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Travels With Zayde

By: Steven Plaut

I am about to deliver a lecture in a glamorous building in Riga, one of the best examples of the Art Nouveau architecture style that makes the capital of Latvia so famous. The large seminar room is filled beyond capacity.

“This seminar is going to be a strange one for two reasons,” I begin. “The first is that everyone in the room knows more about the topic I am about to discuss than I do. The second is that I want to begin by telling you about the Latvian roots of my family.”

* * *

That story began in Dvinsk. Today the town, renamed Daugavpils, is the second-largest city in Latvia and an industrial eyesore produced by Stalinist planning. Back in the 19th century it was included within the borders of czarist Belarussia. The city joined Latvia when it achieved political independence after World War I for the first time in modern history.

Dvinsk’s sizable Jewish community was best known for Rabbi Meir Simcha, one of the greatest Torah sages of his generation who was popularly called the Ohr Sameach after the name of his most famous book.

Zayde was born Samuel Shaeffer in Dvinsk. In the last decade of the 19th century the wealthy Jewish banker Baron Maurice de Hirsch had purchased lands in Argentina, and Jews from Eastern Europe were fleeing there from the pogroms that were growing in viciousness during the dying days of the Russian empire.

Samuel’s parents were among those who signed up to go. They packed up their meager belongings, took their young son and his two sisters, and hopped on the horse-drawn wagon to make their way to the port. But, alas, the horse was too old for the task at hand and they literally missed the boat because of her. They returned to the poverty of Dvinsk.

Things only got worse. An order came for Samuel to report for conscription for a 25-year term of service in the czarist army. He decided to flee the country for his life. A Jewish teenager in the town had recently died but his passing had not been officially recorded. Samuel took the papers of the dead youth, adopted the latter’s last name of Steinman, and smuggled himself out just ahead of the czarist secret police.

With a few coins in his pocket he escaped Latvia and made his way by foot all the way to Hamburg. He had been a tailor’s apprentice back home (a profession he never liked much) and would work as a tailor in towns he traveled through for food money. From Hamburg he took a steamer to America, landing in Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.

He settled in Philadelphia, married a young Jewish woman from Galicia, and set up a tailor shop. He kept planning to change professions, but never did. Back in Dvinsk he had been examined by the local doctor before he left. A complete physical examination in those days consisted of checking the patient’s tongue. The quack told him he thought he would be unable to father children. Samuel decided to prove him wrong, and had nine of them. The eighth of the nine is named Ida – my mother.

They spoke Yiddish at home. I picked up some expressions, but to my regret never learned it properly. Mom later married a refugee from Germany who did not speak Yiddish. They met in the middle of Israel’s war of independence when Mom worked at the offices of the Magen David Adom and Dad came to donate blood. Our family joke always was that it was love at first stab.

Zayde spent endless days sitting in the small tailor shop, sneaking away from work whenever he could to read Josephus. He did not trust the police. He told his children that when they came home late at night they should walk rather than run down the street, lest the police mistake them for thieves and attack them.

Some of my best early memories were of spending time with Bubbe and Zayde in the rooming house they favored on their visits to Atlantic City. It was their chance to get away from the tedious tailor work. I remember the first time I saw the ocean there as well as my efforts to get Zayde to explain to me what made the waves move and hump.

Zayde had strong likes and dislikes. He despised Frank Sinatra and would refer to him only as “that bum.” He was convinced that the comedian Jerry Lewis was personally responsible for anti-Semitism in America. He adored Franklin Roosevelt and had a large poster of him hanging in his living room. (I shudder to think what he would make of my own free-market economics.)

Meanwhile, Bubbe struck up a friendship with Bertha Cosby, the mother of superstar Bill Cosby. This was long before Bill became world famous and wealthy. They lived not far from the tailor shop. Our family used to hire Bill’s struggling mother to help out in the house. She frequently worked as my babysitter, and helped out with the food at my bar mitzvah party. Bill was invited but did not come – he had a date. Dad sold Bill his very first suit.

By the late 1950s Zayde’s family had grown so large that we often had to rent out ballrooms in hotels to hold Passover Seders. The first time I asked the Four Questions I mispronounced the words of the last one, believing it was referring to some mysterious Mrs. Bean (instead of “misubin”), and Zayde impatiently corrected me.

But of course he could be very patient too, as when he came to my first violin recital and gallantly pretended not to be bored.

And then there was the violent anti-Semite who lived down the block and who would torment him and the family, especially around Easter. One year the harassment was getting out of hand. At the Passover Seder, Zayde read the Ten Plagues and spilled out an unusually generous portion of wine after each one. He saved the “makos wine” from the Ten Plagues in a safe place and later knocked on the door of the anti-Semite, informing him our family was celebrating a holiday and that he’d brought him a large glass of wine so he could share in the festivities.

The neighbor downed the glass happily. A few weeks later the neighbor’s wife left him, and before the year was over he died of a heart attack. Zayde always claimed the Plagues wine had done the trick. I do not have the slightest doubt he was correct.

Zayde died when I was a teenager. His last words were to demand that his sons empty his pants pockets of change lest the hospital staff steal it.

* * *

The Stockholm School is the leading academic institute in post-communist Latvia. It is an elite university, a highly prestigious school, and the president of the country sits on its board of governors. Students come here to study from other parts of Europe.

