Gantman, who worked with her mother and husband in the kosher food business, leads a full life at Sholom Home West
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Eleanor Gantman talks often of her mother, Bessie Lazer, who immigrated to the United States from Lithuania when she was just 13 years old.
“This story should be about my mother,” Gantman said in a recent interview with the AJW at her home at Sholom Home West in St. Louis Park.
Gantman will turn 100 years old on May 1 and she has an impeccable memory. She recounted many details about growing up in St. Paul, her loving marriage to husband Joe and the strong influence of her mother.
Lazer became a widow at the age of 34, and raised three young daughters alone (Gantman had an older sister Esther and a younger sister Ethel). She learned the kosher deli business from the ground up, supervising the kosher kitchen at Sholom Home in St. Paul, and running B. Lazer Delicatessen on Selby Avenue and later Ford Parkway.
She also gave a start to her nephew, Cecil Glickman, who eventually opened Cecil’s Deli on Cleveland Avenue.
In fact, Gantman was just five months older than Glickman and the two were born in the same double house in Hopkins. (Gantman’s father and Glickman’s mother were siblings.) The two grew up together, and Gantman said Glickman was the “brother I never had.”
The Glickmans later moved to Youngstown, Ohio, and the Lazers soon followed (Gantman’s father worked for Glickman’s father). But in 1927, Glickman’s father died of cancer, and just a year later, Gantman’s father was fatally injured in a car accident.
The two young widows returned to the Twin Cities with their children, and it was then that Lazer took up the kosher deli business at 689 Selby Ave. And young Eleanor worked alongside her.
When she was 18, she became friendly with Joe Gantman, who worked in his father’s kosher meat market across the street, at 682 Selby Ave.
“He was in the fish department, so if I was making an order and would come to the front of the store, I would look over and he would pick up a live fish and wave it at me,” Gantman said. “And I’d pick up a bunch of carrots and wave it at him.”
The two dated for three years and were engaged at a Passover seder. They married six months later.
The Gantmans owned their own kosher butcher shop for many years and raised three children, Ellen, Jim and Gayle. Gantman’s mother also lived with the family for 26 years.
But Joe Gantman had a heart attack at the age of 44 and they sold the business. Joe then went to work for Applebaum’s grocery store, and Eleanor worked as a secretary for Mutual Services Insurance.
Gantman loved her job and was offered four promotions, all of which she turned down.
“I had a great experience where I worked,” Gantman said. “I was offered so many higher positions, but I said no… I liked the people I worked with.”
After 18 and a half years, Joe Gantman’s doctor suggested that he retire. And so Eleanor did, too. The couple relocated to Sun City, Ariz., in 1978, where they were active in the local synagogue and spent their time day-tripping, bowling and dancing.
“My husband was a great dancer, they called him the ‘Cha-Cha King of Sun City,’” Gantman said. “The women used to say to me, ‘Don’t you get jealous when all the women want to dance with Joe?’ And I said, ‘No, because I get to go home with him.’ He was a nice, nice man and we had a beautiful life until he got sick.”
Joe Gantman spent more than a year in a nursing home in Arizona before passing away in 1985. Eleanor remained in Sun City for six more years and returned to the Twin Cities in 1991.
“My memories are so endearing,” Gantman said. “Some are sad, but I have no bad memories.”
She began to volunteer at Sholom Home West, where she worked in the gift shop until just last year, and later at the information desk. She underwent open-heart surgery six years ago, at the age of 94. At the time, doctors had given her six months to live.
“The doctor didn’t want to operate on me,” Gantman said. “I said, ‘You know what, you do it. If you lose me on the table, I won’t know the difference.’ And here I am.”
Gantman has lived at Sholom Home West since her surgery. She is a member of the Residents Council — though she turned down the opportunity to be president — and helps new residents become accustomed to life at Sholom.
Among her bits of advice for a long life, Gantman says she smiles a lot, is friendly to others and tries to be an inspiration wherever she can.
“I’m so grateful to retain my memory and if I can help anybody, I try,” Gantman said. “Just think happy thoughts and be kind, and carry a lot of love in your heart. And I’m grateful my children return that love.”
Gantman will celebrate her 100th birthday with about 70 family members and friends at a brunch at the Crowne Plaza in Plymouth, hosted by her devoted children, Ellen and Harley Greenberg, of Fort Meyers, Fla., Jim and Eileen Gantman, of Plymouth, and Gayle and Norman Fineberg, of Plymouth, as well as her seven grandchildren and their spouses, and 13 great-grandchildren.
“I’m so lucky, I never expected to live to be 100,” Gantman said. “I hope I go out smiling.”
(American Jewish World, 4.8.16)