Warmth from Distant Embers: Three Generations and the Holocaust
“The Name is the earliest Garment you wrap round the earth-visiting Me; what mystic influence does it not send inwards, even to the centre; especially in those plastic first times, when the whole soul is yet infantine, soft, and the invisible seedgrain will grow to be an all overshadowing tree!” Thomas Carlyle — Sartor Resartus
I am named after my paternal grandfather. He was gassed in Auschwitz five years before I was born. Yet, sometimes, and more and more it seems as I grow older, I’ve sensed his wild spirit moving in my life.
On a June morning, in the summer of my forty third year, I was at my desk, guitar in lap, trying to write a song, when I heard the buzzing of a chain saw. The sound reminded me of the apple tree in my yard, and of the large cavity near the base of one of its three trunks. When the rest of the tree produced leaves and blossoms earlier in the spring, that fork remained bare. It had died in the winter and I knew it was time to cut it down.
The song wasn’t going well anyway, so I put down my guitar and walked out toward the sound of the saw. The man wielding it had just finished felling the tall, sickly redbud in my neighbor’s back yard. In his sixties, thin with a fringe of white hair circling his mostly bald, sun darkened head, he wore baggy corduroys and a checked shirt. A large chainsaw and long handled ax lay on the ground near him, and he was using a smaller chainsaw to level the stump nearly flush with the ground.
When he saw me, he straightened and turned off the saw. I introduced myself; he said his name was Ted, and we shook hands. I began describing my apple tree’s rotting trunk. “Yeah, I noticed that,” he interrupted. “I used to trim all the trees in this neighborhood. Let’s go take a look.”
The apple tree was the only one left from an orchard that was here before our house was built in the Forties. It hadn’t been pruned in decades and was tall, overgrown with suckers twisting and curling every which way. Every spring it was shrouded in white blossoms and looked as though a late, freak storm had covered it with snow. Later in the summer, the branches were weighed down with inedible, wormy apples. When they fell, they carpeted the ground around the tree. The people who used to live here told me they paid their kids a penny for every ten apples they chucked into the ravine that borders the south side of our yard.
I had a different system. When I cut the grass I went right over the apples, peeling and mashing with my gas mower. It probably dulled the blades, but the yard smelled like apple sauce afterward.
Ted walked slowly around the tree, looking up into the branches. He abruptly asked, “Are you married? Do you have kids?” As always, when I was asked the second question, I felt some discomfort. My wife and I had been married for ten years by then, but had no children. It was an unresolved issue between us. I was not comfortable talking about it. I’d long ago learned that my answer would likely surprise and disappoint any questioner. Because I make my living playing music for children and families I used to be often asked after concerts, “How many children do you have?” Not, “Do you have children?” but, “How many.” And when I replied that I was married but had no kids, there was often a shocked response, “But, you play music for kids, and you’re so natural with them!”
Ted though, merely shrugged and continued, “I was just thinking that this tree would be great for a swing,” he said. Looking up, following his gaze, I could see he was right. That long horizontal branch on the healthy trunk would be ideal.
“I’ve put up a lot of swings in this neighborhood over the years,” he said. “I hung a triple one a few years ago for a family. The mom, dad and baby all swing together. If you buy the rope I’ll put it up for you, free.”
I thanked him and added that my twin brother and his wife were expecting their first child in a couple of months. I’d think about the swing. It might be good to have when my brother’s child is older.
With my brother and his wife expecting their first child, it was simultaneously easier, and harder, for me to answer the question about children. Somehow, my brother’s child-to-be both took the pressure off me and my wife, and also begged the obvious.
Ted though, said nothing and continued walking around the tree. “You have a fireplace, don’t you?”
I said we had a wood burning stove put in when we bought the house.
“What size logs will it take?”
“Eighteen inches,” I said.
“OK. I’ll charge you four dollars to cut it down and into firewood length.”
That sounded more than fair. We walked back to his tools and he said, “I’ll just use this little saw, the other one is almost out of gas. Here, you bring the ax. It’ll make you feel useful.”
I laughed, and as I bent to pick up the ax, a vivid memory came to mind, a story my father related often when I was growing up. How, when he was ten years old, his father handed him an ax one day and told him to sleep outside — to protect the firewood from thieves.
My grandfather Sándor was born in Középapsa, a small village near the city of Maramaros Sziget, on the banks of the Tisza river in Hungary. Everyone called him Shaya — short for his and my Hebrew name, Yishayahu, Isaiah. As a young man he periodically hiked upriver into the Carpathian mountains, cut down trees, tied them together into enormous rafts, and rode them downstream, sleeping on the rafts as they floated back to his village. Later, after my father was born, Shaya became a peddler, traveling by horse drawn cart, selling his wares in villages near his own. It was at these times, when he knew he’d be gone for a while, that my grandfather would hand my father the ax and appoint him guardian of the woodpile.
It occurred to me, as I followed Ted back to the apple tree, that this could have made my father feel useful. But I don’t think it did.
With a couple of practiced yanks Ted started the chain saw. After nipping away the suckers growing out of the trunk near the ground, he began to cut. First he carved out a small wedge on the side toward which he intended the tree to fall. Then he walked to the other side and began cutting again. Soon the tree fell ponderously. “We call that a slow fall,” he said.
He started slicing the fallen trunk in half with the chain saw. After he cut part way through, he asked me to turn it over. I did, and he continued sawing from the other side. There was just a little nub of wood holding the two halves together when he stopped and, nodding toward the ax said, “Why don’t you finish it with that.”
My father Herman was the second of Shaya’s eleven children and the oldest son, but he was hewn of very different stuff than his father. He did not enjoy going into the woods, chopping down trees or sleeping on a raft. And he did not have the temperament to fight people with an ax. Grandfather must have been disappointed.
Nor was he patient. When my father was three or four years old, and the family had moved to Balassagyarmat because Shaya was stationed in the army there during the first World War, he tried teaching my father to swim. Carrying my father on his back, Shaya swam out into the middle of the Ipoly river. Suddenly, without warning, he dove under, leaving my father on the surface. My father panicked, swallowed water, began drowning and had to be rescued — apparently much to Shaya’s disgust.
My father never did learn to swim. Although athletic — in his teens he was a fine sprinter and played semipro soccer — he was repelled by the rough, country life of his father. Instead, he was drawn to the cities, and to a life of the mind and the spirit. He studied the Talmud, and eventually became fluent in Hungarian, Hebrew, and German, in addition to his native Yiddish. He also discovered that he had an exceptional singing voice. By the age of thirteen he was often on his own. Traveling to nearby villages and cities as an itinerant Cantor, he led the services in synagogues and sent money back home to help support his father’s large family.
I know that made him feel useful.
My father was a Cantor all his adult life. I don’t recall ever seeing him swing a hammer, much less chop wood or hike in a forest.
I picked up the long-handled ax, feeling sheepish. My wife and I had burned wood in our stove for five winters but bought all our firewood. I’d never swung an ax. I took an awkward whack at the fallen log and Ted quickly said, “Stop!” He held out his hand for the ax and said, “Let me show you. Stand with your feet wide apart; that way if you miss, you won’t hit yourself. Then, you always do one stroke from the side, chipping out a piece, and on the next stroke come down straight.” He demonstrated with a few powerful swings that sent chips flying, then handed the ax back to me.
I spread my feet and took a couple more tentative swings and he stopped me again. “I forgot to tell you one more thing. When you bring the ax up over your head, don’t hold it at the bottom of the handle with both hands. It’s too heavy for that. Have one hand at the bottom and the other one up near the business end. Bring the ax high, then slide the upper hand down quickly along the handle as you start your swing.” Again he demonstrated, then handed back the ax.
“You like to teach, don’t you,” I observed gratefully. “Yeah,” he agreed. “I used to be a teacher. I taught ceramics but the dust was bad for me. The doc said I should do outdoor work. So here I am.”
I picked up the ax and swung a few more times, beginning to find the rhythm, the coordination. “You’re getting it,” he said enthusiastically. “You look like a real woodsman. Now give it the coup de grace.” Sure enough, on my next swing the log split in two.
In the weeks that followed, all that summer and fall, I explored the neglected woods and orchard behind our house. I cut down dead and dying walnut, cherry and scrub trees and sawed them into firewood. My father-in-law showed me how to use a chain saw and lent me his spare one. After work, almost every day, I chopped or sawed wood. I felt driven, almost obsessed. On some weekends my wife had to remind me to come in for meals.
The old saying is true. Wood warms you twice — once when you cut it, and again when you burn it. As I worked, I thought often of my grandfather. A life radiates for many years — while it is lived and every time it is remembered.
A year after I began cutting wood, my parents came up from Florida to visit. My wife and I had lived in our house for more than seven years by that time, but because neither she, nor my brother’s wife was Jewish, my father never visited. My mother came alone a few times. They both came now because six months earlier, our wives converted to Judaism. Mostly though they came to see Daniel, my brother’s nine-month old son, their first grandchild.
In spite of the joy of the occasion, there was tension surrounding their visit. They were uncomfortable and tentative around their daughters-in-law, and the feeling was mutual. Also, my wife and I were uneasily anticipating questions about when we too will produce a grandchild.
As if to mimic the chill that existed for years between my parents and us,an unseasonably cold Michigan June greeted them. We had a fire in our stove during much of their stay.
My father asked many questions about the woodpile stacked along my fence. Did I cut it all? Did I use an ax, or a saw? I showed him the chain saw. He’d never seen one. Curiously he watched as I carried in armloads of wood and fed the fire. I told him that the land my house sits on used to be an apple orchard. He casually replied that my grandfather Shaya had also owned an apple orchard; it was the only inheritance Shaya’s father left him when he died just days after Shaya was born.
It was the first time my father had ever mentioned the orchard. I felt warmed hearing about yet another small resonance between Shaya’s life and mine. My father reminisced that when he was in the hospital once as a child, his father Shaya brought two apples as a gift to the nurse who cared for him. In my father’s memory, the apples were so huge that she had to carry them away in her apron.
I thanked him for the stories of Shaya and told him they were gifts I found precious. He brusquely brushed away my sentiments, as I expected him to, and seemed puzzled that I would care about these stories. He had long tried to forget his painful childhood and could not understand why I was interested.
One evening after a walk in the cold air, he stood by my stove, warming his hands, and said in his heavily accented English, “I left my father’s house so I wouldn’t be chopping, cutting wood all the time. And here you — in America — burning wood!”
When my brother and I were children, before we sat down for the Sabbath meal every Friday night, we stood before my father for a moment. He would place his hands on our bowed heads and recite the traditional benediction in Hebrew, “May God make you a symbol of blessing as He did Ephraim and Manasseh.” I can still recall the feeling of the warm, comforting weight of his hands on my head.
That day, his hands stretched out over the stove in much the same gesture, he said another blessing. “It’s nice, the wood heat in your house.”
Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child. Cicero
My father revered Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Surprising heroes perhaps, for a man born and raised in far away Hungary. Not the heroes one might expect of a Jewish Cantor, whose work all his adult life has been the singing of liturgy in synagogues.
Yet, among the most vivid memories I have from my childhood in Hungary and Israel, through my teenage years in the United States, are the stories my father told of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis.
How one spring afternoon in 1935—coincidentally in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’ve lived since my early twenties—in the space of less than an hour, the magnificent Jesse Owens tied one world record and set five new ones. How one of those records, the long jump, lasted for more than twenty-five years; longer than any other record in modern track and field history. In his, and my brother and my favorite story, my father told how Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. How Owens’ triumphs humiliated Hitler, who had predicted victory for, and had cheered on the German sprinters and jumpers. How Hitler hastily left the Olympic stadium after Owens’ victory in the long jump, rather than stay to congratulate Owens. My father explained, “Hitler didn’t want to be seen in a photo with a Negro. He wouldn’t shake Jesse Owens’ hand.”
My father also delighted in acting out the famous 1938 boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Many times, in our living room, back yard, or even occasionally before services in shul, he’d ball up his fists, get into a prize fighter’s crouch and show us how the Brown Bomber landed the savage right that ended the fight in the first round.
“Two minutes! Just two minutes and four seconds is all it took!” he would exclaim. “They say that a Texas millionaire was at ringside that night, wearing one of those big cowboy hats. When somebody accidentally knocked his hat off soon after the beginning of the fight, he bent down to get it. By the time he looked up, the fight was over.” Saying this, my father would laugh till tears came to his eyes. Then he’d add dramatically, “Can you believe it? Hitler even sent Schmeling a telegram before the fight. ‘Congratulations to the new heavyweight champion of the world.'” Again, he’d laugh. Again, tears would fill his eyes.
My father was a gifted storyteller and the stories of great men were his favorites. He knew many stories. Some of them were of singers like him: of Moshe Koussevitzky, the legendary Cantor, Gigli, the great Italian operatic tenor. and Chaliapin, the famed Russian bass baritone. Others were about the teachings and sayings of the great Rabbis of history, and still others were of his childhood and adolescence in Hungary between the two World Wars.
Always, always though, he came back to the stories of Owens and Louis.
And, of his own father.
There are only two pictures left of my grandfather Shaya. In one he is a young man wearing his WW I Hungarian Army uniform. He is posing in profile, his rifle in his right hand, a long pickax in his left. On his back is a full knapsack, and binoculars hang from a strap around his neck. He was an advance scout. His assignment throughout the war was to climb mountains and lookout towers, occasionally behind enemy lines, and report on troop movements. His face, looking out of the old daguerreotype is calmly confident, almost defiant. A man aware of his powers.
When WW I ended, small bands of troops from the retreating Checkoslovakian Army, entered his city of Balassagyarmat and began looting homes. My grandfather stood by his front gate, rifle at the ready. “They are not coming in here,” he said. And they didn’t.
After the war, because of his Army service, Shaya was allowed a gun permit and carried a pistol in his travels as a peddler. When in the late Thirties the many restrictions against Jews began to be enforced, Shaya lost his permit and his gun. One day, traveling home from a successful selling trip he was attacked by two robbers. Wielding a loose plank from his cart, he knocked both men senseless.
When my father was about twelve years old, one Saturday morning he was walking home from shul with a few of his friends. Grandfather Shaya and the other men were walking some distance behind them. A group of teenagers surrounded the boys, and began chanting, “dirty Jews, dirty Jews.” When one of them yanked my father’s payis, the customary long sideburns of religious Jews, and landed a blow to my father’s head, Shaya came running and the young men fled. He caught two of them from behind and knocked them flat with a fist in each back.
In 1940, Shaya, despite being 53 years old, was ordered into the munkaszolgálat, the work detail attached to the Hungarian Army into which many Jewish men were conscripted. Stationed far from home, he rarely saw his family. One week however, his unit camped only five kilometers from his home town of Balassagyarmat. That Friday, Shaya decided to walk home to spend the Sabbath with his family. He neglected to inform anyone that he was leaving. When he returned Sunday afternoon his commanding officer accused him of desertion. Shaya retorted, “I’m here. Besides,” and at this point he stepped close to the officer and repeatedly tapped the man’s chest with his index finger, “If you hadn’t seen your wife and children in three months, and you were this close, what would you have done?” Shaya was a highly decorated veteran of World War One. The matter was dropped.
Shaya was released from munkaszolgálat when a lookout tower, like the ones he’d climbed more than twenty years before in WW I, now rotted from years of neglect, collapsed under him. He broke his right shoulder and several ribs and never quite recovered from his injuries.
When my brother and I were about sixteen years old, my mother told us one day that she was our father’s second wife. That he’d lost his first wife and their three young children in the Holocaust.
This almost unbelievable news was barely comprehensible to me at first. And, it was somehow silently understood in our family that we would not talk about it with our father. After my mother’s revelation that day, many years went by before I allowed myself to even think about these things, and years more before I braved talking about them with my father; years before I understood the sadness I’d always sensed in my father even when I was still a little child, but whose cause I’d never before known; years before I knew why he kept to himself so much, why he rarely joined my mother, brother and me on family outings to parks or beaches, saying that he needed time to study for the next week’s Torah reading. We all knew that was not true. He could almost recite the readings by heart after so many years of study and repetition. He didn’t need to rehearse every Sunday afternoon, all afternoon.
The truth was, he wanted to be alone. It sometimes seemed to me that he wanted to be alone so much that he was not a part of our family. That day when my mother told us, twenty years after they were murdered, my father was still mourning his first family.
His frequent stories of Jesse Owens and Joe Louis gradually came to mean more to me. I began to see why the victories of Owens and Louis held such mythic power for him.
In June of 1938, when Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling, my father was living in Kunhegyes, a small town a hundred-twenty-five kilometers east of Budapest. He served as Rabbi, Cantor and school teacher for the Jewish families living in that community. Although he was happy in his life in Kunhegyes, he was well aware of the gathering horror of Hitler. After Krystalnacht in 1938 he had visible proof that Hitler’s insane rantings could inspire very real violence. In 1942 that brutality pounded on his door. When war broke out, like his father Shaya, he was ordered into the munkaszolgálat. He spent much of the rest of the war in work lagers in Poland. When he returned home to Kunhegyes in late 1944, my father discovered he had lost everything to the Nazis.
While he was away in the munkaszolgálat, much of his family was taken to Auschwitz in cattle cars. There, besides numberless more distant relatives, he lost his father Shaya, his mother Rozsa, his only brother, three sisters, and, perhaps most excruciating of all, his wife, two sons and a daughter.
My father told me many times that he believed that Shaya, had he not been recovering from the fall from the lookout tower, would have never been taken alive to Auschwitz. He was certain that Shaya would have taken to the grave with him a number of the Csendör, the hated Hungarian state police who rounded up Jews to transport to the camps.
I used to have different fantasies, even more unrealistic. I’ve dreamt that Shaya might have been able to save the whole family.
Jesse Owens and Joe Louis were exceptional men, worthy of my father’s admiration. However, my father did not look up to them only for their athletic feats. He revered them because they did something he had not been able to do.
Jesse Owens and Joe Louis beat the Nazis.
To renew ties with the past need not always be daydreaming; it may be tapping old sources of strength for new tasks. Topics of the Times — Simeon Strunsky
Sing again, with your dear voice revealing / A tone / Of some world far from ours. . . To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling Percy Bysshe Shelley
“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” Itzhak Perlman at the conclusion of a concert at Avery Fisher Hall, on November 18, 1995 when he broke a string on his violin early in a concerto and finished the piece on only three strings. *
My father did not have a lullaby voice. Well into his eighties, his voice continued to be a powerful and passionate instrument. In his prime it was a voice that carried easily, without amplification, to the farthest corners of the Dohány Templom, the largest synagogue in Budapest and indeed in all of Europe. I still remember listening to him, along with our mother, from the balcony where the women and young children sat. We could clearly hear his voice, even above the accompaniment of the pipe organ and a choir of twenty, some of them soloists from the Budapest Opera House.
I was fascinated by my father’s voice. It seemed as if, through some magical ventriloquism, the sound I heard was not coming from his mouth. His voice seemed to fill the space around him and be coming equally from everywhere. I could hear a bell-like overtone that surrounded and enveloped his every note. It sounded like small chimes tinkling, far away. I loved that sound in his voice. Sometimes I would try to focus on just that ringing, try to block out every other sound, to see if I could hear only those chimes.
It was a grand voice, meant for grand occasions and grand places. When my brother and I were small children, my mother often told us in shul that our father was singing to God. I was certain that my father’s voice carried all the way up to heaven.
When my brother and I were infants and cried at night, my father tried to sing us to sleep with that voice. In response, we cried even louder. My mother sometimes gleefully recounted that she, who was profoundly tone deaf and endured for nearly sixty years his sometimes cruel teasing about her singing, could always easily lull us to sleep with her off key, tuneless crooning. He told her many times, “They will never be musicians.”
He was wrong.
But, years later, he was right when he said to me, “You don’t have an operatic voice.”
I was fifteen and passionately in love with Italian opera. While all my friends were listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan and learning to play the guitar, so they could sing their songs, I was memorizing the recordings of Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, Nicolai Gedda, and my other tenor heroes. I constantly sang along with the phonograph, or belted out acapella, my favorite Puccini and Verdi arias. One day my father, hearing my singing, said casually, “You don’t have an operatic voice.”
For me at the time, opera was the ultimate that a singer could strive for. All other kinds of music were for singers whose voices were not beautiful enough, not powerful enough, who could not develop the enormous range and projection necessary for opera. His offhand statement dashed an unspoken dream of mine.
I believed him. Or rather, I believed he thought I was not good enough to be an opera singer. Of course, I set out to prove him wrong. But only halfheartedly. I continued to sing arias around the house and solos with my high school choir, but I went off to college to study electrical engineering. His idea.
He said I would do well as an engineer because I was good with figures and had always done well in math in school. He often reminded me that the first words I formed were, “egy, kettö,” Hungarian for “one, two.” He also frequently invited me to add up columns of figures, such as donations to his shul, noting my skill in doing those calculations in my head.
(Much, much later, when I was already in my late forties, my father told me once that his mother had also been very good with figures. Thursday nights his father Shaya, having returned from his weekly peddling trip, would sit at the kitchen table with a long sheet of paper on which he’d marked his costs and selling prices, and would add up the columns to figure his profit. My grandmother Rozsa sat across the table from him and, reading upside down, added up the columns in her head. Always, she’d be done before Shaya. And, if their figures did not agree, when he’d check again, invariably it was she who was correct.)
Perhaps my father had also taken note of my “inventions” in the basement. Because my adopted role model and hero when I was in high school was Thomas Alva Edison, I spent hours in the basement trying to recreate his great inventions and attempting my own. What my father failed to notice, or chose to ignore, was that none of my inventions ever worked. I didn’t care about that. What I loved about Edison was his famous philosophy, “Inventions are one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I admired hard work over talent, perhaps fearing that I had little of the latter, hoping I had a capacity for the former. I was inventing myselfin the basement, trying to cultivate that ability to work hard.
But in spite of my fascination with Edison, there were some pretty clear signs that I’d not make a good engineer. Not only because of my repeated failures in the basement, but also because of my performance in my high school shop class. There, even with proper tools, instruction and supervision, none of which I had in our basement, I showed a profound lack of talent at making things. The aluminum tube that I was to sand and polish into a ring suitable for a sweetheart instead, when I gave up on it, looked like any misshapen piece of metal you might find on a street and wonder what its function might have been in a car before it suffered a major accident. Another project, an ornamental wooden cart, designed to hold fruit and suitable for proud display on the family dining room table turned out much better because my shop teacher intervened at an early stage of construction — probably fearing for his job if he sent a student home with a project that looked the way mine was shaping up to be.
No, despite my father’s presumption that he could choose my career, I was destined not to be an engineer. That became very evident as soon as I began college. It seemed as though, while I was still in high school and didn’t yet have to choose a career, my abilities in math, science and music could shine equally. But when it came time to decide about my life’s vocation, a part of me was apparently so unhappy about the engineering choice that it completely shut down my capacity to do that kind of work. In college I could barely get Ds in math and science courses.
My father also attempted to pick my brother’s life work. His reasoning there was even fuzzier. “Laci will be a good doctor. He has small hands.” I remember being puzzled. This was in the mid Sixties. For years around that time, the world champion in the shot put was Randy Matson. We used to watch him in track meets on TV. In his huge hands the sixteen-pound shot looked like a gray tennis ball. He was a dental student.
I was miserable my first two years in college. My freshman roommate told me, “The only time you look happy is when you’re singing.” He was right, and I knew it. Still, I never allowed myself to even consider a career in music. Instead, halfway through my sophomore year I switched my major from engineering to history because I had gotten A’s in each of the three history courses I’d taken up to then, while nearly flunking every calculus, chemistry and physics course. I told my parents that a BA in history would enable me to teach or perhaps go on to law school.
But, I continued to take voice lessons and music courses. It was during one of my lessons in my junior year that Julian Morlock, my voice teacher at the Eastman School of Music said, “You don’t have an operatic voice.”
This time I finally understood. Neither he, nor presumably my father, were making judgments about whether I was good enough to sing opera. They were simply describing the type of voice I had and what it was most suited for. Not unlike a high school baseball coach deciding that one of his players has the build and skills of a catcher, even though the boy dreams of being a shortstop.
Although my father predicted when we were babies and cried at his lullabies, that we would never be musicians, my brother and I showed promise of being musical from a young age. When we were about three years old, so goes the legend in our family, my parents took us to a recital given by a friend of theirs, an operatic soprano. During the intermission, apparently inspired, we climbed the stage and spontaneously burst into song. Our choice was something we must have heard our father sing often — the famous tenor aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto, La Donna É Mobilé, “Women are Fickle!” — in Hungarian no less.
