Preparing for Guatemalia Bar Mitzvah, Simon Kreindler lived with my mother and me in 1952

Editor’s note: When I was 6, my mother Miriam invited 12-year-old Simon Kreindler to live with us at the request of his father. The year was 1952 when Simon arrived at our small apartment in Miami Beach, Florida after flying from his home in Barbados  While Simon lived with us, my mother helped prepare him for his bar mitzvah to be held in Guatemala where Simon’s grandparents lived. Mother and I went to the celebration in Guatemala City in 1953. The following year, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the legally elected government of that country. Fifty-four years later, Simon, who lives in Toronto with his wife Ruby, got back in touch and we renewed our friendship. Meeting Simon for dinner at Penn State’s Nittany Lion Inn, I finally had the opportunity to approve of his marriage to the lovely and charming Ruby Kreindler, who at that point was a grandmother.  Last month, Simon published “More Than Just Words, A Memoir.” What follows is his chapter entitled: Bar Mitzvah.


Simon Kreindler and Joel-Solkoff, Miami Beach, Florida,1952
Simon Kreindler and Joel Solkoff, Miami Beach, Florida,1952

As alluded to earlier, Joe [Simon’s father] was intent that I would learn about my Jewish heritage and be prepared for my Bar Mitzvah. In September 1952, he brought me to the Miami Beach Jewish Centre where we met Norma Lewin, secretary of the congregational school. Joe explained he was looking for a Jewish family with whom I could live for the academic year and as luck would have it, Norma’s good friend and next-door neighbour, Miriam Solkoff [later to become Miriam Schmerler], was interested. I moved in, with her, enrolled in the local public school, attended congregational classes at the Centre on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons (where, coincidentally, Miriam was my teacher) and Bar Mitzvah classes on Sunday mornings with another teacher.

A Brooklyn native, 27 year-old Miriam and her six year-old son, Joel, lived in a modest bungalow on Alton Road. Miriam ran a tight ship but was a good mother and always treated me well. I soon became a surrogate big brother for freckle-faced Joel who loved to play cowboys and Indians.

Although I missed Sara, Peggy, and Maurice, I saw Joe from time to time when he passed through Miami on his buying trips to New York and Montreal.

Probably the most difficult part of adjusting to life in Florida was witnessing the discrimination by white people against blacks. Buses prominently displayed signs directing blacks to sit in the last three rows; they were forced to use separate bathrooms and water fountains; and were not allowed to eat in the same restaurants as white people or use public beaches. I had not been used to this in Barbados and it made me very uneasy.

When I could put this grim reality out of my mind, there were many new things to see and do. TV was a novelty and I often watched the “Howdy Doody” show with Joel on Miriam’s black-and-white set after school. I enjoyed roaming around in Woolworth’s and Kresge’s 5¢-and-10¢ stores with their huge selection of toys and was fascinated by the escalators in Burdines Department store where Joe sometimes took me shopping when he visited Miami. Supermarkets with their endless varieties of food were also intriguing but I was particularly fond of the corner store near Miriam’s that sold my favourite dessert – miniature cans of fruit cocktail. It was a treat to wander on Lincoln Road (now a pedestrian mall) past store after store with their doors wide open, blowing cold air out in an attempt to lure customers inside. Even as a 12-year-old I was struck by this wastefulness, knowing that electricity in Barbados was so expensive.

On Friday night, Miriam always lit candles and served a traditional Shabbat dinner. On Saturday morning, service at Temple Emanuel, next door to the congregational school, was followed by a lunch of cold  chicken sandwiches on challah slathered with mayonnaise. So delicious I can still taste them 60 years later.

Saturday night roller-skating in the park across the street from Miriam’s home was a popular activity for the neighbourhood youngsters and I joined a throng of other kids who skated around and around the four adjoining tennis courts until the music was turned off around 10 PM. Sundays were reserved for swimming at one of the hotel pools on the Beach where Miriam and Norma, a divorced, blond bombshell, rented a cabana. In retrospect, I suspect both were anxious to meet men because neither ever left their deck chairs to venture into the pool. Because Joel could barely swim, I amused myself by jumping off the diving board or searching for loose change that I sometimes found at the bottom of the pool.

