the manager, “Her, we let in twice a week.”

Chava really was, in a sense, America’s Other Mother, the poster girl for the great migration. She was diminutive in height, round in shape with coke bottle glasses. She was an intrepid walker, visitor, and movie-goer. Late in her life, in an effort to keep her at home one inclement night, Hye asked her why she insisted on going out when she could hardly see. “So what is there,” she said, “that I won’t see?”

Chava never learned to read or write; she signed her name with an X. Her limited English was heavily accented and she constantly reversed words. She’d ask for a “Cola Coca,” or talk about the beautiful “maid’s brides.” Celia remembers laboriously explaining to her that the English was “bridesmaid”. “The bride comes first, the maid comes after,” she’d say, “verstehen?” Chava would nod and smile, and Celia would say, “Ok Ma, let me hear you say it,” and Chava would say “Maidsbride.”

This would exasperate and amuse her children no end, which I suspect is why Chava said it the way she did.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there is this, er, thing about Bossin women. The men may like to play the patriarch, but we are, you will recall, named not for King David, but for Queen Bathseba. It was not Leib but Surah Leah who decided that the future lay in America.  I remember Ethel and Faye Mendlesohn saying that it was Mima Malka who was really the ultimate authority in their house, even if it appeared to be Motl. “Of course,” Ethel explained, “She was smarter.”

Chava too had more authority than met the eye. The sons of America’s Other Mother delighted in her naivety, but the truth is, Chava was canny, resourceful and tough, and in every way Zussman’s equal and partner. She was a great match, and the match was made by, who else? Surah Leah.

Chava Wisotsky was born in 1875. The Wisotskys were a wealthy family. Chava’s father, Duvid was a furrier. She had two brothers who were robbed and murdered while taking a wagonload of furs to Kiev. The family arranged for Chava to be married to a man she had never seen, who, it turned out, had TB. On their wedding night, all night long, she said, he’d cough and spit, cough and spit. For what other reasons we don’t know, but she disliked him intensely and left him. When he died, following Jewish law, she was betrothed to his younger brother. She refused to marry him and, at 27 or 28, she moved into a house across the street from the Bossins. There she got to know Zussman’s children. Surah Leah watched her playing with them. She knew that Chava had been married and, since she didn’t have children, she assumed Chava was barren – and therefor the perfect match for Zussman. The marriage was celebrated, consummated and Zussman left for Canada. There he received the news that Chava was not barren after all. He sent for her and the children in just a matter of months. By the time she reached England and boarded the SS Sicilia her pregnancy was so advanced that she boarded the ship hiding her condition under a great-coat.

My father was born on the crossing. Notified of the birth in steerage, the Captain visited Chava and gave her a gold coin. Once in Canada, it was quickly spent on food and the necessities of life.

Not long after Chava was reunited with Zussman in Toronto, Zussman lost the sight in one eye when a nail flew up while he was building a fence for a new Jewish cemetery. He had to give up carpentry. He opened a used goods store. He would go out and collect broken tools and repair them. Chava would mind the store. He controlled the money, ostensibly, but she, as the saying goes, would keep a little knippel. She’d sell an item for $6 and tell him it sold for $4, using the money to spend a little more on the children. “As poor as we were,” my Aunt Sady said, “She always bought quality.” She’d buy them 8-dollar shoes and say, “If Zussman asks, say they cost four.”

Chava and Zussman had 7 children. “She puts them out like kittens,” he said in mock and perhaps real exasperation. All told, they raised 11 kids.  Viewed from here, all the children were blessings. How Zussman and Chava felt about it at the time is less clear.

According to my Aunt Becky, after her first four children, Chava went to her step-daughter Annie, by then a wife herself. Birth control was a new and controversial science in Toronto in 1910. America’s Other Mother, or at least Chava Bossin, wanted to know about it. But, according to Becky, Annie was too embarrassed to tell her, contraception being anathema to Jewish law as it was then interpreted. So America’s Other Mother went on to have America’s Other Children, Art, Bessie and Sally.