By the time we were five or six years old we regularly attended rehearsals with our father’s choir at the Dohány Templom. We never sang there with him during the services though. It was too big and formal a setting for that. We did sing in the choir at the Bethlen tér Templom where our father also often led the services. We did that is, until my brother and I started fighting. Then the choir director would banish us, to stand next to our father, and sing with him there — where we promptly resumed kicking each other’s shins — much to the delight of the worshippers, who could see us, and the consternation of our father who, his vision blocked by the altar, could not. He was forced to continue singing, his back to the congregation in the style traditional in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, bewildered why everyone was laughing.
It is November, 1956. The Hungarian Revolution is raging on the streets of Budapest. Schools and stores are closed. My twin brother and I are seven years old. We haven’t been able to go outside in more than a week. We are playing in the enclosed courtyard of our apartment building in Budapest. Our playmates and we have constructed makeshift barricades from bicycles, garbage cans, pieces of firewood and even some chairs we’ve cajoled our parents into letting us drag down three flights of stairs. We stage mock battles with toy guns and make-believe Molotov cocktails. Our fiercest fights though, take place even before the battles begin, when we choose sides. Who will play the Soviet Army and who the Hungarian students and other freedom fighters? No one wants to be the Ruszkik.
Our uncle Ervin has sneaked his way around Soviet checkpoints on his motorcycle, violating the martial law curfew, and brings our family bread and potatoes he bought on the black market. Always daring, chutzpah personified, he has for years somehow managed to own that motorcycle, a car, and even an electronic repair shop, despite the Communist government’s rules forbidding private ownership.
When my brother and I aren’t playing in the courtyard, we stand on the windowsills of our apartment, trying to see some of the street fighting. Although our apartment building is only blocks from the headquarters of the hated AVO, the Hungarian Secret Police, and the gunfire sometimes is close enough to rattle our windows and shake us off the ledge, we never see any of the fighting.
Possibly in response to our whining about not being allowed to play outside, our mother tells us a frightening story. A few days before, a little boy, in childish imitation of freedom fighters slinging Molotov cocktails, threw an empty bottle at the back of a Soviet tank. The turret turned, machine guns blazed, the boy was killed, and the tank then leveled the building where he had lived. The story, though possibly apocryphal, was easy for us to believe, especially the day we finally went outside after the Revolution was over and saw what the Soviet Army tanks did to the streets and buildings of Budapest. Some people said the destruction was worse than what the city suffered in WW II.
We walk with our parents down streets deserted by vehicular traffic, gaping at bombed buildings, excitedly searching for spent bullets and shells. At one point, we notice people being drawn to a still barricaded intersection. All my brother and I can see through the crowd is a booted foot lying on the cobblestones. Our mom pulls us away.
When our father goes to work at the Bethlen tér synagogue the next day, he discovers that the Russian soldiers have shot the lock off the donation box in the lobby and emptied its contents. More disturbingly, they have ripped the plush red velvet curtain from the Ark containing the scrolls of the Torah. Some members of his congregation report seeing the soldiers using the fabric to line their winter hats.
A few weeks later, a Communist official visits our second-grade classroom. Making no attempt to lower his voice, he asks our teacher, “Who are the two little monkeys with beanies back there?” When my brother and I began attending school the previous year our father arranged that we be allowed to wear our yarmulkes in class and that we be permitted to not attend school on the Sabbath. (In Hungary at the time, schools were in session six days a week.) Every Sunday afternoon we’d visit one or another of our classmates and catch up on what we missed the day before. Now, one of those kids, with courage well beyond her eight years speaks up. “They’re not monkeys. They’re our friends.” Emboldened, a small chorus echoes her. The rest of the conversation between the inspector and our teacher is conducted in the hallway. No one orders us to remove our yarmulkes.
My father’s sister Ami and her husband Ervin, the same one who braved the Soviet curfew on his motorcycle, have taken the long sled my brother and I have used for years to slide down snowy Budapest hills, crammed whatever of their belongings would fit on it and, risking being shot by patrolling soldiers, have dragged it across the border between Hungary and Austria. They wind up in a displaced persons’ camp in Vienna and eventually make their way to New York.
Our parents dared not risk making the same trip with two seven-year old children. Nevertheless, the handwriting was on the wall and the message was not good. It was only a little more than a decade since my parents returned from concentration camps and they bitterly remembered Hungarian and Russian anti-Semitism. They knew that the Communist party discouraged religious practice of any faith ever since it came into power in the late Forties. They knew my father’s job as a Cantor would not be secure much longer. They also knew that we, their children, would have limited opportunities for higher education in the informal, but very real, anti-Semitic quota system. Like many people in Eastern Europe, then and since, our parents dreamt of moving to America.
But that was not possible for our family in 1956. The immigration quotas were already filled here.
While my parents were trying to decide what to do, the border between Hungary and Austria was sealed. Enormous fences were constructed. Escaping across the border became even less of an option. But then another opportunity presented itself. A minor Communist bureaucrat, brought into Budapest in the wake of the Revolution and needing housing for his family, approached my father and asked, “Do you want to go to Palestine?” (Palestine being the name Hungarians used for Israel at that time.) He made my father an offer — an exit visa in exchange for our fully furnished apartment. Apartments were very precious and hard to find in Hungary’s post WW II housing shortage, made even more acute by the destruction of many buildings in the 1956 Revolution. He gave my father two days to decide.
My parents were forced to make a wrenching, but ultimately inevitable decision. We began preparing to leave our homeland. My mother, in an effort to ensure that we remember her native city, the place she has lived all her life, with the exception of the six months she spent in the camps, took us every day to a different part of her beloved Budapest; the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Chain Bridge, Kossuth Square. By way of contrast, she even showed us what was left of the statue of Stalin, toppled by an angry mob on the first day of the Revolution — only the pedestal and the enormous boots remained.
Just days before we were scheduled to leave, we were confronted with last minute regulations forbidding us to take new items of clothing out of the country. My mother took us to the park across the street from our apartment building and encouraged us to muddy our new boots in the puddles.
The Saturday before we leave, my father led the services for the last time at the grand Dohány Templom in Budapest before a full house of more than two thousand worshippers. A few days later, in March of 1957 we boarded a train and left Hungary for Italy and from there by boat to Haifa, Israel. A month later we settled in Ein Ayala, a moshav, a semi cooperative farming community of ninety families just south of Haifa. We moved from one of the largest, most sophisticated cities in Europe, to a tiny Middle Eastern village with dirt roads and no indoor plumbing or electricity.
My father knew how to speak Hebrew and Yiddish and was able to draw on his memories and experiences growing up in a rural setting in Hungary. Still, he had lived most of his adult life in cities and, at the age of forty-seven, the move was an enormous life change.
For my mother, born and raised in Budapest, and speaking neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, the change was even more difficult. She did not adjust easily to the semitropical heat, to dirt roads that turned into quagmires of mud during the rainy season, or to having to catch a chicken when she wanted to cook dinner. Her least favorite Hebrew word became savlanut — patience — the automatic response of the old timers to any complaints by the newer settlers.
Besides being the Cantor at the village shul, my father also managed the general store and we had a small chicken farm. Needless to say, the shul had no organ or choir. My brother and I became his two-boy choir. Perhaps our singing with him in shul reminded him of better days and enabled him to partially recreate the setting he had been accustomed to in Budapest.
For Laz and me the adjustment to Israel was easier. We learned Hebrew quickly, and farm life, rather than being a hardship, was a series of exciting adventures. While I also recall the muddy roads — even how one night, as we were walking to shul, one of my father’s boots got suctioned off by the deep mud, never to be found — I mostly remember the good times; feeding carrots to the massive horse we shared with our neighbor, hunting for fresh eggs in the haystacks, (our free ranging chickens’ favorite roosting places) and, best of all, the thrill of new baby chicks.
They’d arrive by truck, in itself a rare and exciting event, in big, flat latticed boxes. Golden fluff balls the size of small oranges, with outsized feet and beaks — chirping nonstop — and so warm to hold between our cupped hands. One time the delivery man dropped a box as he pulled it off the truck. It broke, and we spent the rest of the morning chasing the tiny chicks.
In Ein Ayala, as we had in Budapest, my brother and I continued to play war games with our friends. Unlike in Budapest, where our “battlefield” was the courtyard of our apartment building, in Ein Ayala, our “bunkers” were haystacks, our “bayonets”, pitchforks. We also added a new game to our repertoire that, of all the kids in our village, only Laz and I played. It was more military exercise than game. Almost daily, the two of us marched through the village, with rigid posture, in close formation, walking very fast, and — I now realize with more than a little shock — goose stepping, like Nazis. (Where did we learn this? Did we see the Russian troops use that marching style in 1956?) I don’t recall the origin of this peculiar exercise, but I do remember that, although people really noticed us, which was probably the whole point, no other child ever joined us.
We left Israel in late 1959 and emigrated to the United States. My father had not been happy in Israel. “They don’t need Cantors here. They need farmers.” But, he did almost nothing to arrange our second migration. I think he felt guilty and ashamed for wanting to leave Israel. He broke down in tears as he led the services for his last Shabbes in Israel. Laz and I, standing next to him at the bima, cried at his tears.
My mother had no such inner conflicts. She regularly, and quite happily, traveled to Haifa and Tel Aviv to deal with the endless red tape and paperwork involved in the move. One time a bureaucrat informed her that we needed to reimburse the government, to the tune of a thousand dollars, for the cost of transporting our family from Hungary to Israel two years previously. When she pointed out that she could prove that we had paid for our own passage, he said we owed the money anyway — for breathing the Israeli air for two years.
The morning we arrived in New York’s harbor, after the three-week crossing on the ocean liner Saturnia, my father accidentally bumped his head—hard—on the top bunk in our cabin. He rubbed the rapidly swelling bruise on his forehead and said, “Any Jew who leaves Israel deserves whatever pain he gets.”
At first, he also refused to get off the ship because it was a Saturday, the Sabbath. He only agreed to disembark after the captain came by to inform him that, if he didn’t, he’d be on his way back to Italy when the ship left later that day.
We lived with my father’s sister and her husband in their two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx for two months until my father found a job in Kingston, a town of thirty thousand, two hours north of New York City.
(When we moved to the United States in late 1959, it was just before the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. In recognition of that anniversary, Civil War merchandise was being heavily marketed. Many boys wore Union and Confederate Army replica hats and we played war games on our way to and from school and during recess. As in Budapest, in our childish battles between Russians and Hungarians, now in Kingston few of us willingly chose to be on the Confederate side and fight for Dixie in our mock reenactments of Gettysburg, Shiloh and other bloody Civil War battles. And our goose-stepping exercise died a quiet, natural death. We never did it in America.)
Agudat Achim was one of three synagogues in Kingston and the only Orthodox one. It boasted a membership of three hundred families but was only full on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hasonoh and Yom Kippur. On most Sabbaths, unless there was a Bar Mitzvah, there were only fifteen or twenty elderly men and one or two women — usually my mother and the Rabbi’s wife. Morning and evening weekday services often began late, after my father telephoned a few members to come and help make a minyan, a quorum of ten men. His life became a little easier when Laz and I turned thirteen and he could count us as men in the minyan.
In Budapest my father had been one of an elite group of Cantors who rotated between that city’s large synagogues. He only sang on the Sabbath and led only the prestigious parts of the services. The assistant Cantors did the rest. In Kingston he did everything. He opened and closed the synagogue twice a day seven days a week, led all the prayers, chanted the Torah readings, taught the Bar Mitzvah boys and even folded the prayer shawls and lit the Yahrzeit lights.
He had auditioned in a number of larger communities before settling on the job in Kingston. He sang at tryouts in the Bronx, Queens, Rego Park and Brooklyn. On some weekends we traveled to Philadelphia, where he had a cousin, and once to Atlantic City. At the Reform temple there, the Rabbi instructed him to lead the service while facing the congregation — something my father had never done before in the traditional synagogues with which he was familiar. I remember him muttering darkly under his breath in Hungarian, “What do they want? Davening (praying), or a concert?” The Rabbi also suggested he use a microphone. My father brushed it away brusquely. “I don’t need it. You’ll hear me.”
(My father used to tell a story of his father. Shaya was an enormously strong man. My father remembers him one day trading with a butcher for a bundle of lamb and cow skins that weighed one hundred kilos, about two hundred twenty pounds. The butcher said to Shaya, “I’ll call my helper and the three of us will put that in your cart.” Shaya replied, “You don’t need to call anyone,” and effortlessly picked up the bundle and flung it into the cart. Just as Shaya was proud of his strength, my father, though not a physically powerful man, was proud of the power of his voice.)
He took the job in Kingston finally because he felt the pressure of all of us being cramped into my aunt and uncle’s apartment and didn’t want to hunt for a job any longer. I think he must have thought he’d be in Kingston a few years while we got settled and then he’d find a better job. He was there until his first retirement, eighteen years later.
My brother and I, eleven years old when our family moved to Kingston, again became his two-boy choir. We sang with him in the services, at synagogue social events and joined him on the weekly radio show sponsored by our congregation. In Hungary and Israel, we had always felt excited and privileged to be able to sing with him. Now it gradually became a burden.
In Kingston, usually we were the only children at the services. We saw that our friends, even our Jewish friends, were allowed to play ball or go to the movies on Saturdays and did not have to go to shul twice a day, seven days a week. We were also getting caught in the crossfire between our parents. Living in America was liberating for my mother. She had discovered a sense of her own power in arranging the move from Israel and now, for the first time in their marriage, she began working outside the home. Unlike Hebrew, which she never mastered, she learned English quickly and started to become familiar with the world outside the synagogue community.
While my father’s life revolved around the shul, and he spoke mostly Yiddish with the elderly members of his congregation, my mother worked in a garment factory, spending eight hours a day in the company of younger, mostly non-Jewish women. They talked about national and local news, listened to music on the radio, and gossiped about each other’s lives.
It was she who came home from work one day in February of 1964 and, with great enthusiasm, told us about the Beatles. My father and brother and I were musical snobs then, listening primarily to opera. We laughed at my mother’s off-key rendering of “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” At her urging though, we all watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show that Sunday night. After a few minutes, my father got up from the couch and left the room, snorting in disgust, “This is not music!” I think I felt inclined to agree with him. The next day, when one of my schoolmates asked if I’d seen the Beatles on TV, I replied, “There was a show about bugs?”
My mother grew up in a much less religious family than my father. Their different backgrounds had always been a mild source of tension in their marriage. When they were first married, my father had had to teach her the proper way of running a Jewish kitchen and how to prepare food, so it would be kosher. My mother, who had lost her fiancé in WW II and was almost thirty when she met my father, was so eager to marry that she was willing to accommodate his wishes. However, in Kingston, she started going to shul less often.
And she began inventing reasons why Laz and I should not go either. At night her excuse was, “They have too much homework.” In the morning it was, “They need their sleep.” My brother and I were grateful to have an occasional respite from shul and perfectly willing to let her fight our battles for us. We didn’t want to have to confront our father directly.
My parents argued constantly about all the restrictions of Orthodoxy. My mother wanted to watch TV on Shabbes. My father would not allow it. For years, we never turned on the TV Friday nights and Saturdays. The first time we did was on November 22, 1963, the Friday President Kennedy was assassinated. My mother insisted on watching the news and my father was so upset about the tragedy that he didn’t put up a fuss. We all watched the broadcasts together that night and much of the day on Saturday.
It created a precedent. After the weekend, my mother bought an electronic timer that automatically turned on the TV for her — and his — favorite Friday night and Saturday programs.
Things finally came to a head between my parents when my father announced that he wanted to send my brother and me to Yeshiva in Brooklyn. He wanted us to be in a Jewish school, among religious Jewish kids. It never occurred to him to ask how we felt about being sent away from home. He had, after all, left his parents’ house when he was thirteen.
Our mother would have none of it. No way would she settle for seeing her sons only on weekends. Besides, she argued, the religious school would leave us unprepared to function in the rest of the world. My father had dreams of us following in his footsteps and becoming Cantors, or even Rabbis, but she said, “What if that’s not what they will do? Yeshiva will prepare them for nothing else.” The arguments raged on. She got her way finally and we stayed at home, but it created a rift in our family that never fully healed.
When ten years later Laz and I began singing folk music in coffeehouses, my father was still blaming my mother for what he considered our very unfortunate career choice. “This would never have happened if you’d have let me send them to Yeshiva.”
We gradually stopped singing with him in shul. I don’t remember when the final break came. I do remember that we started pretending we didn’t see him signaling us to come up to the bima, and finally he stopped inviting us. I had begun resenting the small roles he gave us when we sang with him. I was fifteen and beginning to sing solos in my high school choir. It had been fine, when we were eight or ten years old, to stand next to him for the whole service and occasionally sing “Amen” and a phrase or two every few minutes. But now I felt it was beneath me to sing so little, and in front of so few people. Instead of feeling useful, I felt used.
The director of my high school choir, who also taught music in the junior high school, had noticed my singing in seventh grade and invited me to join the choir when I got to high school. He had waited patiently when I didn’t sing in eighth grade while my voice changed. When I returned to school the following autumn, my voice had once again become reliable.
At the first rehearsal the choir director asked me to be in a quartet that would demonstrate a piece of music for the rest of the choir. On a high note my voice cracked and shot wildly into the next octave. One hundred and twenty of my schoolmates exploded with laughter. I silently swore to myself, “If that happens one more time, I’ll stop singing.”
It never happened again. I developed a control that prevented me from cracking and ensured a very good intonation but also led to a tightness and some bad singing habits that I was not to unlearn until I was in my thirties.
When in my junior year I was the baritone soloist for the Mass in G by Franz Schubert, I worried that my father would object to my singing a Latin Mass. I decided not to tell him. I knew he would not find out. He wouldn’t come to any of the concerts because they coincided with services at his shul. Laz and I also chose not to discuss with him the music for our senior year choir concerts, when we were the baritone soloists for Gounod’s De Profundis and sang “Et Ipse Redimet Israel.” (He’ll redeem Israel.) Great lyrics for the Cantor’s sons to be singing! My father had already made a huge concession by allowing Laz and me to sing in the Friday and Saturday night concerts, rather than be in shul with him.
For Laz and my sixteenth birthday my father suggested we have a party at our house. We could invite all our Jewish friends. One of them, Pinky Krepel, now a professional actor, gave us a gift we still have, the “Peter, Paul and Mary — Live at Carnegie Hall!” two record set.
We wore it out. We memorized all the songs and even the spoken introductions. To this day I can probably recite, word for word, Paul’s long monologue on side four.
My father hated those records. “What a scam, leaving the applause on, so they don’t have to record as much music.” I didn’t agree with him, but I was still pretty snobbish about many other folk singers. Peter, Paul and Mary, while not possessing the glorious voices of the opera singers I admired, at least sang pleasantly and in tune. However, I remember laughing hysterically at Bob Dylan’s singing, particularly his rendition of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on the John Wesley Harding album. His long, very nasal, out of tune scoop up to the high note at the beginning of the bridge in that song never failed to crack me up. Although I eventually grew to admire, love and even try to emulate Bob Dylan’s songs and singing, I still smile when I hear that passage.
A year after we started listening to folk music, we bought our first guitar. Since my father thought it was a foolish idea, and was sure we wouldn’t stick with it, he only allowed us to buy one guitar between the two of us.
And what a guitar. Shiny, sunburst finish and strings a quarter inch off the fingerboard; difficult to play at the first and second frets, impossible above the third. Nevertheless, Laz learned about six chords and played them over and over.
I didn’t get serious about the guitar until after my senior year in college, by which time Laz and I had somehow decided we would play music for a living. Never mind that we only knew about ten chords between us. Or that practically our entire repertoire was still only the songs from that first Peter Paul and Mary album. We knew we could sing.
And, what was more important, I had established by then that playing music was my best shot at attracting the interest of girls.
I’d first discovered this crucial information four years earlier when, in my senior year in high school, I spent two weeks in the hospital with a bleeding stomach ulcer. Because I was confined to total bed rest for most of my hospital stay, the doctors ordered daily massages to help prevent bed sores. I quickly learned that I could get more frequent, and longer back rubs if I sang on the intercom system for the nurses. Here finally, was a reallygood use for my singing.
On my last day in the hospital, when I was already allowed out of bed, my father asked me to go with him to visit a member of his congregation who had been in a car accident, and who was just down the hall from me.
She was about five years older than me. Gorgeous. And in bed. Never mind that she was practically in a body cast. I was tongue tied. I managed a stammered hello and asked how she was feeling. I noticed as I spoke that my voice was about an octave lower than usual and had a rich resonance I could usually only create when singing.
A mysterious expression, unfamiliar to me but exciting, fluttered across her face. She turned to her parents and said, “Doesn’t he have a lovely voice? You can tell he’s a singer.”
The summer after I graduated from college I started playing guitar in all my spare time. I had my own guitar by then. Laz had inherited the one we’d gotten in high school. Mine was no better. The strings were as far above the fingerboard as on his, but the finish was solid black. At the time I imagined that its sinister color perfectly suited my self image as a tough, hard living, rock ‘n roller.
By the middle of the summer I had decided I was ready to play music for a girlfriend. I learned a song just for her. To play it I needed to use bar chords — the bane of all beginning guitarists. Those chords still buzzed like a hive of not very musical bees when one night, on the front porch of the hippie haven I was sharing with about ten other people, I attempted the song for Penny.
Hunched over the guitar, my chin buried in my chest, I mumbled the song, barely audibly. It was all I could do to even manage that, since all my attention was devoted to fingering the chords and strumming the guitar. Because of the halting way I changed chords, the three-minute song probably took five minutes for me to struggle through. I never once took my eyes off my left hand as it painstakingly formed the stubborn chords on the neck of the guitar.
When I finished, I looked up at her expectantly. She hesitantly and very diplomatically said, “That’s. . . nice. Was that a song you wrote?”
“No,” I said, “That was by Bob Dylan. It’s called “Lay Lady, Lay.”
“Oh, I thought it sounded familiar. That’s one of my favorite songs.”
About six years after we started playing in public, my father came to the first of the three concerts of ours he ever attended. Laz and I had moved to Michigan by then and were starting to tour nationally. We were playing at a coffeehouse in Rhinebeck, N.Y. just across the Hudson from Kingston where my parents were still living. It was a homecoming of sorts and the local paper played up that aspect of the concert.
The coffeehouse was the large living room of an old house. There were folding chairs for about seventy-five people. My parents sat halfway back, and many members of my father’s congregation were in the audience. Most of them had known us since we were eleven years old. An elderly couple sitting in the front row whispered audibly, “That’s the Cantor in them” after we sang some soft high notes at the end of a song.
I avoided looking at my parents during the whole first set. At the beginning of the intermission my father came up to me and said just one sentence. “Your first song was too slow.”
I knew he was right, but that did not make it any easier to take. For many years I’d felt bullied and brought down by his incredibly negative outlook on life, but I was still not used to it. Having lived away from him for almost ten years by then had not desensitized me. I kept silent and waited to hear more. There was no more. A member of his congregation came up and congratulated me warmly, then turned to my father said, “Aren’t they wonderful? You must be very proud.” My father shrugged, held out his hand and wiggled it in the “so, so” gesture.
He continued to remain unimpressed by our work even as our touring expanded and we began releasing recordings. But, in the months and years after this concert, and as we became more successful, he grudgingly began to accept that we were serious about our music. The arguments changed.
“If you going to be in music business, why you not get on TV? I see idiots on TV with half the voices you have.”
It was a backhanded compliment to be sure, but a compliment nevertheless, and I noticed it. Praise from my father was very rare — especially when it concerned our music.
“Dad, they don’t want our kind of music on TV.”
“I don’t know. They just don’t.”
“So, What kind of music they want on TV?”
“Oh, you know, the pop stuff.”
“So, why don’t you do pop stuff?”
“We don’t like it. Most of it is garbage.”
“So, you pick something you can’t make money?”
“Money isn’t everything. You could have made more money if you’d taken the job they offered you at that reform shul in Atlantic City.”
“No, it’s not different. You did what you believed in.”
“Believe, schmelieve. Besides, you will never be a zinger.”
My father was using the Yiddish and German pronunciation of the word to deliver a zinger of his own.
“You always give up too easy. You not like your brother. If people won’t like your zinging, you stop. Laci, he won’t stop. He just say, ‘fock this’.”
“He’ll say what?”
“He say, ‘fock this’.”
“Where did you learn that word? Who talks like that at shul?”
“Nobody talks like that at shul. Youtalk like that all the time here.”
It was true. My brother and I had learned to talk blue when we began working summers while in high school. Laz shuffled papers in a lumberyard office and I stocked the hardware shelves in the local department store. The men in both places cursed as often as carpenters pound nails. We wanted to fit in, to be one of the guys. We learned fast. We used four letter words whenever, wherever and however we could fit them into a sentence. “What the fuck time is it? Five fuckin’ o’clock.”
