Family Currents



Sylvia Lezak

 Two of Sylvia Lezak Goldberg Ostrowsky's earliest recollections dated all the way back to 1903. The happier of the two memories involved a visit from her brother Max, home for a brief visit from Kiev, where he lived with their Aunt Eidel. Max arrived with a present for his little sister, a beautiful silk dress and shiny black patent leather shoes. Whether because ready-made clothing was still very much a novelty in Vasilkov or the fact that children seldom received gifts, let alone gifts as special as these, Sylvia never forgot them. 

 The second event had profoundly negative, but equally long-lasting effect. It occurred when three- year-old Sylvia went with with her mother to the marketplace, where Beila met several friends. "Oh, you finally have a little girl," one woman remarked. "Yes," Beila replied, "but she is not as good looking as my boys."

 As young as she was, Sylvia headed straight for the mirror when she got home, convinced that what she saw there was an unattractive girl with a very large nose. As an adult she acknowledged that her mother probably never dreamed she would be so hurt by the comment. In any case, the resulting insecurities affected Sylvia for the rest of her life.

 At four, Sylvia contracted diphtheria. Initially the doctor offered little hope that she would survive. Although she did recover and was otherwise healthy, her right eye was permanently damaged, causing her to appear cross-eyed whenever she looked to the right. Her brothers teased her and she became self-conscious, she refused to play with most other children, fearing they, too, would make fun of her.

 In spite of this lapse, most of the time her brothers were very protective. Once, when she was about six, she slipped and fell on her way to school, dropping pencils, books and papers on the icy path. Ben, who worked at a store along her route, witnessed what happened and ran to the rescue. After collecting everything she had dropped, he took her hand in his and walked with her all the way to school.

 Morris, the eldest brother, was away in the army when Sylvia was born in 1900, so he literally was a stranger to her when he came home for good in about 1905. Although later she described him as tall and handsome, she was quite afraid of him when he returned to Vasilkov after his tour of duty ended.

 The most important person to Sylvia outside the immediate family was her good friend, Yankl Polistuck. In her memoirs, she said she loved very much from an early age. Full of life and fun, Yankl was an orphan who lived in the other half of her family's duplex with his grandmother, an aunt and a young uncle, all of whom were devoted to him. He spent so much time with Sylvia and her brothers, he began to think of their house as his second home.

 In most families education was not a priority for daughters, who were expected to become good wives and mothers, and learn all there was to know about following the laws of kashrut. Boys, on the other hand, went to cheder every day to learn Torah and Hebrew prayers. Parents believed that for sons, becoming observant Jews was as important as eating, perhaps even moreso.

  Despite local custom, Beila was determined that Sylvia would be educated beyond the traditional expectations. She wanted her only daughter, who was every bit as bright as her sons, to know everything, including Russian, to ensure that Sylvia would never know the kind of poverty that Beila's sister, Marim experienced as the wife of a poor Torah scholar. But despite the fact that Sylvia studied and passed the local school's entrance exams, she was denied admission. The Jewish quota had already been filled.

 Somehow  Beila scraped together enough money from her household allowance to pay the tuition at a private Christian school, where Sylvia and her friend, Chaya Wallack, were the only Jews in their class. The girls could not understand why they were expected to pray and cross themselves, and never told their parents about this requirement. Only later did Sylvia learn that one of the school's missions was the conversion of Jewish children to Christianity. Their enrollment came to a humiliating end one morning when the teacher yanked them out of their seats, pushed them toward the door, and threw them out of the building, all the while spouting anti-Semitic remarks. The reason for their sudden expulsion, they later learned, was the murder of a high government minister named Stolipin. In truth, Sylvia and Chaya were lucky to get out alive. Typically, at such times, the government instigated pogroms or decided to make an example of some unfortunate Jew who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 Since Beila did not know Russian, she taught Sylvia to read and write in Yiddish ("Jewish"). Beila purchased every one of Sholom Aleichem's short stories, sold in paperback for a kopeck a piece, and insisted that Sylvia practice by reading aloud to her. She imparted history in terms of her own childhood experiences and well-known historical events. A wonderful story teller, she often related tales of their ancestry, and other lessons, through songs and poems she had learned as a girl. Clearly these collective lessons made a vivid impression, because it is on Sylvia's written memories of Beila's stories that much of this family history is based.

