Meeting My Cousin Bill Becker

by Liz Cooksey

 

 

 

 

[Note: For clarity, all references to "Jack" refer to Jack Becker, my father.  And again for clarity, all references to "Bill" are to Bill Becker, my new-found cousin, son of my father’s brother Isadore.]

 

 

Harriet, Liz and Bill, January, 2004

                                               

 

 

 

 

            After posting my father Jack Becker’s memoirs on "Shtetlinks" <www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/sadgura/sadgura/html> ­ the memoirs of his boyhood as a Sadagora [Sadgura] refugee during the First World War and Bolshevik Revolution –  Shtetlinks’ webmaster Bruce Reisch came across some information which led me to the successful conclusion of an effort I had been wishing for and trying to achieve, for decades – a contact with a close member of my father’s family who was willing to send me a photograph of my grandparents.  This was in May, 2003.  My new-found cousin Bill Becker responded to a letter I had originally sent to another relative, and Bill and I got acquainted by telephone and e-mail over the next few months.  On page 9 you’ll see a photo Bill recently sent of his parents on their wedding day.  This is Jack’s brother Isadore and his bride Florence.

 

            By fortunate coincidence, I had a conference to attend in Bill Becker’s hometown in January, 2004.  I let Bill know about this, and we made plans to meet. 

 

            After my morning conference meeting concluded on Saturday, January 9, I waited (as we had arranged) for Bill to meet me in the hotel lobby to go to lunch, spend the afternoon together, and have dinner with each other.  He had sent me a recent photograph of himself with his wife Harriet upon their wedding day two years ago, so I had some idea what he looked like, and he, too had seen my photograph on my website.  Still, I sat was with a mixture of excitement and a little tension that all would come together as planned.

 

            Very soon within the timeframe he had given for his arrival at the lobby, in he walked!  I stood up, he pointed at me from across the room, and we both grinned.  When he got closer to me, he said, "You look just like my Aunt Jean [the younger of Jack’s two sisters]!"  Naturally, I was tickled by that.  As we walked to his car, we made a little small talk about our insecurity about recognizing each other, but as the car was there at the curb we didn’t talk long.  Waiting for us in the car was Bill’s second wife, Harriet Salter Becker (they were both widowed after long marriages to their first spouses).  She is a dear – comfortable and comforting to be with from the first minute. (Harriet hopes that friends she has lost touch with might read this and want to contact her, so she has asked me to provide her maiden name, "Harriet Jackel" and her first married surname, "Klareich."  If any readers should want to contact Harriet, they are encouraged to contact me, and I will facilitate their reaching Harriet.)

Harriet and Liz and Mario's

 

            As we rode along a bit, we filled our conversations with how glad we were to finally meet, and what a phenomenon it was that we were able to do so, etc.  Soon, it came time to discuss the upcoming meal.  The question I "feared" most came, "So, do you like fish?"  I had anticipated this a little, partly because I knew the family had owned a successful fish shop in the Bronx.  When I confessed that I didn’t like fish – but that I like everything else – they jokingly asked how it was I could have turned out that way, with our family heritage.  They smoothly moved into the next mode – what kinds of food did I like best, discussion between the two of them which of many restaurants to go to, how to get there, etc.  Our discussion was animated and happy, throughout.

 

            They took me to a wonderful local Mexican restaurant where the staff let us sit and talk for hours after our meal was finished, and here is some of what I learned.

 

            Harriet knew Bill’s first wife Abby, and Bill knew Harriet’s first husband.  They were all members of the same synagogue.  Harriet is president of the sisterhood and a lifetime member of Hadassah there, and has been in leadership positions for years.  Abby was on her board.  Harriet’s first husband was a specialist contractor in plaster lathe and some other things, and realized he was ill far enough before his death to arrange to sell off parts of his business and leave her without the worries of doing that.  She has several children of her own.  Bill himself owned a big fish business, and after retiring (he is 78) was asked to drive the courtesy car for a Chevrolet dealership, something he likes to do as he loves being with people and learning new things.  He says he always learns from the people he drives home/to work.  He’s an excellent driver – handles the local expressways beautifully.

 

            Bill and his first wife Abby had three children.  He and Abby had three children.  He has adult grandchildren, one of whom recently graduated from a prestigious hotel management program, another is a nurse.

