“Hit me!… c’mon, hit me!… Hit me, you chicken!” said Paul Nathanson offering his upper arm to Jerry Gruenberg.
“I don’t want to hit you” said Jerry to his 200 lb. cousin Paul. “If I hit you you’re going to want to hit me.”
“Nah,” said Paul, “go on… Hit Me!”
“Forget it,” said his cousin, “you outweigh me by 75 lbs. I can’t trade hits with you.”
“What if I hit you with my left hand and I let you hit me with your right? That’s fair” pleaded Paul.
“No, that’s not fair” said Jerry.
“Nobody is hitting anybody” said a voice from the kitchen. Think of the “kinder” she said referring to me, her first grandson.
At age six I lived in awe of those big “hitters” and the rest of the men and boys who lived in or passed through that home at 801 Elwood in North Minneapolis. The voice of command came from my grandmother, Rose Nathanson, a stout little woman in her fifties who ruled that big house at 801 Elwood with a firm but loving hand.
Well the boys settled for arm wrestling that evening on the newel post at the base of the stairs. Actually Jerry gave Paul a pretty good fight when they wrestled with left arms. No one, to my knowledge, ever beat Paul Nathanson’s massive right arm. People tried: football players, truck drivers, big men all, but as the legend goes no one ever bested Paul Nathanson’s big right arm.
But far and away the strongest person, the boss in that house, was that little lady who birthed six sons of her own and was responsible for three more who were orphaned when her sister Anna died early in life. I was Rose Nathanson’s first grandson, and I worshipped that woman.
A lot of boys… yes. As a matter of fact my grandfather, Ike Nathanson, came from a family of seven sons and one daughter. Ike Nathanson was a big man who was highly respected by siblings and offspring as well as his many friends and business associates. The same can be said for his brothers, all of whom were highly respected citizens in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul).
My grandfather never drove a car, though he owned a large Buick sedan and had his own driver. Ike loved to fish, but always asked me to row the boat for him as soon as I could handle a pair of oars. Rose ruled the roost, but there was no question that until he died too soon at age 59, Ike was head of that household.
The three oldest sons, Harold, Gilbert (my father), and Dodo (David), were married at the time and no longer living at home. Joseph, Paul and Jerry had bedrooms of their own at 801 Elwood, but Milton, the 4th son, who was a legendary ladies’ man-about-town, had his own apartment at the swank Windsor Arms and a reputation to go with it. Luella, their wonderful Norwegian housekeeper, lived in the attic apartment.
They were all athletes as young men. They all played football, except maybe Milton, whose sports were tennis and romance. The boys played tennis at the local public courts and ping pong at the Emanuel Cohen Jewish Youth Center which was in an old converted mansion across the alley on Elwood. It was rumored that Paul, who served in the Coast Guard during World War II, was the ping pong champion of the South Pacific. I could never visualize a little ping pong paddle at the end of Uncle Paul’s massive right arm.
The Tifereth B’nai Orthodox Shul (synagogue) was directly across the street on Elwood when I was a little boy. I think my grandfather, Ike, was a member. My parents however, were married in a conservative synagogue, and our little family joined a reform temple when I was growing up. Today that synagogue across the street on Elwood is the First Church of God Christ with a predominantly Afro-American congregation.
Everybody in the family celebrated Yom Kippur, ‘the day of atonement’. The adults fasted and spent the day in prayer. That evening, my grandmother fed as many as twenty to thirty people. To break the fast on that evening she actually served two meals, the first was what you might call a late brunch. It was followed about two hours later with a complete dinner. For the ‘brunch’ you could expect fruit, eggs, homemade ‘schnecken’ (baked rolls of cinnamon, pecan and raisin) and her world class cheesecake. For dinner she started with gefilte fish followed by matzoh ball soup, broiled chicken, roast brisket of beef, vegetables and ‘tzimmes’, a wonderful casserole of sweet potatoes, carrots and prunes. For dessert there was an assortment of pies, cakes, cookies, and several different ice creams.
Come to think of it, those were the kind of Sunday dinners she served year round. After dinner the women remained around the table, and the men went into the living room and lit up cigars. The smoke was so thick in that room you couldn’t tell who was yelling at whom. In my Dad’s family everybody argued, and everybody yelled. I loved it. However, in those years and to this day I never smoked a cigar or anything else. I think that those after dinner Sundays at 801 Elwood had something to do with it, especially in the below-zero winters when all the windows in the house were closed, and one couldn’t breathe anything but cigar smoke.
Cigars, as happens, were the “bread and butter” in my dad’s family. The Nathansons had a long history in the cigar business. Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco was an institution in Minneapolis. My dad’s uncles owned cigar stores downtown and his father ran the wholesale division which served retailers all over Minnesota and the Dakotas.
At the time my dad was courting my mother he sold cigars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco to drug stores, restaurants and bars in that three state area. Many years later I too worked for the ‘Wholesale House’ as we called it, first as a stock boy and later when I was in college I had my own sales and delivery route.
