Walking down the street where I grew up

Strolling in Queens the other day I turned the corner and walked up the hill to the little house I used to live in [1].  As I walked up the incline Michael Siegel or I used to sprint down chasing a ball that got away, or where we made our networks of twig and blossom dams to try to halt the flood from the sprinklers in its race to the Turnpike, I was thinking of that old cliche ‘you can’t go home again’.   My childhood house was right there, tastelessly retooled, with a car that left muddy tracks on the sidewalk parked at a rakish angle on the unkempt lawn.   “Classy,” I thought, as I snapped a picture for my sister.   The lawn is now mostly dirt.

You can’t go home again, unless you want to be arrested for breaking and entering.   Even then, of course, nothing remains of the home you once knew.  The people are strangers, the ones you shared the home with once now mostly dead, the decor is completely different, the smell of the place is unrecognizable.  A pointless exercise looking at what has become of your former home.  Home, of course, is kept in your heart, in the memories of the time you lived there.  The comfort you felt there you can feel anywhere, in a way, as the entire world is now your home.    

The little house my father grew up in was a place of abject misery.   His rough uncle Aren owned the house and paid the bills.  My father’s father had two eyes, a nose and a mouth, and tried to keep an unaccountably mischievous expression off his face as he shrugged through a life of extreme poverty.    There is a hint of that expression in his eyes in one of the two existing photos of the man I am named for.  

The photo is taken in the dark sanctuary of the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill where he worked as an unpaid janitor.   He wears a suit and a fedora, stands next to the wife, wedded to him in an arranged marriage, who hated him, his younger son on the other side of the wife, also in a suit.  My father must have been off making the world safe for democracy when the photo was taken.  That elusive expression on Eliayhu’s face, close to breaking out into a chuckle, but well-practiced in holding it together, one of the only clues I have about my grandfather.

There is no hint on my grandfather’s face that this is a man capable of rage.   It certainly was not allowed him, that much is clear.  I would imagine that only my grandmother screamed in that house.  In the little house I grew up in we all screamed at each other.   Progress, I suppose, if you want to think of it like that.  

I stood in the street between my old home and the Gerwitz house, and smiled to see the little jockey, much tinier than I remembered him, still holding his arm in the pose that he used to hold the lantern.  A wooden sign with the address, minus one digit, has replaced the lantern.  Gerwitz was a rich man, my father told me, but his former home, a showplace at one time, in the old parlance, has fallen on hard times. Like the American Dream itself, I thought, as I took out my phone again to immortalize the joint in a photo and share it with friends and strangers on a website here in Cyberia.


Pretty shabby looking manse for the richest guy on the block.   Of course, during my childhood, having a million dollars made you a rich person.  Nowadays that’s like having a quarter.  Chump change.  A million dollars will hardly buy you membership and annual dues at Mara-Largo, if you intend to do anything else with your money.  Back when Gerwitz was rich a Cadillac cost $6,000, same as a year’s tuition at Harvard, at the time America’s most expensive university.   Nowadays… forget about it.  I don’t know where Sam Gerwitz got his great wealth, he may have been a lawyer, or possibly in advertising.  The source of his fortune is a mystery I have I no worries about.  Sad, though, to look at the shithouse his once-majestic showplace is now.

If you are born to a family with enough money, and you do nothing to get disowned, all you need to do is grow up, inherit it and watch your fortune grow.   You are entitled to feel entitled because you don’t rely on entitlements like the poor people, parasites who grow fat like tics sucking on the wealth of others.  

Back in Germany at one time these “takers” (as opposed to ‘job creators’)  were classified as “useless eaters”, they lived their lebensunswertesleben (“life unworthy of living”) until the state made the arrangements to be done with them.   The German State in the late 1930s started its infamous mass killing program with eugenic euthanasia, gassing mentally defective German citizens, clearing their madhouses and asylums of people who did not deserve to eat.  

The family members of the murdered were lied to about the cause of death of their random institutionalized defective.   Few others in Germany knew or much cared what happened to a weird and unproductive group of chance mutations, Mongoloid teenagers, demented men and women in their forties, fifties and sixties, the retarded, schizophrenics, adolescent catatonics. 

Civilized people, moral people– informed people who learn about a program to kill ‘useless eaters’ — people with feeling human hearts, of course, largely would not agree to their government rounding up, roughing up and killing society’s most helpless citizens.  It is a historically high bar, though, this simple morality.   When angry, desperate people are whipped up enough, and pointed at the enemy, as often as not the blood of the weak will run in the streets.



[1] The Little House I Used to Live In is also the title of a beautiful instrumental by Frank Zappa, a wonderful version of which he played on the Live At The Fillmore album I was in the audience for back in 1971.


Accepting Reality

I had a random thought just now, listening to the president’s bold new plan to meet his stable genius counterpart in North Korea (something the U.S. Secretary of State himself didn’t know about as recently as yesterday) that when I was growing up we knew virtually everybody on our block.

I thought of Sam Gerwitz, across the street, who my father told me was very rich.   He must have been, he and his wife had a little statuette of a jockey, a small white fellow (his face and hands may have been painted pink during my early childhood), on their front lawn.  He held a lantern illuminating the path from the sidewalk, a path to their front door with a large white column on each side.  He was exactly the kind of little jockey Frank Zappa sang about knocking off the rich people’s lawns in his gospel-tinged Uncle Remus.  