If my grandparents were unknowledgeable about birth control, clearly they were no strangers to sex. But was this by love, lust or law? Orthodox Judaism instructed couples to time their love making so as to maximize the chance of procreation. So having a lot of children is not, of itself, conclusive evidence. I asked my Aunt Sally what she thought. She told me that neither Zussman nor Chava talked about sex. This was not a generation that taught its children the facts of life. But Sally distinctly remembers Zussman saying something, well, lascivious to his wife – and her teasing response. Sally has steadfastly refused to tell me what he said, though I have tried my best to wheedle it out of her. But Sally can keep a secret, a trait she got from her mother, who once told her, “Secrets die with me.”
4. Zussman and Motl and Moe and Art and David
Chava and the children arrived in Canada in January 1905. Motl followed, then his wife, Malka and their children, and within the next year or two, Leib and Surah Leah, Chaya Gitl and her son, Sam, and Dvorah Freidl, Chaya Gitl’s younger sister. None of them found wealth. Zussman, you could say, remained poor by choice; his interests and ambitions lay elsewhere.

Motl, on the other hand, seems to have remained poor through a mix of bad luck and bad management. He tried a dozen different occupations, none of them successfully. When he sold coal oil, the cart caught fire; another time, he parked a cart with a load of fresh strawberries, went off to do some synagogue business, and the sun came out spoiling the fruit. “That was the story of his life,” Ethel said.

Despite the poverty and a houseful of children of their own (eventually 11), Malka and Motl always opened their door. Zussman’s older children, Sam, Mo, Becky and Annie all lived with Malka and Motl at one time or another. When the fruit wagon came down the street, Malka bought the blackening bananas at 5-cents-a-bunch, the cheapest kind. Lunch might be just a half a banana, a slice of bread and tea – but it was there for all who needed it.

But sometime around 1912, Zussman and Motl fell out. Some say it was because of Malka and Motl’s taking in Zussman’s older children, when Zussman wanted them home helping Chava take care of his new family. Some say the feud started when Surah Leah died and the brothers disagreed on where or how she was to be buried. (And, indeed she was buried in a pauper’s grave.) Some say it was because Motl broke away from the russische schul, of which Zussman was president. Motl was one of the founders of the kiever schul. But, whatever the reason, Zussman and Motl had a loud, vituperative argument and didn’t talk again for the next 22 years. Even Leib’s death in 1926 did not break their silence.

And that is just the first of the Bossin feuds. Right after World War One, Zussman and his son Moe fell out. Moe was the only Bossin to fight in World War One – against Zussman’s advice. Luckily for Moe, the army lost his paperwork and he was never sent to the trenches. But meanwhile, the army had dutifully sent home a portion of his pay every month to Chava. Chava refused to let Zussman touch the money, no matter how short the family’s finances were. When Moe came back, Chava gave him every penny. And Moe blew it. All of it. (The story is that he lost it all at the track in a day, which I believe is apocryphal, but the money did disappear in short order.) Zussman, who had lived his whole life and raised his family in poverty, was livid. He and Moe quarreled and Moe moved out. It was a long time before they made up.

Then Moe quarreled with Art, Zussman’s youngest son and Moe’s half-brother. It was over Roosevelt. Art was for the New Deal, Moe was against it – and they didn’t talk for a decade.

Meanwhile Moe’s son David grew up, and as soon as he could, took all the money he had and bought a car. Moe was livid. David moved out.

Now a direct descendant, who has requested anonymity, writes: “A choleric, overemotional temperament runs in the family. I have spent my life battling it and trying to learn not to overreact, but instead to take a few days to try to put things into perspective. Often, I realize its best just to laugh it off and forget about it. Sadly, I rarely actually do it, but as time goes by, I’m getting better at it.”

Zussman himself used to say: “You can quarrel, ober men ken sein gutte bruder”, “(after the argument), you can still be good brothers.” Clearly Zussman had difficulty practicing what he preached, but show me a Bossin who doesn’t.

5. The new refrigerator

Sometime in the late 1920s, my father bought my grandmother an electric refrigerator. As if by magic, it kept food cold, without blocks of ice. Chava’s daughters, Sady and Celia moved the contents of the ice box to the refrigerator, while Chava watched skeptically. Sure enough, the seltzer stayed cold. It was a wonderful gift. But two or three days later, the food was all back in the ice box. So the children explained again to Chava how the refrigerator worked and they moved the food back to the refrigerator. Two or three days later – “maidsbride.”

To me, that vignette, encapsulates my grandparents’ experience in the new world. It was indeed a new world, full of wondrous things, but they themselves didn’t change much. Zussman’s days were spent in much the same way he had spent them in Brusilov. He prayed, he went to shul, he worked enough to keep food on the table and coal in the cellar, he was active in the community, he read, he wrote poetry, people came to him for advice. So what was so different?

