bubbe, family genealogy, Sholom Aleichem, stories from the Yiddish culture, word press, wordpress.com, Yiddish, Yiddish families, Yiddish family folklore, yiddish folk song, Yiddish Folk Song Tradition, Yiddish folklore, Yiddish melodies, zayde

An amazing fish story from my Yiddishe bubbe’s collection plus an escapade during prohibition

My Paternal Bubbe Bessie

I had to stop what I was doing to copy this story as relayed by my mother about a live “carp” that I’d seen in bubbe’s bathtub as a child. Was I dreaming?

Grandma Bessie lived with my zayde in the South Bronx on Longfellow Avenue along with a fish as a frequent visitor. It was swimming in about two feet of water before it was killed and cooked. (I was spared the slaughter)

As my 97-year old mother affirmed, grandpa Charley, who worked in the New York Central freight yards as an inspector, was sometimes given a fish to take home. Maybe it was a little gratitude for a positive sign-off. Who knows?

In any case, a “live” carp would be wrapped in newspapers and lugged on the subway before it was deposited in the tub.

According to cousin Getzie, a frequent house guest, the fish escaped one morning and was plopping frantically around the dining room. Alarmed, she screamed, “Gevalt, there’s a robber in the house!” waking the whole family. In an instant, my grandpa, who had mitt-size hands, took charge and managed to corral the fish and return it safely to its porcelain tank.

As was custom, the catch was eventually eaten in gefilte fish style, served as an appetizer to a hearty Shabbes meal consisting of chicken soup with luction, feathered polkes (chicken legs), fatty flanken that would line and clog the arteries, fresh baked Challah bread with 100% grade A butter spread thickly over it; burnt carrots and peas, crusty potatoes, and for dessert, apple pie with a cratered crust. Boy was that ever good!

But unfortunately, my zayde passed away from a double stroke at 72 while he was on the roof of the tenement. To this day, I’ve often wondered if diet caused his early demise.

Another hair-raising story!

Apparently, bubbe Bessie’s father was visiting for several months and may have overstayed his welcome as evidenced by this account.

Apparently, he set up a still to make whiskey in the infamous bathroom that housed a carp.

And it was quite a nifty operation until he nearly got busted one day after a Federal inspector knocked on the door.

Apparently, a neighbor whiffed the spirits through a layer of sheet rock and turned in my great grandfather.

That was Grandpa Charley’s ticket to insanity. In no time, he shooed his son (my father) into the bathroom and ordered him to lock the door.

The fast-thinking maneuver worked because the inspector blew away with the wind, avoiding the locked bathroom.

The next day after the near miss, gramps took all the alcohol with related hardware and dumped it out the window.

Maybe this final part of the story was a tad embellished in the Yiddish spirit. (same for grandpa, a.k.a. “pineball” sticking his bald head through a super clean window, paying a heavy price in cuts and abrasions)

What else was new?

Perhaps grandpa bagged all the schnaps ‘n stuff and sent it all out on a freight train bound for Texas after it passed his inspection. (wink, wink)

Who knows?

I grew up hearing more of these stories in Sholom Aleichem style. As expected, Truth was stranger than fiction.

Here’s a photo that nicely compliments these family-woven accounts.

From Left to Right, grandpa Charley, bubbe Bessie, and great aunt Esther



“Gefilte fish (/ɡəˈfɪltə fɪʃ/, from Yiddish: געפֿילטע פֿיש, german: gefüllter Fisch “stuffed fish”) is a Ashkenazi Jewish dish made from a poached mixture of ground deboned fish, such as carp, whitefish and/or pike, which is typically eaten as an appetizer.

“Although the dish historically consisted of a minced-fish forcemeat stuffed inside the fish skin, as its name implies, since the 19th century the skin has commonly been omitted and the seasoned fish is formed into patties similar to quenelles or fish balls. They are popular on Shabbat and Holidays such as Passover, although they may be consumed throughout the year.

“Traditionally, carp, pike, mullet, or whitefish were used to make gefilte fish, but more recently other fish with white flesh such as Nile Perch have been used, and there is a pink variation using salmon.”

Yiddish music preserved


My Family History and Genealogy


"Let's sing a Yiddish Song" by Ruth Rubin, Cantor Michael Loring, ethnomusicology, Fiddler on the Roof, Jewish Liturgical Music, pianist, piano, Russia, Russian bubbes, Ruth Rubin, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Uncategorized, word press, wordpress.com, yiddish folk song, Yiddish Folk Song Tradition, Yiddish melodies, you tube, you tube video, Zero Mostel

My Russian Grandmother’s music: Preserving a Yiddish culture of Song

From earliest childhood, I remember my bubbe Bessie’s tremulous voice as she sang Yiddish lullabies. The words, faintly heard, were upstaged by rapturous melodies.

