On the first day of June, 1924, Israel Irving Widaen was born in a crowded slum on the lower east side of Manhattan Island. He was named after his mother’s father, Azrael. According to Jewish tradition, which frowns on naming a child for someone still alive, this means that my great-grandfather Azrael was already gone by June 1924. The baby’s last name, at birth, was Widem, shortened a few years earlier, likely by a harried attendant on Ellis Island, from Widemlansky. It was rendered on his birth certificate as “Widaen”, a spelling my grandmother, who didn’t read English, apparently signed off on. My father’s father also didn’t read English, and so the mistake stood when my father, who until the age of eighteen was known as Irv Widem, was drafted into the US Army as Israel Irving Widaen.
Here is a key, basic, highly determinative, never considered detail of my father’s early life that didn’t dawn on me until years after my father’s death: he was born legally blind. For most of his life, up to a few years before he died, when laser eye surgery became common and effective, he had 20/400 vision, vision he said qualified him as legally blind without his glasses. 20/400 means that what the average person can see clearly at twenty feet looked four hundred feet away to the newborn Israel/Azrael.
His mother’s face, for example, after the tremendous exertions this tiny woman endured to give birth to a huge baby (by a husband in an arranged marriage, a man she hated), would have appeared hazy to the uncomprehending infant. That she may have come to treat the baby as unresponsive, stubbornly, aggravatingly retarded because he was basically blind, never seems to have occurred to anyone. The effect of this unknown blindness certainly didn’t occur to me until weeks or months into writing every day about my father. Think of the effect on your life, on your self-image, if nobody caring for you realizes you are legally blind until you are six or seven years old.
I have a picture of my father reading on the couch before dinner, after his day job, before his night job, his thick black-rimmed glasses up on his forehead, or on a nearby surface, the New York Times held a few inches from his face. He was nearsighted, like the famous Mr. Magoo, but unlike Magoo, he wore powerful corrective lenses that allowed him to drive on the right side of the road, serve in the U.S. military, lead a fairly standard life. If he wanted to read something he could easily read without glasses, as long as the print was very close to his face. He eventually settled on bifocals, which allowed him to read through his glasses, holding a book or paper like anyone else.
As he was dying he insisted he’d been the “dumbest Jewish kid” in Peekskill. This was incomprehensible to me. Whatever critiques could be made of this often contentious man, it is impossible to argue that he wasn’t highly intelligent, well-informed, quick witted. In the hospital room that last night of his life I questioned his assertion that he was the dumbest Jewish kid in the small town he grew up in. “It’s impossible for me to believe you could have possibly been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill,” I said.
“By far!” he insisted, with a “humph!” hours before the end of a long life as a well-read, highly articulate intellectual.
Picture now being born in 1924, a year when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached its high-water mark in registered members, with 2.4 million nationwide. It was early in the ill-fated experiment in Prohibition, when murderous gangsters ran neighborhoods like the one where my father was born. There were no federal child labor laws on the books. A president sympathetic to the Klan and other xenophobes had signed a restrictive immigration bill into law, imposing strict quotas which effectively meant that the rest of the family in Europe was doomed to whatever Fate had in store for them. Your little family is bitterly poor, and, try as you may, you can’t make out the details of anything in the world around you.
Infantile blindness and its lifelong effects would have been an interesting subject to follow up with the baby who grew up to be my father, an old man who still believed he’d been dumb because everyone around him, teachers and classmates whose faces he couldn’t make out, laughed at him and called him a big dummy. Another subject I never got to talk about with the man who belatedly apologized for senselessly fighting with me my whole life.
There was a glancing reference to my father’s early struggles in school in the very limited family lore about his childhood. Like most of the details I know of my father’s difficult early life, this was humorously recounted by that great story-teller Eli Gleiberman, my father’s first cousin, Uncle Aren’s first born son. Aren had saved money and sent for his youngest sister right around the time World War One started. Eli reported that his tiny, red-haired Tante Chava (many years younger than Aren) was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and that she and young Eli had experienced mutual love at first sight when he and his father went to pick her up from the boat. Eli was a good-looking kid and, according to him, his aunt’s lifelong favorite.
The story goes that my grandmother Chava was called to school after my father, the oldest, biggest kid in his class, (in addition to being odd in his expressions, presumably) showed up for school without a word of English in his head. The school sent for her to find out how it was possible for a child born in America to grow up to the age of five or six without learning English. The answer was that they only spoke Yiddish at home, but that answer really answered nothing. Eli, by then in his early twenties, probably taught Chava the line she delivered in response to the school authorities. In a heavy Yiddish accent, when confronted by the school authorities about her son’s lack of English, she said “hee’l loin.” Eli’s face would light up in his devilish grin when he told that story.
The boy would indeed learn, and become a voracious reader with a vast English vocabulary. He would go on to graduate from Syracuse University and later get a Master’s Degree in American History at Columbia, one unfinished dissertation short of his Ph D. That would only happen, as it turns out, once someone at the Peekskill elementary school discovered that it was not mental deficiency, but legal blindness that made it impossible for this odd boy to learn his letters.
A related question arises, when I think things over now in the cool light of all of my detective work over the years. My father’s father, Harry, (for whom I’m named– his Hebrew name, Eliyahu, is my name) the “illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world,” I learned not long before Eli died, spoke English with no trace of a foreign accent. He’d come over from Europe as a baby and picked up unaccented American English, somehow. Go figure. Why didn’t he go to school to talk to the authorities? Because he was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world, I suppose. His sphinx-like presence, and his mysteriously unaccented English, would have no doubt made things even worse, Aren, the small family’s patriarch, must have reasoned. He was probably right.