They’re all dead now, the dues paying members of the Litwak Family Circle. The smoke-filled Newark kitchen in my Aunt Edna’s and Uncle Abe’s Aldine Street apartment now belongs to others, but that house that Zayda built still stands, incapable of knowing that the cast of characters has changed.
When I was a kid in the 40s and 50s, the house and its tenants were my firmament. I knew every stair that creaked and where Lena the cat’s favorite hide-outs were. Three of the tenants were family and one was like family, except that they never attended the meetings, the bi-monthly family circle meetings, always at Edna’s and Abe’s.
The founders of the group were the Litwaks, the six children of Zayda and his wife, the long gone Rifka, for whom I am named. All but the last child, my Uncle Ben, were born in a shtetl outside of Bialystok, and they were very close in age. I often think of her, my grandmother, who must have been, in Yiddish, a “shtarker,” a strong one. When Zayda came to America, he left her alone in Europe with five very young children, Yankel, who became the debonair Jack, Shaindel who grew into the spirited and beautiful Irene, Asna, the family matriarch, a real pacesetter known in America as Edna, and then the twins, my father, Yisrael, who was the adult Sam, and his younger by five minutes sister, Itka, the always exuberant lover of life, Edith. I never knew the bubba, but she was alone in Europe with five little children, all under the age of 6. And she also ran a grocery store. I, myself a mother of 4 better spaced children, cannot possibly imagine how she did it. But they all survived and, at last, they arrived in Passaic where the treasured New Jersey born Binyamin became Ben, a real American success story.
Of course, had Zayda been wracked by guilt at leaving his young wife for years, and remained in Europe, the story would have had a different ending.
The children grew and married and spread out, a bit, only a bit. Their adult lives found them in Passaic, Brooklyn, and the real lodestone, Newark. But every two months, those family circle meetings were held. The dues paid for the food, usually some slight variation of what was called “appetizing”; the formal meetings with their long forgotten old business and new business always led to that meal and raucous poker games. Zayda especially loved the card games, and he passed the passion to his children.
In 1957 Zayda died at age 86. He was mourned but the family circle continued. And then, a few months later, the 48 year old Irene succumbed to cancer in Edna’s extra bedroom on Aldine Street. Edna, always to be relied on Edna, provided her sister with hospice and love. Irene died before meeting her goal of attending the “kid’s” wedding, the kid being her only child, a son. On the day of her funeral the fabulous red dress she had bought for the wedding sat lonely on its hanger in the tiny closet. Perhaps it still hangs there today, over 70 years later.
Irene with her brilliant smile and flashy clothes had a contagious laughter that made our family circle light up like fireworks. She was fun to be with, a counterpoint to Sidney, her usually friendly but dour husband. There was just no talk about continuing the meetings without Irene. The gaping hole could not be filled. As the grownups used to say, “lucky for Zayda that he died first.”
The demise of the family circle meant that our family get togethers were more rare, even if more spontaneous. We would see each other at major family functions but never again at the beloved family circles.
Jack was the next to die at age 63, and then, a few months later, he was followed by the most shocking loss, Edna, Edna the caretaker, the replacement mama, Edna. She, thin, wiry, always in movement, healthy and energetic, had an abrupt and fatal heart attack one morning in her kitchen. She was 57.
The three remaining children all reached old age, my father had become the eldest and lived until almost 98 in his transplanted home in Israel where he and my mother had moved when he was already 80. He remained in robust good health until a mere few weeks before he died. He bounded up stairs, walked miles in the intense summer heat to my mother’s grave in Herzliya and remained unimpaired mentally or physically. At his death he had a mouth full of his own teeth and no need for glasses. A hearing aid would have helped however.
The other two, Edith and Ben, had lives full of serious ailments, but, nonetheless, each lived until about 90, with their minds intact.
The family circle was finished! Closed for renovations that would never come.
Or so I thought!
I learned recently that there is another family circle that has been taking place these past few years. It’s known as the cousins group. And it must be in their genes because I am certain I never spoke to any of them about the original group.
It’s not Litwak, although all have Litwak roots. They are, each and every one, our 14 grandchildren and their spouses. They don’t serve food. There are no smoke-filled rooms. And it’s entirely virtual. They meet as the need or desire arises, spontaneously, and their gatherings include members in Israel and California and Maryland, Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and of course, still, to this day, New Jersey. They meet to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and anytime the muse strikes. I have never been invited to one of their meetings, cordially or otherwise. I have been led to believe that I am sometimes one of their topics of discussion on Zoom or Facetime or whatever newer iteration of those visual conversations they use. You might think I’m offended to be excluded but I’m actually thrilled and moved that they so enjoy getting together. Let them keep it private. Just let them keep it going and continue to rejoice in each other’s company and share their news, for many many years to come. Just as at Thanksgiving when they were young and would congregate for the annual family kids’ picture on the steps of our living room, we celebrate their togetherness. We love them all and their love for one another.
And so, history has repeated itself. The family is still getting together and I remain just a side effect as I was in the days of the Litwak Family Circle, then a kid interfering with the grown-ups; today an old grown-up interfering with the kids. That‘s a circle!
Thus our lives are a circle, a family circle, lovingly curated through the years. May newer generations continue the tradition, even those who never knew Zayda or Edna or Irene or my father and mother, or even me.