How You Do It

“What difference did it make to Azrael?” I asked him, when he told me how upset Azrael had been when an insect drowned in hot water while he was running a bath.   

“I asked him that after he came out of the bathroom,” he said.  “He’d been running hot water to rinse the tub when a bug he realized was alive a moment too late to save it died a horrible, plunging, drowning death in the pipes.    What he said to explain it to me was so simple it still strikes me.   He said ‘picture your own moment of death — would you like it instant and painless or prolonged and painful?’  I always think of that when I kill a bug, to this day.  That bug desperately swimming for his life away from the sucking drain could have instantly been put out of his mortal terror and unavoidable death by a merciful finger.  

“Azrael had been too slow to react when he saw the bug, at first he didn’t realize it was even alive.  Then he saw it struggling to swim in the hot water away from the drain.  Then he’d watched the bug get swept over Niagra Falls to die an agonizing death by drowning in the churning, unbearably hot water.  It impressed me how awful he felt about not sparing that bug such a miserable death.”  

“Instant and painless or prolonged and painful,” I said.  “I like that.  A no-brainer for a marketing/branding scheme exploiting that no-brainer:   ‘Quick/no pain or slow/maximum pain, your choice.’  It’s appealingly philosophical, too.”    

“Of course, life is not so black and white,” he said.  

“Exactly, which is why such idiotically phrased choices are so irresistible, anyone who’d choose the wrong choice is so obviously wrong.   I like the phrase, and I think we can monetize it, I think it’s a good choice phrase,” I said.  “Plenty of imagery and punch, the rubes will love it.”

“The phrase is fine, monetize away, I’m just sayin’,” he said.  

“You know, it’s not like Azrael was exactly into Ahimsa or any ascetic religious practice that would have made him so sensitive to a bug’s soul.  He ate meat, he’d curse, he was always rough breaking up a fight,” I said.   “He certainly didn’t shrink from hurting anybody.”

“He didn’t, but when you say Azrael ate meat, that’s funny, yeah, he ate meat.  He lived on meat, ate almost nothing besides meat.   He was a shoichet’s assistant, at a place down the street from the butcher’s, from shortly after his bar mitzvah, if I recall correctly, until he started working at the delicatessen,” my brother reminded me.  

“He was one tough son of a bitch,” I said.  

“Yiss,” he said.  

“And he always kept a dog.”  We both remembered Azrael’s dogs.

“Yiss,” my brother said.

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Tempus Vug It (Part Two)

“But wait a second,” said the college kid, a bright young man with an inquisitive mind, “if you already got this old man the deal that anyone would have wanted you to get for him, why is this judge busting your balls?  Is a judge allowed to just do that?”    

I was impressed by how simply he stated this question of fundamental fairness.  

“Well, actually, strictly, legally, no, not really, a judge can’t just randomly dance on a lawyer’s balls, beyond a certain point.  It would be an abuse of discretion for the judge to give the lawyer more than a little bit of shit, even worse in  the case where the lawyer had provided his client with the highest degree of professional service.  So, the plain answer to whether a judge is allowed to just do that?’ is ‘no, not allowed.'”

The young man looked up at me quizzically, his expression confused, open-minded and ready to laugh.  

“I understand,” I said, “I know that sounds confusing, because I am a lawyer, I’d done my job diligently, and I was getting random shit from some snippy young cloaca of a judge, something the judge is not allowed to give to an attorney for no real reason like that.   Here’s the thing: as a Guardian ad Litem, even though I am a lawyer, I am in court in that instance not as a lawyer but as a friend of the Court, someone to advocate on behalf of the respondent who cannot adequately advocate for himself.  Strictly speaking, I appeared in those cases as the tenant, not the lawyer for the tenant.”  

“OK,” said mother and son in unison, neither of them grasping the fine, somewhat mad, legal distinction I was talking about.  

“I have to give you a bit of history.  Does the name Eleanor Bumpurs mean anything to you?”  It didn’t, the young man hadn’t been born when the tragic New York City story had been in all the papers, his mother had been living in California at the time.

I told them the terrible 1984 story about the agoraphobic Brooklyn woman with severe mental problems shot to death in the front hall of her NYCHA apartment by the law enforcement officers who were trying to evict her.  She’d been summoned to court for nonpayment of something like $100 in monthly rent.  She may have missed two or three months rent by the time they summoned her to court.  She never appeared in court, so she lost automatically and they sent her the paperwork telling her she had to leave or be evicted.   She’d been refusing to pay because, among other things, Reagan’s people were leaving cans of human feces in her bathtub.  

After Ms. Bumpurs was killed, and the settlement paid to her family, the city brass put their heads together.    There is no legal allowance for a right to free court-appointed counsel in eviction cases.  This is based on a peculiar, legally attenuated, definition of the word ‘jeopardy’.   Jeopardy, for purposes of a constitutional right to counsel, is when you face the possibility of imprisonment for a year or more.  Homelessness is considered a bad roll of the dice, constitutionally, not ‘jeopardy’ for purposes of triggering the right to court-appointed counsel.