She was otherwise a fixture in a small kitchen, preparing chicken soup with luction (noodles); kneading dough for Shabbat challah; chopping fresh carp to make gefilte fish cakes, and throwing together a bowl of komput. (stewed fruit) Sponge cake followed as last on the list of savory offerings that filled us to the gills before we wound our corpulent selves down the staircase of her South Bronx tenement.

A shule bordered the apartment and provided a parted-curtains view of Chasidism (Orthodox Jews) davenning. (Bending forward and back in solemn prayer) Bubbe would scold me for my voyeurism because it was a violation of the Almighty. She would pay dearly for it in the next life.. if there was one.

Like Molly Goldberg of TV fame, she would message her neighbors through the window, across clothes lines and homing pigeons that came and went. Everyone and every thing managed to communicate what they needed in one form or another.

Apparently, bubbe was a woman of many talents. Her fame spread far and wide as the neighorhood’s matchmaker or “shadkhin” after she tried to pair a stutterer with a hard-of-hearing woman. The way my father re-enacted the whole scene, it was worth a Comedy Central feature.


Visitors frequented my grandmother’s dim lit flat on Longfellow Avenue.

Mrs. Lox, the upstairs neighbor, sometimes knocked on the door to get a little attention. She barely sauntered in with legs so full of edema you wondered how she managed her life. A gulp of gossip filled a half-hour of conversation before my zayde (grandfather) came home from the railroad yards where he toiled as a freight man. Nick-named “Pineball” because of his shiny bald head and stocky frame, he would sometimes deposit a “live” fish in the bath tub. The first time I saw one I had to wipe my eyes making sure a real angler was beside me. I was otherwise preoccupied, pulling a chain to flush the toilet.

Years later I learned that bubbe prepared the catch for dinner so it went to good use.

Invariably, she always intoned prayers in a white satin shawl while zayde cursed under his breath, denying the existence of God. Nothing was ever resolved at mealtime and life went on.

After encore desserts, tea, and more sponge cake, songs followed which were memorable. My favorites are revisited.

“Shlof Mayn Kind,” (Sleep My Child) is at the top of my memory archive. Like so many of these songs embedded in the minor mode, they reflected a people’s suffering over centuries. The music naturally flowed through the veins of our Jewish forebears preserved by those who memorialized them in well-researched collections.

Ruth Rubin, one of these archivists, published Let’s Sing a Yiddish Song that contained two selections that I chose to play and sing.

Both have lyrics in Yiddish followed by the English translation:


“Shlof Mayn Kind” (Sleep, My Child)

Shlof mayn kind—, shlof ke-sey—der,
sin-gen vel ikh dir a lid
As du mayn kind—vest el-ter ve—-rn
Ves-tu vi-sn an un-ter shid.

Sleep my child, sleep, be peaceful,
There’s a song I want to sing;
When you, my child, are somewhat older
There’s something you will come to know.


“Oifn Pripetchik”

“In the Glowing Stove” (Perhaps “By the Glowing Stove” would have been a better translation)

Oif-n pri-pe-tchik
brent a fay-er-l,
Un in shtub iz heys
Un der re-be ler-nt
kley-ne kin-der-lekh
dem al-ef beyz

Un der re-be ler-nt
kley-ne kind-der-lekh
dem al-ef beyz


Reprise second stanza
Zogt zhe nokh a mol
un ta-ke nokh amol
ko-metz al-ef o

Repeat above

In the glowing stove
Flames leap merrily
And fill the house with heat
And the rebbe teaches
All the little ones
Our Aleph Beth.

And the rebbe teaches
All the little ones
Our Aleph Beth


Say it once again
And even once again
Our Aleph-O

Say it once again
And even once again
Our Aleph-O

These songs evoked poignant memories of my first musical appearance in Fresno when I accompanied the late, Cantor Michael Loring in a concert of Jewish Liturgical Music. We presented “The History of a People Through Song” at the College Community Congregational Church, known for its yearly offering of the St. Matthew Passion. Its musical director, John Donaldson, a member of the Board of Supervisors, always programmed fine, classical music throughout the year.

Our ecumenical convergence took place in an acoustically divine space that held a modest, old upright. The instrument soared like a grand, belying its size. An echo chamber would have best described the setting.

