Letters from Zada: Graduation

For years I wanted to write about my family. When I started writing in a serious way a year and a half ago, I thought I would be focusing on my relationship with my grandmother, Nana. I have written about her, and I will continue to explore those memories and how they shaped me. I have been surprised, though, by how prominent my memories of Zada have been. Perhaps I shouldn’t be.

Zada was a storyteller. I remember running to the basketball courts in the park across the street from our house to retrieve my brothers, Mark and Steven. Zada was going to tell stories! Extended family was visiting our house in Canarsie and Zada was going to regale us with his tales of growing up on the Lower East Side and of his first car. Hearing that Zada was going to be sharing those tales, Mark and Steven set aside their game and came home immediately. Now that is testimony to how entertaining Zada was!

Fortunately, Zada wrote some of his stories to me in letters. I don’t have all of his stories, not by a longshot, but I have carefully stored the ones that I do have. The one I have shared below gives a number of insights into our family, including: (1) why the Spilkens speak so loudly 🙂 ; (2) why we prize our family so much; (3) where the emphasis on critical thinking began; and (4) how much education was valued. Perhaps you will find other insights.

This is the letter that I have reprinted here. He alluded to stories ‘for another telling’ throughout this letter. Unfortunately I do not have many of them. I’m not sure if he actually wrote those other stories down. If other family members have them, please share!

Here in Zada’s own words:

June 1973

Dear Linda,

In a few days you will be graduating Junior High School. The first step in achieving a world of knowledge. It brings back to me thoughts of my own graduation and the indelible impression it made on my life.

I measure the fortunate circumstances in my life in milestones. The first milestone is becoming aware that you can read the printed word, and being able to imbibe and digest all the beautiful things that have been written. This also gives you the extreme pleasure in being able to formulate your own ideas and opinions.

All the other milestones are experiences that leave a lasting impression. With me it would be from the time I met my beloved, the thrill of seeing my firstborn and the satisfaction I had from the ones that followed. The sublime devotion they have accorded me. Becoming a grandparent and knowing the family will be perpetuated eternally. A boy growing up on the East Side of New York, and seeing Palm Beach for the first time (that is a story for telling later).

So now, dear Linda, I will try to tell you why my graduation affected me so that I carry the memory with me forever. My parents came to this country about 1905. For various reasons my father was forced to leave Poland (also for telling later). He left behind my brother Jack, Irving, and sister Lillian and myself, also most important of all, Mother. My father worked hard, long hours in order to make enough money to pay for our passage to America. Within two years he sent for us. We arrived at Ellis Island and were taken to our new home on Orchard Street, between Stanton and Rivington. This neighborhood was known as the lower East Side.

My father’s salary was meager, in order to supplement his earnings and allow us to exist, Lily and Irving went to work. My mother took in four boarders. In those days for $5 a week a boarder would get food and lodging. Now picture a four-room railroad flat, toilets in the hall, man and wife, three children (Jack came to America later) all in one flat. The fortunate thing was that my father and two of the boarders worked nights so that they were able to sleep days. In other words, it was quite a quiet household. That is why when I grew older instead of talking moderately, I shouted in order to make sure that everybody heard me.

Eventually things got better. Unions came into existence, more money was expended for salaries, my father’s wages were tripled. We were able to live in better quarters. We said goodbye to our boarders and moved to East New York, Brooklyn.

In the year 1915 East New York was the equivalent to what city people today think of as the mountains (the Catskills, that is). I must not forget to tell you that in the interim Bess, Ruth, Harry and Sidney became additions to the family. (We lost Ruth in our first year in East New York).

So now I am the oldest of the children going to school. In the year of June 1917 I am to be graduated from Public School 109, located at Powell and Dumont Streets. Finally the day arrives I am to be graduated and the only one of the family that will be present is my brother, Irving. Extenuating circumstances made it impossible for any others to attend.

Now let me set the picture of Public School 109. We did not have an auditorium, but an assembly room that at the most would have held about 150 people. There were about 60 students, and the like number of adults (the graduation exercises were held on a weekday morning accounting for such a small attendance).

Our principal was Oswald D. Shalakow. A real administrator and fine gentleman. There was no valedictorian, so our principal gave the graduating address. This is the problem he posed for us, and he expected answers:

A teacher leaves her classroom and forgets her wallet, it is open and money is in the purse. Two students enter the room individually. The first one sees the money and is tempted to take it, but he fights with himself, and finally he overcomes, leaves the room but does not take anything. The second boy enters the room, sees the money, leaves without giving a thought about taking the money.

The consensus of the graduating class was that the first boy deserves all the credit, because he had to battle his conscience and he had won.

But our principal explains to us that the second boy should get all the credit, because, his reasoning was that the first boy may someday succumb to temptation, and would not be able to resist taking the money. But the second boy is inherently honest. It never enters his mind to take anything that does not belong to him. It may be different today, morals being what they are. So form your own opinion as to who was right.

Now the diplomas are to be handed out, so the principal makes this request. Please refrain from applauding the individual, but when the last graduate is called, he would welcome a large round of applause for all of the graduates. Names would be called alphabetically and if people would applaud at the start they would get tired when it would come to the “Jays,” and it would not be fair to the boys that would follow.