I thought of the Meltons down the street, their daughter Joy, and Pierre, their dog. My father came in angry one day after work, carrying his battered brief case. Pierre had apparently loped on to our front lawn and left a pile of steaming cannon ball-sized turds.   I don’t remember what kind of dog Pierre was, possibly a standard poodle, but my father was outraged that the Meltons let him run wild to gleefully defecate on the neighbors’ lawns.  Melton might have smiled, observing his dog taking the Arnold Palmer putting stance and letting nature take its course.  I just remember how outraged my father was, and who could blame him?

The point of these quaint recollections is that I could go down the block, certainly our end of the street, and name every family, and family member, in every house, the Bengles, the Ticks, the Weissmans.  Such is not the case for most children growing up today.

The Good Humor man knew our dog Patches and would front her a cup of vanilla ice cream (which he dutifully opened for her and placed within reach of her tongue) until a human came out of our house to give him the ten cents. “Patches would come running, along with all the neighborhood children, when the music from that truck started,” my mother reminded us.

In those quaint days on the leafy streets of Queens, New York, we led what seemed an idyllic childhood.  My best friend Michael Siegel and I built a series of forts (in peoples’ back yards), formed the Waterbugs– a secret society dedicated to running through every sprinkler they passed– made an intricate system of dams in the street when the sprinklers sent water in rivulets down the hill to Union Turnpike, played baseball in the street.   Nobody feared the Good Humor man, or any local shop owner, as far as any of them being a child molester.  It emerged, years later, that my best friend’s father was a pedophile, but apparently such a gracious host, so gentle and loved by the boys on the block that several stood crying as the cops led him away.

Not to imply by these sentimental little vignettes that life in those days was like the Great America our imbecilic president claims he’s trying to bring back.   Yes, I grew up in a stable neighborhood of well-tended lawns, on a quiet street where I knew everybody’s name.  But, as Woody Allen’s slippery character evasively answered in The Front, when asked under oath if he knew a certain suspected Communist screenwriter: when do you really know somebody?   Did the neighbors hear our screaming fights at the dinner table every night?

The public school I attended was segregated, a decade after the Supreme Court ordered an end to the racist practice.  I remember the first black children arriving at our school, on the E, F and G buses, at the end of a bitter war I also remember, during which my mother’s friend and pro-integration comrade Mildred Rose received a vicious letter with COMMIE scrawled across the envelope.  I recall Mildred’s horror as she told my mother, gasped the word COMMIE, the look of concern that crossed my mother’s face.  The word itself was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard. My friend Robbie and I began using it daily, calling each other and everyone else Commie and laughing at how it was always so fucking funny. 

Meanwhile, largely unknown to us, our government was engaged in an existential war on Commies everywhere, in the name of freedom, had been since a decade before our births.   In the name of freedom charismatic John F. Kennedy quietly sent military advisors and tons of weapons to help a corrupt Vietnamese regime fight the Commies led by Vietnamese nationalist hero Ho Chi Minh.    An invented pretext allowed Kennedy’s successor to escalate the war, a war to prevent all the countries of Southeast Asia from falling like dominos to Communism if Vietnam was lost to the godless Commies.  The “Domino Theory,” like “Manifest Destiny” before it, was good enough to sustain an unimaginably gigantic campaign of organized violence and mass murder for years.

Here is what I am getting to about accepting reality.   The reality then for me, as I became a teenager, was if the Vietnam war had continued another year or so, I would have had to figure out how to get out of the draft, like war-loving Dick Cheney, Dubya Bush and Donald Trump had, or be sent over there to fight for American freedom by burning the villages of Vietnamese Commie sympathizers on “our” side of the arbitrary line drawn on a map when the northern part was ceded to the Commies after the expulsion of the French colonialists not long before I was born.  

Much of my childhood had been spent watching atrocities on TV, exciting war news about a war no more sensible, or justifiable, really, than the First World War.   The scores ran like obscene basketball scores across the bottom of the screen.  Yesterday we won 1,396 to 55.  We killed 1,396 Commies, they’d only gotten 55 of us.  Later we learned how the scores were arrived at:  kill any Vietnamese guy between 12 and 60, score one for us.   All presumed fucking Commies.

I remember seeing a marijuana-related piece on the nightly war news, which we sometimes watched during dinner on a small black and white TV with rabbit ears.  The piece was a brief aside about the rampant drug use by American soldiers in Vietnam (thousands came back addicted to heroin).  A couple of smiling grunts demonstrated the ingenious technique of using a gun barrel as a pipe for smoking inhumanly large lungfuls of ganga.  They’d create a burning pile of the weed at the top of the gun barrel and one soldier would blow the smoke forcefully through the gun barrel into another soldier’s mouth.  They called it shotgunning.  I remember the poor bastard who’d been on the receiving end of the shotgun, an American kid caught in an endless jungle war in toxic quicksand, falling over backwards laughing, expelling vast, thick plumes of smoke.  The news correspondent mentioned the name of the god-forsaken place they were sitting and signed off.

