In my 81 years on the planet, I’ve been blessed to have known my share of characters. None, though, tops my paternal grandfather, Paul (Pincus) Feldman, who died when I was 14. Grandpa Paul came to this country in the 1890s from Galati (pronounced “Galatz”), near the Black Sea in Romania. He and his boyfriend, both 19, landed on Ellis Island, where their adventure began. The Jewish community in Denver was short two males over the age of 13 to complete their minyan, or religious quorum, and make it possible for them to arrange their conference calls to God. (It would have been assumed in those days that all Jewish men over 13 would have been bar mitzvah.) The Denverites had pooled their money and transmitted it to a Jewish charity in New York City with the request that they send the first two Jewish greenhorns over 13 with no place to go to Colorado. God was getting impatient! So, they pinned tickets on the boys’ jackets, took them to Penn Station, and off they went to what Grandpa always called “Calarada, Denver.”
A good-looking young blade, Grandpa became a desirable catch for the eldest daughter of his host. He did not take to her, however. His host said to him, most likely in Yiddish since Grandpa had no English at the time, “Pincus, look. I know, a beauty she’s not. But all I have is daughters. If you marry her, you’ll become my son and inherit this, the only hardware store in Denver. Grandpa, who had saved some money by that time, took the next train to Chicago, where, per my father, he became a bouncer in a bordello.
By the time I met him, he had been a restauranteur, a Jewish wine wholesaler during Prohibition, a cook on merchant ships, and early on, a streetcar conductor in New York City. He was also a linguist who could speak, among other things, English, Yiddish, Spanish, Ladino (the Spanish-based Jewish patois spoken by the (Sephardic) Jews banished from Spain in 1492), Greek, Romanian, and a few Slavic languages. He was my polyglot role model, although my eight languages differ from his, English and Spanish excepted.
There’s not room here to tell you all of Grandpa’s adventures, so I’ll share just one more. At this point in his life, he was the impresario of a traveling Jewish vaudeville troupe. His lead act was a Black singer who had sung in that bordello and had become a friend. Having taught her to sing popular Yiddish songs, Grandpa cast her as his headliner, de Schvartze Hasante, literally “the Black Chantoosie.” The troupe was popular and did well for Grandpa, but he wanted to do even better. As a result, he would sometimes pass a bad check for a venue. One night my dad and uncle got a call: “Boys, I’m in the hooskow in Scranton, Pennsylvania. [His English contained a number of Western expressions.] Come bail me out!” They did, and so ended Grandpa’s career as an impresario. Later, when I saw the film “Zorba the Greek,” I was reminded of my lovable ne’er-do-well Gramps. Zorba would have recognized him as a brother.
Uncle Murray, Aunt Eva, Dad, Grandma Ida, and GRANDPA PAUL - 1944