“That’s very fucked up,” said the young man.

Yes, but they found a work-around, in the wake of the Eleanor Bumpurs shooting.   The Chief Administrative Judge summoned the wisest minds of the new New York City Housing Court, bastard step-child of the New York City Civil Court.   They came up with an excellent work-around for the usual right to counsel business that would protect tenants like Ms. Bumpurs from her arbitrary and capricious state killing under cover of law, or at least from homelessness that could be prevented.  It was an excellent decision.    

They created the deeply flawed Guardian Ad Litem (“protector for the suit”)  program,  a good program that had a series of distracted, part-time, ineffective administrators.  The judge would appoint a “GAL” to stand in the shoes of a person not able to adequately defend themselves against an eviction attempt.   In the early years, lawyers did most of the Guardian ad Litem work and it saved Housing Court judges from a great deal of grief, dealing with lawyers instead of mad tenants.   The program also had the effect of providing capable court-appointed lawyers for indigent, vulnerable tenants facing eviction.  

Initially most of the Housing Court GALs were lawyers, but I believe that presently no GALs are lawyers.  There is no requirement that a GAL be a lawyer, and as time went by, and GALs were treated by the court with less and less respect, and paid a modest flat fee for an often enormous amount of work, sometimes including multiple Orders to Show Cause and a dozen court appearances, it became untenable for lawyers to act as Housing Court GALs.  A list of modestly trained free-lance citizen GALs took over for the lawyers, and problems with the program began multiplying.

“Yes, OK., but, in court, aren’t you still a lawyer?” said the college boy with a smile.

I tell the boy that I am, indeed, but that de minimis non curat lex, as they say — the law shits on your little troubles.  I then recount the story my mother told me of a man she had some business with.  She’d asked my legal advice, and I’d given it to her firmly and simply as I could.  I told her exactly what she needed to tell him.  She somehow told him exactly the opposite of what I’d coached her to say.   She protested that her son the lawyer had told her to say exactly what she had said.   “Your son must be the dumbest lawyer in New York,” said the man, not unreasonably.   Now, in the context of that story it’s up for debate, in the context of my life story, he has a pretty strong case.

I described how virtually all of my work was standing in the shoes of tenants deemed unable to adequately defend themselves against eviction.  I am in court not as their lawyer, but as them.  They have already appeared in court and the judge has decided, or an inept agency called Adult Protective Services has moved the court that the tenant cannot effectively advocate for themself.   It may be because of some mental problem, or a strong personality quirk, or physical infirmity, advanced age– it just has to be an articulable suspicion that the person needs someone else to play the part of them for the legal proceeding that could render them homeless.

So, at any given time, I am standing in the broken backed, smelly, perforated shoes of twenty or thirty such poor devils.  I’d say 75% truly need the help, and appreciate it, 15% are too crazy or otherwise debilitated to connect with and the other 10% are professional grifters who get thousands in back rent paid on their behalf every few years so they can spend all their money on booze, or prostitutes, or whatever it is that makes their lives worth living.  

One crazy old guy, who loved cocaine, lived with a crack addicted hooker and the two of them, for whatever reason, moved their bowels into plastic bags that were left all over the vermin-infested apartment.  In court, the part of this insane bastard, who was not required to show up in court at all, was played by me, over the course of many months.   My pay for this court-appointed role play was a flat $600, whether I appeared once or a dozen times.  Most often I had to show up at least four or five times.   

As a result of this quirky system that required me to do an ongoing tap dance in front of judges while the overwhelmed agency dithered, and the interminable delays in Adult Protective Services providing services, which caused me to appear month after month after month on most of these sad cases, some judges regarded me with a certain distaste.  Articulate, capable and despicable.  In the way that certain bitter people come home after a bitter day and kick their cringing dog, lawyers that were in my line of court-appointed work were available for booting, whenever the pressure mounted on certain of these judges, those least endowed with what we think of as judicial temperament.  

 

“So you’re telling me that you are unwilling, are refusing, to go see the tenant, to meet and consult with your ward?” demanded the judge, at 12:42, as the clock was running out on my poor mother’s plans for lunch.  

This was right after he asked me why I took the case if the tenant only spoke Spanish and I spoke almost no Spanish.  He didn’t it like him when I told him his court attorney had assured me the language issue was not a problem.  At any rate, I had to speak to his worker at Adult Protective Service to work on his case plan anyway.   Whatever I did for him in court was based on what APS would be able to eventually do on his behalf.   There were only so many ways these cases turned out: pay the money, cure the nuisance, get an Article 81 guardian.

He didn’t like any of that at all, that I kept having all the damned answers to everything he threw at me.   He could not afford to look bad in front of those two law students, I suppose.  He told me he would not sign the stipulation and that he was adjourning the case to allow me to go visit with the tenant and then report back to the Court, which is how he referred to himself, with legal precision if not humility.  This is the way a judge did it, he demonstrated to the law students.    Josh put a hand on my sleeve, regarded me sympathetically, urged me quietly to remain calm as snarls began forming on my lips.  He put his hand on my shoulder as we walked out of the courtroom at 12:45.  