There was a massive anti-war movement, and I attended many mass protests as did most people I knew, but the war machine raged on for years.  Many of us marched out of outrage against what was going on, the horrors being committed in our names, and fear for our fate if this insane war was not ended.   Our leaders spoke high-mindedly about ending the war on our terms, Peace with Honor.  One slogan the anti-war folks had was “Killing for Peace is like Fucking for Chastity.”  After the American attack on Vietnam (which included vast quantities of chemical weapons like Dow Chemical’s Napalm [1], a flammable flesh burning weapon from hell)  finally ended our leaders realized an all volunteer army was better for morale, and public support of any war.  The end of the draft had the great benefit of depriving millions of a personal stake for protesting American military adventures to wipe out godless Commies (today the enemy is “terror”) wherever they might be hiding.

Accepting reality means, on one level, accepting that there is really nothing we can do about the irresistibly obscene profits of those who make weapons.  Can’t sell the goddamned things and have ’em sit in a fucking warehouse, governments ain’t going to go for that on the gigantic scale we need to make it worth keeping the factories going full-time, keeping everyone employed in the munitions industry.  Got to have wars, constantly, everywhere we can.  It’s a sad reality, but military force is the only thing these evil motherfuckers understand.  When Trump dropped “the mother of all bombs,” devastating a square mile of Afghanistan, he got a standing ovation from the spokesmen for a nation grateful that he was finally acting “presidential”.

Talking piece of shit and chief apologist for our culture of gun violence Wayne LaPierre reminded me the other day, with his snide dismissal of godless left-wing attempts to cynically exploit tragedy and manipulate the public after every single isolated and unfortunate high-profile mass shooting of school children, of a long dead activist whose name has become a snarling point for patriotic right wing pundits: Saul Alinsky.  I reserved Alinsky’s 1971 Rules for Radicals from the public library and a few days later picked it up at the branch that is scheduled for demolition, as soon as all the ULURPs are signed off on and the checks are all cut to interested parties.  

The book is a guide for practical actions to steadfastly but nonviolently change hearts, minds, practices and laws.  During his prologue Alinsky states emphatically that the revolution he advocates has nothing to do with Communist revolution, although Communists have written virtually all of the manuals for revolution in the past century.  He states several times that violence is not a sensible option for affecting positive social change in a democracy.   He points out the failures of every revolution by force, how quickly the new oppressors entrench themselves in self-perpetuating power.   He makes the point that social change, imagining and creating a better world, requires overturning many core beliefs of the status quo.  

The U.S., at the time he was writing, had produced 1,600 tons of nerve gas.   We weren’t going to use it, of course, but we needed 1,600 tons of it since the Commies were intent on converting every American to a slave.  Follow that logic, if you can.  That deadly shit, the kind of stuff that, if his forces employed it, would justify a righteous attack on the murderous Mr. Assad in Syria, is now at the bottom of the oceans, waiting harmlessly for God knows what.  Nerve gas is an inhuman, universally condemned chemical weapon, although, it must be said, the U.S. still produces and sells White Phosphorous, which burns unstoppably through flesh and bone and the use of which is considered, by many, to be a war crime.

How does the world get better?   By people of conscience organizing, imagining a better future, creating effective nonviolent battle plans, improvising smartly, using the mass media to further our narrative of how the world should be.  I have not read very far into Alinsky’s book, but it invites me to imagine the world and the kind of principled action he is talking about.   You can’t kill your way to peace anymore than you can fuck your way to chastity.  

When I was eight racist police chiefs were turning high powered hoses on blacks who were intent on voting, using public bathrooms, walking on the sidewalk instead of the street, not being lynched for the crime of making eye contact with their white superiors.  I am now sixty-one and racist government officials still fight the idea that just because significant numbers of unarmed blacks are killed by the police every year, in numbers grotesquely disproportionate to the percentage of blacks in America, that we have a systemic problem here.  The problem is not widespread racist injustice, according to these officials, it’s fucking agitators, lawlessness, troublemakers, whistleblowers, goddamned ‘citizen journalists’ with their video phones, malcontents, racist black terrorists, Commies.

Homo sapiens, the descendants of apes who now rule the planet, calls itself “wise man,” sapiens apparently meaning wise.   We are wise enough to combine in huge numbers, animated by abstract beliefs, and do amazing things.  Sadly, one of the most common and consistent of these things is organized mass violence against other groups of humans, against any species or ecosystem we choose.  We were wise enough to rise up, from an insignificant prey animal, and organize ourselves, collectively, during the geological blink of an eye, into the apex predator on the planet. 

When President Obama vastly expanded the drone killing program his people came up with something called the Signature Strike.  It might have been Cheney’s people with that innovative idea, I’d have to ask Jeremy Scahill [the program apparently started in 2008 at the end of the Bush administration– ed.]  [2].   The theory is fairly straightforward: certain actions in certain areas are the signatures of terrorists and militants.  When we detect a pattern of such things we send a drone to kill the unknown persons who are engaging in things terrorists tend to do.  When we count the dead bodies, any male body between certain ages is counted as an enemy combatant.  As simple, and effective, as the body counts in Vietnam.   You hardly need a scorecard to know that if we kill more of them than they kill of us, we are winning.

