This story starts in Czarist Russia (later Poland) in the late 1800s. A wealthy man, Meir Polchovitz (Pelcovitz) came to the yeshiva in Grodno and wanted the biggest masmid for his daughter Chaya Soroh. He promised to support him for life as long as he sat and learned. The young man who was chosen became my grandfather, for whom I am named. Elchonon and Chaya Soroh had four children: Tzivia, Elka, Akiva, and Meyer (born in 1905). Meyer became my father.
Each year, we remember our dear ones on the anniversary (yahrtzeit) of their passing. Some people fast; some people drink a lechayim. There are different customs, and to each his own. I think recounting who the person was is also a good custom to establish. Baruch Hashem, a number of our grandchildren are named Meir after my father Meyer Oberstein, of blessed memory. Since these children – indeed, their entire generation – are living in diametrically different times, I think it is worthwhile to recapitulate some of the events of my father’s life for their benefit. I am writing for the young crowd, but people of all ages can gain from the lives of our forebears.
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After giving birth to her four children, my grandmother Chaya Soroh unfortunately cut herself on a rusty nail and got blood poisoning. There was no doctor in their town, Tiktin (Tycochin), and by the time they took her on a droshky, a horse-drawn sled to Bialystock and amputated her limb, she was too far gone, and she died. My father Meir was a nursing infant and had no memory of his mother.
Meanwhile, my great-grandfather lost his wealth and could no longer support his kollel son-in-law. (This happened during one of the Russian revolutions – perhaps the one in 1905; I’m not sure.) Now Elchonon had three problems: a house full of children, no wife, and no long-term support. He felt cheated, but, as we all know, life doesn’t always work out the way we plan. Elchonon went to America, the golden land.
After a while, his oldest daughter Tzivia came on a ship to join him; he met her at the dock and took her to a relative’s home but did not tell her that he was returning to Poland on the very same ship the next day. Tzivia was justifiably upset to be left alone in a new country. The story I was told as a child about the reason he returned was that he simply could not stand the lack of religious observance in America. He felt America was a treife medina, where a frum Jew couldn’t live. There may have been another reason, but it is lost in the fog of time.
Back in Europe, Elchonon married a widow with children of her own. I have no knowledge of whether they had any children together or whether any of them survived World War II. This is because Tzivia sent for her siblings and brought them all to the United States. In other words, Aunt Celia saved us from the Holocaust, which came much later.
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My father was a young boy when World War I broke out, in 1914. As the German and Russian armies fought each other in the East, Tiktin was in the middle of an ever-shifting battle front. All the Jewish towns and villages, which were concentrated in that area, suffered great dislocation and privation. My father remembered the starvation and constant danger. He also almost got shot by a firing squad. You see, a curfew was imposed, and no one was allowed on the street. But with no food in the house, Meyer Oberstein took the risk of going out to do some business to earn money for food. He was caught by the Russian soldiers. The order was that anyone outside during the curfew would be shot by a firing squad – no trial or due process – so my father was lined up and about to be shot, when an old Russian commissar with a beard rode up on a donkey and asked the men why they were going to shoot the boy. They said he was possibly a German spy. The old man must have been important, because he told them to let my father go, that he was only a kid and not a spy. That is how close my father came to death. My father was a rationalist; had he been more of a mystic, he would have said that Eliyahu Hanavi came in the guise of a Russian commissar and saved his life. Who knows?
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Meyer Oberstein arrived in New York in 1924, at the age of 19, the last of the four siblings to emigrate. His first memory of America was eating a tomato. Celia (Tzivia) took him to a restaurant, where they served foods he had never seen in Poland. She told him that tomatoes were good for you, so he decided he would like them even if they tasted funny at first. My father was that kind of person. If you told him it was good for his health, he would do it. He was a very disciplined person with amazing self control.
My father didn’t stay in New York. Celia got married, and they moved to Pensacola, Florida. His brother Akiva went there as well. Elka married and moved to Montgomery, Alabama. My father went to Pensacola, too, where he delivered milk with a horse and wagon for the Pensacola Dairy, owned by Celia and her husband. But, he wasn’t happy in Pensacola.
In those days, nearly 100 years ago, many Jews were disgusted with the poverty and oppression they had suffered in the Old Country. They were looking for a new way of life, and for many of them religion was part of the package they were discarding. Tzivia and Akiva were no longer frum. They had suffered in their youth and also experienced war, and were looking for a new road to salvation for humanity. They were socialists. (Now, they call people with their beliefs liberals). Their original goal in moving to Pensacola was to establish a farm and live by the toil of their hands and not off the sweat of the proletariat (the poor workers). Can you imagine? In one generation, they went from kollel to becoming what they called in those days, “free thinkers”?