It was at best 50/50 that I’d make it down to the NYCHA Part in time to find who I needed to adjourn that last case.  By 12:40 people started heading off for an early lunch, though the courtroom was technically open until 1:00.  I had visions of not getting out of court until 3:00 or later, because this immature weasel of a judge had made me wait ninety minutes to force me to do something unnecessary, something that could not help my client in any way.  It would, of course, show that he covered his ass with the letter of the law, which is no small thing I suppose, and there was nothing I could do about it anyway.  

The top of my head blew off just as I reached the door of the courtroom.  Shoving the door to the hall open I snarled to Josh, not using my inside voice at all, “why is he being such a fucking dick?!!!”  Josh, a man built like a bull, quickly pushed me into the hall and pulled the door closed behind us.

(to be continued, as tempus fugit)

 

Memory– Vishnevitz

The surprisingly thin canvas of the large painting eventually had a triangular rip where a long nail had pierced it.  It was a framed painting that hung in the basement of our house in Queens, by a wire attached to its back.   The walls of the basement were wood, installed in vertical strips, by a guy named Hymie in the years before I had any memories.  I was told Hymie did the work, though I have no idea who Hymie was.  The painting hung on a large nail driven into the wood.  It was no doubt this nail that gouged the painting toward the end.  I may, as a teenager, have had something to do with that inadvertent rip.   

The painting had belonged to my grandmother, had hung over the couch in her living room in Kew Gardens, Queens.  When she and my grandfather moved to Miami Beach, the large painting was moved to our basement.   I remember my grandmother once smiling at the painting, already in our basement, and looking at me and saying that’s exactly what her home looked like, the painting was exactly Vishnevitz.   I  can picture that smile today.   

The painting was of a wide dirt road, surrounded by huge, lush trees.   There may have been a wagon traveling through it, I think there was.  What I remember are the lush, leafy trees, painted toward the glorious end of an early summer day.  It was an idyllic painting, an idealized homage to nature and the goodness of the universe.  I didn’t particularly care for the sentimental painting, but my grandmother clearly loved it.    Though it was painted, sold and purchased in New York, it was the best, and to my experience, only, souvenir of her home town, Vishnevitz in the Ukraine.    

The letters from Vishnevitz stopped coming some time in 1942, when Einsatzgruppen and local anti-Semites began collecting the local Jews in towns like Vishnevitz.   All I was ever told was that the letters had stopped coming, those unanswered letters stood in for the rest of the untellable story.  It would be fifty years before I stumbled on the Vishnevitz Yizkor book, on-line, page after page of narratives from survivors of the torture and destruction of the writers of those letters that stopped coming.  The details are horrible, every one of them.    

Watching Ken Burns’s documentary on the Civil War, a 1990 masterpiece, I learned of the massacres of surrendering black soldiers.   Ulysses S. Grant demanded this practice stop, that the Confederates treat black prisoners of war as both sides treated white prisoners of war.  Confederate president Jefferson Davis refused.  Grant stopped prisoner exchanges with the South.   As a result, prisons began overflowing with American prisoners on both sides.  One notorious Confederate prison camp, Andersonville, designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, soon had more than 30,000.   The commandant, a German-Swiss fellow, turned the place into an early version of Auschwitz.  More than 10,000 died of starvation and disease in a short time, the rest only wished for death. 

Ken Burns does the Ken Burns pan up a photograph of the skeletal body of a survivor of Andersonville.   Every moment of the pan is horrible.  A narrator reads an account by a southern woman.  She is sure of God’s terrible vengeance against the Confederacy for this crime of reducing humans to living skeletons.   Americans did this to Americans.  

Down that idyllic dirt road, through the lush, beautiful forest, we are just outside Vishenevitz in 1920, when Yetta, my grandmother was an idealistic, ambitious young woman.  In the war after the Russian Revolution Yetta’s family had housed cossacks, Bolshevik cossacks, men who had behaved like perfect gentlemen, according to her.  They hung blankets down the middle of the house to leave the family some privacy.  Perfect gentlemen, of course, do not rape the young women, or the older ones either, as many other cossacks were known to do.  These gentlemen cossacks were idealists, they inspired Yetta and her generation to envision a world of brotherhood among workers who threw off the yoke of oppression that keeps everyone killing each other for the war profits of a few cynical rich people.

“Why are you writing this, man?” asks a disembodied voice, possibly the driver of the wagon in the lost painting.  “Why don’t you call friends, make a plan, enjoy this bracing, sunny Sunday of your life?”    

I have no good answer, except that I saw the painting in my mind, with its triangular rip.   Through that rip the rest followed, as naturally as overturned Jewish gravestones followed the election of a presidential candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.   The founder of the Klan, a self-made millionaire who made his fortune in land speculation and slaves, was also a self-made general of undeniable military genius.   He led small bands of men against large armies and inflicted terrible damage as thirty horses were shot out from under him during the course of countless battles.   He killed 31 men in hand to hand combat and figured he came out ahead in that count of killed horses and killed men.  