Halloween was unknown in Barbados but that fall I was introduced to the holiday by Harris, a neighbourhood peer I had befriended. He dressed up as the Grim Reaper, wearing a sheet over his head and carrying a scythe and I, as Father Time, wearing a sandwich board decorated with clocks front and back. Although the treats were great, I remember feeling a little stupid walking around the neighbourhood in costume.

The academic standards at Dade Junior High, the public school I attended, were so much lower than those at Lodge, I hardly had to study the entire year and while I enjoyed the “vacation” this permitted, being in a co-ed environment was even better, especially since our music teacher allowed us to play spin the bottle in class. Congregational school was an entirely different matter as Miriam took her job seriously and expected me to work hard. In my Bar Mitzvah class I studied my Torah portion and maftir, and rehearsed with the help of an audiotape my instructor had prepared.

I had many wonderful experiences that year: eating at the famous Wolfie’s Delicatessen with Joe when he was in town; visiting the Parrot  Jungle; watching Jai Lai and the dog races on TV; and “almost” rubbing shoulders with the famous boxer, Rocky Graziano, who supposedly owned the large house just down the street from Miriam’s. I witnessed the northward expansion of the Collins Avenue hotel strip and the beginning decline of the smaller hotels that now comprise the Art Deco district. By the end of my stay, I had become very fond of Miriam, Joel, and Norma, and knew I would miss them when I returned home.

Family in Guatemalia for my Bar Mitzvah. Standing L-R: José Habe, aunt Lily, Sara,   my grandparents, Joe, Sarita and Abie Habie. Sitting: Joel Solkoff, Zakiya Habie. Carol Gerstenhaber, Marice, and Miriam Solkoff

At the beginning of August 1953, my parents and Maurice [Simon’s brother] met me in Miami and we flew to Guatemala. My Bar Mitzvah took place at the Hebrew Centre in Guatemala City on August 8th. My grandparents and my Uncle Edy and Aunt Lily were there, along with many of their friends. To show their appreciation for all that she had done for me, my parents invited Miriam and Joel to join us, and they came too. A Kiddush  lunch followed the morning service and there was a dinner in the evening. I know this not because I remember it but only because I have a copy of the invitation! The only memories I have are of a few of the gifts I received, a camera from my uncle and aunt, a biography of Chaim Weitzman from Miriam, and a blue Parker fountain pen with my name engraved on it.

I learned practically nothing at Dade Jr. High the year I was there and paid dearly for it when I returned to Lodge in September 1953. The headmaster decided I was too far behind to be promoted and kept me back in second form. I was disappointed, but in retrospect it was probably a good thing because had I been promoted, I would have been only 16 when I graduated and probably too immature to start university.

— from More Than Just Words, A Memoir by Simon Kreindler

Copyright © 2013 by Simon Kreindler. All rights reserved.

Joanna paid homage to her grandmother on her wedding day

When Joanna and Jade married, Joanna inserted into the service a remembrance of my mother, her beloved grandmother, Dr. Miriam P. Schmerler who died Monday, September 6, 2010.

My mother when she was 20.
My mother when she was 20.

The ceremony was performed by Jackie Trotter Dove and Sarah Stein. After I gave Joanna away, I sat next to her mother Diana as we had rehearsed the night before. Dianaandme


When Diana cried during the service, I handed her my handkerchief. She said, “I knew you would have one. Thank you.” Sarah Stein announced that in remembrance of Joanna’s grandmother–whom she called Nana–she would recite Aaron’s prayer in Hebrew. This is the translation [Numbers 6-24-26]:

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make Her face shed light upon you and be gracious to you.

[The following is where my emotions went out of control] יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

May the Lord turn Her face toward you

and give you peace.