 

Abby, Bill's first wife, and Bill, dating

            Bill was in the Air Force during the Second World War, stationed for some time at a Savannah Air Force Base which is now our municipal airport.  He brought Harriet to Savannah a few years ago and they both love it here.  Now they have definite plans to come visit us and see the town again.  Bill’s unit, the 801st/492nd Bomb Group (Harrington), was heavily involved in dropping supplies to the Resistance Movement (against the Nazis) – all over the world.  During the War, his group was not allowed to say what they were doing, but now they are letting everyone know, and recently enjoyed a reunion for which Bill did a lot of the organizing.

Florence and Isadore Becker, 1925

 

            About our mutual grandparents, Josef and Rivka Becker (whom I’ll call "Grandpa" and "Grandma" from here on in this report):

 

            Bill confirmed that they had had an arranged marriage.  He also confirmed Jack’s telling me that they had died within months of each other.  Bill knew more details, as he was around when they got ill and passed away.  Here is what happened:

 

            Bill knew more details, and told me they are buried in the Hebrew Benevolent Cemetery on Staten Island, in the Bukovina-Bessarabia Society section. (They belonged to that association.)

 

            On the immigration manifest at Ellis Island, our grandparents’ children are listed as Itzik (Isadore) born in 1902,  Yankel (Jack), born in 1904, Mindles (Minnie), born in 1906, and Regina (Jean), born in 1908.  Jack told me that a fifth child, Sarah, was born in 1910, but she died at 10 days’ old.  Bill’s father was Isadore.  Isadore married Florence in 1925 (that’s when the big wedding photo was taken).

 

            Our grandparents made cherry vishnak [can be spelled "wisniak"] at home.  (I remember Jack doing this in the basement of our Michigan house.)  It’s a sweet cherry cordial.

 

            At one point, Bill leaned a bit toward me and said, "There is something you should know.  Our family are cohens."  My father had said this, too, but it was nice to have the confirmation of his memory – that is, that it wasn’t some fuzzy misunderstanding from his childhood years.

           

            After lunch, the cousins drove me around their city, showing me places of interest from their past, and other places of special interest.  As we drove along, Harriet astutely observed that my interest in my Jewish heritage was so strong that I’d be delighted with a dinner in a good Jewish restaurant, and so there we went – a large local deli.  It was wonderful!  I asked her to order for me, something that Bill’s and my grandparents would have eaten.  I had "Mishmosh," a bowl with traditional chicken soup,  a large tasty matzo ball, a meat-filled dumpling, as well as large, attractive chunks of cooked carrots.   Harriet also ordered a "kosher-style" corned beef on rye sandwich for me, but I was too full to eat it then, so I took it back to my hotel where I kept it in the refrigerator until early the next morning, when it made a savory breakfast for me.  I knew it would be good, as Bill had been kind enough to give me part of his own corned-beef on rye sandwich at dinner

 

            Throughout the day and the next, I learned some wonderful stories about the grandparents and their children.  I’ll write them down here. 

 

            Josef [Grandpa] came to this country and worked for a while as a stair building carpenter.  Once, he got pretty badly hurt, and didn’t get the right legal advice about compensation, and so ended his carpentry career.  He got a pushcart and started selling fish.  He did well with that, and was able to buy a store in the Bronx at 1595 Bathgate Avenue.  [An internet search shows that a building with the same address still exists and seems to be occupied by a business, "Avne Packaging."] At this store, Rivka [Grandma] stayed in the store selling at retail, while he negotiated for the fish on the wholesale market.  They employed their children and some of the grandchildren, as well when they opened a fish store in Rockaway Beach between 34th and 35th Street on Edgemere Avenue.  Neither Grandpa nor Grandma could ever read or write, but both were very good with mental arithmetic.

 

            Later, they owned two pieces of property on Far Rockaway, and on one of those properties Bill and Abby and their little daughter lived in an apartment while Bill still worked for his dad. (As a complete coincidence, Harriet and her family rented living space on one of the properties for family visits to the beach when she was a child!)

 

            Grandpa had a very hot temper and rigid ideas about how others should behave.  All the children were somewhat afraid of him.  The girls, Jean and Minnie, grew up to be able to hold their own against him, though.

