Tag Archives: family history

“The Old Stories,” by David Selcer

How a seemingly ordinary individual can play an extraordinary role

Review by Philip K. Jason

The Old Stories, by David Selcer. Biblio Publishing. 234 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.

It’s hard to separate the strands of memoir, history, biography, and imagination in David Selcer’s provocative, informative, and deeply moving book. Perhaps the genre doesn’t matter that much. It’s a feast of information and revelation, past and present, satisfaction and regret.

As the Nineteen Century came to a close in the town of Kherson within the Ukrainian province of Greater Russia, a young boy – not at all a scholar – toiled with his lessons at the Great Choral Synagogue. He hated his studies, but enjoyed paging through the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the great Jewish storyteller whose Yiddish tales offered humor and profundity. At nine, Chaim Zelitzer could not absorb the great teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. He had a practical turn of mind. At a young age, his was happy enough to please his father and uncle by becoming a skilled metal worker. But he stumbled through his Bar Mitzvah preparation.

Chaim did honor the traditional goal of the Tzadik: of becoming a righteous man.

His older brother, Shmuel, was on his way to becoming a famous cantor.

Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1905) prompted the teenage sailor (Chaim) to “go AWOL” to Manchuria.

He made his way to the United States via Canada (where the immigration process changed the name to Selcer), and a fortunate arranged marriage provided the opportunity to raise a family, and, with his wife, run a business. His children were often embarrassed by his accent, his foreign ways, and a certain coarseness of manner.

No one expected that this man, in his middle years, would become a hero of sorts. Without explanation, soon after the close of WWII, Chaim (now long known as Hyman), became involved for about eighteen months as a worker for the entities that would soon help bring forth the State of Israel. This man, who never had a birth certificate, somehow, with his sophisticated and well-connected Ohio friend Herschel Bloom, worked for the cooperating Jewish organizations that would change the history of the Middle East.

They were part of Aliya Bet, the secret organization that created a secret Jewish fleet for the purpose of facilitating Jewish immigration to Palestine, a crucial step toward undermining the power of the British Mandate for Palestine, which favored other political outcomes for the remains of the former Ottoman empire.

This part of the story is told, long after Hyman’s death, by Bloom, who is questioned relentlessly by Hyman’s younger son, Lester. Lester had been a resentful son growing up in the shadow of his older brother Ben. Just like Chaim had grown up in the shadow of Shmuel. Lester never could please his father; never received praise, encouragement, or even useful answers to his questions. His understanding of his father is modified through hearing Bloom’s narrative of courage and commitment.

This brief stretch of time within the overall narrative includes a romantic subplot in Hyman’s relationship with an attractive woman, Leila, he meets on Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz that absorbed many newcomers to nascent Israel.

Mr. Selcer’s prose has an abundance of descriptive power. He is able to put his complexly-drawn characters into vivid, realistic settings across the decades of his fable-like tale. The author is also able to set forth the historical issues and events with clarity and precision. Moving as well is his handling of the various characters emotional ups and downs.

Is Lester, who is the novel’s primary first-person narrator, actually David Selcer in disguise? It sometimes seems that way. But no: David Selcer is the son of Lester and thus the inventor of the needed fictional answers to the narrative’s questions that would otherwise go unanswered.


A former Ohioan, David Selcer now lives in Sarasota, Florida with his wife, where he decides employment cases for federal agencies as a Federal Agency Decision Writer. Always a buckeye, the Buckeye Barrister (lead character in Selcer’s 4-part mystery series) is an avid OSU fan. Another of his books is the historical novel Lincoln’s Hat and the Tea Movement’s Anger.

This review first appeared in the May-June 2020 issues Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation Lee and Charlotte Counties, and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).  It was also expected to run in my Florida Weekly “Florida Writers” column, but that column, if not dead, is on hiatus. 

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Family history brings wartime France up close and personal

I Was a War Child, by Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard. CreateSpace. 292 pages. Trade paperback $14.95, Kindle e-book $3.99.