It was Zussman’s children who really crossed into the new world. It was not an easy crossing. The Bossins were poorer in Toronto than they had been in Brusilov. Poverty marked them all, though its effect was different on each of them. Celia blamed it for the unfulfilled promise in her life. Her brother, Art credited it for his successes.

The streets of Toronto’s immigrant neighbourhoods were rough. All the Bossin boys learned to fight, and had to. Once Art won a prize for oratory and a prize for boxing in the same week. Hye became a boxing champion of such renown that Zussman heard about it and ended Hye’s boxing career then and there. When the Canadian Nazis rallied at Christie Pits, the Jews, including Hye, grabbed their baseball bats and raced over.

Anti-Semitism was everywhere. Eatons wouldn’t hire Jews for its store, though they were the mainstay of its clothing factory. Insurance companies wouldn’t hire Jews. Many, indeed most, apartments wouldn’t rent to Jews. Resorts and recreational facilities displayed signs that said “Restricted Patronage.” But by and large, the Bossins didn’t feel victimized. Their world was populated by Jews. Celia did recall, when she was about 14, seeing an ad for a job making gloves. She rushed to the building, climbed several floors and found a door with “Phillips Glove Company” painted on the glass. She went in and was taken to Mr. Phillips. Celia was always an impressive person, and clearly Mr. Phillips recognized it. He gave her the job and said, “You can start on Monday.” But he kept looking at her oddly. Finally, as he saw her to the door, he said, “And tell me, what church do your parents attend?” She said, “They don’t go to church, they go to synagogue.” He opened the door for her and then said “Oh, you know what? I have your number, don’t come Monday, I’ll call you about when to come in.”

“You know damn well you won’t!” Celia said. She slammed the door and the glass pane with Phillips Glove Company on it shattered.

Like all of the Bossins, Celia went to work as soon as she was old enough to get a job. Morning after morning, Zussman had said to her “Asa shteellina, shteinina, eisena! more geht in school? ge arbiten! You’re a girl of steel, stone and iron. Again you are going to school? Go to work!” Zussman simply didn’t see the worth of education.  But then, why would he? In his world, there had been no schooling, and Jews were for the most part barred from the gymnasia, the university and the professions. There was no money for education in any case, and the family needed the income the children could bring in. It was only later in life, when the children of other families were doctors and lawyers, that Zussman recognized the missed opportunity. “Ich hob gehat brillanten, ober ich hob es nisht fershtayt.” “I had diamonds,” he said, “and I didn’t know it.”

Except for Davy.

Zussman’s was a hard life, but the hardest part must have been coming to terms with his first Canadian son, Duvid or Davy, or Davy the Punk, as he was called in the gambling world into which he gravitated. Several people who knew my father said he was the smartest man they ever knew, and Zussman saw it too. Alone among his children, Zussman wanted education for Davy. He wanted him to study law, but Davy had no more interest in that than in Judaism. When Davy was a boy, he refused to go to shul, and the worst beatings that Zussman could administer – and they were frequent and brutal – couldn’t persuade him. Davy was as stubborn as Zussman and as tough as Leib. He was also blessed with an unlikely combination of gifts: he was a mathematical genius; he had nerves of steel; and he loved the life of the street. The gambling business was a natural for him.

Celia said, “Davy liked horses better than people,” but it wasn’t true. What he really liked were the people who hung around the horses: the touts, the jockeys, the gamblers and the old black man at the water barrel, whose name was, I swear, Sweet Lilies By the Wayside. My father told me that. He told a great story if you got close enough to him, though not many did. To most people Davy was silent and aloof. Frequently he would not even look up from his newspaper or say hello. Leib was forbidding, Zussman was forbidding, Davy was forbidding. In my dad’s case, this was compounded by years of staying ahead of the law. If you want to keep a secret, he taught me, don’t tell anyone.

But underneath, Davy was a lot like Zussman. He was a deeply moral man. He cherished the Bossin family and supported them. It was really Davy’s contribution that raised the Zussman Bossins out of poverty, as it was Lou Mendleson’s that got Motl’s clan on the rails. Like Zussman, Davy was essentially conservative and careful. I doubt he ever bet on a horse in his life. He knew that the money was at the other end of the telephone line. Like Zussman, Davy had little interest in the material trappings of wealth. Davy spent his money like Zussman spent his time, helping the people he knew and cared about. And both of them, it seems to me, knew in their hearts who their people were, who they wanted to live among and kibbitz with.