We homo sapiens are capable of amazing things, creating transcendent beauty.   We can move each other to cry using words, sounds, sights, tastes.  We can laugh, and make each other laugh, by these same devices.  We are also the most violent, insane, unbending motherfuckers on the planet.   Can you imagine a better future?  We must get busy finding others who share this vision, organizing, successfully spinning our vision of a better future correctly in the mass media, influencing the perceptions, confirming the most decent innate beliefs of our fellow citizens.  

Failing this, we’re all fucking dead, my friends.   The New York Times may put a nice spin on much of this, you know, how freedom and progress are on the march, and the world is a pretty good place, never better, really, if you can afford to buy the things that make it worthwhile, of course, but none of their bodies are on the line, until every human body on the planet is on the line.  Which, one could argue, is now.


[1] Here’s a surprise for you, gentle reader:

In the 1960s, the Dow Chemical Company re-partnered with Badische, the German company that had produced Zyklon-B, the gas used to execute people in Nazi death camps, and formed Dow-Badische. Dow-Badische created and produced Napalm-B, an updated napalm consisting of “25 percent gasoline, 25 percent benzene, and 50 percent polystyrene”.[9] After news reports of napalm B’s deadly and disfiguring effects were published, Dow Chemical experienced boycotts of its products, and its recruiters for new chemists, chemical engineers, etc., graduating from college were subject to campus boycotts. The management of the company decided that its “first obligation was the government.” Meanwhile, napalm B became a symbol for the Vietnam War.[10]

[2]  Signature strikes began during the Bush years, in January 2008, as the US intensified drone strikes in Pakistan. When Obama entered office in 2009, his administration picked up where Bush left off and exponentially increased the number of drone strikes. During his eight years in office, Bush launched 51 drone strikes in Pakistan and killed between 410 and 595 people. Obama, so far, has launched 419 drone strikes in Pakistan, alone, and killed over 4,500 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2009.   (this was as of August 4, 2015)


Lydia T. Shize-kopf

My father had a playful side to him that popped into view once in a while.   Before he was married he used to wrestle with his little cousin Azi, a man who looks uncannily like him.   Azi was Uncle Aren’s grandson.   Azi told us recently that when my father got engaged, and brought his finance over to Azi’s house,  Irv took young Azi aside and explained that they wouldn’t be able to wrestle so much anymore as Irv now had a new wrestling partner.

My father rarely passed up a chance to hoist a small dog by the armpits and slowly rock the dog back and forth as the stiff armed dog gave him an uncomfortable look. I can perfectly see the look on my grandparents’ Chihuahua Bunny’s face as the little dog endured this odd swinging exercise.  Bunny’s arms and legs would be stiff, face staring unblinkingly at the man smiling and swinging him back and forth on the fulcrum of the little dog’s armpits.   There was nothing sadistic in this playful routine with the dogs or with the young Azi, for that matter.   My father had a good sense of humor and a playful streak that sometimes got the best of him.

“Lydia T. Shize-kup!”  he would suddenly say out of nowhere.   Her last name meant ‘shit head.’   He would say no more about Lydia, just her name, and it always suggested to me a hidden world of the man’s playful imagination.   “Jonathan Trrrrrrah-ahhhhsk!” he would say out of nowhere, rolling the “r” and giving a broad Germanic stretch to the “a” — another whole story never told.  Sometimes he’d ask, overly cheerful and to nobody in particular “have you relatives in Chermany?”   I was in a vast cemetery the day before my sixtieth birthday, strolling with friends in a historical graveyard in Brooklyn.  One of the graves was of someone named Trask.  I couldn’t help but chuckle as I heard my father’s exaggerated pronunciation and photographed the headstone for my sister.    “Seedy Moronni” was another one.   Each of these characters the star of some story that would never be written, or even sketched out.

The names of these characters bursting forth suggested to me recesses of my father’s imagination that were largely hidden from even him.   It reminds me of the way he’d sing, tunefully and with style, a tiny snippet of some song he loved.  “I-iiiiii wish you…. bluebirds….” he would croon to my mother in a Sam Cooke cadence as she served dinner.  Just those few notes, never anything more.  The songs he loved were pretty much worth loving.  Some of them I didn’t hear full versions of until years later and they turned out to be songs I learned and played.   “I’ve got a house, a showplace, but I can’t get no place, with you…” snapped off at the end of the phrase.    I Can’t Get Started is the name of that one, Ira Gershwin lyrics to a tune by Vernon Duke.  One of the few reactions to my guitar playing I ever recall from my father was his enthusiastic smile and calling out the name of the tune when I played the first few notes of  Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me.

I am writing these thoughts on a day when my eyes are tired, my hands and feet are tired, my legs and back are stiff.   Along with thoughts of my father’s mostly unexercised imagination are thoughts of my own taxed imagination.  I am at a loss to imagine how to proceed, on days like this.  My mind suddenly fixes on my medical predicament, which is unfolding in slow motion.   More tests the end of this month might or might not show my kidney function still unimpaired in spite of the persistence of all the side effects that alerted me to my mysterious, idiopathic kidney disease in the first place.  $88,000 worth of immunosuppressive liquid buys you a 30% chance of remission.  The upcoming blood and urine tests will show, perhaps, whether I have been lucky with regard to my kidneys.   On days like this, there is not enough coffee in my mug to fully wake me up.