This deeply moving and richly informative book traces the journey of the author, her parents, her five siblings, and other relatives as they attempt to survive the Nazi occupation of France. From a northern section of France characterized by large families, the Gaillets could be considered affluent. The author’s father, Émile Pierre Gaillet, headed a major paper manufacturing and distribution enterprise built by his wife’s Avot family. During the war years he was entrusted by other industry leaders to represent their interests and, as much as possible, maintain their independence from the German occupation. frontcover

At this he was quite successful.

His main wartime task, however, was keeping his family safe. The theme of young Hélène’s life (she was born on December 1, 1935), as she recalls it so many decades later, is “moving on.” The narrative proper begins in 1939 as prescient Frenchmen like Monsieur Gaillet sense Germany’s intentions to storm France through its Belgian border. He immediately begins planning for his family’s welfare.

Monsieur Gaillet found it necessary to engage the family in several relocations, both out of necessity and opportunity, seeking the relative safety of places off the beaten track and away from occupation tyranny. They adjusted to a pleasant seaside community; to a monastic institution where they were protected but kept strictly separate from the nuns and others who resided there; and to several other locations for shorter or longer periods.

They also spent some time in Paris, which was a dangerous move motivated in part by the desire to keep the family together, in part by the attraction of Paris even in unplanned dishabille;  and in part by the lure of exceptional accommodations. Here, Madame Gaillet somewhat miraculously built a business as an art gallery owner.

Though the father was a fastidious planner and manager, his wife and children – from whom he was away for long periods – did suffer severe, though survivable, deprivations: prolonged scarcities of food, warmth, clothing, schooling, and medical care. The journeys from one place to another were often quite arduous and dangerous. Being together made these hardships more bearable than if the individuals had been isolated from one another.

de Neergaard-2

For young Hélène, the absence of toys is sometimes as painful as the very empty stomach. For herself, her brother, and her sisters, these years living in fear, often on the run or in overcrowded temporary quarters, are years in which their childhoods were lost.

One of the author’s many achievements is to make this story of her family’s travails representative as well as personal and specific. She does this by keeping in touch with the wider world, setting this story into the larger story of WWII in Europe. On several welcome occasions, when the lens opens up to this wider view, readers are given tools to put the Gallait family story in context. As Madame de Neergaard moves back and forth from the narrower perspective to the broader, each dimension of the story is enhanced. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in November 6, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, the November 12 Fort Myers edition, and the November 13 Bonita Springs and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here Florida Weekly – War Child 1 and here Florida Weekly – War Child 2

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Missing motive complicates true-life mystery

Accountable: The Joseph Usher Story, by Nancy Panoch. Expert Subjects. 272 pages. Trade paperback $17.99. Kindle e-book $3.99.

What began as an attempt to uncover the facts about a family secret back in Iowa led Punta Gorda resident Nancy Panoch to develop a fascinating narrative that captures the flavor of early 20th century rural life, reveals the nature of several fascinating real-life characters, and examines in detail the process of a murder investigation and the consequent legal proceedings at that time.  accountable-3d-hi-res

In May of 1903, a murder takes place on the farm of Joseph Usher and his family. Joseph had built up his dairy farm, on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, into a successful business. As we meet him, the farm family consists of Joseph, his second wife, and his two youngest sons by his first wife. Otto, at sixteen, is a sturdy and reliable worker on the farm, a good role model for his nine year old brother. The woman of the house is Lucy, a very young woman whom Joseph had taken in marriage some time after the death of his first wife. Lucy is a very pleasant and attractive person, but she shows some signs of mental instability.

Nancy Panoch

Nancy Panoch

The family has already suffered some degree of scandal from a relationship between Joseph and one of Lucy’s sisters, but that problem seems to have been smoothed over.

William Garrity is a frequent worker on the Usher farm and a good friend when he’s not drunk. On May 26, Garrity – who has been staying at the Usher home following a drinking bout – is killed. The circumstances of his death are murky, as are the reports to local officials after he is found dead in his room. At first, it seems as if he dies of natural courses, but soon enough a bullet wound is discovered. It seems to be from a weapon in the Usher household that had been hastily and ineffectively hidden.