In preparation for this event, Loring had given me hand-written manuscripts on parchment that were so fragile, I could barely shuffle the pages without losing a line of notes in the process. At least rehearsals in my home afforded ample time to go over these scores that had long intervals of chanting. As a consequence, I had to be cued in for my entrance–quite a separate learning experience, than that derived from daily 3B’s exposure. (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms)

Here’s a photo of Cantor Loring, to the Right, beside Rabbi David Greenberg at our local Temple Beth Israel.


The icing on the cake, was my father’s appearance in Fresno on the stage of Temple Beth Jacob. We, two collaborated on selections from Fiddler on the Roof. While such a Broadway spectacular may have been a bit removed from the original Yiddish traditional folklore passed down by our ancestors, it still revisited the shtetl where it all started.



Bridgeport Connecticut, Czar Nicholas I, Druskininkai, East Bronx, Eastern European Jews, family Geneology, ILGWU, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jessie Taft, Lithuania, Morris Eli Taft, South Bronx, union organizer, Vilna, word press, wordpress.com, Yiddish melodies

Little apple, Big Apple, mayhem, murder and music: my family’s history and genealogy

While shuffling papers within a folder labeled “Piano tuners/technicians,” I stumbled upon two pages clipped together, titled “Descendants of Zalmen Tapruakh (1835-1915) and Michelle Tzinn.” (1850-1915) These were my maternal great grandparents.

Tapruakh means “little apple.” (Ironically, I lived in the Big Apple for the first 30 years of my life)

The genealogy papers were a miraculous find considering my own futile efforts to trace the family’s Eastern European roots.

One of my third cousins, once removed, Leon Ginenthal, succeeded where I had failed. He did the arduous research and came up with a hair-raising narrative.

First the backdrop:

During the reign of Czar Nicholas I, the Conscription Law of 1827 mandated that each Jewish community had to provide a disproportionately large quota of recruits for the czar’s army. These recruits had to serve for 25 years starting at age 18. Juvenile conscription began with 12-year olds.

The “Kahal,” an executive arm of each Jewish community, was empowered to obtain recruits. Its agents often did so by kidnapping children to fill the community.

Zalmen had been “sold” into the Czar’s army as a little boy in place of a wealthier Jew’s son. It is assumed that the more affluent family was from Druskininkai, a town in Southwest Lithuania. The story has it that Zalmen therefore took the name Druskin.

Losing contact with his family in the process of prolonged military service, he eventually left the army, became a tailor and married Michelle Tzinn, a caterer, among other things.

Zalmen and Michelle lived in the basement of an old building in the Jewish Quarter of Vilna, Lithuania. They died during a famine sometime in 1915.

About Vilna before WW II

“By the start of the 20th century, a Jewish renaissance was rising. In addition to the scads of synagogues, libraries, schools, theaters, museums, medical facilities, scientific institutions, and publishing houses were established. Yiddish was soundly the lingua franca. Moreover, it was regarded as a secular culture and therefore an alternative to traditional Judaism.” (Wikipedia)

Vilna was known for its musicians, poets, intellectuals, philosophers, and labor organizers. The great violinist, Jascha Heifetz was from this prominent city.

More about my great grandparents

Zalmen and Michelle had 6 children, apparently born in Vilna. One of these was my grandfather, Morris/Moishe Eliazar. His birthdate was 1879.

His oldest sister, Golda, married her second cousin, Myer Myers and emigrated to Bridgeport, Connecticut sometime after 1905. (I remember meeting Golda when she was well into her 80′s. She lived in Seagate, way out on Long Island, and was deaf and blind at the time.)

Morris “Eli” was sent out as an apprentice at the age of 7 to the Passamentere (tailor/clothing venue) and eventually served in the Russian Army during the Russo-Japanese War.

Jailed with D. Jerzinksi, who was later head of the Secret Service, Morris fled Vilna after the 1905 Revolution and came to America. He married his second cousin (my grandmother) Rebecca Berhnardt/Bernardovitch/Muzakant. (At long last, the musical connection, though I have no idea who played what instrument on this side of the family) I’ve already debunked the myth of a family owned piano factory but who knows whether there was a family Fiddler on the Roof in the Jewish Quarter.

