Family Currents



Nathan Lezak

 Although only eighteen when he arrived in America in1922, Nate had acquired more knowledge of poverty,illness and war than anyone should ever have. At fourteen he had joined the Red  Army and was assigned to the supply department,where it was his job to deliver requisitions to the front. Two years later he was sent to a field hospital after contracting typhoid fever. Several patients were assigned to each bed, and one morning he awoke to find that the soldiers on either side of him had died during the night.

 The bout with typhoid led to his discharge from the army, and he was sent back to Kiev in an open cattle car. There was no money in the pockets of the over-sized soldier's coat he wore to ward off the frigid cold. From Kiev, he walked most of the way to his village, where his house stood vacant. A passing neighbor informed him that all the Jews of Vasilkov had been killed. Panic-stricken, he searched until he finally Beila, Sylvia and Joe in another part of town.

 Their experiences in Russia after Jacob and their brothers went to America turned Nate, Joe and Sylvia into early supporters of the Bolsheviks. This, the explained, was a result of their observation that whenever Bolsheviks were around, Jews were usually safe from the anti-Semitic White Russians, who claimed it was their mission to kill Jews in order to "save" Russia.

 Throughout his life, Nate retained vivid memories of his escape with Sylvia from Russia to Romania in 1921, and their illegal border crossing with the help of agents hired by the Vasilkov verein in Chicago. Carrying forged papers but no passports, they hid in trenches and bomb craters by day and a farmer's attic by night, waiting for the opportune moment to cross the river into Romania under cover of darkness.

Even in America, Nate sympathized with left-wing causes. Sylvia and Joe still held similar political views, too, and sometimes, in Chicago, they got together to sing songs about the party. Nevertheless, despite his early leanings, Nate quickly learned to appreciate capitalism and developed an avid interest in U.S. politics. He became a patriotic citizen, proud to identify himself as a Democrat who hated senator Joe McCarthy with a passion.

 Nate's first job in Chicago was in a delicatessen, where he earned $7 per week. He worked there for about a year to repay the cost of his passage to America. Since at the time he spoke only Russian and Yiddish, his brother Morris's daughter Jeanette, who, at fourteen, was four years younger than Nate, volunteered to help him with his English. later she acknowledged that she was attracted by his wit and personality, which were very much like Jacob's, and the fact that he had the chutzpah to stand up to his brothers, in contrast to what she perceived as her father's passivity. She thought people tended to take advantage of Morris because he was so quiet, and she was sure people would never do that to Nate.

 In a long reminiscence videotaped on Thanksgiving Day in 1979 or 1980, Jeanette said she was originally named Annette, but had changed her name to Jenny after enrolling in school in Chicago. She decided Annette was "too fancy" for the West Side, among so many Sadies, Bessies and Mollies. She attended Webster School, where she participated in the Campfire Girls and other extracurricular clubs, until Morris and Chana moved to Indiana for two years when she was about twelve.

 In January 1930, friends and family gathered at Baron's Banquet Hall on Roosevelt Road to celebrate Jacob and Beila's fiftieth wedding anniversary. No one expected the announcement, soon after, that Jeanette and Nate intended to marry. After all, Nate was her father's brother. Morris and Chana were unhappy, to put it mildly, and when the word got out, the entire family was violently opposed to the idea.

 But Nate and Jeanette were in love and determined to go forward with their plans. They had already consulted the family physician, since they were concerned about the possibility of genetic complications because of their relationship, and the doctor had given them his blessing. Besides, at twenty-six and twenty-two, they were old enough to make the decision without parental consent.

 However, the State of Illinois would not recognize the marriage of an uncle and niece, regardless of their physician's opinion. Nate and Jeanette were not to be deterred and went to Valparaiso, Indiana where they were married in a civil ceremony on March 16, 1930. Later, Rabbi Benjamin Daskal of Congregation Rodfei Zedek, Where Morris was a member, agreed to perform a religious ceremony.

 Their first home was at 45th and Drexel. At the time of their marriage, they were committed to having a kosher home. But Marvin, born in 1931, was a sickly baby and their physician, Carl Cohen, told Jeanette to feed him bacon. She was very conscientious when it came to caring for her children, and would have done whatever Dr. Cohen recommended. Even Beila seemed to concur, telling Nate, "Your son has to have meat on his bones!" That was the end of their kosher home. Danny, their second son, was born in 1933; a daughter, Bobette, did not arrive until 1945.