Since I was five, I remember hearing the prayer in Hebrew and responding in Hebrew, “May this be God’s will.” [My sister later told me she repeated the response.]

After saying, “Kane yehey ratzon,” I wept.

I discovered Diana had returned my handkerchief placing it in my lap.


By happenstance, while looking for something else in my computer files, I discovered the following biographical sketch which I wrote the day after Mother died. I was unsatisfied with the eulogy I wrote the day before and wanted to say more.

I think of my mother as an heroic figure whose strength I will continue to make periodic attempts to describe.


Notes in remembrance of my mother

In the golden heyday of silence, they were more than mere stars. They were gods and idols, and the fabulous picture palaces of the era were cathedrals where the adoring multitudes worshiped. –from Movies of the Silent Years edited by Ann Lloyd

My mother got a raw deal when she was born on January 17, 1925 to a frightened teenage girl feeling pangs of guilt over her impulsivity. It all began two years earlier when a nearly 16 year-old Celia Schneider, my grandmother, went to the movies and fell in love (grandmother’s description was more licentious than mine) with a musician in the orchestra.

There was a uniform-wearing orchestra because those were the days of silent films and live music was routine. My grandfather, as he was to become, was Salvatore Pellecia who was born in the south of Italy and who played the clarinet and later the saxophone, then regarded as a risqué instrument. “It was the uniform I fell in love with,” my grandmother later explained.

Several times Celia and Salvatore ran off and got married. Several times my Jewish grandfather, known to me only by his Yiddish designation Zeda, tracked down Salvatore and put him in jail for running off with an underage woman. Finally, Zeda gave up trying to control his daughter whose persistence resulted in an unchallenged marriage ceremony in Elkton, Maryland. Celia’s Jewish family mourned her as if she were dead as was customary in the Jewish community at the time when a Jew married a non-Jew.

My mother was born in Lexington, Kentucky where Salvatore had a gig. The labor was long and difficult. The physician used forceps to pull the baby out from my grandmother’s womb, and the physician held the instrument too tightly causing the infant to bleed profusely. Celia took the bleeding of her baby to be a sign of her guilt, and she had to force herself to hold her child whose wound did not heal quickly. [Years later, when my mother was a stunningly beautiful woman, she talked with some frequency about going to a plastic surgeon and having the then nearly unnoticeable scar removed.]

When Mother was two and a half, the talking motion picture The Jazz Singer premiered. Talkies destroyed Salvatore’s career in a country-wide layoff of silent movie orchestra musicians. Salvatore could not find work and the young family moved in with Salvatore’s parents. Mother’s first language was Italian. Later, when she could bring herself to speak of that period, Mother would say, “If I were ever hypnotized, I probably would remember the Italian I have forgotten.”

Salvatore was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, a dramatically paralyzing illness to which Mother attributed multiple explanations for frightening behavior which caused Celia reluctantly to return to her Jewish relatives. My grandmother did not like having to say she was sorry. The Depression and the poverty it brought combined with an incident where Salvatore, unable to find work for himself, insisted he would not allow his wife to work. Celia had obtained a hard-to-find job in a candy factory.

Salvatore reportedly said that if Celia went to work, Salvatore would hurt my mother. That, my mother explained, was the catalyst for Celia’s penitent return to the Bronx where Celia’s father and mother lived and where a place was found for Celia and Muriel in the home of Celia’s sister Tanta Masha and my great great Uncle Sol, who worked in a delicatessen. Muriel was my mother’s first name as recorded on the birth certificate.

When pregnant, Celia had read a novel in which Muriel was the blind heroine. Upon returning to her Jewish family, Mother changed her first name to Miriam. In Biblical times, Miriam had been the sister of Moses; she sang a beautiful song, recorded in Exodus, after learning the Egyptian army had drown and died. According to Jewish law, Mother was Jewish because her mother was Jewish.

