Saturday, January 26, 2008

April 26, 1925 - Brooklyn

[Note: Papa wrote this letter to my grandmother while she was vacationing at her cousin's farm in Connecticut. To see full-sized scans of the letter, click the thumbnail images on the right of this page.]

April 26, 1925

Dear Jeanie:

I received yesterday your second
letter, and another one was added to
my priceless possession of precious letters. Especially I desire to thank you for the flower, it was really wonderful of you.1

I went to see your folks last
night and it was just a great pleasure
to be with them. Mother made fine
pancakes, really the best I ever tasted.2

Everything here is fine, your family
is getting along nicely. Of course dearest
we all miss you here, but in a week
or so with God's help you will be with
us again, and so will complete happiness
and the sun will cast her rays again
in their full brilliance.

As a critic I note with
satisfaction your ability as a scribe
in pinning down your impressions.
Didn't I tell you that you are talented.


Are you progressing in your studies
in farming, milking, plowing, etc.

By the time you will be ready to return
home the proffessor on agriculture I mean
the farmer will have you graduated
with a diploma as a first class farmerette.3

I may come out this Friday for a
week end, don't you think it a good

Yesterday I mailed you some
magazine and tomorrow morning
goes a package which among other
things will include your black tafeta
dress about which you wrote to your mother.5

Tomorrow I will call at your
home again when Rose, Ben and Honey
will be present and write you about it.

In meantime take good care
of yourself and don't overstrain
in whatever you are doing.

With kindest regards to every body
that is kind to you.

I am as ever

Your devoted


Love and kisses
from you parents
Sally and Bob

The blots
are perfume6


Matt's Notes

1 - As I mentioned in my comments on Papa's previous letter, I had always thought my grandmother didn't return Papa's affections when they first started courting. This obviously wasn't the case if she wrote to him twice in three days and enclosed a flower in her second letter.

What kind of spring flower did my grandmother pick and send to Papa? A cluster of wild asters from the field near her cousin's farmhouse? A tulip from the garden? A blossom from a dogwood tree? What condition was it in when it arrived? I'm sure Papa must have been thrilled by the gesture, anxious as he was for any sign of my grandmother's affection. Did he toy with it as he listened to his radio that night, prop it on his windowsill, or put it in a teacup on his little table? Perhaps he stared at it as he tried to fall asleep that night and dared to imagine, romantic that he was, an end to the years-long season of loneliness he'd known in New York.

2 - I was initially puzzled to see the word "pancakes" in Papa's description of the dinner he had at my great-grandmother's house. It wasn't a Jewish holiday like Passover or Hannukah, so I didn't think she would have made Matzoh meal pancakes or potato latkes, and my grandmother's family wasn't of German descent so she wouldn't have made any kind of rich egg or dense apple pancakes. My initial guess was that she made some sort of blintz, possibly filled with cottage cheese or potatoes as a main course or filled with fruit for dessert.

My mother cleared things up, though:

Very interesting that they already invited him for Shabbos dinner.

Nanyku would never, never have cooked on the Sabbath, so I'm sure all the food was prepared in advance. She did make matzoh meal pancakes throughout the year, but probably not for Friday night dinner. They must have been her famous (in my mind at least) potato latkes, which she prepared earlier in the day and kept warm in the oven---maybe it was kept lit all night and day over Friday night and Saturday---or they may have used the services of a Shabbos goy. [Note - Orthodox Jews aren't allowed to do things like turn on lights or ovens during the Sabbath, so back in they day they'd ask non-Jewish acquaintances, what they called "Shabbos goys", to help them out with such tasks.]

So, potato pancakes they probably were. Nanyku (that was my great-grandmother's nickname) apparently built her reputation as an excellent cook on a foundation of chicken fat, which she used not only in predictable ways (for frying latkes) but in brilliant ways (for spreading on salami sandwiches in lieu of mustard.)

It's interesting to note that Papa refers to Nanyku's potato pancakes as "pancakes" and not as "latkes," the Yiddish term that even unobservant Jews like me typically use. I think this is because he, as a non-native English speaker, translated his thoughts into English wholesale, and hadn't yet developed the habit of peppering his writing or speech with Yiddish terms where appropriate. Evidence of this also shows up in his diary, where he never uses English transliterations of Yiddish words; if nothing but a Yiddish word will do, he writes it in Yiddish with Hebrew letters. I suppose it was up to subsequent generations to choose which Yiddish words would make it into assimilated Jews' English vocabularies.

3 - I was also struck, when I first read this letter, by Papa's change in tone at the end of page one and the beginning of page two. Though his florid ode to my grandmother's anticipated return (" will be with us again, and so will complete happiness and the sun will cast her rays again in their full brilliance") is lovely to read, it's the sort of formally romantic writing I'd expect from Papa. But his cheery flattery ("Didn't I tell you that you are talented") and chatty humor ("Are you progressing in your studies in farming, milking, plowing, etc...the farmer will have you graduated with a diploma as a first class farmerette") are quite a departure from Papa's other writings, and strike me almost as the words of someone joking with a child, or perhaps feeling a bit childlike himself.

And that's it, of course. To read this letter and see Papa switch from purplish prose to giddy silliness in the space of a few sentences is to see the crackling, unconstrained enthusiasm of a man falling in love.

4 - As I've mentioned before, Papa would only have known my grandmother for a few months when he wrote this letter, yet he was already going to her family's home on the Sabbath, calling Nanyku "mother" (though he would call her by the informal Yiddishism "Muttah" when he knew her better) and thinking it appropriate to spend the weekend with my grandmother at her cousin's farm. Still, the courtship slowed down and wound up lasting over five years.

5 - She needed her taffeta dress for plowing and milking, no doubt.

6 - I always thought that only women perfumed their letters back in the heyday of letter writing, but it looks like men did it as well. Papa obviously thought his perfume blots (one of which is pictured at right) were unsightly and deserved an explanation, so after he wrote this letter he added "The blots are perfume" in vertical script at the bottom of the second page (pictured at left). I've given the blots a sniff, but of course their scent is long gone.

No comments:

Post a Comment