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Family Feud? Forget It; These Relatives Relate

August 13, 2009 By:
Rachel Levy Lesser, Jewish Exponent Feature
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The Sohn family convenes in Ventnor nearly every summer weekend. It's a way to keep the extended clan together, says the family matriarch, Linda Sohn (center).

If you want your family to stay close, then buy a house at the shore. That seems to be the consensus among the generations of families who have been sharing houses at the Jersey shore summer after summer.

Linda Sohn of Holland, Pa., who has spent nine summers with her husband, two daughters, sons-in-law and four grandsons at their house in Ventnor was given this advice by a friend. "It's particularly true if you have sons," she says. "Just as long as they don't marry women whose parents have houses on beach block -- then you're out of luck."

A century ago or so, intergenerational living was the norm, a necessity in fact. According to a recent U.S. census, however, only 4 percent of American households can be defined as multigenerational (three or more generations living together). This number has drastically shrunk as families have become more mobile and often move away to take advantage of professional opportunities.

But the Jersey shore is still one place where statistics resemble those of the past. In these beach enclaves, according to longtime Jewish sociologist Rela Mintz Geffen, a number of families are "creating the Jewish street temporarily, like the immigrants did."

"It's a way to fortify yourself," she says of these mostly weekend gatherings. "Being in the same place, sharing meals, staying overnight -- you renew your experiences."

Coming together in this way, Geffen adds, "recaptures the idea of extended-family togetherness," something that today "we really only have in a virtual way. It's a very positive thing."

Not that sharing a house with your siblings and cousins doesn't have its tense moments. The Sohns report that shower schedules are frequently discussed to ensure that everyone has hot water and everyone stays happy. Putting a second television upstairs also helped when the grandchildren wanted to watch one show and the parents another. In other families, deciding on a movie that everyone will enjoy can also get tricky. But for the most part, the families interviewed for this article said that things go pretty smoothly.

When the Cottage Grew Too Small
Take Allan Leibowitz of Langhorne, who built a larger house in Margate along with his late wife, Maxine, about a decade ago to accommodate their growing family. The small cottage down the street was getting too crowded. His daughter, Marsha Zisling of Wayne remembers how her sister-in-law, Jennifer Leibowitz, first broke the news of her pregnancy. "Looks like it's time to build a bigger house," Jennifer told her in-laws when she was expecting her oldest son, Nathan, now 13.

Building the new Margate house became a labor of love for Maxine Leibowitz, as she fought breast cancer for 11 years. Described by her daughter-in-law as a private person, Maxine never spoke openly about her drive to complete the house, but her children knew that it had become her mission. "It would be her legacy," Jennifer says, "and the magnet that would pull the family together long after she was gone."

And that is what it has been. Aharoni Zisling, who was raised on a kibbutz in Israel and married into the Margate house, believes that "the change in routine and the quality time that the extended family spends while living together every weekend has brought us all closer."

The third generation of cousins has grown just as close as the siblings. All five of them, ranging in age from 8 to 13, share a bedroom (known affectionately as "the dorm") in the shore house. None of that would be possible in their separate lives back home, and Allan Leibowitz's children recognize this. They are grateful to him for building the house and recently welcomed his new wife, Harriet, and her family. There are now more people to participate in their traditions of biking to Casel's for bagels and their Father's Day water-balloon toss.

The success of intergenerational living comes from "a unique community effort," says Jennifer. When the new house was complete, the family transported their clothing and dishes down the street from the original cottage in their children's red wagons. They all work hard to get the kosher dinners on the table at night. (The Leibowitzes and Zislings do not keep kosher at home but do so at the shore as a tribute to their late mother.)

A similar community effort is taking place down the street in Margate at Maxine and Jerry Garfinkle's six-bedroom house that they bought 11 years ago along with their daughter and son-in-law, Michele and Lee Zimmerman of Blue Bell. The Garfinkles, originally from Broomall, now live full-time at the shore. Their children and grandchildren, ages 12 and 10, spend every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day at the shared house, which retains the original beams and moldings from when it was built in 1925.

Because it's everyone's house, says Maxine, "there is no picking up after anyone." Each person puts forth the effort to make the house run smoothly, including the Thanksgiving meal that has become a tradition in Margate. "Everyone has their own job," she says.

A Fast Game of Mah-Jongg
Maxine has memories of her grandchildren growing older as part of this house. The families started coming down with cribs and strollers and have now graduated to "chasing the ice cream truck down the block." Her grandchildren have even been known on occasion to act as fill-ins for their grandmother's mah-jongg game. (She taught them to play on rainy Saturday mornings.)

Jerry Garfinkle was never a fan of the shore, recalls Maxine. To this day, he doesn't go to the beach, but he has developed his own routine of going to the gym and painting. And when the Zimmerman children have friends for sleepovers, it is their grandparents who sometimes babysit.

Just over the inlet waterway in Ventnor are Hinda and Howard Marcu who have lived in their two-bedroom condo for 11 years. Originally from Springfield, the Marcus are now full-time shore residents and active members of Temple Beth Judah. They have three grown sons, who reside in New York, Northern New Jersey and Israel, but they all come together for summer visits to the shore. Their teenage grandchildren make extended visits from Israel year after year, observing the Sabbath in Ventnor, just as they do in Jerusalem.

They walk to the Orthodox synagogue in Atlantic City, and all three generations of the family spend Shabbat together, sometimes with as many as 10 people squeezed into the condo. Simply being together creates what the grandparents call "a wonderful tradition" that they all embrace.

For Linda and Alan Sohn, some of their favorite memories are of times spent at the shore with their young grandsons. Linda remembers how Ben, now 6, would nap in her arms under the boardwalk while the rest of the family stayed in the ocean. Alan recalls being called Zadie (a title that took some getting used to for the young and active grandfather) while on the beach -- "Catch the ball, Zadie!" yelled his grandson one day.

And for Stephanie Cramer, the Sohn's youngest daughter, who met her husband one summer in Margate, seeing her boys build sand castles on the beach with her sister's boys is something she now appreciates. "They seem to play and even argue in the same way that I did with my sister, Rachel, years ago."

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