Adam and his wife Ali are newcomers to Mount Zion, but have already started to become familiar figures, including with Adam joining our Rashi study group on Thursdays as time permits. As you will see below, our conversation last week turned out to be both timely and poignant, given the community commemoration of Yom Hashoah that was hosted later that week at Mount Zion. To the point where Adam suggested that we wait to take his snapshot at the commemoration, and in front of one of his favorite pieces in the exhibition “Lest We Forget” by Sandra Brick. The piece is entitled “Empty Frames” and combines the tradition of Jews leaving a stone when visiting a grave, with the stories of millions whose graves will never be found, and whose life’s stories will never be told, leaving behind but an empty frame.
Tell me about your growing up years.
I grew up on Irving Avenue in South Minneapolis. My mother Karon is still living there. She had grown up in a farming family near Aberdeen, South Dakota where she was the oldest of five. She started out at Brainerd community college and then finished here at the U, as a Phi Beta Kappa in English. She worked in sales for a lawyers’ cooperative publishing firm and did well enough by her late 20s to start investing in real estate, including our house on Irving, and a ten-unit apartment building near here, actually, at Selby and Lexington.
My father’s name was Philip. He passed away last January, and he was good bit older than my mother. The best we can tell he was born in about 1927. He was a Holocaust survivor who came herein ’48 or ’49, with the help of Jewish agencies, and he was taken in by a family in St. Paul. They may have been from Mount Zion. I still have to look into that.
At first there were three of us brothers. I was the second, and 18 months apart from both my older brother Kiva, and my younger brother Geoff, spelled with a G, so we called him Goof. Then when I was about seven my youngest brother Josh, or Justin, came along. And all four of us ended up going to Torah Academy in Saint Louis Park. My mom had grown up Lutheran so she converted, and she actually converted twice. The first time it was performed by a Reform Rabbi, but as we got into our teens, most of our classmates at Torah Academy were from observant orthodox families, and there were concerns that our family be strictly Kosher, so my mother and all of us boys went through the conversion ceremony as well, prior to my older brother’s bar mitzvah. It seemed odd but we did it.
What do you know of your father’s story?
He was born in a village called Slawatycze, which is in southeastern Poland today. And he had three brothers, who were substantially older than he was. And in fact once he became a father, he named the first three of us after his three brothers. I think that the Nazis first came into his village in 1939 and then abandoned it right away, since it was in the middle of the Eastern Front. But we know that his parents were murdered and his three brothers were murdered. I think he witnessed his mother being shot, but he got away, and probably carried some guilt about that.
His brother Akiva actually became an officer in the Polish Army, which was uncommon for a Jew. And just before my father died he told me a story that I didn’t remember hearing before. As the Nazis were approaching another time, an officer in the Polish Army told Akiva that ‘as far as I’m concerned, you are not Jewish.’ And Akiva said ‘well I have a mother and brother hiding in the fields, can we help them as well?’ So, the three of them were together for a while. And I remember the story of him and the brother once hiding underneath a latrine. In the dreck, as he would say. Stories like that…
Eventually he left the village and I don’t remember the whole itinerary but there were several villages that he lived in, and in the winter for a while he would live in the forest, literally in a hole in the ground. At the time I think he was 16 or 17. And then finally one day the Russians tanks came, and he recalled hearing the engines approaching and thinking that it was the Germans. He started to hear shelling and he thought that he was done for, but then the shelling stopped and as the tanks advanced he saw they were Russian. The officer in the first tank discovered and greeted him. We think he may have been Jewish himself. But he had to keep advancing, so he assured my father that there was another unit coming through, and that they would help him.
Then he ended up in a DP (displaced persons) camp for about a year and a half. And he connected there with an old friend who had been like a brother to him, Henry Greenspan, who became a successful entrepreneur in San Francisco.
Do you know how many others survived from his village?
