My Uncle Jake: The Jewish Fruit Peddler | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

My Uncle Jake: The Jewish Fruit Peddler  

My grandma Bessie Wolkenstein had three brothers: Max, Charlie, and Jake Katz. Max was married and he and Ida had a house on the north side of Milwaukee. Charlie and his wife Ruth lived on the west side, but I didn’t know where Jake lived. Max owned a heating and sheet metal shop, Charlie worked for Standard Electric, and then there was my Uncle Jake. 

I remember that he once walked around our neighborhood pushing a large grinding stone that he used to sharpen knives and scissors. “I sharpen knives and scissors,” he called out. One time I remember he rode around the neighborhood with a horse and wagon buying junk, rags and newspapers: “Rags, rags, Jake buys rags.” But I remember best when he brought his horse and wagon that he sold fruit from: “Watermelon and fruit, watermelons for sale.”  

Oh it was a gay sight to see, and sometimes he would invite me up on his bench seat to travel around the neighborhoods with him. 

Uncle Jake was a sort of strange looking man. He wore dusty and ill-fitting clothes and had yellow stained fingers from chronic smoking. It seemed he had a cloud of cigarette smoke around his head all the time. When he walked, he had a terrible limp. He was a kind man who worked hard to support himself. But he had this annoying habit of pinching my cheek every time we met. Let me give you a “knip” he would say as he reached for my cheek.  

“Uncle Jake, you are hurting me,” I said. 

“No, I am not. I am just giving you a little knip,” he said. 

I couldn’t get him to stop doing this! My mom told me it was his way of showing me he liked me. “Nisht geferlach,” she would say. 

And so, I spent much of that warm summer of my eighth year riding on the fruit wagon with Uncle Jake. We must have been a sight; a wizened old man and a skinny little kid together, being together, talking together, peddling fruit.  

Sometimes, Uncle Jake would pull a battered-but-clean plate from under the bench seat. He piled on deep red cherries, green grapes, a few plump peaches, and even some cookies. When I bit into a peach, some juice dripped onto my chin. He would laugh and wipe my face with a clean hankie that he would pull from his pants pocket.  

“You are a very good boy,” he would say. 

 “Thanks Uncle Jake, you are such a nice uncle.” 

 (I sort of knew then that he was not my real uncle, but uncle was just the right name for him). 

I can still remember that he once turned away from me, and I saw a few tears in his eyes that he quickly brushed aside. We peddled on. 

It went like this: 

“Uncle Jake, where do you live?” No answer. 

“Uncle Jake, where do you live?” No answer. 

“Uncle Jake, where is your family?” “Don’t be a schlemiel.” 

“What does that mean?” No answer. 

“Uncle Jake, what is your horse’s name?” “Horse.” 

“No, what is his name?” 


“I know he is a horse but what is his name?”  

“He is not a pet. He works for me, and I take care of him.” 

 “Where does he live?” No answer. 

Jake answered: “Where does he live? In a stable, kinder.” 

I asked: “Where is your family?” 

“Oy vey is meir.” 

“What does that mean?” No answer. 

“Uncle Jake why do you limp?” 

“Nisht geferlach” 

“Uncle Jake, why is the horse going so slow?” “Because he is old and tired and hot, just like me.” 

And with that, he slowly pulled back on the reins and said softly, “Enough already with the questions.” 

He once asked me to get the big metal can of water from the back of the wagon and fill the old tin bucket with the water and give it to the horse. I told him I was afraid of the horse. “Come kinder,” he said, and he slowly climbed down from the bench, and we walked to the back of the wagon. He filled the bucket with water and slowly walked with me to the horse. He ran his hand along the side of the horse and then slowly lifted the bucket to the horse, who drank deeply from it.  

I asked, “Why do you touch him like that?” 

“So he knows we are coming alongside and isn’t afraid that he is alone. Nobody wants to be alone.”  

When it was empty, Uncle Jake told me that we would rest for a few minutes under the shade of a large elm tree and let the horse rest. “Sometimes, he gets too hot and has to rest. He is old like me.”  

“Uncle Jake, what happens if he gets too old to pull the fruit wagon?” 

“Well, I take him to a rest farm up north where he lives out his days resting in the fields, sleeping and eating grass, hay and oats.” 

“What if you get too old to work? 

“I retire and rest until Hashem calls me,” Uncle Jake said. 

“Who is Hashem?” I asked. 

“Boychik, don’t you go to cheder?”  

“No, I am too young.” 

 “So, when you go, be a good boy.” He smiled and whispered to himself, “vey is meir.” 

Once, when Uncle Jake took me home, he climbed down after me and then reached into his pocket and pulled out a bunch of coins. “Bubbeleh, take, you are a big help to your Uncle Jake,” he said.  

“No, that is not nice to take your money.”  

He smiled and then offered for me to take some fruit. So I took some cherries and green grapes. He put them in a small bag and gave it to me. He tried to pinch my cheek but by now I was too fast for him. I didn’t know how I was helping him.  

“Well, when I ask you to get me a bag for a customer or give the horse water (I wasn’t afraid anymore) and when you make change for a customer, that is helping me.” 

“It is?” 


I had noticed that when he had to make change for a customer, he would pull a bunch of coins from his pocket and let the customer take the correct change. “Uncle Jake, when I am not helping you, how do you know the customers are taking the right amount of change?”  