“Why are you writing this, man?”  

One day the letters from Vishnevitz just stopped.

My Uncle’s Draft Obituary

Sekhnet recently came across some folders I took from my uncle’s filing cabinet after he died.  I was delighted to find the folder with the dementedly detailed obituary he’d handed me in the living room of his recently departed brother’s condo to place in the New York Times, the one I instead placed on a table after skimming the first few paragraphs glorifying their grotesque childhood in Peekskill.

I was relieved to find it and placed it somewhere safe where it is now hiding, probably in plain sight.  Sekhnet brought me the folders the other day, but that piece was not among the papers, 99% of which are bound for the shredder.  This was there instead, an earlier draft, no doubt, and much more svelte.  I have added a few footnotes with corrections.

Draft Obituary for Irving I. Widaen

Irving I. Widaen [1], a career New York City educator who helped develop student programs of inter-racial understanding, died Thursday, April 29 at Northwest Medical Center, Margate, Florida, of cancer of the liver.  He was 80.  

A former resident of Flushing, New York, he had retired to Coconut Creek, Florida.  Burial was in the cemetery of the First Hebrew Congregation, Peekskill, New York, where Mr. Widaen was a continuous member.  

Mr. Widaen was born June 1, 1924 in Manhattan and moved as a child to Peekskill, New York.   He graduated from Peekskill High School in 1941 and soon after served in the U.S. Air Force as a crew chief [2] stationed in the U.S. and abroad.  Following his discharge from the service he enrolled in the Maxwell School of Public Affairs [3] where he received a bachor (sic) of arts degree.  He received a master of arts degree in American history at Columbia University and pursued doctoral studies as a student of noted historians Henry Steele Commager and Richard Hofstadter, among other faculty.

He taught history at the Manhattan Vocational Trade School [4] and Martin Van Buren High School and won the esteem of many high school students.  He subsequently moved to the headquarters of the New York City Board of Education, served as Coordinator of pupil personnel guidance programs [5], specializing in the design and implementation of school programs promoting inter-racial understanding.  He developed sensitivity workshops, using team building, and humor approaches helping acrimonious student factions to understand and resolve their racial animosities.

During his years at the Board of Education and following his retirement from the Board, he served as Director of the Nassau/Suffolk region of Young Judaea, a national Zionist youth group.  He later went on to direct Young Judaea’s national summer program, administering their senior camp, Tel Yehuda at Barryville, New York.  In his capacity as camp director, he traveled extensively throughout the U.S. recruiting youth for the camp program. [6]

With a partner he met at Tel Yehuda [7], he opened the first Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens [8] which he operated for several years before retiring with his wife, Evelyn [9], to Coconut Creek, Florida.  In Florida, both he and his wife served as reading/teaching mentors in the Broward County school system.  

Mr. Widaen had a life-long commitment to the welfare of children and youth, social justice, animal rights, and the environment.  He loved animals and he and his wife always kept a dog as a pet.  He had a keen interest in sports, reading, current events, and traveled extensively with his wife throughout the U.S.

At his funeral service, Daniel Neiden, a family friend [10] conducting the service, noted: (insert major brief comments regarding Irv’s life) [11].

My uncle then lists the surviving family, whose names I omit to preserve their privacy.

NOTES

[1]  The “I.”, we learned while preparing his gravestone, should have been an “A.” because it stood for Azrael.  Irv was named after his  maternal grandfather, already deceased by 1924.   We were always told his name was Israel I. Widaen, but that was not so.  His parents had both been illiterate in English, so there you go.

[2] The highest rank the ‘crew chief’ attained was corporal, as far as I recall, though it’s possible he had been promoted to sergeant by the end.  His crew maintained the Army’s air craft.  A man with no discernible mechanical skills, he got his job, he said, because he could read the manuals to the more skilled mechanics when they ran into trouble they could not fix with mechanical talent alone.  

[3] The Maxwell School was apparently part of Syracuse University.

[4] He taught Junior High School social studies there, if memory serves, at the school where he met long-time friend, and eventual enemy, Harold Schwartzappel.

[5] His title at the Human Relations Unit of the Office of Intergroup Relations was “Coordinator of Pupil Programs”.  

[6]  He went on to become national director of Young Judaea.  He served in that capacity for several years, while also directing the summer camp.  When he asked for pay commensurate with the year-round double job, the wealthy volunteers of Hadassah who oversaw Young Judaea made a counter-offer– less money than his combined salaries.   He left their employ somewhat embittered.  When he died they immediately solicited donations in his name, the heartless bitches.

[7] Benjie Lang, surrogate son and life-long friend.  

[8]  Tain Lee Chow  

[9] this first mention of his sister-in-law may indicate that the strong dislike my mother felt for my uncle was not entirely unrequited.