“Lydia Sheiss-kopf!!!” shrieks the skeleton of my father, out of nowhere and with unaccountable mirth.

Shitbox v. Loxbox

The tiny car Harold Schwartzappel pulled up in on 190th Street to rescue me from a deluge may have been a Fiat, or a Renault, or possibly a Peugeot, whichever company made a cheaper model circa 1964.  My father referred to Schwartzappel’s car as a shitbox, and compared to the well-appointed cars my father always drove, it did seem like a tin can as I got in and slammed the flimsy door.   

The engine of the shitbox had been rebuilt by Harold, if I recall correctly.   My father knew almost nothing about car engines, though he’d worked in his uncle’s garage for years.   The first car my father had was a big, bulbous orange and white Pontiac my parents called the Loxbox.  I recall sitting in the back seat of the Loxbox as a young kid.  The seat was upholstered in soft leather.   I don’t think the Shitbox was upholstered at all.

My father was happy to drive around in the American Dream, while Harold, a confident tinkerer who spoke several languages and played many musical instruments, made do with his Shitbox.

Learning fear or resilience

Neither of my parents ever learned much about resilience from their parents, something I can easily understand the reasons for.  My mother’s parents were the sole survivors of their two large families, the last of their 12 combined siblings survived hell only to be marched to a Ukrainian ravine on the edge of town where they were each shot in the back of the head one August evening in 1943. 

My father’s parents experienced something similar, my grandmother and her older brother, my tough, intrepid great-uncle Aren, were the only two survivors of their family, from a hamlet in the marshes south of Pinsk that cannot be found on any map of the world.  There was an aktion, a coordinated massacre of virtually all the Jews of the Pinsk area and, as in many areas the Nazis overran, little Jewish towns were erased from history.   

Like my mother’s parents, my great-uncle and his sister came to America decades before the mass murder.   I know nothing of what happened to my paternal grandfather’s family, or even where they came from in Europe.

You learn that powers arose not long before you were born who decided your entire family needed to be exterminated, and then rolled up their sleeves and did it.  It’s an unsettling thing to learn as a kid.  What the fuck? you think.  I still think that.  Like slavery, like seven year-old American prostitutes, like a century of public lynching, the genocide of Native Americans, like all unspeakable things done by certain humans to other humans, all you can wonder is ‘what the fucking fuck?’.   Nothing unique in any of this evil, the history of humanity is still being written in our blood, on endless scrolls, by killers who believe they are doing what must be done.

The new field of epigenetics studies the genetic changes produced in survivors of severe trauma, genetic changes that are then passed on.   Having your entire family massacred is surely a severe trauma, even if you weren’t there to see it.   Passed along with these changes in the body’s DNA are traits like fear and resilience.  Some, in the face of terror, resolve to be brave, to fight, to hide, to survive, to live to take revenge by thriving.  Most, in the face of a mob of murderers coming to kill them do not fare as well.

In the 1970s certain right-wing American Jews seized on the slogan “Never Again!” to unite in a hard-nosed organization to smash the stereotype of Jews going meekly to the slaughter.  I understand the impulse, I really do, but unless you want to become a violent bully so that you won’t be bullied, more context, as always, is needed.   

Take any group of bookish, peaceful people who have no guns, lie to them about their destination, give them false hope of survival as you shepherd them toward their slaughter and– well, you can see that determined men with guns will have no problem getting folks like these to line up anywhere they are told to line up.    There were young Jews who, once they saw what was happening in places like the Warsaw Ghetto, took up weapons and killed a few Nazis, but they mostly died as anonymous martyrs, leaving behind many thousands killed in reprisal.  Your classic no-win situation: outgunned by a trigger-happy enemy only too happy to kill a thousand for every one of them killed.

My family never discussed any of this history directly.  My grandfather was a frightened man, understandably so.  My grandmother was the tougher one, but she also drank increasing amounts of vodka as she got older.  My grandfather, I learned to my surprise, was also capable of downing huge draughts of vodka. I observed this once, unseen, toward the end of his life.   He picked up the bottle and drank it like he was drinking water.  He didn’t even wipe his lips afterwards, just screwed the cap back on and put the bottle away.   

My father’s parents I never met, both died before I was born.   I visit their graves when I visit the cemetery north of Peekskill where my father and uncle are also buried.   I knew their son very well, my father, and though he took a few principled stands over the years, it is hard to see him as a resilient man.  He took things hard.  He locked his fears inside of himself.  He suffered mightily from severe psoriasis, which grew more inflamed whenever he was under stress.  He raged as an over-the-top tough guy in the safety of his little family.  He felt bad about these things as he was dying.

I can’t say where I fall on the spectrum between despair and resilience.  What I have learned of resilience I have had to learn on my own, my parents knew little about it.   I’m remembering my father’s advice when I asked him about becoming a member of The National Lawyers Guild.  This would have been in the year 2000, when I was admitted to practice law in New York State.