No. I think the village had about 1200 Jews before the war, and maybe a dozen of them survived. So, growing up we had no living relatives on his side, but about ten years ago it emerged that he had a first cousin on his father’s side, Sam, who had emigrated to Charleston, SC prior to war. So actually, just two weeks before my father died, Sam’s son Lenny and granddaughter Chloe visited the Twin Cities, and we met. It was kind of strange that just as one door closes another door opens. As my father was dying, I came to know family that I had only dreamed of growing up.
Sounds like you’ve done a lot of genealogy.
I hope to someday, but I haven’t gone down that rabbit hole just yet. My father was very much a part of the congregation of Knesset Israel in St. Louis Park during his last 10 years, especially with children of Holocaust survivors. Generationally, they are 20 or 30 years older than I am, but I sat Shiva over there and got to know some of them, and heard the stories that he had relayed to them. So it’s just kind of a mishmash of information, and then there’s some documentation I discovered in his apartment. He had started a file in about 2007 when he took a trip back to the village, so there are some documents, such as his original birth certificate, when he needed to get sponsorship for the trip, and photos of the Jewish cemetery that had been restored there, and was being rededicated during his visit.
Do you know how he got from the DP camp to Minnesota?
He took a boat and I have a picture of his boat, and I remember hearing that they were out on the ocean and a fire alarm went off. It was a drill, but he didn’t know it was a drill, and he couldn’t swim. So, the alarm goes off and he was thinking ‘I’ve survived the Nazis just to die at sea.’ But they made it to New York City, and he stayed for a short time at a boarding house on Caldwell St. in Brooklyn, which I intend to visit the next time I’m in New York. And from there it seems he got to St. Paul pretty quickly. He was a very bright guy, and had picked up some English in the camp, so when he got here he finished all of his high school at Marshall High School in a single year, at the age of 22. He even started classes at the University of Minnesota, but in what I don’t know. When he was asked about it he would just say “a bit of everything.” Then for several years he had a dance studio in St. Louis Park that was very successful, and he taught ballroom dance. He was a very energetic dancer even late in life.
Do you know how your parents met?
This is something I only learned about ten years ago. They met in front of the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. There had been a showing of a movie about the Holocaust, and as people were coming out, my mother and her friend were having a conversation that he overheard, and he butted in to disagree with some part of their conversation. He was about 20 years older than her. They had a relationship and later got married and started having children soon after that. But they later divorced when I was 11 or 12.
I assume you led an observant Jewish life growing up?
Somewhat. We didn’t keep kosher at home, but each of us went to Torah Academy, which is primarily an Orthodox school, and then I went on to high school at Blake. And we would go to Brainerd for Christmas each year with our grandparents, who had moved there by then.
Let’s skip ahead a bit. Where was college for you?
I went to Dartmouth. Academically, it had small classes, which I was accustomed to, and a really strong debate program. I was a competitive debater in high school, and I wanted to debate in college. I had gone to debate workshops at Dartmouth during the summer in high school, and I really admired their coach, and got to know the campus. The professors there were wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.
Did you go there all four years?
Yes. And I wrote a thesis there, that I consider revisiting every once in a while, on the subject of second generation Holocaust fiction. It centered on two books, including one called See Under: Love, by an Israeli author, David Grossman. It had come out in 1986 and was really a watershed moment in Israeli society. And the other was a more recent book at the time, by a Canadian, Anne Michaels, called Fugitive Pieces. I had done some coursework and gotten into the academic and psychological literature about second generation Holocaust survivors in the early 80s. And I used that partly as a means of personal exploration and to come to terms with myself, and my story. So, it was interesting to me, and accessible, and I don’t think those stories are done.
One thing that interested me with these two books is that they approach the Shoah knowing that there are going to be some gaps, and some distance from it. Yet they explored what it means to still be able to tell the stories with authenticity.
Was your father involved with your thesis?
No, only the memories of the stories I had heard. There was often tension between my father and me from the time I was 12 or 13, until very shortly before his death. Though we had some touching moments in the end, and Shiva has tremendous healing power. I have nothing but positive feelings for him.
