Ethel, the balabusta 

"Theirs was a very friendly home," Rayla said.  "They would have quite a big group, just putting a couple of tables together.  Ethel was such a wonderful homemaker, always having people in, a real balabusta." 

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Photo above by the technically talented Arthur Varon,
#6 in the back row with wife Rayla.

1.  Ruth Sollender
2.  Sam Varonok
3.  Natalie Varonok
4.  Rose Varonok Sollender
5.  Rayla Varon
6.  Arthur Varon
7.  Irving Sollender
  8.  Max Sollender
  9.  Ruchel Rubenstein
10.  Hyman Rubenstein
11.  Ethel Rubenstein Varonok
12.  Harry Varonok
13.  Billy Rosenthal
14.  Minnie Varonok Rosenthal
15.  Bette Rosenthal 

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Arthur built table and first radio on the block

The finished basement was where the major gatherings took place, at the table Arthur had built in four sections.  It extended, according to Irving, "practically the full length" of the large family room in the basement.  Arthur also built benches for extra seating.

Family stayed close by

Until Sam and Minnie moved out of East 91st Street, the Varonoks had lived on the second floor, and Rose and Max, on the first floor.  In those days, the second Seder would be at the apartment of Rose and Max, who had moved to an apartment near Harry and Ethel when they broke up the household on East 91st Street. 

Ethel's influence

"Uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins -- the family revolved around Ethel," Irving said.  However, he did point out that his grandmother "couldn't dominate Sam, Arthur or my mother [Rose]. Ethel would voice her opinion on whatever the topic was; her husband and her children would listen respectfully to avoid fights; and then they would go their own way and do their own things." 

Spirited childhood roughhousing of Rose and Sam

Such was the case when Rose and Sam indulged in their childhood squabbling.  On one famous occasion, "Rose got Sam out the door in his underwear, and wouldn't let him back in," Irving said.  "Sam was standing there in the hallway outside the apartment yelling, 'I'm going to kill you; open that door,' and Rose answered, 'I can't because you're going to kill me.' Then grandmother appeared, and there was really big trouble."

Childhood carrying on aside, Ethel actually had a major impact on the lives of both Sam and Rose. Following Ethel's wishes, Sam had become a teacher. "After a Rabbi, a teacher was a good thing to be," Irving said.

Dutiful son

Sam had dutifully earned an education degree, concentrating in physical education at now defunct Savage College. 

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In his letter jacket with "S" for Savage College, Sam shows his energy and good spirits in pose on shoulders of brother Arthur, left, and friend against dramatic background of Atlantic City's beachfront hotels of the 1920's.

Sam was not only athletic but extremely personable, so he was assigned to a 600 school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.   (The 600 schools were special junior highs composed solely of serious discipline problems.)  There he taught physical education, health education "and maybe a math class," Irving said. 

So good they wouldn't let him go

The Board of Education wanted to keep Sam where they needed him, "for discipline in a 600 school," and so they would not grant him a permanent license, which would have enabled him to change schools, Irving said.  After six years, Sam left teaching and went to the American Red Cross, where he spent the rest of his career.  During the summers, Sam would go "up to the mountains" to work as a social director, organizing events, running affairs, introducing guests, and telling jokes and stories.

Marx Brothers were neighbors

It happened that the Marx Brothers also grew up in Yorkville, and although they were older than Sam, he knew them from the neighborhood. Groucho the youngest of the brothers, was born in 1890, and Sam was born in 1904.  Inevitably, Sam would run into the Marx Brothers during his summers in the Catskills,  where they were performing, and they encouraged him to go into show business. 

Ethel nixes show biz career for Sam

According to Irving, when Ethel found out, she said, "I don't want you hanging around with those bums, the Marx Brothers."  In 1929 the Marx Brothers began making movies, and in 1934, Sam was still a social director in the Catskills at Rosenblatt's, by then renamed Raleigh's.  That was the summer he met a guest, Natalie Schure, whom he married the following June.

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Sam (left) in family portrait with Harry,
Ethel, and brother Arthur, on the
occasion of marrying Natalie (1935).

Irving is convinced that Sam could have been successful, "like an Alan King of today," he said, "but my grandmother thought show business was not for Jewish people. She didn't know about Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson." 