The investigation begins with Joseph insisting that he simply found Garrity dead in his room after hearing some odd noises, but then he admits to being the murderer and claims it was an act of self defense. Suspiciously, the bedding had been burned before the investigation began. Also, Garrity’s body had been removed from the scene of the crime without proper authority. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the August 1, 2013 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte Florida Weekly as well as the August 14 Fort Myers edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Nancy Panoch

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The Two Sams – memoir

This is the fourth of the five Bookbinders sketches that orginally appeared in Fall/Winter 1997 issue of WordWrights. Those previously posted are found in the “Musings” category: “Butterfly Dress,” “Grandpa Jake,” and “Frieda.”

Like many of you, I had two Uncle Sams. One was my father’s older brother. This Uncle Sam lived in Brooklyn with his wife Minette and adopted daughter, Edlee. We didn’t see them very often. Uncle Sam was so much older than my father that they had each grown up as only children and didn’t have much in common. Even now, though I can see his face in my mind’s eye very clearly, I can’t tell you very much about what he was like. I think he was tall and kind of gentle. I can’t be sure. I don’t even remember how he made his living, nor can I recall anything he ever said. There was a stiffness to his gait, back trouble perhaps, and a way he had of looking sorrowful about some endured failure.

The other Uncle Sam was my mother’s younger brother. Swarthily handsome, slim, thin of hair but not really balding, and slightly bug-eyed, he carried himself with confidence and had a congenial, knowing air. When I first became aware of him, he was the family’s war hero. Actually, he’d had jobs in uniform that connected him to the entertainment industry and U.S.O. activities. He worked in Armed Forces radio, managed clubs for servicemen, and spent time in places like Paris.

There were rumors of his gorgeous Belgian girlfriend, a singer or actress, whom he gave up because he knew she could never be comfortable in his unstylish, lower class Jewish Bronx milieu. Or maybe it was she who ditched him. But he was already beyond that milieu anyway: an articulate, artsy guy who’d seen the world and charmed fantastic women.

Nevertheless, she had been the love of his life and as I grew up and go to spend more and more time with him, it became clear that his dalliances with other women were only that.

He was a great son to Grandma Ida, helping her financially and in almost every other way as she struggled into old age. He was the talented one who seemed to sacrifice a brilliant future to shoulder family responsibilities.

New York fed his interests. He saw all the shows, learned to play the flute, went to gallery openings, shopped at Barney’s long before everyone else caught on. A wholesale liquor salesman whose route took him to stores and bars all over the city, he played golf whenever he could and knew show biz folks from Times Square to The Hamptons. Familiar with the jazz scene (he’d probably known it in Paris), his speech was spiced with hipster argot. An engagement was a “gig”; an assent was “yeah, man.”

He remained a young sport as middle age drew near, and when I moved to New York to finish college and work on my relationship with my lady fair, he was open to us as if we were generational peers. During my first half-year in the city (late 1960), I lived with Grandma Ida and usually slept in what had been Uncle Sam’s bedroom. Sleeping, reading, and imagining in his old bed gave me a worldly feeling that helped my comfort level in Greenwich Village and other exotic haunts.

Sometimes Uncle Sam would leave his suave bachelor pad in the West Twenties and stay over at Grandma’s for a night. During and around dinner and breakfast, he’d give her some quality time. Then I’d switch over to Aunt Emma’s old room.

Sam (by now I’d dropped the “Uncle” in addressing him) was the natural choice for best man at my wedding, though some mistook him for the groom.

Years later, something happened to his circulatory system. His hands, in particular, were affected, and he had to seek a warmer climate to improve his condition and to find congenial work. He didn’t go to Florida, Southern California, or Mexico. No, Uncle Sam went to Spain and settled in the Costa del Sol area. He ran a photo shop, wrote for golf magazines, and settled into an international community that must have held some of the buzz he’d enjoyed as part of the allied establishment in France at war’s end – but without the danger or damage.

My wife and I lost direct contact with Sam, but news filtered through. At some point, we heard that he’d sired a daughter with a Swedish expatriate, and then later we discovered that he was living with a British countess, or ex-countess. Romance dogged him. From a distance, he seemed so glamorous. His letters to my mother, which she would read to me over the phone from her retirement home in Arizona, were filled with references to luminaries like Sean Connery.

After twenty of more years of this, he became seriously ill. Medical treatment in Spain proved inadequate, so he returned to New York and with Aunt Emma’s help tried out the Veterans’ Administration doctors as well as those at New York University Hospital. He brought with him the countess, whom he had married shortly before leaving Spain. Her accent cut through the family’s sludgy New Yawk patois like a gin and tonic heavy on the twist. Operations and strokes followed that left him helpless, inarticulate, that fine cultured mind buried in frustrated silence.

In the end, then, he resembled the older Uncle Sam: stiff and sorrowful, quietly bearing a burden. Looking at him, it was hard to remember all he had been, all the color he’d lent to our humdrum lives.

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Frieda (from “Bookbinders”)


[Originally published in WordWrights, Fall/Winter 1997.]

Every family needs someone like Aunt Frieda, someone who is cursed from the outset and whose misfortunes, while they strain the patience and resources of others, allow those others to measure their luck. Aunt Frieda was always vibrating. Her whole body was in minor agitation, but these tremors were only distant registers of the Bells Palsy that primarily affected her right arm.

Aunt Frieda usually held that arm against her side, so as to steady it as much as possible. Very often she would use it to carry something, a dishtowel perhaps, by pressing it against herself. When she put it and her right hand to use – for buttoning shirts or working in the kitchen – disaster loomed. At best, simple tasks took a long time. She learned to stay within her limits, and at a slow, deliberate pace, she could handle at a rudimentary level the tasks of wife and mother. Along with the psychical slowness was a slowness of another kind. Aunt Frieda had some degree of mental retardation. On top of this, her speech was a little slurred.

Frieda, who was the middle child of the five siblings, aged quickly. Everything she tried to do required enormous effort, and then maybe it wouldn’t come out right. Because she worked overtime, she was always worn out. I think the palsy interfered with her sleep, and that drugs were required to curb the worst effects of her disease. These drugs no doubt robbed her of whatever vividness her low IQ allowed.

When I was a kid, her freakiness scared me. I shunned her vibrating hugs, just as I shunned Grandpa Jake’s whiskey breath. (Indeed, sometimes he had the shakes too, but they were of a different kind.)

And it wasn’t just me. As the family misfit, she collected stares, patronizing remarks, and hostility. Frieda was a family mark of shame. Try as they might to treat her with sympathy and respect, her sisters would grow impatient and angry; they would lapse into abusive expressions. She wasn’t someone to introduce to their friends.

Frieda occasionally reacted with vehement resentment to her family’s sometimes heartless behavior (her brother Sam was the exception), but usually she just endured it. There wasn’t much she could do.

Like each of her sisters, Frieda married and raised two children. This was a miracle in itself. But her household was not a pretty sight. Mel, her husband, was an enormously overweight fellow who drove delivery trucks for a major New York newspaper. His work took place during the night and early morning hours, getting the next day’s papers to the news stands and other points of sale. He’d return home around breakfast time, relax for a while, and go to sleep. Slovenliness went with his girth, and Frieda’s handicaps could not overcome the added burden of Mel’s habits.

Frieda needed household help, and Mel worked too hard and slept at the wrong times to be of much use, though he tried. He made enough money for them to get by, and he was in a strong union that provided a good health plan. Between this and the workers’ compensation that kicked in after his many work-related injuries, they survived. But it was a bare and ugly survival.

Their children, Eddie and Mimi, did not get off to a good start. The genetic load was one factor, the environmental one another. Each has survived and made a place in the world, but when we were all kids Eddie was a wild monster and Mimi a withdrawn, sacrificial lamb. They were handsome children, though.

I’ve been told that my mother, at some point, arranged to have Frieda “fixed” so that she couldn’t have more kids.

