During the early 1960’s my family and I would take two long train rides from our three-flight walk up in the East New York Section of Brooklyn to our Uncle Myer Keizerstein’s’s house in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Uncle Myer would pick us up at the train station in his shiny new Cadillac. He was always so excited to see us! “Max! Millie! Holly! Philip! Roger!” he’d exclaim in a Yiddish accent. Then he would warmly kiss and hug each of us. Uncle Myer’s enthusiasm could wake the dead, no less three drowsy children coming off a long train ride from Brooklyn.
The driveway leading to Uncle Myer’s house was long and wide and, in winter, plowed of any snow that may have befallen New England the night before. It was always warm inside the house and everything seemed neat and new. Unlike our Brooklyn flat, there were no exposed pipes or pieces of plaster peeling from bathroom walls. Uncle Myer’s house was filled with large, comfortable couches and chairs, plush area rugs that covered wooden floors. A chandelier hung above a long mahogany dining room table. The smell of freshly baked goods always filled the air.
But what drew my attention most on our visits was the big photograph on the wall of Uncle Myer presiding over a large rectangular piece of cake on top of a white-clothed table. Dressed elegantly in suit and tie, a smile beaming from his face, Uncle Myer held a large knife over the cake’s glittering candles. I always thought that it was Uncle Myer’s birthday cake; the kind of birthday cake and birthday party that rich men, men of his stature enjoyed.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The piece of cake I was looking at was carved from the cake Uncle Myer had baked years earlier for President John F. Kennedy’s 44th birthday. In retrospect, it was a very small piece. The actual cake, weighting three thousand pounds, was so big and wide that the bay window of Uncle Myer’s State Street bakery in Hartford had to be removed to get it out. It was delivered by police escort in an armored car to the National Armory in Washington D.C.
The cake had 30-layers and was five feet high. It was made from 450 dozen eggs and 500 pounds each of flour, butter and sugar. A thousand pounds of frosting topped it off and 200 pounds of apricot jam was used as icing. John Zenker, the world renowned culinary artist, crowned the cake with an 18-inch sugar replica of the White House. The six thousand or so distinguished guests at the May 17, 1961 birthday bash couldn’t have consumed all of the cake even if they had tried.
The story behind the baking of a President’s birthday cake — although historic — can still be viewed as one of the many post war success stories drawn from the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants that moved from city squalor to suburban splendor during the postwar boom.
But even more impressive and inspiring is the story behind the story — how Uncle Myer made it to these blessed shores, how he, along with his younger brother Abe, (my grandfather) escaped the centuries-long Jewish nightmare of Eastern European persecution to build a life in America. Myer married, raised two daughters and developed a chain of Myron’s Bake Shops — nine in all — across central Connecticut, before baking even one layer of an American president’s birthday cake.
According to the manifest of the ship Susquehanna, Mayron and Aba Bereza arrived at Ellis Island on September 18, 1920. Mayron was age 21, Aba 19. Three weeks earlier, they had fled a small village in Poland, barely avoiding conscription into the army. Either agents of the Russian Empire or a man looking to collect a bounty on a young Jew’s head, had been looking for them and suddenly were in hot pursuit as Myron and Aba desperately made their way to the railway station.
As Myer told me, while I sat in awe in his New London home in 1977, just as he and his younger brother boarded the train, a man tried to detain them. They kicked and shoved him back onto the train platform, as the train pulled away.
I have no proof that this actually happened; perhaps Uncle Myer was embellishing his escape from Eastern Europe. But this is what I know for sure: young Jewish men were routinely conscripted into the army for terms of up to 25 years. They were often placed at the front lines, at great risk to life and limb. They had no chance of advancement through the army ranks unless they consented to convert to Christianity.
Uncle Myer and my grandpa Abe soon settled in the Bronx and got jobs as bakers. Within a few years they were married and were having children; the eldest was my dad Max Keizerstein. By 1930 they had five children in all and had saved enough money to open their own bakery, The Cakebox, in Brooklyn.
The bakery was very successful, even during the Great Depression. Uncle Myer was responsible for the production of the numerous breads for sale, while my grandfather Abe baked the cakes. They worked side by side, along with their wives, 12 to 16 hours a day — except during the Jewish Sabbath. From Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, observant Jews could not travel other than by foot, could not use electricity or handle money. During this sacred 24-hour period the bakery’s front door would remain open, though. Customers were on an honor system; they took what they needed from the store and left coins and dollar bills on a plate as payment. Then, Uncle Myer, grandpa Abe and their respective families, left the bakery and their homes in Brooklyn for Middletown, New York, a small town not far from the Catskill Mountains, about 60 miles northeast of NYC.
As a child I was told that Uncle Myer had been perusing the classified section of a local newspaper, perhaps looking to buy a used car, and spotted an advertisement for a bakery on Middletown’s Main Street that was for sale for $100. Myer and grandpa Abe took a drive upstate to take a look: Within hours they had exchanged five $20 bills for the key to the bakery.
