Remembering a lifetime of hard work in the family bakery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
By Dinah Lenney
Special to The Times
A few chapters into Mort Zachter’s memoir, “Dough,” his father takes him on a tour of Second Avenue in Manhattan, where the greats of the Yiddish theater once performed to packed houses. “Now they’re gone,” says Phil Zachter, with palpable regret. “Where did they go?” young Mort later asks his mother. She answers, in Yiddish, that she hasn’t a clue.
So it is with the players in Zachter’s story, a family drama with a dwindling cast: his maternal uncles, Harry and Joe Wolk and his parents, Phil and Helen. The story begins in 1994 with a phone call from an unwitting broker, who reveals to Mort, now married and a CPA, that Harry — frail, incompetent and living with Mort’s parents in their tenement apartment — has a money-market account with a million dollars in it.
Memoirists sometimes write to sort out the important questions as much as to answer them. Zachter asks the biggest one at the outset. Having discovered that his uncles — who lived “like paupers” in the projects — had managed to put away a total of $6 million, he writes: “Were they cheap, crazy, or both?” How to find out? Uncle Joe was dead, Uncle Harry was demented, Phil was in the hospital recovering from surgery and Helen “doled out information as if it were sugar and the world were in a diabetic coma.”
“If I wanted answers,” he writes, “I would have to unearth them myself.” The book alternates chapters about the history of “the Store” — the family bakery — with those about Zachter’s struggle to acquire control of the newly discovered fortune and a “montage” depicting his education, marriage, the adoption of his children and his excavation of Harry and Joe’s apartment after Harry’s death.
This turf has been covered in fiction before by the likes of I.B. Singer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth — and in nonfiction too, in such memoirs as Patricia Volk’s “Stuffed” and Dorothy Gallagher’s “How I Came Into My Inheritance.” It’s a rich and entertaining subject, the business of coming of age among crazy Jews. But if Zachter shares New York with Volk and Gallagher, his writerly godfather is Calvin Trillin, who wrote with affection and restraint, in “Messages From My Father,” about growing up Jewish in the Midwest. Is this similarity in tone — reserved and respectful — because Zachter is male? Because he’s an accountant? Because he’s a mensch?
Whatever the reasons, Zachter has written a civilized book. He genuinely loved his uncles and the world of the Store. But he’s not too polite to reveal his stunned resentment when he realized that life need not have been as difficult as it was for his parents and himself: Why did Harry and Joe hoard their money? Why did they keep the store open seven days a week until the day it closed for good? Why not pay their sister for her hard work behind the counter? They simply presumed everybody wanted to chip in and sell babka for bupkis, and everybody seems to have fallen in line.
“There’s a short list of people in the world who can spit in my eye and I’ll say it’s raining,” says my mother, quoting her father by way of explaining that blood is thicker than water and forgiveness is tacit, even unnecessary, where family is concerned.
So it is with Zachter. Eventually he stops trying to justify his uncles’ selfishness. He admits he didn’t understand, until after he inherited those millions, how deeply ingrained his legacy was, how he had “inherited my attitudes toward money from my uncles — workaholic hoarders.” And he chooses to redeem Harry with a story about how the old man, in spite of confusion and disability, insisted on visiting Phil in the hospital. “Until that moment,” Zachter writes, “I had never realized how much Uncle Harry loved my dad.”
If Zachter seems reluctant to pass judgment, a parade of well-chosen epigraphs serves his ambivalence. Alan Paton (“When a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive”) begins one chapter. Mark Twain (“His money is twice tainted: ‘taint yours and ‘taint mine”) begins another. But Zachter lets us know he wasn’t aware of dep- rivation as a child. He was happy his mom got paid in chocolate lace cookies, thrilled to watch the Yankees from the cheap seats.
“Dough” is genre memoir — neither a tell-all nor a confession but a mystery, through and through. Zachter doesn’t understand his uncles any better at the finish than he did when he began. As is true of the best memoirists, he comes to a deeper understanding of himself — of what it means to carry on in the present, now that the past has been revealed.
It never occurs to us that he has written anything other than a tribute to his family and the bakery that made them rich. If Harry and Joe were spitting on Helen and Phil and little Mort, it hardly matters; the uncles were always on the short list, and thanks to all that dysfunction, now it’s raining riches. At long last, Zachter can put down his briefcase and become the writer he always wanted to be.