“I began researching this book in Los Angeles, as a UCLA/Mellon Fellow. For the opportunity to read Sholem Aleichem on the Santa Monica boardwalk (and have ‘Vos makht a yid’ shouted at me by a roller-skating passerby), my thanks…”
--from the Acknowledgements section, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem by Jeremy Dauber.
This is not a book review;
It is a Jeremy-Dauber influenced polemic. As with any polemic, its message should fit on a bumper sticker; namely, Learn Yiddish. As with many a polemicist, it would be helpful if I took my own advice. However, that is another story.
This story begins in Miami Beach in 1959. I was 12 years old celebrating Passover at the home of Lee Rosenhouse who had been my classmate since first grade at the other end of town—South Beach when South Beach was run down and before it became rediscovered and chic. Lee and I attended the Hebrew Academy—Hebrew being the operative word. When Rabbi Alexander S. Gross founded the Academy in a renovated Protestant Church in 1947, the Hebrew he taught was Ashkenazi. By the time we were in third grade, our teachers shifted our pronunciation to Sephardi in keeping with the official Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew. One consequence is that our pronunciation of Hebrew was a mishmash described as Ashke-Sephardi.
Rabbi Gross was something of a heretic and certainly a visionary. Years later when I read Louis Auchincloss’ Rector of Justin I learned that my rabbi/principal was indeed a Jewish rector whose vision—despite the Maimonides-ordained orthodoxy of our morning classes—was Hebrew and a secular manifestation of Hebrew at that.
Hebrew and Yiddish. Yiddish and Hebrew. Lee and I were part of an effort that swept our Jewish community abandoning Yiddish, the language of exile, in favor of a new world order symbolized by the Israeli flag displayed every morning in the Academy playground where first we saluted the U.S. flag and next we sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. The anthem’s initial word means “The Hope.”
The contrast between Hebrew and Yiddish (the hopeful new world order vs. the old culture—which, as Lee and I saw it had kept us enslaved) expressed itself in 1959 at the Rosenhouse sedar table when Lee’s mother and father (Estelle and Mose) swapped dirty jokes with my mother. The jokes were in Yiddish. We did not understand. This was, as we saw it, the old order unfairly keeping from us (whose Hebrew was recent and hard-won) some secret magic.
It is possible you speak neither Hebrew nor Yiddish and you may have little appreciation for the language wars I am here describing. Let me start with the basics we students expressed quite clearly on the Hebrew Academy playground in the form of a question. “If the U.S. and Israel were to fight in a war which side would you be on?”
A generation later my younger daughter Amelia Altalena (whose middle name is fraught with meaning) told me, “You were willing to fight for Israel but not for the United States” over simplifying. Fifty years ago—on June 8, 1967 to be specific—I arrived in Israel eager to fight in the Six Day War. Three months later I reluctantly returned to New York to continue college because Israel (then overwhelmed with volunteers) did not want me. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet granted me the right to be a dual citizen although despite outward reality I am one. After I returned to New York, my draft board acceded to my request for conscientious objector status. I would not participate in Vietnam. It was an evil war.
It is not, as Amelia Altalena intimates, that my loyalties are divided. My loyalties are clear. The clarity I am trying to define here are my loyalties to the Jewish people. Yes, I believe in God. Increasingly, I find my Jewishness includes prayer saying as I do Modeh Ani when I arise. My loyalty (God is incidental) as a Jew is defined by two distinctly secular ideologies; namely, Zionism and the revival of the Hebrew language. Personified, my loyalties are to Theordor Herzl (who married, as I did, a non-Jew) and Eleizer ben Yehuda who assembled THE modern Hebrew dictionary and whose children were stoned by the Orthodox community because his children spoke Hebrew in the streets at a time when the community believed Hebrew belonged exclusively to the synagogue.
Yes, this polemic begins with the insistence we all learn Yiddish. However, it is based on the assumption that first we Jews must master Hebrew. While I will return to the 1959 Miami Beach sedar table, it is first necessary to introduce you to two larger than life men whose ability to master multiple languages I urge you to emulate. They are David Ben Gurion and Vladimir Jabotinsky. I like to think of them (at least initially) as frozen in time in 1918 serving together in the Jewish Legion—an early effort like the Zion Mules Corps that preceded it intended to prove that Jews (despite a reputation for being non-resisting victims of anti-Semitism) could fight.
Enter my parents at the end of the Second World War that followed the First. Miriam and Isadore met at a synagogue meeting intended to introduce the variety of groups that described themselves as Zionists. My mother was attracted to the socialist movement led by Ben Gurion. My father was a leader of the capitalist indeed militarist movement founded by Jabotinsky who died in 1940 and was led (when my parents met) by Jabotinsky’s disciple Menachem Begin. It may be true that opposites attract, but as Mother and Dad would make quite clear, not for long.
The one reality that united Mother and Father was Hebrew. When she was still pregnant with me, Mother graduated from two colleges, Hunter and a now-defunct Hebrew college in New York where she received a bachelor’s degree in Hebrew. When Mother was in her early Sixties, she received a doctorate in Hebrew letters from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Between degrees, Mother was a Hebrew school teacher and principal. Before Mother died from dementia, I spoke to her in Hebrew, the only language she still understood.
My father’s Hebrew was ideological. Isadore was a follower of Jabotinsky; indeed, so it says on his headstone. Isadore’s love for Jabotinsky and his movement was intense. When I was eight, my father began reading to me the Balfour Declaration providing over the years his special interpretation. Isadore was fond of repeating the story of Jabotinsky’s insistence the World Zionist Congress change the language of its proceedings from Yiddish to Hebrew. Not knowing Hebrew, Jabotinsky insisted the Congress learn the language storming out of the hall insisting he would not return until he was able to speak in Hebrew. In my childhood recollection of the story, it took Jabotinsky 15 minutes to learn Hebrew.