We also, with great regularity, took the Lord’s name in vain. Not the Jewish one but the Son of the Christian one. That must have been an even bigger affront to my Orthodox father. But he never reprimanded us about our language. After all, weren’t we the ones who knew how to speak English, and he didn’t?
“Apu, you know what fuck means, right?” I asked hesitantly.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he waved his hands impatiently.
I felt enormous relief. I don’t know how we would have explained it to him. It had been very awkward in our early teens when he’d sat us down one afternoon to tell us about the birds and the bees — long after we’d learned about the subject, in theory anyway, in locker room discussions. He did caution us that masturbation would make us blind and would weaken our backs. And he warned us not to get anybody pregnant, without in any way explaining how we might go about doing that. His explanation of sex was almost as vague and euphemistic as the warnings we received in our high school health classes about venereal disease. “Boys, if you’re going to drink from the river, first make sure it’s not polluted.”
“Apu, you’re not pronouncing it right. It’s fuck. Not fock.”
“That’s what I said. Fock.”
He was not only pronouncing it with the wrong vowel, he was also lengthening that vowel, the way singers often do. It actually sounded more like faowk — almost the way the Irish pronounce it.
“No, Apuka, it’s not faowk — it’s fuck. It’s a short word. It’s not drawn out like you’re saying it.”
He never did get it right. He tried a few more times, we laughed, and he punched me playfully in the shoulder — something I don’t remember him ever doing, before or again.
It was the last time I remember arguing about our choice of career. But, even years later, after three decades of concerts, and a number of award-winning recordings and video to our credit, our father still occasionally said to us, “You call this a living? I don’t see where this is all going.”
Every year, from 1989 through 2001, Laz and I were invited to sing the national anthem before a few baseball games at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium (since the 2000 season, Comerica Park). When we told the news to our parents that first year, my father seemed genuinely excited. He wanted to know how many people would be in the stands, how much money we’d make, (and didn’t even seem too disappointed when we said it’s an honorary function, not a paying one) and asked whether we’d sing alone or with organ accompaniment.
Since most synagogue social events in Kingston began with the singing of the The Star Spangled Banner, followed by the Hatikva, the Israeli anthem, my father had started singing our national anthem almost before he learned any English. It had been difficult for him to memorize the words by rote, and even more difficult to pronounce them correctly. His accent mangled the lyrics pretty thoroughly. But, there was the sheer beauty and power of his voice. It lent the anthem great dignity and majesty. And there was no denying the reverence with which he sang, the feeling he was able to infuse into the song.
Our family became American citizens as soon as it was legally possible, five years after we moved to the United States. The naturalization ceremony, which included a presentation of the colors by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary, a speech about the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, concluded with the singing of the National Anthem. Doris Shorr, the Radio Voice of Christmas Seals for 1964, and a well-known mezzo soprano in New York’s Hudson Valley sang, accompanied by an accordionist. Ms. Shorr had a gorgeous voice but my father complained afterwards. “They should have let us, the new citizens, sing it. We would have done it with more feeling.”
In 1993, when my parents came to visit us in Michigan for the first time, Laz and I arranged to sing the anthem before a ball game during their stay.
On the drive to Tiger Stadium my father asked nervously if it would be okay for him to wear his hat at the game. As an Orthodox Jew, he always wore a hat or skullcap, but still seemed to feel the fear he must have felt in Hungary, at identifying himself so conspicuously as being Jewish. I reassured him that other than during the anthem it would be fine to wear the hat. I also told him that I’ve even seen people wearing yarmulkes at the ball park and that nothing he could possibly wear would look out of place at Tiger Stadium.
We parked on a side street, a few blocks from the stadium. Downtown Detroit was filled with sights my parents didn’t often see in America, and may have even brought up for them some bad memories of the Forties and Fifties in Hungary. I could feel their uneasiness about the litter filled streets, the boarded-up houses, the panhandlers and street people, the scalpers aggressively offering to buy or sell us tickets, and the vendors loudly hawking everything from peanuts to T-shirts.
We picked up the tickets held for us at the will-call window and headed into the tunnel underneath the seats of the stadium. It was an hour and a half before game time but the dingy tunnel was already crowded and noisy with people buying food, baseball hats, pennants and miniature bats at the concession stands. Occasionally a small group of children came running through the crowd — probably spurred on by a rumor, or a glimpse, of a player signing autographs in another part of the stadium.
We spotted our section and turned, heading up the ramp, into the ballpark. The first glimpse of the field never failed to delight and refresh me. I glanced at my parents and saw them also visibly relax at the sight of the lush green of the outfield, the beautifully raked red clay of the infield, the bright white uniforms of the players. The ballpark was a small, emerald isle of beauty in the sea of gray despair that surrounded Tiger Stadium.
The ushers remembered Laz and me from our previous visits and welcomed us warmly. They led us to our row and wiped the dust off the blue stadium seats. Our wives, Laz’s baby Daniel, and my wife’s parents were with us. We watched batting practice and tried to explain baseball to my parents.
In all his years of living in this country, my father never developed a taste for the game. “Nothing happens. Not like football.“ (He was referring to soccer, calling it by the name it is known all over the world, except in the U.S.) “Now that’s a real game.”
I told my parents that the pitcher tries to throw the ball in such a way that the batter can’t hit it. And that the batter tries to hit the ball where the fielders can’t catch it. My father looked bewildered and I remembered a story he told me about the first, and only time, his father, Shaya, came to see him play soccer. After the game, Shaya said, “What a stupid game! You were trying to kick the ball in the net and that guy wasn’t letting you. And then there was that idiot blowing a whistle all the time — what was he doing?”
I explained about the home run. Everyone else chimed in with the intricacies of the double play, the sacrifice fly, the intentional walk. I could see that my parents were not following any of this. I marveled at how hard it was to describe something you have learned naturally, by watching and playing the game. Like explaining the colloquialisms of your mother tongue to a little child or a foreigner.
Laz and I left the baseball tutorial to go warm up our voices. We found a deserted corner under the stadium and began to sing. My voice was tight and my breathing uneven. Laz also sounded tense. We always got more nervous for this two-minute appearance than for almost any concert. Our parents being there added still more tension. But, after about fifteen minutes of singing and walking around in the stadium tunnels, we finally began to loosen up.
We headed back to our seats. My father-in-law, Bill, was regaling my father about seeing Denny Maclain start a triple play in a game in 1968. And how my mother-in-law missed the whole thing because she had leaned over to wipe mustard off their nephew’s chin.
A few minutes before game time, Jim Brylewski from the Tigers marketing department came to our seats and accompanied us down from the stands, through the little gate near home plate, and out onto the field. We stood on the cinder track surrounding the diamond and made small talk with Jim, with a member of the grounds crew who set up the microphone for us, and with the man who would be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch that day.
Every few minutes Laz nervously blew into the small pitch pipe we use to get our starting note and we hummed it to ourselves, trying to memorize it. Because of the crowd noise we might not be able to hear it when it’s time to start.
The managers and umpires finished their meeting at home plate and Jim gave us the signal. Carefully stepping over the chalk line that connects home plate and first base, we walked to the microphone near the pitcher’s mound. We had our backs to the crowded part of the stadium, facing the flag in deep center field about 450 feet away. Laz leaned away from the microphone and sounded the pitch pipe one last time as the PA announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please stand for the singing of our national anthem by Sandor and Laszlo Slomovits.” I knew from hundreds of hours of listening to games on the radio that up in the WJR booth Ernie Harwell and Paul Cary just finished announcing the lineups and were now telling the radio audience, “Let’s go down to the field now for the singing of our national anthem.” Paul seemed to take special pride in pronouncing our names correctly, the way they would be in Hungary, “Shándor and Lászlo Shlomovichs.” I always appreciated it when I listened on tape later.
A video image of us, taken from the back, was projected on the screen above the bleachers in center field. It’s not a view I often had of myself. I noticed how bald we were — just like our dad. The words to the anthem were projected line by line onto the screen. I looked away from them and focused on the flag instead. I worried that if the lines are flashed too fast or too slow I’d get confused.
As on every previous visit to the stadium, I was struck by the sound of our voices, enormously amplified, coming from everywhere. The crowd began to roar as we held the high note on the word “free” and nearly drowned out our ending. But the little Cantorial cry in the voice that we’ve inherited from our father was clearly audible as we sang the word “home” in the last phrase.
We waved to the crowd and ran off the field. Our path took us near the visiting team’s dugout. Phil Garner, the mustachioed manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, had a big smile on his face and reached out to shake our hands. “Great job. Much better than what we usually hear.”
We made our way up to our seats about fifteen rows behind home plate. Our father was visibly moved. He said with genuine warmth, “Was beautiful. It’s wonderful, people cheer like that for you.”
None of us can truly know how we sound. Because of the way our voice reverberates in our head, and the way our ears function, what we hear when we speak or sing, sounds different to us than it does to other people. So technically, it is impossible for me to know how my voice sounds, compared to my father’s.
And yet I know.
I sound like my father. When I look in the mirror I see many of my mother’s features. My hands are shaped like hers, my hair is the same color and curls like hers. But when I sing, I sound like my father. The timbre, the quality of my voice, is the same. My vibrato, the way I approach high notes, the cry in my voice that is one of the signatures of the Cantorial style — all are the same as his. I remember the first time we sang at Passim Coffeehouse in Boston early in our career and a woman told us after our concert, “It’s really interesting to hear a Bob Dylan song sung by twin Cantors.” Whether I am singing an Israeli folk song, an African American spiritual, an Irish drinking song, a Mississippi delta blues, or a song I’ve written that incorporates elements from all of these styles, I sound like my father.
I sing my songs, but I have my father’s voice.
- The epigraph at the beginning of this chapter, about Itzhak Perlman is, according to Snopes, not true. Still, it’s a great line, and surely Perlman is capable of such a feat.
Perhaps we don’t remember the old life as well as we thought we did. Wendy in Peter Pan — J.M. Barrie
I am sitting in the park across the street from our apartment building in Budapest, eating bacon.
I am five, six years old? The memory is so faint, so unbelievable now, I wonder if perhaps I dreamt it, or made it up.
I, the son of an Orthodox Jewish Cantor, am eating bacon; the son of a man who observed kosher so strictly that for several years while in a forced labor camp in Poland, despite having to subsist on brutally beggarly portions, scientifically designed to keep people barely alive so they could continue to work, he never ate the precious, prized, infrequent piece of meat or watered down meat broth, who instead traded for potatoes, who, in the first weeks after he returned home from the Camps, took it upon himself to cook every day for the few other Jews in his community who had also survived the Camps, rather than let them eat un-kosher food.
I — the son of such a man — am eating bacon, that most un-kosher food of all.
Is it a stranger at the park who has offered me this forbidden food?
Is it our baby sitter?
Maybe a non-Jewish playmate, generously sharing lunch?
One of my aunts perhaps, much less observant of Jewish dietary laws than my father?
No. It is not any of these people.
It is my mother.
My mother. Born and raised in a family that my father often scornfully wrote off as “three day Jews,” for their, to him, almost heathen-like custom of attending synagogue only three days a year, on the High Holidays; my mother who, if not for the tragedy of her fiancé being murdered on his way back to Budapest from a forced labor camp, would never have met my father, so parallel the lives they led, so far apart the circles in which they moved; my mother, eight years younger than my father, a beautiful woman who loved, and after her wedding day mostly gave up, movies, dancing and reading romantic and, for their time somewhat risqué novels such as “Gone With the Wind” (in Hungarian); my mother, who after the war found herself nearly thirty years old and, in those pre-liberated times, may have worried about old maidhood; my mother, who must not have found it easy to settle down with my father and adopt and adapt to his rigid, Orthodox lifestyle; my mother, who my father had to teach how to keep kosher, who he tried to re-make into being kosher; my mother who, years after they married, still needed to rebel.
Of course, it was a silent, passive aggressive, rebellion. I’m certain my father never found out about the bacon.
When I was nearly fifty years old, I told my mother — when my father was not around of course — of my bacon memory. She instantly, vehemently and convincingly denied it. “I never ate pig in my parents’ house. I never ate pig even in the Camps. The smell of it made me sick. You remember wrong. It was probably Ami who gave it you.”
Ami is my aunt. My father’s sister. The animosity between her and my mother dates back to the early days of my parents’ marriage and is legendary in our family. The hostilities between them began at almost exactly the same time as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was filled with similar rhetoric and, if possible, more paranoia but, unlike the Cold War, did not end until my mother died. No walls crumbled, no missiles were disarmed or re-aimed. They continued to take every opportunity to snipe at one another.
My mother’s denial left me nonplused. I didn’t know what to believe — my own memory or hers.
Perhaps confirming my mother’s version of the bacon episode is the fact that I don’t recall any other bacon related events in my childhood, not in Budapest and certainly not while we lived in Israel where bacon was undoubtedly as rare as caviar in a shtetl.
When we moved to the United States, and her driver’s license gave her more independence, my mother’s rebellion took the more muted form of weekly visits to Dunkin’ Donuts. She often took my brother and me on those outings. I always felt a small secret thrill as we sat on the high, red Naugahyde stools at the gleaming white Formica counters and savored our favorite glazed, honey dipped doughnuts while our mother sipped coffee. If someone from my father’s congregation happened to walk in, I always felt a slight shudder of guilt, the kind you feel when you spot a police car in your rearview mirror, even when you’re not speeding. Without my mother having to say a word, Laz and I knew not to mention anything about the Dunkin’ Donuts visits to my father. We knew we were doing something he would not approve of, even if it was not, strictly speaking, un-kosher. For my father there was no, “strictly speaking.” Something either was kosher, or it was not. And Dunkin’ Donuts was not.
(Neither, of course, was the only other place where my mother and Laz and I ever ate out — the Horn & Hardart in New York City. It was for us a magical and holy pilgrimage site, along with Radio City Music Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House. Those three destinations comprised our entire once-a-year, one-day-without-father visit to the City. We looked forward to it the whole year.
“You can’t be a little bit un-kosher,” my father would say when we were older. “Like you can’t be a little bit pregnant. You either are, or you’re not.” He often interrogated our mother about any canned foods she bought. When she’d point to the Orthodox Union’s kosher supervision labels, the lower-case letter u within a capitol O, he’d scornfully dismiss her with, “that’s only ‘u betus’ kosher.”
Perhaps my mother never did offer me bacon. Perhaps it was my aunt Ami who did. (She did, after all, bring us chocolate bunnies every Easter in Budapest, much to my father’s disgust.) Perhaps no one did. Perhaps I only hallucinated the memory years later when I constantly, sullenly, but mostly silently, fought with my father over the restrictions of Jewish Orthodoxy. Perhaps I needed so much to feel that I had an ally in my battles with him that I invented the bacon business to buttress my notion that my mother was the brave heroine rebelling for freedom and my father the evil tyrant suppressing our family. Maybe I needed to see my mother as being the rebellious one, rather than admitting to myself that it was I who was rebelling; that it was I who was causing my father pain.
I’ll never know the truth about the bacon. My brother remembers nothing about it, my aunt would deny it, and there is no one else I can ask. It makes little difference. Whether or not the bacon banquet took place as I remember, I know for certain that during the course of our childhood there were many other, at least symbolically un-kosher actions into which our mother initiated us. Many were the times, aside from Dunkin’ Donuts, that she gave us a taste of the world outside the confining, restricting boundaries of my father’s life.
My mother was the one who, a few years after we moved to the United States, enrolled us in the Book of the Month Club. While certainly not classic, or cutting-edge literature, those books did expose us to many lives and ideas quite outside the boundaries of Judaism and of sleepy little Kingston, New York. My mother was the one who, despite my father’s mostly silent, occasionally sarcastic scorn, took us to parks, movies, museums, and once a year to New York City. My father, by this time, had completely retreated into his very circumscribed world. His life consisted almost entirely of working at, or for the shul, reading “The Forward,” the Yiddish newspaper, and watching TV soap operas, professional wrestling and “The Lawrence Welk Show.” We never hosted or went to parties or gatherings of family and friends. We never ate outside our home, as a family, except at shul functions.
I rediscovered bacon after college. For a few years, BLT sandwiches became a frequent staple of my diet. I also developed a fondness for shrimp, and, in an ironic role reversal, introduced my mother to that un-kosher delicacy on one of her solo visits to Laz and me when we were in our twenties. She willingly braved the strange food, but a few hours after the meal became violently ill. She immediately conjectured that she was throwing up because she had eaten something so blatantly un-kosher. That inescapable possibility had also occurred to me. Now it was her own body that was rebelling against her. Perhaps, after all that time living with my father, she could no longer stomach un-kosher food. And perhaps this is further evidence that she did not feed me bacon, so averse was she to flagrantly un-kosher foods.
For my mother to get ill after the shrimp dinner, for her to not be able to tolerate a meal, was rare. Until she was well into her sixties, I don’t recall my mother ever being sick. The single day of work she missed in more than eighteen years was the day she fell on an icy sidewalk, hit her head and suffered a concussion. The next day she was back at work. If there were any other times she ever felt ill — and she must have had her share of colds, headaches and stomach upsets — she never showed it or talked about it.
She used to hypothesize that perhaps she learned how to disguise her discomforts when she was in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for a few months. Soon after she arrived there, she discovered that she was bleeding from the rectum, a condition no doubt brought on by the horrible diet, unsanitary conditions and the unrelenting, nearly intolerable stress. My mother’s solution was to fast until she got better. She knew not to report sick, not to go to the infirmary, because, as she learned from the older camp veterans, few came out of the infirmary alive. The bleeding did stop after a few days and she was transferred to Potsdam to forced labor in an airplane factory where — as she proudly swore — “nothing I touched ever flew.”There, still concerned about a recurrence of the bleeding, she continued to refuse most of the food that was served, eating only the dry bread. She supplemented her spartan diet with potatoes and onions she stole from farmers’ fields she passed on the way to the factory every day. She hid the potatoes in light fixtures at the factory, the heat of the light bulbs cooking them during the day, and then ate them secretly at night.
My mother believed that she was healthy because she learned to do without in Ravensbrück. She believed that her wartime experiences strengthened her stomach, indeed her whole constitution. Certainly, after the war, her solution to hardship of any kind, physical or emotional was, in a sense, to fast. It seemed to me that in my parents’ marriage she was starved for affection, for kindness; that she stoically took the constant stream of criticism from my father, and as in Ravensbrück, simply carried on, survived — and figured that it was her due, and even that it was healthy and good for her.
The only times I ever saw my father kiss my mother, or show any affection to her, was on Friday nights as he was going out the door on his way to shul. Even then, it was a game. She’d block the door and playfully demand a kiss, while he’d act as though he was being forced to perform some distasteful task. Every week though, in spite of his irritated, or perhaps embarrassed response, she’d exact that public toll of affection before she’d let him pass.
It was only after my father died at age 95, when my mother was 87, did I learn how wrong I’d been about my perceptions of my mother’s feeling for my father and for the rituals of Judaism. She missed him terribly, crying every day for the ten months she lived on after him. And she continued to keep strict kosher and lit the Shabbes candles every Friday night.
From the disputed bacon event, to the Dunkin Donuts visits, to watching TV on the sly during the Sabbath, to squirreling away money from their household budget to give to us, to helping me secretly date a non-Jewish girl in high school, to not telling my father that first Laz, and later I, were each living with non-Jewish women, there were numerous secrets our mother shared with my brother and me, and trusted us to keep for her, as we trusted her to keep for us. Throughout our teenage years, and later, we conspired with our mother to keep from our father what we knew would anger or hurt him. We feared his dark moods and his nasty temper and yet, as I have come to see, must have simultaneously also perceived him to be so damaged, so fragile, as to be unable to withstand some of the truths about our thoughts, our feelings, our lives. By not telling him that as teenagers, first in spirit and then, once we moved away from home, in fact, we stopped observing almost all of the rituals of Jewish Orthodoxy, we managed to temporarily disguise for him who we were and how we were choosing to live our lives. Of course, he must have sensed what was going on. But, after his losses in the war, my father insulated himself so thoroughly against any further pain, built up such strong defenses, that he managed to pretend that any event he found difficult or painful had simply not happened.
In short, our family conspired together to keep secret from my father that he was not living the life he had before the war, that we were not the family he lost.
My mother rarely had to say to us, about any of our myriad of secrets, “Don’t tell your father about this.” And we hardly ever said to her, “Don’t tell Apu.” It was just understood that we would all keep our mouths shut. But there was one secret my mother shared with us that she expressly forbade us to ever mention to our father. She revealed it to us when we were in our teens, probably around the same time she told us about our father’s first family perishing in the Holocaust.
The secret? That her father was born out of wedlock; that he was a bastard — in the literal, if not figurative sense — although there is plenty of evidence to indicate he was that as well. So deep was the sense of shame my mother felt about the circumstances of her father’s birth that I remember her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper when she told us, even though my father was not even in the house at the time. In their fifty-nine years of marriage, she never told him her dark secret. She remained painfully deluded, convinced that he would divorce her if he ever found out.
(Interestingly, in Jewish law, a bastard, a mamzér, is not one simply born out of wedlock, but instead is one who is the child of two people who could not marry; for example, a man and woman already married to other people. So, technically, my grandfather was not a bastard. But no one paid attention to such distinctions in those days.)
My mother’s father, my grandfather Samuel, is not as vivid a figure to me as my paternal grandfather, Shaya. Partly this is because Samuel, or Shamu as he was known by his family, died in 1931, at the age of 53, when my mother was only twelve. She has fewer memories, fewer stories of him than my father does of Shaya, who lived until my father was in his early thirties. (In fact, my mother only found out about her father’s secret after his death, when her mother told her.) Partly though, Shamu remains a more insubstantial figure in my mind because my mother’s shame about the circumstances of his birth, life, and even death, always made her somewhat tentative in talking about him.
No brave, decorated war veteran, Samuel. No extraordinarily potent, fecund father of eleven. No poverty-stricken peddler, heroically struggling to feed his large family. Rather, a wealthy bachelor, living off his inheritance, who, at the age of thirty-four, took a bride sixteen years younger than he in an arranged marriage. He was an accountant by day yet loved to play piano in Budapest bars by night and, unbeknownst to his family, eventually gambled away his considerable inheritance (secretly mortgaging and re-mortgaging the family properties) and, upon his death, left his wife and four children dependent on the kindness of relatives for their survival.
In the only remaining photo of him, admittedly a posed, formal studio portrait, he looks like a foppish dandy in his three-piece suit, starched, stylish shirt collar, cufflinks, and elaborate watch fob. He is seated on an ornate chair, his right elbow on a table covered with a rich patterned cloth and two casually arranged books. Sporting a twirled and waxed mustache, his ever-present cigar lit and clamped between his fingers in an elegant holder, his face is mostly blank, his eyes hard and inexpressive; a man trying to bluff the world into thinking that he is a wealthy, respectable gentleman. But, there is a slight smirk on the left side of his face, a small lifting of the lip, almost a sneer. That look on his face seems to be issuing a challenge, or perhaps expressing a contemptuous opinion of a world that, through no fault of his own, did not welcome him, did not accept him.
I have a picture of my mother taken when she was nineteen, coincidentally in the cemetery where her father is buried. She is looking down at the photographer and has that same expression on her face.
There is also a picture of me, taken at age sixteen, sporting the identical smirk. My father hated that picture so much that he tried to schedule another photo session, to get a different shot. But, there was no time, and so that is the picture that appears on my United States naturalization papers.
So addicted was Shamu to gambling that for much of his married life, despite his wife’s frequent tears and recriminations, he went out to play cards in Budapest honky tonks almost every night. My mother remembered as a very young child, standing in her crib during one of the nightly scenes between her parents, shaking the guard rails and declaring to her mother that she, Blanka, will be able to make her father stay home by appealing to his love for her. She recalled her bitter disappointment when he ignored her as well.
Samuel’s adult life is perhaps easier to understand when viewed in the context of his childhood. Immediately after he was born, his father having disappeared months before, his mother gave him to her married, childless sister. Cila and Nathan Gersten raised Samuel as their own in the seedy, though highly profitable, hotel they owned in Budapest. It was part legitimate inn, part casino, part brothel. No wonder that as an adult, despite his wealth and education, Samuel felt most comfortable in similar settings. No wonder he wore that knowing smirk on his face; he must have seen a lot growing up in those surroundings. Perhaps that’s even why he stayed a bachelor till the age of thirty-four; the prospect of married life may have seemed pretty sedate and boring, may not have had as powerful allure as the life he had witnessed, and perhaps more than just witnessed, in his adoptive parents’ hotel. And maybe his childhood also helps explain why he felt compelled to gamble away his family’s money — an inheritance he may have never felt to be truly his own. In his life, and even after his death, by leaving them destitute, he abandoned his wife and children the way he himself had been abandoned.