[10] Neither of my parents ever met Mr. Neiden until my father’s funeral, at which time only my mother had a chance to form any impression of him. She agreed he had a beautiful singing voice and had read the eulogy I’d written wonderfully.  He did a similar lovely service at my mother’s unveiling six years later.  

[11] presumably a few lines from my eulogy of my father.

Most of all, Elie, do what you love

It’s been a year since I began the manuscript I hope one day will be the book of my father’s life.  I think it’s time to try to summarize the main story line, as I would before a Moth story audience. 

My father always insisted that, on a fundamental level, people cannot change.  It was an insistence both tragic and maddening, even as I can now see the kernel of truth there.  This belief was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they say.  We argued about it over the years, as I changed, as he remained stubborn in his insistence that the only change one can hope for is on the most superficial level.  

It was one of his favorite themes, dismissing all hope that things could ever be different, no matter how much one changed one’s actions and reactions. His life had taught him harsh lessons it was his sad duty to impart to my sister and me.  He was dogged about removing the illusion that one might evolve past one’s genetic predispositions and childhood difficulties.  

On the other hand, he always insisted that childhood injury had nothing to do with a mature responsible adult’s life.  You take responsibility for your own life, and your own happiness, and you don’t blame your parents, or whatever bad luck may have led them to be less than the parents you might have hoped for.  This duty apparently started, for a young man, around the age of eight or so, when it was past time to stop acting like a child and time to start behaving like a goddamn man, for fuck’s sake.   

This much out of context generalized detail and emotional nuance, of course, would be hacked through by a director from the Moth, who would keep urging me to get back to the essence of the story.  Make it simple, it’s a story, people have to be able to follow it from start to finish.

My father was an idealist, extremely bright, well-read, quick-witted and funny as hell.   He was also, sadly for my sister and me, a man crushed by a brutal childhood who could not help replicating the cruelty that sometimes flows from such terrible childhoods.  

“You can’t blame your childhood, or your parents, or bad luck, you have to take responsibility for your own life,” he always insisted.   At the same time, he also insisted a person could not change on any fundamental level– what you were at five you would be a fifty.   Even as a child this struck me as an idiotic and self-defeating idea.   We argued about it, me a child, my father a grown man.  Later as two adults we continued to wrangle over this issue.  

“I’ve seen a tremendous change in you,” my mother once observed to me during a discussion my father and I were trying to keep civil, about the difficulty of change.

“Well, you can change certain things, on a superficial level,” my father yielded, “but the baked-in responses, those genetic traits hardened by experience, the reflexes you are born with, things like a bad temper, which you have, no matter how you try to conceal it with your lofty vows to remain mild and so forth, remain.  You cannot change on a fundamental level, certain things will continue to enrage you if you are wired that way, you can only change the surface aspects of your personality.”  

I told him that if anger was a problem in life, in our relationship, and I learned to control it enough to maintain a dialogue instead of being drawn into a fight, that was a significant change.  

“Superficial,” he said, dismissing any benefit not reacting with anger could have for anybody.  “Deep down, you’re still mad as hell, boiling mad, like you were when you were a baby, and at five and as a teenager.”  

I finally saw the futility of having this argument with my father.  He was very smart, and very skilled at the art of verbal war.  He was always armed and dangerous.  There came a point when his desperation to be right at any cost became clear to me.  

Paint that specific moment in the den in Coconut Creek,  hand-delivering that third copy of the heartfelt letter he kept denying he’d read, month after month.  

“Oh, that letter,” he said with the casual nonchalance of a charismatic psychopath,  “yeah, I read that letter.”  

He paused to fix me with a look and then said ” you have to respect my right not to respond.”  

The hideous, specific flavorful details are needed for a reader to grasp the full exact truth this story is tying to convey.

I realized at last that there was no benefit to arguing against something he would defend to the death, no matter how mutually destructive that thing was.  

I believe we can change things about ourselves if we are miserable enough about the thing that needs to be changed, determined enough to do better.  I have seen changes in myself and in old friends.  They are the result of long, hard work and such changes are always works in progress, but I see the changes and their benefits.  I can also see my father’s point of view– restraining the impulse to be enraged is not the same as no longer feeling anger.  Even though learning to restrain and tame the impulse is the first step to a less enraged, contentious life.  

Whatever the case about changing oneself, it is 100% certain that one cannot change anyone else, and so in the end I realized that my poor father was a lost cause and that arguing with him was only throwing fuel on a fire that should not have been burning in the first place.    

Not to say I stopped chewing on the perplexing riddle of what made this anti-racist, friend of the underdog, funny, humane, otherwise very smart, hip and likable man such a brutal dick.  I spent many hours with my father’s first cousin, Eli, an old man living in a little retirement cottage about an hour north of me.  I’d drive up the long, twisty parkway to listen to stories about our family and my father’s unimaginably awful childhood.  