I’ll get back to “Fiddler” later in the narrative. There’s an ironic tie-in. (Just a note, that I played the violin for 7 years at the prodding of my Russian grandparents who hungered for musical remnants of the Old Country) They managed to pass down some beautiful folk and freedom songs that I sing to this day:

“Zog Nit Keynmol”–the song of liberation from the Warsaw Ghetto; “Schluf Mein Kind,” (Sleep, my Child) a lilting lullaby, “Die Mezinke Aus Gegeben,” (The Youngest Daughter is Getting Married) among others.


Morris worked as a machinist/tool and dye maker and started a union in Bridgeport Connecticut, where he, too, landed after being checked in at Ellis Island. Apparently Tapruakh, became TAFT upon his brother Sam’s earlier arrival, making the family name more American than European. Immigration officials found it easier to write these simpler names down rather than fathom how to spell a complicated Russian surname.

Ironically, my maiden name, “Smith,” was converted at Ellis Island when my paternal grandfather, Zelig (aka “Charlie”) arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the century. His spouse, Bessie, nee Baron, from the Ukraine, brought along her Rabbi father, and two brothers.

Grandpa Charlie, (Zelig) who supposedly ran away from the Cheder, an Orthodox religious school, made his way to New York City where his brothers, followed. One landed in the deep south, setting up a successful department store chain.

Back to the Taft side:

According to family histories, Morris lost his job in Bridgeport, Connecticut during WW I because he refused to buy war bonds. As a consequence, he wound his way to New York City to seek his fortune where he found employment in the Garment District as a tucker and pleater. From there he launched his career as a union organizer calling ILGW strikes in defiance of a court ordered injunction. I have one of the leaflets he created, as well as his pro per legal papers that miraculously blocked a Restraining Order!

The fruit didn’t fall far from the tree. Morris’s second daughter, Jessie, my mother, is pictured chained to a pillar in Manhattan’s Taft Hotel.

“A front-page photograph in the Oct. 26, 1936, edition of the Daily News captured the defiant, young face of Jessie Taft as she stood chained to the balcony of a New York City hotel. With her fists raised high, still encased in chains, Taft demanded that the hotel stop sending its linen to the Sutton Superior Laundry where workers were on strike against abusive conditions and substandard wages.”


My mother’s father, Morris, was quite literate. Self taught and a prolific poet, he and Rebecca produced 4 daughters, Espera, Vera, Jessie, and Libby named for Hope, Truth, Justice, and Love.

Known to me as “Pop Taft,” he resided with my bubbe Becky on Tremont Avenue, near Bronx Park. (East)

My paternal grandparents, also lived in the Bronx, but near Southern Boulevard on Longfellow Avenue. This was considered the South Bronx, that bordered another side of Bronx Park with its famous zoo.


My great-uncle Sam, born in 1852 was one of Morris’s brothers. Allegedly, he was involved in the assassination attempt on General Victor Von Wahl, the Governor of Vilna. Von Wahl had ordered the flogging of 26 demonstrators (among them 20 Jews) on May 1, 1902 after they had participated in a May Day Demonstration.

Following the flogging, the central committee of the Bund (Jewish Socialist Workers Party) had published a Manifesto calling for revenge.

Sam was among a group of workers that organized an assassination attempt independently since the Vilna Committee of the Bund refused to support terrorism.

Sam was supposed to do the shooting as he had a steady hand and nerve. Hirsch Lekert, a shoemaker, demanded that he be allowed to do the shooting since his younger brother was one of the Jews flogged. Hirsch had a drink before the assassination attempt and ended up only wounding Von Wahl.

Lekert was sentenced to death by a military court and hanged. Sam was jailed, but survived to come to American sometime after 1902 but before 1905. It is thought that he actually started the family’s use of the name Taft. (His emigration preceded that of my zayde)

Sam married Ida Gitlin in 1907 and had six children.

(Ironically, I had 6 children as well)

Sonya (my great aunt) was Zalmen and Michelle’s last child. She was born in 1895 and came to the US in 1912. Living in Seagate with her second husband, Lou Orens, a printer, they often opened their house to Russian immigrant artists, musicians and writers. The song, “Those were the Days,” was written by the son of Saul Raskin, an artist friend of theirs.

The tie-in to Seagate is through my alma mater, the New York City High School of Performing Arts. One of my English teachers, Bel Goldstein, later known as Bel Kaufman, and author of the bestseller, Up the Down Staircase was present at these gatherings where the works of Sholom Aleichem were read and celebrated.

I remember speaking with Bel Kaufman about the convergences at Seagate and she chimed in with some colorful details.

Kaufman was later involved with the production of Fiddler on the Roof which was incubating at the time before its long run on Broadway.


