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Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. A medical encyclopedia. Scott Joplin records.
Such were some of the cultural interests that occupied my late father, Alex. Dad was born in 1915 in New York’s Lower East Side. Both his parents immigrated from what is now Poland in a wave of immigration due to forces and factors that drove Jews to leave their homes.
My father’s father, Louis, was a paper hangar by trade. Facially, Dad resembled his mother, Rebecca, a skilled creator of wigs.
My father was not a man who talked easily about growing up. Thus what he did say I remembered.
For example, Dad told me that in 1926 his father brought him to see Israel Sandronsky (my paternal great-grandfather and renowned actor) depart on a ship named The Bremen, bound for Poland. As the shipped moved away from its moorings, some people on the docks sang “Deutschland Über Alles.”
Often, I have thought of this moment as my father’s introduction to the Third Reich. It must have been seared into his mind.
To help his family get by during the depression years, Dad left high school before graduating. Times were tough, with every fourth worker officially out of a job nationwide.
In the 1930s, my father was employed in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps. He left the city to work in the country, like many other urban youth during that era of bread lines and “Hoovervilles.”
Accordingly, I think that the only thing Dad ever feared was unemployment. By deed and word, he taught me the importance of holding a “regular” job, a lesson on both humanity and masculinity.
When I complained about my bosses, he reminded me that things could be worse. Case in point is no job, the situation into which he came of age.
Dad was a self-educated man with a wry sense of humor. I think that the seeds of it must have in part been a result of growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.
When World War II erupted in horrific bloodshed, my father enlisted in the Army, serving in India. He was one of millions who fought against fascism.
Its most virulent form was Nazism and the Jewish Holocaust. Both scarred him deeply.
In the armed services, Dad learned how to be a teletype operator. This became his lifetime occupation when he returned to civilian life.
After the war, Dad was hired by RCA Communications in New York, the first member of his family to be employed in corporate America. Prior to then, big corporations didn’t hire Jews, he said.
Dad never forgot who he was, a secular Jew. That was a big part of his American identity.
In 1954, Dad moved to San Francisco, where I was born two years later. My father never left the gorgeous city of hilly streets by the bay and ocean, nor ever lost his New York accent.
My parents divorced in the early 1960s. He subsequently became “Weekend Dad,” regularly visiting my younger sister and me in Sacramento.
Our mother had moved to a duplex on the outskirts of the city after finding work as a public school teacher of deaf children. Then, being children of divorced parents was the social exception.
During those years of cultural and political change, Dad, my sister and I often watched movies downtown on Saturdays or Sundays in venues long gone to the wrecking ball of so-called urban renewal: The Showcase, Encore, Fox and World theaters.
The World Theater was located across the street from César Chávez Park, specializing in double and even triple bills for less than a dollar per ticket. Like us, many working-class families spent weekend afternoons there.
As an 11-year-old, he took me to see “The Graduate” at the old Alhambra Theater, long gone for a Safeway store, in Sacramento. I relished the film’s mature content, plus the fact that I had done something which my classmates hadn’t.
My father was a “liberal” in the sense of the word that doesn’t exist today. He was open to the cultural sea-change in ways my peers’ parents were not, playing Bob Dylan and Odetta records on weekend visits to his S.F. apartment.
Despite working a full week and much overtime, Dad made time to see me play Little League baseball. After the games, we ate and talked, life’s simple pleasures, made more memorable by our geographical separation.
In the early and mid-1970s, Dad attended my high school and community college football games. That meant the world to me to see him sitting in the stands.
Football wasn’t his favorite game. He was a big baseball fan who followed the Dodgers from the time that they played their home games in Brooklyn, his old stomping grounds.
Dad retired from RCA in early 1976. It was past time for such freedom from the time clock.
He subsequently bought a small house outside of Placerville. It reminded him of the Catskills, the so-called “Jewish Alps” in New York, where he had vacationed with his family as a kid.
During Dad’s retirement in the 1980s and 1990s, his wife, Anne, and he enjoyed spending time at his house with their cats, and vacationing in Ashland, OR, to attend plays.
Dad’s favorite was Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” He enjoyed reciting soliloquies from it for my wife, our daughter and me.
Our daughter knew him as a gentle man who sang “Daisy” to her as a young girl. In my mind’s eye, I can still see them together in happiness.
During the mid-1990s, Dad’s health began to decline. He said with a laugh once as we had drinks in a local tavern that he hadn’t yet figured out how to slow down time.
He was a fiercely independent man. Though we didn’t always see eye-to-eye personally and politically, especially about the state of Israel, the Palestinian people and the Middle East generally, I knew that Dad was always there for me.
I look in the mirror and see us. Me and my father.
My father and me. Thanks so much, Dad.
SETH SANDRONSKY lives and writes in Sacramento firstname.lastname@example.org.