Eli loved my father in a way he couldn’t love his own children, to whom he was often quite brutal and from whom he was mostly estranged.  My father loved Eli, who was 17 years older, as much as he feared him.  Eli was a warm, generous, very funny man capable of great savagery when angry, which was often.  There was no doubt of their mutual love and there was no doubt of Eli’s genuine desire to give me insight I could use to understand my destructive old man and get along better with him.  It was through Eli that I finally got helpful insight into my father’s tragic life.

Predictably, my father was defensive and angry when I reported the fascinating conversations I was having with Eli.  

“Eli’s full of shit!” he said with great conviction, “he has his own twisted version of history.  Yeah, listen to Eli, he’s a great historian, did he tell you how many times he would have become a millionaire if some asshole hadn’t screwed him?  Ask his kids about him, what a loving soul he is– Eli has never been wrong about anything, he’s always the victim, always the righteous man wronged by vicious assholes, even when he’s smacking his kids around…”  He went on in this vein for quite some time.

This reaction did not surprise me.  After all, it was a yelp of pain.  It made sense to me now, in the context Eli had imparted to me, quietly and deeply aware of the full pain and horror of what he was telling me.   Eli’s beloved aunt was my father’s mother Chava.  Eli witnessed Chava’s violent rages many times including when she turned them on her infant son, from the time he could stand.  

“She had a drawer next to where she sat at the kitchen table where she kept the cord to her iron.  You remember those old cloth wrapped electrical cords they used to have?  Heavy cords, with a rough burlap kind of wrapping.  She would reach into the drawer, grab that heavy cord and whip little Irv across the face with it.  I saw this myself.  After a while all she had to do was rattle the drawer and he would stand like this,” and Eli did one of his uncanny imitations, a terrified child, rigid and shaking, eyes cast to the ground.  

This image was like a light going on in a darkened room.  I was flooded with sympathy for the poor bastard even as I knew that my father would kill us both before he’d ever talk about something this painful.  He was simply incapable of it, I realized thinking about his life from the perspective of a face-whipped infant.  It explained many things I could never understand.    

The last few years of his life, as my father was becoming greyer and weaker, hollowed out by the undiagnosed liver cancer that finally killed him, I pretty much abided by his wish to stick to superficial conversation.   We could talk about politics, a subject we were largely in agreement about, or history, something that fascinated both of us, but most of the deeper conversations were out of bounds and I stopped trying to have them.  Predictably, in a story like this, I got a life-changing phone call during dinner with old friends.  

We were gathered around a table to retell a story my father had told us every year, about the spiritual journey from slavery to freedom that our ancient ancestors had undergone.  In every generation we must learn this lesson anew– because we were strangers harshly mistreated in a foreign land we must never tolerate the mistreatment of anyone, if we have the power to oppose it.  

“The D.U. is in the hospital,” my sister told me.  “The E.R. doctor knew within two minutes that he was examining a dead man, he touched his swollen stomach, looked at me and said if your brother wants to see him, tell him to get down here right away.”  

There were two doctors around the table who gently reassured me that ascites, the accumulation of liquid that gathers around the organs at the end stage of something like liver cancer, could result from several different things (all pretty much deadly, as I soon learned), and that I should go visit my father and not assume the worst until I talked to his doctors.  I was on a plane soon after.  

I drove to the hospital at around 1 a.m. on what turned out to be the last night of my father’s life.  He was ready to have the conversation he’d never had the courage to attempt.

“You know those conversations you had with Eli, he pretty much hit the nail right on the head, although he probably spared you the worst of it.  My life was over by the time I was two years old,” he began.  “I felt you reaching out to me many times over the years, and it’s my fault I was too fucked up to respond to you like a human being instead of a belligerent asshole.”

The book of my father starts with this conversation and imagines what we would have shared if he had not died the next day at sunset.   I have been in regular dialogue with his skeleton for the last ten months or so and am happy to report our communication is now excellent.

Thank you.

 (imaginary applause)

A Note on Eli as My Father’s “Father”

Eli was the closest thing my father ever had to a father and the source of 95% of what little I know about my actual paternal grandfather.  Eli described my enigmatic grandfather as being completely deadpan, his face ‘two eyes, a nose and a mouth’.

“Well, that’s about right, Elie,” said the skeleton.  “Eli was the closest thing I had to a role model in that house full of frightened shtetl Jews, the only survivors of massacres they avoided by sheer accident.  Eli, whatever his other faults, would not hesitate to stand up to someone who wanted to knock him down.  That was an amazing thing to see, as a kid, a tough American-born Jew who lived on his own and didn’t take any shit from anybody.  Of course, it had its dark side, as any of his kids will gladly detail for you.”

I remember the faces of his three children, all in their fifties by then, sitting in the front row at his funeral as I began to read my notes.   They knew I was his good friend, and in some ways the child he’d never had.   They all smiled and nodded gratefully when I ad libbed that had Eli raised me I most certainly would not have been able to say, without hesitation, all the good things I was about to say about our departed, sometimes savage, loved one.

