When More Is Less

There are hoarders and then there are hoarders.

On my recent visit to Portland, I picked up a memoir at Powell’s titled, Dough, by Mort Zachter. Its story of the author’s family’s bakery business on the Lower East Side and his eventual discovery that his family was secretly exceptionally wealthy (we’re talking millions) in spite of an apparent life of penury, was an enjoyable and effortless read.

The fact, however, that I read Dough, the tale of idiosyncratic hoarding of well, dough (not the kind you bake into bread), by Zachter’s uncles Joe and Harry Wolk not long after having read E.L. Doctorow’s new novel on the notorious Collyer brothers caused me to pause and think more deeply about the similarities and differences between these two pairs of obsessive-compulsive male siblings and the havoc that hoarding can wreak on an existence.

The differences between the the Wolks and the Collyers are obvious. Although they were born in roughly the same era in New York, one set of brothers were the sons of poor, striving, immigrant Jews, while the other was of boys born into an upper middle class Christian family that owned an impressive brownstone in Upper Manhattan. Harry and Joe Wolk had a younger sister, Helen. Homer and Langley Collyer were their parents’ only children.

Doctorow takes creative license in imagining that Homer and Langley lived beyond 1947, the year of their actual deaths, crushed beneath the extraordinary amount of detritus amassed in their home. In his novel, they live to similar ages as the Wolk brothers did (More outgoing Harry, whose dementia led to his demise in his 80’s, was predeceased by the more reserved and pious Joe). Upon the death of  each pair, the extent of their hoarding compulsions was unmasked as Zachter and other family members entered, in the case of the Wolks, and police officers broke into, in the Collyers’ case, their homes.

Both homes are filled from floor to ceiling with innumerable physical things to which the men were too attached to dispose of. True to stereotype, however, the junk crowding the Jewish brothers’ Mitchell-Lama Lower East Side apartment was come by without payment by the stingy Wolks. Whereas the Collyers completely depleted their ample inheritance so that they could acquire more and more objects to hoard, Joe and Harry saved and invested their money to an unnatural degree, thus denying themselves and their relatives comfort and opportunity. The hundreds of clock radios and toaster ovens found in their apartment were the giveaways from banks for opening accounts. From what Zachter found in his uncles’ place, it was clear that they had opened many, many accounts at many, many banks and brokerage houses.

The NYPD searched for the dead Collyer brothers under the tons of detritus in their home, 1947.

Although Zachter and Doctorow treat their subjects sympathetically, I cannot but feel anger, as well as sorrow, for the fates of these men whose obsessive behavior and compulsion for hoarding, be it of money or things, prevented them from living more productively and happily. All four remained single, never having been able to establish healthy, romantic relationships. They lived in a state of self-denial and denied those closest to them the chance to fully know them and to share in what they could have had to offer.

Zachter writes about his coming to terms with his having had to set aside dreams of majoring in English at a private college because of his family’s inability to pay tuition and his parent’s insistence that he pursue a more practical course of study. He also realizes that there is nothing he can now do about his uncles’ having never paid their sister and her husband, Zachter’s father, for a day of work in the forty years they helped out in the bakery. Unbeknownst to Zachter at the time, there had been no need for him to have scrimped and saved, and exhausted himself going to law school at night while working as an accountant by day to support his young family. Had his uncles been different from who they were, Zachter and his wife would not have had to have taken out a second mortgage on their home to finance the adoption of their children.

Just as it is difficult to encounter a Jewish family that did not provide for its offspring to the the fullest extent possible, it is disheartning to read Zachter’s descriptions of the Wolks’ deliberate refusal to give tzeddakah. One is sickened to read that Joe and Harry, sitting on millions, gave no more than $18 to the annual Kol Nidre appeal at the First Roumanian-American Congregation on Rivington Street, a shul of dwindling membership much in need of financial support. This inability (more so than refusal) given the uncles’ mental illness, to give charity and to impart the importance of this mitzvah to the young Zachter was the most painful part of the family’s legacy for the author. He, made wealthy beyond his wildest dreams by the passing of his uncles and his mother’s turning over much of her inheritance to him, has made a particular effort to be charitable and to teach his own children by example.

Filling the pushke: The importance of teaching tzeddakah to children from a young age

Criticism of Joe and Harry Wolk is mitigated by our knowledge that OCD and other mental illnesses were not as well recognized, diagnosed or treated in their day as they are now. The bakery-owning brothers who always wanted things done their way, were not really totally in control.

Still, it is impossible to let them completely off the hook. In many Jewish folk tales, Elijah the Prophet suddenly and mysteriously appears at the door of a person who, despite his own state of extreme poverty, manages to give tzedakkah to someone even worse off. Elijah then rewards this shtetl pauper with great blessings and riches in return for his generosity and piousness. I wonder what the prophet would have said had he come to visit the secret multi-millionaire Wolk brothers at their store or garbage dump of an apartment. He probably would have told them that their hoarding was for nought. Except for when it comes to tzeddakah, more is less.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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