The Lawyers Guild, founded in 1937, is a progressive legal organization with roots in labor struggles, anti-Klan activities and The New Deal — also some more radical strands.   My father, as a college student after World War Two, was drawn to Communist ideas.  After all, why should certain people continue to be born booted and spurred to ride the rest of us?   Jared Kushner?   Really?   His feces emit no bad odor, reportedly, but he is, in virtually every way, very much like a duller version of you or me, is he not? 

My father was raised in extreme poverty, during the Depression and FDR’s New Deal, he came by his egalitarian beliefs honestly.   He believed in the struggle for justice, even as he was hampered by the terror instilled in him early.  I will never know if he attended the 1949 Paul Robeson/Pete Seeger concerts outside of Peekskill.  He would have been a student at Syracuse University by then, or possibly just starting graduate school at Columbia.   

My uncle had a copy of Howard Fast’s account of the bloody mass assault that prevented the planned benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress from happening.  I first saw the brown paperback on a bookshelf in the apartment he shared with my aunt in the assisted living facility in Bethesda.  My uncle had already passed away.   I asked my aunt, quite dotty by then, if I could borrow the book.  I read it and have it still, but by the time I read it there was nobody alive who could tell me if my father, or my uncle, had been at the ill-fated concert, or the one held a week later, with increased security provided by labor unions and American communists.  These events are now collectively known as the Peekskill Riots .   

Paul Robeson, former All-American college athlete (he played two seasons in the NFL while at Columbia Law School in the early 1920s), lawyer (briefly), actor and singer, was an outspoken black man who, after a political awakening during the Spanish Civil War [1] eventually found himself at the center of the Cold War.   He may or may not have been a member of the American Communist party (which was never legally banned, that I know of).   I recall he visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and afterwards, and advocated peace with The USSR, a place where he was never called ‘nigger’.   

But for all the racists and reactionaries in Peekskill and its environs, there was no doubt that this black commie troublemaker should be strung up as an example to the others.   They burned crosses and lynched him in effigy the night of the first concert, the one that didn’t happen. During the month I was born the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was putting the last nails into the outspoken Robeson’s professional coffin, for being critical of American racism, and economic exploitation, and praising the Soviet experiment.  The U.S. government really fucked Paul Robeson up, but the Klan and American Legion thugs who converged on the planned concert north of Peekskill never got their hands on him.

The haters had to content themselves with ambushing, stoning and beating up people who came to the concert, as the cops looked on in amusement.  That Pete Seeger, a local white guy who’d be blacklisted as a possible commie a few years later, was among the performers there made it irresistible for local racists, antisemites and other authoritarian types to go to the  outdoor concert grounds to break  heads.

The following week the brotherhood crowd were better organized.  Thousands of young idealists in t-shirts formed a human wall around the perimeter of the concert area.   The concert, to raise money for a civil rights group, was held.  It was only afterwards, in nearby Cortlandt, on the narrow road near my father’s grave, now called Oregon Road, that elated concertgoers on their way home were ambushed and pelted with rocks the size of fists.  The gauntlet they had to run went on for miles.

I’ll never know if my father was there either night.  What I learned shortly after he died was that he had spoken to Parent/Teacher groups in New York City public schools about Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that stated the obvious about the destructive nature of racial segregation.  In New York City the man who’d soon become my father was pelted with crap, cursed at, snarled at by white parents and teachers appalled by the speaker’s support of the landmark, and largely symbolic– it must finally be said– Supreme Court ruling.  He went to the next school with a police escort.  These strike me as brave, principled actions, but I will never know any more details about them than what I learned from my mother as I was preparing his eulogy and have written just now.

It was 2000, I was looking for work as a new lawyer, and I was somewhat half-hearted about it.   My father, in a stream of lawyer jokes he sent me during law school, included the one about why they were using law students instead of rats in lab experiments.  The NIH defended the practice as follows:

1. The lab assistants were becoming very attached to their little rats. This emotional involvement was interfering with the research being conducted. No such attachment could form with a law student.

2. Lawyers breed faster and are in much greater supply.

3. Lawyers are much cheaper to care for and the humanitarian societies won’t jump all over you no matter what you’re studying.

4. There are some things even a rat won’t do.

I’d wind up practicing subsistence lawyering  for ten years, maintain my license to this day, but it was ten years of bitterness, I can assure you.   Early on I heard about the National Lawyers Guild and called my father to discuss joining it.   I rarely sought his advice about anything, as he always pointed out on the rare occasions that I did, but I called him about joining the Lawyers Guild.   

His fear came directly through the phone, even as he applauded everything the Lawyers Guild did and the principles they advocate for.  He was worried, though, that by joining the Lawyers Guild I might be putting myself on a blacklist that would prevent me from getting paying work.  Cheney and Dubya Bush were already president and a dark day for America, and the world, was starting to fully dawn.  Our nation was about to head to the dark side, to do what must be done, in the shadows, as the evil Mr. Cheney told the mass media, with his characteristic smirk.   