 To round out Sylvia's education, Beila bought fabric and yarn remnants whenever there was a little extra money, and taught her sewing, embroidery and knitting.

 Sylvia was seven when Jacob decided to move the family to Kiev. He lied about her age, enrolling her at the school on Alexandrovskaya Ulitza (street) in a class for nine-year-olds because students as young as Sylvia were not admitted. Since parents without other credentials were granted residency in Kiev only for as long as they had a child attending this school, Sylvia became their "ticket" Kiev. On her very first day there she was so frightened and shy, she went to the washroom, locked herself in a stall and then, unable to open the door, had to wait until the next recess for someone to rescue her.

 Her brothers, Max and Ben, left Vasilkov for America in 1910. Over the next four years, Manny, Morris, Sam and her father joined them. Sylvia, her mother, Nate and Joe expected to follow shortly, but they were stranded by the outbreak of World War I. It would be eight years before the family was reunited. For the rest of their lives, a special bond, forged during those difficult years, existed between Sylvia, Nate and Joe, who felt closer to one another than to any of their siblings.

 "The Americanization of Sylvia" occurred quickly after her arrival in Chicago in 1922. She became proficient in English (later she would say, "If you have to, you can learn anything fast!") and landed a job as a cashier at Marshall Field's. Always anxious to succeed, she was extremely conscious of modern styles of dress and took great pains to avoid wearing anything that might brand her as being from the "old country."

 Sylvia was still single at the age of thirty, and her parents actively encouraged her to marry and have a family. After she and Sam Goldberg were introduced by mutual friends, he began calling on her at home and impressed the pious Jacob and Beila with his knowledge of Yiddish and his familiarity with Hebrew prayers.

 Sam was shy and introverted, with little or no drive to acquire material possessions, in contrast to Sylvia, who was very much an extrovert. She wanted nothing as much as to become an American success story. When they married in March 1932, everyone expected Sam to be able to support her , but to their surprise he never really made much of a living. Nate and Joe tried to help him open a small grocery store on the South Side, but it did not succeed.

 When Harold was born in 1935, Sylvia made a conscious decision to give him a name she considered distinctly American. She adored her baby, but was less than enthusiastic about marriage. they divorced after five years together.

 Sylvia's life as a single parent was fraught with hardship. After the divorce, she and Harold moved in with Jacob and Beila at 5512 S. Ingleside in Hyde Park; today this address is the site of a tennis court at the University of Chicago. Since she could not work outside her home and care for a baby, too, she was dependent on her brothers' financial help and her parents' small pension for support. In an attempt to repay her brothers, she helped with the book keeping in their stores whenever she could.

 She and Jacob shared the cooking at home, but Jacob did virtually all of the marketing. Their economy-minded menus generally included a variety of soups with some meat or chicken thrown in, as well as Sylvia's wonderful kugels, kreplach and blintzes. In defense to her parents, Sylvia had always kept kosher. But when Harold developed scarlet fever, her sister-in-law, Pearl insisted on serving him bacon would make him strong and healthy again. One can only wonder what Jacob's reaction must have been. Yet, today Harold cannot remember ever hearing his grandfather question, or openly criticize, any of his adult children's decisions.

 With the exception of a case of pneumonia in his nineties, Jacob remained hale, hearty and extremely active. His regular routine included laying tefillin every day, going to shul, and on Fridays, visiting the kosher butcher to select a live chicken for Shabbos dinner. Because he was an observant Jew, he always wore a hat, even in the house. Often, he took long walks with Harold, whose first language was Yiddish and who, therefore, was able to converse with him more easily than any of his cousins could. On Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the two frequently took the bus to the old Orthodox shuls on the West Side.

 The core of the belief shared by Jacob and Beila was that G-D would solve any problem and help  them weather any crisis, if only they had faith. To them, religion was a source of comfort and security. Jacob was convinced that stress and worry accomplished nothing but shortening one's life.

 His attitude had a tremendous influence on Harold during the child's formative years. The atmosphere in the home he and Sylvia shared with his grandparents, was religious and tranquil, in contrast to the competitiveness Harold witnessed at school and elsewhere in the "outside world." To an only child with many insecurities and a struggling, single parent, this environment provided a much needed sense of stability and security.

