Izzy Turshen: Hebron’s “Renaissance Man”
His name isn’t really “Izzy,” you know. Some remember that he was officially “Ira Charles Turshen.” But even that isn’t true….his birth name was Isidore. Wanting an American name, he purposely changed it to “Ira,” but for some reason, he remained “Izzy” to everyone, and he is still “Izzy” today in Hebron’s rich folklore. Reprinted from June 2006 edition of Hebron Marlborough Life.
Longtime residents remember Izzy well, and easily recount his many contributions to Hebron during his lifetime. They also admit they know little about Izzy’s pre-Hebron years.
Izzy was born in a small shtetl in Nesvig, in the province of Minsk, Russia, the son of Abraham and Marsha Turshen. Even Izzy never knew his birth date because of the lack of records, but his 8th grade certificate would indicate he was born in 1899 or 1900. Abraham came to America shortly thereafter, leaving behind his wife, Izzy, and two daughters, Dorothy and Bella. Working hard in the garment industry, he was able to bring his family to the States four years later.
Abe was all about work, and that message was delivered early to his children. Izzy worked hard, but he was also an accomplished athlete, as well as a burgeoning artist and architect, which Abe just couldn’t understand. Izzy remembered a time when he didn’t show up for work, opting to play baseball instead. Abe went looking for him and found him on the fields, just as Izzy was up to bat. When Izzy hit the ball, Abe thought he was running away from him. So he chased him all around the diamond, never realizing that his son had just hit a home run!
It was a tumultuous relationship; ultimately Izzy ran away from home at 15. Two life-changing events occurred during his time away: he found work on a Colchester farm, and came to love rural Connecticut, and he contacted malaria, and lost most of his hair. From that time on, no one ever saw Izzy without a hat, something that is well-remembered today. “Dad would wear his hat until he went to bed at night; when we went to the movies, he would keep it on until the lights went down,” remembers his daughter, Marsha Turshen DuBeau.
After a stint working on the trains selling snacks, Izzy returned to New York, where he ultimately met and married Sophie Gross. They followed in the path of their Jewish parents, and opened a floor covering and used furniture business, settling in Brooklyn. But the call to rural Connecticut was still in Izzy’s heart, and when he read in 1924 that a grain business was for sale in Amston, he jumped at the chance.
As happened with many commercial buildings at that time, the Turshen’s mill burned down in 1927, smoldering for weeks because of the stored gain and the fact that it was a wooden building. Izzy’s creative mind took over, and he rebuilt the factory himself using brick. The building included what would become Izzy’s signature trademark, a circular window. Once completed, it became one of the most successful operations in all of Hebron, primarily due to its proximity to the Turnerville Train Depot and the hard work the Turshens put into the enterprise.
Izzy and Sophie soon became integral parts of the Hebron Jewish community, primarily because they had been educated in America and spoke fluent English. Because of their store, which served residents in Columbia, Lebanon, Gilead and Amston, they also soon became friends with many of Hebron’s longest residents, including the Hildings, the Hills, the Porters, the Hortons, and the Cobbs. They were also friends to many tramps, which were common in Depression days. “Mom would always give them food. But she was also kept a fireplace poker at the ready, just in case there was trouble,” says daughter Lotti Turshen Morris.
Sophie was an Orthodox Jew, but Marsha describes her family’s approach to religion as “pragmatic orthodoxy.” The family kept kosher, and the family housekeeper, Mrs. Sarah Rathbun, learned to cook kosher food (sneaking in New England pastries any time she could.) But the store also operated on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. On occasion, Izzy would take his children to Swift’s in Willimantic to buy goods for the store, yet also eat a ham sandwich from the luncheonette next door, warning his children “Don’t let your mother know!”