 Nate proved to be a hard worker and a good provider. Like his brother, it was not uncommon for him to work seven days a week, from seven in the morning until nine or ten at night, with shorter hours only on weekends. His practice was to take over market and eventually turn it around by dint of long hours and hard work. At various times he had stores at 91st and commercial and 51st near Indiana, as well as at 35th and South Park.

 Thanks to his strong work ethic, his family never went without, even during the Depression when many people were hungry or lost their home. Sometimes he returned home so exhausted that he carelessly traipsed sawdust from the store into Jeanette's clean house. On those occasions she never failed to let him know of her displeasure. But all he wanted to do when he got home was eat and go to sleep.

 In the mid-1930s, Nate and Jeanette became the first in the family to buy a home of their own. They purchased the house at 5348 Drexel for $3450, with the help of an FHA loan, and sold it in 1951 for $17,000.

 One of Marvin's longest lasting memories related to an incident that occurred when Jeanette took her children shopping at Herzog's on 55th Street. Her purchases totaled $45, which she planned to pay off at the rate of $5 per month. When Nate heard this, he became furious at the thought of buying his son's clothing on credit, insisting that she should never buy anything she could not pay for on the spot. It became an object lesson that Marvin never forgot.

 Jacob and Beila lived with Jeanette in the house on Drexel for several years, during which the family always welcomed Shabbos by kindling candles and making a motzi over Jeanette's home baked challah. Although they observed Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, Nate seldom took time off from work, even for the holidays. In those days Jacob often davened (prayed) at the Mushkin shul at 53rd and Greenwood. Both Marvin and Danny remember being reared with a strong Jewish identity and positive Jewish experiences. Like most of their cousins, they attended cheder and each became bar mitzvah.

 From the time Joe purchased their first automobile together in the 1920s, Nate always owned a car, but somehow automobile travel was never his forte. In the  late thirties, with Jeanette, Marvin and Danny (Bobette was not born yet) in tow, he drove to Florida in his 1936 Plymouth. Max, who had bragged that he knew the to the Sunshine State, accompanied them. But family lore has it that every time Nate followed Max's directions, they got lost. On another excursion, Nate and Manny made the same trip, taking only Marvin this time. It was their misfortune to be pulled over for speeding while driving through Georgia. Later they told the story of how the local police officer and a justice of the peace, who seemed to materialize from thin air, held court at the side of the road, found them guilty, and collected a fine on the spot.

Family relationships were of utmost importance to Nate and Jeanette. Their home was a popular gathering place for the Lezak's, especially on Sundays when serious chess games, accompanied by lox and bagels, were the order of the day. It seemed that everyone in the family played chess, and a strong rivalry existed for years, particularly between Nate and Joe. Yet, despite having their share of disagreements agreements, the bond between the two was so strong there was never a permanent rift. 

 Marvin and Danny knew Yiddish to communicate comfortably with Jacob and Beila, and had many recollections of Jacob as warm and loving grandfather, in spite of his shtarker (tough guy) image. One very cold day, after returning home from ice skating on the Midway, Jacob taught them how to rub snow on their hands to prevent frostbite. Looking back as adults, they realized that although he wanted to be "grandfatherly," he came from a different time and place, and found et difficult to show his feelings.

 Jacob was fiercely independent and worked as a shochet for Dubowski's at 55th and University until he was ninety-two. After he "retired," he developed a pattern of making the rounds of his sons' stores, asking them to give him something to do.

 Jacob could be very demanding of all those around him. Pounding on the dining room table to let Jeanette know he was waiting to be served, or indicating by a wave of his hand that the salt and pepper shakers were in the wrong place on the table, were but two of the ways Jacob might convey his demands. More than once, he used his cane to bang on the ceiling of the basement apartment at Nate and Jeanette's home, for no apparent reason. "Why do you do that?" they would ask. "I want you should know I'm still alive," he replied.

During the last years of Beila's life, even when she showed evidence of senility, Jacob was caring and devoted to her. The marriage that had been arranged by the matchmaker of Belaya-Tserkov had lasted nearly sixty-five years. The first time Marvin ever saw his father cry was when Beila died in October 1944.

 Bobette, who was born three months later, was named for Beila. With a roll of nickels between them, her big brothers waited impatiently beside the pay telephone in their home for news of her arrival so they could call to relay the news to the rest of the family. From then on, Bobette was known affectionately as "the nickel baby."