The temptation here is to linger—to tell stories of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the Walt Whitman of Modern Hebrew and Shmuel Yosef Agnon whose Chekov-like tales of Jews in exile caused him to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966—the only Hebrew author to win a Nobel. I am tempted also to further describe the hatred Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky, two Zionist giants, felt for each other. The point here is language and language facility.
I am fond of the story of Ben Gurion, certainly a show off, practicing yoga in front of reporters on his kibbutz in the Negev. Among the languages Ben Gurion had mastered was ancient Greek. When he was alive, he had the reputation for being alone in the world at being able to recite by heart the plays of Sophocles. Indeed, he was fond of doing so while standing on his head and interrupting himself to answer reporters questions about politics.
Similarly, Jabotinsky’s language command included Italian, Russian, and English. Jabotinsky wrote a screen play on Samson and Delilah which Hollywood turned into a film starring Victor Mature. Of course, both Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky spoke Yiddish.
Who we are as Jews is tied strongly to our ability to move globally and speak a variety of languages. It is worth noting that in The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge’s popularization of current brain research, Dr. Doidge asserts that a key for the aging to avoid senility is to learn a new language. At 69 and a grandfather, my focus is on teaching diligently to our children. Jewish parents in the U.S., first have your children master Hebrew, then Yiddish, then aspire to learn more languages.
As my father got older he repented his decision not to teach me Yiddish. Isadore asked me to watch Fiddler on the Roof, the musical based on Sholem Aleichem’s story. “It is about my people,” he pleaded, “It describes the community where I was born.” Fiddler was trendy then and I am a snob. I hesitated. Shortly before my father entered the Jewish Home for the Aged in Miami, I finally watched Fiddler and told him so. “It is too late,” he said.
As it turns out, this is not a review of Columbia Professor Jeremy Dauber’s excellent biography of Shalom Aleichem. It is instead, a plea to preserve what we are losing of our culture as exemplified by Mose, Estelle, and Lee Rosenhouse at their sedar table in 1959. For my mother—who for much of my childhood was a single parent—Lee’s large extended family sitting around the table on Passover represented the home Mother longed for but never had.
Describing the joy the adults felt as they taunted the children by speaking Yiddish only begins to describe a Jewish world quickly disappearing. Everyone around the table is dead. Mose, head of household, represented the father and husband Mother never had. A politician and a prominent attorney, when Mose died, the Miami Herald featured his obituary on page one. Mose had come to Miami from Milton, a small town on the Florida panhandle where kosher meat was trucked in from Chicago and being Jewish meant speaking Yiddish.
[Joel Solkoff is the author of The Politics of Food and Learning to Live Again, My Triumph Over Cancer.]
This esssay appeared in Benchley’s book Love Conquers All , published Printed October, 1922.
Note 1. On personal preference: We are Penn State.
Note 2. Thanks to my distinguished webmaster Kathy Forer, this posting is available in Spanish, Hebrew, Chinese, Hindi, etc. See home page, top left for the language of your choice. www.joelsolkoff.com
Note 3. This posting will be first shared on Keep State College Weird:
Sunday morning these fine fall days are taken up with reading about the “40,000 football enthusiasts” or the “gaily-bedecked crowd of 60,000 that watched the game on Saturday.” And so they probably did, unless there were enough men in big fur coats who jumped up at every play and yelled “Now we’re off!” thus obstructing the view of an appreciable percentage.
But why stop at the mention of the paltry 50,000 who sat in the Bowl or the Stadium? Why forget the twice 50,000 all over the country, in Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Atlanta, who watched the same game over the ticker, or sat in a smoke-fogged room listening to telegraphic announcements, play by play, or who even stood on the curbing in front of a newspaper office and watched an impartial employee shove a little yellow ball along a black-board, usually indicating the direction in which the real football was not going.
Since it is so important to give the exact number of people who saw the game, why not do the thing up right and say: “Returns which are now coming in from the Middle West, with some of the rural districts still to be heard from, indicate that at least 145,566 people watched the Yale-Princeton football game yesterday.
“Secretary Dinwoodie of the San Francisco Yale Club telegraphed late last night that the final count in that city would probably swell the total to a round 150,395. This is, or will be, the largest crowd that ever assembled in one country to watch a football game.”
And watching the game in this vicarious manner isn’t so bad as the fellow who has got tickets and carfare to the real game would like to have it. You are in a warm room, where you can stretch your legs and regulate your remarks to the intensity of your emotions rather than to the sex of your neighbors. And as for thrills! “Dramatic suspense” was probably first used as a term in connection with this indoor sport.
The scene is usually some college club in the city—a big room full of smoke and graduates. At one end is a scoreboard and miniature gridiron, along which a colored counter is moved as the telegraph behind the board clicks off the plays hot from the real gridiron.
There is also an announcer, who, by way of clarifying the message depicted on the board, reads the wrong telegram in a loud, clear tone.
Just as the crowd in the football arena are crouching down in their fur coats the better to avoid watching the home team fumble the kick-off, the crowds two and ten hundred miles away are settling back in their chairs and lighting up the old pipes, while the German-silver-tongued announcer steps to the front of the platform and delivers the following:
“Yale won the toss and chose to defend the south goal, Princeton taking the west.”
This mistake elicits much laughter, and a witty graduate who has just had lunch wants to know, as one man to the rest of the house, if it is puss-in-the-corner that is being played.
The instrument behind the board goes “Tick-ity-tick-tick-tickity.”
There is a hush, broken only by the witty graduate, who, encouraged by his first success, wants to know again if it is puss-in-the-corner that is being played. This fails to gain.
“Gilblick catches the kick-off and runs the ball back to his own 3-yard line, where he is downed in his tracks,” comes the announcement.
There is a murmur of incredulity at this. The little ball on the board shoots to the middle of the field.
“Hey, how about that?” shout several precincts.
The announcer steps forward again.