Her new family did not always recognize this reality. Celia’s older brother Abe, an accountant, found his sister a job in a garment factory sewing bras and girdles. (“I did uplifting work,” she later said describing the same job she held for more than three decades.) However, while Abe found his sister work, he did not talk to her for ten years as punishment for having married a non-Jew.

At Tanta Masha’s dinner table, Celia sat in perpetual penance while Tanta Masha’s two sons taunted Mother saying, You are a shiksashiksa being a disparaging Yiddish word for someone who is not Jewish. Twenty years later, Mother began a novel with the words, “You are a shiksa. You are a shiksa,” leaving the rest of the sentence and the novel uncompleted. I found her weeping in the other room after reading what she had typed. Did you read what I wrote? she asked. No, I lied.

This story does not end with my mother’s emergence with a Jewish first name and a determination to prove (as she subsequently did prove)  she could be more Jewish than anyone. This story does not end without the clear understanding, which I have yet to provide, of what Mother achieved with the life she was given, the obstacles she overcame, and the ability (yet to be discussed) she had to position herself at the forefront of society’s trends.

“I was a pioneer,” my mother said repeatedly to describe a litany of accomplishments that began with her early understanding that she must change her personality to reflect a love of self that had eluded her through childhood and adolescence. “I went to therapy before anyone around me had ever heard of therapy.” In later years she said her work in analysis served not only to help her, but to be a model for her children. “I wanted my children to know they should not be afraid to ask for help if they need it.”

It is now Tuesday, September 7th. The 2 p.m. funeral at the cemetery at Mother’s synagogue is ended. The mourners take turns with the shovel to cover her casket with dirt.

“Psychologically, the heart-rending thud of earth on the casket is enormously beneficial,” writes Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. “In proclaiming finality, it helps the mourner overcome the illusion that his relative still lives; it answers his disbelief that death has indeed claimed its victim; it quiets his lingering doubts that this may be only a bad dream. The earth-filling process dispels such illusions and starts the mourner on the way to recovery and reconciliation. To attempt to spare him this unpleasantness merely retards the psychological healing process.”

The scene shifts from Greensboro, NC where Rabbi Eliezer Havivi delivered the eulogy and my sister Sarah, my daughter Joanna, and my former wife Diana go across the street for lunch at the Olive Garden after eating the ritually required hard-boiled eggs Sarah has been carrying in her purse. Meanwhile, using Skype, I read the 23rd Psalm to daughter Amelia in Spain. “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want….”

At 6:30, Rabbi David Ostrich parks at Addison Court at State College where more than 10 of my friends have assembled in the social hall—enough to form the Jewish equivalent of a quorum so we can read the Mourner’s Prayer, written not in Hebrew, as you might think by looking at the letters, but in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. “Magnified and sanctified be the name of God,” Rabbis Sidney Greenberg and Jonathan D. Levine translate, “in the world created according to the Divine will.”


For a variety of technical reasons, the official mourning period known as shiva ended prematurely on Wednesday night. (“You and I still have mourning obligations for a year,” my sister noted helpfully.) Even though shiva ends, Rabbi Ostrich said, “That does not mean that you cannot feel sad.”

My mouth is dry. The tears are replaced by a feeling similar to anemia with its sense of unlimited fatigue. Sometime soon, I will reenter the world where there are bills to pay and the politics of Medicare to discuss.

I am especially angry at President Obama’s evil plan to establish competitive bidding for durable medical equipment such as oxygen and battery-powered wheel chairs. Thanks to the President, for whom I voted, poor disabled individuals will have to wait for low-cost providers to bring them air to breath; I will have to wait for batteries so my power chair can continue to take me from my bed to the bathroom.

I am not ready to return to the world. The sense of outrage at the injustices of reality continues to be subsumed by the sense, as Dylan Thomas wrote, that “death shall have no dominion.”

My hope for the future is to resume (when life’s obligations let me) to Mother’s story as a way of understanding my own.

–Joel Solkoff

Copyright 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.