And maybe he was not simply acting out of the traumas of his childhood. Perhaps he was also partly following the dictates of his genes, his only inheritance from the biological parents he never knew. After all, his mother, who was able to give him away, and his sow ’em ‘n leave ‘em father had already set the mold of abandonment.
Shamu’s death was not the martyr like tragedy of Shaya. He was not gassed in Auschwitz. He died due to different gasses, developing cancer of the throat, likely the result of his almost constant cigar smoking. My mother recalled that Shamu lit his first stogie before breakfast every day and smoked his last one in bed every night.
He was diagnosed with the cancer in early December of 1930, and took to his bed just before Christmas. On the morning of January 14th, 1931, just before she left to walk to her sixth-grade classes, my mother kissed him good-bye as he rested in bed. She was opening the front door of her school when a neighbor, having run all the way, caught up to her and told her to come back home. Her father had died, starved to death, having been unable to swallow any food for weeks.
At the funeral, the undertaker opened the coffin and suggested that the family say one last goodbye to Samuel. My mother never forgot that final, terrifying sight of her father, wrapped in a tallis, the Jewish prayer shawl he had rarely worn in life. The view affected her powerfully. After the funeral, she began constantly looking over her shoulder, feeling he was following her. She became afraid of the dark and especially terrified of being alone at night.
Seventeen years after Samuel’s death, when it came time to choose names for her sons, my mother refused to give her father’s name to my brother, even after my father decided he would name me after his father. She often told us later, “Samuel, Shamu, is not a pretty name.” Maybe she just had a simple aesthetic dislike of the name. Maybe Samuel sounded too Jewish and she was frightened in those still anti-Semitic postwar years to advertise our Jewishness. Or maybe, because of her old resentments about her father, her lingering shame over the circumstances of his birth, and her terrifying last view of him, she did not want the constant reminders. In any case, my parents settled on Laszlo for my brother because it was a popular Hungarian name at the time. They did name him Shmuel, Hebrew for Samuel, for his Jewish name. My mother never called him that; even when we lived in Israel, where our father, and everyone else called us only by our Hebrew names.
My mother was the fourth and last child of Samuel and Karolina Gersten. She was born December 4, 1918, soon after the first World War ended. She too, like her father, was not a wanted child. Her mother told her many years later that she had tried to abort her because, when she discovered she was pregnant the war was still raging and, due to wartime food shortages the family was struggling to feed the mouths it already had. It was also still the height of the 1918 flu pandemic. “But,” as my mother once told me proudly, “I wouldn’t let go my grip and the abortion failed.” When the war ended, Karolina stood in the bread and milk lines holding her new baby, because that entitled her, and the whole family, to more food.
My mother’s nickname throughout her entire childhood was, “csunyuska,” “little ugly one.” Everyone in her family called her that. She remembers that it was always used affectionately, but still must have stung because both of her older sisters were considered beauties. They favored their mother, Karolina, while my mother and her brother took after their father.
I have sometimes wondered; was that smirk on Shamu’s face a defensive mask he created to hide his pain at being an unwanted child? Did my mother, and later I, adopt that same mask? Was it her childhood, and not Ravensbrück, that taught my mother how to survive by starving herself? Did my mother sense, and later come to know, that she, like her father, was not a wanted child? And have I felt a similar burden, even before, and certainly after I learned that I came after the children my father lost in Auschwitz?
My maternal grandmother, born Karolina Zuckermandel, like my maternal grandfather Samuel, was also abandoned by her mother immediately after she was born — but not because her mother chose to. Karolina’s mother died six hours after giving birth and only left Karolina her name. Karolina’s father Simon, feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of raising three older children by himself, asked one of his wife’s sisters to care for the new baby, and then disappeared from her life. And so, Karolina, like Samuel, was raised by her aunt and uncle.
The aunt and uncle were not wealthy, and in those days of dowries and class distinctions, Karolina had little prospect of a good marriage match when she came of age. So, it was considered fortunate that Samuel — wealthy, apparently stable, though admittedly considerably older — was willing to marry her. For his part, Samuel, despite his wealth, was probably not considered a good match for most respectable families because of his birth, or adoptive family, or both. Perhaps that also contributed to why he was still a bachelor at the age of thirty-four.
I have two pictures of my grandmother Karolina. In one she is a young woman, soon after she married Samuel at the age of eighteen. Like the picture of my grandfather, it too is a formal portrait, taken at a Budapest studio. In a striking pose, she is standing in front of a small table and chair, her right arm by her side, her left behind her hip. She is dressed all in black, wearing above-the-ankle boots, dark stockings, a shin length skirt with two broad pleats beginning just above the knee, and a puffy sleeved blouse. Only her right hand is visible and, in the European custom, she appears to be wearing a simple wedding band on her ring finger. Her very full, straight black hair falls below her shoulders and her pose is confident, healthy and strong. But she is staring at the camera with a vacant, somewhat sad expression, the corners of her mouth drawn down in a little pout.
In the other picture, taken perhaps fifteen years later, she is seated, wearing a large plumed hat, her hair drawn up under it in a sedate, matronly bun. She is wearing a dark dress and a fur stole draped around her shoulders. She has bracelets on each wrist and expensive looking rings on two fingers of her right hand and on one finger of her left. She is a little plumper and looks like the wealthy housewife that she was, with servants to do all her housework, but she is wearing the same sad, distant expression as in the earlier portrait. The corners of her mouth are drawn down further than before; the face of someone who has longed for more, hoped for more, and has been repeatedly disappointed.
My mother told few stories, few recollections of her mother, my grandmother Karolina. She recalled her as being distant, rarely doing anything with her children, allowing them to be mostly fed and raised by her servants. She spent much of her time sewing. She was an expert seamstress and sewed all the clothes she and her children wore but did not teach any of her daughters her skill. Her oldest, Anci, later became a seamstress but learned her trade in school.
Maybe both Shamu and Karolina, as a result of feeling abandoned by their parents when they were children, felt unable to teach, or to form close bonds with their own children. Like Karolina, with her sewing skills, Shamu did not pass on his music to his children. Only his son Nándor, my mother’s brother, learned to play the piano. And though he too became an excellent pianist, having taken lessons for many years, he played only classical music, and only from notation, his father not bothering to try to teach him his considerable skills as an improviser. Shamu, though he could play beautifully from sheet music, preferred to play by ear. He would come home from a performance of an opera or a musical, sit down at the piano and play the songs he’d just heard, some of them for the first time, from memory — a skill he perhaps learned at the feet of the freewheeling piano players who must have been regular fixtures at his adoptive parents’ hotel.
Karolina died on November 8th, 1944, of internal bleeding. My mother never learned the exact diagnosis. Karolina, my mother, and her sister Anci were living in one of the “csillagos” or “starred” houses—a reference to the yellow stars on the buildings, like the stars that all Jews were forced to wear—in the newly created Budapest ghetto. A month earlier, they’d been forced out of the apartment they’d long shared in Buda. (They somehow managed to bring along with them Shamu and Nándi’s beloved grand piano and stored it in the foyer of the building.) New laws created by the Nyilas government made it illegal and highly dangerous for Jews to venture outside the ghetto. Still, my mother and her sisters repeatedly sneaked to their mother’s bedside in the hospital during her final illness, removing their yellow stars and pretending to be nurses going to work. Since my mother’s blood type matched her mother’s, she was able to give blood for transfusions. But the transfusions could not save Karolina. She died alone one night. Her daughters dared not go to her funeral. Attending the burial in the Jewish cemetery would have meant immediate arrest and deportation.
Less than a month after the funeral, my mother was forced on a train to Ravensbrück anyway. She must have felt incredibly abandoned and alone. Her mother had just died; her brother Nándor, with whom she had been very close, and to whom she had bid a very painful good-bye two years before when he had been taken into the forced labor camps, had recently been reported missing near Kiev by the Red Cross. Her fiancé, Pista Roth, had also been gone for several years in the munkaszolgálat and she had little reason to believe she’d ever see him again. Juci, her older sister, had gone into hiding in Rákosszentmihály, just outside Budapest, in the home of one of the family’s former servants from their earlier, wealthier days.
On December 2, 1944, my mother and her sister Anci, along with everyone else who had been crowded into the ghetto houses, (my mother, Anci and Karolina had been sharing a three-bedroom apartment, kitchen and bathroom with nine other people) were given an hour to pack what they could carry into a suitcase. They were then marched at gun point along the streets of Budapest to an idle brick factory on the outskirts of the city. It had been transformed into a human warehouse and deportation station.
On the march through Budapest the group of mostly women and children and elderly people, the younger men having been taken to forced labor camps months and years before, were guarded by only a handful of teenaged members of the Hungarian Nyilas or Arrow Cross Party. My mother recalled non-Jewish people watching the spectacle from their windows. Some laughed, others shook their heads in sorrow. As the march snaked its way through the city, some of the prisoners, taking advantage of the lax security, dropped out of the line and took refuge in the houses of Christian friends. My mother also had that option. Her fiancé’s mother, a Jewish woman whose husband had been killed in the forced labor camps, had recently moved in with a Christian man, a well respected professor at one of Budapest’s Universities. He was hiding her in his apartment. When the Nazis or the Nyilas would come to his building on one of their periodic searches for Jews, he’d go to the door and hold them off in his best dignified, professorial stance while she climbed up through a trapdoor and hid in a crawl space in the ceiling.
As the march neared their building on Lövöház utca, ironically named “shooting house street”, my mother, certain that she and her sister would also be allowed to hide there, began urging Anci to step out of line and escape. Anci refused. “No. They’ll shoot us.” Nothing my mother said would change her mind. (And of course, at this time they knew nothing yet of Auschwitz and gas and crematoriums. They had no way of knowing what awaited them.) My mother had her own fears as well. In addition to the nighttime terrors she’d had ever since her father had died, she now had daytime, and very real nightmares to confront.
“I knew we could not go far without being identified as Jews, even if we threw away our yellow stars. The fear showed that much in our faces.”
She had recently lost nearly everyone else in her family and dared not abandon Anci and risk losing her as well. So, the two sisters walked together to the brick factory and two days later, on December 4th, 1944, on my mother’s 26th birthday, they were together in a railroad car bound for Ravensbrück.
In one of the corners of the cattle car there was a large empty clay pot, the kind which Hungarian peasants used to store bulk “lekvar” or jam. Now it was to serve as a latrine for all the people crammed into the car.
“You can imagine,” my mother related nearly fifty years later, “that soon the stench was unbearable, apparently even to our guards. After some hours, they stopped the train and ordered us off so we could relieve ourselves. Some of the Nyilas were gentlemen and looked the other way while we hiked up our skirts and squatted right on the railroad ties. But others deliberately looked right at us, to humiliate us. What animals!”
Theirs was the last transport to leave Hungary. When the train got to the Austrian border and their Hungarian guards tried to transfer them, the Austrians at first refused, saying they didn’t need any more Jews, that the Nazis did not want any more. But the Hungarians insisted that they would not take them back and finally the Austrians agreed, on condition that this be the last train.
The Austrians were kinder than the Hungarians. They put them on passenger trains, rather than cattle cars, and gave them some food. The kindly treatment ended as soon as they arrived in Ravensbrück. Getting off the train they were greeted by the sight of hundreds of women, skeleton thin, shouting at them from the other side of a fence, “Give us your food. Give us your food. They’ll take it away from you anyway.”
“We didn’t believe them,” my mother recalled. “We gave them some of what we had, but foolishly held on to the rest. And of course, they were right. It was all taken away from us.”
They were ordered to strip. My mother had a false Swiss passport sewn into her skirt. She was still hoping to use it at some opportune moment. Now that too was gone. While they were waiting, naked, in the bitter weather, they could hear crying from the front of the lines but could not see what was happening. They soon learned the cause.
They were given haircuts, the Nazi guards cruelly baiting them, “How short would you like your hair?” When the women, confused and hesitant, would shyly indicate a length, pointing to a spot on their neck or shoulders, the Nazi barbers would brutally cut off all their hair, hand them a mirror and say, “How do you like the modern styling we gave you?”
My mother said, “I’ll never forget the wailing when we saw ourselves in those mirrors.”
Throughout my entire childhood, I hardly ever saw my mother cry. My father, not one to easily shed tears either, cried more often than she did. When my mother began bleeding internally soon after she arrived in Ravensbrück, it may have been her body’s way of mimicking her mother’s final illness — or perhaps her way of dealing with her unexpressed feelings about not having been able to go to her mother’s funeral. Her response to the bleeding — starving herself until the hemorrhaging stopped — may also have been a harkening back to the manner in which her father had died, almost fourteen years before.
In Ravensbrück there were the daily selections. Sometimes the different lines were simply sent to different types of labor. Other times — they never knew when — one line would disappear. My mother and her sister tried to stay together, my mother frequently urging Anci to smile, stand straight, stick out her chest, hold her head up and walk firmly, so she would be perceived as being healthy and fit for work.
One day they were sent to separate lines. “I didn’t know which was the good line or the bad. I just wanted us to stay together.”
She hissed to Anci, “Come here! With me!” Anci replied as she had in Budapest, “No. They’ll shoot me.”
This time my mother did not follow Anci, but also knew she could not let her go. She stepped out of her own line, grabbed Anci’s arm and yanked her to safety. The people in the other line never came back.
(My cousins Lilly and Edith, the only two members of my father’s family to return from Auschwitz, tell a similar story. Though only fourteen and seventeen years old, but big for their age, when they arrived in Auschwitz they were sent to the right by the infamous Dr. Mengele, while their mother Lenke, my father’s oldest sister, along with their two younger brothers Yossi and Yankele, were sent to the left, to the gas chambers. In the days following that first selection, Mengele always separated the sisters, sending them to different types of labor, but for the three months they spent in Auschwitz, the sisters somehow always managed to get back together. One day though, after yet another selection in which Mengele sent them to separate lines, they both had the feeling that this was it — that they would not see each other again. Lilly’s group was about to be put on a train and transferred to Bergen Belsen. She saw Edith in a nearby field, carrying two buckets of waste, having been assigned to clean latrines that day. Neither sister dared say a word, but suddenly Edith dropped her buckets and, risking being shot had she been seen, ran to join Lilly’s group. After three more months in Bergen-Belsen, on January, 23, 1945, they were transferred to Aschersleben, a sub camp of Buchenwald, to work in a Junkers airplane factory there, and managed to stay together for the rest of the war.)
There were also the daily Zeil-Appels, the roll calls, in Ravensbrück; the women forced to stand outside in their flimsy clothes in December weather, while the Nazis counted them, the guards strutting in their tall black leather boots, the women standing in the huge wooden shoes they’d been issued. “Our feet were always blistered and bleeding.” If, after one count the numbers were not right, the guards would count again — and again — over and over. Some days Anci was sick and my mother propped her up in the line for hours because she knew that anyone who did not come out of the barracks for roll call would be killed.
During my childhood I often noticed that my mother was incredibly impatient and anxious whenever she needed to stand in line, or wait for anything. I frequently saw her switch back and forth between checkout lines at the grocery store or supermarket, trying to predict which line would move faster; all the while muttering under her breath, “What’s taking them so long?” At red lights, even when she had absolutely no reason to hurry, she impatiently harangued the traffic signal. “Come on, turn green already. What’s wrong with this light? Why are we waiting so long?”
Making the nearly intolerable situation even worse in Ravensbrück, was Anci’s nicotine addiction. Hopelessly hooked on cigarettes, as her father Samuel had been on cigars, she frequently traded her too small portions of food for them. My mother would then feel compelled to share her own meager rations with her. She frequently saw Anci pick up discarded cigarette butts and re-light them, burning them down to her fingers, desperately trying to suck a few last puffs.
While Anci neglected herself, often not even bothering to wash, my mother clung fiercely to her routines. She washed daily with a rag and icy water, laundered one set of underwear and wore her only other set while the first ones dried. She brushed her hair and Anci’s frequently in a fruitless attempt to get rid of lice. She refused to allow herself to feel depressed or hopeless. When Anci would wail, “We’re going to die here. We’re never going back home.” my mother would stubbornly reassure her. “We’ll be all right. We’ll show them. We’re going to go home.”
On Friday, April 13, 1945, a little more than four months after she was taken from Budapest, my mother found herself in a group of women being force marched to an unknown destination from the airplane factory near Potsdam Penich.* The Allies were advancing, the Nazis were in retreat, and they took the women with them as human shields, hiding among them when the Allied planes flew overhead, counting on the Allied pilots to not bomb or strafe them. My mother recalled not feeling afraid of the planes; she was too worn out, numbed, by what she had recently lived through. But she did remember enjoying the terror of her Nazi tormentors.
When it became dark that night, they stopped and camped in a large open field. They had been marching for several days, the Allies were close, and my mother told Anci, “This is it. I’m not going any further with them.” She talked her sister and five other women into hiding in some bushes. When the Nazis counted the next morning, of course they were short — and by more than just seven. Many other women were also hiding. But with Allied planes overhead, the Germans dared not wait, dared not count again, dared not take the time to try to find the missing women. They marched on. After they left, my mother and the other women began walking toward the large city they could see in the distance. It turned out to be Dresden. Although it was by then two months since the Allied firebombing of the city, the stink of phosphorous and other noxious smells still hung in the air. Nearly everything above ground was charred and burned. They took shelter in a partially bombed out house and, digging in abandoned gardens, found some onions and potatoes.
Gradually, over the next few days and weeks they began putting their lives back together. Three of the women, including Anci, were seamstresses. They found an abandoned sewing machine and were able to trade work for food. When Germany surrendered, and relief operations began, they waited in long lines and received food stamps and clothes.
Then, “The Russians arrived, and they needed women. We were skinny and didn’t look good, but they didn’t care. We all started wearing shawls and kerchiefs around our heads so they couldn’t see our hair and tell that we were young. Whenever they came near us we’d wave our arms and shriek, ‘cholera, cholera,’ because we’d heard that the Russian soldiers were terrified of the disease.”
Their less than idyllic, but still tolerable existence was shattered in the middle of one night when a gang of Russian soldiers burst into their house, demanding a woman. My mother, Anci and four of the other women managed to escape and hide outside. One woman did not. The rest of them cowered in their hiding places and listened to her sob, and occasionally scream, as the soldiers forced themselves on her all night.
In the morning my mother and the other women reported to the authorities and asked to be sent home. When they were told that no trains were going to Budapest, they walked to the train station and camped there until, days later, they were able to sneak on a train. They didn’t even know for certain where it was headed, but it turned out not to matter anyway. Before the train could even leave, Russian soldiers boarded and ordered off all civilians. When my mother and some of the other women didn’t move fast enough to suit them, the soldiers simply pushed them out through the windows as the train began moving. Other soldiers were riding on top of the cars and amused themselves by urinating down on the women.
They finally managed to get on another train and wound up a few days later in a displaced persons camp somewhere in Austria. A few weeks later, on July 7, 1945, they arrived back in Budapest. They had been gone for almost exactly seven months.
“We’d heard,” my mother said, “that everyone who had been taken to forced labor camps by the Russians was back. I was still hoping I might see my brother again, and Pista, my fiancé. That’s the only reason we went back to Budapest. Otherwise we’d have gone straight to America from the displaced persons camp. We had that choice.”
When she arrived in Budapest, she went to Nyárádi néni, the woman who was to have been her mother-in-law. Their reunion was bittersweet. They had been close for several years, brought together in friendship by their common love of Pista. Now they shared a common grief. Pista was dead. A friend who’d been in the munkaszolgálat with him related that as they were making their way back to Budapest — after the war was already over — a Russian soldier stopped them and, waving a pistol, demanded Pista’s leather coat. Pista refused. His friend warned him. “Give him the coat, Pista. He’s drunk. He’ll kill you for it.” Pista still refused. The soldier shot him in the head and yanked the coat off his dead body.
My mother also learned from the Red Cross that they had no further news of her beloved brother, Nándi, since he’d been reported missing near Kiev almost a year before. He was presumed dead.
She did find her sister Juci, now about to get married, who had managed not to get deported by hiding in the home of one of the family’s former servants. Their reunion had a sour element as well. They promptly got into a screaming fight when my mother asked Juci to show her where their mother was buried. Juci did not know. My mother lit into her. “You’ve been here all this time, and you didn’t look for her? You didn’t care?”
She went to the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, and with their help found her mother’s grave. Karolina had been buried in a remote corner of the cemetery because no one from the family had been there to pay for the funeral costs.
My mother and Anci moved into an apartment that Nyárádi néni gave them. The Joint, the Jewish relief agency, helped with clothes, furniture and medical care. They managed to collect the little that was still left in the csillagos ház, the starred house, that they’d lived in before they were deported. In the foyer they found the frame of the piano their father and brother had played. The legs and all the wooden parts had been ripped off for firewood. Over the next few months they eventually got rid of their head lice and began recovering physically.
Nyárádi néni helped my mother find a job as secretary at the Zsigmond Utca Templom in Buda. And that is how, in March of 1947, she met my father.
Because her family was not religious, my mother hardly ever went to synagogue as a child. But, as a teenager and a young woman before the war, she attended frequently. Not out of any strong religious feeling, but because, as she told us laughingly, it was a good place to meet boys. Now, as it turned out, it was still good for that.
* My mother always told me she’d been transferred from Ravensbruck to Penich to work in an airplane factory. I never doubted her words or checked her memories, till years after her death. Then, when I did check, I discovered that there’s no city or town in Germany named Penich. Did she mispronounce the name so much that I now can’t find it?
She’d also mentioned Potsdam, but I could not find any airplane manufacturing plant in Potsdam. Furthermore, Potsdam is 200 kilometers from Dresden. If she was in Potsdam at the beginning of the forced march she’d told me about, did they really walk 200 kilometers to Dresden, where she said she eventually wound up? I never had any sense that my mother was not telling the truth when she told these stories, or that her memories were so uncertain, yet…
‘Tis a naughty night to swim in. Shakespeare—King Lear, Act III, Scene 4
”I have the persistent sensation, in my life and art, that I am just beginning.” John Updike — Self Consciousness
There is a photo in our family album of my father, brother and me, at Lake Balaton, a favorite vacation spot in Hungary. My father is smiling happily at the camera, holding a large beach ball in front of his even larger belly. Laz and I, very skinny and about four years old, are standing near him, waist deep in the water.
I have no memory now of that visit to Lake Balaton. But, I still vividly remember a day, it must have been about the same time, when I first swam in a pool. It was at the Margit Szigeti pool in Budapest.
I can still see my father’s white, baggy swimming trunks flapping as he led the way from the locker room where we had just changed our clothes. And I can still picture the green-blue pool and how the color faded as I lay face down on the water and opened my eyes.
I held my breath and floated. I began making the motions of the Australian crawl with my arms and felt myself moving through the water. A thought flashed clearly in my mind. “I know how to do this.” When I could no longer hold my breath, I stood up and rubbed the water from my eyes. My father was watching me. He did not say anything, but I remember the strange expression on his face. Years later, after I began hearing his stories, it occurred to me that perhaps he was reminded of his father, Shaya.
My grandfather Shaya was famed in his town for being a powerful swimmer. There was a well known and dangerous whirlpool in the Ipoly River near Balassagyarmat where they lived. According to my father, Shaya would often deliberately swim into that part of the river and then, while floating on his back, take out a knife and trim his toenails.
Even allowing for exaggeration and my father’s hero-magnifying memory, Shaya’s other surviving children, my aunts, all agree that he was an exceptional swimmer. In his mid forties, on a visit to my father who was studying at the rabbinical seminary in Vác, near Budapest, my grandfather swam across the Danube, which reaches its widest span there in its journey through Hungary.
Perhaps because of the way Shaya tried to teach my father, by suddenly abandoning him in the middle of the Ipoly River when he was a small child, my father never learned to swim. Which must have been difficult for my grandfather. As a religious Jew, he knew well the teachings of the ancient Rabbis, that it is one of the five obligations of a father to teach his son to swim.
Other than that day in the pool in Budapest, I have no other recollections of swimming, either in Hungary or in Israel. My memories surface again around the time I was eleven years old, during our first year living in the United States. That summer my brother and I spent every weekday at the Kingston Jewish Community Center’s camp in nearby Kerhonkson. We were constantly in the pool. My mother, who loved to swim, though never the Australian crawl, preferring the more ladylike breast stroke, often drove us up there on Sundays as well. My father never came with us. Not only was he averse to swimming, but as an Orthodox Jewish man he would not share the pool with women. He placed no such restrictions on us though. And so, six days a week, we spent as much time as we could in the water. And the camp counselors quickly noticed my swimming form, often remarking on how smooth and graceful it was.
