Twelve minutes of grainy, soundless, patched-together family segments shot over a half-century ago on my parents’ prized Revere Magazine 16 movie camera.
A while back I had the footage copied to videotape, and they’re the only visuals I’ve got to remember my father, whose 50-year yahrzeit will be on May 15.
His name was Sam ... Samuel David Bielan. I named my firstborn daughter after him. He was an immigrant of traditional East European Jewish extraction — Polish and Russian. I know neither the names of his parents nor brother, but he had two sisters named Ethel and Jenny.
For a time, my dad was a kosher butcher in Detroit and owned a neighborhood shop on a main thoroughfare called Dexter Street. On the day I was born, he put a big “It’s a boy!” sign across the store window and celebrated with the purchase of a new car.
I had a bris — and Sam had a Buick.
Like me, he was asthmatic. Unlike me, he didn’t have the benefits of modern medications, nor was he diligent about taking care of his lungs. Countless trips in and out of a freezing meat locker, combined with endless cups of hot water with milk and honey to warm himself, mutated the asthma into emphysema. The soundtrack of my childhood featured his nightly breathing treatments from a portable oxygen tank.
In the early 1950’s, the disease dictated our family’s move to a warmer climate. We settled in the Beverly-Fairfax district where my dad and his partner, Ben Resnick, opened another butcher shop on Pico Boulevard near Robertson.
I remember it had a great gumball machine.
I’ve looked at the film footage a few times over the years and tried to piece together a profile of who my father really was. To be certain, my worst memories profile an intermittent rager whose temper and early demise have had a mighty impact on my life.
But in these 12 minutes I see something different.
I look like him. I’ve got his face and his hairline and his eating habits. He appears to be a hearty, strapping guy — evidenced by years of carting sides of beef over his shoulders.
I see him holding me and reveling in my being. I see a shy-at-heart immigrant with an infectious smile who’s struggling to find his way. I see a father who unmistakably adores his son, and, in one priceless three-second segment, I see a stylishly dressed, conservative Jewish man walking home from Shabbos services with tallis bag tucked under his arm.
The same tallis bag I’ve been bringing to High Holiday services for 22 years.
I see that, as are all of us who walk this earth, Sam Bielan was a human being with all-too-apparent frailties. But at heart, he looks to have been a good, hard-working man. He was my dad and he loved me — and he was a proud, devout Jew who worshipped the same Adonai that I do.
And with all my failings, I think he still would have been proud of my work with Valley Outreach Synagogue, carrying on a tradition of Bielan Judaism. And I’m certain that he would have kvelled over his granddaughter’s singing.
I’ve missed him for every minute of the last 50 years, but I thank God for those 12 minutes.
They’re lasting a lifetime.
Jack Bielan is a founding member and longtime musical director of Valley Outreach Synagogue.
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