My father was born in Israel on September 10, 1951 to Dov and Serach Grunvald, Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the promised land three years earlier from Hungary.
Sabba Dov, had a wife and three children, one of which was already Bar Mitzvah. He lost his entire family and was the sole survivor. Savta Serach had a husband as well who was murdered by the Nazi’s. After the war they found each other when they were searching for any living relatives. Serach had been married to Dov’s cousin so Dov suggested they get married so their families can remain together, and they did. Their first child, Miriam, was born in a displacement camp in cyprus on their way to Israel. My father was born after they settled in Israel. They named him Israel Asher after Dov’s father who also perished in the war and his nickname was “Abbala” which means father dear. My grandparents were in their early 40’s when they started over.
Like many survivors they were determined to build a new life for themselves. They settled in Tel Aviv and Dov became a wholesaler of Kosher smoked meats. He would get up every morning at 4am to deliver to all the local stores. They lived in a tiny 1-bedroom apartment and eventually moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Bnei Brak, an ultra orthodox enclave near Tel Aviv.
Serach was the perfect housewife who was so meticulously thorough that she ironed her families socks and underwear. She was an incredible balabusta who would make pickles from scratch and all the classic Hungarian dishes. Dov was also incredibly neat, organized and very handy. I’ll never forget how even the nails in his tool box were in size order. My grandparents expected perfection from themselves and from others.
I remember my mother telling me stories about how Savta Serach tried so hard to domesticate her. You see when my father met my mother she was living in South Africa in one of those big grand homes filled with servants. They were by no means rich. This was the norm in South Africa. However, there was no question my mother was looked at as spoiled by my hardworking survivor Grandparents.
Every morning Serach would wake up at the crack of dawn to buy fresh food and spent her entire day cooking and cleaning. There’s a story where she forced my mother to buy a live carp so she could teach her how to properly kill it. My mother screamed in terror when each piece kept jumping even after it was cut up.
They adored my father, their one and only son and namesake. Nobody was good enough for Abbala. Though they were always polite, my mother knew they didn’t wholly approve of her and blamed her for luring my father away to America and all its trappings. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth since it was clear from a young age that my father had big dreams and ambitions, but to Dov and Serach my mother was to blame for my fathers ambition and subsequent ending.
They trained my father and his sister to have the highest level of respect for them. When his father or mother called, he dropped everything and helped them with whatever they needed at all costs. There was one time when Sabba Dov’s air conditioner broke down. My father took the next flight from the USA to Israel to make sure it was fixed.
My father would bring them twice a year to America to visit. This is where they witnessed a completely foreign life. Here was a house that would be considered a mansion by their standards. There was a wife and grandchildren adorned in beautiful clothes and the nicest of wigs. And to make matters worse, there was a housekeeper to do all the domestic duties my mother should be doing. In reality it was my father who insisted on having help. My mother, though slightly pampered, was generally happy with very little. But to Serach and Dov their son could do no wrong.
My father attended Chevron Yeshiva and was an excellent student. He was an adventurous kid who loved animals and would bring home every stray. This may explain why he brought us home a monkey later on. He figured out from a young age how to make money. When he was 17 in Yeshiva he rented a big apartment and would sublet it to friends. This covered his own rent and gave him pocket money. He didn’t want to burden his parents who were by no means comfortable. Later on he loved the business world so much that he would pay his fellow Yeshiva students money to learn on his behalf so he could work and still get the merit of learning Torah.
When my parents got married they were gifted an apartment by my mother’s parents, Sabba Yosef and Savta Chaya, in Petach Tikva. My parents sold it 6 months later and moved to a 2-bedroom rental apartment in Bnei Brak. That’s where I was born. A few months later, my parents decided to buy a beautiful 4-bedroom penthouse apartment in Ramat Gan. They hadn’t even moved in yet when financial disaster struck. One of my father’s business associates duped him into investing most of their life savings and ran away. They lost everything. They called my mother’s father, Sabba Yosef, who was a diamond dealer. My grandfather suggested they pick up and move to South Africa so he could teach my father the trade.
