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2005-10-19-Book Review: Zelig's Odyssey 
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Book Review: Zelig's Odyssey

                                                           San Diego Jewish Times, October 19, 2005


Zelig's Odyssey by Shimon Camiel, iUniverse, 2005, 262 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Donald H. Harrison

The just-released book, Zelig’s Odyssey by Shimon Camiel, while “fiction,” will provide readers with a hilarious insight into one of San Diego’s best known Jewish family groupings—the Klazkins, the  Shelleys, the Camiels, and the Thalers.

If you’re into San Diego Jewish history and genealogy—and, believe me, I am—here’s how they all connect: the widow Anna Klazskin married George Shelley.  One of her daughters, Jeanne Klazkin, married Zelig Camiel.  Another of her daughters, Gertrude Shelley, became none other than Gert Thaler, whose column can be found in another section of this newspaper.  Jeanne and Zelig Camiel were the parents of Shimon Camiel, the author, who in his younger days was known as Stanton Camiel.

The principal character in this book is Zelig Camiel, whose lusty life is traced from his boyhood in the town of Ostrolenka, Poland, where he was a mazik, a troublemaker, to his emigration during the 1920s to Cuba, then to Mexico, thence to Honduras, and finally to San Diego, as the husband of Jeanne.

Along the way, we meet Anna Klazkin, who, following the death of her husband Isaac, scratches out a living by buying and selling rags from the back of a horse-drawn cart. The nice ladies of Temple Beth Israel came to her aid, concerned she needed financial help to raise her struggling family.  Later in life, as Anna Shelley, she herself would perform many mitzvot as an activist in a variety of causes.

You  can read about Anna Shelley, Gert Thaler, Zel Camiel and Gert Thaler today in the biographical pages put up about her by the Louis Rose Society for the Preservation of Jewish History by using the “San Diego Jewish Honor Roll” link  at

Zelig met Jeanne while he was working at the Agua Caliente casino in Tijuana, and they were married—after Zelig had a brief marriage and annulment with another woman.  Jeanne committed herself to Zelig despite the fact that  Mexican authorities had decided to prohibit non-Mexicans from being employed by the casino, thus leaving Zelig jobless.  Thereafter, Zelig was forced to make some major adjustments in his life style—eventually becoming a co-proprietor with brother-in-law Joe Kaplan of the Mission Bell Market at Eighth and B Streets.

According to Shimon, the partnership was all Anna Shelley’s idea. Quoting her as speaking in heavily-accented English, he wrote of her saying to her son-in-law: “Zelig, I haff a proposition for you…Vel, you known I’m not so young as I used to be.  Efter all, I’m now almost fifty years old. Tank God, mit Mr. Shelley I don’t have to vork too hard—you know the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association.  Also—mine Zionist vork.  Maybe it’s time that I stop vorking so much in the store…So maybe you should go to vork our little store downtown mit your brother-in-law Joe. Vot you tink?”

Whether Anna Shelley’s accent was that thick, who knows; this, as the book clearly states, is fiction.   Maybe Gert Thaler—whom we first meet as a precocious, bratty 13-year-old in Shimon’s book—may decide to enlighten us on these and other matters in a future column.

But in the meantime, I heartily recommend that you purchase Zelig’s Odyssey for yourself, through if not through local bookstores.  Notwithstanding some poignant passages about the fate of the Camiel family that remained behind in Ostrolenka, the book overall is a hoot!  Thanks Shimon, thanks for sharing!