 

            Minnie apparently was quite a woman.  She spent some time dancing with the George Raft group.  She called herself "The Star [fish seller.]"   She married an Italian, and went to live with him on Arthur Avenue (this used to be the heart of Little Italy), but continued working in her father’s shop.  She became locally famous for her Italian cooking as well, and would bring Italian food to the fish market to the delight of her siblings and parents.  However, she stepped over the bounds of good kosher cooking on occasion.  Once she made fried shrimp and left a plate of them on the counter at the store.  Grandpa, unfamiliar with the shape of this delicacy, thought they were a meat-stuffed pastry, and grabbed one and ate it.  He loved the taste and exclaimed, "Minnie!  These are the best [pastries] you’ve ever made!  What did you put in them?"  And she retorted, "I didn’t make those for you.  Those are shrimp.  Serves you right – taking something I didn’t intend for you!"  And Grandpa got both angry and sick – he vomited.

 

            Bill called Minnie "a roustabout," a "string puller" – the one who could be counted on to get anyone out of trouble.   She seems to have inherited her father’s temper.  "The Star’s" modus operandi for getting the most sales was to skim the best fish from the storeroom boxes for "her" customers, leaving the rest for "the boys" to try to sell.  Bill remembers trying once to subvert her methods by bringing in the usual 100 pound boxes of fish, but "burying" the box with the best fish four boxes down in the stack (that is, under 400 pounds of less good fish) .  When Minnie discovered what he had done, she flung the 100 pound boxes one by one on the floor until she came to the best box, and then took a 2x4 and threatened Bill with it saying she’d "kill" him if he ever played a trick like that on her again.

 

            There was another cousin named "Billy Becker."  When Bill and Billy were very young, Bill was called "Willy" to differentiate him from "Billy."  The boys developed a way for their grandparents to know who was telephoning them.  Bill ("Willy") called them "Zeda" and "Bubba," while Billy called them "Grandma" and "Grandpa."  Bill laughingly says he was irked by having to use the Yiddish for them when he was a kid – he wanted to use American!

Billy and Bill in front of Beckers Fish business, note sign

 

            Another story about Grandpa’s temper: While working for him, Bill once slept a little too late.  He awoke to hear Grandpa shouting all the way down the street, "Where is that [scamp]!  He’s late to work.  I’m gonna "kill" him!!"  But Bill was able to jump out of bed, dress, and make it to his door before Grandpa arrived, and greeted Grandpa, "What’s all the fuss, Grandpa?  I’m here!"  Still, at the end of the year, when it was time to give out the annual bonuses to those who worked for him, Grandpa turned to Bill and warned him that he wasn’t going to get one, because "You’ve been late to work two times this year!"  Grandma, though, gave Bill a little wink and quietly said, "Don’t you worry, you’ll get your bonus."  And he did.

 

            I was surprised to learn that Grandpa really enjoyed his liquor, as Jack never touched a drop in my entire experience.  But apparently Grandpa could pour out a glass of 100-proof liquor and drain it down in one gulp – and hold it.  The wholesalers with whom he dealt gave him bottles of fancy liquor at holiday time, and he tucked them out of sight around the house.  One year, Grandma, disapproving, found them, and when he learned this, Grandpa lamented, "Rivka, Rivka!  What are you doing to me!?  You are going to ruin me!"

 

            Isadore was such a kindly man that his father often reproached him, "Whefin die zentabdk.  Kinawah miit lagen a guldena mitzineh."   ("Don’t be so good.  When you die, no one is going to lay a golden tombstone for you.")  When he was older, Isadore was sought after by women needing advice, more often than was their rabbi!  He, like Jack, couldn’t walk a block in his hometown without being stopped by a friend for some chitchat.

 

            More about Isadore – after Bill was born, Isadore moved his family to Mechanics Street in New Rochelle, New York, where he started his own fish business.  (This is also where the homemade gin was made.)  Bill’s first memory of his father was after he, a very little boy, had made some childish transgression and his mother (Florence) threatened, "When your father comes home, he’s going to let you have it!"  So, Bill hid under the table.  But, when his father came home, there was no corporal punishment.

