Detroit, Michigan, 2008
From the album Drawnigh, 2015
Yosef Ackel looked down at the forged identification papers his father Wolf had purchased for him on the Jewish black market, in the hamlet of Krasilov, Ukraine. To avoid being conscripted into the Russian army for a forty-year sentence, Wolf had taken his son to a special sort-of doctor known as a feldsher, who intentionally gave Yosef a hernia. This same feldsher had previously stabbed Yosef’s older brother Avraham in the ear, causing considerable damage. Emerging from the feldsher’s bureau doubled over and in tremendous pain, with a large splotch of blood on the bandage hugging fast to his abdomen like the cruel arms of an anti-mother, Yosef had to be carried out by his quaking and sobbing father. So that the section of intestine bulging through his abdominal wall should never heal, Yosef immediately took up work as a lumberjack in the forgotten Ukrainian forest in which his family lived, some distance outside of the town of Berdichev. In spite of all this determined and intentional crippling, the Russians still sought to conscript Yosef Ackel and his older brother. Thus, stuffing his forged identity papers into his pocket, and with the Secret Police hunting him, Yosef crossed the dilating Dniester River under cover of darkness; and thereby emerged Yosef Ackel —on the other side— into a new life: reborn and remade as Joseph Wetsmon.
And by the time he and his wife Basheh Handler reached What Cheer, Iowa, they were Joseph and Bessie Wetsman.
The year was 1886.
A series of letters was exchanged between the Wetsmans and another relative who had also managed to escape the Russians.
“Just arrived in America. I think I’m near Iowa.”
“Where are you?”
“Do you have enough to eat?”
“Okay. Thank God. Stay there.”
Iowa looked a lot like Ukraine: a barely undulating and driftless pancake land of deep black soil, threadbare farms underlined by quickly disappearing forests fringing languid and muddy rivers. Very much like Ukraine. Very much so, except for no Russian Army. No pogroms. —Positive—. Like Ukraine. Except for no other Jews. Zero. None at all. —Negative—.
Back before they left Ukraine, Joseph and Bessie had given their money to a Landsman (a sort of a ‘pioneer’): a fellow Yid from their village who had landed in Iowa, and sent for them to meet him there in a letter which sang Iowa’s praises as a land of ... well, I suppose not exactly milk and honey, so much as hogs and hardtack. In any event, when they arrived in Iowa, the Wetsmans found neither the Landsman. Nor their money. Nor any other Jews. —Big negative—.
And so the Wetsmans abandoned their Yiddish language.
Joseph Wetsman made money by foot-tramping throughout the eastern Iowa coal towns and cornfields, selling thimbles, needles, and thread out of a rented backpack which he lugged around, all while wearing a truss which kept his herniated intestines from strangulating themselves and thereby killing him. Eventually, he saved enough money to buy a store, in Oskaloosa.
The Wetsmans had two sons and four daughters. When the violent spring lightning storms and tornadoes ripped open wounds upon the prairies, the children were all placed in different rooms, so that they shouldn’t all die on the same day.
Dorothy, the youngest of Joseph and Bessie’s daughters, was a frail and sickly child, born with the then-incurable kidney-dropsy known as Bright’s Disease. The small child’s convulsive flesh trembled or else hung like rags on her flimsy frame-skeleton. Bessie purchased one of the first automobiles in Iowa, bouncing and sputtering across fields of the curious and swinging scythes, across a green and callow country in which roads had yet to be built, all in hopes of finding some doctor who could cure her dying daughter. She drove. She drove. Oskaloosa. Pella. Des Moines. She drove. Iowa City. Ottumwa. Burlington. Cedar Rapids. She drove. These mother-huntings for her daughter only deepened Bessie’s obsession with nutrition and healthful physical constitution.
At some point, Bessie was confronted with the reality that Iowa possessed no miracles. No doctors talented enough to do the impossible. No doctors for her daughter. Ever resolute and bold, Bessie began to explore more progressive options. She had heard of a certain doctor in Battle Creek, Michigan: a refined theological-modernist with an extraordinarily well-groomed Hungarian moustache, he maintained his own sanitarium-hospital, at which he promoted a pure vegan lifestyle, serving up such delicacies as lamb chops made entirely out of soy. Said doctor, whose name was John Harvey Kellogg, was an early subscriber to the theory that disease was actually caused by something called ‘germs’, rather than an imbalance of humours or foul-smelling air or the spells of witches and elves. While experimenting with the manufacture of plant-based foods at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, Dr Kellogg’s enterprising younger brother W. K. Kellogg invented Corn Flakes Breakfast Cereal. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that Dr Kellogg’s critics derided him as pantheist who was out to destroy Christianity — and thereafter de-fellowed the good doctor from his church — Bessie Wetsman was absolutely convinced that Dr Kellogg could cure her daughter’s kidney disease. Wanting to find a Jewish community close to Battle Creek, such as could offer marriage prospects for their other three daughters, the Wetsmans flipped a coin: heads Chicago, tails Detroit.
The Wetsmans landed in Detroit.
Dorothy died there, in 1914.
For the rest of Bessie’s life, she never again spoke directly to her husband.
“Ask Mister Wetsman to pass the salt.”
“Ask Mister Wetsman to pass the pepper.”