The assembly room is quiet, the names are called, each boy as his name is called approaches the principal, receives his diploma, and returns to his seat. Now he comes to the “Esses.” He calls Charles Spilken. I rise, on my way to the principal. I hear a deafening clamor, take two pieces of marble and clap them together, that was what my brother Irving was doing with his hands. Understand that Irving had two very strong hands (more in a later telling). If the floor had opened up, and I fell thru, I would have welcomed that kind of calamity, I was so embarrassed. But years later when I looked back at that incident, I realized that all the emotion, all that happiness seeing his first graduation, especially that of his little brother, who was now on his way to becoming a somebody, because in those days to be educated was to reach the pinnacle of success. That he could not suppress the feelings within his heart, that he forgot everything, but to give vent to that pride.

That is really how my love of family originated. To love one another. To revel in each other’s successes, to be steadfast in each other’s adversity(ies). To have a ‘swelling pride,’ that cannot be subjugated by petty annoyances.

Then will I consider myself blessed, especially Dearest Linda if you can realize how proud you make your Zada, for being able to be present at the maturing of Linda Brody.

I’ll leave for West Palm Beach knowing that I am endowed with the best family a man can ever possess. May that feeling within me age, but never grow less.


8 thoughts on “Letters from Zada: Graduation

  1. It is hard to write through my tears. I can’t count the times I heard his graduation story and repeated the question asked by the principal to elicit the answer that you so eloquently repeated. So many stories and so wonderful that you saved many of them. I too have saved some letters and for a man who was forced to quit HS what a wonderful writer he was. And it makes me so proud that you have continued to follow and honor his memory. I love you dearly

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Linda,
    I am absolutely wowed by your grandfather’s intellect, insights and appreciation for the importance of education and family. You come from great stock and I know he would be proud of you because you and Gary have paid it forward with your own children.


    1. Thanks, Jay. Kind of amazing – as my mom mentioned in her comment, he didn’t finish high school. He was the definition, though, of a life-long learner. He read until macular degeneration robbed him of his sight.


  3. Linda:

    1. How magnificent of you to have saved that letter!!!!!!!!

    2. The younger grandchildren of Zada- Ray, Sarah, Ryan, Jaime,— please share this letter with your children. This sets forth so many of the roots of the family into which they are now a part of .

    3. Although I recall the stories- the life in the East Side tenement, the pride expressed by Uncle Irving upon the awesoe achievemnet of having achieved the pinnacle of a “junior high school” education; the ability to actually read Zada’s, oh so eloquent, words– this is a present you have provided to me (and I am sure the other grand kids) which cannot be measured.

    4. With regard to Zada’s graduation – here are some reflections:

    a. Is it not amazing that almost 50 years post event Zada can recall the Principal’s homily? And what a great, provocative (timeless) question posed by the principal.

    b. Now flash forward to the year 2000. Zada’s great grandson [Josh] is granduating from High School. In the suburban community in Delmar NY where 85-90% of his class will be going on to college. The 320 students are seated in chaairs on the fieldhouse floor. Parents and other guests are above them in the bleachers. As each of the 320 students are called to get their diploma, they, march from the well in the SUNY Albany fieldhouse, and there may or may not have been muted applause by the parents (this I do not remember) but all of a sudden a student whose family has recently emigrated from some country in Africa was called to get his diploma. The entire student body rose in mass and gave that student, the first person in his family to achieve a HS diploma, a standing and rousing ovation.

    I was never so proud of my son’s HS community!

    And I get goose bumps today as I think about Zada’s accomplishments and Joshua’s generation’s ability to appreciate the same!


  4. WOW – what a letter and to have it saved. While reading it I hear Zada’s deep voice and recollect the many stories he told us. And as Mark already wrote, to remember 50+ years later the Principal’s remarks is just amazing, WOW again. Great post.


  5. It is quite amazing that my father could write such an eloquent letter in spite of his formal education. He left high school to help work in the family bakery. He was truly an auto-didactic, self educated. I can vividly remember coming home from school and he was in bed reading Shakespeare or Dickens, etc. Being in bed was the norm since bakers work at night. As you recall, he was a truly gifted story teller. Members of the family would gather around him in anticipation of his recollections. It didn’t even matter if they were all true. My siblings and I were very blessed to have two unbelievable parents with very distinct and incredible talents. It is no wonder we have such incredible family members carrying on their traditions and beliefs. There is nothing like family and friends. We learned to appreciate everything we had and make the best of every situation. As Dorothy said, “there is no place like home”. Our home taught us to be people who contribute to society. Linda, keep up the beautiful writing and Zada and Nana will continue to look down on you and the rest of our families.


  6. Linda, your writings make me so proud to be part of our family. I’ve always been proud of our family, but reading the stories as an adult provides such a unique perspective. Thank you for sharing my Zada’s words with me and all your other readings… such an honor to his legacy. Love reading all the comments above, and yes Mark, I will certainly be sharing the stories with my boys.


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