The professors at the school know that an economist in Israel has been conducting research on the real estate market in their own city of Riga, and they are greatly flattered by this. Latvia is a country with only two million people, almost half of them not ethnic Latvians, so by comparison Israel seems a huge cosmopolitan center.

Prior to my visit I had become something of an expert on Latvian housing economics. That sounds more impressive than it really is, because I am just about the only academic on earth who has studied the subject. I have published a paper on Riga housing together with a Latvian graduate student of mine who took courses with me in Budapest and was able to obtain some usable data.

Central Riga is charming, its beauty outlasting its long ordeal under communism, with a well-preserved set of fascinating architecture. They’ve put me up in an apartment in the building next to that in which the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin grew up. It has plaster Art Nouveau sphinxes in front of it and they probably go back to when Sir Isaiah was a yeshiva boy.

Riga is a bit off the tourist beaten tracks. Israeli tourists, who seem to appear almost everywhere else on the planet, rarely make it to Riga. Its medieval guild houses, damaged badly in the war, have been rebuilt close to their original designs. A Museum of Terror, documenting Latvia’s twin nightmares under Nazism and Communism, stands in the city center.

I tour Riga and spend Shabbat in the one remaining active synagogue, located inside the town’s walled Old City. The local Chabad rabbi has graciously offered to feed me. The language of communication for Jews living in Riga is Russian, which is also the first or second language for everyone else in Latvia. I manage to communicate with the older ones in my pidgin half-Yiddish-half-German. Some of the younger Jews speak Hebrew fluently.

The synagogue makes a lavish kiddush after Shabbat prayers and the big attraction seems to be the generous glasses of vodka. In fact, I get the feeling some people come to services just for the shnapps served afterward. Two old timers at my table get into a noisy quarrel over which of them should get the unclaimed glass of vodka on our table. I bring about peace by offering them my own glass so they will not have to bicker. “But what about you?” they ask. I twirl my finger around my head to show what the extra-strong vodka does to it.

Outside the walled city one is shown the location of the town’s onetime Jewish center, including the Great Synagogue, today nothing but rubble, a park that is “home” to homeless dredges. The city’s large urban market is held in old World War I zeppelin hangers. The large music hall has Jewish stars on its windows, placed there by the local Jewish philanthropists who raised the funds for the building before the war.

Visiting Israeli academics are so unusual in Riga that the Israeli consul himself decides to come to the lecture. Besides the graduate students and professors present, there are also some Rigan bankers and developers. It is the largest turnout for an academic seminar they ever had, I am told.

The crowd in the room settles down. “I am going to tell you about the economic structure of the Rigan housing market,” I begin. “But before that I am going to tell you about my zayde, my grandfather, Samuel Steinman.”

I have a couple of old photographs of him as a boy with his family in Dvinsk and have converted them to electronic PowerPoint slides for the occasion.

I tell them the story of my family’s Latvian roots, about Zayde’s escape from the Czar’s secret police just as they were closing in, and about his journey to America. Once in America, he hoped to save up money to pay for his own parents’ escape. Alas, they – my great-grandparents – died of starvation and disease before that was possible. Meanwhile Dvinsk was renamed Daugavpils and was incorporated into the briefly independent interwar republic of Latvia. It was devoured by Stalin as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov deal with Hitler to divide up Europe.

Following the genealogy, I launch into the academic lecture. I explain to them what is unusual about Rigan housing markets, and especially about the role of architecture in its pricing. I am the only one in the room who cannot pronounce the names of the neighborhood districts of Riga that I am analyzing, but they do not mind.

Toward the end, I introduce them to Israeli humor. I tell them this is going to be the only seminar they ever attend in which they are shown a slide of (former Soviet president) Brezhnev and a slide of a toilet.

The photo of the old geezer Brezhnev, who is still the butt of jokes in post-communist countries, is background to a slide with a table of statistical estimates concerning the effects on pricing of the “Brezhnev-era architectural design” in Riga. The slide with the toilet contains a table showing the effects on pricing of adding an extra bathroom to the design of housing units in the city.

The school’s provost attends the lecture and asks a lot of questions. When the talk is finished, he approaches me. “Some of the senior professors at the school and I would like to take you out for a dinner in your honor,” he says.

I hesitate for a moment. “That sounds wonderful,” I say, “but I wonder if you would mind if we go eat at the kosher restaurant near the campus.” (There is a small modest kosher restaurant in the basement of the Riga Jewish community center, underneath a theater.)

I experience a moment of anxiety as I recall the mocking and snideness of some of my ultra-secularist university colleagues in Israel whenever someone requests that departmental lunches be held in kosher eateries.

The provost considers my request for a moment. As he does, I see in my mind images of my grandfather sneaking through the alleys and back roads, fleeing for his life as a fugitive, and then of the 20th century’s decades of horror for Latvian Jews.

The provost breaks into a smile. Of course, he says, let’s go there, we love that place.

So the cream of the Latvian academic elite spends the evening in the little kosher restaurant with me, eating matzah ball soup and shashlik, drinking kosher wine, spinning academic yarns, listening to Yiddish and Hebrew songs playing in the background.

And I sense my Zayde looking down, remembering his own terrors in his flight out of Latvia a century earlier.

He is no doubt amused by the sight of his nerdy little grandson who once squeaked away on a violin and who raised a dozen cats all named George (including the females), now the honored guest from Israel being toasted and hosted by the Rigans, celebrating with the Latvian professors in the little kosher bistro.

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at He can be contacted at

Copyright 2008

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