 In 1948, on Jacob's 100th birthday, Marvin and Danny accompanied him to a neighborhood Sears store known for its contest to identify the oldest person in the store each day. Certain that they had a winner, the boys eagerly sought out the manager, who asked Jacob to verify his age. To the Boys' complete mortification, Jacob looked the manager in the eye and said, "Nu, what do you think? Do I look like I am one hundred?"

 Until a short time before his death at 103, Jacob played a mean game of checkers with his grandchildren. during one of their last games together, while Danny's head was turned for a moment, Jacob began jumping checkers all over the board. "Zayde, what are you doing?" Danny asked. "This is the way we played in the old country," he answered.

 In partnership with Jeanette's brother, Leonard, Nate established L & L Provisions at 2908 Cottage Grove in about 1950. Leonard knew the boning trade, while Nate knew how to successfully approach a bank for start-up money. With a loan of ten thousand dollars, they were on their way.

 At about age five, Bobette had her tonsils removed. Following the surgery, Danny brought her a toy car that was operated by remote control and Aunt Pearl gave her a little tea set. she still remembers the gifts as "the best ever received by a five year old." Later, when she was old enough, Bobbie went to the L&L plant with her father, who had promised to pay her a quarter to add up columns of figures. She remembers how good she felt when her Uncle Leonard, having witnessed how hard she had worked, topped her father--and paid her fifty cents. She often played number games with Nate and Jeanette, competing to see who could add figures the fastest.

 Jeanette, who claimed to have been attracted by Nate's outgoing, aggressive personality,tended to be passive, like Morris, and often found it difficult to make decisions. She was passionate, though, about the arts, especially ballet. (Her interest may have been genetic, since a first cousin of Chana's was said to have been music director of Russia's famous Bolshoi Ballet.) Consequently, she insisted that all three of her children study music and dancing, and she took them to performances at the theater and ballet. Bobette grew to love the arts as much as her mother did, but the boys hated every minute of their lesson, and today claim to exhibit no musical talent whatsoever.

 Instead, both boys inherited their father's work ethic and held various jobs from the time they were very young through their years at Hyde Park High School. Marvin's first job, at the age of seven or eight, was as a "go-fer" in Uncle Manny's store at 43rd and Vincennes, where he worked for twenty-five cents an hour.

 After a two-year stint in the army during the Korean conflict, Marvin returned to Purdue University to earn a degree in electrical engineering. In 1956, he took a job in California, where he met Sylvia Ring, a native of Oklahoma, and fell in love both with Sylvia and her three-year-old son, Brian. Following their marriage in 1968, Marvin adopted Brian. Their son Michael was born in 1969. Today, Marvin is in the real estate investment business in Los Angeles.

 Danny's work experience in Nate's store at 35th and South Park, plus the positive influence on him of his father's accountant, motivated him to study accounting in college, first at the University of Illinois and then at Roosevelt University, where he received his degree. In 1956 he married Kay Cohen, and two years later they moved from Chicago to California, having decided there was no reason to wait for retirement before settling in a more pleasant climate than Chicago. Their sons, Jeffrey, Gary and Scott, were all born in California.

 Nate experienced his first epileptic seizure in 1960 at the age of fifty-six. He was certain  he was suffering from a terminal condition. Convinced that he could make a living anywhere, he sold his share of L&L Provisions to Leonard, sold their house, and moved with Jeanette and Bobette, who was then fifteen, to California to be closer to Marvin and Danny.

 Danny and Kay were divorced in 1983. He and Cheryl Corol were married in Los Angeles in 1984 and have one son, Blake Nathaniel, born in 1986. Today, danny and Cheryl work together in the Lezak Group, a crisis management firm specializing in turning financially distressed companies into profitable enterprises.

 Bobette's aptitude for numbers, surely inherited from Nate, led a twenty-five year career in banking. She now is a full-time homemaker living in Canoga Park, California, with her husband, Leon Cooper and daughter, Nicole. Bobbie and Leon met in 1981 on a blind date, and something about him immediately convinced her she had met him before. Suddenly she realized they had known one another in high school, twenty years earlier! They were married a year later. Leon, whose interests include skiing and tennis as well as radio-controlled airplanes, is a certified public accountant, currently a CFO in private industry. In addition to Nicole Joanne, named for Nate and Jeanette, their family includes Leon's sons, Jeremy and Adam.

Nate and Jeanette were diagnosed with cancer within six months of one another. She died in Los Angeles in 1982; Nate died on February 19, 1983, a year to the day that Jeanette was laid to rest.

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