They did not notice, however, that I was scared to dive into the pool. Or that I never swam more than a lap without stopping and resting. I had little endurance and was not willing, or able, to push myself, to build up my strength.
One day we had a swim meet with a nearby camp. The counselors selected me to be our number one swimmer for the short races — a decision not based on any time trials or intra-camp races, but apparently on the assumption that anyone who looked as good in the water as I did, must be faster than kids who did not.
On the starting platform — first time I’d ever stood on one — at the beginning of the race, I crouched, terrified of diving in. When the starter’s gun went off, I hesitantly, and clumsily, tumbled into the water. The poor start left me stunned and discouraged. My form fell apart completely, and I struggled to finish the two-lap race, coming in far behind all the other kids. I refused to swim in any more races that day, or in another meet for the rest of the summer.
I was a senior in high school before I tried competitive swimming again. My brother had done well as a sprinter on the track team for several years, even earning a varsity letter in his junior year. I wanted a letter sweater too.
At the beginning of the week of tryouts it quickly became clear that I’d be lucky to even make the team. Nothing had changed since summer camp six years earlier. I was still shorter and thinner than most of the other kids and was not in good condition. Also, I was still scared of diving. However, although I never swam much in the years since summer camp, I had not lost that smooth, efficient stroke that made me look like a better swimmer than I was.
We began by learning the racing dive. Over and over we flung ourselves flat out above the water, as far as we could, landing with a huge slap — belly first. Every night that week of the tryouts we began with a drill. We dove in at one end of the pool, swam as hard as we could to the other end, climbed out, walked back, and did it again. And again. One night I tried to skip a lap. Coach noticed and said, “We will wait for Mr. Slomovits to finish his last lap.” When we were done, the skin on my belly and chest was bright red and itched as though I had poison ivy.
After practice each night, our coach would say a few quiet words to some of the boys, and the next night they would not be back. I dreaded being cut from the team, but sometimes wished that the coach would talk to me too, so I’d have an honorable reason for not having to return. After the last night of tryouts I was sitting on a bench in the locker room, too tired to dress, when the coach walked in and began making final cuts. I kept sneaking looks, fearing, hoping. Then he was done and announced that everybody he hadn’t spoken to was on the team. I knew that included me, but I couldn’t quite believe it.
I waited till he was alone and approached him. “I made the team?” He nodded, “Yes.” Reluctantly, it seemed to me. I reminded him that I would not be able to swim in any Saturday meet because of the Sabbath. “I know,” he said. “You told me earlier.” I read his expression to mean that since he never expected me to score a point anyway, he didn’t care what meets I missed.
The following day after lunch I started to feel violently nauseous. I ran to the bathroom, barely made it, and threw up in a toilet. What I vomited was completely black. I had no idea what that meant but I knew I needed to tell someone. The school nurse listened with a worried look on her face and then said, ”I’ll drive you to the hospital.” I was bleeding internally.
When my parents met me in the emergency room I began sobbing and said, “Now I won’t be able to work hard for the rest of my life.” It astonished me to hear myself say that. It just came out of me. I’d never before thought, or said, anything like that. Having said it though, I feared it was true. This was the result of my attempt to make the swim team. This was the consequence of my working hard.
I had a bleeding duodenal ulcer and spent two weeks in the hospital, had a transfusion but no operation because the bleeding stopped on its own after about ten days. The doctors said the ulcer had been there, just waiting to hemorrhage, and the diving had probably aggravated and speeded up the process. Of course, I stopped swimming again.
Many years later, I recalled the words I said in the hospital, and wondered. Had I also felt relief when I’d blurted, “Now I won’t be able to work hard for the rest of my life.” Had I been secretly glad to have a really good reason to not have to go back to the intense swimming practices? Was I presenting an excuse for not having to work hard at anything else? I had just completed my SAT tests and sent off my applications to colleges. I must have felt under tremendous pressure to get into college and become an engineer, my father’s choice of career for me. In fact, a notice of acceptance from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute arrived while I was in the hospital. Was I already sensing, but unable to express, that engineering was not to be my life’s work? Was the ulcer my body’s way of telling me I would not be able to stomach this?
My mother had, by this time, told us some stories of her and my father’s experiences in concentration camps during the war, but had not told us about her bleeding internally when she was in Ravensbrück. I was not to hear that story or become aware of that resonance to my bleeding ulcer, for nearly thirty years. But from then on, the ulcer continued to flare up several times each year, (and even bled once more) occasionally for no reason that I could figure, but more often serving as a sort of canary in the mine, dramatically letting me know when I was not paying attention to some important issues in my life. On a number of memorable occasions, though certainly not every time, the ulcer episodes would end, sometimes literally from one moment to the next, after I confronted, or at least acknowledged one of those issues.
Over and over, to this day, I keep being drawn back to swimming, to the exhilarating feeling of powering my body through water, to the energizing sensation of lightness and expansion in my chest after breathing deeply for a time. And still, at times, for no reason apparent to me, I find myself terrified in the water. Familiar lake waters suddenly seem dark, ominous, even malevolent. I gasp for breath, feel the strength go out of my arms and legs.
Sometimes I think that I carry within me a sort of genetic memory of my grandfather’s swimming skill, if not his power. At other times I feel pulled under by an undertow of panic I may have inherited from my father; the terror he must have felt when his father abandoned him in the river. Or perhaps the alarm flows from my memories of what happened after swimming practice in high school, or even earlier, when I stared with fascination and dread into the black waters of the Mediterranean as our family sailed from Italy to Israel after we left Hungary, and imagined myself not standing on the safe deck, but struggling in the vast, unimaginably deep waters. And sometimes I wonder if the darkness I fear in the water is symbolic of the vast blackness that was the Holocaust, the unfathomable horror that enveloped my family and in some way always surrounded my parents and brother and me.
I keep returning to the water, partly perhaps as a way of testing myself; to see if I can go into the dark and come out safely.
And, I often remember what my father once said to me when we were arguing about my choice of career. “You will never be a singer. You always give up too easily. If people won’t like your singing, you will stop.” I have come to understand that he was describing himself and his tendencies, as much as he was talking about me. Yet, even though his “never” and “always” turned out to be wrong, I know there was truth in his words. Sometimes I do discourage easily, and at times I am scared to dive in.
There is a riverside park here in Ann Arbor that I visit whenever I have a difficult decision to make. I walk the wood-chipped paths, stroll across small arched bridges, sit on benches and gaze out over the Huron River. After a while the right decision becomes clear.
This private, personal ritual began a number of years ago, when I was trying to decide if I could afford my own apartment, rather than continue sharing one with my brother and his wife. Of course, there was a lot more at stake than simply the financial question. I was scared to move, frightened of living alone for the first time in my life.
As I walked in the park, I noticed a handful of boys on one of the wooden bridges. They were sitting on the railing, barefoot, in their cutoffs, without shirts, daring each other to dive into the river. About twelve years old, their high-pitched voices rose in shrill crescendos as they goaded each other, first to stand on the railing and then to agree that each would jump if another one jumped first. Finally, abruptly, one sprang off the railing. They all immediately followed — gleefully yelling, cannon balling into the water. In that instant I knew my decision. I too would make the leap from my secure and familiar perch. I too would take the plunge. I would move.
Since then, I’ve visited that park a number of times when I’ve had a question, a decision to make, when I’ve felt scared to dive in. Should Laz and I sign our first recording contract? Was I ready to propose to the woman who, later that day, said “yes” to that proposal? Could we afford to buy a house? Should we have a child? Though I’ve often felt out of my depth and in over my head, I’ve said “yes” each time. I’ve never regretted a single decision I’ve made in that park.
“What would I do,” I said to Pooh, “If it wasn’t for you?” And Pooh said, “True. It isn’t much fun for one. But two can stick together.” Says Pooh. Says he. “That’s how it is.” Says Pooh. A.E. Milne — Winnie the Pooh
We are Siamese if you please, We are Siamese if you don’t please The Siamese Cat Song from “Lady and the Tramp” Words & music by Peggy Lee & Sonny Burke
. . . that’s the trouble with being twins – if you don’t know something, you don’t know it double. Meindert DeJong — The Wheel on the School
We are about three years old, my twin brother and I, at a park in Budapest with our parents. My father runs foot races with us. When he tires, he arranges a race between Laz and me.
An innocent mistake.
He lines us up, shouts, “On your marks. Get set. GO!” We race to our mother, waiting for us at the finish line.
My brother wins. Easily.
“He cheated, he cheated,” I cry bitterly.
My father says, “Race again.”
We race again, and my brother wins — even more decisively. I give up and slow down when I see how quickly he is pulling away from me.
I bawl again, “He cheated, he cheated.” My father and mother exchange looks over our heads. Then, together, they conspire to make an even bigger mistake.
While my mother comforts me and tells me that we’ll race again, and this time Laci won’t cheat, my father walks back to the starting line with my brother. We line up and race again. This time I win. With childish lisp I gloat, “Ledöztem, ledöztem — I beat him, I beat him.”
And all four of us know the meaning of the look my father and mother exchanged. And what my father told my brother as they walked back to the starting line. And why I won. But no one speaks the truth.
And it all starts. The pain of losing, the guilt of winning, the agony of feeling we must always compete. Also, my unfortunate tendency to give up easily and my dangerous delusion that if I raise Cain, kvetch and complain, I will get my way; that if I lose, someone will rig the rules to let me try again and will conspire to allow me to win. Also, my difficulty savoring successes, never being totally certain I came by them honestly.
And my brother’s constant fear, that his victories will always be taken away from him.
It all starts.
Actually, it starts long before that. Laz and I were racing even before we were born.
On Sunday, January 3, 1949, at five in the morning, my mother started having labor pains. She went to the hospital with my father and the pains promptly stopped. My father went home. My mother also wanted to go, but her doctor said, “Do you want to give birth on Orczy street? Stay here.”
Baby number one was born at one o’clock that afternoon. That was me. (When my mother was in her mid-seventies, she suffered through a severe bout of shingles. It was more pain than she’d ever experienced — much worse than her memory of labor pains. She said, “I’d much have preferred to birth another baby.”)
Throughout her pregnancy, in those pre-ultrasound days, my mother’s doctor had no idea that she was pregnant with twins. (She, on the other hand, was certain she was carrying two, but could not convince her doctor. He insisted he heard only one heartbeat. Were Laz and I beating our heart drums in such perfect unison in the womb that we sounded like one? Or were we positioned so as to mask one another? Whatever the case, so certain was the doctor that there was only one baby, that after he delivered me, he left the room. A nurse summoned him back a few minutes later. “There’s another one.” My mother called after her prophetically, “That one will be a boy too.” Twelve minutes after me, my brother was born.
I had won our first race.
We were about two weeks premature. I was small, two and a half kilos, about five and a half pounds. Laz was tiny, one and a half kilos, just over three and a half pounds.
Had I crowded him away from nourishment while we were inside our mother? (I have read research that speculates that in some cases, one twin will literally cannibalize and absorb the other at a very early stage of the pregnancy so that only one baby is evident at birth.)
Immediately after he was born, Laz was put in an incubator. An hour later the doctor looked in on him and said, “Get him out of here. He’s fine. He’s yelling louder than any of the full-term babies.”
Laz was not about to be left behind. And, one way or another, he’s always been able to make himself heard.
My parents had prepared for only one baby. They’d bought clothes for one, blankets for one, crib for one. My mother’s older sister, Anci, who stayed at the hospital with our mother during the delivery, called our father and said, “Bring another set of clothes, diapers and blankets.” My father, thinking that the stress of labor had made my mother forgetful, said, “Why? I took everything with her to the hospital.” Anci replied forcefully, “Bring another set. You have two of them.”
One of my father’s colleagues jokingly suggested that, for fathering twins, he should be awarded the Stahanovich medal, a Communist prize for high productivity. My father’s sisters, perhaps jealous of my mother for having upstaged them in the motherhood competition, also showered my father with congratulations for having produced twins. So much so that my mother finally got irritated. “Why are you giving him all the credit? I did most of the work.” Ilonka, my father’s youngest surviving sister, always a favorite of his and a recent mother herself, shot back, “It’s the one who stuffs the coin in the slot machine who gets to win the prize.”
My mother used to relate that my brother and I took turns waking her in the night. When she’d sleepily stumble to our crib to restore peace, she’d find one of us bawling, bereaved, binky-less; the other one, pacifier firmly gummed, twirling the filched “cumi” on an innocent finger. Many years later she couldn’t remember whether we took turns torturing each other, and her, or if it was always the same one who was the guilty party.
In high school, I once fell asleep in language lab. The teacher, monitoring our class’s halting French from her central switchboard while we all sat with headphones in our individual cubicles, became confused and sent Laz to the principal’s office, despite his vehement protestations of innocence. I continued sleeping and the error was not discovered, or remedied, until the end of class, when she found me, head still down on my desk. Ironically, our French teacher, Miss Kirshenblum, was herself a twin. Her spinster sister also taught in our school.
Fast forward now to the first week of our senior year at the University of Rochester. Laz, having run track throughout high school and the first three years in college, was now co-captain of the team. I’d been running several miles a day with him since the beginning of summer and now I planned to join the team. For reasons neither of us can now recall, perhaps to see what kind of shape we were in, we decided to run a private, two-mile time trial on the outdoor track. Just the two of us. It was not to be a race. We agreed to run together for as long as we could, to help each of us post the best time possible.
The first five laps, a mile-and-a-quarter, went by comfortably. Then, inexperienced though I was in racing, I began to sense that I could pick up the pace. I also noticed, with some surprise, that Laz was tiring. Muttering an apology, I pulled ahead. I quickly opened a twenty-yard lead between us and then, though I still felt strong, found I couldn’t pull away any further. For the rest of the race I had an almost palpable sensation of being connected to Laz, as though we were tied to each other with an unseen rope. We ran the last three laps separated by that exact same distance.
Afterward, Laz told me that he too felt the identical, eerie sensation. It’s as though we were Siamese twins, bound together by a bond all the more powerful because it was invisible. At least to us.
We were twenty-one years old. It was our first conversation about what it felt like to be twins.
We almost didn’t even go to the same college. Because of the diverse careers our father planned for us, Laz and I applied to all different schools. But when my mother drove Laz to Rochester for his interview and to visit the University, I went along to share the driving because he did not yet have his license. And when, before his interview, Laz introduced my mother and me to the admissions officer, the man asked if I was also planning to apply. When I said no, he suggested that since I was already there, why don’t I also interview and fill out an application. Rochester was Laz’s first choice and my last, but a year later we both wound up going there because the University offered us the best scholarships and made it the easiest on our family financially.
Four years later, when we were still living near the campus, a woman stopped Laz in a supermarket one day, asked him if he was one of the Slomovits twins, and inquired how we had done in college. Hearing that we’d both graduated with BA degrees, she told him that she worked in the admissions office and remembered our applications. With an unbelievable lack of sensitivity, she went on to tell him that had I not applied, he would not have been accepted at the University. His math SAT scores had not been high enough. But mine were and the University had a standing policy of accepting both twins if either one qualified for admission. Another instance of us being tied together by invisible bonds, and not only of our own making. Another time, as at our birth, that someone noticed, “There’s another one.”
It was not the first or last time that, perhaps simply fascinated by the phenomena of twins, or possibly just needing to find some way of telling us apart, people seemed compelled to make thoughtless comparisons between us. A few years later, a girlfriend of mine admitted that she had thought she was introducing herself to Laz when we’d met at a party a few weeks before. She was a budding musician and had been very drawn to Laz because of his guitar playing. I remember a couple of other girlfriends telling me that they didn’t like Laz very much. This despite the fact that at the time they barely knew him. One of them had only seen him on stage — once. Was this their way of dealing with the confusion they may have felt about being in a relationship with a guy who had an identical twin? Did they feel unsettled because sometimes, at first glance, they were not certain if they were with their boyfriend or his brother? Or did they perhaps sense that it was Iwho may have needed reassurance that they knew who they were with?
Even after I grew a beard, and Laz didn’t, people still had difficulty telling us apart. Or, perhaps more accurately, could not remember which was which.
No wonder people had to find some ways to distinguish us from one another. Sometimes even we got confused. One day, when we were about twenty-one, I drove Laz to the bus depot in Rochester, and he got on a Greyhound to New York City. Imagine his surprise upon arriving there some hours later when, turning a corner at Grand Central Station, he saw me right in front of him. He burst out, “San, what are you doing here?” Only to realize with a shock that he was addressing himself in a full-length mirror on the wall.
A friend of ours, a young Shakespeare professor at the University of Rochester, declared after seeing our very first public concert, “Laz is the musician. San is the one with the sex appeal.” Although he may have intended the comment as a compliment to each of us, or perhaps simply a succinct analysis of our strengths, Laz and I both managed to taste only the lemon in the lemonade. Laz complained, “Yeah, everybody tells me what a great guitar player I am, but after the concert all the girls come up to you.” (Apparently forgetting that at the time he already had a steady girlfriend, his wife-to-be, while I, unhappily, did not.) Meanwhile, our friend’s comment reinforced my secret fear that I was not a good musician — that the only way I could hope to make a living playing music was to be in a duo with Laz.
My father had helped foster that anxiety in me from the time I was seven years old, when he decided that I would take piano lessons and Laz violin because, as he said frequently, “Lacinak van a jobb fule.” Laz has the better ear. Based on that evaluation, my father also invariably gave Laz all the harmony parts when we sang with him in shul, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either due to natural ability, or the extra practice, Laz now definitely isthe better harmony singer of the two of us. Possibly our father had noticed a genuine strength in Laz’s musical abilities, but, by making that distinction, he also reinforced a weakness in mine. Not that he played favorites. Dad, doubtless without intending to, was an equal opportunity bestower of anxieties and insecurities. He declared me to be the one handier with tools and assigned to me all home maintenance tasks. As a result, Laz sometimes still feels awkward doing minor household repairs.
My father announced early on that I was stronger in math than Laz. Apparently, he was impressed that my first words were, “egy, kettö,” one, two in Hungarian. Another self-fulfilling prophecy. Possibly because my father played number games and practiced the multiplication tables more with me than with my brother, Laz’s math abilities atrophied and to this day he seems to feel uncertain when balancing his checkbook or doing similar mathematical tasks. Math was the only subject in which we received different grades in our first few years of school. (It wasn’t till we were nearly fifty, that my father mentioned in a casual conversation that the reason he made these differentiations when we were children was not because he noticed disparate abilities, but because he noted that I showed little interest in music, and Laz showed little in math.)
It was evident early on that Laz and I both had good singing voices and could sing on pitch and in rhythm, clearly a direct nature-plus-nurture gift from our father. It was just as evident that neither Laz on the violin, nor especially I on the piano, were budding prodigies — to put it charitably. Clearly grandfather Shamu’s considerable talents as a piano player, and excellent improviser, had not been genetically passed along. Or so it seemed at first. I ended my very pedestrian piano career by the age of thirteen, after my one and only nightmarish piano recital in Mrs. Mauterstock’s class. My performance piece that day was Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” No one in attendance, hearing my halting and decidedly un-beautiful rendition, would have dreamed I’d ever grow up to be a professional musician.
Laz, with his violin, lasted all the way through junior year in our high school orchestra, eventually advancing to second chair in the violin section. During a concert that year, he stood up to play a solo, only to discover that one of his rivals had completely de-tuned his violin. By senior year he had packed away the violin, and we were standing next to each other in choir.
It wasn’t till Laz began playing guitar, the same year he quit orchestra, that grandfather Shamu’s gifts began to be evident in him. Although he started the same way I and most other guitar players do, stiffly strumming the strings with one hand while awkwardly contorting the other into the shapes for basic guitar chords, he soon began picking out melodies and discovered, that like grandfather Shamu, he could play any melody he heard.
Almost ten years after he started playing guitar, and after not having touched a violin in all that time, Laz started playing it again. A girlfriend of mine, the same one who had wanted to meet him because of his guitar talents, gave him a fiddle she was not using. This time, grandfather Shamu’s gift was immediately evident. Within two weeks, Laz was improvising on the fiddle, playing more freely than he ever had as a child. In the years since then, he has picked up several other string and wind instruments and has demonstrated that same ability on all of them.
(I neither believe, nor disbelieve, the concept of reincarnation and feel little need — or see much possibility — for proof of its truth or falsehood. I am comfortable suspending judgment until further information comes along. But, I find the idea attractive, especially when I reflect on how Laz and I seem to take after our grandfathers in some striking ways. I think of how mysteriously grandfather Shaya’s swimming gifts appeared in my life and how, similarly, grandfather Shamu’s musical gifts appeared in Laz’s. Also, how in both cases, the talents of the grandparents skipped a generation. Our mother is tone deaf but transmitted her father’s talent to Laz. Our father does not know how to swim yet transmitted his father’s ability to me.)
At the beginning of our freshman year in college my brother and I each auditioned for the University Glee Club and also for voice classes at the Eastman School of Music. I was accepted only for the voice classes and Laz only for the Glee Club.
It made some sense that I, who was not as strong a sight singer as Laz, would not be accepted into the Glee Club. But why would he, with a voice that was arguably practically identical to mine, not be accepted into voice classes at Eastman? This time, apparently no one noticed that “There’s another one.”
By the end of the year Laz, who didn’t like the music they were singing, dropped out of the Glee Club and auditioned again for Eastman. This time he was accepted — and assigned the same teacher I had. By choice and by chance we were bound to be together.
When our parents sent us off to college they opened only one checking account for us to share. And we, unquestioningly, accepted this and continued the practice throughout our four years in college and even for another two years after. It wasn’t until then that it occurred to us that since we were earning and spending different amounts, it might make sense for us to have separate accounts. When we casually informed our parents of this decision, our mother anxiously asked, “Are the two of you getting along all right? Are you mad at each other about anything?” My father seconded her concern.
They could not get used to the idea, even though by then we were twenty-three years old, of us growing apart in any way. They unquestioningly assumed, as I think we did too, that we would always stay together. Until we were well into our twenties, my brother and I were hardly ever apart for any length of time. My parents recall that when we were about five years old, they took us vacationing at Lake Balaton, in Hungary. Laz came down with whooping cough and our aunt and uncle, Ami and Ervin took him home with them so my parents and I could stay for the remainder of the vacation. (In Hungarian, whooping cough is called samárköhögés, donkey cough. And there is an accompanying saying. “A köhögés elmult, a samár maradt.” The coughing has left, the donkey remains.) And there was another week we were apart when we were about twelve or thirteen, when that same aunt and uncle took my brother with them on vacation to Lake George. The only memory Laz has of that trip is that he nearly drowned after drifting out on a rubber raft, falling off and needing to be rescued. Perhaps because of that misadventure, Ami and Ervin never took me along on one of their vacations.
Was the loss of so many relatives during the war, followed ten years later by the separation from their remaining families when we moved from Hungary, made our parents fearful of any further division of our little family? Did they silently, desperately, encourage the bond that already existed between us, hoping we’d always stay together, protect each other? (In a phone conversation with my parents when I was about fifty, I mentioned that I’d be playing a solo gig in Detroit the following week. My father said anxiously, “Couldn’t you get somebody to ride with you?”)
Perhaps Laz and my decision to have separate bank accounts also triggered our parents’ memories of our fighting when we still lived in their house. Before the age of eleven or twelve I don’t recall us fighting much physically, but from then on it seemed we were constantly punching each other, trying out wrestling moves and holds we picked up from the pros on TV, or delivering swift savate-style kicks or amateur karate chops. To prevent major injuries, we created elaborate rules. No hitting above the shoulders or below the belt; savate kicking only in the shoulders and karate chops only on the upper back. Still, accidents did happen. Once, I pushed Laz into a snow bank, he came up swinging wildly and gave me a shiner that rainbowed on my cheek for more than a week, which resulted in us having to create an inspired and elaborate lie to our parents. Then there was the memorable knock-down-drag-out donnybrook that ended abruptly when we smashed a huge ceramic lamp in our parents’ living room, which necessitated the invention of another, still more creative whopper.
Did we fight so much because of natural sibling rivalry, perhaps intensified by our being twins? Or was it because of the jealousies created by the distinctions our father drew between us? Or did our parents’ expectation and anxiety about us always staying together play a role in our competitiveness — and combativeness? Was our family’s difficulty in making the transition to life in the United States, our second uprooting in three years, also a factor? Or were we physically acting out the emotional struggles of our parents’ marriage? Were we showing them what their verbal battles looked like, felt like, to us? Or could it be that we were trying to get them, and especially our father, to break up our fights as a way of demonstrating that he cared about us? Or had we begun to sense, albeit unconsciously, even before our mother told us about his first family and Auschwitz, that Laz and I were not just competing with each other for his love and affection? Was it all of the above?