Ethel as matchmaker

As for Ethel's effect on Rose, Irving says his grandmother was a major factor in Rose's decision to accept Max's proposal, hesitant as Rose was initially.  "Grandmother pushed her to marry him," Irving said, and a good thing it turned out to be for our family. 

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Rose and Max, 1935

The story of how Max provided employment for young men of the family -- beginning with Morris' oldest son, Sidney, all the way through his own nephew, Billy -- is the subject of another article in our Cousins Plus web.  Since its completion, more stories have surfaced, adding to the evidence that Max Sollender played a very important role in the family.

Man of action

As the cancer of Nazi Germany began encroaching on areas where his parents' family still lived, Max swung into action.  He arranged, in concert with other family members now in America,  the flight to safety of at least 18 souls. (When I mentioned this to my best friend, a top copy editor on the Metropolitan desk of The New York Times, he said, "Geez, Susan, you've got to get that in."  But of course.)

'Sue us; we're insured'

"In his own way, Max did a lot, and everybody liked him," said Shirley Karben.   She remembered a family visit to the Sollenders, at the age of 11 or 12, when Carl Karben, her father, fell down the steps of their house on East 91st Street and injured himself.  "Max said to my father, 'Sue us, we're insured.'  The money that came in was enough to pay the doctor bills, and it gave the family some income until my father could go back to work," she said. "It was nice of him."

Finally, how was it possible for Ethel and Harry to entertain large groups of family every Sunday?  One might wonder about the cost of cooking for "at least 12" so often. "My grandmother would cook, but my mother did  the shopping," Irving said.

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So, who paid?  That would be Max

Irving then spelled it out: his father had footed the bills for the food shopping, and that is how Ethel was able to be such a successful "binding agent" of our family across several decades.

That was Ethel

Bette remembered how ill her grandmother was on the eve of her 18th birthday when she was to have a party.  Her mother, Minnie, had arranged for a commercial party cake, but Ethel, "sick as she was," insisted on making her own cake to honor the occasion.  "She would do it regardless of what her pain was because she was the grandmother," Irving said.  "And I wouldn't be surprised if she thought hers was better, being made from scratch." 

It happened, according to Bette, that Ethel didn't like the way her cake came out. "So she cut it into little squares," Bette said, "and then she frosted each square individually -- with vanilla frosting." 

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'Girls just want to have fun'

On the town in Miami, Florida:
Ethel Rubenstein Varonok, right, stepped out
with Esther Simon Rubenstein, the wife of her nephew, Morris Rubenstein.

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All About Harry

Harry Varonok was a reserved and quiet man, according to family members who volunteered their memories. "Harry was not a talker; he was a writer," said grandson Irving Sollender.  "He would read, write and go to shul."

From the Ukraine?

When Harry's granddaughter, Bette, asked him where he was from, Harry replied, "Ekaterinoslav," which was the Russian Empire's name for the city to the northeast of Odesa in the Ukraine.  

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Map on left:   Before the Russian Revolution, Ekaterinoslav was also the name of a goberniya in the Pale of Settlement, just as Vilna was a town in the goberniya of Vilna.
Map on right: The modern name is Dnipropetrovs'k for the city of Ekaterinoslav, now considered to be in the modern province of the Ukraine. In the map above right, the last three letters are visible in "Ukraine." The Crimea and Odesa are other orienting landmarks.

A descendant of the priestly tribe of Levi?

Harry's grandson, Larry Varon, who is living and working in Israel, wrote to me just before his Aunt Rose passed away (at the age of 99) in the summer of 1998.  Larry was eager for me to attempt to verify with his aunt his impression that her father was a descendant of the priestly tribe of Levi.

Ethel's first cousin, Toby, married a Levi, and our research on that subject is a new feature here and an ongoing story.   The next development will be an expedition this summer to visit Harry's grave at Beth David, in Elmont, Long Island.  His tombstone will conclusively answer Larry's query, as this detail of ancestry would be in the engraved information. 

Larry could also have himself tested for that "Y" chromosome, passed through the male line only.  If found in his DNA, then Usher's branch currently would have two Levis:  Larry and his brother, Barry.   (Aaron's branch has six living Levis, who are also among the Kohans, a subset of the priestly tribe.  It will be interesting to discover if there is information on Harry's tombstone that indicates he is a Kohan as well as a Levi.)  