I don’t know when Zussman came to understand this about Davy. It took time to get past Davy’s rejection of Judaism, the cornerstone of Zussman’s life. It would have been hard to get over having his cherished genius, Duvid, known around town as Davy the Punk. But he did get over it. One day, late in his life, Zussman ran into an old friend. “So tell me about your boys,” he said. Zussman told him proudly how both Hye and Art were scrivers. “And Duvid,” asked the friend?

Ah, Duvid,” said Zussman. “Duvid is ein maven fon fert”, a master of horses.

For all the beatings, arguments, and irreconcilable differences of opinion, Zussman and Davy did not become estranged as Zussman and Motl had. This seemed to be something even a stubborn, old-country Bossin had learned. Similarly, Zussman never rejected Becky, despite her devotion to communism and even her choice to live, unmarried, with Sam Lepidus. Zussman refused to meet Sam, but when Becky brought their new baby, Shayndl, he delighted in her. “You can argue’” he really seemed to learn, “ober men ken sein gutte bruder.”

6. Mir haben nicht fargessen

I remember my Aunt Ethel saying, just in passing, “Of course, Zussie was a great man.” As if it were not a conclusion, just a simple fact. And he was. Zussman was learned; he taught himself Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and English; he supported and raised 11 children; he kept his marriage alive until death did them part; he served his community; he wrote; he sustained a rich spiritual life; he was a man of integrity and, by hook or by crook, instilled it in his children. And though he clung tenaciously to his values, he came to accept that his children would find their own, and that that too was acceptable to God, who like everyone else, had to compromise a little. Mark Twain had it right, it is amazing what a father can learn over the years.

Zussman died in 1936 at 70. Early that summer, one of the hottest on record, he went to Michigan to the mineral baths. He was warned to avoid the hottest pool but, stubborn man that he was, he ignored the warning. He had a heart attack. He recuperated through the summer. Then, on Labour Day, he set to shovelling out the coal cellar in preparation for the first delivery of coal. He had a second heart attack and died a few days later. His funeral was attended by hundreds. I said to Celia, “He must have been well-liked.” She said, “No, he was too stubborn. But he was well respected.” My father wept openly, startling those who knew him, or thought they did.

Within a year or two of Zussman’s death, Malka developed diabetes. The last decade of her life was spent battling the disease. Her death, in 1948, came as a relief. Motl nursed her through her last years, leaving money-earning to his children, so he could care for her at home. He died four years later, the beloved family patriarch.

Chava died on Victoria Day that same year, 1952. Hye wrote, “The early life of such mothers was a constant struggle. Yet they needed only half a chance to have a good time. They mastered the life they were born into,  but life seems to have mastered most of us, with prestige and money not being the help so many imagined them to be. And all the while, there was the example of their lives to teach us. The world, as the rabbi said, is poor in such mothers.”

25 years later, in 1977, I heard Arthur Haley, the author of Roots, urge everyone with a tape recorder to interview their elders. It seemed like a good idea, so I did. My first interview was with my Uncle Moe and Aunt Golde, in Los Angeles. Golde told me this story:

In 1924, when they were first married, Moe was busy getting the business going, so when his mother’s yahrzheit came up, Golde went to shul and lit the candle for Dvora. A year later, things were even more hectic and Golde forgot. The next morning, she got a call from her aunt, Dora Freidl. “Did you forget Dvora’s yahrzeit?” she asked. “Oh I did,” Golde told her. “But how did you know?” Dora Freidl said, “She came to me last night and she said, “Zay haben shoin fargessin!” – Already, they forget.” Then Golde told me, “It’s been 50 years and every year I light the candle.”

This year, some of the family erected a new gravestone for Surah Leah. Surah Leah, recall, is grandmother to all of us, with a few greats attached, and she was the one who sent Zussman to America. But in 1912, when she died, the Bossins were broke and so she was buried in the paupers’ corner of Roselawn Cemetery. Over the years, the inscription on her stone wore away. Now some family members have put up a new stone. It says, in Hebrew, “A worthy and modest woman. May her soul be bound in the bond of life.” That, nearly a century after her death, her passing is so marked would indicate that, indeed, her soul is still bound in the bond of life. We still light the candle. Mir haben nicht fargessen.

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