Whatever the case, our fighting was very hard on our parents. My father in particular, frequently, almost tearfully, begged us to stop.
We never fought outside our parents’ house. We were, I think, too embarrassed to be seen by anyone else. Our frequent fisticuffs finally ended only when we arrived at college, our first time living away from home. The day we moved into the dorms, to separate rooms, each with another roommate, we both realized we no longer had a private place to fight. We immediately, mutually, agreed to stop fighting — physically. And we did. Cold turkey. Of course, verbally, our battles royale continued, at first only in semi-private settings, with constant warnings to each other to keep our voices down, then eventually in front of our roommates, then girlfriends and later our wives, who, like our parents earlier, were dismayed to be dragged into our conflicts and to be pressured subtly — and often not so subtly — to take sides.
Kids often ask us during the question and answer portion of our concerts, “Do you two ever fight? Do you always get along?” I — always trying for a laugh — strike an astonished pose and say, “Who? Us?? Fight???” Then, after the laughter, I allow that when we were kids we used to fight. “But now,” I add, “We only have ‘creative differences.’ Which means,” I go on to explain, “that I want things my way and he wants them his.” Then Laz, who is always trying to teach and set a good example, tells them that over the years we’ve learned to try to work out our differences; because we’ve learned that if we don’t, the music sounds bad.
We’re both telling the truth. We still fight. But now it’s rarely the unconscious, we-have-no-idea-what-we’re-fighting-about, or the we’re-not-really-fighting-about-what-it-seems-we’re-fighting-about kind of fights that we used to have. We no longer feel as invisibly bound together as we did in that two-mile time trial in college. Over the years, as we’ve become more conscious and aware of the powerful bonds between us, we’ve also begun to act more independently, eventually even releasing separate solo recordings. Unlike years ago, when it seemed we only had friends in common, now, while we still share some friends, we also have friends who are close to only one of us. Things have changed from the days when friends would invite one of us for dinner and then be shocked when only that one showed up. They’d assumed that if they invited one, the other would naturally come too. Like the doctor at our birth, they needed someone to announce, “There’s another one.” Most of them learned quickly that if you wanted both, you needed to invite both.
Of course, whenever either of us did something alone, or different from the other, it prompted questions. When Laz got married first, to his longtime partner Helen, everyone asked when was I going to follow suit. Years later, after I married Brenda, Laz and Helen became pregnant with their son Daniel. Then my wife and I were frequently asked — when would we have a child?
It sometimes has seemed as though we were expected to live a two-part fugue, with one setting a theme and the other inevitably needing to echo it a few beats later.
When we were babies my mother frequently had to stop her double pram on the streets of Budapest so people could satisfy their curiosity about our being twins. She loved it. Until we were about nine or ten years old, and finally put our feet down and refused, she always dressed us alike. By then Laz and I had become quite ambivalent about people’s interest in our appearance. Like beautiful women who enjoy the attention their looks get them but also have days when they wish men were not quite so attentive, we sometimes grew tired of the constant dumb question, “Are you twins?” Our responses began changing from cheerful to laconic to sarcastic. “Who, us? No, we’re not even related. We just had plastic surgery so we could look alike.”
Most of the jokes people make about us being twins are — like our responses — lame and un-original. “Am I seeing double? Which one of you is the better-looking one? Do you guys use mirrors, or just look at each other when you comb your hair?” But every once in awhile, usually when they are not trying to be funny, people say some hilarious things.
Laz was walking down a street in Ann Arbor and heard someone calling both our names from behind him. He turned and waited, and when the acquaintance caught up she said, “I wasn’t sure which one you were. You guys look so much alike from the back.”
Or the little boy at the Fox Hollow Festival in NY, who looked at us intently for a minute and then declared, “I have a friend who looks like oneof you.” And then stood there for another minute, trying to decide which one of us his friend resembled.
We rarely used our twin-ship for mischief. We never tried tricking girls on dates and only once do I recall trying to con our teachers. It was April Fool’s day, seventh or eighth grade. After much pestering by our classmates, who thought this was a great idea, we switched classes. Our teachers were not deceived for long. When I flubbed a routine grammar question, Laz’s strong suit, his teacher first gave me a suspicious glance, then a second look, and finally a stern command to return to my own class. Meanwhile, with true twin synchronicity, Laz was being simultaneously unmasked after muffing a math question, my strength, in my classroom.
The first week we were in college we saw a perfect, built-in opportunity for a great twin deception. Half of the oval indoor track at the University of Rochester runs in a tunnel under part of the athletic field house. When Laz and I saw that tunnel, we immediately understood its implications and began discussing how we could set a bogus world record for the 660 yard dash. How one of us would sprint away from the starting line, flat out, saving nothing, until he entered the tunnel, well ahead of the pack; how the other one, already stationed at the far end of the tunnel, would sprint out; how the one who started the race would duck into one of the numerous doorways in the tunnel to stay out of sight.
The idea was intriguing, and we frequently plotted and conspired with each other and our teammates. But we never did it. Not in an official race; not in intra-squad time trials; we never even sprang it on our hated new track coach in our senior year. While the bonds between us were so strong that we never seriously thought about choosing different careers, or living and working apart from each other, our ambivalence about being twins didn’t allow us to play with our twin-ship, to enjoy it. I think we never ran the joint race because we didn’t want to reinforce the notion that we were somehow one — interchangeable replacements for one another. Being twins was sometimes a race we didn’t want to run — win, lose or tie.
Yet, as ambivalent as we were, we clung to each other and to our identity as twins. When we began playing music and needed a name for our duo, one of the first we chose was, “The Minnesota Twins.” We even played one gig under that moniker and only gave it up when a friend of ours, who was studying to be a lawyer, pointed out that the baseball team of that name might not look favorably upon our use of it. He also, along with nearly everyone else, pointed out the obvious, “Besides, you’re not from Minnesota.”
A few years later, after we’d already settled on the name Gemini, (and had been asked more times than I care to remember, “Which of you is Jim and which is I?”) David Bromberg casually remarked backstage at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, “Here come the twins.” I made a face and groused, “That’s not the main thing we particularly want people to notice or comment on.” David shot back as quick as one of his guitar licks, “You’re certainly not trying to deflect attention from your twin-ship when you go and name your duo Gemini!”
After that eye-opening two-mile time trial at the beginning of our senior year in college, we didn’t race head to head again for nine months. During the indoor track season, Laz ran the six-hundred-yard dash, I the thousand. (For some reason, I didn’t pay attention to the information I received in the two-mile time trial, that my strength lay in the longer distances, and instead chose a distance closer to Laz’s strength.) In the outdoor season we were consecutively, “conveniently” injured, and so didn’t face, race each other, till the final dual meet of the year. Then, in yet another variation on our previous races, on the track and off, we finished a half-mile race tied for first with another teammate. The three of us ran the last twenty yards side by side, clasped hands raised in victory.
Except. . . I know that Laz waited for me. I know that coming off the last turn he held back his powerful kick. He could have easily sprinted by me, leaving me behind as he did in that foot race when we were small children in Budapest.
He knew it too, though neither of us thought then of that long-ago race. Walking together on the infield afterward, I thanked him for waiting and he said, generously and apparently wholeheartedly, that he was glad we could win together.
Sometime that same year, my final year of college, I wrote my first poem. It was laughable. The only person I showed it to, Laz, laughed. Even though we were almost always together, and were similar in so many ways, Laz and I often tried, even as children, consciously and unconsciously, to find ways of differentiating. We staked out our own territories within the boundaries we’d set for ourselves and then respected each others’ boundaries. He ran, I swam. We got identical grades in all subjects except Laz did better in language and I in math. (Every once in a while we’d trespass on one another’s claim. In our sophomore year in high school, Laz got an A in geometry, that most concrete, least abstract of mathematics, and I got a B.) He played the violin, I the piano. He was in the orchestra, I was in the choir. I learned to drive in high school, he didn’t. I dated; he less frequently. He wrote poetry, I became business manager of our high school literary magazine. I played rhythm guitar, he played lead.
Now, at the age of twenty-one, we were beginning to explore new arenas, new provinces, pushing against our self-imposed boundaries, and, inevitably, tromping on each other’s turf.
With some things it was not a problem. I began running, but I was little threat to him at the distances he was racing. He was generous and supportive. He found a steady girlfriend. She was not Jewish, and we were united in our struggles with our father about dating non-Jewish women.
But. . . he began learning to drive, and I wrote a poem. It was about snowflakes and I am certain it was awful. Laz laughed. I decided to stop writing poems. And I harassed him about his driving and lorded my expertise over him. It took him years to get his license. It was decades before I attempted another poem.
The year after we graduated from college, we began writing songs; some alone, some together. Almost all our joint writing was to the tune of bitter fights about what was good in those songs — mostly the parts we had each written, of course — and what needed to come out — naturally, much of the other one’s contribution.
Jealousy and envy, green and simple. I was envious of his obvious talent with words and he may have felt threatened that I was beginning to intrude on yet another territory that, till then, had been his.
We’d also absorbed our father’s style of responding to our creativity, never taking it seriously, always comparing our achievements to his, and finding ours coming up short. Our mother was often no kinder. When, many years later, in the late 1990’s, Laz published his first book of poetry and mailed a copy to my parents, she responded with, “We received your book.” My father said, “I wish I were a university professor, so I could understand this stuff.”
Two weeks after I mailed a copy of my first solo recording to my parents, also in the late 1990’s, my mother told me on the phone, “Your father and I have been very busy and have not yet had a chance to listen to your tape.” She was eighty; he was eighty-eight at the time. Their dance card was not exactly full, but they could not find an hour to listen to the recording. Finally, a week later, she called to say, “We listened to your tape. It’s very nice, but your father says you mispronounced a Yiddish word in ‘Belz’.” And then he got on the phone to explain what I had done wrong. Then they switched to another topic.
Laz and I gradually shifted away from writing together. The painful fights certainly impelled us apart, but we also began recognizing that we were drawn to different types of subjects and had different ways of expressing ourselves. We continued polishing our songs together, and offered criticisms to each other, often still harshly, but by the time our first recording came out in 1979, though it contained two guitar instrumentals we’d written together, we were mostly writing alone.
When, around this time, Laz began playing folk flutes and fiddle, I chose percussion. And when, after a very rocky start, I finally began to get comfortable with a folk rhythm instrument called the bones, Laz also became interested. He too initially had a rough time with the learning curve and after a few days of watching him struggle, Percy Danforth, the man who taught us both, offered his compassionate and very practical advice. “Laz,” he said gently, “No duo needs two bones players.” Relieved, Laz stopped playing the bones. He would play the melody, I the rhythm, and we’d continue to play music together.
A few years after we began playing concerts, I decided I needed to overcome my insecurities about my abilities as a musician and try playing in public alone. My first solo attempt was at a weekly hootenanny at the Ark Coffeehouse in Ann Arbor. I was petrified. I sang three songs, one of them Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” I chose it because that’s how I felt and because I knew I’d be able to make a joke about it. People laughed at my joke; I survived and didn’t fall to pieces. A few weeks later I auditioned alone at a bar in Detroit. I was so nervous that on the one-hour drive from Ann Arbor, I had to stop twice to go to the bathroom. At the bar I introduced myself as Sam Pollux. No one remarked about the unusual name, nor did anyone catch the obscure reference to Castor and Pollux the mythological twins and the names of the two stars in the constellation Gemini. It seems I needed to simultaneously hide, and advertise, that I was a twin.
I must have sung adequately because the bar manager hired me for a six-week run of Wednesday nights. I had done the audition as a test of my courage. I had not expected to be hired and didn’t have nearly enough solo material for a whole evening. I asked him if he’d be interested in hiring a duo. He said he wouldn’t pay any more for a duo than what he’d promised for a solo. When I got home I invited Laz to join me. The pay was nearly the same as what we were getting as a duo at other clubs, so he said yes. We played six Wednesday nights from 9 to 2 and the owner wrote each $30 check to Sam Pollux.
I wasn’t the only one who got nervous when I played alone. Fifteen years later, in September of 1992, the first time I sang the National Anthem alone before a Detroit Tiger baseball game, a number of people called me after hearing the broadcast on the radio. Echoing my parents’ fears, they all wanted to know, had Gemini split up? was Laz okay? I reassured them that I only sang alone because Laz was home with his wife and week-old son.
Throughout my childhood, my father treated me differently because I was the first born. I was never aware of him liking, or favoring one of us over the other, but in symbolic, and ritual situations, he always made distinctions. When he cut the challah bread at the Shabbes meals, after he ate a piece, and gave one to my mother, he always handed me the next slice. He did the same with the Shabbes wine and the traditional Friday night blessing. At our Bar Mitzvah he insisted that I do the more prestigious parts of the service even though Laz was clearly a better Cantor and had more enthusiasm and less resistance to learning the chanting than I did. And after our Bar Mitzvah, when we could be called up to the Torah as men, he always called me first. On Pesach though, when it came time to ask the four questions at the Seder, a role traditionally reserved for the youngest member of the family, my father had Laz and me each ask two of the questions.
When Laz and I started talking about these things in our thirties and forties, he told me that he never resented being second in these situations. He felt relieved, not slighted. But I always felt a small tug of guilt over these little honors, and a larger drag of resentment at the extra obligations. I knew I was not, in any real sense, the older brother. I didn’t deserve preferential gifts, nor did I want extra burdens, simply for leaving my mother and howling at the world twelve minutes earlier than my brother.
And I think I may have sensed early on, even before I knew it for a fact, that I wasn’t really my father’s first born. And that his insistence on these small gestures, despite my meaningless twelve-minute margin of elder brotherhood, may have been yet another way for him to hold on to the memories of his first born.
Just as, minutes after I was born, a nurse noticed that, “there’s another one”, I gradually became aware that there were others. Not one more, but three more. And not arriving twelve minutes after me, but having been there many years before me.
It wasn’t until I was in my forties, that I began to contemplate the significance of my father having lost his first children, and the impact of that loss on us, his second children. How could he not be reminded of those children when we were born — less than five years after they were murdered? And how could he not draw comparisons between them and us as we were growing up? And how could we avoid sensing his sorrow and perhaps his disappointments? How could we be unaware that we were not only competing with each other, but with the ghosts of our dead brothers and sister?
And so, my father and I finally began talking about his first children. At first, just the bare facts, their names, when they were born, and then a little more, so that they became more real to me. One day my father mentioned that in his first family, his youngest, Gyuri, had been his favorite. His casual remark numbed me into silence. It was only days later, talking about it with my therapist that I found myself sobbing, “No father should have a favorite son. And if he does, he should never let on to his other children.”
I never told my father. I didn’t need to. It was enough that I finally knew how I felt.
There was one race Laz and I both lost — together. And, in losing that race, we won our lives and were saved from indescribable horrors. Had we been born ten years earlier, into our father’s first family in Kunhegyes, we would almost certainly have ended up in Auschwitz and become subjects in the loathsome twin experiments of the wretched Dr. Mengele.
It is perhaps blasphemous of me to dare to compare our lives in any way to the circumstances of “Mengele’s children”, among the only children who survived Auschwitz. Certainly, we have not had to endure anything even remotely like their ordeals. Unlike those twins, we have not had to witness our parents and families brutally torn away from us forever. We have not had to watch—from barracks located just yards from the crematoria—the chimneys of Birkenau spew out the ashes of those loved ones. We did not have to starve and suffer for months in the hell that was Auschwitz, completely at the insane whims of the “Angel of Death” who doled out candy with one hand, and gruesome, excruciating, deadly procedures and surgeries with the other.
And yet, at the risk of being disrespectful to those children, it seems to me that our lives do bear a slight resemblance to theirs. Like them, in a sense, we too have survived Auschwitz. We too have had family members, albeit ones we never knew, torn away from us. And, in a very faint echo of their circumstances, we too have witnessed the smoke and ashes, if not the fire, of the destruction of the lives our parents lived before we were born. And while, unlike those children, we were completely spared the gruesome, inhuman experiments performed in Auschwitz, we did, in a sense, become subjects in a different, if far more noble set of experiments. Could our father and mother put their shattered lives behind them and start over? Did they have the courage, the energy, and the will, to put down new roots, to rebuild their own lives, and even to create new lives? And how would we, new lives born in the aftermath of so much loss—and also products of such resolve, vitality, and spirit—be shaped by the events that preceded our birth?
Haya Tov v’Tov S’haya. It was good. And it is good that it was. Israeli saying
When our family arrived in Israel in 1957, the government settled us in Ein Ayala, just south of Haifa. Ein Ayala was a semi cooperative farming community of ninety families. We were assigned to a small farm that came with a house, a chicken coop and an old mare. The land, the house, and the chicken coop were ours alone, but the horse we shared with our neighbors, the Shöen family, also recent immigrants from Hungary.
My mother’s only previous experience with horses consisted of moonlit carriage rides in Budapest parks. My father had watched his father work them, thirty years earlier. So, Mr. Shöen had Magda all to himself. He plowed with her and occasionally hitched her to a cart for trips to the village store. My parents never touched the horse. They did their shopping and other errands with Mr. Shöen.
Laz and I were not allowed to ride Magda, but we jumped at every chance to ride in the cart. Mr. Shöen’s daughter, Judit, the first love of my life, and her younger brother, Öcsi, often rode with us.
One day, when I was about ten years old, the four of us rode to the bus station with Mr. Shöen. The cart was a small shallow wooden box. Two long poles, for Magda’s harness, stretched out from beneath the floor boards and the cart rode on two wheels attached to an axle under its middle. A single plank bridging the side walls of the cart served as a seat. On this day as always, Judit sat on one side of Mr. Schöen, I on the other and Laz and Öcsi, facing the rear, on the back half of the wide plank.
As we slowly bounced our way to the station on the rutted dirt roads, Mr. Shöen handed me the reins. He had done this a number of times before, but this was different. He told us he was going away for the day, and I, as the oldest boy, (a whole twelve minutes older than my brother) would drive Magda back. Magda was a docile horse and responded easily to the reins, but Mr. Shöen, perhaps noticing the excitement on my face, now warned me to be sure and not stand up in the cart, and to not let Magda gallop on the way home.
We waved good-bye as the bus pulled out of the station and then sprinted for the cart. Laz, Judit and Öcsi piled in while I unhitched Magda. I climbed into the cart, took my seat on the bench, and flicked the reins lightly. Magda turned and started walking. As soon as we were out of sight of the station I stood up and yelled, “Come on Magda, run!” She turned her head and looked over her shoulder at me in, what I now imagine, might have been surprise. Then she turned back and began trotting slowly. I continued yelling, urging Magda to greater speed. Judit, Laz and Öcsi were also shouting. Magda responded. Soon she was galloping faster than I’d ever seen. I thrilled to the feel of the air rushing past, the bouncing and rocking of the cart, the exhilarating speed. I focused only on Magda and the road, and held on for dear life, but out of the corner of my eye I kept track of Judit. I was certain I saw my beloved casting admiring glances my way.
What I remember most of all though, is the feeling that coursed through me as I gripped the wide leather reins and braced myself as we sped our way home. Throughout the entire ride I had the utter conviction that I was protected and would come to no harm. I had never felt like that before.
It was years later, listening to one of my father’s stories about his father Shaya, that I learned that my grandfather had a cart almost exactly like the one I had driven that day. Shaya had eleven children and worked several jobs to make ends meet. He was, among other things, a peddler. My father remembered him loading his two wheeled cart with watermelons, or with huge bundles of dried animal hides, or with large clay pots filled with wheat or poppy seeds. He sold or traded for all of those things, even the pots. Farmers used them for making lekvár, prune butter. Shaya would be be gone for a week or more at a time, selling and trading his wares in the villages of northwestern Hungary.
He loved spirited horses. My cousin Lilly, who was born in 1930, and along with her sister Edit managed to survive Auschwitz in 1944, still vividly remembered our mutual grandfather when she was in her eighties. She recalled that when Shaya bought a horse, he always chose one with the wildest, stormiest temperament he could find. On Shabbes, when Shaya didn’t work, he’d let his horses run free in a pasture behind his house, delighting all the neighborhood children, and terrifying all their mothers..
Shortly after we moved to America in late 1959, my father learned to drive a car. Although he was over 50 years old by then and had rarely even ridden in a car before, privately-owned cars were very scarce in Hungary and in Israel, he quickly mastered the skills of driving, and applied for his license. He did well on the driving part of his exam, but the oral test was another matter. He barely spoke English. The examiner showed him a series of slides of traffic signs and asked him what they meant. My father answered each question slowly, hesitantly, but correctly. The final slide was “Construction Ahead.” My father had no idea what the word “construction” meant. He looked at the examiner blankly. The man, knowing that my father was a recent immigrant and was the Cantor at the synagogue, kindly asked, “Reverend, if you were driving along and saw this sign, what would you do?”
My father replied, “Slow down and pray.”
He got his license.
(My mother flunked her driving test seven times, but persisted through each failure despite relentless, unkind teasing from my father. Perhaps she understood early on that the license would provide her, and my brother and me, a measure of independence impossible without it. Certainly, since we could hardly ever convince our father to join us on weekend outings to parks, museums, the zoo, etc. our lives would have been far more circumscribed had she not been able to drive. In the end, she turned out to be as safe a driver as my father, with not a ticket or accident on her driving record.)
My father began teaching me to drive when I turned sixteen. My mother was never involved in this early stage of my driving, my father still insisting that, despite her safe driving record, she was such a bad driver that I’d learn poor habits from her. Several days a week that spring we’d drive down to the Kingston Fish Market on the west bank of the Hudson. There, in the dirt parking lot under overhanging willows, amidst the sickly smell of fish scales and innards, he would stop the car, we’d get out and walk around the hood of his tan 1963 Rambler and switch seats. Then, while I drove lazy circles and got used to the accelerator, brakes and steering, he sat next to me in the passenger seat, saying very little.
Those were my favorite hours with him in my teenage years. At all other times it seemed we were arguing, or a sulking silence hung between us. We fought about his demand that we go to shul, about the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism and, once, most bitterly, about my wanting to date a non-Jewish girl. In the car though, we never argued. Our silence was not charged. Occasionally I was even able to bring myself to thank him for teaching me. Sometimes he’d comment that I learned well and would be a good driver.
The day after I turned seventeen I got my learner’s permit and my father and I started driving in city traffic. One day as I was approaching an intersection, the green light of the traffic signal blinked out and the yellow did not come on. All three lenses were dark. A part of me immediately understood that the yellow light had simply burned out and that’s why it wasn’t coming on. I also knew I was too far from the traffic signal to make it through the intersection before the light would turn red. Still, I did not brake. Some confused, irrational part of me said it was all right to go through the intersection.
It was not all right.
Just as we went under the light I glanced up and saw the red lens come on. We were crossing a wide one-way street and, on our right, cars started moving. There were two lanes of traffic headed toward our car. The driver of the car in the near lane saw me and stopped. The lead car in the other lane didn’t. It smashed into ours at the passenger door, where my father was sitting. The shock and noise of the impact made me lose control of our car for a few seconds. We went careening through the intersection, down a shallow grassy embankment and, as I regained control, back up the embankment.
The whole time, my father moaned over and over, “Jaj Istenem, Jaj Istenem.” “Oh my God, Oh my God.”
I was a little breathless, but otherwise surprisingly calm.
We were lucky. The car that hit us was just beginning to accelerate from a complete stop and so was not going very fast. My father had a bruise where the impact shoved the armrest into his ribs but did not require hospitalization. The other driver and I were not hurt.
In the next few years, my father often reminded me that I had injured him. At the time I could not bring myself to acknowledge or sympathize with his fear, pain or his shock — or to apologize. Instead, I resented him for harping on the subject. Now, more than thirty years later, I wonder if he wasn’t right to blame me. After all, I didknowingly run a red light. The crashdidcome from his side. I wonder if, albeit unconsciously, I deliberately hurt my father. I had been furious at him for years and had felt powerless to openly talk with him about any of the disagreements between us. Did I use this opportunity to get back at him? To hit him?
The accident changed us. Although I got my license soon after, the ease we experienced between us in the car was gone. He became a nervous passenger, backseat driving from wherever he sat. He traded in the Rambler shortly after the accident and never again bought a small car. The accident may have also contributed to my brother not learning to drive until three or four years later. Laz had never been as interested in cars or driving as I, and so did not start driving lessons when I did. And, after the accident, my father was — understandably — less anxious to teach him.
