Family Currents



Manny Lezak

 His announcement, as a young boy, that he had become a vegetarian cause Beila to worry excessively about Manny's health and led to endless teasing by his siblings. After pulling Manny aside for many serious talks about his eating habits, the family's landlord eventually persuaded him that he should at least give meat a try--an irony, considering all the years he spent earning his living in the "family" business.

 At the age of fourteen, in 1911, Manny decided the time had come to join Max and Ben in Galveston. Coincidentally, this was the same year that his future bride, Celia Weiner, came to America aboard the Lusitania. Like Manny, Celia's roots also were in Vasilkov, where her father was a blacksmith. As far as we know, their families were not acquainted. However, Celia and Manny's sister, Sylvia, were the same age, so it is possible their paths had crossed before they left Russia.

 In about 1917, Manny enlisted in th U.S. army. Unlike his brother Sam, who was sent overseas and became a casualty of World War I, Manny remained in the States. After his discharge, he spent some time in Gary with Max and Pearl before settling down in Chicago.

 Manny and Celia were introduced by mutual friends from Vasilkov. Stories of their courtship include the romantic image of Celia, a beautiful young woman by all accounts, rowing a boat (available to rent for twenty-five cents) in a park lagoon while singing to her beau. They were married in Chicago in 1923.

 Celia learned English quickly after coming to the United States at the age of eleven. An Excellent seamstress, she once had ambitions in fashion design. But like most women of her generation, she believed it was impossible to successfully combine marriage and a career. Instead, she continued to sew at home, doing occasional dressmaking for family and friends, but never accepting money for her work. Adjectives used to describe Celia are all flattering, ranging from sweet, soft spoken and honest, to "incapable of guile."

 By 1924 when Sidney when Sidney was born, Manny was already the proprietor of a meat market at 43rd and Vicennes Avenue. He would later explain his propensity for the meat business by claiming, with a wink, that his father, Jacob, had been "a rancher" in the old country. Although Celia never worked at the store, she helped Manny out on occasion by working on the books at home.

 Rozelle, born in 1926, was known all her life as Sister because Sidney had trouble pronouncing her name when she was a baby. A second daughter, Iris, was born in 1932. As children, Roselle and Sid were so protective of their baby sister that she often thought of them as second parents.

 Both Manny and Celia were natural-born leaders who were exceptionally hospitable and took great pleasure in entertaining. A gregarious mixer, Manny always loved a good party. Often he functioned as the emcee at the Lezak family's annual Chanuka party, where he and his brothers carried on Jacob's tradition of distributing Chanukah gelt to all the children.

 He also had a reputation as a prankster, but once the tables were turned and the joke was on him. The occasion was a family Halloween party that he hosted. Celia loaned Manny's straw hat to their daughter Roselle and Nate's son Danny for their entertaining rendition of "Bicycle Built for Two." It wasn't until after Manny jokingly broke the boater over Danny's head that someone informed him the hat he'd just destroyed was his own.

 Nevertheless, despite being the life of many parties, Manny could be a very difficult man. He had a mercurial temperament and tened to deminate everyone around him, including Celia, who almost always catered to him. Almost Always. When Manny envested in the Wayside Inn with his Brothers in 1945, he harbored fantasies of escaping the city and moving there. Celia, However, would have none of it. He never forced the issue, and the episode may stand as one of the few times that she actually stood up to him and held the upper hand.

 There was another component of Manny's personality, which he felt no one really understood or appreciated. That was Manny-the-philosopher, the poet and intellectual who was motivated to read extensively and even enrolled in a Great Books course in his "golden" years. He once confided to his daughter, Iris, whom he considered a kindred spirit, that it saddned him to have no one with whom he could talk about his esoteric interests. Some family members thought the origin of the depression that Manny later exhibited might have stemmed from these issues.

 Manny and Celia, possibly the assimilated of the Lezaks, became Americanized more quickly than anyone else in the family. In one respect, however, they may have gone too far. Like other immigrants who were eager to shed any traits that smacked of the "old country," they eschewed Yiddish except when it served their needs, which is to say, when they did not want their children to understand them. As a consequence, the children grew to feel they were deprived of an important link with their parents' history as well as a means of communicating easily with their grandparents.

 Further evidence of the extent of their assimilation into American society included Manny's penchant for golf and their involvement with the Masonic Order of the Eastern Star.

 The general impression was that Manny and Celia were always "comfortable." They took regular vacations when others in the family could not afford to, and moved periodically to better, if not luxurious, apartment buildings in Hyde Park. Socio-economically, the South Side was a cut above the West Side. Their goal was always to move closer to Hyde Park Boulevard, where most of the neighbors were apt to be affluent German Jews.

 Even after she and Manny had moved "up" to Hyde Park, Celia remained a dutiful daughter. She made regular trips on the streetcar to visit her parents, who still lived on the West Side, where her father ran a newsstand. Sid's childhood sense, inculcated early through many long, uncomfortable streetcar rides with his mother, was that his maternal grandparents' neighborhood was unpleasant, though he could never pinpoint the reason why. He knew only that the people living there seemed different from those he saw daily in Hyde Park.

 Even though Manny and Celia belonged  to Congregation Rodfei Zedek, a Conservative synagogue, for many years, they tended to view synagogue membership as a matter of social convention only. While there always were new clothes for everyone at Rosh HaShana and presents for the children for Chanuka, there was little if any ritual observance in their home, and no mention of any, specifically Jewish values.

 Manny's life and the lives of his brothers were governed by the fact that small, independent markets like their were open every day, from early in the morning until nine of ten at night, and until at least one in the  afternoon on weekends. It was a routine that did little to enhance family life. Nevertheless, Manny was a caring employer and an astute businessmann, whose employees, most of whom black, tended to stay with him for a long time. Some of his minority workers even became fluent in Yiddish.

 In a community that harbored a great deal of racism, Manny was not a racist. On one occasion, during the war, he invited a black employee, a Marine recruit, to come to his home before the young man left to report for active duty. In the 1940s, this definitely was not teh norm. Manny's was one of the first meat markets in the city to be unionized, and he sponsored a baseball team long before this practice became commonplace.

 Sid began working in Manny's store at the age of  nine or ten. By thirteen, he was a part-time butcher, and made no secret of the fact that he hated the work. This resentment was exceeded only by the contempt he felt for his friends' nickname for him, "Sid, the Chicken Killer." When Iris was old enough, she worked in teh store's currency exchange on Saturdays. She always felt sorry for her brother because she realized that his obligation to their father limited the time he could spend with his friends.

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