We lived in South Africa for 6 months and during that time my grandfather taught my father everything he knew about the business. Meanwhile I was just a baby of 7 months, already starting to walk according to my mother. I was so young that my bones were not yet strong enough to walk and I had to wear a strange concoction to sleep to straighten out my legs.
On March 16, 1977, the day I turned one, we emigrated to America. This was solely my father’s dream. He felt he had a chance to really make it there. Sabba Yoseph gave my father a little bit of money to get him settled and some names in the diamond industry. Unable to take money out of South Africa, my grandfather made my mother bracelets, rings and necklaces filled with valuable stones. My stroller had diamonds hidden within the metal handles with merchandise that my father would start his business with.
They settled in Rego Park where my sister Yael was born the same week Elvis Presley died in 1977. Shortly after, they moved into a two-family rental on Beach 9th Street in Far Rockaway because they heard it was a lovely community near the beach. Very quickly my father found his footing in the diamond industry and started to do well. My mother took a job as a teacher. One Shabbat afternoon when I was almost 2 years old my mother decided to show me her Aleph Bet index cards she used for her students. She claimed I memorized the entire alphabet by the time the Sabbath ended. I honestly never believed that story (my mother is known to exaggerate) until I had children of my own. My son Jacob seemed to have inherited that same gift. He was literally reading, writing and spelling both English and Hebrew by 18 months. So freaked out by this strange behavior, I had him tested for autism. Thankfully he was normal if not a little OCD. He would literally spend hours writing letters over and over. It was only then that I finally believed my mother’s crazy stories about me as a baby talking full sentences and writing by age 2-3.
One lovely spring Shabbat day my parents took a nice walk and passed a beautiful corner brick colonial a few blocks away. My mother casually mentioned that one day, when they could afford it, that would be her dream house. It was not too big. It had a lovely yard. It was perfectly charming. The next day my father drove her straight to that house, knocked on the door and to her surprise informed her that the house was hers. That was how my father rolled…he literally approached the owners that Saturday night and made a deal.
The house was indeed charming. It was a center hall with a large living room on the right, a nice dining room on the left, a yellow 1970’s style galley kitchen behind the dining room and a large den behind the kitchen that overlooked the yard and was filled with floor to ceiling windows. There was a tiny maid’s room on the first floor and a full pink bathroom. The second floor had only two bedrooms but each room was huge. My room that I shared with my sister had green carpeting and dark wood panels and a built in TV in the wall. For some reason we never redid that room to look more feminine though it was in the future plans. My parents went on a shopping spree and filled the dining room and living room with the fanciest wood Italian furniture and chandeliers money could buy. My father didn’t blink at the insanely high price tags. He wanted only the best.
The years went by and my father’s business kept growing and expanding. He got involved in diamond mines, real estate and of course loose stones. He became a diplomat as well and had all the perks that came with it. His car, a Cadillac outfitted with the newest toy…a wireless carphone. He loved technology and if it didn’t exist, he would make it. I’ll never forget how he created a TV surveillance system before you could even buy one. He installed an actual video camera in a weather proof box outside our door permanently plugged in and connected to channel 3. He installed a real phone as well right by the doorbell, There was a sign “Please pick up the phone and press the button” on the door. When someone would ring the bell and lift the phone we would be able to turn on out TV to channel 3, see the person and even talk to them from our phone. It was ingenious for 1982.
My father was extremely ambitious, and smart. He also was friendly and personable and people genuinely loved him. Despite being fully immersed in business, he never forgot his roots and religious upbringing and continued to support Yeshiva’s to make up for not being able to learn full time himself. I’ll never forget finding years after he disappeared old canceled checks with obscene amounts of money donated to various Jewish institutions and causes. In addition, people knew to come to my father if they needed financial help. Years later the stories would come pouring in of things he did quietly to help others.
My father did have one fatal flaw that ultimately led to his tragic end. He trusted easily. Perhaps had he been able to live past the young age of 32 he would have learned to be more cautious but sadly it was too late. His belief in peoples good intentions and ambition is ultimately what did him in.