Discovering My Jewish Grandmother
By LILY KOPPEL
When I left my apartment one morning in 2003 and encountered a dumpster full of old steamer trunks, I climbed in and into what felt like my own movie, an Upper West Side version of Titanic, starring me and a femme fatale from the 1930s. Among the artifacts, I recovered a red-leather diary, kept by a young woman named Florence Wolfson from 1929 to 1934, discarded after years of languishing in my building's storage unit. Its pages revealed the adventures of a girl growing up in Depression Era Manhattan.
The journal painted a vivid picture of 1930s New York—horseback riding in Central Park, summer excursions to the Catskills, and an obsession with a famous avant-garde actress. Its nearly 2,000 entries, written in faded black ink, captured the passions and ambitions of an intensely creative young Jewish woman, interested in carving out a place for herself. Brief, breathless dispatches filled every page of the five-year chronicle.
When I first opened the diary's rusted brass latch, I had no idea of the world that was about to unfold before me and change the course of my life and that of 90-year-old Florence Wolfson Howitt, who I later tracked down with the help of a private investigator.
"You've brought back my life," said Florence, unexpectedly glamorous at 90, wearing violet-tinted Gucci glasses, sitting in her leather Eames chair in her home that she shared with husband of 67 years. I reunited Florence with her diary, which became a virtual fountain of youth, filled with entries, like this one from when she was 15: "Stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven—I feel like a ripe apricot—I'm dizzy with the exotic."
Her husband Nat was one of her many admirers from her diary, who she met when she was 13 at his parents' Catskills hotel, Spring Lake.
"You brought back my life too," I told Florence.
The diary was a time machine transporting me back to Florence's 1930s New York, inspiring me, now 27, to write my first book, The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal.
What I didn't know was that it would provide insights into my own life, connecting me to my Jewish heritage, providing a portal into my history, in particular, the life of my grandmother, Miriam Zelikow, whom I never met.
Miriam was born on January 21, 1917, two years after Florence, who was born in 1915. The most popular girls' names that year included Florence and my name, Lillian (my Hebrew name is Miriam). But Miriam died before I was born, from a brain tumor when my father was 20.
On Sundays, I would visit Florence at her home in Westport, where we would eat mini bagels and lox and travel back in time. I showed Florence my grandmother's college ring on my finger set with its ruby glass.
When I was a little girl, my Dad also gave me Miriam's gold heart-shaped locket, which his father bought on a vacation in Miami Beach for his sons to give her on Mother's Day. It opens to the inscription, "To Mom—1956." Speaking to Florence, I felt closer to Miriam. The more I learned about Florence, I felt parallel histories.
Florence attended Hunter College, as did Miriam, entering the year after Florence in 1931. Florence described to me how she strode into class in fawn-colored jodpurs after a jaunt on horseback through Central Park, which she wore to school because she knew how dashing she looked. A writer and painter, Florence was ahead of her time, had love affairs with men and women, including a classmate of hers named Pearl.
Miriam only attended classes at Hunter for a year before falling sick, mysteriously. She was taken out of school and when she returned to college, it was to St. John's University where she was graduated in 1939 at the top of her class. She went on to teach French Literature there and at her other alma mater, New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn.
Florence led a privileged life on the Upper East Side. Hers was a life of theater, art, writers, and poets, including the Italian count with whom she had a love affair when she sailed to Europe in 1936. As a 19-year-old graduate student at Columbia, Florence hosted a literary salon in her parents' apartment, which included the young poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman.
Although Miriam lived a more sheltered life in Brooklyn, there are many similarities. Both her and Florence's parents were Russian immigrants from long lines of prominent rabbis and all had arrived at Ellis Island in 1906. The Wolfsons and the Zelikows were both in the garment business. Florence's mother was a sought after dressmaker with a shop, Rabecca Wolfson Gowns, on fashionable Madison Avenue.
Miriam's father, my great grandfather, Morris, was a manufacturer, producing coats for Macy's, then Saks, then Bergdorf Goodman (among the treasures I found in the trunks with the diary was a tangerine bouclé Bergdorf's coat with a single Bakelite button, which, after a trip to the dry cleaner, I now wear.)