 

            Those were the family stories I heard during my two days with Bill and Harriet.  I’ll finish up by describing Sunday morning and early afternoon for you.  By arrangement the Beckers picked me up at my hotel Sunday morning around 9 a.m. and we drove out to a place they discovered through Bill’s son Larry, who runs a sales and delivery (?) route out that way.  On the way, we went through the beautiful Balboa Park, with its museum after museum, and theaters.  There is a group of little "international houses" there, one of which is devoted to Jewish culture.  Harriet says their synagogue takes a turn at staffing it regularly.  Breakfast was delicious, and ample.  Afterwards, we drove out to the local harbor, where there were a good number of famous old ships anchored.  We took a lot of photos.

 

            And alas, after that, it was time for me to go back to my meetings, so with fond farewells and promises to stay in touch and visit each other, the Beckers dropped me off at my next conference function, at the U.S. Grant Hotel.  Since then, Bill has sent me a lot of really sharp photos from his digital camera, and some scanned photos from "the old days." 

 

 

Harriet and Bill near the Midway, 2004
Liz and Bill, January 2004

                                                                                   

 

           

 

           

 


                                    The large group wedding photo taken in 1925, featuring bride Florence and groom Isadore Becker.  (Isadore was Jack’s older brother.)  (This is the first photo Bill Becker sent me.  His parents are Florence and Isadore.)

 

First, two families to know about:

 

Jack’s father Josef immigrated to the U.S. in 1913 along with his cousin Abraham.  They came on the "Ryndam." [Dutch spelling is Rijndam.]

           

 

Abraham’s family

 

According to the ship’s manifest, Abraham was 22 when they crossed.  Abraham is listed in the 1930 census along with his family, living at 1595 Bathgate Avenue, the Bronx.

 

Their names and ages as listed by the census:

 

1930

Abraham (spelled Abravam later) – 39

Eva (his wife) – 38

Children

Israel – 16

Lillian – 13.5

Solomon – 11

Joseph – 3.5

           

 

 

Josef’s family

According to the Ryndam’s manifest, Josef was 34 when they crossed.  This fits with a birth year of 1879 given me years ago by Jack.  (Later, Josef was referred to by his family as "Yussel.")

 

Jack’s mother Refka [on manifest]/Rivka (also known as Rose and Rebecca) came on the Niew-Amsterdam in 1920, along with the children.  Here are their ages, as listed on the manifest:

 

1920

Refka - 38

Children

Itzik (known later as Isadore/Izzy) - 18

Jankel - (known later as Jack – that’s Jack, of course) - 16

Mindles (known later as Minnie) - 14

Ruhles (known later as Regina/Jean) - 11

 

So keep in mind these families names and ages as they would have been in 1925, when the photograph was taken (using the names the family now uses for them):

 

Josef/Yussel – 46

Rivka – 43

Isadore/Izzy – 23

Jack (not pictured) – 21

Minnie (not pictured)  – 19

Regina/Jean – 17

 

Abravam – 34

Eva – 33

Israel – 11

Lillian – 8.5

Sol – 6

 

__________________

With the help of two living relatives, the people in the photograph are identified as follows:

 

 

Back row very top:

Jean Becker, Jack’s younger sister

A young man unidentified, but from his resemblance to Abraham and his age, I’m wondering if it is Israel Becker, Abraham’s son.

 

Next row, close to top:

Sam der Reyter ("the Redhead" in Yiddish)

Eva Becker, Abraham’s wife (Jean’s hand on her shoulder)

Abraham (Eva’s hand on his shoulder)

unidentified woman

Louis Becker

Chikah/Laiker (a good cook, says Bill)

her husband

Gussie (odd looking hand is real, apparently – not a paste-up)

 

Next row down:

Mary Becker (married to Sam "the Redhead")

Josef/Yussel Becker (Jack’s father)

bride Florence

groom Isadore

Rivka Becker (Jack’s mother)

Gussie’s husband (seated, arm around child)

unidentified child

 

Children at bottom of photo:

According to Sol’s wife, probably daughter of Mary and Sam

below her, another of Mary and Sam’s daughters

next to that girl, Philip, Mary and Sam’s son

Behind Philip, Lillian Becker, Abraham’s daughter

center boy at bottom, Charlie Becker

next to him, with fingers intertwined, Bob Becker

Frowning little girl – "not a Becker"

at very end, hands clasped, Sol Becker, Abraham’s son