“Well, he was pretty much hated by his kids, and not without good reason. He was a tyrant to them all, it was always his way or the highway.   He was also pretty much shunned by his grandchildren too.  You remember when he told you ‘just what the world needs, another goy…’ when his half-Christian grandson was named Connor Steven?   He was a very black and white fellow, our cousin Eli, and he loved few things more than a good fight.” The skeleton sniffed the air and chuckled.

You know how we act as unconscious surrogates in many cases, finding and serving as the family members and needed confidants we lacked as kids?

“Yop,” said the skeleton, picturing himself and others in those roles over the course of his eighty year life.

I realize in some essential way that I served as the interactive kid Eli never had, someone who didn’t reflexively dismiss him, and that he, in some odd way, was the father I’d never had, someone who actually considered the things I said.  He and I could fight bitterly without becoming enemies.  

“Well, I’d say that’s true.  Your mother and Eli had love at first sight, and they fought constantly, bitterly, gave no quarter.  Their fights were violent slug fests, no holds barred.   Afterwards they’d laugh, and hug and kiss, and say they’d never forgive each other, and their eyes would twinkle as they looked forward to their next knock down drag out battle to the death.

“In fact, your mother was about the only person who could ever go that far with Eli.  You saw how threatening he got when anyone crossed him, even at 85, 86.  His face would turn magenta, white foam would instantly form on his lips, his grey hair would stand up like porcupine quills.  He’d become, like you said at his funeral, savage as an angry panther.  

“Like when he backed into that car in a parking lot, and the driver jumped out, and he snarled ‘you’d better get back in your fucking car, bub, before I forget that I’m 85 years-old and come out there and beat the shit out of you!’ The other driver got right back in his car, as anybody not insane would have done.  

“But your mother had absolutely no fear of Eli.  My brother and I, even as adults, had some healthy fear of him.  When we sat down to eat as kids he’d yell ‘go run and wash your goddamned dirty hands!’ and we’d run, boy.  It was run wash your hands or get a smack, and it wouldn’t be a love tap, either.” 

My cousin and I were in Peekskill a couple of months back, when you gave me the cold shoulder at the grave.  

“Surely you didn’t really expect me to talk in front of Sekhnet and your cousin.  The game would have been up if I’d started speaking from my grave,” said the skeleton.  

Of course.  Anyway, the point is that when we stopped by your house at 1123 Howard Street I recognized the place from the home movie Dave’s son had transferred on to a DVD that I watched at the Nursing Home with my uncle shortly before he shuffled off this mortal coil.  In one scene Azi, at around thirteen, is smiling on the porch, and your mother and Aren are there as you pass by, crew cut and tanned, looking healthy and fit in your yellow t-shirt.  

“Well, why wouldn’t I look healthy and fit?   I was probably 28 or 29 when that was shot,” the skeleton thought for a moment. “I have no idea who shot that home movie.  Oh, of course, it must have been David.  Nehama was on the porch at one point, she came out of the screen door with a big smile and did a turn for the camera.  Dave was the only one not in the movie, and he was also the first one to get new technology, because he was rich.  He had the first nice car, the first television set, the first home movie camera, an 8 mm, probably from Germany.”

I mention 1123 Howard Street because when we stopped by it was a two family house, with a separate door and stairway to get to the second floor.  It seems this was likely a later addition to the place, along with the siding, but it made me wonder about the living arrangements at 1123 Howard.  

The house must have belonged to your Uncle Aren, who must have lived on the first floor with his second wife, Tamarka, and their children Nehama and Dave.  Which makes it likely that you lived upstairs, with your parents and Paul, and above your living space there was some kind of attic where the Jewish transients would stay, and piss out the windows, and shit in paper bags.  

“That is a mystery I cannot give you a definitive answer to, Elie, since, as you may have realized yourself by now, I can only really tell you things that you have already discovered for yourself.  Hopefully Azi will answer that question since you emailed it to him just a couple of hours ago,” said the skeleton quietly.

Yum Kipper

In Hebrew, the words are pronounced Yom Kippur, Yome Kee-Poor, but where I grew up, the Yiddish speaking Jews of my family always called The Day of Atonement “Yum Kipper.”   No atonement was ever actually attempted, or only very, very rarely, and with the usual conditions and caveats, but the holiest day of the Jewish year was a day my father mortified himself by fasting and praying every year.  

Even most secular Jews retain some feelings about Yom Kippur.   Sandy Koufax famously wouldn’t pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur, when his start fell on The Day of Atonement one year, though I have no doubt he ate bacon cheeseburgers with Don Drysdale from time to time.  My mother always had a coffee in the morning, and maybe a piece of toast.  She didn’t quite fast, though she ate lightly.

Where I grew up there would be a long service in the morning at Hillcrest Jewish Center where the thousands in membership dues the family paid each year, to give their children a rude Jewish education, also gave them the right to buy seats in the synagogue for the High Holy Days.  

