Memorials‎ > ‎

Remembering Uncle Sam

Posted: 11 April 1997

Here are some memories of Uncle Sam, contributed by Jerrold Landau.

Uncle Sam passed away in Ottawa on May 26, 1996, at age 89. Sam Epstein and Eva Kornblatt were married in the 1940s. For the first eleven years of their marriage, they lived in the Stewart Street home in the Sandy Hill area of Ottawa in which Sam and his siblings grew up. Later they moved to an apartment on Besserer Street, a few blocks away from the childhood home. Sam and Eva were not in regular contact with much of the family, and when I became engaged to Tzippy in 1991, she told me that she had never met her Uncle Sam and Aunt Eva. Uncle Sam was the last of the Epstein family to live in Ottawa. I, of course, come from Ottawa myself, and it turns out that Uncle Sam was a member of the same shul, Beth Shalom, that my parents attended. My late father knew Uncle Sam from shul, and when my father told Uncle Sam that his future daughter-in-law was Sam's niece, Sam, told my father that he would like very much to meet us. So on our next visit to Ottawa, we made arrangements to visit Sam and Eva for tea.

We sat down, and Sam began to shmooze about the family for quite a while. Then he brought out some of his old pictures, and gave us a few. Later, Eva invited us to the table, where we had tea and kichel. This type of visit became a twice yearly ritual for us, during our weeklong visits to Ottawa at the end of December, and in the middle of the Summer. (We also used to visit Ottawa for Pesach, but Sam and Eva were always away for Pesach). Sam would also give a few family pictures to my father once in a while at shul, for him to pass on to us. My father told me that this often happened as my father came down from the bima from an aliya. I am not sure why Sam liked to dole out these photographs little by little. In the early 1940s, Sam was a professional photographer for a few years, and he had quite a collection of family pictures, taken by himself.

Sam worked as a travelling salesman for most of his younger years. Eva was an expert on insurance, and at one point she was offered partnership in the insurance firm for which she worked, which she turned down. Eva's late brother, Cy Kornblatt, was at one point the highest ranking Jewish officer in the Canadian Air Force. In their later years, Sam and Eva were very involved in volunteer work. They would very regularly visit the residents of the Hillel Lodge Jewish Home for the Aged. Eva was very active in her Emuna chapter. Sam's passion in his older age was fixing up old and worn books on a volunteer basis. In fact the Beth Shalom synagogue gave him a little space as a workshop, near from the Rabbi's office. In that space, Sam set up his book fixing apparatus. The shuls in Ottawa would bring to Sam their worn out and frayed Siddurim and Chumashim, and he would painstakingly restore them to a usable state. His workshop contained this very strange sewing device which he put together himself for binding books. Whenever I would stop into the Jewish Community Center (where Congregation Beth Shalom is located), Sam would show me around his workshop with great pride. Sam would spend many hours a day working away in his bookbinding workshop. This work was done without any fanfare, or expectation of reward, but he did have a plaque up in his workshop, given to him by Young Israel Synagogue of Ottawa, in recognition of his restoration of the siddurim of that shul.

I had two Artscoll Machzorim which were softcovered, and beginning to come apart, and Tzippy had an old chumash with a cracked binding. Tzippy suggested that Uncle Sam would be most honoured if we would ask him to fix our books. We gave him these books, and shortly they were returned to us in fine shape. The machzorim were reinforced with cardboard, covered with heavy plastic, and my name was inscribed on them with gold ink. Sam spared no words in describing to me his opinion of the book binding capabilities of Artscroll.

Sam and Eva would travel by car to Florida for a few weeks every winter. This continued well into their eighties -- in fact the last time they went was a year and a half before Sam passed away. Sam had a 1979 Mercury, which he kept in tip top shape since its infancy. They had a portable fridge which could be plugged into the lighter of the car. So off they set every year. I used to express my concern that people of such an age would set out by car, but it did not seem to faze them. The secretary of Beth Shalom Synagogue, Gloria Trainoff, would always call them in Florida to insure that they got their safely. I only hope that I am blessed with so much vim and vigour when I will be an octogenarian.

Sam and Eva would also travel by car to the Catskills every Pesach, where they would spend the Sedorim with Bayla and Dick Solow. This continued until Sam's last Pesach, when he was already not well, and they had to spend Pesach at the Hillel Lodge in Ottawa.

In late December 1995, we went to Ottawa again. We had hoped to have the opportunity to visit Sam and Eva, but unfortunately my own father had taken very ill, and our whole visit was spent in my father's hospital room. This was most unfortunate, because it turns out that it would have been the last opportunity we would have had to visit Sam and Eva in their apartment. During my father's illness over the next few months, Sam would call my father two or three times a week to find out how he was doing. I travelled to Ottawa frequently during early 1996 to visit my father who was recovering from cancer surgery and was undergoing chemotherapy. On a visit in February, I was at Beth Shalom shul for shacharit, and I had a chance to shmooze with Sam and drive him home from shul. Tzippy and I were expecting our first child at the time within a month or two, and Sam told me that if it was a boy, he would love to be the 'cain' ( as he pronounced it) at the Pidyon Haben. We of course had a girl, so there was no Pidyon Haben.

Next month, just before Purim, I was in Ottawa again to visit my father, and I called up Sam and Eva to say hello. Eva answered, and told me that Sam was in the hospital. I went to visit after Shabbat, and Sam was sitting up, shmoozing away as usual. He told me that the news wasn't good (they had found a tumour on his lung), but he was feeling fine. He was concerned that it would be the first time he would not be able to hear the Megilla for Purim, so I got in touch with the Rabbi, and insured that someone would come up to the hospital to read the Megilla for Sam.

Unfortunately, over the next few months, Sam's condition deteriorated rapidly. When we were in Ottawa in May, he was already in a hospice. We went to visit him, and it was clear that the end was not far away. We brought our baby daughter Rachel with us, and Sam was glad to see us and the baby. One week later, the day after Shavuot, Sam passed away. Sam's passing marked the end of the long and vibrant Ottawa history of the Epstein family. The rest of the family is spread out in Toronto, Montreal, the United States, and Israel, but there are no descendents of Solomon and Sadie Epstein remaining in Ottawa.

Aunt Eva now lives in the Hillel Lodge. This is most fitting, as she was always very active as a volunteer there when she was able. We went to visit her last December. She was very cheerful, is surrounded by friends whom she has known for many years, and is very active in the programs of the lodge. Her memory and eyesight are not that good anymore, but she is enjoying life as best she can. She has a lovely room set up, and many of the pictures and memorabilia from their apartment were moved into her room. At the side of her bed is a large picture of her late beloved husband, Sam. Tzippy, Rachel and I hope we have many more opportunities to visit Aunt Eva in the Hillel Lodge.