Joseph Wetsman had made a nice sum of money selling housewares out of his shop in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Now in Detroit, he began to buy rental apartments, and eventually opened some of the city’s first movie theaters. The Linwood. The Oriole. The Avalon. As the First World War drew to a close, with revolution blazing in Russia, and the Influenza Pandemic touching every home, exhausting every family, filling every bed with the dead and the dying, Joseph again risked his life in a reverse flow back across the steam-lined Atlantic, across the trenches of France and the no-man’s-lands of Germany, across the wide and ripped bloody Dniester, like a river slogging back upstream to its remotest and most mothered source, and it was thus that an older Yosef Ackel rematerialized into the towns of Krasilov and Zhitomir and Berdichev and Starokonstantinov, like an American apparition in the drained Ukraine . . . but not lingering long among the familiar faces now worn by pogroms and poverty, and so Joseph ventured on into Ottoman Palestine, where he purchased property upon Mount Scopus —overlooking the promised Jerusalem— for the establishment of Hadassah Hospital, per the specific instructions of his eldest daughter Sarah. And, when ninety years later, a second branch of that hospital was opened, just to the southwest of Jerusalem, the new hospital was named in honor of that most strong-willed of Joseph and Bessie’s daughters.
Sarah “the General” Wetsman had been born way back there in 1890, in the hungry-country days of What Cheer, Iowa. Dark hair, dark skin and the beauty of the labyrinthine deep in her dark and flashing eyes was all but a disarming cover for an unusually tough determined and independent young woman of the early twentieth-century. When she sailed off to tour India with her sisters —without any men, at a time when most women never left town without a man — the Hindus were impressed with these progressive, vegetarian American women (Sarah thought it would be too complicated to explain the concept of ‘keeping kosher’ to the Hindus).
In 1920, Sarah married Ralph Davidson, whose family had been the only Jews in the remote lumbering town of Hillman, Michigan, where they owned a dry-goods store, similar to the one that Sarah’s father had once owned back in Iowa. When the great Metz Fire of 1908 spread south out of Presque Isle County, it struck Hillman decisively from the map. Erasing everything. The Davidsons lost all their worldly possessions. And so they were forced to leave that burned-over country, moving south to rebuild their lives in Detroit.
Sarah and Ralph Davidson had two children: Dorothy and William.
When Sarah was fifty-one years-old, and her children were but teenagers, her husband Ralph was killed in an automobile accident, along with her brother-in-law. —It was just a week before the Jewish New Year—. With her own father having died a few years before, Sarah took over the running of the various family businesses. During the Detroit riots of 1943, Sarah ‘the General’ went out collecting the rents, walking self-possessed right through the convulsing heart of the chaos and the killing and the violence.
The rent was due.
Then there was the matter of the movie theaters. A scrawny teen usherette named Mary used to resell the half-eaten popcorn at the Avalon Theater. Naturally, this was totally unacceptable to Sarah. But Mary had it set in her mind that her life was destined to be in the movie-house. So Mary parted ways with Sarah and the Avalon, and when she came of age, she moved off to New York City, and changed her name to Lily Tomlin. As for the Linwood Theater, Sarah had gotten to know a charismatic African-American Preacher who needed a new church for his growing flock. Sarah sold the Oriole Theater on Linwood Street, to Reverend C L Franklin. Many decades later, in 2016, Reverend Franklin’s daughter Aretha sat down at Sarah Wetsman Davidson’s piano, and played Natural Woman publicly for the final time. I was blessed enough to witness this performance.
In 1963, Sarah took her eldest grandson Ralph to Israel, in celebration of his becoming bar mitzvah. Checking in to the King David Hotel, the Front-Desk Receptionist was apologetic:
“I’m sorry Missus Davidson,
but you are not registered.
And the hotel is fully booked.”
A chain-smoking luminous woman in the lobby overheard the ensuing kerfuffle, got up from her seat, and with the hard assertiveness of her Milwaukee schoolmarm past, dug her cigarette-laden finger of fully-realized authority into the Receptionist’s petrified chest:
“Listen here young man!
You wouldn’t even be in this country, but for Mrs. Davidson!
This country wouldn’t even exist, but for Mrs. Davidson!
You find Mrs. Davidson a room! Now!
Is that clear!
Of course, the Receptionist had immediately recognized this unbreakable chain-smoking woman as the Israeli Foreign Minister. Her name was Golda Meir, and within six years she would become Israel’s first female Prime Minister.
Sarah and her grandson Ralph were given the King David’s nicest suite.
Free of charge.
Sarah’s son William, who didn’t move out of his mother’s house until he was forty-three years-old, married Lynne Saperstein, who was eighteen years his junior. After a couple of miscarriages, they decided to adopt a child. That child’s name was Sam Hackett.
And now, here I am,
my own name having been changed
and I am crossing another confined river: the San Joaquin
as it flows through Stockton
confined with intention
like a herniated intestine
and Christy Moore is in my head
“where are you now that we need you!”
“Only our rivers run free . . .”
and I’m headed east
into the Calaveras Big Trees
As I roved out from Stockton
the hills aflame in gold
and a low raging sun
raked o’er the ones
whose lives are scratched out like coal
And there was a dream which come back burning
and it broke me like a war:
see the soldiers returning
and I’m standing at your door
Bedded by the fire
while the Big Trees wept and bled
and a whiskey moon
called out this tune
and the dancing filled my head
Where are You now that we need You!
where are you now?
The road is so sharp as to bleed you
it would lead you
but it don’t know how
As I roved out from Stockton
a big brass band came down
and they played this song
all night long
while the convicts were handed their crowns
And if you believe this world is not turning
please take just one look more
the refugees are returning
and I’m standing at your door
yes, the refugees are returning
and I’m standing at your door