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Gelt Complex: A Tale of Two Zaydes

One grandfather gave lavish Hanukkah gifts, the other single dollar bills. The reasons stretch back to the Old Country.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
December 16, 2014
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger
Tablet Magazine / Esther Werdiger

My father’s father, my Zayde Feuerman, lived with us for the very last part of his life, when I was a child. He had a 1968 Chevy, smoked Salems, and watched Bonanza and Gunsmoke in the den. Every Hanukkah, he’d give us kids—my brother, my sisters, and me—one dollar each.

Even in the 1970s, this was no money.

“Grandpa is poor,” my father would say. “If he has enough for gasoline and lighter fluid … ”

“Should we give him tzedakah?” I asked.

“No,” my father said. “He’s not that kind of poor. He just doesn’t have any money.”

His spare existence intrigued me, as did his lack of concern about his lack of money. Didn’t it bother him in the least? Apparently, it did not.

My other grandfather, Zayde Twersky, on the other hand, always felt compelled to play the mogul when it came to money. On Hanukkah, he would give us a serious amount of gelt—$36—and tell us we could have “alles vos du vilst,” anything you want. For my older sister Malka, his darling, he would go further. He called her “Oytzer,” treasure, and promised to go all out for her wedding: “For your chasuna, I make for you in Terrace in the Park,” he’d say, naming one of the best catering halls in Queens, “and a limousine to the wedding!” Malka was 11 at the time.

His gelt-giving didn’t stop with the children. In front of the Hanukkah candles, he would take out a wad of bills from his pocket, in a “my good man” sort of way, and gesture to my father, telling him in a thick Polish accent that he could have “henny amunt you vont.” He offered my parents a “99-year loan” to buy a living room set, appliances, clothing, or “anything the children want.” And the offers were accepted.

But exactly what was a 99-year loan? I didn’t think too much about it. We were children, and besides, we were descended from kings and queens, rebbes and wonder workers. That is what he always told us. The problem was, of course, he didn’t actually have much more money than my other grandfather. So, often, those generous loans had to be repaid, painfully, somewhat sooner than 99 years later.

Why did one grandfather unceremoniously hand out single dollar bills while the other felt compelled—lovingly compelled, but compelled nonetheless—to create fantasies with money? The answer is rooted in their respective experiences in the alte heim, the old country.

Zayde Feuerman was born in Kolomea, a Galician town in what is today Western Ukraine. He was, I was told, one of many sons who worked in their father’s business: a horse-and-buggy taxi service. They were simple folk, I heard, salt of the earth. I didn’t know how true this was until I started to research his shtetl—which was really a shtodt, since it was a fairly large town. For the Jews in that area, it turns out, salt was a major industry, mined from the river Prut. The townspeople would trade salt for wheat with other cities in the region. The Baal Shem Tov spent much of his life between Kolomea and Podolia raising the spirits of the simple Jews there: the potters, the brick-makers, the tanners, and the baalei agala, the horse-and-buggy drivers. Zayde told me he went to kheyder until the ripe old age of 8. It was then he started smoking tobacco and got into the horse trade. He did not know how to read or write much beyond his own name and a few simple prayers. (It was said of some of the people of Kolomea that when they came to shul on the High Holidays, they would hold the machzor upside down because they could not read.) He had little taste for excess of any kind. He was born to work, and when he came to America he fell into house-painting and wallpaper hanging.

Zayde Twersky, on the other hand, was the scion of the Trisker-Twersky dynasty, son of the Trisker Rebbe. He was born in another part of Ukraine: the town of Trisk near Chernobyl, where his grandfather, the Trisker Maggid, held court in the hof, a sumptuous palace with gardens and large accommodations for the rebbe and his family. My grandfather told me that they had luxuries like a radio and a phone just after WWI. To his own wedding in 1919, he went by limousine. (“Not a car,” he said emphatically, “a limousine.”) On any given day, but especially the holidays, the hof was crowded with followers who would pour out their troubles to the Maggid. I grew up on a steady diet of miracle stories, wonders that this rebbe or that rebbe performed, but also about the lives his family led. The women of the household wore the latest styles from Vienna and Paris, and the men immersed themselves in the secrets of the Torah, through study and celebration. There were many contradictions in these tales: a mixture of indulgence and asceticism, piety and wealth, restraint and impulsiveness, holiness and profanity. But this, too, was part of the magic of the rebbe—everything could be reconciled.

We listened to these stories when we were younger with great fascination and drank them in, but later we grew more skeptical. However, one story stood out in the sheer scale of its outlandishness: According to my grandfather, his father the rebbe had in his possession a menorah made of pure gold that was 15 to 20 feet high. One had to go on a ladder to light it. Even more incredibly, at base of it, was a crank, like a music box. Turn it, and toy Russian soldiers would emerge playing “Maoz Tzur.” Surely, we thought, this had to be a tall tale. We demanded proof! Zayde told us that in 1917, after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks seized power and confiscated everything including the menorah. It was probably melted down by the government for its gold, he said, and it was never seen again. I put it out of my mind for many years, secretly doubting my grandfather, but decades later, I was reading Isaac Bashevis Singer—who lived near the Trisker stronghold in the town of Bilgoray—and Singer, himself no fan of rebbes, makes mention of this very menorah.

By discovering mention of this menorah in print, this material representation of holy excess, I began to understand my grandfather. He had been in a kind of psychological Eden, a palace court where he had been a prince, one of the sons of the rebbe and a “grandson” of the Baal Shem Tov. Now in America, in our pedestrian Queens home, he was an expelled monarch with no assets, a representative of a kingdom-in-exile, a faraway fairytale land that no longer was.

Although money could revive his fantasies of wealth and importance, money in itself could not achieve great miracles. In 1942, my grandfather traveled from London to Zurich to meet with representatives of the SS. Strangely, the German “animals” were prepared to do a deal. He carried in his briefcase $3,000 in cash—an enormous sum sufficient to purchase the freedom of his parents, who were in the Lublin ghetto. An order was sent to release them, but they refused to leave. Better to die with the Hasidim, they decided; the captain does not leave his ship, was the cable message my grandfather received. They were murdered in Maidanek. A survivor in my old neighborhood of Kew Gardens Hills personally saw my great-grandfather enter the gas chamber. This is how we knew when to mark the yahrzeit.

Even though many of the stories from the old country were true and he was a man of truth, my grandfather had the curious habit of massaging the “literal” truth (such as whether it was a gift or a loan) at Hanukkah and other occasions. Like many men, escape artists from pogroms, economic crises, and even the Shoah itself, he lived as he had to, with long periods of denial and fantasy, followed once in a long while by tears—an outburst, a wail—when the truth became too much to bear, such as when my grandmother, and later his daughter, died. It turns out, the Hanukkah gelt had nothing to do with us at all. Zayde was inviting us to go back into his world, if only we would go.

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.