“That was the wrong announcement,” he admits. “Tweedy caught the kick-off and ran the ball back twenty-five yards to midfield, where he is thrown for a loss. On the next play there was a forward pass, Klung to Breakwater, which—”
Here the message stops. Intense excitement.
The man who has $5 on the game shuts his eyes and says to his neighbor: “I’ll bet it was intercepted.”
A wait of two triple-space minutes while the announcer winds his watch. Then he steps forward. There is a noisy hush.
“It is estimated that 50,000 people filed into the Palmer Stadium to-day to watch Yale and Princeton in their annual gridiron contest,” he reads.
“Yale took the field at five minutes of 2, and was greeted by salvos and applause and cheering from the Yale section. A minute later the Princeton team appeared, and this was a signal for the Princeton cohorts to rise as one man and give vent to their famous ‘Undertaker’s Song.'”
“How about that forward pass?” This, as one man, from the audience.
The ball quivers and starts to go down the field. A mighty shout goes up. Then something happens, and the ball stops, looks, listens and turns in the other direction. Loud groans.
A wooden slide in the mechanism of the scoreboard rattles into place, upside down. Agile spectators figure out that it says “Pass failed.”
Every one then sinks back and says, “They ought not to have tried that.” If the quarterback could hear the graduates’ do-or-die backing of their team at this juncture he would trot into the locker building then and there.
Again the clear voice from the platform:
“Tweedy punts—” (noisy bond-salesman in back of room stands up on a chair and yells “Yea!” and is told to “Shut up” by three or four dozen neighbors) “to Gumble on his 15-yard line. Gumble fumbles.”
The noisy bond-salesman tries to lead a cheer but is prevented.
Frightful tension follows. Who recovered? Whose ball is it? On what line? Wet palms are pressed against trouser legs. How about it?
You can hear the announcer’s boots squeak as he steps forward.
“Mr. A.T. Blevitch is wanted on the telephone,” he enunciates.
Mr. A.T. Blevitch becomes the most unpopular man in that section of the country. Every one turns to see what a man of his stamp can look like. He is so embarrassed that he slinks down in his seat and refuses to answer the call.
“Klung goes around right end for a gain of two yards,” is the next message from the front.
The bond-salesman shouts “Yea!”
“How about that fumble?” shouts every one else.
The announcer goes behind the scenes to talk it over with the man who works the Punch-and-Judy, and emerges, smiling.
“In the play preceding the one just announced,” he says, “Gumble fumbled and the ball was recovered by Breakwater, who ran ten yards for a touchdown—”
Pandemonium! The bond-salesman leads himself in a cheer. The witty man says, “Nothing to it.”
There is comparative quiet again, and every one lights up the old pipes that have gone out.
The announcer steps forward with his hand raised as if to regulate traffic.
“There was a mistake in the announcement just made,” he says pleasantly. “In place of ‘touchdown’ read ‘touchback.’
“The ball is now in play on the 20-yard line, and Kleenwell has just gone through center for three yards.”
By this time no one in the audience has any definite idea of where the ball is or who has it. On the board it is hovering between midfield and second base.
“On the next play Legly punts—”
“Block that punt! Block that punt!” warns the bond-salesman, as if it were the announcer who was opposing Legly.
“Sit down, you poor fish!” is the consensus of opinion.
“Legly punts to Klung on the latter’s 25-yard line, where the first period ends.”
And so it goes throughout the game; the announcer calling out gains and the dummy football registering corresponding losses; Messrs. A.T. Blevitch and L.H. Yank being wanted on the telephone in the middle of forward passes; the noisy person in the back of the room yelling “Yea” on the slightest provocation and being hushed up at each outbreak; and every one wondering what the quarterback meant by calling for the plays he did.
In smaller cities, where only a few are gathered together to hear the results, things are not done on such an elaborate scale. The dummy gridiron and the dummy announcer are done away with and the ten or a dozen rooters cluster about the news ticker, most of them with the intention of watching for just a few minutes and then going home or back to the office. And they always wait for just one more play, shifting from one foot to the other, until the game is over.
About a ticker only the three or four lucky ones can see the tape. The rest have to stand on tip-toe and peer over the shoulders of the man in front. They don’t care. Some one will always read the results aloud, just as a woman will read aloud the cut-ins at the movies.
The one who is doing the reading usually throws in little advance predictions of his own when the news is slow in coming, with the result that those in the back get the impression that the team has at least a “varied attack,” effecting at times a field goal and a forward pass in the same play.
A critical period in the game, as it comes dribbling in over the ticker, looks something like this:
Some one suggests that the pass was illegal and that the whole team has been arrested.
The ticker clears its throat. Br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r
The ticker stabs off a line of dots and begins:
“UNCLE TOM’S CABIN”
A few choice remarks are passed in the privacy of the little circle, to just the effect that you would suspect.
A newcomer elbows his way in and says: “What’s the good word? Any score yet?” and some one replies:
“Yes. The score now stands 206 to 0 in favor of Notre Dame.”
This grim pleasantry is expressive of the sentiment of the group toward newcomers. It is each man for himself now.
“Here she comes, now!” whispers the man who is hanging over the glass news terminal, reading aloud:
“Yale-Princeton-Game-Second Quarter (Good-night, what became of that forward pass in the first quarter?)
“Yale’s-ball-in-mid-field-Hornung-takes-ball-around-left-end-making-it- first-down-Tinfoil-drops-back-for-a-try-at-a-field-goal. (Oh, boy! Come on, now!)”
“Why the deuce do they try a field goal on the first down?” asks a querulous graduate-strategist. “Now, what he ought to do is to keep a-plugging there at tackle, where he has been going—”
“Bet he missed it!” offers some one with vague gambling instincts.
“AS. 66.991.059 LBS..
And just then some one comes in from the outside, all fresh and disagreeably cheery, and wants to know what the score is and if there have been many forward passes tried and who is playing quarter for Yale, and if any one has got a cigarette.