Soon after I got my driver’s license though, my father bought me my first car, a used, 1965 Mustang. Thinking back on it now, I’m amazed he chose that car for me. He certainly never bought anything remotely like that for himself, nor do I think he ever yearned for a flashy, sporty car. I doubt he knew what the word “mustang” meant, but I find it fascinating now to think that my grandfather’s love of wild horses, transmuted by time and circumstances, may have found expression in this gift from my father.
It was an exciting car; black leather bucket seats, big V-8 engine, automatic transmission, with the shifter, sexily, on the floor. I drove it everywhere. I could afford to. In 1967, the year I graduated high school, gas cost less than twenty cents a gallon.
As soon as I could drive alone, I began testing myself. Paradoxically, or perhaps naturally, my favorite place to practice was on the narrow winding lanes of the cemetery near my high school. I drove fast on those deserted roads, practicing cornering on the tight turns, loving the feeling of skidding, sliding, being only somewhat in control when those roads were icy, relishing being alive amidst all the tombstones.
I also quickly learned that my powerful, responsive car, with far more horsepower than my grandfather ever imagined, allowed me to act on my feelings in ways I never did when I wasn’t behind the wheel. If I was on foot, perhaps standing in line at the post office, and someone cut ahead of me, I might mutter something, or throw a dirty look, but I wouldn’t take it any further than that, especially if the guy was bigger than me. In the Mustang though, it was different. If someone cut me off in traffic, I felt completely safe honking, flipping the bird and, taking advantage of the Mustang’s superior power and handling, cutting them off in return.
One day, the summer I was eighteen, I was driving home from work. I was in the passing lane on a divided highway, going a little over the speed limit, when a VW Bug started tailgating me — very aggressively. He was so close I could barely see his front bumper in my rearview mirror. Traffic was heavy, and I could not speed up or change lanes. As he continued to tailgate me at sixty miles an hour I went from uneasy, to angry, to steamed. I tried a trick. I turned on my lights, hoping that the sight of my rear lights coming on would fool him into thinking I was braking. Nothing doing. He ignored the lights. I didn’t dare brake, but I eased off the accelerator and began gradually slowing down. Laz in the passenger seat began to notice my behavior and asked me what I was doing. I replied with heavy irony that I was giving someone a driving lesson.
The driver of the Bug began looking for a chance to pass me on the right, but I had him pinned. I slowed from sixty to forty, still keeping him behind me as the traffic rushed by us on the right. Finally, there was a break in the traffic. He swung abruptly into the right lane, but I anticipated and got there ahead of him. He swung back into the left lane but still could not get there before me. His Bug was clearly souped up, with wide tires and throaty engine and muffler, but my standard Mustang was its equal. We continued this variation of “chicken” a few more times, barely missing each other and other cars, and then, as the divided highway was about to become a two-lane city street, I slowed to let him pass, only so I could give him the finger as he went by.
He was about my age, with a girl in the passenger seat, and I wound up “saluting” her as well, undoubtedly exacerbating a situation that was already clearly hormonal in nature. I knew I’d taken things too far when, instead of passing, he abruptly slowed and pulled in behind me. I instantly realized that now that we were off the highway he could trap me at a red light, get out of his car, and offer to settle our dispute non-vehicularly. I had gotten enough of a look at him while we were racing and dodging, and when I “saluted” him, to realize that if he caught me, it was not going to be pretty. I suddenly recalled how, a few years previously, in a similar situation, my uncle Ervin had been decked on a New York City street.
My uncle Ervin and his wife Ami, my father’s sister, had also fled Hungary in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. Ervin was a beefy six-footer, a big man by European standards, and used to getting his way in potentially physical disputes. He was under the mistaken impression that he was still a big guy in America. One day, another driver cut him off in traffic. At the time, Ervin was still a recent immigrant, and I don’t know whether he knew how to curse in English or whether he resorted to Hungarian. Perhaps, like me, he also simply gestured. Nevertheless, his meaning was clear and at the next red light the other driver got out of his car. My uncle also leaped out. The other man, wielding a baseball bat, swung at Ervin’s head and fractured the arm my uncle threw up hastily to ward off the blow. End of fight.
In the Mustang, being tailed by the Bug, I began imagining how I might fend off a baseball bat. Laz told me later he was planning to use his feet for self-defense. He checked his shoelaces. He wanted to make sure his shoes stayed on when he kicked.
Suddenly the Bug pulled off the street and into the parking lot of a Dairy Queen. I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed and watched in my rearview mirror as the girl got out. A second later I knew I’d relaxed too soon. Barely waiting for his girlfriend to slam her door, he came after me again, tires screaming. I began trying to escape. I deliberately turned the wrong way down a quiet one-way street, thinking he wouldn’t follow me.
Why wouldn’t he? After all, I was running interference for him.
I tried something else. I signaled left and then, at the last instant, turned right. Nothing doing. I slowed for a red light and when I saw it was safe, ran it. He did the same and caught up to me. At city speeds the Mustang was not going to outrun his Bug. Finally, Laz came up with the first intelligent idea of the whole escapade. “Let’s drive to the police station.” When we got within a few blocks of the station, our intention became clear to our pursuer and he yelled something out the window. I couldn’t hear everything he bellowed, but the F-word, poultry and feces were prominent components of his epithets. After giving us a final “one finger salute” he peeled off.
Of course, not wanting to force my father to reconsider his decision to give me a car, I decided not to share the details of our little adventure with my parents. And, other than occasionally thinking of it when I was tempted to exercise my middle digit in a car again, I completely forgot the episode. I recalled it more than twenty years later during a casual conversation with my father, in which he mentioned that my grandfather Shaya, on more than one occasion, wound up in court for getting into fist fights. He recalled that one of those times, when Shaya was accused of starting the fight, his defense was that the other man gave him an insolent look and needed to be taught manners. After my father related the story, I couldn’t help thinking that, as with swimming I’d inherited my grandfather’s style, though not his power — in this case his arrogance and short fuse, but not his pugilistic talents.
I was very disappointed when I learned I couldn’t take the Mustang with me to college. Underclassmen who lived on campus were not allowed to have a car. For the next four years I drove it only summers — which probably prolonged its life. I was not very gentle with it. Nor was I at all knowledgeable or conscientious about oil changes and other maintenance. The result was that a few months after I graduated college I started noticing a disturbing noise when I drove. It turned out the Mustang’s main engine bearing was going. Not worth fixing, considering the age of the car and the cost of the repairs.
I shopped around for another car. What caught my fancy was a Fiat Spider. I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I still hadn’t given up my fantasy of being an opera singer and thought that having an Italian car would help. Or maybe I had delusions about this being the perfect “babe” car. I couldn’t have entertained notions of backseat romances. The Fiat Spider was a two-seater, and possibly the smallest car on the market at the time. A VW Bug seemed to dwarf it. The object of my delusions was a convertible, olive green, with five on the floor and a tachometer on the dash. When I told my father I planned to buy it, he told me that people who drive sports cars abuse them and, his decision to buy the Mustang notwithstanding, it was a mistake to buy one used. I heard what he said, but I was long past capable of listening to my father’s advice about anything.
The used car salesman fit all the stereotypes, complete with smooth lies about him wishing he could buy this car, it was such a honey. It didn’t matter. I was deaf, dumb and blind. I had to have it. I was also not honest. When the salesman asked me why I was trading in my Mustang, was there anything wrong with it, I told him I’d always wanted an Italian car, and no, as far as I knew, there was nothing wrong with the Mustang.
He and his mechanic took the Mustang out for a test drive while I waited nervously. When they came back ten minutes later the salesman pulled me aside conspiratorially and said, “My mechanic missed it, but I could hear that the main bearing is going.” He was letting me know that he knew I was lying but was saving me face so he could make the sale. I said, “Oh, I’d been wondering about that noise. Thanks for keeping it to yourself.” I was letting him know that I knew we both were lying, but that I appreciated his gesture. He continued, “But, I don’t care, we’re going to sell the car for parts anyway, so I’ll give you a good price for it.” He offered me a ridiculously low figure for the Mustang, I jumped at it and the deal was done. I had not yet heard of the concept of karma, but I was about to learn. In Italian, fiat means “instant” or “in an instant.” In English it is a decree meaning, “Let it be done.” It was. Almost in an instant.
The Fiat came with a thirty-day warranty. On the thirty-first day of my ownership I stopped for a red light on my way home from work. When the light turned green, I released the clutch and pressed on the accelerator. The car acted as if the emergency brakes were on. It would not move and the engine stalled. With growing disbelief, I tried several more times. Same thing. When the tow truck pulled my Fiat back to the lot where I’d bought it, (naturally, the only place in town that would touch it), the salesman who had sold me the car was standing by the front gate. “How’s it goin’?” he asked with an innocent grin.
The front caliper brakes had seized up. It cost several hundred dollars to fix them. Two weeks later the Fiat was back in the shop. The salesman had neglected to inform me that I must use only high octane gas. I’d destroyed the engine valves and lifters by using regular. This time the bill was even higher. By the time I sold the Fiat a year later I could confidently, and with a clear conscience, say to my prospective buyer, “It runs great.” (By then, I’d often heard the sarcastic line, that Fiat stands for “Finally I’m Almost There.”) I’d fixed every major, and many minor components on the car, spending far more in repairs than I’d had in buying it.
My next car was a used Carman Ghia, and the one after that a VW bus, both relatives of the Hitler inspired VW Bug. (As befitting the stereotypes, the German cars, though nowhere near as sexy as the Italian Fiat, were much more reliable.)I still recall being puzzled at my father’s heavy silence and scowl when I innocently informed him that I was buying these cars. Only years later did I see that, like many American servicemen with their hostility to Japanese products, my father, along with many Jews, had a reflex reaction to anything German. He made no distinction between Nazis and Germans. Only later still did I contemplate the very real possibility that some of the men who worked on those Volkswagen assembly lines might have been associated, twenty years earlier, with railroad cattle cars rather than passenger cars, might have worked on the assembly line of death that was Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, none of my fantasies about the Fiat being the perfect “babe” car ever came true. Visions of my imaginary companion’s blond hair streaming in the wind, were shattered by the view of my own hair in the rear view mirror the first time I drove alone with the top down. My 1970’s long hippie hair wasn’t streaming. It stuck out wildly in every direction, making me much more closely resemble Bozo the Clown than Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.” I never drove with the top down again. No prospective lover ever joined me in the Fiat. Had I ever convinced one, and had we ever tried to get amorous in the car’s cramped crevices, it might have taken emergency crews with “jaws of life” to extricate us.
When the Fiat was running though, it was even more fun to drive than the Mustang had been. Very low to the ground, rear engined, with a tight steering ratio, it handled like the racing cars of my fantasies.
There was a sharp bend in the street near the house we rented in Rochester. It was a small street with very little traffic but the curve had warning signs and a twenty-mile-an-hour speed limit posted. Every day on my way to and from work I’d try to take that curve at a faster and faster clip and, if traffic permitted, sometimes used both lanes of the road to negotiate the turn. One winter morning on my way to work, I approached the storied curve at my customary maniacal speed. It was overcast, the temperature below freezing. A light rain had fallen in the night and I had noticed ice on the branches of the trees near my house. But the road seemed clear. The trees on either side of the street formed a canopy that absorbed most of the rain and the black asphalt had retained enough heat that no ice formed on it. Halfway through the curve though, it was different. There were no overhanging trees here. The road cut through an open field and the black ice that had formed on the pavement was invisible and Zamboni smooth. The Fiat began skating. The hours I had practiced on the icy cemetery roads back in Kingston now suddenly came in very handy. I didn’t touch the brakes, just backed off the accelerator and steered. I drifted lazily into the oncoming lane, then onto the narrow shoulder and grassy field that bordered the blacktop. I temporarily regained control, lightly touched the accelerator and pointed back to the road. I again skated across both lanes, miraculously managing to avoid two cars, one headed in each direction, and slid to the opposite shoulder and onto the grass beyond, this time slowing enough that when I finally got back on the road I could come to a stop at the corner.
It was early in the morning. Traffic was light, that probably being the main reason I survived the episode. I was alone at the intersection. I took the car out of gear and began laughing, slightly hysterically, and with enormous relief and delight. The whole event had taken only seconds, but it seemed to have been in slow motion and lasting much longer. Throughout it all I had never felt panic. Rather, I felt exhilarated, protected and somehow in control.
Sitting at the stop sign, still laughing helplessly, I retraced my route, recalling everything I’d seen and thought in those few seconds, those few hundred yards. I remembered telling myself not to touch the brakes or over steer, saw again the startled faces of the two drivers I’d barely missed and the solitary lamp pole of which I’d been able to steer clear. I knew how lucky I’d been that there were no trees or buildings, or even a curb on either side of the road — I could have easily flipped the car onto its flimsy cloth top. Finally, one more memory slid into place. I recalled the only other time I’d felt this unique combination of exhilaration and calm. It had been twelve years earlier, in Israel, when I’d stood up in the cart and urged Magda to run.
Since that day, I’ve driven over a million miles and have had, thankfully, no accidents or even near misses as dramatic as that one. The close encounters I have had, have come less from the recklessness I exhibited on that day, than from momentary lapses of concentration, my own or others.
Perhaps I’ve been merely lucky. As my father often scornfully said about my mother’s accident free driving record, “Dummer hot gluck.” (Yiddish for, “The dumb have luck.”) Maybe the episode simply scared some sense into me. Or maybe a guardian angel—could it be my grandfather Shaya?—has been watching over me. Or perhaps, as I began taking different kinds of risks — braving my father’s wrath for living a life of which he so thoroughly disapproved, for choosing to play music for a living, and later, for marrying a non-Jewish woman — I needed less and less to prove my manhood with daring Daytona imitations.
After that day, I gradually stopped testing that curve and others like it. Also, after the Fiat and the Carman Ghia I bought only sensible, practical cars — cars whose main function was to get my brother and me and our equipment to our concerts or, later, my family to the grocery store.
Grandfather Shaya always needed to drive the wildest horses and get into regular fist fights — perhaps as a way of compensating for his wounded pride and his feelings of impotence for not being able to support his huge family. Similarly, perhaps my other grandfather, Shamu, felt compelled to gamble and carouse because of his childhood shame. Like all of us I carry within me the combined and often contradictory traits and tendencies of my ancestors. Like my parents, I am, most of the time, cautious, sensible, practical and careful. But, like my grandfathers, I’m occasionally wild, flamboyant, even reckless. Shamu must have been a colorful character, gambling and playing piano in Budapest honky tonks. And Shaya must have been hell on wheels in that cart, with his wild horses.
Arbeit Macht Frei — work makes you free. Words on the metal arch over the gates of Auschwitz.
Work is love made visible. The Prophet — Kahlil Gibran
In 1971, soon after I graduated from the University of Rochester with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, I got a job parking cars. My father was horrified. “This you went to college for? Four years? Thousands dollars? No other jobs you could find? What about law school? What about teaching?” I had no answers for him. I knew he didn’t want to hear my crazy ideas about playing music for a living.
Laz and I and our friend Joe, (not his real name) who was going to play bass in our band, talked constantly about becoming musicians. We seriously discussed how we would become the next Beatles. We compared ourselves to the Beatles on every level, point by point, and agreed that we matched up very well. Laz and I had the voices and the twin thing, Joe the song writing skills and the mysterious artistic personality.
Never mind that between the three of us we knew about fifteen guitar chords. Or that we only knew how to play two songs all the way through. Or that Laz and I were losing our hair and Joe was so preoccupied with his that if, after his morning shower, it didn’t fall into place just right, he’d go back and take another shower.
The Beatles had already broken up by this time, but we were certain that that wouldn’t happen to us. This despite the fact that Laz and I didn’t like Joe’s songs, or that I didn’t get along with Joe’s girlfriend. (We’d all heard by then that it was Yoko who had supposedly broken up the Beatles.) I comforted myself by thinking that Joe didn’t like his girlfriend very much either. He tolerated her, it appeared to me in my jealous haze, because she adored him and assured him of that every night — loudly. I tolerated her because she did the dishes, something that musicians on the verge of worldwide superstardom seldom did. One time she was gone for a week and we saved all our dirty dishes for her, using up all the dishes in the house, putting them in plastic garbage bags and storing them in the basement, to cut down on the smell. When she returned, she carried them all up the stairs to the kitchen, washed them and put them away. I liked her even less after that. It was easier than not liking myself.
We agreed that while we learned and honed our craft we’d avoid being trapped in “career” jobs. We told each other we weren’t going to be seduced into middle class life by getting jobs that might make us comfortable, that might distract us from our dreams. And no, we were not going to follow in my father’s musical footsteps and do something respectable and stable like becoming Cantors. We were going to be rebellious rock ‘n rollers, or at least protesting folkies.
I don’t recall ever thinking in those days that we were following in a family tradition, and yet we were. My grandfather Shamu, my mother’s father, was an accountant by day, but played piano in Budapest honky tonks almost every night. My mother often told us that he had hated his accounting job and lived only to play music in the clubs.
Our aspirations were loftier. We would become world famous and fabulously wealthy. Paradoxically, we were perfectly content in the meantime, or so we thought then, to starve for our art.
Somewhere along the way I had picked up the idea that “it’s not work unless you sweat.” I now wonder if I came up with this notion partly in response to the animosity that existed between my father and me. Perhaps I needed to see myself as very different from him. My father didn’t do physical work and spoke of it with disdain, as being for people who were not smart, or educated or talented enough to do anything else. He had a very ambivalent attitude toward my mother’s garment factory job. On the one hand he was glad for the extra income, on the other, ashamed of the nature of her blue-collar work.
I hadn’t yet begun to understand, or value how dedicated my father was to his work as a Cantor. I chose to ignore that he opened the shul by six every morning and led the services twice a day, every day, that he worked seven days a week and never took a vacation. Instead, I focused on the fact that some days he spent less than eight hours a day at his job and that some weekday afternoons he watched soap operas on TV and napped on our living room couch. Real work, it seemed to me, was my mother spending eight hours a day in front of a trimming machine in a hot, grimy factory, and then coming home and cooking and cleaning.
It occurred to me much later that when I chose to do physical work I was perhaps also following, albeit unconsciously, in my grandfather Shaya’s footsteps. Shaya had done only manual labor all his life. He was a farmer, a woodcutter, a soldier, and finally a peddler. Did the appeal of physical work spring from the same source that had drawn me, years earlier, to swimming and driving, and would attract me, years later, to chopping wood?
In any case, I found it very easy to turn my back on four years of college and reject my father’s hopes and plans for me to work as an engineer, a lawyer, a teacher or any other white-collar job. At the same time, perhaps predictably, I embraced singing, his most obvious legacy to me.
For a few weeks after we graduated, and before I started parking cars for a living, Laz, Joe and I worked for Manpower, a temporary agency, doing light construction and other odd jobs. The fantasy of doing manual work, of rubbing shoulders with “real” people, had long held a powerful appeal for us.
In reality the experience was different and not as beguiling. We hated having to get up at five every morning (the same time my father did for his work) to wait in a first-come-first-served line for the few available jobs at Manpower. We also weren’t getting along with some of the “real” people with whom we were working. Though we tried to disguise, with our language and our clothes, that we were fresh out of college, our masks were transparent and many of our co-workers sneeringly hailed us as “the college punks.” Our eager beaver, goody-two-shoes attitude didn’t help. On our first job for Manpower we were assigned the task, along with four or five others, of unloading a railroad car filled with lumber. Laz and I began carrying out boards. After our third or fourth trip a couple of the others confronted us. “What’s your hurry? You tryin’ to make us look bad?” We got the message. Along with the rest of them, we began taking regular breaks in the dark corners of the freight car.
We were also inexperienced at this type of work. I had never before handled a wheelbarrow or a pickax, much less a jackhammer. I made many blunders. The final straw, for my boss and for me, came the day I lost control of a wheelbarrow on a landscaping job and dumped a full load of fresh cement on someone’s carefully tended bed of petunias.
Joe, our bass-player-to-be, didn’t last even as long as I did at Manpower. He found a job with Allright Parking and, after I cemented the petunias, told me he could get me in too. I didn’t know how to drive a manual transmission, that and a valid driver’s license being the only qualifications necessary for the job, but Joe gave me a couple of lessons, and the man who interviewed me didn’t look too closely when I hesitantly bucked a car across his lot during my test drive. I started the next day. My lot was diagonally across the street from the Eastman School of Music where I’d studied voice during my stay at the University of Rochester. It had never occurred to me then, or later when I parked cars, to study music there full time.
Parking cars suited me. I didn’t have to get up quite as early in the morning as for the Manpower jobs. This was a big plus, as I was already in the habit of keeping “musician’s hours,” going to bed at midnight or after and getting up as late as possible. The job also met my definition of work. I sweated plenty. During the morning and lunch time rush hours I’d greet my customers at the lot entrance, scribble a parking stub, jump in their car, park it, sprint back to the entrance and do it all again. If I didn’t drive fast, park quickly and dash back, there would soon be traffic jams and angry customers.
It was a classic catch-22 situation. While everyone wanted to be served immediately, no one wanted to see their car driven fast. I soon learned the fine art of sedately rolling away while the customer was still in sight, then driving like a maniac to a parking spot. I became very comfortable racing all manner of ordinary and exotic cars in the tight lanes of the parking lot. The people in the office building overlooking my lot used to watch my maneuvering for their lunch time entertainment. One of them who spied me driving cars backward at a rather high rate of speed, and who correctly surmised that I drove his car the same way, called my boss to complain. “It looks, and sounds, like the Indy 500 down there.” My boss had mixed emotions. Although he was not happy to get a complaint, he was pleased to hear that I was hustling.
There were downsides to the job. I remember one day jumping into a beat-up old VW Bug, racing to the end of the lot, slamming on the brakes as I turned, and feeling the pedal skid to the floorboard. All I could do was brace myself before I crashed into the wall of the building bordering the lot. Fortunately, that part of the lot wasn’t big enough, and the Bug not powerful enough, for me to have gotten up much speed before the crash. When the owner returned an hour later, I told him where he could find his car — right where I’d crashed it. He didn’t seem surprised, or even particularly upset. Nor did he apologize. He just shrugged and muttered, “Oh yeah. Forgot to tell you. Only the emergency brake works.”
Every day there were sticking accelerator pedals, transmissions without reverse, and cars whose interiors looked like open landfills and smelled as though a skunk had died in them. At least once a week, someone would lock their keys in their car — engine still running — at morning rush hour. I became expert at quickly opening car doors with a coat hanger.
The most difficult aspect of the job though, was the attitude of many of the customers. Most of them were professionals; lawyers, doctors, University professors and business men. Not many said “hello” or “good-bye.” Few of the regulars with monthly passes, who I saw every day, and who I always greeted by name, bothered to learn mine. People rarely felt obliged to say “thank you” or “please”, even when they asked for, and received, special favors.
I became keenly aware of this lack of common courtesy, the absence of these basic signs of respect for people who worked at jobs on the low end of the economy. I began noticing it wherever I went. I saw that waiters, waitresses, bus drivers and janitors all got the same treatment I did from the people they served. The experience left a powerful and lasting impression on me.
Of course, not everyone behaved thoughtlessly. I vividly remember a middle-aged lady who drove a burgundy Rolls Royce and parked in my lot every Wednesday afternoon. She exuded class, without a trace of aloofness, often stopping to chat for a few minutes. Or the owner of the Mercedes 280 SL who drove in from Syracuse every few weeks and delighted in regaling me with stories of how he’d managed to shave a few minutes off his previous best for the distance. (He was from Germany and had not yet accepted that the New York State Thruway was not the Autobahn.)
It wasn’t until after I’d been playing concerts for years that I finally began to understand my acute sensitivity at Allright Parking. Partly of course, I was jealous. I was not as comfortable with my blue-collar role as I’d rationalized to myself. But there was something else too. I had been “performing” at the parking lots, but my customers had not realized they were my “audience.” They were not aware that, at the very least, I expected appreciation, if not applause for my “show.” I also began to understand how I’d developed this expectation. I learned it from my father.
My father was a performer, always “on” in public. At family, social and synagogue gatherings he always dominated, or struggled to dominate, the conversation. He was a highly entertaining storyteller and didn’t easily relinquish center stage. To his credit, he loved the stories as much as he craved the attention of an audience. Whether he was telling stories from the Bible or the Talmud, about events in his own life, or about famous people and notable events, his tales were often humorous, filled with vivid detail and always told with great enthusiasm. Over the years, through many repetitions, he honed his stories to perfection.
Of course, in his work, when he sang in the synagogue, even though he had his back to his congregation, he was still performing. They too were not always an ideal audience. Sometimes, during the more mundane parts of the services, the murmur of their lively conversations threatened to drown him out. When this happened, my father simply stopped singing and, like a stern schoolteacher scowling at a rowdy class, waited for silence before deigning to continue.