Izzy took it upon himself to publish a newsletter called The Amston Poster. On December 15, 1935, he proudly announced that he had joined the IGA. His newsletters were always welcomed for a number of reasons; he included updates on the volunteer fire department, environmental issues in town, updates on road improvements, births and deaths, and sports news. Izzy was actively pursuing another of his passions – baseball – and managing Hebron’s famous teams. “There are two religions in town,” Izzy would tell his son Richard “Dick” Turshen. “Sunday morning everyone goes to Church, and Sunday afternoon everyone goes to the baseball game.” Ballplayers were usually transported to the games on Izzy’s truck.
As time went on, Izzy became known as a good listener and advisor. Many, especially young people, sought his advice. The Turshen children remember their home was visited almost daily by someone seeking Izzy’s advice. He was also known for using humor to deliver his seasoned advice. “Dad would go to town meetings, and when things got heated, he would tell a joke and get everyone laughing. Then he would offer his opinion, and people would listen,” says Lotti. Dick adds, “Sometimes those jokes were a bit off-color, which had people laughing even more.”
Perhaps Izzy’s greatest accomplishment, in his own eyes, was building Hebron’s synagogue, which today is considered one of Connecticut’s crown architectural jewels. People had been meeting in private homes for Sabbath services for decades, and the need for a building was publicized as early as 1935. A building committee was formed, although Izzy was not particularly happy with their findings. He wanted a structure that would last for generations; the building committee felt they had to live within their limited budget. According to Dick, “My father told them, ‘Let me design and build the synagogue; I’ll make up the difference for any cost overruns.’” The congregation agreed, and Izzy was off and running. He gathered old bricks from collapsed buildings, and Dick became the “straw boss,” directing his sisters and other children who chipped off the concrete from the old bricks for a penny each.
Izzy personally built the synagogue, using the recycled bricks on the north, west and south sides (those walls have now been stuccoed over and painted white.) The entrance on the east side was built with new bricks, an Art Deco design that included Izzy’s signature circular window. He handmade the Star of David stained glass window using, of course, scrap glass he had collected. “Dad was a natural artist and architect, but he was brought up in a time when pursing his dreams wasn’t possible. The synagogue gave him an opportunity to show his talents,” said Marsha. The Agudas Achim Synagogue of the United Brethren of Hebron was officially dedicated on September 14, 1941.
World War II began shortly thereafter, and Izzy answered the call to lead Hebron’s War Council. He soon became known for his daily rounds through the neighborhoods, seeking rubber and scrap metal for the war effort. His truck was decorated with signs urging Hitler and Hirohito to hurry on down to the dark side. Local children would pile onto the truck, wanting to help. Indeed, says Marsha, Izzy kept a Crisco can in his bedroom; every day he would pick up anything from the ground that was metallic, and at night, deposit the material into the can. It was Izzy’s truck that hauled Hebron’s war canon to the depository as a contribution to the effort. When the war was over, people missed seeing Izzy’s truck making the rounds.
Izzy sold the store following his first heart attack in 1946. Sophie became the Amston Postmaster the following year. Izzy died on January 19, 1950, following a second heart attack. The stalwart Sophie learned to drive and lived an independent life, continuing as Postmaster until her own death in October 1958, the result of an automobile accident on the Merritt Parkway.
All three of Izzy and Sophie’s children today gratefully remember the values their parents taught them. “We have so much respect for our father and mother, and we know their ideas, standards and feelings about how you treat people have been the greatest gift they could have ever given us,” said Lotti.
In My Daughter's Eyes: Ira Turshen's Early Life in America
One of the exciting aspects of historical research is discovering "new" documents, especially when you think the story's already been told. Such is the case with Ira Turshen, one of Hebron's most popular and colorful residents in the mid-20th century.
An original document detailing Izzy's life from the time he sailed into the New York City harbor until he moved to Hebron can be found in the Town of Hebron's official scrapbook, pages 353-358. It was written by his daughter, Lotti Turshen Morris, who now lives in Vermont. An edited version of this original document was printed in the March 2007 edition of The Hebronian. Read more...