It is really just the same sort of program as obtains in the big college club, only on a small scale. They are all watching the same game and they are all wishing the same thing and before their respective minds’ eyes is the picture of the same stadium, with the swarm of queen bees and drones clinging to its sides.
And every time that you, who are one of the cold and lucky ones with a real ticket, see a back break loose for a long run and hear the explosion of hoarse shouts that follows, you may count sixty and then listen to hear the echo from every big city in the country where the old boys have just got the news.
My mother Miriam told me [when I was a freshman at Druid Hills High School in Decatur, Georgia in 1961] of her attempt to convince her Aunt Marcia (Tanta Masha) to have a Thanksgiving celebration in 1933 when my mother was eight years old.
Tanta Masha, married to Sol Demick [a sweet, bald man who worked at a delicatessen] and my grandmother Suschi Schneider’s older sister, ran my mother’s household in The Bronx (of course, of New York City) with an iron hand.
Tanta Masha and my mother did not get along, “Probably,” my mother said, “because we were so much alike.”
Why my mother and grandmother (whom I called Bubbie) lived with Sol and Marcia Demick and their two sons Norman and Alvin (Vremmy) is a story for another occasion. My mother said that in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, Thanksgiving [first established as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln’s executive order] was not universally celebrated the way it is today.
In fact, my mother said, FDR (whom my mother adored) was responsible for Thanksgiving’s widespread celebration (probably at the suggestion of FDR’s political adviser then Postmaster General James A. Farley) as a way of including the immigrant community into the lumpy American melting pot (and not incidentally securing their vote.)
So taken with FDR’s appeal to celebrate Thanksgiving, my always precocious and astonishingly serious (and beautiful) mother appealed to Tanta Masha to celebrate the holiday complete with turkey and Norman Rockwell-like trimmings.
[Note: Yes, I am aware that Norman Rockwell’s iconographic Freedom from Wantpainting first appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1943.]
Mother explained that for Tanta Masha, Thanksgiving complete with turkey and cranberry sauce [hint: cranberries will later take on great significance in my life] meant a great deal of unwanted work and expense she and the family could ill afford. [When my grandmother talked about poverty—and indeed when my father did—they spoke with an understanding of pain they could never express successfully in words but the pain came through clearly and on the mark like the early promises of digital sound and flat screen high-definition television.)
“With Tanta Masha, everything was a power struggle,” Mother explained. Then weeping unexpectedly, Mother described how Tanta Masha had outmaneuvered my mother—bitterly angry that Mother’s goal to become a good American had (as she explained it) been stolen from her by an unfair trick.
Tanta Masha asked her sons Norman [who died unexpectedly this year] and Vremmy [about whom more needs to be said than can fit neatly into this section] (Mother’s cousins were really more like brothers than cousins), “How would you like to celebrate Thanksgiving with hot dogs and baked beans?” My mother’s dream of patriotic desire had been robbed from her by what she conceived of as a mean parlor trick.
In the long run though, Mother prevailed (as she always prevailed when something Important was at stake). And so, for me Thanksgiving evolved into the holiday of the year—significant in a way I will try to define, but whose root structure now clearly runs deeply into the ground holding generations fixed in place.
Thanksgiving has become the holiday that defines me as a person, as a father, as a family man, as a citizen in ways no other holiday can. What makes this definition especially auspicious this year (a year of enormous change in my life)….[Let us wait and see what happens next after I have completed cleaning out the oven and stuffing the fresh turkey that is now in the refrigerator.]
This photograph taken in 1990 is especially significant.
The photograph shows some of the people I love most in life. The six-year-old girl, front row left, is my elder daughter Joanna Marie, now 28 and engaged to be married.
The infant, back row right, is Amelia Altalena, my 22 year-old daughter who graduated from college in May.
The grinning young woman, back row middle, is my sister Sarah Schmerler.
The woman seated is my grandmother Celia Pell, my Bubbie, shown here in celebration for the last time outside the Jewish Home for the Aged in Riverdale where by some miracle my mother Miriam Pell Schmerler top left was able to obtain for Bubbie a private room at the most beautiful home for the aged in the universe–a room overlooking the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge where there is a collection of art so wonderful it will knock your socks off. Especially notable is the fact that I am shown, holding Amelia in my arms, and I was then able to walk. Four years after this photograph was taken I became a paraplegic. At the time I was merely a procrastinator–a vice sadly that continues to this day.
The photograph was taken in my mother’s apartment in Inwood, a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. At the time my mother, a Hebrew educator, was a newly enrolled graduate student–then 65 years-old–at the Jewish Theological Seminary where she later received a doctorate in Hebrew letters after completion of her thesis on the Roman Catholic Church’s significant decision to change its theological doctrine so that today the Jewish people are no longer blamed for the death of Jesus Christ.
In my mind’s eye, I think of this photograph as being taken at Thanksgiving. But by November of 1990, my former wife Diana, my two daughters, and I had relocated from Washington DC, where I lived and worked for 17 years–many of them heavily influenced by Edward R. Murrow’s Thanksgiving Day broadcast “Harvest of Shame” which I had viewed in my grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment and which changed my life (as if I were on the road to Damascus). In November of 1990, we relocated to Durham, NC where I began a new career as a senior technical writer for Northern Telecom–a career that I loved.
Not shown in this photograph is my favorite (and only) nephew Asher Benvenuto Simonson, now 11, who was not yet a gleam in his father Robert Simonson’s eye.
What compelled me to write this Thanksgiving posting is one consequence of this month’s Hurricane Sandy. This posting begins with my mother’s attempt to have a real Thanksgiving overruled, among others, by her brother-like cousin Vremmy (a nickname from the Yiddish name Abraham Meyer), one of the most influential people in my life, publisher of Arts Magazine, who arranged for publication in The Washington Post of an advertisement for my book Learning to Live Again, an advertisement which appeared in the book review section with a photograph of Joanna, then one, and me.