I did not join the Lawyers Guild.  I didn’t get involved in the legal fight against encroaching tyranny, nor did I water the tree of liberty with so much as a drop of my blood.  I am thinking now that had I been given a few lessons in resilience, I might not have been as susceptible to my father’s paranoia, understandable though it was.   Just ’cause you’re paranoid don’t mean they ain’t trying to kill you, as the great Satchel Paige observed. [2] 


[1]  Robeson: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”[158]

After the mass lynching of four African Americans on July 25, 1946, Robeson met with President Truman and admonished Truman by stating that if he did not enact legislation to end lynching,[184] “the Negroes will defend themselves”.[184][185] Truman immediately terminated the meeting and declared that the time was not right to propose anti-lynching legislation.[184] 

[2] Jeeves ascribes this observation to Joseph Heller, in Catch-22, to wit:   just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.



Visited with cousins of my father’s yesterday, the only ones I know of.  Gene is closing in on ninety and we hadn’t seen him and his wife for over a year.  He used to call my mother “you old bag,” although, it turns out, he was three months older than her.   He called my mother an old bag with love, they’d been childhood friends, growing up in the same building on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx.  The old bag made it to eighty-two, by a day, and always smiled benignly whenever Gene, now a much older bag than she lived to be, called her an old bag.   

Gene was in a pivotal position to observe the events that eventually lead to my life.   If not for his mother and my mother’s mother being good friends, and Irv being Gene’s cousin … forget about me, my parents would never have met.

Gene’s mother, Dinch, at 15, had come over on the Korfus die Grosse, with her cousin Chava, the 17 year-old who’d later become my father’s mother.  This was right before World War One, on the ship’s last voyage before the war, according to Gene.  Chava used to visit her cousin Dinch in the Bronx, making the long trip from Peekskill with her two boys.   

Dinch was married to Stamper, a man I’ve seen pictures of, always nonchalantly referred to by my mother as a Communist.  They never had much money.   Gene told me that his family moved often during the Depression, apartments were plentiful and landlords would give a couple of months free rent as incentive to move in.  For some reason, (providence, most likely,) they wound up settling in that apartment on Eastburn Avenue, the place Gene and my mother called home.   If not for Dinch living in the same building as my mother’s family, my young father never would have seen my mother, perched haughtily in her kitchen window that overlooked the courtyard on that doomed little Avenue.

Doomed because a power broker in New York City hated poor Jews and other poor people and said “fuck these people.” Little Eastburn Avenue, three blocks long in its prime, as Gene told me last night, was cut down the middle by Robert Moses and his Cross Bronx Expressway.  That expressway gouged down the middle of the working class borough destroyed the Bronx, most people agree.  It certainly fucked up Eastburn Avenue.

Gene, proud of the many accomplished Americans from his Bronx neighborhood, was a large man in his day, over six feet tall with large hands and feet and, for many years, an ample belly.   Some kind of very aggressive cancer, possibly stomach, slimmed him down tremendously twenty or more years back, maybe thirty.   He is quite gaunt to this day.   My mother was very worried about Gene, the prognosis for him was dire.   On the other hand, my mother’s fatal diagnosis came something like twenty years before her death.  Yesterday, Gene was noticeably smaller, which happens when you live long enough.

“When your father went to Columbia he’d come over every week or so for a good home cooked meal.  That’s when he saw your mother,” Gene told us last night over vegetarian Chinese food in Teaneck. 

During these visits his cousin Irv spied the dark haired Evelyn who, for her part, wanted nothing to do with the hayseed from Peekskill.   She was still angry with her mother, who, in her typically overbearing way, had broken up a relationship with a dashing fellow named Art Metesis.  Art had a nice car, dressed well and was a stylish high roller who loved to dance, and drink.  The young woman who would become my mother was crazy about him.  They got engaged.

My mother’s mother, Yetta, would not have her daughter marry somebody like Art Metesis, under any circumstance.  As had happened with my father a few years earlier, the strong-willed mother busted up the romance and that was that.  Art did not take it well, he was apparently not very stylish with his rage when Yetta told him not to let the door hit him where the good lord split him and to take a long fucking hike and leave Evelyn alone. 

The engagement to Art over, my mother brooded, naturally.  Yetta suggested she take Gene’s cousin Irv up on his invitation to go out.   My mother wanted nothing to do with the bumpkin from Peekskill.  Eventually she relented and Irv won her over.   I told the bones of this story at my mother’s memorial, and my uncle, at the start of a short, heartfelt speech, introduced himself, endearingly, as the other little bumpkin from Peekskill who used to visit their cousins, Evelyn’s upstairs neighbors, in the Bronx.

Sally, Gene’s wife, when the subject of what I’ve been doing the last year and a half came up (“are you making a living?” Gene asked, as always), asked me if I was interviewing people about my father’s life.  I told her that most of those who knew anything about him were gone.  She nodded with a sad, knowing smile.  Over the years Gene told me most of what he knew, all interesting, but not terribly much.  It occurred to me last night that Gene may have met that mysterious grandfather of mine.   

“Oh, sure, I knew your grandfather,” he said, slowly working on a tiny corner of the bowl of noodle soup he’d take home.  “He could never make a living, Aren used to support them.”