During WWII, Morris made coats for the army. He met his wife, Ida, who he called Chasi—the diminutive for “life”—a seamstress in his garment district factory. Florence's mother came to New York as an immigrant girl, leaving behind her identical twin in the old country, who was later killed in a pogrom. Rebecca Wolfson began her new life as a seamstress on the Lower East Side.
I imagined brunette Miriam and blonde Florence, two fearlessly intelligent Jewish women, the daughters of immigrants, their fur-collared coats brushing past each other in Hunter's hall.
Florence and I were both artists and longed to carve out our own paths. Now, I excavated my own. At my parents' home in Chicago, in a trunk, I found Miriam's brown leather junior high school autograph album, once golden, filled with intimate messages.
On the cover, there were a line of books with two goblets with candles burning bright. On the back, wings spread out from the books in a protective gesture. Beyond the Pledge of Allegiance in the front with the image of the flag, a poem: "Your words must not be not only clever, but fit to adorn this book forever."
Miriam's album spoke to Florence's crumbling red diary (there were even two inscriptions from girls named Florence). There was a picture of Pershing Junior High, an austere-looking brick building, followed by a picture of General Pershing in his WWI uniform and hat. Miriam filled in her graduation program by hand, nine events, including the orchestra playing a song called, "Melody of Years."
In a photo pressed between its pages, Miriam looked like a debutante in pretty chiffon dress, dated July 1932. In it, I can make out an Adirondack chair in the background, which is very leafy. Perhaps she was in the Catskills for the summer and changed into the dress to have her portrait taken in the garden.
She listed her teachers names from kindergarten through eighth grade, which included Nabokovian sounding names: Ms. Wand in kindergarten, Ms. Lavender in first grade, Ms. Dickinson in sixth, all were Irish or Jewish. On a page called "My Favorite," Miriam included under each heading: "Game": tennis; "Chum": Florence Winters; "High School": New Utrecht: "Profession": teacher. She concluded, under "Motto," written in neat, small script: "What I am to be, I am now becoming."
That's how I felt. Who she was, I was now learning about and becoming, in part, myself. On January 2, 1932, she wrote: "My Album's Open! Come and See! What! Won't you waste a line on me! Write but a thought, a word or two, that memory may revert to you."
The next page is a photo of her father all dressed in white, smoking a cigar. Next to it, he wrote, "Dear Miriam, I wish you lots of luck to suksess." He writes it in Hebrew as well and signs it, "Dad."
Miriam treasured her little book and showed it years later to her sons, my father and his brother, Alan, who also added to it. "Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, Kiss me Kid, I'm a Kosher Jew. Lots of Luck, Alan K." My dad wrote, signing his name in reverse: "Dated til the film strips. To Miriam, Lots of Luck. Leppok Trebor or your son Robert." Many of the pages have, like this one, in all four corners: "4, Get, Me, Not."
Florence has become a celebrity through my discovery of her teenage diary and we have been doing TV appearances, including The Today Show.
"Do you keep a diary today?" a female anchor in a bright-pink suit asked Florence. "No."
At 92, Florence said she's happy just breathing and feeling more alive than she has in years.
"Should people keep diaries?" asked the anchor. "Absolutely, because it's a wonderful way to get a perspective on yourself," said Florence, looking at me, holding my hand. "When you read it, you suddenly see yourself from the outside."
The Red Leather Diary was a gift to Florence on her 14th birthday in 1929. It was a gift to me when I found it at 22, searching for love and meaning in my life. It was a gift, again, to Florence at 90. It is a gift to everyone who connects with its message of recognizing the significance of all of our lives.
As open as Florence was in her diary, she was in person at
90. She matter-of-factly discussed her insecurities, early love affairs, and
artistic ambition. I felt and cherished her emotional generosity. Hers is a
particular kind of openness born of intellectual and philosophical questioning,
self-reflection, sarcasm, irony, and humor. My father always said I would have
loved his mother, my grandmother Miriam for all these reasons. Florence's diary
transported me to a distant world, a world of my own, which until now had been