Thursday, December 14, 2006

Solomon The Milkman

What with the first night of Hanukkah coming up this weekend, I thought it might be a good opportunity to tell you about my Jewish roots.

My grandfather Sullivan was a milkman for H. P. Hood for many years. He told this story, which took place during the days when he did his route on a horse-drawn wagon.

His route travelled through the Mattapan section of Boston, which at that time was almost exclusively populated by Jewish families. Now, some of the people to whom he delivered milk thought he was Jewish. They thought his name was Solomon, not Sullivan.

I'm not positively sure how this assumption came about, but it's not a stretch to imagine what might have happened. Someone in the neighborhood probably asked what his name was and he (or, more likely, one of his customers with perhaps an Eastern European accent) said, "Sullivan", and whoever had asked the question, with the idea already in mind that he might be Jewish, heard "Solomon". That person told someone else, and so on.

It was possible. My grandfather didn't have the map of Ireland on his face like I do. He could have passed. Since he delivered milk in a Jewish neighborhood, his customers might naturally have assumed that he was Jewish, too. I don't suppose he would have had any reason to disabuse them of this notion. He probably figured it wouldn't hurt business to let them keep on thinking it.

Anyway, one day while he was doing his route, some of the older Jewish men called for him to come down off of his wagon so that he could help them meet the required numbers for a minyan; that is, so that they could have enough for prayer service, which required at least 10 men.

They yelled to him, "Solomon! We need another for a minyan! You got time maybe?"

My grandfather was sharp enough to know what they were talking about. He had been delivering milk in that neighborhood for some time, so he was familiar with words and phrases and customs that an Irishman might otherwise not be expected to know. The question was, what should he tell these men? Should he spill the beans and let them know that he wasn't really named Solomon, but Sullivan? That he wasn't Jewish, but Catholic, and that his ancestry was Irish and French?

Well, my grandfather figured it this way: Who did it hurt if he helped them out? As long as they thought he was Jewish, God wouldn't be mad at them for including an Irishman in their prayer service, and he also figured that God would probably look kindly on him for doing the old Jews a mitzvah. So, my grandfather parked the wagon and made the minyan for them.

He faked his way through by following the lead of the others. Having attended Catholic mass for many years, he knew he could probably get by with indistinct mumbling as long as he did the right body motions, so he kept his voice low and bowed when they did and so forth. Afterwards, the old men thanked him and he got back on his wagon and finished his route. Of course, from that day forward there was little doubt along Blue Hill Avenue that Tom Sullivan (that is, Solomon The Milkman) was Jewish - and a fairly devout Jew, at that.

Therefore, if someone calls me "Solly", instead of "Sully", I won't complain. My grandfather wasn't really a Jew, but he played one on his milk route.

Happy Hanukkah!

P.S. Keeping up my end of the family tradition, I've been invited to dinner Friday night with my Jewish friends Matt and Stu Stone and Freddy Goodman. I'll say the blessing, if they want.

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh. (Amein)

(Of course, I may be getting ahead of myself. Maybe I'm just the Shabbos Goy.)


Anonymous said...

God, what a wonderful story. I just loved it. I am Jewish and live in Boston. By the way, I included a photo of a Hood eggnog container on my blog yesterday.

Gregg said...

Very charming story told in the style of Isaac Singer himself. Happy holidays to you :-)

Suldog said...

Rhea - Thank you very much for the kind words. Coming from a writer of some regard, such as yourself, it is a very nice compliment.

Gregg - Isaac Singer! My goodness.
Oh, my. That was the sound of my hat flying off because my head just got too big to hold onto it.

Anonymous said...

That's a sweet story. I really enjoyed reading it.

Sassy said...

That is awesome. I did a gig one year where I sang at a holiday party hosted by a Jewish couple. A friend of mine came and played piano, and we were invited to be involved in the ceremony of lightnig the menorah. I'm Christian, but I really enjoyed the ceremony and the language of the moment.

Anonymous said...

Since my sons are responsible for carrying on the Sullivan name its nice to hear stories about our grandfather that I can pass down.

My wife works for a company owned by a Jewish family and vendors send mail to her all the time addressed Lori Solomon.

When I moved from Boston to Northampton I met Puerto Ricans for the first time (In Hyde Park the closest thing we had to a Puerto Rican was this Italian kid we called the "Mini Guinea") and they all thought my name was Solivan, a common surname in PR. They would always say "Sully, you must have some spanish bro with a name like Solivan"

Rebecca said...

Suldog -
For some reason I'm not able to post on beta blogger with my standard blogger account??? I can do it occasionally - but I"ve been trying to post since the fruitcake and I haven't been able to!!! It's very frustrating. I hate beta blogger. :(

That being said... Happy Hanukkah. :)

Unknown said...

What a nice man your grandps was, a very enjoyable story.

KAYLEE said...

I loved that story.

Ali P said...

Awesome story and thanks for the blessing! The BareNaked Ladies have a hanukah song on their "Bare Naked For The Holidays" cd and I couldn't quite get part of the lyrics, which are the blessing you just provided.
Another reason for you to be a blog crush, ya big galoot.

Melinda said...

Hey Sully,

I'm trying yet again to post a comment about your fantastic story. For some reason, I've been getting all sorts of errors and I'm really not sure if this one will work either. Stupid blogger beta...

Hope you had a great time with your Jewish friends on Friday.

La Chaim!

Lisa Johnson said...

Such a sweet story!! Happy Hanukkah to ya! And thanks for stopping by my blog!

Anonymous said...

Thank you all, folks! I'm so glad this story was received so well by so many!


Tillerman said...

Just goes to show that labels don't really matter. Who cares if you call yourself a Jew, a Catholic, a Hindu, a Wiccan or a Vulcan? Take people as you find them and treat them kindly.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I would have told them either. It didn't hurt anyone to go along with it. Thank you for sharing this with the Carnival of Family Life.

JHS said...

I'm sure that God didn't mind the little white lie. :-) Very charming. Your grandfather sounds like a wonderful man.

The Carnival of Family Life will be posted in a little while, so hope you will stop by and read the other wonderful submissions. There are lots!

DigitalRich said...

Many thanks for participating in the 3rd edition of Carnival of the Storytellers!

The edition is now posted and can be found at:


Mary said...

Wonderful post, and what a lovely family story! Here from the CFL.:O)

Anonymous said...

I just added this web site to my google reader, great stuff. Can't get enough!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for putting this up, it was very handy and helped me a lot

Anonymous said...

Adoring the time and effort you put into your website and detailed point of view you provide here. It's great to come across a blog occasionally that is not all the same out of date rehashed information. Wonderful job! I've saved your site and I'm adding your blog URL to my Google account now. Moreover, I respect your website so much that I want to advertise my own site on yours. I will be glad if you write me at: everythingrainbowhk (AT) with your monthly advertising rates. Much appreciated!