As far as I could make out, from the moment or two of gentle follow-up that followed, he was likely merging long-ago memories of my grandfather, Harry, with my great-uncle Aren.  It seems likely that Aren would have driven his little sister and the boys down to the Bronx to visit their cousins Dinch and Gene and Gene’s little sister.   It doesn’t seem certain to me that Chava would have invited her detested mute husband along on these visits. 

I told Gene about Eli’s poetic description of my father’s father: “two eyes, a nose and a mouth” with a zip of the finger across that straight line of a mouth.  I told Gene Eli said my grandfather was totally deadpan all the time.  Gene had nothing to add to that, actually didn’t even reply to it, though he did recall visiting Aren at his Nelson Avenue Garage in Peekskill.  We talked about Aren for a moment and then went on to other subjects.

I’m thinking about context a lot nowadays, even more so now that we’re all living in an ever more distracted, desperate nation in decline where context has been abandoned for blind, knee-jerk, red hat/blue hat partisanship.   This limited man we have as our current president does not seem to know about anything that happened before, is not curious about anything but what makes him feel like a winner.   A sad symbol for a nation where millions of its hypnotized citizens do not seem at all concerned about, or even aware of, the erasure of history itself.

Last night was not about researching my father’s life, it was about visiting with and listening to an old couple who have lost just about all of their friends (as well as their younger daughter, Emily, who died young of cancer).  Their need to talk was palpable and Sekhnet and I have known, and hung out, with several people over ninety and there is no discomfort in it for us.   We were pleased to listen, and I knew the evening wouldn’t lend itself to the ideal interview.

There are a few details above that need to be folded into any account of my father’s life, or mine.  I am trying to make intelligible things that are not really intelligible, as my grandmother Yetta might have said, if she had known the word ‘intelligible.”  A life may or may not make any sense, but a book about that life can be made to make a certain amount of sense.  That’s my sense of it, anyway.


The Long Riddle

There’s a great book, by the brilliant Jeanne Safer, that describes the many benefits of looking back at a deceased, problematic parent’s life for the excellent lessons we also learned from them [1].   It’s hard to see these valuable things while the difficult parent is still around.   After death, however, things become more clear.  Their life is now living in memory and visible for the first time as a whole: a character and a story with a beginning, middle and end. 

My father’s story is complex, on one level, but also brutally simple.  On the one hand, he was a brilliant, compassionate and complicated man.  He was also capable of monstrously abusive behavior towards his family.  

He would stipulate to “complicated”, by the way, he’d acknowledge that each of us has demons that pursue us, but that’s about as far he’d ever go looking deeply inward.  Until he was literally hours from  his death.  In those final hours he had terrible regrets about having seen the world as a black and white zero-sum war zone.  He lamented the lost richness of life, the colors, tastes and smells he had willed into nonexistence.  

My father’s life and death posed riddles large and small.  The most riddling of these riddles was how an intelligent, funny, humble, sensitive man could at the same time be a tyrannical brute to his family.   During lulls in the fighting we sometimes joked that sitting around the dining room was like being in a World War One battle, everyone crouched and angry in their stinking trench, machine guns firing, shells pounding away, bombs falling, chlorine gas rolling in…  

“At least it wasn’t mustard gas, mustard gas makes you blind,” said a man with few teeth, and then he gave a weird cackle.  “That’s what Hitler got a face full of before they carted him off to the hospital in Pasewalk right before the World War was ended by traitors.  You remember Pasewalk, that’s the little Pomeranian town where the smart-ass upper-class uber-patriotic Jewish psychiatrist lambasted the gas blinded Hitler as a malingerer, calling his blindness hysterical and “cowardly” — blah, blah, just another story to explain why Hitler was so happy when he finally got the machinery up to start mass killing Jews.”

My father would never drive a German car.  He could tell you, for every major German industrial product you might mention, exactly how they profited from the Nazi regime.  One maker of world-renowned automobiles built the pressurized tanks for the poison gas used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, which was also the site of an immense chemical factory employing death camp inmate slave labor, owned by a huge outfit that now owns Monsanto as well.   That pharmaceutical giant paid the SS $1 a day for each slave worker marched over from Auschwitz, a nice deal for keeping production costs low and profits high.   

I can see my father’s life now as a whole.  It began in dire poverty, in a small town, with a father who had no work during the Depression, Jewish immigrants in a town where the Ku Klux Klan family ran the hardware store.  He experienced extreme trauma regularly during his infant years, being frequently whipped in the face by his tiny, angry, religious mother.   His father kept out of it.  Liberated by World War Two we see him, beaming, fit, dark hair and flashing eyes in a series of black and white photos.   He smiled for the first time in his life in those army photos we found after he died. They’d never made it into a photo album, there was a small pile of them to be assembled from a shoebox of other photos. 

He had, or had not, been at the Paul Robeson/Pete Seeger concert in Peekskill back in 1947.   Within a few years both of his parents would die young, be buried in the pauper’s section of the First Hebrew Congregation cemetery and he’d be working for the NYC Board of Education, as a history teacher with a bent for social justice, and married to the woman who would become my mother and his wife of almost 54 years.

Starting in 1956 I had a front row view of the long riddle that was his life.


[1] Death Benefits by Jeanne Safer