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My Father, The Alchemist

May 8, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

How did my father transform himself into gold?

Creation ex nihilo is a feat that only God can accomplish, but my father came pretty close. Out of a frightened child of immigrants who didn't know a word of English when he was deposited at first grade in a rough South Philly school, he created a man of deep self-confidence. Out of a prankster and troublemaker who got expelled from school in 9th grade, he created a man of integrity and generosity. His is more than a "rags to riches" story. His is a story of character development, or rather character alchemy. He turned base traits into golden qualities, without benefit of a master or mentor, or even an example.

He was born in 1903, to a 17-year-old girl who had arrived with her 18-year-old husband on American shores barely a year before. My grandfather, Yosef Yehudah Levinsky (surname provided by an immigration official at Ellis Island), had been drafted into the Czar's army. A Jewish boy serving in the Czar's army entailed, as my grandmother repeatedly told us, "serving 14 years and eight months, and having to eat horsemeat." Yosef opted to flee to America instead, but not without his friend's feisty 16-year-old sister Yachat at his side. Yachat's widowed mother, Esther, was adamant: her daughter was not going anywhere with a boy she wasn't married to. So they married, and fled, and spent all the money Yosef's father gave them bribing border guards between Russia and the German port. By the time they arrived in Philadelphia, they had nothing.

He must have felt like a child enrolled at Julliard with no notion of how to play an instrument or sing a note.

They were still getting settled when their first-born son added to their expenses and their burdens. Eager to Americanize, they chose an English name for him: Israel. The next three children would get proper American names -- Sadie, Harry, and Mamie -- but my father was the child of their transition, of their trial-and-error-without-benefit-of-elders'-wisdom parenting. His parents, teenaged immigrants from a shtetl that had not one paved street, were greenhorns to America, greenhorns to metropolitan Philadelphia, greenhorns to marriage, and greenhorns to parenthood. Yosef became a vegetable peddler. He spoke seven languages, but English was not one of them. When Yachat dropped her son Israel off at his first day of school, the little boy spoke only Yiddish. He must have felt like a child enrolled at Julliard with no notion of how to play an instrument or sing a note. He responded with the only coping mechanism he knew: mischievous misbehavior.

The next decade was a war between my quick-tempered, don't-mess-around grandmother and my messing around father. She enrolled in night school to learn English so she could argue with her son's teachers and principals, who wanted to throw out this wise-guy troublemaker.

Finally, they had their way. Israel (who around that time dubbed himself "Irving") had a teacher who was lame. One of the students tripped the teacher, propelling him flat on his face. Irate and humiliated, he blamed Irving, who was promptly expelled. A cautionary tale: My father was innocent, but his reputation as the class mischief maker did him in.

Two Angels

Then there is a gap of seven years, a gap as mysterious as the missing minutes on the Nixon tapes. What transpired during those post-expel years, I can't imagine, but by the time he was 21, my father had earned a high-school equivalency certificate and a degree in pharmacy, and owned his own small drugstore in Collingswood, New Jersey. Five years later he bought himself a drugstore in a better location -- on the main street of then flourishing Camden, New Jersey.

More important than what he owned was what he had become. The peevish troublemaker had become the loyal servant of two upstanding angels. One was called Responsibility and the other Generosity. He would serve them unswervingly, with whole-hearted devotion, without complaint, for the next 65 years.

When Responsibility called, my father dropped his dreams and ran to answer.

For the sake of Responsibility, my father worked long hours in order to help support his parents and siblings. Yosef had graduated from a push cart to a horse and wagon, and then his own produce store on Dock Street in Philadelphia, but it wasn't enough to support the family. Was the heart condition that would kill him at the age of 61 already weakening him, so that his son had to help out? Or did my grandmother, who venerated education the way some women venerate fashion and who insisted that all four of her children get a college education, enlist my father to pay their tuitions?

All I know is that when Responsibility called, my father dropped his dreams and ran to answer. My father's dream was to become a lawyer. His younger brother Harry had graduated law school and was practicing law. At some point my father decided that the drugstore was bringing in enough income that he could go to night school and get a law degree. He graduated, but before he could take the Bar Exam, the Great Depression struck. Harry and his fellow lawyers were unemployed. People didn't need lawyers as much as they needed medicine, my father concluded, so he bid goodbye to his dream of being a lawyer, just as his grandparents in Russia had bid a tearful farewell to their fleeing children, never to see them again. He adopted a lesser loved child, Lincoln Drugstore, from which he supported the family, including Harry, whom he hired as store manager.

Responsibility made it clear that marriage during the Depression was like spending the family food budget on a holiday in the mountains. Frivolous at best, selfish at worst. So my father deferred getting married until the Depression had safely passed and World War II had resuscitated the economy. Only when the booming shipyard down the street was bringing enough cash into the drugstore did Responsibility give marriage the nod, just past my father's 40th birthday.