The cultural flavor of Grandpa Taft and Bubbe Becky

They always brought bittersweet chocolate when they visited us in the Marble Hill projects in the Bronx.

Grandma Becky cooked in a very healthy style, buying lean meat, and steaming her vegetables. Not a trace of salt or spices could be found in her cuisine.

By contrast, bubbe Bessie, my paternal grandmother, bestowed rich-tasting milk chocolate on her visits, greatly pleasing my brother and me.

She also served fatty flanken, and all kinds of tasty marbled meat every Friday night as she lit candles and intoned the prayers. Her chicken soup had floating fat globules, while chicken legs were feathered and un-skinned. Layers of butter were thickly spread on slices of challah bread and dispensed at frequent intervals.

Odddly, bubbe never sat at the table with us. She hid in the kitchen awaiting requests for seconds and third helpings of her delectable dishes.

No doubt, Grandpa Zelig (aka Charlie) who died of a stroke at 72, met his demise due to a diet high in saturated fat, but he lived to the hilt, savoring every last, mouth-watering serving of grandma’s cuisine.

A freight man, he toiled on the N.Y. Central railroad tracks for 50 years, succeeded by my father, Carl, who did the same. In those days, it was uncommon for Jews to be hired in this industry, but with the name Smith, it was surely an easier passage.

Grandma and Grandpa’s South Bronx flat bordered a Schule, with a window peering into the main prayer area. I would part the curtains and watch the men with pais (long sideburns) davenning (bobbing back and forth as they prayed.) My grandmother would gently nudge me away from the area, as grandpa blasted a monstrous short wave radio set at Radio Moscow frequency in full volume. The hissing would drive bubbe crazy. She would scream “Schweig!” which meant shut the damn thing off!

In retaliation, zayde would curse religion when bubbe murmured prayers in Yiddish at the shabbat candle-lighting. He always questioned God and religion, evoking the death of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany.

Bessie ignored him and continued praying.

Bubbe lived into her 80′s and showed latent artistic talent. But she will be best remembered for the lilting Yiddish lullabies she passed down to me:


My uncle David, her younger son, was a gifted fine artist who supposedly drew murals all over the sidewalk at 4 or 5 years old.

Yet, it’s puzzling why his name was “Smiton” and not Smith. (Two brothers with different last names?) To be sure, our family’s mystery will not be solved in this lifetime or the next.

Here’s a sample of my uncle’s work: (He illustrated my Moonbeams piano collection:) He also covered TV trials of illustrious people, sketching “live” courtroom proceedings. (Lt. Calley trial, The Diet Doctor case, etc.)



As a final supplement to this family spread, I was told by my parents that my middle name was Mildred to honor Michelle in the narrative. Fortunately, decades after I was born, I discovered that the name never made it on the Birth Certificate in time, so all the years I was writing Shirley M. Smith, I was lying. Talk about identity problems in this family. Between Smith, Smiton, Taft, Tapruakh, and rest, a psycho-analyst would have a field day.


Morris Eli Taft. Papers,
Collection Number: 5187m
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Cornell University Library
Contact Information:
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Martin P. Catherwood Library
227 Ives Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
(607) 255-3183
Fax: (607) 255-9641

Compiled by:
Kheel Center staff

EAD encoding:
Casey S. Westerman, 2005
© 2004 Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library
Morris Eli Taft. Papers, 1921-1927.
Collection Number:
Taft, Morris Eli
Forms of Material:
6 sheets.
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University.
News clippings, broadside, speech delivered by Morris Eli Taft.
Morris Eli Taft was born in Lithuania and served in the Russo-Japanese war. After emigrating to America in 1911, he found employment in the needle trades.
News clippings, broadside, speech delivered by Morris Eli Taft.
Taft, Morris Eli
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Local 41 (New York, N.Y.)
Strikes and lockouts — New York (State)
Labor unions — Clothing workers — New York (State)
Industrial relations — New York (State)
Clothing workers — New York (State)
Form and Genre Terms:
Access Restrictions:
Access to the collections in the Kheel Center is restricted. Please contact a reference archivist for access to these materials.
Restrictions on Use:
This collection must be used in keeping with the Kheel Center Information Sheet and Procedures for Document Use.
Cite As:
Morris Eli Taft. Papers, 1921-1927. 5187m. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University.

—– Forwarded Message —–
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Cornell University Library
Contact Information:
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives
Martin P. Catherwood Library
227 Ives Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
(607) 255-3183
Fax: (607) 255-9641