April 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

“You cut the turkey without me!”

Uncle Gabriel arrives late for the Thanksgiving meal and is in utter disbelief. His voice rises, “You cut the turkey without me?” The whole family had been sitting around the Thanksgiving table waiting in anticipation, but couldn’t hold out any longer. The powerful aroma and sight of the juicy turkey was too tempting and relatives were getting cranky. So they ate.

This scenario is from the poignant movie, Avalon, about a Polish-Jewish family in America. The family worked hard, strove for success, and found the path to the golden land called suburbia. The scene rings strongly resonates with me, since Thanksgiving was always a special day in my family.

Traditionally, we spent the day with my Aunt Helen and Uncle Sidney in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Wherever we lived; Hartford, Pittsburgh, or Ventnor, the destination was always the railroad apartment where they lived for over 60 years. Uncle Sidney always gave my father the honor of carving. But it was Aunt Helen’s delicious stuffing, turkey, and her cranberry mold that made the meal special. If you asked about recipes she’d say, “Well, I made it from good old fashioned elbow grease.”

Aunt Helen and my father, Max, were children when they came to America from Plinsk, Poland. They never spoke much about memories or the antisemitism they experienced, but there was the occasional display of hot emotion. When my father was asked if he’d like to return to visit his childhood home in Poland, he’d point his index finger at the questioner, “You couldn’t pay me to go back there!” Interestingly, my father and Aunt Helen would often lapse into Yiddish when they spoke privately, but when they got angry it was the guttural Polish phrases that flew out of their mouths.

When Aunt Helen married Uncle Sidney, a Holocaust survivor, they worked shoulder to shoulder to build their business through hard work and huge determination. Uncle Sidney had been a partisan in the war, surviving in the forest. His scars were visible and deep. A survivor to his core, he had an infectious zeal for life and a twinkle in his eyes. Despite his lack of fluency in English, my uncle became a master salesman who was the face and gregarious voice of his “plashtic” (plastics) business. It was always a special treat going on the road with Uncle Sidney and Aunt Helen in their station wagon, permeated with the smell of plastic samples piled to the brim of the car.

I’d overhear him say to one client after another, “You my best friend,” which sometimes baffled me. Though watching him in action, I saw he was sincere and meant it–each time. Even if people didn’t always fully understand his English, they recognized his warmth and shrewd business acumen. Uncle Sidney was a charmer who knew how to get people smiling, a “chevraman” par excellence!

Every family has their own dynamic and moments of high drama at the table, and we sure had our fair share! My father was the buttoned up guy, reserved, but with a sharp and mischievous sense of humor. He enjoyed showing off his impressive command of English with just the hint of an accent. Uncle Sidney was the one you’d see running down the street with his shirt tails flying, holding a bundle of plastic table cloths. Together they were an interesting pair, often at political odds, digging their heels passionately and loudly into their particular stances.

This country had given these men freedom and a voice, and they cared deeply about current events. We watched in amusement as they’d go at it, teasing and pushing each other’s buttons. The notion of gratitude was something sitting right next to us at our table, though we didn’t talk about it. Many years later Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation caught up with Uncle Sidney. We don’t know how they were able to finally get him to talk about the past. Maybe he just felt it was time.

Last year, Aunt Helen celebrated her final Thanksgiving. She outlived Uncle Sidney and my father. She died at 101, using her “elbow grease” to the very end. On Thanksgiving as always, I’ll be thinking of these brave, smart, funny, colorful, big hearted and hard working people. I’m grateful for what they taught me, imparted by their example. In my mind’s eye they’ll be at my table passing the stuffing and turkey, and still fighting the good fight.

Esther Kook is a Teaneck resident. She’s a reading teacher, tutor, and freelance writer.

By Esther Kook

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