Note: For more on Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco and Geoff Nate’s adventures in the business see Blog 10, “Tobacco Tales”.
During the summers my grandparents took a cottage at Lake Minnetonka. That ‘cottage’ slept a dozen people or more if you used the cots and couches on the upstairs and downstairs porches. I loved those summers at Lake Minnetonka. I dug worms for my grandfather and rowed him out to his favorite fishing holes. After he passed away I would row my grandmother out to her fishing holes. When we returned to shore I watched my grandparents clean and scale the sunfish, bass or crappies for dinner. Nothing beats eating the fresh fish you catch, clean and fry yourself.
Nobody ever made Jewish dill pickles like the ones I scrubbed, sliced and helped my grandmother preserve every year. If there was a Jewish dill pickle contest at the Minnesota State Fair she would have won first prize. She also preserved other vegetables and fruit, all of which I cleaned and stuffed in mason jars which we stored in her root cellar at 801 Elwood.
They say it’s an old wives tale, but my grandmother believed that garlic is good for one’s health. In fact, she used to go about her routine around the house with a clove of garlic under her lower lip. People today ask why I enjoy garlic flavoring in my food. I tell them that it’s just a ‘breath of love’.
As the years went by all of her boys married and moved away, except Paul, who was married briefly but returned. He and ‘Rosie’ continued to live at 801 Elwood. In her early seventies my grandmother acquired some kind of very painful skin disease. There were times when Paul had to go away on business and Luella needed a day off, so I would go up to Elwood to spend the night with ‘Rosie’. As happens I had been dating a coed who lived nearby. I assured my grandmother that Gloria Olson was a ‘nice Jewish girl’ who on such occasions would spend the night only to “keep me company”.
Unfortunately my grandmother began to go downhill fast. She was in great pain, and in those days the only thing stronger than aspirin was morphine, a terrible addictive drug that was and still is administered by hypodermic needle. This was a very difficult chapter in my life. When she no longer had the strength to do it herself, I had to prepare and inject the medicine. As I write of this over 60 years later, it was one of the saddest and most difficult things I have ever had to do.
Rose Nathanson passed away at the age of 72 leaving her extended family and most certainly me, her first grandson, with many wonderful memories.
I drove out to 801 Elwood on a visit to Minneapolis not long ago. The home was still there, but it seemed so much smaller than I remembered. Certainly the trees had grown taller, but everything in that neighborhood looked smaller. I parked in front of the house and rolled down the window on the passenger side of the rental car to take a few photos.
Suddenly the front door burst open revealing a giant black man.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” said a voice I don’t think I’ll ever forget. “Get your ass out of here or I’m gonna blow your head off.” I didn’t see any gun, and I sure didn’t stay there long enough to see what that big mean guy looked like let alone what he did or did not have in his hands. I started that rental car and got out of there in seconds.
Now as I think of it however, as big and tough as he looked, that guy would never have beaten my Uncle Paul Nathanson’s powerful right arm.
NATHANSON FAMILY ROOTS
My grandfather, Ike, came from a colorful family. He and his mother Yetta and his five brothers, Ben, Collie, Nate, Henry, and Moe and their sister, Lena, followed their father Ben and Ike’s older brother Lou from Lithuania to Minneapolis in the late 1880s.
As the legend goes, my great-grandfather, Ben, started out, like most immigrants, as a peddler. He sold whiskey, became a travel agent and went into early Democratic politics, a natural profession for a man in those days who was fluent in five languages. His son Ike and his brothers were all successful in their various professions, ranging from politics to tobacco to the movie business. The youngest brother, Moe, was a prominent cardiologist.
I don’t remember much about the Crowns, my grandmother’s family, other than that she had three sisters, Anna, Faye and Sarah. Anna was married to Billy Gruenberg, Leonard, Hershel and Jerry’s father. Faye was married to a man named Jake Goldenberg and Sarah to Billy Goldberg. Sarah and Faye each had two children.
There’s a story that my grandmother and her sisters had a brother who was named Henry Crown. Supposedly Henry ran away from home when he was a young man. No one ever heard from him, and he was never found. There was, however, a man named Henry Crown who just happens to have been a multimillionaire and supposedly the richest man in Chicago at the time. It was the family fantasy that the Chicago Crown must have been our lost Uncle Henry.
The Nathanson roots are well-chronicled however, thanks to the wonderful energies of my first cousin, Iric Nathanson and another cousin, Pat Fuller, the latter a diligent historian from the Ben and Francis Nathanson side of the family.
The early years of our family in Minneapolis are beautifully recounted by Iric Nathanson in “Ben Nathanson Midwestern Patriarch,” an article in “Hennepin History”, a quarterly published by the Hennepin County Museum.
To access Iric’s article see our “Begged and Borrowed” segment.