 Jacob was unfailingly attentive to the frail and fading Beila, twelve years younger than he, who spent her days sitting quietly in her chair, reading in Yiddish. She seldom left the house anymore, except to attend occasional family affairs, and died at home in 1944, at the age of eighty-four.

 Soon after Beila's death, Sylvia's brothers helped her buy a small business, a grocery and delicatessen on 55th Street. But what they had hoped would be a good opportunity turned out to be an impossible undertaking.

 Sylvia wrote in her diary, "Getting up at five a.m. when the milk and bread were delivered, cooking corned beef...it was lucky that it was not a busy business. But never resting, living in the back of the store, being terrified of rats, worrying constantly about the child and the old father. Store being open late, including Saturday and Sunday, and it never failed, when you closed the store late or on a Sunday afternoon, someone would always come knocking, demanding service. Besides, after paying bills, there was nothing left..."

 The store failed, and Sylvia and Harold returned to live with Jacob. Within the year, with returning servicemen having trouble finding decent housing, Sylvia did the only thing that made sense to her: she offered their apartment on Ingleside to her newly married nephew, Norman, and she, Harold and Jacob moved to a smaller place near 71st and Cottage Grove.

 Around the same time, a neighbor who had bought milk and rolls from her every morning at the store introduced Sylvia to Frank Ostrowsky, whom he knew from Zionist organization meetings. Frank, who also was divorced, was impressed by her efforts to support herself and Harold. During their courtship, he promised to be a father to her child and vowed to make life better for her. Frank seemed to be a good person, despite a stubborn streak. Eager for a second chance at happiness, she married him in 1947.

 Jacob hardly ever consulted a doctor, and when he did, he was not likely to heed his medical advice. On one memorable occasion when the family prodded him to see a physician, he humored them by going first to the doctor's office and then to a pharmacy, where he picked up medicine the doctor had prescribed.

 "Did you take the pills?" he was asked when he returned home. "No, I threw them away," he responded.

 "Why did you do that?"

 "Look, I went to the doctor and I paid him, so he should live. Then I threw away the pills, so I should live!"

 Although his body began to fail him as he neared 100, Jacob's mental faculties were as sharp as ever and his sense of humor remained intact. In the spring of 1949, when he was 101, the Vasilkover American Society invited members and friends to enjoy a ten-course dinner at the Oriental Restaurant on Roosevelt Road in honor of "Yenkel Lezak, our oldest landsman of Vasilkov." proceeds from the event supported the one-year-old State of Israel.

 When Jacob played card games, dominoes or checkers with his grandchildren, a practice he enjoyed until shortly before he died, he won as often as they did (even though he always gave back any money the children lost).

 Near the end of his life, a nurse was called in to assist him. He waved his cane at her as she approached his bed and shouted, "Get away from me, you angel of death!" Jacob died in August 1951 at the age of 103.

 Over a period of many years, Sylvia's penchant for writing served as an important outlet for her. She wrote of her longing for happiness, her disappointments, and later, her very real fears of growing old and being abandoned. Some of this apparently stemmed from the guilt she felt for having been unable to care for her father in his last days, despite having been devoted to him for so many years.

 In her grief following Jacob's death, she tried to understand this "failure" on her part, but could not. She wrote, "I am the daughter, I can explain it only on way. I must have lost my mind. I can't imagine; how could I be so cruel as to agree to send  him away in his condition. He trusted me so much, he wanted so much to be near me... It seems I will never be happy again."

 Sam Goldberg came around to take his son, Harold, out for dinner every six months or so and occasionally he gave him a few dollars for spending money. Other than that. they had little contact and Sam provided no financial support. It was Sylvia who took Harold ice skating on the Midway near the University of Chicago, to sporting events and the library, and made sure he had music lessons and learned to swim at the YMCA.

 Harold remembers his mother spending hours poring over old photographs, perhaps in an unconscious effort to cling to family history and traditions. There is little doubt in his mind that this influenced his lifelong interest in photography and his own strong feelings for his "roots."

 Harold was a sensitive child who spent most of his time with adults. He felt awkward around his cousins when they met downtown or went to a baseball game, and was never sure if they enjoyed being with him or just felt sorry for him. Even though they were poor, it was important to Sylvia that he have the same new toys, books and experiences that other children had. Harold was the first kid he knew of to have his own ball point pen, although he never did find out how she managed to obtain it for him.

