My Aunt Alice

Aunt Alice was a character.

March 19, 2015 18:53

Alice and her sister Saralee, 1988, at the bar mitzvah of her only grandson Joshua.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Not everyone was fortunate enough to have an aunt like my Aunt Alice (named Alte Feige).

She was born on the Lower East Side on October 26, 1921, the first of two daughters of Rose and Joseph Rothman. (Note that this was not my grandfather’s original family name, but his aunt’s maiden name which she gave to the authorities at Ellis Island – because she claimed him as her son and her own husband was already in trouble with the authorities, or so goes the family folklore.) The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, renting apartments mainly in Bensonhurst, but moving frequently in order to save money during the Depression.

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Alice was a bright and independent girl with a terrific sense of humor. She graduated high school at the age of 15, having skipped two grades, and because of the economic situation could not attend college, but immediately went out to work to supplement her father’s salary as a butcher and pickler of meats. While her parents were Polish immigrants speaking Yiddish and English, Alice became a thoroughly American woman.

One of the first jobs she took involved travel, a highly unusual activity for a nice Jewish girl, but Alice had an adventurous spirit and was always ready for a challenge.

Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that she volunteered to test out the Parachute Jump at New York World’s Fair just prior to its opening in April 1939. Unfortunately, there were problems with the mechanical system and she was stuck 76 meters in the air for hours. This is one of the family stories that characterizes this spunky lady – who was not ruffled by what would have been traumatic for the average person. (The jump was not dismantled but moved to Coney Island, and can be viewed today from the Belt Parkway.) Alice had a younger sister, Saralee, with whom she had an interesting relationship.

As children, I imagine there were typical sibling conflicts (including seeing her little sister pushed under the kitchen sink when a suitor arrived) – or after declaring that Christmas stockings should be hung in their kosher home, discovering that her sister had filled them with potatoes and onions! However, once mature, the two were in many ways inseparable, moving out to Long Island to live together first in Levittown and then in North Bellmore. Every holiday was celebrated together, usually at the younger non-working sister’s house.

I suspect that nary a day passed when they did not talk on the phone at least once. Alice was always offering advice, which her sister did not necessarily adhere to or appreciate, but that too is part of the world of siblings.

Alice married Sidney Trachtenberg, who had grown up on a farm-hotel in the Catskills, a dashing fellow who had been in the cavalry as well as a featherweight boxer during his army service. When he opened his contracting business, Alice was there beside him as the bookkeeper. When he died in 1975, Alice took over the business, dealing with carpenters and other workmen without blinking an eye, fully unaware how unusual she was.

She was the epitome of a working woman and an excellent cook, who brought up two children, Cheryl and Richard, and pursued outside interests as well. While her husband rode horses, she became involved in Hadassah, serving as president four times. Over the years, she became an avid Israeli folk dancer and bridge player and attended book groups religiously. She married again, this time Joseph Saper, a retired fireman who died in 2003. Alice elected to bury Joe in the Trachtenberg plot, and joked about how she would ultimately be buried in between her two husbands – who were welcome to fight over her when they all reached heaven.

My aunt made an effort to attend family celebrations in Israel, and to help bring other relatives to special ones. She made a huge impression on the Yemenite villagers in Beit Dagan, where my henna ceremony was held two days before the wedding.

It turns out that we hadn’t explained to her the meaning of the ceremony and when, after kneading the henna dramatically, my mother-in-law began to distribute globs of henna dye to the guests, Aunt Alice, thinking it was chocolate, promptly put it into her mouth. On the video, one can hear the group gasp! Our photographer, her son-in-law Michael, assumed that his young son was responsible for this reaction, but then the camera caught the shocked face of my aunt.

The village has never stopped talking about the doda (aunt) who ate the henna! Some years ago, my aunt invited me to speak to her Hadassah women’s group in New Jersey – where she had moved in her later years in order to be near Cheri, who would care for her lovingly until her last day. Not only did she insist on arranging remuneration for me, but she introduced her niece in a totally professional manner, never revealing the fact that we were related. I was so impressed with her poise, professionalism and ability to stand up in front of such a large crowd. It amazed me how the daughter of my beautiful but retiring grandmother carried this off.

Aunt Alice was a character.

She followed the news and was incredibly aware of developments, be they related to the economy, politics, sports or otherwise. I was reminded that she began recycling and composting in the 1950s. She listened and read financial reports and successfully invested the small amount of money left her by my uncle. She was an avid Zionist and devoted a great deal of thought and money to charity. She was generous and always there to help family members, and would organize her cousins in joint efforts.

In her later years, she suffered from various physical ailments, and was limited to a wheelchair, but succeeded in enjoying whatever she could: a good meal, her grandson and great-granddaughter, a good joke. Although at times she considered giving up, she always bounced back. She kept her own books until the very end, and fought to maintain her independence. She was clearly a feminist before her time, although we never realized it.

She was just Aunt Alice – a warm, funny, smart lady and original thinker who loved us all; each of the six of us (her children and her sister’s) was made to feel special.

My beloved, beautiful aunt passed away on 18 Shvat (February 8), three days after I had a deli lunch with her. May her memory be a blessing.

The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.

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