As an oral historian, I hear a vast range of fascinating life stories and about the impact parents had on their children. Here are my favorite stories people have shared with me about their fathers. The first is memories of my father.
In 2012, I called my 94-year-old father, Bob Goldhamer, to wish him a happy Father’s Day. He was in an assisted living facility in Ohio and although physically impaired from a stroke, he was still mentally sharp. We had our usual conversation about my work, my son, the news. Then he asked if I remembered the poem he had written years before, called “What Is a Father?” Of course. He had read it at my wedding in 1989 and it remains one of my favorites. He asked me to read it to him. As I did, he joined in, recalling many of the words he’d written.
Three weeks later, he went downhill as the result of an infection. The hospice nurse called me and basically invited me to say goodbye to him. She assured me that he could hear me, although he couldn’t speak. I told him how much I loved him and how grateful I was for our shared silliness and laughter, long hugs, grand adventures, his sound advice and the constant awareness of his love.
Here is his poem:
What Is a Father?
by Bob Goldhamer
A Father is a sloppily sentimental character
A Receptacle for memories of
Toothless grins framed in Pablum
Small hands grasping kittens, phone cords, mud, pants legs
Small voices uttering incredible gibberish, amazing perceptiveness, embarrassing honesty, unanswerable questions
Small feet that stumble, climb, run, curl up
Small, shy boys who appear mysteriously to court worldly-wise, small daughters
Infant-wet, adolescent-embarrassed, grown up-tender hugs and kisses
A Collector of
Pictures from cribs, back yards, trips, weddings
Gifts found, made, bought
Letters from camp, college, jaunts, new houses
Love in small and large doses
A Reciter of children’s
Tricks and clever sayings
Marvelous records and personal histories
A braggart and boaster; a worrier and nagger; a self-satisfied, self-styled Creator of History to Follow.
In short — a very lucky, proud and happy, sometimes foolish, fellow.
A Father’s Journey to Find Love
Ninety-year-old Gladys Sturman’s mother, Rose, came from Poland and her father, Samuel, came from Ukraine.
My father came from somewhere near Kiev. He was born in 1894, the oldest of nine children. His parents planned to name him “Mendel.” However, when the rabbi of the town, who was named Shmuel, died on the same day my father was born, the rabbi’s son asked if they would name my father after the rabbi. So, my father’s name became Shmuel Mendel Freiman.
My paternal grandfather, Avrum Freiman, was a cattle trader, and he died of pneumonia when my father was about 12. This left his mother, Musha, with nine children and no means of supporting them. My father told me that one day he and his siblings saw nine loaves of bread on the kitchen table and they were so hungry they ate them all. When their mother saw, she tore her hair and wailed and hit her cheeks and cried, “That was our food for a week! Now what are we going to do?”
My grandmother decided that my father should be an apprentice to a tailor, which meant there would be one less mouth to feed, and my father would be earning a penny or two. When the time came for my father to be drafted into the Russian army, my grandmother somehow scraped up enough money to get him a ticket to America. He was 17.
There was a woman in Chicago who was a landsman from their village and she signed the necessary papers to sponsor my father to come to Chicago, promising to take him into her home and help set him up with work. He traveled in steerage and during the voyage someone stole all of his clothes. He landed on Ellis Island and had to make his way to Chicago, with no English and about $20 to his name. Knowing my father, I’m sure those challenges didn’t daunt him a bit.
When he finally got to this landsman’s house, he was very disreputable looking, and she wasn’t going to let him in because she was concerned for her daughters. She told him, “You can sleep on the porch until Tuesday. On Tuesday another landsman, Joe Slotnik, will come and he’ll take you.” And sure enough, Joe Slotnik came, took my father and cleaned him up. Joe was a junk peddler and he figured that my father could be his assistant. He rented a horse and buggy for my father and taught him how to go around picking up scraps and junk. I asked my father once, “How did you know your way around the area?” He said, “The horse knew.” My father did very well and he saved his money.
Joe started pushing my father to marry his daughter Bella, but my father didn’t want to marry her. So he left Chicago and ended up in South Dakota, where he opened a tailor shop in a small town. The rabbi there had a daughter who was very good looking and the rabbi wanted my father to marry her. He didn’t want to marry her.
The First World War broke out around that time and my father enlisted in the army for two reasons: to get away from the rabbi’s daughter, and because they told him that if he served, he could get his citizenship. He was sent to France, where he worked as an army tailor. When Yom Kippur was approaching, he asked the captain’s permission to go to the nearest town to attend services. The captain said no. When Yom Kippur arrived, my father told the captain, “My sewing machine is broken so I have to go into town to get a part.” That’s how he managed to attend Yom Kippur services.
After the war, my father did get his citizenship, and he went back to Chicago. That’s where he met and fell in love with my mother.
A Father’s Love of Music
Gail Eichenthal, a longtime radio host and director of community engagement at Classical KUSC, shared how her father, Herman Eichenthal, contributed to her love for music.