From super to presser

In Russia, Harry worked as a tinsmith.  He had lost an eye on the job, and so he wore a false one in its place. He could not find work as a tinsmith in America, because better vision was required, so he became a presser in the garment center. But his first job was as superintendent of a building in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. The three oldest Varonok children were well into their teens before the family moved to Brooklyn.

Lost treasure

Harry "never said much," Irving recalled, "but unbeknownst to the family, he was writing his autobiography."

harry-fine-213w-195h-8k.jpg (8106 bytes)  Harry, 1897

Harry wrote 1,800 pages about his life up until his departure for the United States, according to Irving. Harry's older son, Sam, had the work translated from Yiddish into English. The whereabouts of this valuable family treasure is a mystery.

Brothers' clan from Jersey for Passover

"There was always lots of family at grandmother's house," Irving said. Passover was at the Varonoks'. Arthur, who was handy, had made a table with many leaves for extending it to accommodate the extended family.

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Seder 1930

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Ethel Rubenstein Varonok 1
Harry Varonok 2
Max Sollender 3

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In the 1930's, those who came to seder included the Varonok children as well as the grandchildren.  Harry's brother, Fred Varonok, would come from New Jersey "with his entire family," which added about eight more places to the long holiday table.

No short cuts in Harry's Seders

Harry would conduct the Seder. He was a religious man but did not force others to observe as he did. Irving remembers that "if the family wanted to end Seder service before the ceremony was done, Grandpa would continue it alone, and the family would converse while he finished."

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Eight days in shul

Harry would spend the eight days of the High Holy Days in shul. After the four children had grown up and moved away, Ethel would go to stay with her niece, Dora Karben, throughout that period. "Ethel just couldn't stay sitting in the synagogue (in the women's section) for all that time," Dora's daughter, Shirley, told me. 

No Sabbath smokes

Harry's granddaughter, Bette, remembers Harry as "gentle" and "religious unto himself." Bette, who smoked in those days, as did Harry, said: "Once I was smoking in his house, and I remember offering him a cigarette. He said, 'No, Bette, I don't smoke on Friday nights.' But he never told me not to."

Shoveled coal

Harry was small in stature, "and wiry but very strong," Irving said. He remembers his grandfather shoveling the coal and the snow, throughout the years on East 91st Street, until he was around 57 years old. Although Irving described his grandfather as "the sweetest man in the world," he did offer a story about how Harry was capable of showing considerable forcefulness when the occasion required.

The chicken incident

"The only time I ever heard discussed what could happen if you got him very angry was when he was protecting his granddaughter," Irving said. The chicken incident took place one summer in the mountains when Irving's parents, grandparents and sister, Ruth, then about 6 years old, were staying in a bungalow rented from a farmer. "Somebody accused Ruth of killing a chicken," Irving said. "Out of nowhere came Grandpa Harry," exploding in fury to protect his granddaughter, angrier than anyone had ever seen him.

A broken heart

The marriage of Ethel and Harry appeared to be a happy one. After Ethel passed away from throat cancer, Harry followed three months later. "My mother [Rose], had taken him for a checkup two weeks before, and the doctor said he was in excellent condition for a man his age," Irving said. "He died of a broken heart."  

A single stone

Harry and Ethel are buried side by side under a single stone   at Beth David, which is in the Elmont section of Queens, NY. 

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Ethel died on March 25, 1951, at the age of 74, and Harry died on June 30, 1951, at the age of 77.  Ethel's stone says that she is the daughter of Usher, and Harry's stone says that he is the son of Mordecai.  The carvings on their stone include a menorah, which is traditional for a woman, and the star of David, which is traditional for a man.

Elmont, Queens: Gate to our Horodoker section

The Horodoker Relief Association gates

Ethel and Harry are numbers 5 and 6 on the right, in the back  in row BC, which is so named because it was originally for infants. The Horodoker Relief Association is in Section F, Block 7. There are many gates on that "block" of Sinai Avenue, which is between Grant and Jefferson Avenues in Beth David. As of May, 1999, its "population" was 198,000. 

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