I don’t know how much the package was to have a seat for the biggest show of the year in the temple, but my father, as I recall, opted to sit in one of the hundreds of folding chairs they set up in the gym.  One year, I remember, he had a seat in the Ferkauf Chapel, in an alcove under the main sanctuary but a floor above the gym.  It was slightly more upscale, with carpeting and without the faint chlorine smell from the pool down the hall you sometimes got in the gym.  My mother never went to shul, my sister and I were forced to Junior Congregation for a few years, and never went again, so my father only bought one of the costly high holiday seats.  Fittingly, I suppose, he prayed alone at Hillcrest every year.

The seats in the main chapel were for local millionaires and my father wasn’t going to be gouged for the right to pray in the first class cabin.  I’m sure even those seats in the gym weren’t cheap. I remember seeing Caroline and Ralph there once, in that overflow crowd, fasting and praying in the gym while rising and please being seated in a wave with hundreds of others.  They, like my father, like the immense crowd of local Jews in their best clothes, jammed into every room of the Jewish Center, went every year, religiously.    

One year, my father reported that a woman fainted in the gym during her Yom Kippur fast.  She’d been asked to rise one too many times, I guess.   The faces of the Jews at Hillcrest were indeed solemn, as if acutely aware of exactly what was going on in the heavens above them as Yom Kippur came to an emotional climax.  

In Jewish folklore The Almighty sits over an unimaginably immense ledger, like an all-powerful accountant, reviewing, during the Ten Days of Repentance, the good deeds, bad deeds and borderline deeds of each Jew.   Based on their repentance, their generosity in forgiving those who seek it from them, their devotion to good works, their pious obedience to their Creator, or their failings in these departments, they’d get marked down in The Book of Life for a good year or a bad year in the one about to start.  

Jews have ten days to straighten out their accounts, the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, also known as The Days of Awe, to make amends,  to repay debts, to seek forgiveness, to forgive those who seek it.  In my experience, among the Jews I’ve known, this is rarely done in a terribly soul searching way.   It is very hard to have the humility to do all of these things, to be aware of every hurtful thing you may have done and humbly seek forgiveness for them, and it is not often done, except among people who really love each other, and even then, it is not the norm to go into detail.   We assume, by our love and continuing friendship, that we forgive each other, I suppose.  

But even many of the most casual Jews fast on Yom Kippur.  Even those, like me, who find the rituals of worship empty and many of the ancient commands lacking in soul.  As for fasting, I don’t speak for the others, but I have always done it, am doing it now.   I also made a practice of walking down to Hillcrest toward the end of the evening service every year to meet my father and walk him back to break the fast.  

The shul goers would get a break during their day of fasting and praying, a few hours of downtime after the grueling morning session.   My father generally took a nap, I’m sure many others did too.  Fasting and praying is hard work.  

I suspect that final afternoon into evening stretch of praying while fasting, and knowing that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, was fixing to make the final notations on your page in the Book of Life, and then actually seal your fate for the coming year with a giant seal, had to be very emotional.   It all leads up to a tremendous, long, sobbing blast on a ram’s horn, at that exact moment God seals the Book of Life, everyone’s fate sealed for the coming year.  

Fasting is enough for me, and walking down to meet my father and walk him home after his second long bout of praying was the only other Yom Kippur ritual I observed.

There would be a swarm of Jews outside the synagogue, as though a concert had just ended in a giant hall.  In the last of the dying sunlight I’d recognize a few, sometimes say a brief hello, but everyone on the sidewalk in front of Hillcrest was distracted, slightly drained, hungry, thinking about getting home, darting this way and that, as soon as the sun had completely set and there were three stars in the sky– bagels, lox, soup, fruit, thick slice of tomato, water, coffee, fresh orange juice, schnapps.   Food rarely tastes as good as those first bites after twenty-four hours of fasting.  Anybody I ran into while searching for my father was understandably not in a mood to schmooze, which was fine with me too.

I would find my father in this swarm of dazed, hungry Jews fanning out from Hillcrest in every direction, and we’d walk home along Union Turnpike. It was not a long walk, five or six blocks.

Only one year did we have a meaningful talk I still remember.  I initiated it and it was a very important talk for me, for my relationship with my difficult father and his with his difficult son.  We sat in the living room, my mother in the kitchen, the food all ready to eat, everything smelled delicious.  All the stars were in the sky, it was past time to eat, and we continued to talk instead of breaking the fast, and he continued to pretend not to understand what I was talking about, he went into all his tricks.  

It took quite a long time, maybe an hour or more, and my mother never appeared in the living room after she’d greeted us and saw us locked in this conversation, but eventually, after displaying a forbearance that surprised us both and untangling all of his tactical diversions, I got my point across, he agreed to do what I had asked, and we went in and broke the fast.  

I have written at length about this conversation, and I will do so again, but a hungry Sekhnet is on her way, and I have to be ready when she gets here.   We have a vast fruit salad to assemble before our friends arrive home from shul to break the fast a few hours from now.  I have to say, I can already taste that first swallow of pulpy orange juice.