When I think about what I learned from my father, I’d have to start with a love of music and a love of words. I was an only child and I guess I was doted upon, for better and for worse. My dad read to me every night for years, everything from Dr. Seuss to “A Tale of Two Cities.” He also sang to me, mostly old folk songs like “Black, Black, Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
My earliest memories are of my dad taking me to children’s concerts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic when I was 2 or 3 years old. I think the sound of the orchestra in my head at that age kind of set a tone for my entire life.
In my 20s, I fell into radio, and through a series of amazing opportunities, I was soon announcing and producing the L.A. Philharmonic’s national radio broadcasts.
I say, “I fell into radio” but my dad had a lot to do with that, too. I was majoring in piano at UCLA, but by then I knew I was never going to play Carnegie Hall. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just loved learning everything about how music works. I loved my journalism classes, too, and in high school had done some public speaking. One night my dad handed me a newspaper clipping about a one-year internship at Classical KUSC. He acted too nonchalant so I knew he was actually excited about it. There were very few women on the radio at that time, so it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to go in that direction, but on a total lark, I applied. The internship turned into a job and a 40-year broadcast career.
My father lived long enough to hear me on the radio, and I got to take him to many L.A. Phil concerts. I know he got a big kick out of that. We saw so many great artists together, including the American debuts of two of our greatest conductors today, Sir Simon Rattle and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
My father was a Polish immigrant, and came from a very poor family. He was a passionate music lover and I think he had a great ear, but he never took a lesson, couldn’t read a note. After he died in 1984, I learned that he had been a cantor on the Lower East Side in his late teens. I don’t know why he never mentioned it. I guess he didn’t think it was a big deal.
Because of a rift with his family, my father didn’t finish high school or attend college but he was easily one of the most erudite people I’ve ever known, almost totally self -taught. He was a gifted writer and became a fairly prominent Yiddish teacher and a translator for Isaac Bashevis Singer among others. My love of writing and literature comes from him. Of course, he had to pay the bills, so he worked as a business manager. He hated it. But every night he would come home, have dinner with my mom and me, and then head to his desk to do his translating and writing. It was like a calling. And every night I would fall asleep to the click-click-click of his manual typewriter.
A Father’s Devotion to Jewish Law
Encino resident Lou Marten is renowned for his amazing memory and his colorful stories about his life and his family’s history. Lou’s daughter, Debbie Marsten, had him record his stories when he was 90. The following excerpts from Lou’s oral history illustrate his father’s tremendous commitment to protecting Judaism.
Dad and the Hebrew Christian Synagogue
I grew up in the Jewish community in East Los Angeles called Boyle Heights. There were dozens of temples in the neighborhood, and the largest was the Breed Street Shul, where we attended services. On the next block was a small building that had a huge flashing neon sign on top that said, in Hebrew, “Jesus, Light of the World” and it was run by people who called it ‘First Hebrew Christian Synagogue.’
On Friday nights, I went with my father to pray at the Breed Street Shul. And every time we came outside after services, a group of the people from that church would be right in front of the shul, singing their praises of Jesus, and trying to solicit Jews to embrace Jesus as our savior. My dad couldn’t stand it. He would walk over and get face to face with these people. He was always very polite when he challenged them. He’d say, “Gentlemen, is that nice? Interrupting Jewish people after we have been praying to our God?”
He made me very nervous. I was afraid that we were going to get into a fight. I’d pull on his sleeve and say, “Come on Pa, we gotta go home.” But he’d get into a long dialogue with them before he was willing to go home. That was typical of my father’s devotion to protecting Judaism.
Dad and the Yiddish Theater
After my mother died, my father was spending too much time alone, and when a Yiddish play, “Papirosen,” opened on Fairfax Avenue, my brother Max and I decided to take Dad to see it. I could tell that Dad really enjoyed it.
After the show, the writer came out and said, in Yiddish, “We hope you enjoyed our production, so please tell your friends about it. We have another performance tomorrow and then one on Friday night.”
I looked at my father who started to look really agitated. Then the guy said, “And we have a matinee on Saturday afternoon.” When my father heard this, he was like the Phoenix, rising from the chair. Max and I were both 6 feet tall and over 200 pounds each and my father was only about 5 1/2 feet tall, and we were trying desperately to hold him down. I said, “Dad what are you doing?” My father ignored me and addressed the man on the stage, in Yiddish: “My dear gentleman,” he calmly began, and then he got louder. “How dare you? You should be ashamed of yourself, inviting Jews to violate the Sabbath!” The whole audience turned to look at Dad. And the writer replied, “Listen, I don’t pretend to be a religious man.” They went back and forth for five minutes until we got Dad out of the theater.
My father was diligent in following all of the Jewish laws from the time he woke up, wrapping himself in his tallit and putting on his tefillin, saying his prayers in the morning, afternoon and evening,
Dad came alone to America from Romania as a young man, had a terrible time finding work and he struggled for four years before he could send for my mother and us five children. While he was struggling here, these Jewish rituals were a refuge that would embrace and comfort him. So, hearing that the Yiddish play was being performed on the Sabbath threatened whatever little security he had. My father taught me to love the Torah and to appreciate our Jewish culture and heritage, and I have a deep respect for his dedication to our faith.
Ellie Kahn is an oral historian. She can be reached at livinglegaciesproductions.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.