Vremmy died shortly after the advertisement was published leaving his widow Theresa Demick, an elegant and cultured delight in my life and that of my family. Theresa, one of the victims of Hurricane Sandy, was on the 16th floor of her apartment building when the storm hit wiping out the electricity.
Somehow, Theresa managed to get to the street where she wandered around aimlessly, taken to the emergency room of a nearby hospital, diagnosed with dementia. Now, thanks to the efforts of my sister Sarah, my brother-in-law Robert, and others, Theresa has found a safe berth at the wonderful Jewish Home for the Aged in Riverdale–the wonderful wonderful place where my grandmother lived out her final years with pleasure and respect. Although Theresa suffers, her knowledge of art remains in tact and Sarah feels confident that Theresa will be able to work with the home’s magnificent collection–Theresa safe from harm.
Not shown in the photograph is my sterling prospective son-in-law Jade Kosmos Phillips because Joanna did not meet him until 22 years later when they met while Joanna was working as an ambulance driver–the romance beginning in typical Joanna fashion when she insulted Jade who is a firefighter/paramedic.
The photographer is my now former wife Diana who blessedly drove up from Durham to New York with Joanna earlier this week to comfort Theresa–which should serve to reassure Amelia who also was close to Theresa and who is celebrating Thanksgiving in rural Spain near the Portuguese border, where she is teaching English.
Tom Connolly, my drumming teacher and friend just arrived and we will now celebrate Thanksgiving, cooking and playing the drums. Tom has invited beautiful women over who are younger than Amelia but who, if they come, I will flirt with shamelessly as I have in the past. After celebrating, making music, and flirting, I will return to you to post my Thanksgiving letter of thanksgiving (or wait for a more auspicious occasion when I have completed work interrupted by an intense case of the flu which has caused me to feel as if I live on another planet).
On Thanksgiving Day, Americans everywhere gather with family and friends to recount the joys and blessings of the past year. This day is a time to take stock of the fortune we have known and the kindnesses we have shared, grateful for the God-given bounty that enriches our lives. As many pause to lend a hand to those in need, we are also reminded of the indelible spirit of compassion and mutual responsibility that has distinguished our Nation since its earliest days.
Many Thanksgivings have offered opportunities to celebrate community during times of hardship. When the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony gave thanks for a bountiful harvest nearly four centuries ago, they enjoyed the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag tribe — a people who had shared vital knowledge of the land in the difficult months before. When President George Washington marked our democracy’s first Thanksgiving, he prayed to our Creator for peace, union, and plenty through the trials that would surely come. And when our Nation was torn by bitterness and civil war, President Abraham Lincoln reminded us that we were, at heart, one Nation, sharing a bond as Americans that could bend but would not break. Those expressions of unity still echo today, whether in the contributions that generations of Native Americans have made to our country, the Union our forebears fought so hard to preserve, or the providence that draws our families together this season.
As we reflect on our proud heritage, let us also give thanks to those who honor it by giving back. This Thanksgiving, thousands of our men and women in uniform will sit down for a meal far from their loved ones and the comforts of home. We honor their service and sacrifice. We also show our appreciation to Americans who are serving in their communities, ensuring their neighbors have a hot meal and a place to stay. Their actions reflect our age-old belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and they affirm once more that we are a people who draw our deepest strength not from might or wealth, but from our bonds to each other.
On Thanksgiving Day, individuals from all walks of life come together to celebrate this most American tradition, grateful for the blessings of family, community, and country. Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love, mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God and by all who have made our lives richer with their presence.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 22, 2012, as a National Day of Thanksgiving. I encourage the people of the United States to join together — whether in our homes, places of worship, community centers, or any place of fellowship for friends and neighbors — and give thanks for all we have received in the past year, express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own, and share our bounty with others.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of November, in the year of our Lord two thousand twelve, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.
Click on Memoto hear the After Pumpkin Pie Trio perform: “Thanks. Giving.”
The spirit of Jack Kerouac (as photographed by Tom Palumbo) returns with our song to wish us all a free-spirited conclusion to Thanksgiving Day, 2012. Kerouac is my daughter Joanna‘s favorite author as she takes an after dinner drink in Durham, N.C. before returning to her nursing school studies. For daughter Amelia Altalena, where her computer is broken in rural Spain, it is now 3:18 tomorrow morning; celebration must wait for Skype repair as all my dear readers for whom I am thankful, will await the writing of the forthcoming Thanksgiving Letter.
Afterthought. The idea that I was able to celebrate Thanksgiving appropriately–including, of course, a prayer of thanksgiving–comes as a surprise now that my guests have left. Tom, whom I met at Webster’s Bookstore and Cafe, across the street from my apartment, is relocating to Philadelphia to pursue a music career. State College, sadly, has not yet developed the resources to support musicians serious about their work. The idea of getting together was a spontaneous thought Tom had earlier this week.
Katie’s presence surprised both Tom and me. She was in town visiting friends. Tom was sure she would not come–not recollecting clearly that he had invited her. Neither Tom nor Katie could remember how they knew each other–perhaps through a mutual musical connection. As I helped Tom load his many drums in the car, where Katie accepted Tom’s offer to drive her to her friend’s apartment, I told Katie I do not understand how she arrived here; it is almost as if she never existed at all, but she certainly quickly warmed to the spirit of the occasion, banging drums with enthusiasm. Childlike percussion noise-making now goes on my list of Thanksgiving rituals.
I end this posting for tonight with the words I first heard Edward R. Murrow broadcast on television after Thanksgiving dinner in 1960 (words I recall each Thanksgiving):
“This is CBS Reports Harvest of Shame. It has to do with the men, women, and children who harvest the crops in this country of ours, the best-fed nation on earth. These are the forgotten people, the under-protected, the under-educated, the under-clothed, the under-fed. We present this report on Thanksgiving because were it not for the labor of the people you are going to meet, you might not starve, but your table would not be laden with the luxuries that we have all come to regard as essentials. We should like you to meet some of your fellow citizens who harvest the food for the best-fed nation on earth.”
