Fresh-Baked Memories


By Mort Zachter
184 pages. University of Georgia Press. $24.95.

Growing up in Brooklyn, in the 1960s, Mort Zachter liked to watch The Millionaire, the popular weekly television program in which billionaire philanthropist John Beresford Tipton gilded the life of an unsuspecting, deserving person with a gift of $1 million.

It was mesmerizing for young Zachter, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, who lived with his parents in a one-bedroom, leaky, Brooklyn tenement where he slept in the dinette next to the refrigerator.

Then, 30 years later, Zachter himself comes face-to-face with the life-altering news of inheriting unexpected wealth. Zachter recounts his unlikely personal family story in Dough, an award-winning memoir published by University of Georgia Press.

Dough opens at the punch line. One sweltering summer day in 1994, Zachter answers a phone call at his parents’ lifelong Brooklyn apartment and discovers he is the likely heir to millions of dollars.

The money—a family secret kept from Zachter for no apparent reason—had been accumulated and invested over decades by his two bachelor uncles, Harry and Joe Wolk, who, for more than 40 years, owned and ran a day-old Jewish bakery on East 9th street in New York City's Lower East Side, started by Zachter’s maternal grandparents in 1926.

The dough was shocking news to the 36-year-old accountant/tax lawyer. His uncles lived like paupers. They drove a 20-year-old rear-ended Buick that they used for deliveries and worked long days and nights, seven-days-a-week. Worse, they prevailed on their sister, Zachter’s mother, to fill in at the store all her adult life. In lieu of cash, she was paid with leftover baked goods and chocolate-lace cookies, Mort Zachter’s favorites.

“Growing up I had felt poor—not a homeless, hungry, dressed-in-rags poor, but a never-discussed sense that we simply couldn’t afford better,” Zachter writes in his opening chapter.

Zachter’s story, which goes back and forth between the present and earlier decades, is touching, tender, hilarious and at times, confounding.

“It is unbelievable,” Zachter acknowledges in a phone conversation with from his home in Princeton, New Jersey.

“Some people told me that if I wrote the book as a work of fiction no one would think the story was possible. It’s too outrageous,” Zachter jokes.

Why didn’t his family tell Zachter about his uncles’ wealth?

By the time Zachter learns, almost by accident, that his uncles had accumulated millions of dollars, one uncle had died, the other suffered from dementia, and his father was in the hospital. It was impossible to get quick, firsthand answers to many of his questions.

Zachter says, “My father made a living with his job,”, working as an unemployment claims adjuster. “When I asked him about it, he said, ‘it wasn’t our money,’” Zachter recalls.

“There was a sense of pride involved,” Zachter says of his father’s silence, illuminated in the memoir when , on a rare dinner out at the Garden—the legendary dairy cafeteria frequented by I. B. Singer—Zachter’s father pays the bill for his family, while his Uncle Harry pays only for himself and Uncle Joe

“Even as a child, this struck me as odd,” Zachter writes.

The debate about what to order—cheese blintzes or pea soup and a roll—has the familiar flavor of every Jewish-immigrant family in America.

Zachter, who eventually gave up his accounting career to take up his life-long dream to write, is a deft storyteller.

There are dozens of memorable scenes and vignettes recreated in this memoir, including Zachter’s family sitting around the Passover table sorting through piles of the previous year’s food stamps collected at the bakery.

His vivid descriptions of the overcrowded bakery, referred to only as “the store,” with breads and “stuff” strewn about on wooden shelves, call up old-world aromas of almond horns, apple strudel, and cheese Danish, none of which was baked on the premises.

But some of the most outrageous, laugh-out-loud moments are Zachter’s description of “excavating” the floor-to-ceiling stacks of boxes, newspapers, and trash at his uncles’ vacated apartment, two years after anyone lived there.

A five-foot mound of umbrellas represents the “final resting place of seventy years’ worth of leftover umbrellas,” Zachter tells his sister-in-law in the book.

Despite poring over correspondence, bank records, and years of research and effort, there was no “aha” moment revealing a single source of his uncles’ extraordinary wealth.

“Based on all I know, the money was accumulated because five people really gave the better of part of their lives working in this bakery,” Zachter says, referring to his two grandparents, his uncles, and his mother. “It is a combination of 60-plus years of hard work, plus not spending, plus investing in stocks and having a buy-and hold-philosophy.”

While Zachter’s initial reaction to discovering his uncles’ wealth was positive, he admits he was eventually bothered that they had never helped him financially.

“For a certain number of years, I felt a certain amount of missing out,” he admits.

He was also deeply disturbed by sacrifices his mother made by giving up a career as a teacher and working long hours at the store, to make sure her brother Joe could take his needed breaks and attend synagogue at the First Roumanian-American Congregation on Rivington Street on Saturday mornings.

But Zachter makes clear he has no bitterness.

“I worked that through over the years. The only way for me to look at this and stay sane is to say that my glass if half full,” Zachter says.

“There is a profound sadness in the book,” Zachter reflects. “I try to make it light. It’s not as if I personally suffered. I wasn’t indigent.”

Zachter says that in the course of writing, he tried to follow the Jewish dictates against loshon hara, not to say something ill of a person who can not respond.

“In terms of forgiveness and Judaism, if someone asks for forgiveness, you are supposed to forgive them,” Zachter asserts.

By the time he knew about the wealth, one uncle had passed away, and the other no longer had full mental faculties. They couldn’t ask for forgiveness, and Zachter recognized his obligation to forgive them, he says.

“I am luckier than ninety-nine percent of people in America. I don’t see where I should have bitterness because of the way things could have been. I would rather look [at the situation] as the classic glass half-full.”