With marriage, Responsibility had new tasks for my father. Within a couple years, my mother's widowed mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. She could no longer live alone, so my father bought a four-plex in Parkside, the Jewish neighborhood of Camden. Within the domain of those four apartments lived my parents (soon to have a son and daughter), my maternal grandmother Nana, my paternal grandmother, and my Aunt Mamie's family -- a perfect palace for Responsibility.

When, 11 years later, my immediate family moved out to a ranch house in the suburbs, Responsibility ordained that my father build an upstairs apartment for his mother-in-law, like a square crown atop the house. Her health declined so fast, however, that she was incapable of climbing stairs or taking care of herself, so the architect for the new house was told to add a fourth bedroom downstairs for Nana. My mother took care of her physically, while my father took care of her financially for the rest of her life.

But my father's sense of responsibility extended not just to all family members, but to everyone. The Boy Scouts were recycling newspapers for their fundraising drive? My father made sure no neighbors on our block discarded their newspapers. The plight of homeless people hit Camden in the early 1970s? My father got City Hall to buy 80 trailers as temporary housing.

Generosity Calling the Shots

The other angel, Generosity, was in cahoots with Responsibility, so it was hard to say who was issuing the orders. For example, my father's Aunt Ida became widowed in 1946. She and her husband had owned a large vacant lot on the Black Horse Pike in the hinterlands of New Jersey, but after her husband's death, Aunt Ida could no longer afford to pay the taxes on the property. My father, sure that, as the suburbs of Camden continued to expand, the property would someday be worth a lot, kept the property in Aunt Ida's hands by paying the real estate taxes out of his own pocket. Finally, in 1971, my father deemed that the time was right to sell. He took care of all the tedious details of the sale, and handed over to his elderly aunt the entire purchase price, without deducting the sum he had paid in taxes over those 25 years.

Jimmy, an illiterate black man 20 years my father's junior, was probably my father's closest pal.

It was either Responsibility or Generosity calling the shots, but not my father's own preferences, when Jimmy got married and needed a better paying job. Jimmy was a black school dropout who worked as the janitor in my father's drugstore. I have no idea when Jimmy first started working for my father. My earliest memories include Jimmy as almost a member of our family. My father trusted Jimmy to drive our Plymouth station wagon to make deliveries for the store or to give a lift to my mother (who didn't drive) or us kids during my father's 12-hour workdays. My father depended on Jimmy to help him when the store's alarm went off in the middle of the night, or when a pipe broke and flooded the store, or when my grandmother needed to be lifted from the car to her wheelchair. Jimmy, an illiterate black man 20 years my father's junior, was probably my father's closest pal.

Then, some two decades into their relationship, Jimmy got married. His wife complained that he needed to earn more money. By that time the neighborhood had changed and the drugstore was in the middle of a slum. My father couldn't afford to pay Jimmy more, but he wanted him to be happily married. So my father asked his friend, the furrier across the street, to hire Jimmy as the driver of the fur shop's delivery van. Losing Jimmy -- by his own hand, no less! -- was one of the saddest events in my father's life.


Like every respectable alchemist, my father had a secret life. Although my father never revealed to me his secrets, a recurring experience of my youth hinted that, in addition to the family man, pharmacist, and synagogue trustee that I knew, my father played other roles in his clandestine life.

There were clues. I would often come to the drugstore in the afternoon, make myself an ice cream soda at the soda fountain, take a pile of movie magazines from the magazine rack, and spend a couple hours poring over them in a booth in the luncheonette. When I was ready to go home, I would find my father engrossed in conversation with someone I had never seen before and would never see again. I would interrupt and ask if Jimmy were available to drive me home. My father would turn to the man -- each time someone different -- and ask him if he were going in my direction. The man always eagerly assented. Dad would turn to me and say, "Marty (or Jack or Roger or Arnold) will take you home." When I got out of the car, I would politely say "Thank you." Then he'd reply with some version of: "Don't thank me. I could never repay all that your father did for me."

On my way into the house, I would wonder: What could my father have done for that guy who isn't a relative or even a friend of the family? But when I would later ask my father, he would answer like a wizard protecting his secret formulas: "Nothing."

That only corroborated how much I didn't know about my father. The "Memory Book" we asked relatives and friends to write for in honor of his 80th birthday celebration divulged some secrets, like the story of Aunt Ida's property. While sitting shiva for my father, I heard a lot more. But the main mystery that I never figured out was how my father, growing up as the poor child of immigrants in the slums of South Philly, ever made the acquaintance of Responsibility and Generosity, nor how the unruly, disobedient kid ever became the man who obeyed their every command.

Although I don't know how he made it, I inherited my father's gold. The most precious of it is the conviction that a human being can become whoever he decides to be.

For the aliyat neshama of my father, Yisrael ben Yosef Yehudah, on his 28th yahrzeit.

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