These are the words that inspired me to publish a book on agriculture policy. These are words that cause me concern in the all-too close seasons and months ahead as I view with alarm the world’s adverse weather conditions, short supplies of soybeans and grain, astonishingly high future prices, and by calendar year 2013, a world where people will starve (not because, as has been the case for decades, they do not have enough money to afford food), because there will not be enough food to feed the world’s population.
Yes, automation and other developments have changed the visual portrayal that came to my grandmother’s living room television in 1960. In this global economy, the men, women, and children who harvest our food may not be U.S. citizens or they may not be harvesting in the United States the food we have on our Thanksgiving table.
In Spain, where my younger daughter is currently teaching English, the agricultural attaché at the U.S. embassy in Madrid told me that organic vegetables are a major agricultural export from Spain to the United States.
[I miss my friend Lee. Certainly, this posting exists for remembering old friends especially one of my classmates at the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach where Lee was voted most likely to become Secretary of State. Flamboyantly arrested and taken out of Manhattan’s flagship Brooks Brothers store in handcuffs for embezzlement to support substance abuse, Lee was simultaneously one of:
My best friends
Most spiritually advanced
Most charming people I have ever met
A bemused and loving uncle to my daughters (often invoking the blessings of a moderation he rarely possessed).
[Sometimes, Lee seemed to be an incarnation of Proteus.
[Lee died shortly after a great run as a lobbyist (http://bulk.resource.org/gpo.gov/hearings/107s/78596.txt; see witness list for this Senate Judiciary Committee hearing) with two master degrees in substance abuse testifying before Congress on the importance of rehabilitation therapy. He died when each of us were experiencing spectacular reversals in our personal and professional lives. This was a time when we had little to give ourselves and therefore nothing to give each other except the remembrance that from the age of 6, we each shared lives as friends.
[As with many of my good friendships, there were many moments when each of us said the unspoken to the other, “How can I be friends with him?”
[The police found Lee’s decomposed body in his apartment in Washington, DC and had him cremated. His priest and close friend Robert Finamore located Lee after considerable effort. My name and phone number were in Lee’s wallet. Robert invited me to the memorial mass he was conducting at his parish and asked me to deliver a eulogy. Some news is so terrible I could not stop crying.
[Last weekend, I opened a box that had remained sealed for over a year. The box had been sent by my friend (and as it turns out archivist) Bonnie Blumenthal Finkelstein who proofread the original of the eulogy. Some boxes, just as some memories, are best left unopened. For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.
[I created this blog to provide a home for the kind of questions Lee’s eulogy raises in my now 63 year-old mind about the nature of life and friendship. The forces that caused the box to be opened also reveal tales for another time.
[Suffice it to say that the magical weekend the box was opened, my elder daughter Joanna was driving an ambulance while preparing to enter nursing school, my younger daughter Amelia was running with the bulls in Pamplona, and I was preparing one of my trademark exotic celebrations—this time concerning Ernest Hemingway.
[Lee (who bequeathed to me the meaning of “spiritual calling” while simultaneously abjuring not to make too big a thing of it) would have been amused that his eulogy has appeared below as a piece of objet trouvé before summer turns to fall.
[Soon cold and darkness will require the unusual (with a moral you have to find yourself)—a story uncovering the special meaning of why Lee learned to ice skate at a hotel in Miami Beach (during the 1950s) when the temperature outside was in the 80s.]
EULOGY FOR JOHN (LEE) AVERY (APRIL, 1948–SEPTEMBER, 2004) AT HIS MEMORIAL MASS, ST IGNATIUS CHURCH, FORT, WASHINGTON, MD http://www.saint-ig.org/, OCTOBER 30, 2004, DELIVERED BY JOEL SOLKOFF, LEE’S FRIEND SINCE 1953
We took Hebrew and eventually Aramaic classes in the morning and English classes in the afternoon.
I was there for 8 years. Lee graduated a year later having become president of his class in the yeshiva.
In 1972, on the day Lee’s mother died, he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Miami Beach where he had secretly been attending religious instruction for months. A year later he regarded his conversion as complete when he legally changed his name from Lee Avery Rosenhouse to John Avery.
He chose the name John as homage to Pope John XXIII, who had inspired him.
To some of his friends and colleagues he was known as John. When I once suggested to Lee that I would call him John if he preferred, he gave me a noblesse oblige glare and said, “No; because you are an old dear friend, you can still call me Lee.”
This is a good time to pause and focus on the life of a man whose name changes require me to clarify just who it is we are mourning today. My daughter Joanna observed that the manner of Lee’s untimely death makes today especially difficult because you and I did not have the chance of saying goodbye properly.
Over the course of my life, I have seen Lee go from being a law school student to an executive at Brooks Brothers, from an alcoholic with other drug-related problems (most notably cocaine) to a recovered survivor who received two master’s degrees in his disease and ran a substance abuse clinic——eventually becoming a Congressional lobbyist on behalf of treatment professionals.
The often operatic drama of Lee’s life and the charm and talents we experienced in his presence made it difficult to know who Lee really was. Much of the time, Lee was engaged in an elaborate form of denial which he referred to as “Let’s pretend.”
It is hard to look at the reality of his death without feeling anger and sadness at the unrealized expectations we had for Lee.
If Lee had died a year earlier with a little money in his pocket, with his career as a lobbyist still intact and his HIV still under control, we could have lauded him as a success:
·A man who had overcome alcoholism to help others afflicted with the disease
·A man who had survived the AIDS epidemic still mindful of its consequences
·A man who had survived with his faith in God intact
Instead, Lee died
·out of work and hope
·neglecting his HIV medication
·alone in his apartment
·found only after his body had decomposed for several days
The issue is not that a “better” death would make it more comfortable to eulogize Lee. But the reality is that there were two Lees–the one his friends and I wanted him to be and the one he actually was.
