We are posting a memoir by Joan on this Yom Kippur eve in honor of our Grandfather Julius who felt that Yom Kippur was the most important of all the holidays. It was the only day of the year that he closed his grocery store and stayed home. He was not religious, but this was his way of acknowledging his Jewish beliefs and identification.
When I recall my grandfather, Julius Garfield, my memories are mostly visual. The first image that appears is of his face. He wore thick eyeglasses and had a high, broad forehead. His face was often lit up with a beaming smile. Then I see his hands. They were strong, competent hands, with wide, neatly groomed fingers. On one finger he wore a plain gold ring adorned with a single diamond.
I have many memories of my grandfather’s hands. I often watched them carefully grate potatoes for my grandmother to use in preparing her famous latkes. They wrapped sandwiches in waxed paper with such precision we knew the paper would never unfold in the lunch bag. They lifted a shot glass of whiskey, referred to as “a schnapps,” for a toast of L’chaim” before dinner. They poured my first cup of coffee, heavily flavored with cream and sugar, from a thermos that accompanied my grandparents on their car trip to visit us in Omaha.
Many years later I watched my grandfather’s hands folded on his lap, as he sat in a wheel chair in a nursing home. I watched them pick up the jelly donuts (bismarks) my grandmother had brought him as a special treat.
My father tells me that these hands were once the hands of a capable plumber, and often made repairs in the rooming houses my grandfather owned. These hands also ran a cash register and made change for customers at his grocery store. They patted his faithful dog Pal, who waited for him each evening when he returned home after closing the store.
These hands piled his plate high with five slices of bread at the beginning of dinner. They wrote letters to his grandchildren in small precise script. He always signed the letters with the same closing: “Best wishes and kindest regards, Grandma and Papa.” I never questioned why we called him “Papa” instead of Grandpa. I think my older cousin Judy gave him this name when she was young and later we copied her.
Papa’s hands often held up poker cards while playing five card stud with his family on Sunday afternoons. When he had a winning hand he would slap his forehead in delight, and sometimes burst into song. My father tells me that these poker games were some of my grandfather’s happiest times. He enjoyed nothing more than having a glass or two of schnapps, playing poker, and singing. The songs he sang were usually in Yiddish or Russian, songs he probably learned as a boy in Bialystok. He also loved the Irish songs of John McCormack, which he must have heard after immigrating to the United States.
My favorite of Papa’s songs was “Raisins and Almonds.” I can still recall the haunting melody of this beautiful Yiddish lullaby and the way his fine tenor voice blended with Grandma’s. I would close my eyes and snuggle on my grandma’s lap, willing the song to go on forever.
Joan Garfield and David Garfield with Julius Garfield in Omaha, 1958.