We have been given a fractured world and one of the things that I really appreciate about Mount Zion is the congregational and personal commitment that I have seen from so many members, who have showed kindness and compassion, and are welcoming and supportive.
What was your Jewish experience at Dartmouth and beyond?
During high school I had nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism. In college I kind of reconnected with the Hebrew part of it and did some interpretive work – including some papers on Rashi that I wish I had now! Some of the midrash and contemporary authors. And then I kind of lapsed again.
After college I stayed on and worked at Dartmouth for four more years as an assistant coach of the debate team. So, I worked for my former coach, and we had a lot of success including a number-one ranked team nationally, that I’m very proud of. And after that I moved to Minnesota for a year or so to figure out the next thing. I had lived in Hanover, New Hampshire for eight years, which is a small town with basically no one between the ages of 22 and 35. The next year I took a job coaching debate at UC Berkeley, and later went to Cornell, to coach there as well.
Had Ali come into the picture by this time?
Ali and I met during our senior year in high school, but we actually started our relationship, the first time around, during college. So it was a long distance relationship, since I was at Dartmouth and she was at the University of Chicago at first, and then went to Sarah Lawrence her final two years. But we split up after three years and didn’t see each other for some time, until years later when I was at Cornell, and we reconnected. Something blossomed and it became a romantic relationship again.
What does she do today?
She is a graphic designer and creative director who has her own business, Storied Creative, and more recently she has started to do some work with an agency.
When were you married?
We were married in May of 2013 at Brooklyn Borough Hall. We’d invited a small group – 22 people, mostly immediate family and some friends. We were married by a judge who was wonderful! I was so amazed, because she had probably done thousands of these things, and still was able to do it with some feeling.
How did you end up joining Mount Zion?
Well I had been disconnected from Judaism for quite a while and I didn’t know when we moved here that – or how – I would reconnect with this faith. And as it turns out, we live very close to Mount Zion and I’d be walking by and thinking ‘one day I’ll probably go in there.’ And then one day I did, and I had a really good feeling. I remember hearing the evening prayer hashkeveinu, which begins with something like ‘let us lay down Hashem, and we will return to you in peace.’ And at the word ‘return’, I was in tears.
So, you are in a job hunt now. What sort of job are you hoping to land?
I’m angling towards business development and sales roles. Naturally, I’m a catalyst who likes to initiate reactions and serve as a connector and a translator, to bridge gaps between people. And a lot of sales functions involve that. You have to translate the language of a certain product or business into the language that the client or customer understands and values.
Final questions, the random round. Do you have any hobbies?
I love bicycling. Right now, it is just locally, for recreation, but I hope that within five years or so to take a longer road trip. There’s also a Dutch company that makes a recumbent bike that is crossed with a kayak. I want one of those.
Did you have any pets growing up?
No. Well, I had a pet fish that died after about a day. It was really traumatic. We had a goldfish in my kindergarten class, and at the end of the year we randomly chose who would get to take the fish home. And I never won those things, so I must have won by accident. And when I was going to take it home they told me that you can’t just put it in tap water, you have to aerate the water. So I took it home and the fish was doing fine, and I went outside to play, and when I came back in, the fish was dead. And I went to my mom and said “the fish is dead! What did you do?” And she said, “I didn’t do anything”. And I said, “you must have done something!” And she said, “I just put it in water.” And by this point I was blubbering, and I couldn’t even tell her that “you can’t just put in water, you have to give it oxygen to breath!” I was just inconsolable, and I thought I would never be able to communicate with a person again.
So yeah, I had a fish.
Let’s wrap up with your favorite book.
The Little Prince. I first read it when I was a kid, and then again when Ali and I reconnected. It is a love story that includes a Prince and a rose, and through their relationship the Prince learns what it means to be committed to a love interest. And there’s a fox who teaches the Prince about friendship. It’s really touching.
So as our romance blossomed, it became a big part of our story together. We wore fox pins at our wedding!
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince.