Secrets in the Matzah box

After the death of a lifelong friend, my aged father became depressed and paranoid. He thought the IRS and FBI were out to get him for tax evasion. Just the sight of the security patrols made Dad panic. At first my sister and I believed that Dad just needed a good psychiatrist and medication. Despite these interventions, my father became a prisoner in his own home. A retired union activist and featherweight boxer, he rarely left his apartment in the Leisure World Compound of Seal Beach, California. He ate little. He lost weight. He refused to go to the store, the post office or the bank. In 1999 my sister Ellen took our father to live with her. After he left I cleaned out his dingy one bedroom apartment. The task at hand was not easy. I did not like the child-parent role reversal and the transition taking place in my life.

A Red-Diaper Daughter’s Memoir

It took only a few hours to clean out my dad’s tiny apartment. He had very few possessions. As I folded Dad’s shirts I remembered the day in September of 1971 when my parents drove me to Santa Barbara, to start my first year of college. The University of California at Santa Barbara was the place where anti- Vietnam War demonstrators burned down a branch of the Bank of America. For a Red Diaper baby this was interesting news. However, for the entire two hour drive I was sobbing tears of grief over the loss of childhood. At one point Dad pulled the car off the Los Angeles freeway and sweetly said, “Honey, we won’t change a thing in your room,” Unfortunately, I could not make that same promise to him.

My partner, Lloyd Wolf, gently searched Dad’s upper hallway cabinets and found dusty Shabbat candies, a gold yarmulke, a tin menorah still laced in blue wax and, surprising in a hall closet, an empty matzah box. I almost threw it away but Lloyd— God bless him—reached inside. He did not come up empty handed.

Out of the pink matzah box came creased black and white photos and torn faded documents. These were evidence of my father’s radical youth, when the FBI really was out to get him.

Harry Wolfson was born in 1918 in Fall River, Massachusetts. His Orthodox parents Pincus and Mary (an arranged match) had eight children. Grandpa Pincus sold fruit from a horse drawn cart. Dad joked about living below the poverty line. “My six sisters took turns going outside because they had only one dress to share among them.”

During the Depression Dad joined a select group of specialized movers. They retrieved furniture from the sidewalks as families were evicted by their landlords. Then when the goons left, my Dad and his team quickly dashed all of it back inside the homes. Dad served in the army during WWII and returned to New York a soldier in the fight for social justice. Someone had given him articles by Karl Marx while aboard the aircraft carrier that was carrying the troops home. He returned to New York a changed man. Dad joined the American Youth for Democracy and met Rhoda Shea, his future wife, at a meeting. My parents left their honeymoon early to demonstrate for the creation of the State of Israel.

Their son Joe was born on July 11th, 1949. The hospital arranged for a mohel. My mother was anxious to meet him, have the ceremony and get Joe’s circumcision over and done with. The mohel arrived a half hour early, a tall man in a black suit, carrying a large briefcase. In one breathless swoop my mother sat the mohel down, served coffee, and then asked, “What do you need to know about us?” He replied, “Who lives in this house?” She gave him the names. He then asked, “Do you have a relative who works at the Brooklyn Naval Ship Yard?” My mother was momentarily confused and then flushed with anger. The man flipped open his wallet, flashed his FBI badge and said, “Hey lady, you didn’t give me a chance to introduce myself.” My mother remembers that the family “threw the bum out.” Afterwards my parents assumed that the agent was investigating their signatures on a petition to ban the A-bomb. For the next two years my parents lived underground. Their mission was to house and protect a mimeograph machine since many members of “the movement leadership” were being detained and arrested. Dad was so anxious about breaking the mimeograph that he seldom took it out of the box. According to my mother, “The mimeograph was given to the staff at the Daily Worker and later (ironically) confiscated in a raid by the IRS.” My parents were again living “above ground” by the time I was born in 1953. They named me Paula Ethel in honor of actor and activist Paul Robeson and loyal housewife and convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg. My pregnant mother had sat near Ethel Rosenberg’s mother on a train car filled with demonstrators going to Washington DC in an attempt to stay the Rosenberg execution. In 1954 I witnessed my first labor march from the front row seat of a baby buggy, when Harry and Rhoda helped organize a sit-in for the United Electrical Workers Union. My mother walked the picket line, carrying a sign in one hand and pushing a baby stroller with the other. When the bosses moved the factory south, the union was smashed. My Dad and hundreds of workers were left unemployed. A friend stopped by our house to say he was relocating his family to California, where there were jobs.

Our family, along with many other radicals from Brooklyn, moved in 1957 to Long Beach, California. It was paradise. Palm trees. Orange groves. A two car garage! Dad found work installing floors and my mother became a secretary at the Long Beach Jewish Community Center My brother Joe became a top ranked surfer while the rest of us continued pounding pavement to support striking farm workers, to liberate Angela Davis, to stop the war, and to support the Womens’ Movement. However, not all was peaceful in sunny California. Tall men in gray suits frequently pounded on our front door My father did not let them in. He would crack the door open and yell, “I’m not talking to you. So, get a lawyer!” (For years I thought these were Bible salesman and couldn’t understand why my father wanted them to get a lawyer)

After all three children left home for college the center fell out from my parent’s marriage. Their relationship burnt out as the self-help movement spread like wild fire through California. Dad volunteered as a stop-smoking facilitator and my mother smoked. They had “communication and identity” issues. She resented his searching her purse for cigarettes. She called him a “fanatic.” He had difficulty adjusting to her new friends from the women’s group. He attended therapy sessions at a nudist colony and she took a degree in Jewish studies. After their split, my mother got a better paying job and a female partner. And my father never recovered from their divorce.

Dad was unable to create a new life for himself. He bought cowboy attire and went country line dancing, but couldn’t relate to the other dancers once the music stopped. Mostly he withdrew from the world. And then the panic attacks began. The medication helped control his anxiety but my Dad was never the same again. In his later years he must have stashed his early memories away in that empty matzah box, just in case the FBI came knocking on his Leisure World door.

I had never seen these images before, a generation of memories. Photos of my parents on their honeymoon, of Dad in the army and on strike. A faded, torn document from the pile turned out to be the front page of the 1954 Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. It features a photo of my mother on a picket line, carrying a sign that says, “Don’t Come Home Without A Contract.” For me, these newly found photos create a quiet testament to the days when my parent’s marital union stood strong and we had a wonderful family life.

Sadly, my parents now do not speak or see one another. Yet their legacy continues in the values that they have jointly taught their children.

Sometimes a matzah box is many things at once. It can be half empty or half full, a reminder of the bitter and the sweet in life; exile, liberation and that never-ending journey to a promised land. For my father a matzah box provided the safe haven that he never really found in life.

In 1976 I moved to Washington DC to intern at the Institute for National Security Studies, an organization concerned with the abuse of government agencies spying on citizens. Now I store my father’s documents in my home, just a few miles from FBI headquarters. 

Paula Wolfson is the co-author, with photographer Lloyd Wolf, of Jewish Mothers: Strength Wisdom Compassion. They are now working on a book about Jewish Fathers