Wild Things to Do - The Idelsohn Family
Wild Things to Do - Idelsohn Origins
The furthest back we can go is to a man called Joseph. Yiska's father's mother's grandfather. In what was probably the early 1700s, Joseph had a farm in Kurland in Latvia and he also sold timber. One day a cow fell ill. Joseph didn't know what to do so he opened the cow's mouth and gave it a salted herring and it was fine. A fine old pickled family story.
I really want to start with my great-great grandfather on Yiska's mother's side. Hillel Schneider. Yiska has a photocopy of a photo of him under a glass sheet under her telephone. The photos are slowly being obscured by bits of paper covered in hugely scrawled phone-numbers for her failing eyes to make out.
Hillel is the man best able to set the tone for the kind of retelling I am after. The way he holds his shoulders, proud but relaxed too, and his twelve inch moustache with the ends turned up, and his very very amused eyes and mouth, and his yarmulke with corners on it, begins to tell another story about our family that needs to be layered in amongst the others. It speaks not of mediocrity, resignation, nor of depression. Not at all. The whites of Hillel's eyes shine past the camera into the years ahead into what might be. They say that light keeps travelling in straight lines forever unless of course it meets a reflecting surface. Shalom Hillel, I meet your proud and happy look with my eyes that I have been told are kind and twinkly too. I am your great great-grandson Jonathan Misha Morgan. You may be wondering how I came to have a Welsh surname? Wait till you meet my family but those are two other stories completely. This is what Yiska told me about you.
Grandpa Hillel was the cantor of the Great Synagogue in Leipzig. He held this position for 60 years. When he retired they gave him a great send off party. He had a magnificent voice and he was very very observant, as well as liberal meaning generous. One Pesach in his apartment in Leipzig he was all dressed in white, like they dressed you when you died with your head on a white cushion. He stood there hiding half a matzoh behind his back. Dena, who was good at snatching things, snatched it without him noticing. She was given a little prize. He gave us a guitar when we left for Palestine. My father Avram Zvi Idelsohn went to him for cantoral lessons when he was 17 and Hillel chose him as a husband for his daughter Zilla, my mother. My grandfather's love for my father was unbelievable. He loved him like a father loves his son. After Hillel's wife Ester died, the story goes like this.
Eda was a teacher and my four youngest aunts met her at her school. When she heard that his wife had passed away, she set about winning Hillel for herself. It was not a happy marriage and they she did very little in the house and lived as if she was a boarder. They stayed in Leipzig until 1941 when Hitler came to power and then moved to Oslo. Three years later Hillel died in his sleep.
The Great Synagogue of Leipzig
Built in 1855 and destroyed by the Nazis on Kristallnacht in 1938
I (JM) do not have a photo of their Leipzig apartment but I do have one of a large and beautiful three story building with wooden shutters, a kind of bell tower turret thing, an arched entrance and a neatly walled garden. On a bench in this garden is a bench spilling over with children.
"That is the orphanage run by Eda, Hillel and Ester's daughter who came after Zilla. She qualified as a social worker. Her and her husband Jakob who was a cantor ran it for ten years but then he got a position as a cantor in Kristiana in Norway.
My mantra when I hear these stories this time around is "keep the change". I'll keep what I like from these eight bears of mine, and I'll change what I don't. There's not much to not like about Hillel. What do I take and keep from him? Not his singing, I cannot sing at all. His smiling eyes, his passion for his work, his sense of family, and his generosity I will try to live up to.
Meet Ester his wife. Esther had a wonderful sense of humor and could tell stories on her own accord. Nothing she had read, she could just make them up. Like what? To supplement her husband's income she made wigs for Jewish women who had to cover their hair after they married. When Ester ran short of hair for her wigs, she would call in her 10 daughters, Zilla, Eda, Louisa, Zofi, Berta, Anna, Rosa, Tsipora, Dora, Mina, and snip little pieces from each.
Ester had the most beautiful eyes. Only one cousin has those golden brown eyes. They were always smiling and ready. We have some relatives in London from her side but we have never made contact. Ester was always beautifully dressed in the costumes of the period. She always wore a wig and she spoke a cultured German Yiddish. She passed away at the age of 57.
Of the 13 children born to Ester and Hillel, 11 survived. From Ester I (JM) take her resourcefulness and eyes that reflected beauty.
Yiska's dad's dad was Azriel Idelsohn. He was born in Felixburg, Libau on the Latvia-Prussian border. He was a Chasid and a Ba'al Tefilah, one who chants when the Torah is read from and a shochet, a ritual slaughterer of animals. He was a very quiet man, very strict with his sons except for Avram Zvi, the second born and the first son, who was protected from Azriel by his mother Devora Leah. Azriel hardly made a living, when they came to South Africa, Devora Leah opened a boarding house in Doornfontein which she kept for years till she fell ill. The boarding house catered for people fresh off the ship, for families and single men. Devora Leah had her family nearby. Her sister Rala stayed in Springs, Fanny, Ester, Becky and Jerry were all in SA too. The only one who hardly lived here was AZ. He stayed for only 8 months. The boarding house was the place Ester met her husband Carlin. Devora Lea had a colored cook who was a lovely woman and a servant too. They knew what to cook and how to serve, it was all kosher. Azriel would slaughter the chickens himself. He worked as a Ba'al Tefilah in the shul in Harrow Rd with the two lions outside. Devora Lea was overgenerous in feeding the boarders and made little profit. They came to SA in 1912 when they were both in their 50s with Jerry with goblets. In 1929 they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary.
I have a great big photo of Hillel on my memory box. I stuck it there not knowing who exactly he was, only that he looked like an ancestor and an important one at that. His eyes are downcast and his face pensive. The photo I prefer is one in which he is all dressed up like a VIP and his smile is almost a giggle. After sticking it on and coating the box in wood varnish to strengthen it, I discovered the laughing photo and regretted that I had not fixed this one to the outside of my box. I squinted at both photos trying to make them into the same man wearing different skull caps on different days. Perhaps he is not Hillel but Azriel I told myself. Stop obsessing said my wife Kyoko. I had to know so later than I should have, I called Yiska. I described his suit, his hat, how he is holding his shoulders, and his expression. That is Azriel she pronounced. A week later when I visited her I took an enlarged photo which she squinted at and said no definitely that is Hillel!
Azriel is on the bottom of my box standing with his hand on Devora Lea who is sitting in a wicker chair.
I will take Azriel's chanting, his strictness I will turn it into looseness, his silence I will turn into openness, his slaughtering of animals ill turn into part time vegetarianism, and his poor fortune I'll turn it into prosperity. I will also remind myself not to measure and judge people by how much they earn and to be alert to other kinds of value which we all create with our lives.
Devora Leah, Azriel's wife, Yiska tells me was a lovely person, with a great sense of humor, very generous too. Yiska once asked her how many children she had borne. "She was standing against a wall," says Yiska, "she held up her hands and showed me with her fingers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, up to 16, I said is that not enough. Then she counted down again. Only 7 survived. Devora Leah had no time for elderly people, only young people, she got very upset if you didn't visit. She could always add to what you said and make it into a funny story.
In Latvia she supplemented her husband's meager shochet income by helping people emigrate to the USA and the UK for a fee. She learned to write German, I used to have one of her letters in her childish script which I gave to Jerry,
Toda raba Devora Leah. This family stuff can weigh quite heavy, there is only so much I can take, did you know Yiska loves Jesus?
Copyright © 2009 Jon Seligman. All Rights Reserved.