I realize that the point will come when I can shed my anger and sorrow that the ever-changing nature of Lee’s behavior could not lead him to the life of happiness and fulfillment I would have wished.
Indeed, my intention in this eulogy is to focus on the Lee who actually was—the man we mourn today and the man I loved as a brother.
Lee’s gift to me was the opportunity to accompany him through key moments in his difficult life journey. I will spend the rest of my time with you today listing the following six lessons I learned from Lee and discussing some of them:
1.Anecdotes make it easier to confront reality.
2.The rich are like you and me.
3.Not being a homosexual, I really do not understand.
4.It is harder to stop drinking than you might think.
5.Spirituality can perform miracles.
6.Few problems cannot be solved by being dressed adequately for the occasion.
Lee could tell a story more effectively than almost anyone I knew.
One of the big difficulties Lee faced was the way Mose and Estelle Rosenhouse handled the fact that they had adopted him when he was an infant. When he was in college and the family was in the midst of a truly ugly ﬁght about money, one of Lee’s relatives said, “You’re not really a Rosenhouse” and that’s how he found out.
Years later Lee commented he suspected he was adopted because his parents treated him “like a pet poodle.”
Lee told the story about a conversation his mother Estelle and her friends had on their experiences with childbirth.
When it was Estelle’s turn, she regaled the audience with bogus detailed descriptions of her labor pains with Lee.
When I met Lee in 1953, he seemed rich by all the standards of my childhood. His parents paid full tuition at the Hebrew Academy plus they were big contributors to our school. By comparison, my mother paid with difficulty at a deeply discounted rate.
There was considerable difference between the way teachers and fellow students treated the rich and the poor.
Shortly after we became classmates, Lee’s parents, as my mother described it, “adopted” my mother and me.
I was being raised by a single mother in the 1950s when divorce was a big taboo and my mother earned little money as a Hebrew school teacher.
Mose and Estelle established a lifelong friendship with my mother which began with our annual attendance at their house for Passover Seders.
I saw Lee’s life from the perspective of my apartment which was on the wrong side of south Miami Beach at a time when south Miami Beach was the wrong place to live.
I was soon to discover to my surprise that Lee was unhappy even though his house was in fashionable north Miami Beach. The house was large and artistically furnished—including a tasteful living room painted chocolate brown—a color Lee was to adopt effectively in adulthood when designing his drop-dead chic apartment in Roslyn, Va.
The Rosenhouse dining room contained a shockingly bad mural of Roman ruins and the dining room had enough space to accommodate all Lee’s large extended family over whom Mose presided with the genial air of a benign dictator.
Mose and his brother Dave were partners in their own highly-respected Miami law ﬁrm. Mose’s sister Sarah was his secretary. There were eccentric aunts and uncles on both Mose and Estelle’s side of the family, one of whom was always in residence in a spare bedroom with private bathroom. The room was reserved for relatives down on their luck like Uncle Mike (formerly a concert violinist) at the time working behind the counter of a delicatessen. In later years, Lee would wonder whether he had not in effect become Uncle Mike.
Lee’s aunts and uncles adopted me in a gush of Southern sentimentality— relatives whose alcohol, drug, and reality abuse Lee frequently compared to Tennessee Williams at his most decadent.
In short, when we were children, Lee had a very large family and I had a very small family. But my envy for Lee quickly changed. The fact that we were both such bad athletes that we were always the last two players chosen for kickball served as a larger image of what our rotten childhood was like and served as a bond between us.
Lee’s father died when he was in college. His mother died when he was in his mid-20s. By the time Lee was 30, Aunts Sara and Dora were dead and Lee spent a large chunk of his small inheritance going from funeral to funeral of more and more distant relatives.
Lee’s cousin Bobbie, who is in attendance this afternoon, can tell you the shock Lee experienced as the large all-embracing family of his youth was virtually extinguished.
As a child Lee thought he was rich. His father drove a new Cadillac every year. Lee had whatever material possessions he wanted including ice skating lessons—Lee became an excellent ice skater at the rink of a luxury hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6amr5ecQJWw&feature=related
One way the observers of Lee’s family measured their wealth was air conditioning. In the 1950s, air conditioning was not ubiquitous in Miami Beach. Only a few private individuals could afford the cost of keeping their houses cold——and the colder it was the bigger the status symbol. Lee’s parents constantly kept the house at 55 degrees when the temperature outside was in the 80s and 90s. You had to wear, a sweater when you went to Lee’s house. One of the secret parlor games of family friends was to guess the monthly air conditioning bill.
When Lee died, he had a cell phone because he could not afford a standard phone. He told a friend that he could be reached only at night because he had counted up the minutes and he could no longer afford the cost of talking before 9 at night.
Indeed, Lee was raised in a house of privilege and prestige. When his father died, for example, the funeral notice was on page one of The Miami Herald, hundreds attended the service. The mayors of Miami and Miami Beach attended as did Mose’s representative in Congress.
During his childhood Lee hated himself. His biggest challenge was achieving self-esteem. To Lee’s credit from childhood on he understood that the goal that matters most in life is not material, but spiritual. He later expressed his goal in such terms as the love of God, the forgiveness of Jesus, or (as I was always quick to add to his assent) Enlightenment.
The fact Lee was only partially successful does not diminish the heroic nature of his spiritual goal and the difficulty life gave him to meet it.
