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Black Lamb


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American dreamer

The secret life of Louis Roslafsky

August 1st, 2010


I didn’t know my Grandpa Louie… really know him. My brothers and sister didn’t know him, either. I’m not sure his own son, my father, knew him.

roslafskylouiscolor.pngLouis Ross (born Roslafsky) mingled in our lives as a kind of forgotten man, an old widower with broken English (despite fifty years in America) and a whistling hearing aid. A retired baker when he moved from Buffalo, N.Y. to be near us in northern California in 1961, he drove first a ’53 Buick my father found for him, a spiffy straight-eight which he used to ferry old ladies to shul, only the tops of their gray heads visible. When the Buick finally died, he drove a ’67 Chevy sedan; a 1972 registration card was among the sparse effects he left behind when he died, in 1974, aged eighty, in a nursing home.

We four kids, his only grandchildren by his only child Charles David (named for his younger brother Charlie Roslafsky and his father David Roslafsky), asked our dad for the names of Louis’ parents, for the name of the town he came from in what is now Poland. Dad told us that so far as he could remember, his father had never mentioned his parents. As for the town he came from, all he knew was that it sounded like um-sh-now, or um-sh-nov. Back then we never heard about Louis’ brother Charlie or his sister Molly, both married and living in New York City, never heard how it was that Louis, only sixteen, and his younger brother and sister made their way to the German port of Hamburg and thence to Ellis Island. It all had something to do with escaping the Cossacks’ pogroms, but no details were forthcoming.

Just the other day, after decades of wondering, I finally pinned down the location of my grandfather’s birth: Mszcznów (or Amshinov in Yiddish), a shtetl about twenty miles northeast of Warsaw, then officially part of the Russian empire. Almost entirely Jewish, Amshinov had been since the eighteenth century the home of a Hasidic dynasty; there still remain two Amshinover rebbes, one in New York City and one in Jerusalem, both of whose lines of discipleship go all the way back to the celebrated founder of Hasidism, Yisroel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov. Louis’ parents were David Roslafsky and Eva Lefkowitch, both listed on Louis’ March 12, 1915 marriage license, issued in Binghamton, Broome County, New York, as having come from Russia.

Louis’ bride, Rose Waitz, had come from Warsaw as a child and eventually, with her mother and five sisters, had arrived in New York via Buenos Aires. Louis and Rose ended up in upstate New York, where they met, married, had a son — my father — and then moved to Buffalo, where Rose’s sisters had settled. It was in Buffalo that my father grew up, attended grade school, high school, and college, and finally went to medical school.

Over the years I’ve asked Dad about his early life — he never talked about his immediate family, only about his memories of school and sports. His responses have made it clear to me that his entire life has been, among other things, a process of casting off — “repudiating” is not too strong a word — his Jewishness.

His father, Louis, set him on his path, albeit, I think, innocently, by changing the family name from Roslafsky to Ross just a year after my dad’s bar mitzvah. Little Charley never looked back. The crucial step came when he was twenty-four and decided to marry a shiksa, my mother, a shy nurse from Pennsylvania. This Yiddish word “shiksa” comes from a Hebrew term, sheketz, which means “impure” or “object of loathing.” My poor mom had to endure four years of some pretty harsh treatment, especially from her mother-in-law, who died in 1946. This whole episode, I think, is what turned my father away from Judaism. It was his first experience of what he recently described to me as “the prejudices exhibited by Jews.” For the rest of his life, he more or less deliberately tried to separate himself from his Jewishness. He eventually named his children Terry Stuart, Robert Gordon, Kenneth Bruce, and Kimberley Rose, a distinctly Scottish sounding bunch. Only my sister’s middle name came from his family.

My dad’s withdrawal eventually included, many years later, after he had moved his family as far away from Buffalo, N.Y. as he could go — to California — his turning his back on his by-then widowed father. This brings us to grandpa Louis, as I came to know him: an old man whose son was clearly ashamed of him and whose daughter-in-law resented him. I found myself, as the oldest grandchild, the only person in the family he wanted to talk to, and while I was home from college one summer, he enlisted my help in a project that I now realize represented his life’s dreams.

Grandpa Louie wanted to write a book. He had found a vanity press willing to publish it, and he set about dictating it to me in his mangled Engish, reading and translating from hand-written sheets covered in his Yiddish scrawl. I took down his words verbatim, but the task wasn’t finished when the summer ended and I had to return to school. Grandpa, though, got someone else to help, and with my dad grudgingly paying the costs of transcription and publishing, the book finally came out in 1969. It was called The Pushcart Peddler of New York: Three Short Stories. These stories were really just clumsy and sentimental plot summaries. The phrase “Grandpa’s book” became a bittersweet family joke.

Forty years later, in Grandpa’s effects, which half-filled a suitcase with the initials L.R., I found Louie’s Yiddish pages and my own incomplete transcription. I also found earlier versions of the three stories as well as screenplay renditions of them, ghost-edited by I don’t know who, plus two other stories and screenplays and photostat copies of a song, words and music by Louis Ross, called, variously, “A Mommy’s Pride,” “A Momme’s Pride,” and “A Mammys Pride.” There were also rejection letters from publishers and film studios. Some of this material dates from as far back as the 1940s. For the last half of his life, I realized, Louis Ross, the humble baker, shared the same dream as Louis B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, and all the other Jews who created Hollywood and Broadway: the dream of success, American success, a refugee’s success.

My father’s Jewishness has been his generation’s version: striving to become a non-Jew. In this he succeeded; except for the odd bar mitzvah and an occasional Pesach seder, all of his children and their children — and he himself — effectively became non-Jews. But Grandpa Louie’s dream was his own generation’s version: acceptance rather than disappearance, a heartfelt embrace of the New World’s promise, the promise of being a Jew and an American.

Grandpa Louie, I now know, was among the last of a now-almost extinct species: the Jewish American dreamer. In his own way, and despite the indifference and embarrassment of his son and his son’s family, he devoted his life — at least his inner life — to what he called on the dust-jacket of his book “the literary and musical way of living.” •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Ross | Link to this Entry


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