He looked at me and said that most people are honest. If someone cheats him, he won’t ever sell to them again.  

“But how do you know?” 

“I know boychik, I know.”  

I guess he knew but I didn’t know how he knew, and I still don’t. I had already begun to understand that there are so many questions that have no answers, regardless of how old we are. So when I proudly gave the bag to my mother, she emptied out the fruit and then pulled out a quarter. “I guess Uncle Jake appreciates your help.” 

My dad told me that Uncle Jake is sometimes a lonely man and if I am his friend, then I must be his true friend. “You must not hurt Uncle Jake’s feelings.” I told him I understood. And so I committed myself to a true friendship with my Uncle Jake. My dad was right. It felt good to have a true friendship with Uncle Jake. 

I remember one night I heard my parents talking in the kitchen about me. My dad said that of all the people I had developed a relationship with, he was surprised it was Jake. He added that he knew I was enamored with the book “Black Beauty” and guessed I had identified the horse in the book with Jake’s horse. 

When I would get home my mom would sometimes say that I smelled like a horse, sweat, Uncle Jake’s cigarette smoke, and watermelons. She would insist I take a bath. I guess it was a small price to pay for peddling fruit with my uncle Jake. 

One day my friend Karl from across the street made fun of my uncle Jake. “He is just an old and stupid bum and can’t even read or count,” he said. 

“No, he is not – he is my uncle Jake” and with that, I socked him so hard in the arm that we both fell over. He hit me back. “Okay, okay,” he said, “let’s have a truce,” and we went back to playing with his tinker toys. He just wasn’t a true friend. 

But when it got very cold, Uncle Jake stopped coming to our neighborhood. I looked forward to the next spring and the chance to be with him again. But the next spring he didn’t return. I waited by our front porch many mornings for him and the horse, but he never came back. 

Finally, I asked my mother why uncle Jake didn’t come back. She smiled with a sort of sad face. “Sonny, Uncle Jake died in the winter and he isn’t coming back. Well, are you sure he didn’t just retire? Yes, I am sure, and we didn’t tell you because you wanted him to come back so badly.” This made no sense to me, but she didn’t say much more. 

“What happened to horse?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“Can we find out?” 


I told her that I hoped the horse was taken to the rest farm up north to live out his days.  

“Who told you about a rest farm?” 

“Uncle Jake did.” She looked at me. 

“Kluger mensch,” she whispered. 

About five years later 

When I approached my bar mitzvah, my dad told me that some people would ask what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” I told him I wanted to be a Jewish fruit peddler like my Uncle Jake.  

“Well, that is a good job, but mom and I hope you will consider college. Besides, by the time you get to be eighteen and can get a peddler’s license, horses will be replaced by trucks, and as you know, Max Kohl has opened his supermarket on 46th and Burleigh Street and that will certainly be the future of food stores, so peddling will not be needed. We don’t think there will be much future as a fruit peddler, Jewish or not.” 

I sighed. 


As you can imagine, the sights, sounds, and even the smells of Horse and the boxes of fruit in the wagon slowly faded away from my memory, only to be brought back to my conscious awareness in psychotherapy years later. 

 I mentioned “my Uncle Jake,” and the wise therapist looked over her half glasses and repeated “My Uncle Jake?” (It was suddenly a chance to go back and think about, reflect on and maybe learn something about myself that would help me better understand the struggles of clients who came to see me for therapy). 

“Yes. My Uncle Jake.” I told her that eventually he would call out: “Get your fruits and watermelon from Uncle Jake.” The therapist smiled. 

We talked about how Uncle Jake’s story of the rest farm for Horse and my parents not telling me that he had passed away were probably attempts to shield me from the realities of life that I was not ready or capable of understanding or dealing with. I wondered if they were right in doing so. “Does it really matter now?” she asked, “Sure.” I sat back and thought deeply about their attempts to shield me from too much sorrow when they believed I was not capable of coping with such challenges; but how would they have really known when I was capable? Kathy and I also struggled with these same issues for our sons as we suspect all parents continue to do. 

My dad’s talk with me about the responsibilities of true friendship helped guide me through life’s offerings of friendships. I have tried to remain true to those responsibilities. 

Uncle Jake helped my dad instill in me the values and dignity of work, regardless of the type of work. I learned that peddling fruit was for Uncle Jake a responsible and worthy job, that all work is meaningful.  

I have to smile now as I remember my folks wishing and hoping I would give up the idea of being a peddler, but not give up the awareness of the value of all work. I can sense now the challenges they faced. 

Wait, I think I smell the fruits and especially the watermelons again. 

* * *

Alan S. Wolkenstein provided this guide to the words in his article:

Uncle Jake’s knip: A quick pinch of a cheek as a sign of affection.

Schlemiel: A stupid or awkward person.

Kinder: Affectionate term for a young person.

HaShem: A way of referring to God in contexts other than prayer or scriptural reading.

Boychik: Term of endearment for a young boy or a young man.

Oy vey is meir/ vey is meir: Woe is me.

Nisht geferlach: No big deal.

Bubbeleh: Any person that is considered darling and close to one’s heart.

Cheder: A school for Jewish children in which Hebrew and religious knowledge are taught.\

Kluger mensch: Very, very smart person.