My father, Meyer Oberstein, thought they were crazy. He was not attracted to their ideas and decided to visit his sister Elka (Elsie) Katz in Montgomery. On Friday night, he went to shul. Now, my father was a handsome young man, and a Mr. Eliezer Weinstock saw him and invited him to come home for the Shabbos meal. My father came into the Weinstock home, which was a frum, shomer Shabbos, chasidic home, albeit in the middle of Alabama. This was much more appealing to him than the freethinkers in Pensacola. But what really made him decide on the spot to remain in Montgomery was my mother. He told me that he and my mother took one look at each other and knew instantly that they were going to get married.
My mother, Pesel, Pauline, was, like my father, a teenager when she came to America. The difference was that she came with her parents and her brother Moshe. They were brought over in 1923 by her brother, my future Uncle Joe, who had come to Montgomery in 1914. They were a warm and loving family, something that my orphaned father sorely missed. They were married, and my father opened a grocery store. They raised three children: Herman, Elsie, and Albert. Then, about the time Albert became bar mitzva, I was born, 13 years younger than my siblings. My parents lived together in harmony for close to 50 years.
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Meyer Oberstein Grocery was in a black neighborhood. All the customers were what we now call African-Americans. He had a number of locations over the years but always in that area. Nowadays, you can become whatever you want. You assume that it is normal to finish high school, go to college, or learn in yeshiva and have any profession you choose. That was not an option for a young immigrant with no resources. My father was an intellectual, a real Litvishe Yid, someone who could have been a talmid chacham like his father and the generations before that, but he never had the chance. His Jewish education ended around age 10, when World War I broke out. Of course, he never had a college – or even high school – education, either. But my father was self-educated and knew quite a lot, especially about human relations.
Here are two stories: During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people were out of work. President Roosevelt created work programs so people wouldn’t starve. My father had an idea. He went down to the office of the WPA, where they were giving out jobs and told them that he knew men in the Black community who would really use their job to feed their families. Instead of these poor black men coming down and waiting in line with all the white people (where they would have not been able to compete because of the discrimination), my father offered to send the agency a pre-selected list of black men who were vetted by him. The WPA agreed, and gave the men jobs. In that way, Meyer Oberstein helped many families survive the Depression, including his own. These men all bought their groceries from his store, and he did not sink during those hard times, because his customers loved him.
One more story: My father saw a man stealing from him. He was putting something in his back pocket. Instead of calling the police, Meyer Oberstein calmly took the man into the back of the store and tapped on his back pocket. The man was so grateful not to be arrested or put to shame that he became a lifelong admirer of my father, who would do anything for him. These and many other stores explain why our store was never picketed or harassed during the Civil Rights era. My father did not preach social justice; he lived it.
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Today, it is much easier to live as an observant Jew. This was not the situation for most of the immigrants of my father’s generation. But he was totally supportive of my mother in every way, to the best of his ability. I remember that we had a blech on the stove on Shabbos. My mother was also not educated in halacha but did whatever her mother taught her. That was Jewish education for girls in those days.
We went to shul regularly, especially the late Friday night services that began at 8 p.m. My father was proud that he was the only Jewish grocery store owner in Montgomery who would chase customers out and close the store and rush to shul. The weekend was the busiest time of the week, because the workers got paid then, and you had to get them to pay their bills before they spent it elsewhere. Everything was on credit, and if you didn't get paid on the weekend, the customers no longer had the money by Monday morning.
I could go on and write more chapters in this saga, but I will close with some lessons I learned from my father:
1) “You have to read between the lines.” I never understood what he meant until later. My father studied the newspaper and tried to understand stories on a deeper level. In yeshiva language it is called mavin davar mitoch davar, to analyze something for its inner meaning.
2) “Look at the person, not his profession.” My father’s greatest regret was not going to medical school. He really believed he would have made a good doctor, and I also believe it, had he ever had a chance. Do not judge someone based on his job. The job is not the man; it is only how he earns a living. A great person can have a lowly job, and a mediocre person can have a cushy job and be rich.
3) “Girsa d’yasnkusa.” This is a talmudic phrase for “what you learn as a child that stays with you into old age.” Although he only went to cheder for a few years, he could daven and understand Chumash even 50 years later. When I went off to New York to Yeshiva University high school, he was most supportive and happy for me to do so. I would come home to Montgomery and describe to him how religious the Jews were up in New York, the chasidim, etc. Now, my father had not seen this inside since his cheder days in Tiktin. He looked at me and said, “I may not be a tzadik in Boro Park, but, I am pretty good for Montgomery.” Then he said, “Noach ish tzadik haya b’dorosov – Noah was a righteous man for his generation.”
4) One final lesson, the definition of a fool is that he can’t keep his mouth shut and says whatever is on his mind. A naar – Vas iz auf di lung iz auf di tzung – What is on his lung is on his tongue.”
These were a few of my father’s lessons, some of which I still need to review and absorb. Tevet 28 is his yahrtzeit. In recognition of that date, my daughter-in-law Nina, who lives in Modiin, has educated her children to light a candle on that day after the one for whom they are named. All of my children know that, to me, family is very important.
I hope that these recollections will help my grandchildren named Meyer and all the other children and adults to gain some inspiration from the life and times of Meyer Oberstein, may his memory be a blessing.