 Frank Ostrowsky was prolific writer, but although he published several books in Yiddish, most of which dealt with biblical themes, he earned a living as a house painter and wallpaper hanger. After their marriage, he, Sylvia and twelve-year-old Harold moved to a dilapidated building that he owned at Wilson Avenue and Broadway. It didn't take Harold long to discover that, contrary to Frank's earlier promises, he was more interested in his own son, Bernie, than in his stepson. In fact, hi paid little attention to Harold.

 From Uptown they moved to Logan Square, and eventually Frank sold the Uptown property. With the proceeds, he and Sylvia, both ardent Zionists, moved to Israel. Although she loved Israel, the move was a source of inner conflict for Sylvia. She wanted to satisfy Frank and make a life with him, but at the same time she was unhappy at the prospect of being separated from her son and the rest of the family.

 The marriage turned out to be a disappointment. As he aged, Frank became increasingly uncommunicative, ignoring all but his writing. The relationship with his son also deteriorated and after the move to Israel, they rarely communicated.

 Sylvia was dismayed when she heard that Bernie had had a child and he had not even let his father know.

 In sharp contrast, she maintained a steady stream of correspondence with her brothers, whom she missed desperately. Later, in her diaries, she described their letters, many of which she saved, as "a lifeline."

 Sylvia's memoirs, spanning more than seventy-five years from her childhood in Russia to old age, reveal a sensitive, articulate woman who was  thoughtful and caring, honest and spirited, and often philosophical. But her letters, poems and other musings, some written not long before her own death from cancer in 1982, also reflected many of the insecurities that she blamed on her mother's early comments about her appearance, the harrowing experiences in Russia during the war and revolution, and other shortcomings she perceived in herself.

 Of life in Israel, Sylvia wrote to Nate and Jeanette in 1962, "It is a healthy life for the young... both physically and mentally... People in general are optimistic. The social life is more social here. Telephones are rather scarce, but one can install a phone and many do, who can afford it. It is acceptable for people to drop in at any time, but not between on and four p.m.; this is the time when people sleep.

 "[Frank and I] have acquaintances in Holon. We meet every Friday in each other's houses [to] talk, eat, sing, listen to the news... We are most interested in each other's happenings in life, whether it be sorrow or gladness. We live in a fairly nice home... Concerts, operas, plays, nightclubs, movies are popular, but we don't attend many because Frank is not interested. He spends his entire time at his desk. But when a troupe of artists comes to town I insist that he buy tickets and we go...

 "I am now about the age Mother was when she arrived in the states. I look at my hands and I can see Mother before me, talking to me , saying, 'Look at my hands.' I am getting old. I remember her hands so well at that time. Mine are now just like hers. I owe many letters of reply and I am grateful to everyone for writing to me. These letters keep me going... I always feel lonely and isolated and not wanted..."

 Perhaps because letters, by their very nature, replace face-to-face confrontations, she occasionally used them to take risks, as when she chastised Manny for his parenting skills, comparing him to their brother Joe:

 "You were playing cards on evening at Nate's. Roselle was there, too. She told you it was late, she had to go to school the next day and it was time to go home. I remember you saying to her, 'Well, what's keeping you? why don't you go home?' SHe came to the kitchen and, in spite of herself, she began crying bitterly... [and] said, 'He does not care, he is not worried. He wants me to go  home all by myself at this time of night.' ...Joe would not only leave everything to take Merle home, he would watch the time carefully so Merle would not stay longer than is good for her... This is just on little example; [but] I can recall such incidents time and again..."

 As a child, Harold occasionally helped Nate by doing menial jobs at his store. But neither Sylvia nor his uncles encouraged him to make a career of the meat business, and Harold never considered himself suited for it, anyway. He learned more toward intellectual curiosity and interests in the arts, especially music and photography.

 He credits his uncles' support and encouragement with helping him complete his education at the University of Illinois, where he studied accounting. Thanks to the drive and tenacity he inherited from his mother, he passed the CPA exam on his first try. He has had a successful accounting practice in Chicago for many years.

  On an extended trip to Israel to visit his mother when she lived there, Harold met Dvora Greenwald, a sabra, whose family emigrated from Poland in the 1930s. They  were married in 1964 and are the parents of three children, Robert Melissa and Elana. Harold and Dvora were divorced in 1995.

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