Because Frieda’s family was so hard to take, with marginal social skills and outrageously obvious dysfunctions, we did not get together very often. When we did, it was all anxiety and tumult. As I try to remember them, one scene blends shakily into another, and no moments stand out for me now with distinctive narrative hooks. They seem to exist in space, filling it up quite boisterously, rather than in time: a sad tableau of noise, dirty dishes, unmade beds, and wrinkled clothes.

But just the other day, going through old family albums to jog my memory, I found two pictures of Aunt Frieda that I hadn’t paid attention to before. In them, she must be about thirty. One is a portrait of her alone. In the other, she is standing behind me, a small boy, her good hand resting on my shoulder. We are both smiling. The camera has stopped the action, the endless motion, the blur of agitation. In these frozen moments, there is no palsy. Nothing is falling to the floor; nothing has to be done over or with tedious slowness. The face is not contorted by severe concentration or rage or frustration or embarrassment. Aunt Frieda is still, fixed, — and she is unbelievably beautiful.

See also: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/butterfly-dress/

and https://philjason.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/grandpa-jake-from-bookbinders/

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From Kurdistan to La-La Land: a Jewish Journey

This review appears in the February issue of the (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) Federation Star.

“My Father’s Paradise,” by Ariel Sabar. Algonquin Books. 344 pages. $25.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (paperback).

This fascinating, harrowing, and uplifting book, subtitled “A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past,” is one of several recent books that portray lesser-known strands of Jewish history and identity. These include Lucette Lagnado’s “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World” and Dalia Sofer’s novel “The Septembers of Shiraz,” detailing the effects of the Iranian Revolution on a prosperous Jewish family. Ariel Sabar, like Lagnado a working journalist, takes us through four generations of Kurdish Jews, beginning with his great-grandfather’s world. Along the way, he presents a riveting overview of Middle-Eastern history.

Zakho, then a small, desolate frontier town in mountainous northern Iraq near the Turkish border, was a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in relative harmony. Bonded by an overarching Kurdish identity and by the ancient, vanishing Aramaic language, these Jews kept their heads down but managed lives of relative freedom. Geographical isolation played a part in maintaining this “paradise.” Here Ephraim Beh Sabagha, the dyer of Zakho, lived his life as a respected working man and as a holy man who communed with God and shouted out in exaltation to spirits and biblical figures.

The harmonious existence of this family in its community continued into the adult years of Mr. Sabar’s grandfather, Rahamim, who prospered as a businessman along with his brothers. Yona, Rahamim’s son, had his bar mitzvah a year early, just ahead of the Bathist regime’s excesses that led to a huge immigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel in 1951. Sabar observes how the birth of the modern Jewish state in 1948 damaged the peaceful coexistence of the various Sons of Abraham.  Simultaneously, the repression of the Kurds accelerated the decline of Aramaic as a living language.

Successful Kurdistanis like Rahamim found themselves second-class citizens in the wished-for paradise of Israel, trapped in shabby neighborhoods and menial occupations. The ruling class Ashkanazi prejudice against Sephardi and other Jewish strands was especially strong against the Kurds. This immigrant group led lives of humiliation and despair; however, their children slowly made advances in the melting pot society.

One such child, Ariel Sabar’s father Yona, succeeded in school and gained access to higher education – first in Israel, and then in the United States on a graduate school fellowship to Yale. The story of Yona, the narrative’s twice-displaced hero (the second time by his own choice), carries the theme of blurred identity. He marries an American Jew and obtains, after some years of non-tenure track academic employments, a position at UCLA and a home in middle-class Westwood. Yona’s career in this latest paradise involves research into Aramaic, his native language, its vocabulary slipping from his memory even as he becomes an internationally-recognized authority on its history, intricacies, and the culture that it conveys.

Yona accepted his opportunities, escaping his parents’ world of shame and regret. Or did he? He dreams of Zakho. He remains a foreigner in California. His manner, style, and accented, non-colloquial English render him a target of scorn to his son, American-born Ariel. 

Ariel Sabar’s gradual transformation from resentful, disrespectful youth to ardent keeper of his father’s, his family’s, and their culture’s honor, stories, and traditions is the book’s final stage. The author has set and met an astounding challenge – magnificently.

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