The old Philly neighborhood remembers Kagan's family

Stanley Gittelman keeps this photo of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, his niece, with President Bill Clinton, at his Northeast home. The dentists says of his late sister's daughter:"If she does well, it's not going to help me any. If she does badly, it's on [the family's] head."
Stanley Gittelman keeps this photo of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, his niece, with President Bill Clinton, at his Northeast home. The dentists says of his late sister's daughter:"If she does well, it's not going to help me any. If she does badly, it's on [the family's] head."
Posted: July 01, 2010

As probing senators delve into the past of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, a handful of locals are trying their best to remember the family's Philadelphia roots.

"I think Kagan has all the qualities of her mother," said Shirley Zove, 82, a former neighbor. "But it's only been, what, 70 years?"

Kagan's late mother, Gloria Gittelman, was born in April 1930 in South Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants. In 1933, Gloria Gittelman's father, Laizar, founded Gittelman's, a butter-and-egg shop at 2127 S. Seventh St., claiming the property when the previous tenant took his own life in the throes of the Great Depression.

Over the next three decades, the family business became something of a neighborhood institution just south of Snyder Avenue - a "wonderful place with the most wonderful smells," recalls Helene Feinberg, a student with Gloria at Philadelphia High School for Girls in the mid-1940s. Gloria worked the register "as soon as she could count," brother Stanley Gittelman says, while he - the younger sibling by three years - helped make egg cartons in back.

While Gittelman wishes his niece well as she faces intense national scrutiny, Yiddish pessimism has a way of interfering with family pride.

"Maybe I'm coming from the shtetl," said the 77-year-old dentist from Northeast Philadelphia. "But if she does well, it's not going to help me any. If she does badly, it's on [the family's] head."

And, perhaps, on Philadelphia's - though Gloria Gittelman did move away at age 20, after graduating from Penn State, to marry New York lawyer Robert Kagan in 1950.

"I remember because the Phillies won the pennant that year," Gittelman said.

According to Gittelman, he and his sister were raised in a household that Liked Ike - and Nixon and Goldwater and Reagan. His father broke with the Republican ticket just once, to reward Harry S. Truman for recognizing Israel's sovereignty.

Gittelman remembers a young Elena Kagan as "just another kid, sitting on the beach, going in the water" at her grandparents' Atlantic City home, where Gittelman's parents moved after closing the butter-and-egg shop in the early 1960s. (A Cambodian market now stands in its place.) He has not seen Kagan, he says, since his sister's funeral in July 2008.

Though they remained close until her passing, Stanley and Gloria Gittelman led markedly different lives. He attended dental school at Penn, married a hygienist he met there in 1957, had two children, and practiced full time out of the Northeast - in an office beneath his home - for nearly a half-century.

Gloria Gittelman graduated from Girls High at age 16 in 1946, married the dapper New Yorker who offered his seat on a crowded train ride from State College to Philadelphia, and never returned to the city full time again. As a teacher at Hunter College Elementary School in Manhattan, she did make time for an occasional history-fueled class field trip to Philadelphia.

Even early in her life, childhood friends attest, Gloria Gittelman found ways to set herself apart. As a student at Furness Junior High School, 83-year-old Leon Shore recalls, she always prevailed in the school's annual competition to sell the most war bonds. She also carried neighborhood clout as "the rich guy's daughter," Shore says.

"She was a good-looking female who wouldn't take baloney from anybody," added Jerry Weiss, another acquaintance from South Philadelphia. "I had a crush on her - though I had a crush on everybody."

Shirley Zove, whose family owned a baby-clothes shop down the street from Gittelman's, marveled at her ability to convey "strong convictions" in cordial speech.

"You could see the firmness, but she always had a smile," Zove said. "Like Kagan."

Zove believes the nomination is a badge of honor for the old neighborhood, a sparkling testament to the family's Philadelphia ties.

Gittelman, who listened to the radio this week for updates on the hearings, can only root from a distance.

"I hope she does a good job and is respected," he said. "It's in God's hands now."


Contact staff writer Matt Flegenheimer at 215-854-5614 or mflegenheimer@phillynews.com.

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