Many years later, while researching my family’s history, I was told the true story of why Myer and grandpa Abe suddenly moved to Middletown.
It was 1935, two years after the end of Prohibition, and the gangsters running the East New York Section of Brooklyn, were coming to their bakery on New Lots Avenue, asking for “union dues.” Uncle Myer kept telling them that there weren’t any workers employed at the bakery, only him and his brother and their wives. This shakedown attempt went on for weeks. Myer refused to pay. Then one night, during the Sabbath, the bakery windows were smashed, the interior of the store was smoke bombed. It was time to leave.
The great irony of life in America had befallen them. A Jewish immigrant — Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro of “Murder Incorporated” infamy — had arranged the shakedown (along with a thousand others) and ordered the smashing of their bakery’s window and the smoke bombing of the store. You never know who’s sitting alongside you on that giant freighter to freedom.
The bakery in Middletown was located on East Main Street, on a busy commercial thoroughfare. Even though the effects of the Great Depression were only beginning to wane, East Main Bakery was an immediate success. Breads of all kinds, an assortment of freshly baked goods and those delectable cakes were always available. My grandfather Abe once told me with an ironic smile that he attributed the bakery’s success in part to the oddity of the enterprise. The bakery was run by Jewish immigrants who spoke garbled, limited English and sold only kosher products.
In 1936 Middletown was about one percent Jewish at the most — even though there was a synagogue — and most people had neither met Jews nor experienced the joys of kosher baked goods and cakes. A conversion of sorts of the mostly non-Jewish denizens of Middletown had taken place.
During the Second World War, the bakery received various government contracts for breads and other baked goods that were transported to Fort Drum and other military bases throughout New York. As the war wound down and the economy began to improve, the bakery expanded and hired some locals to help out with the unending demand for the sweet stuff. Every family party, social event or civic meeting had to be catered in part by East Main bakery; it wouldn’t be the same without it.
During those nine years, Myer’s two daughter’s and three nephews thrived. His daughters were active in the neighborhood synagogue and participated in the war effort. His eldest nephew, my father Max, was a revered basketball player in high school and was an assistant reconnaissance photographer during the Second World War. Best of all, they rarely had to contend with anti-Semitism, and no one ever tried to shake them down for “protection” money. Like so many Jews of their generation they felt loved by America and wanted to love America back.
At the end of the war, Myer and my grandfather sold the bakery in Middletown and for the first time in their lives went their separate ways. My grandfather bought a bakery in Brooklyn, and Myer proceeded to buy and revive two failing bakeries in Hartford, Connecticut. Between 1946 and 1963 Myer opened nine Mayron’s Bake Shops, the last at 658 Center Street in the Pine Shopping Center in Hartford.
How did Uncle Myer receive the order to bake President Kennedy’s birthday cake? Family lore had it that Uncle Myer, a donor to the Democratic Party, had a relationship with Connecticut’s first Jewish governor, Abraham Ribicoff who was a close friend of Kennedy. Myer and Ribicoff lived in the same mostly Jewish, affluent community of West Hartford. But according to Myer’s daughters Florence and Adele, (still alive and in their early 90s) their father never had a relationship with Ribicoff but may have attended the same synagogue with the governor on high holidays.
Actually, the way Meyer became associated with the Kennedys was through a local congressman, Emilio Q. Daddario. Representative Daddario was a frequent visitor to Mayron’s Bake Shop on State Street in downtown Hartford, and his family loved the baked goods he brought home. Myer also catered Hartford Democratic Club meetings free of charge. Thus, when it came time to celebrate the President’s first birthday in office, Uncle Myer got the call.
Uncle Myer drove his Cadillac cross country to meet with the nation’s leading culinary artist, John Zenker. These two warm, engaging, ambitious men hit it off immediately. Uncle Myer, using my grandfather Abe’s recipe, would bake the “cake of all cakes,” and Zenker would create the 18-inch sugar replica of the White House to adorn it. Subsequently, the names Myer Keizerstein and John Zenker, along with their images and delectable creations, would enter the annals of culinary and U.S. Presidential history well before the summer of 1961 was in bloom.
The baking of President Kennedy’s birthday cake naturally represented the height of Uncle Myer’s success as a baker, businessman and equally important, as an American.
During the early 1970’s, he sold his bakeries and retired to his summer home in New London, Connecticut. I was fortunate enough to spend two week-long vacations in 1977 and 1978 at his modest, beach-front home. I especially enjoyed our evening walks that started along the beach’s frayed wooden pathway and turned onto a grassy trail leading to Ocean Beach Park. We both shared a child-like delight at the sight of the glittering park ferris wheel that framed the night sky.
“Want to go on?” Myer would ask with a smile.
“Not tonight,” I always replied.
I will cherish those moments forever.