EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
Links to individual chapters: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9a 9b 10 11
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NOTE ON THE TEXT
The text presented here is copied and pasted from my Microsoft Word file of the 1993 version, which I probably edited for typos–I would not have changed any of the style or content. Dad separated sections with lines of asterisks. To help the reader handle the text in relatively manageable chunks, I have spread the web version over multiple web pages; 9A and 9B are two parts of a single section between asterisk rows.
My father wrote these memoirs some years before 1993, when the family gave him a bound copy for his 75th birthday. Siince I remember (or think I do) discussing my first impressions with someone I was dating 1981-1984, he must have finished them during that time, in his mid 60s. (Is it instructive that I have created this web site at the age of 65?).
Before he embarked on this quest, my mother extracted a promise that he would write about nothing from the time they were married, March 2, 1941, when he was 22. Hence, he includes only a few, brief events after their wedding day.
While the memoirs have many items of specific interest to family members, they also provide an interesting personal social history of growing up Jewish on Manhattan’s lower East Side between the two World Wars. This is often not a pretty account, but it is his truth, and reflects a core part of his personality in its attempts to be frank, even shocking.
He chose the title Mea Culpa, probably without full consciousness of how much the title typifies his depressed and guilty feelings about himself all his adult life (and maybe, given some of the content, well before adulthood). After the title was "Volume 1," as though he intended to write more, but I think he really meant that he was only writing part of what he wanted. (Or perhaps I'm forgetting and these words were added by family members in hopes he would write more.)
One of my reactions when I first read his account was that he spent his life feeling he had killed his mother, and maybe felt responsibility for the deaths of siblings.
was around the time of his 75th birthday that my father visibly
began a decline into dementia that eventually gave him only the
slimmest connection with reality, most notably his ability to sing
along with show tunes as he watched DVDs of, say, The King and I and
commented on the acting. He died 10 years later, technically
from pneumonia contracted after a month in a nursing home. The
entire family had agreed that it was time for him to be in a home
because my mother, 84, could no longer safely care for him.
His memoirs describe his teen-age love of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, an idyllic escape for him from urban bustle and Depression poverty—though it also was the source of captured critters that he brought home to his mother’s apparent dismay. When he died, the day after Thanksgiving in 2003, the family scattered his ashes in this park. It was a cold day, very quiet, with snow on the ground and almost no one else around. As I stood there, I imagined him at the age of 15, still relatively innocent (though again, he may not have thought so), reveling in this non-urban setting. The fantasy tore at my heart for more reasons than I can include here, and I finally cried for what I still view as his and my failure to establish a strong, fulfilling father-son relationship.
Here are prefatory comments from the 1993 volume prepared for his 75th birthday:
We present this volume on the occasion of your, our father's and grandfather's, 75th birthday.
The idea, spawned first by Solomon and Heidi, to bind these memories physically for posterity came aptly at a time when you have been struggling with fortitude and determination–and pain–to hold onto memory. We can only guess and flinch at what it is like to watch your mind attempt to betray you, and we can only admire your refusal to succumb to its subversion.
We present to you this physical repository of your struggle with your past–and of our gratitude that in the struggle, so often painful to you (else why the title "Mea Culpa"? else why seek refuge by allusion to an alien faith?), you kept faith with us, preserved our birthright for now and always, refusing to become, or make us, victim to the pain.
We cannot absolve you for the sins you claim to have committed. So much consciousness of sin, so few sins. After 75 years of exposure to and immersion in a formidably imperfect world, you know that no human being is without sin. Perhaps, however, you have still to learn that only you can absolve yourself.
Make this day, after so many years of travail and dismay, your own Yom Kippur: you have confessed and atoned for your sins so many times over, in your head and to those close to you and finally on paper to the world; now let yourself find peace. By example you have shown the generations that follow you how important memory is. Now show us, too, by equally hard example and not mere smoothing words, that the sins of the father need not be passed on through the generations, that we may–that we should–remember and cherish the past to release its painful hold upon us, to reveal our present and brighten our future.
If you cannot allow absolution for yourself for any other reason, then allow it because in showing your pain to us you have performed a mitzvah. Look at the messages here, at the gratitude of your descendants (you would hear similarly, I know, from Hy's children and, I expect, from Mimi's), at the way they find in your pain their own freedom–not because you suffered but because the honesty and the openness help us know ourselves, understand ourselves, connect to our past through you and thereby to ourselves.
May the next volume be titled, perhaps in Yiddish, Joys of My Life. Help us remember that we may revel in life, that while we cannot escape pain we can–should–experience, and pursue, joy. And that our sins, imagined or real, should be memorialized (for without memory we become nothing) alongside our accomplishments and our joys. I must believe that there comes a time–and I look to your example to help me recognize it and know how to manage it–when we must forgive ourselves our sins, must even forgive those who have sinned against us, and so not only affirm ourselves but also show our children that it is, after all, good to be alive.
- Ricky (me, eldest child, b. 1942)
The memoirs give me a connection with history, a sense of our family's past. So now, for your 75th birthday, your gift to us we give back to you. When I read these memoirs, I felt sad, surprised–and glad to be able to feel connected to you. When I finished reading, I wanted to read more. You make the past real.
- Judi (2nd child, born 1943)
(David, born September, 1948, his youngest of three children, was living in Southern California and did not write comments for this volume.)
Several years ago Edward Yanowitz saw fit to write his memoirs and make a permanent record of his early life, perhaps not realizing how important this would be to loved ones in his family. He has linked us to our own heritage and to the history of part of this country.
Your words made you more accessible while rooting us in the past, allowing us to know you in a different way, and to learn more about ourselves. You bind us better to our past, unite us, and help give us a sense of identity. We may have read about this time in books, but you gave it a new life, a reality, something special, that made me see you differently, and you gave a sense of pride to all of us. And pain, too: you shared some of the pain of our family history, which is also important.
Thank you for sharing yourself with me and giving me a chance to feel part of something special, something alive–the passion of yourself and your mother and your brothers and your sisters. You welcomed me into your life in a way that you hadn't before. All this could have been private, but you let me in on it.
- Heidi (Judi’s first child)
These memoirs are vivid and alive. They make our family history come to life, so that I feel connected to the past and our heritage in a way that I never had. And I feel more connected to you: I know you better. It's so special that you opened up as you did and talked about very personal matters, shared the pain.
I especially remember the scenes with your mother. Those scenes live with me. I think about them all the time: your mother in her hospital bed, you wanting to protect her from knowing about death and illness in the family. It haunts me that you survived this and stayed so strong, were so strong for the family, that you took so much responsibility for your family. I remember the love you had for your mother. That's what stands out for me most.
I share in presenting this volume to you because I want you to know how important it has been in my life that you wrote your memoirs, shared them with the family. This volume we present to you is an expression of gratitude, an expression of love, an expression of appreciation of how important your memories are–that your life and past and history matter to me, that it has made a difference in my life to know more about you. You have made me feel rooted, feel that I had a history.
- Rachel (Judi’s 2nd child)
When everyone else was reading the memoirs I was a little young, so I haven't read them yet. But I want to thank Grandpa for keeping the family history alive, and I look forward to reading them.
- Solomon (Judi’s 3rd and last child)
I continue to return to these writings. I find them powerful, engaging; they inform my own life. Whenever I come to the end, I feel unfulfilled because this is a story that continues on, and I pause with sadness as I turn to the last page: I want to be able to turn yet another page and have the story keep going.
I hope this book serves as a model for the rest of the family to write memoirs and maintain a history of our family.
- Jason (my son)