Archive for March 25th, 2008

by Jay Stevens

Worden’s has halvah.

Halvah’s a Middle Eastern and South European candy made of sesame pasted sweetened with sugar. It’s crumbly and rich and goes well with coffee. I usually get some when I see it – it’s not my favorite sweet, it tends to stick to my teeth, and it’s so rich that I’m usually satisfied before I finish a portion – but it’s rare, and it reminds of me of Kim’s grandfather, Fred Geyzer.

When Fred turned 90, my birthday present was a stick of halvah I found in a San Francisco Middle Eastern sandwich shop in North Beach. I’m proud to say his eyes lit up when I pressed the halvah in his hand, and he had with his tea after dinner. I still argue it was his favorite present that year.

You see, when I first met Fred that first Christmas I spent with Kim’s family – after driving to Spokane in the famous ’96 Christmas Eve blizzard – he told me about his childhood in the Ukraine, and how his favorite food above all was halvah.

Fred was born in the Jewish ghetto in Tetiev, not far from Kiev. Here’s some excerpts of his early memories from an oral history Kim’s mother, Gail, made:

Well I have to tell you, when I was born, we were very poor. I remember, we didn’t have adequate blankets to cover ourselves at night. It was cold. In Russia, it’s cold.

Was there enough food?

Only after my father became more prosperous, but before we had very little food. I would say until I was about five.

But then afterwards, my father prospered, and we moved into a better house. He was the only one in the city that put in an electric bulb. The switch was a porcelain switch. It’s screwed into the wall and you turn. It makes a big click. They put it high enough so I couldn’t reach it….

We had a well. We had about four rooms. I remember that they were all whitewashed, always nice. I don’t remember whether we had a toilet. I think we had an outhouse….

We had an oven, an oven which used wood. In Russia the ovens were clay ovens, but the top doesn’t go all the way up like a chimney…And it’s very good on cold nights; you sleep on top of the oven…

The town itself, was a ghetto. All the Jews lived inside and they had the businesses. Around us lived the gentile farmers. They had the farms. They used to come in and buy stuff. The reasons Jews weren’t farmers was because under the Czar’s laws, no Jews could own any land. So this is how we were.

After the Russian Revolution, Tetiev was swept up by the civil war. It was occupied, in turns, by both the Bolsheviks and the White Army. The Bolsheviks were more sympathetic to the Jews; the Whites weren’t. They would initiate pogroms whenever they arrived. During one such pogrom, Fred’s father was killed by a Cossack, his head split open by a saber. Fred was eight.

I remember when they buried him. It was in a wooden casket. And then I said after the Rabbi what you’re supposed to say, Yisgadal ve’yiscadash sh’mey…” And then they chanted El Moleh Rachamim. It means God of power, have passion for the orphans. It was very sad. And then they buried him.

We were in a great state of grief. I remember when they brought out the coffin, and I said Kaddish. The thing I couldn’t understand is that I wasn’t crying. I should have been crying. I guess I was too stunned.

The worst was yet to come. On March 26, 1920 – 88 years ago tomorrow – came the final pogrom:

That’s the day when they assembled all the Jews and put them in the synagogue and set the synagogue on fire, and all the houses were on fire, and my mother and the four children, we all ran. It was in the middle of the night. I remember my mother telling us to just leave everything and run, and as I turned back, I saw the whole town was in flames….

There was snow on the ground….We were running ahead of the fire. My mother was running first carrying Irving. I was next carrying Frances, and Jossel was running by himself.

In all this terrible confusion…we passed a farm house and there came out all of a sudden a big pack of dogs. We were attacked by these dogs and we all dispersed. And when we came back together again, Jossel wasn’t there and we never found him.

Fred and his family’s survivors made their way to a small town, and from there worked their way into Romania with help from Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

They lived in Romania for awhile, Fred attended a Yeshiva for awhile, lived in a camp of gypsies, and worked in a restaurant. And then he and his family received visas to the United States. (Fred’s aunt lived in the United States and arranged for a visa and tickets to New York.) His mother had a nervous breakdown – she was still hoping Jossel would show up – and she was institutionalized in an asylum in Kishinev.

…the next time I saw her is when we were leaving for the States because the visa came and the tickets came. So we all got together, and we went to the hospital, and I didn’t tell her that we were leaving for good. I just said good-by, and then I never saw her again.

The rest of the story you probably know. Fred and his siblings eked out a living in New York during the Great Depression, and through hard work ended up successful business people and professionals. And his children had their children, and I met Kim, and then Fred.

So now whenever I see halvah, I buy it. And when I eat it, and taste the sweetness on my tongue, I think of Fred, his escape from Tetiev, and, in contrast, all the good things in my life.

Fred Geyzer died early Monday morning. He was 97.

Oseh shalom bim’romav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yis’ra’eil v’im’ru.


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