This brings me to the subject of Lee’s homosexuality. Our society may be approaching a day when the issue of a person’s sexual identity will be as irrelevant as hair color. However, Lee hated the fact that he was gay. His alcoholism helped lead him to a life of promiscuity that was as intense as the remorse he expressed the following day. The lesson Lee drew from his homosexuality, alcoholism, poor self-esteem was the conclusion that he had a call from God to become a Roman Catholic priest. Lee believed that his call would make it possible for him to transform his self-loathing to beneﬁt others like himself. Lee believed he had G0d’s call to minister to gay men who felt they had been abandoned by God because of their sexual orientation. This belief became clearest to Lee in New York when the AIDS epidemic was at its worst. In the 1970s, Lee had become a novitiate for a Jesuit order in Philadelphia (http://www.jesuitcenter.org/grounds.htm) but he needed to return to the secular world for a while. When he emerged from the AIDS epidemic (which exacerbated his alcoholism), he was HIV positive. When he applied to join a holy order in Boston, the order rejected him (after serious consideration) because it could not afford the insurance risk. I believe that decision was a tragedy. Lee would have been a great priest and the satisfaction that comes from heeding the call of God and successfully ministering to his ﬂock would have nourished him to the point where he would be with us today. .
No eulogy of Lee’s life would be complete with a discussion of clothing and style. Clothing served many functions for Lee. He could have written Dress for Success, which he once recommended to me with a long list of seriously considered exceptions. When Walter Mondale was vice president and Lee was an executive at Brooks Brothers, Lee accompanied the tailor to the Office of the Vice President and for months regaled friends with the story of how he saw the Vice President in his underwear. Powerful men from both political parties stopped by Brooks to ask Lee’s advice on what to wear.
There were times when his self-contempt got the better of him and he would sit on his Door Store chair in the chocolate-brown living room in Virginia and list just how much it had cost for him to dress himself—designer suit, shoes, tie, shirt plus watch and other jewelry “$2500 plus.”
Then, he would compare how he looked to how he felt about his value. “It cost me $2500 to walk across the street, but I don’t feel like I’m worth 2 cents.”
But there were other times—times when getting dressed became like some Japanese tea ceremony, when Lee effortlessly put himself together, getting the tie just right, attending to the crease in his trousers, smoothing out his shirt collar, when Lee achieved his own self-realized style that transcended form—a style whose admirability nobody could deny. I choose to believe that Lee is now in a place where he no longer feels the necessity to deny his own worth or to change his name again.
Lee and I at my bachelors’ party, October, 1981, National Press Club, Washington, DC
The following is my June, 2010 column From Where I Sit for Voices of Central Pennsylvania:
“Are you really my son?” my 84-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, asks. Six weeks ago my mother, Dr. Miriam Pell Schmerler, stopped answering the telephone by herself. Our weekly calls were models of the bizarre, with my combining Hebrew and English into the conversation, knowing that hearing my name in Hebrew sparked recognition not otherwise available. The once a week calls followed a pattern. I would tell her that I was her son. “Really?” she said, “how nice.” Then we would talk about some aspect of her life: her career including a doctorate in Hebrew letters (received in her late 50s) from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In our calls I repeatedly identified everyone, Mother’s daughter, grandchildren, and husbands. “You know you were married three times.” “Three times,” she said “that’s a lot, isn’t it?” I then described each of her husbands, including my father who was 27 years older than she. “Isn’t that a big difference in age?” she asked. The ongoing saga of her life amused her. It filled me with a tenderness for my mother I do not recall ever having felt. I remember a Buddhist minister saying that he had “issues” with his mother. The word “issues” seems so refined and polite that I adopted the word instantly. During our conversations, the issues disappeared. My cousin Michael once commented about how witty and charming my mother is. I said I had never observed it. Michael said, “Of course not. She is your mother. She cannot allow herself to be witty and charming in front of you.”
Now that she did not recognize me, other than as a friendly caller telling stories about her life, my mother became a real person for me. My children, Joanna and Amelia, found distress in mother’s inability to recognize her grandchildren. While I tried to explain my perspective, I could not alleviate their distress.
Nor could I alleviate my own distress in mid-March when I called Mother and she did not answer the phone. I began a new routine, calling the staff at the excellent nursing home and asking Jackie, Brooke, Marina, Mary Anne or Kim to go to mother’s room and hand the ringing phone to Miriam. My mother’s voice conveyed a sense of confusion and distress. The conversation was largely gibberish. It became clear that I had to see her. But how?
The answer is circuitous. My 1993 Buick was broken. I entrusted it to Gary D. Green’s College Heights Exxon, a wonderfully reliable institution. My mechanic Jeff told me he needed more time to figure out what was wrong. Nevertheless, I needed to go to Altoona, headquarters of the Blair/Clearfield Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, for which I work.
I researched bus service to Altoona which would take me downtown (and my power chair has enough battery power to take me to and from the office), but I could not get to a safe accessible motel where I planned to stay the week. There is no train.
I had heard about a disability van service called Wheelchair Getaways. After talking to Shannon Markley, I decided to pay for the incredibly expensive rental, knowing my creditors would and would not understand. When Shannon mentioned a slight discount for a week or more, I decided to spend the weekend seeing my mother—something I could not do otherwise. For a lengthy drive, neither my Buick nor my stamina could not be relied upon to hold up while going from the wheelchair lift at the rear of the car to the driver’s door, brushing my body against the car in the process.
The van has a button on the ignition key, which when pressed twice, opens the passenger-side panel door and a wheel chair ramp unfolds. I drive my power chair (the airlines at the State College airport refuse to accept power chairs on their flights) up the ramp. After closing the door with two key presses, I use the controls for the driver’s seat to move the seat back, sideways and up, so I can transition from power chair to driver’s seat without difficulty.
Without the van, I would not have been able to go to work, see my mother and have lunch with my two children. This month’s column raises an ongoing theme: the critical nature of travel for those of us with disabilities. Employment opportunities require going to where the work is located. Families separated by miles need to be together even if only on occasion. The worst thing for the economic survival and the individual feeling of self-worth is being confined to one’s room without the opportunity to earn an income and see loved ones. Travel must be made easier for those of us with disabilities.