I learned to take after him in demanding the attention of an audience. When Laz and I were about sixteen, we were invited to sing a few songs at the annual Sisterhood dinner in our synagogue. Our program that night included “On Top of Old Smokey” and the theme from the TV Western, “Bat Masterson.” My between-song-patter consisted of sarcastically berating the audience for not giving us their undivided attention. A few months later at another shul social function I suggested to the crowd, with all the chutzpah of a teenage prima donna, that if they wanted me to sing for them, they might consider putting out their cigarettes.
Years later, when we started playing in bars and restaurants, those were still my main complaints — cigarette smoke, and talking during the music. Unreasonable complaints of course since, as I knew full well, smoke and noise come with the territory at those gigs.
When my brother and I were young, my mother referred to the places where her father Shamu played piano as “coffeehouses” or “clubs”. When we got to be adults she became more honest. Those “coffeehouses” were, as she put it, “not exactly whorehouses, but not elegant places either.” Smoke and noise and other things must have been a big part of the ambiance. My mother recalled that Shamu never took his wife or children to any of these “clubs”.
At the Depot House Restaurant in Ann Arbor, a steady Saturday night gig for us for a number of years in the Seventies, I became enraged one time because several people didn’t turn their chairs to face the stage but sat with their backs to us and continued talking while we played. I retaliated by mangling the melodies of the songs, distorting the pronunciation of words and generally singing in as obnoxious a manner as possible. It worked. After shooting me several looks of disbelief during the course of a few songs, they left.
Meanwhile, I’d forgotten all about the rest of the audience. Also, about Laz, who was furious with me.
I gradually learned on stage, in performance. I learned that when an audience is noisy, the best strategy is for the performer to get quieter. I learned to keep smiling, carry on and not let my disappointment or frustration show. In other words, I slowly learned not to blame audiences for my unhappiness with their response. And eventually Laz and I also learned to simply refuse to play gigs that were not likely to be ideal for our music. We gradually learned where our music belonged.
Of course, I also learned off stage. I remember being in the audience one night after we had finished opening for an internationally known folk singer in a large and beautiful concert hall. He had shown up too late to do a sound check and, during his show, repeatedly blamed the audio crew for the difficulties he was having with the sound. He groused to the audience about the less than full house and complained that his records sold better in England than they did in America — and how that was a reflection on, and an indictment of, American culture. That night I learned exactly how an audience feels when a performer does not respect them, or his art.
I was fortunate in having some different models too. In Boston, in 1982, Laz and I opened seven concerts for Odetta at Passim’s Coffeehouse. If she was upset about the relatively small crowds that week, she didn’t complain to her audience — or to anyone else that I heard. If she had any resentment about the folk boom of the Sixties that, for the most part, had passed her by, yet elevated a number of arguably less talented performers to much greater popularity, she didn’t take it out on any of the people around her. Passim’s only had one dressing room, perhaps more accurately described as a dressing closet. The tiny cubicle was cramped for one person, let alone three, yet every night Odetta graciously invited us to share it with her, rather than allow us to warm up in the only other available spot, the hallway next to the kitchen. Before we went on stage for each show, she sent us off with a heartfelt, “Give ’em heaven!”
She closed all her concerts with “Amazing Grace”. Each night, in a sweet and generous gesture, she invited us up on stage to sing it with her. She sang the first verse differently than I’d ever heard before. Instead of, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,” she substituted, “a soul like me” and said, during the musical rest following that phrase, “No wretches here.” She obviously believed that, and treated people accordingly — on and off stage.
John Steinbeck quotes an actor he meets inTravels with Charley; “You know when show people come into what they call the sticks, they have a contempt for the yokels. It took me a little time, but when I learned that there aren’t any yokels I began to get on fine.”
I worked at Allright Parking for almost two years after graduating from the University of Rochester. When Helen, Laz’s wife-to-be, decided to go to graduate school at the University of Michigan, all three of us moved to Ann Arbor. Joe, our bass player-to-be, had split for California the year before, and Laz and I were just starting to play concerts as a duo in Rochester. There was nothing keeping us there. We knew only two things about Ann Arbor before we moved there. It was, we’d heard, the home of the Ark Coffeehouse, one of the oldest and finest folk clubs in the country, and it was also the home of the Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair, four days in July when a number of streets are closed to traffic and a quarter-of-a-million people visit to view and buy the work of artists and crafts people from all over the country. I was completely unaware of the things that many people associated with Ann Arbor at the time; “Dope Capital of the Midwest”, the “Hash Bash”, sit-ins, Tom Hayden, SDS, even the University of Michigan football team.
We arrived in Ann Arbor in July of 1973. After paying the first month’s rent and security deposit on a shared apartment, we had $60 left among the three of us. I went to the Unemployment Agency and filled out an application.
“We don’t have anything at present, for someone with your educational background.”
I was tempted to ask what was her educational background that qualified her to tell me that, but instead I said, “I don’t care what kind of work I do — I just want a job.”
“Oh, you want to work,” the woman said with a slightly surprised look, and sent me off to an interview.
The man behind the desk at Braun and Brumfield Printers studied my job application in silence for a few minutes. Finally, he looked up at me.
“It says here you finished four years of college.”
“And you have a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of Rochester.”
I agreed again.
“And you want to work.”
Beginning to feel irritated, I nodded once more.
He picked up the phone on his desk, punched a few numbers and said, “Hey Jack, we got us our new janitor.”
I emptied waste baskets, mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms and ran the machine that made bales out of all the waste paper trimmed off in the book-making process. It wasn’t as exciting as racing cars in the Allright Parking lots but I did enjoy one aspect of the job. I’ve always loved to read and during slow periods in the baling room I pored over discarded copies of books that the printers were churning out.
After I’d been there a week, I was summoned to the office of the man who had hired me.
“Can you divide 15/16 by two?”
“And get the same answer every time?”
“Uh. . . sure.”
“Good. We need you in Layout.”
I was promoted. Apparently, I was replacing someone who had not been getting the same answer every time he divided 15/16 by two. Sitting at a light table all day, dividing 15/16 by two, was even less fun than being a janitor. Among other things, I missed sweating and having time to read. However, and this was a big plus, my father had far less scorn for this job than for my previous two. It sounded much more prestigious to say, “I work in the Layout Department of a print shop” than to admit I was a janitor. Although I was living a life that was in complete defiance of many of my father’s most cherished values, I was still very eager for his approval.
Two years later, as Laz and I gradually began to get more gigs, I quit the print shop, and we began playing music full time.
The world changed enormously in my father’s lifetime. The Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk just seven years before he was born, and Henry Ford’s first Model-T rolled off the assembly line at Highland Park when my father was only four years old. As a young man, my father traveled most often by horse and cart, occasionally by train. He was thirty-five years old when he rode in a car for the first time and almost fifty when he learned to drive. He was forty-seven when he first stepped aboard an ocean liner and almost sixty when he first flew in an airplane.
Laz and I have flown several hundred thousand miles and driven well over a million. When, early in our career before we could afford to fly, we’d drive the 600 miles from Ann Arbor to New York in one day, we traveled twice as far as is possible within Hungary’s borders.
Yet, as different as the world has become, in essence my work today is much like my parents and grandparents. It is indeed a fusion of the work they each did. My father was a Cantor all his life. My mother, in addition to being a secretary and garment factory worker, was a homemaker, as were both of my grandmothers. My grandfather Shamu was a bookkeeper by day but his passion was playing the piano in Budapest honkey tonks. My grandfather Shaya was a peddler for the last twenty-five years of his life and traveled to towns and villages near his own, selling his wares.
My brother and I play music and sell our recordings, videos and songbooks at our concerts, and I handle the finances for our business. Also, like many men now, I share the homemaking and childcare duties with my wife.
Like my parents and grandparents, I too am a homemaker, a singer, a musician, a bookkeeper — and a peddler.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. . .Ephesians, IV, 12
The gym teacher sneered my name, “Mister Slow-moe-wits.” It was wrestling day. Tenth grade. Coach Burns. (Not his real name) Same gym teacher I’d had the year before and, unless my frequent fantasies of his violent death came true, the same one I would have for the next two as well. I hated him every day, but never more so than on days we had wrestling. I’ve always been thin, built more for flight than for fight, and although there were a couple of kids not much bigger than me in the class, those match-ups were not amusing enough for Coach Burns. “Mister Slow-moe-wits,” he drawled again, in his mouth “Mister” sounding like an insult. He also deliberately distorted my name, elongating the “Slow” and “moe”, then putting a sharp accent on “wits”. “Mister Slow-moe-wits will wrestle Mister Plauger.” Jimmy Plauger (Also not his name) was a head taller and at least forty pounds heavier than me.
(When my father was in the munkaszolgálat, the forced labor camps, one day his unit was unloading artillery shells from a truck. The German guards ordered my father to pair up with a man much taller than he. This meant that the other man had to crouch and my father had to strain up on his toes in order for them to be able to carry the heavy munitions together on their shoulders. The Germans stood by and laughed uproariously at this pathetic Mutt and Jeff scenario.)
I was in Coach Burns’ doghouse for many things. Partly it seemed, for being spectacularly incompetent in baseball, football and basketball. None of these sports were played in Hungary or in Israel, so I was completely unfamiliar with them when we moved to America. Once here, I didn’t play them often enough to become even passable. Nor was I much better in other gym activities. I couldn’t climb all the way to the ceiling on the rope that hung from the girders. I was timid and awkward on the parallel bars, hopeless on the trampoline. I’d not been able to do a single chin-up when I’d taken the President’s fitness tests in ninth grade. I’d made up for that, in my mind anyway, by doing two hundred sit-ups — receiving the maximum possible score in that event. Afterwards, my stomach muscles were so sore that I walked slightly doubled over for days. My accomplishment didn’t change Coach Burns’ opinion of me. He blatantly favored the talented athletes and tough guys and openly ridiculed the timid, the slow, the pudgy, the skinny and the uncoordinated. But I felt particularly singled out. I thought I detected anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant overtones in his cruel teasing. I despised him and, though I was never openly defiant, I think he must have sensed my feelings.
“Mister Slow-moe-wits will assume the down position.” My opponent and I got on our hands and knees next to each other. Jimmy was flabby and slow. It occurs to me now that us being paired together was probably as hard for him as it was for me, humiliating, having to wrestle a guy so much smaller. We didn’t look at each other. He put his right arm over my back and with his other hand grabbed my left wrist. His task was to try to flip me on my back, mine was to stick out my right leg to prevent him from doing so, and also to wriggle free and try to pin him. The whistle blew. With a strength and speed born of desperation I squirmed out of his grasp, taking both of us completely by surprise. I don’t know what he was thinking; I do know that it never occurred to me to try to pin him. We crouched there, frozen for a second. Finally, spurred on by the jeers and taunts of Coach Burns and our classmates, Jimmy came after me. I proceeded to scoot around the mat on all fours, Jimmy in hot pursuit, and managed to elude him. Coach was laughing too hard to blow his whistle to stop the contest.
I knew it was not a fair match, but I still felt like a chicken. I had after all, literally run away rather than fight. I never told my father what happened. I knew how much he admired physical courage. I’d often heard him praise his father Shaya, “He was not afraid of anyone”.
Though my father had a quick and nasty temper and was prone to yelling whenever someone disagreed with him, he was never a physically violent man. Our mother and Laz and I always feared that temper, and often felt bullied by it, but I don’t remember him ever laying a hand on any of us. The only time he even came close was one day when we were living in Israel. The stresses of life there must have gotten to him. He got very mad at Laz for something, I no longer remember what, and began chasing him around the kitchen table, hand raised, threatening to hit him. My mother and I just watched, astonished and frozen. This was so unlike him. Not the anger, but the physical expression of it. My brother, like me, also with the build of a jockey or a coxswain and finding himself in a situation where fighting back was unthinkable, was way too quick for him. After three or four futile circuits around the table, my father, like Jimmy Plauger in my gym class, gave up.
I also didn’t talk about what happened in gym class because, even though by the time I knew him my father was never a fighter, or even a very active man physically, he loved wrestling. He would not have been pleased to hear of my cowardly display.
My father discovered professional wrestling on TV when we moved to America. He watched religiously every week. Laz and I always watched with him. We quickly learned the specialized language of wrestling: the takedown, headlock, hammer lock, drop-kick, body slam, elbow smash, leg scissors. (Of course, none of the moves we learned watching TV were of any use in the type of wrestling we did in gym class. Laz and I did often try them on each other, much to the consternation of my parents.) We cheered for the good guys: the gifted and dignified Bobo Brazil, the small but agile Antonio Rocca, and another Italian, Bruno Sammertino (Italians had to be good guys — after all, my father, Laz and I loved Italian opera). We booed and yelled at the screen, my father even moving to the edge of the couch and shaking his fist, when any of the “bad guys” wrestled: enormous Haystack Calhoun, “Killer” Kowalski, and especially the hated Fritz Von Wallack, who wore a monocle, yelled “Sieg Heil” regularly during his matches and threw the stiff-armed Nazi salute.
Laz and I always looked forward to watching wrestling with my father partly because the matches on TV often inspired him to tell us stories. It was during, or after the matches, that he would tell us his tales of the pre-war heroics of Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and of his father Shaya.
My grandfather Shaya was, briefly, the manager of the communal bath house in Balassagyarmat. The bath house there lasted into the 1920s, until indoor plumbing put it out of business. It was owned and operated by one of the synagogues in the city, but used by the entire population, Jews and non-Jews alike. The bath house also included a mikveh, a separate ritual bath reserved only for Jews. The water in the men’s mikveh was heated early Friday afternoon and then not re-heated, because of the Sabbath, until Sunday. The women’s mikveh was heated later on Friday afternoon. This meant that the water in the women’s mikveh was warmer on Saturday mornings, just before the prayers, when some of the devout men preferred to immerse themselves in the purifying waters. So, they began to commandeer the women’s mikveh. When the women complained of finding beard hairs in the water, the rabbi ordered the women’s mikveh locked on Saturdays. The following week, despite the Sabbath and its injunctions against work, a few of the Chosids broke the locks. My grandfather reported this outrage to the board of directors and announced that the following week he would hide in waiting with a plank and would brain anyone who tried to break in.
My grandfather Shaya had a reputation. It was known that he was not reluctant to resolve interpersonal differences with a gun, an ax, his fists, or even a handy two-by-four. The board of directors, which may have included some of the culprits, recognized that Shaya’s threat was not an idle one, and promptly fired him.
My father’s love of wrestling dates back many years before his discovery of it on American TV. In the 1930s he lived with his first wife and their three small children in Kunhegyes, a small town about an hour from Budapest, where he served as Cantor, teacher and Rabbi to the approximately 220 Jews in that community.In 1937 he traveled to the city of Debrecen to audition for a position in a larger synagogue. Following Friday night services, as he was talking with some of the congregants, he mentioned that he was staying at the Nemzeti Kasino Hotel. Several in the group immediately advised him not to walk there after dark, as roving bands of anti-Semitic students had been beating Jews. My father, as a devout Jew, would not have considered taking a taxi or bus or trolley on the Sabbath and was about to ask for hospitality from someone in the group, when a man spoke up, “I’ll walk him there. He’ll be safe.”
My father looked at the speaker skeptically. At first glance, he did not appear to be an impressive physical specimen, no taller than my father’s 5 foot 5 inches. But a second look revealed the thickly muscled neck, nearly as wide as his head, and the arms akimbo stance of a powerful weight lifter or wrestler. He was two time Olympian, Kárpati Károly.
Kárpati was famous throughout Hungary, and especially among Jews, for having won the silver medal in the lightweight division of freestyle wrestling in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, and the gold medal in the same event in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Born Klein Károly, he had assumed the Magyar name Kárpati, to disguise his Jewishness, thus allowing him to wrestle in Berlin despite the anti-Semitic atmosphere at those Games. He was reputed to have said before his final match in Berlin, “I will come out of this ring Olympic champion, or I will be carried out dead.”
He was not a man to duck a fight and may in fact, have been eager to find one.
My father and he set off together for the Nemzeti Kasino. My father was easily identifiable as a Jew by his traditional black hat and beard. Kárpati, though also a devout Jew, wore a nondescript cap and was beardless. As they neared the hotel, just as the group in the synagogue had predicted, a half dozen students, their courage perhaps amplified, their judgment possibly clouded by drink, attacked my father and the Olympic champion.
While my father stood by and watched, Kárpáti, obviously as well versed in the rough and tumble of street fighting as in the more stylized holds of Olympic wrestling, grabbed two of the gang and, in an astonishing display of power and athletic skill, used them as cudgels to beat the others, routing the whole band.
My father did not get the job in Debrecen and after that night didn’t see Kárpati for five years. They met again in the munkaszolgálat, the forced labor crews of Jews attached to the Hungarian and German armies. My father had been ordered into the munkaszolgálat in 1942. Kárpati, as an Olympic champion and national hero, had been exempted at first, along with some Jewish veterans who’d served with distinction in WW I. But, by 1943 all exemptions were banned and Kárpati wound up in the same camp as my father in Nadvirna, Poland.
My father, of course, immediately recognized Kárpati, who also remembered him and the night in Debrecen five years earlier. He asked my father, “How do the Nazis treat us here?” My father replied, ”As long as you do your work, there is no problem. But if you slow down too much they give you a shove with their gun butts.” Kárpati snorted, “Let them just try to shove me. The man who touches me is in death’s hands.”
Remembering Kárpati’s bravado in Debrecen, my father became alarmed. “Don’t be a smart guy here” he pleaded. “They have guns and bayonets. They won’t hesitate to use them on all of us. Your bare hands won’t do you any good. They don’t fight by Olympic rules here.” Several others chimed in, begging Kárpáti not even to think of retaliating, but he just repeated, “I can’t help it. I won’t be able to hold myself back. The man who touches me dies.”
Using shovels, rakes and pickaxes, the work detail was widening a narrow dirt road for tanks and cars. My father remembered that they were at a small bridge spanning a shallow stream when a German guard, walking along the line of the working men, casually nudged Kárpati with his gun stock. “Schnell! Schnell!”, “faster, faster”. Kárpati whirled around, twisted the rifle out of the soldier’s hands, broke it over his knee, grabbed the astonished man and threw him over the bridge into the stream below.
My father and the rest of the approximately one hundred Jews in the work detail immediately began chanting the Shema, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’, the traditional prayer of devout Jews when certain death is at hand.
“We were crying. We knew our lives were over.”
Miraculously, nothing happened. Perhaps, despite Nazi propaganda about the physical inferiority of Jews, the officer in charge at the scene was impressed with Kárpati’s skill and strength; possibly he was awed at having an Olympic champion in his unit. In any case, he decided to summon his commanding officer, who chose to punish the hapless soldier who’d been tossed into the stream by Kárpati — for allowing a Jew to do that to him.
To maintain discipline though, Kárpati was immediately transferred elsewhere. My father never saw him again but heard that he pulled a similar stunt a few weeks later and was beaten so badly that his broken ribs punctured his lungs. Rumor had it that the beating was arranged by friends of a German wrestler who Kárpati had defeated in the Berlin Olympics.
Kárpati did survive the war, returned to Budapest, changed his name back to Klein and went on to a successful career, coaching Hungary’s Olympic wrestlers.
My brother and I were perfectly aware, even when we were only twelve years old, that professional wrestling on TV was merely entertainment, rather than genuine athletic contests. One of our favorite jokes in those days took the form of a conversation between two aliens observing Earth from outer space. “There are intelligent beings on that planet,” one says. The other replies, “Oh yeah? Then how do you explain professional wrestling?”
My father also knew. Every time we watched he would say, “This is not real wrestling. This is a joke.” Nevertheless, we all three watched, every week. And even though Laz and I, by the time we were fifteen or sixteen, had developed a strong distaste for the artificiality and the dishonesty of much of what my parents watched on TV, (although we all watched Hogan’s Heroes, and that show—I’m amazed when I think of it now—never inspired either of my parents to talk about their wartime experiences, nor us to ask about them) we continued to watch wrestling with my father until we graduated high school and moved away from home. We watched, I think, because we sensed that this meant something special to him; somehow we understood that this wasn’t a soap opera or game show that we could ridicule.
Our mother always absented herself to the kitchen during wrestling. She found the violence upsetting, the whole farce disgusting. And said so. Which of course had the predictable outcome of bonding my father, Laz and me. It was a bonding I savored because it was so male, and so rare. Watching wrestling and going to shul were almost the only things my brother and I did with our father. He hardly ever joined my mother and us on family outings. It was an unusual day when we could talk him into a drive in the country or playing Monopoly or cards with us. We usually did those things only with our mother. Laz and I, and I’m certain our mother, longed for his company and sensed his loneliness. It seemed though, that he could not bring himself to get too close, to spend too much time with us. Decades later, it occurred to me that perhaps he could not allow himself to enjoy us, his second family, because on some deep, sad level he may have felt that by doing so he’d be disloyal to his first wife and children. Perhaps he also feared getting close and then losing us as well. We watched TV wrestling with him because we felt sorry to see him alone.
And for other reasons as well.
Something about the elemental, and occasionally monumental, struggles between easily distinguishable good and evil were compelling to us. Perhaps it was comforting for my father, and for us, to feel that life could be that uncomplicated sometimes. Even when the good guys lost on TV, as they sometimes did in order to prevent the whole spectacle from becoming even more predictable than it already was, our disappointment was always soothed by the promise of a rematch with a better outcome. The good guys win, the bad guys lose. It’s that simple.
Certainly, it wasn’t that simple for me in gym class. Certainly, it wasn’t that simple for my father in WWII. Win, lose or draw, there is an end to every wrestling match. But only on the wrestling mat. In our lives, there is no end. Even when people die, their survivors, like tag team wrestlers who have been tagged by their partners as they are about to be pinned, are forced into the ring, compelled to go to the mat, to take on the fight.
I’ve often refused to accept that. Just as my father wanted to put the Holocaust behind him by hiding it, keeping it secret, I too have often looked for the tidy finish, all loose ends tied up, the happily ever after. And, over and over, I discover that I am not finished wrestling.
When I wrestled Jimmy Plauger in my high school gym class, I struggled free and began entertaining my classmates — my audience. Of course, I didn’t see it that way then. I didn’t see it as a creative solution to an impossible problem. At the time, I felt only shame. I felt I should have fought Jimmy Plauger, just as I kept feeling I needed to fight with my father. Even though by then I had begun sensing that, like Jimmy Plauger, my father was much “heavier” than me, that his burdens were greater than mine. Like many children of Holocaust survivors, I was beginning to discount my own trials and sorrows, feeling that they could not compare to his. Without even being consciously aware of it, I think I felt I could not burden him further with my trivial issues, when he was already carrying such a heavy load. After all, how preposterous, how macabre, to dare compare being humiliated in a high school gym class with surviving in a forced labor camp and losing a dozen immediate family members in Auschwitz.
In a sense, for my father, the years after WW II were a rematch, with a better outcome. He rebuilt his life and his career and created a new family. He continued to live his life and stayed mostly silent about what happened to him and his first family. Yet I don’t think the almost unimaginable losses he experienced during the war were ever far from his mind. He was still wrestling with his grief, his anger, and his guilt about having survived. And I too wrestled — with my father and with myself.
And so, as I did in gym class with Jimmy Plauger, I struggled free of my father. I moved twelve hours away, to Michigan, where my father, like Jimmy Plauger in high school, could not touch me, could not lay a hand on me. I delayed coming to grips with him until I felt stronger.
And, I began entertaining other audiences.
“Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”
Song title by Irving Berlin, from the movie, “Mammy”.
Our first big gig was a Bar Mitzvah. Our own. Rehearsals, serious ones, began just a few days after our twelfth birthday. My father announced, “I’ll show them a Bar Mitzvah they will never forget!”
“Them” and “they” were his congregation. We had been living in America for just over a year, and he’d been the Cantor at Agudas Achim in Kingston, New York for only about ten months, but he was already disillusioned. He felt that his congregation didn’t know what a find they had in him. They didn’t appreciate who he had been in Hungary — that he had sung, with choir and organ accompaniment, before huge crowds, in the spectacular Dohány Templom in Budapest. They didn’t understand what a comedown it was for him to sing in front of only a handful of people, in a faded, run-down synagogue, in sleepy little Kingston. Our Bar Mitzvah would be an opportunity for him to show that he was special.
The typical Bar Mitzvah boy at Agudas Achim read the Haftorah, (a longish passage from the Prophets that relates to that week’s Torah reading) and gave a speech, replacing the Rabbi’s sermon. These speeches were typically filled with platitudes of gratitude to the speaker’s parents, relatives, Rabbi and community, thanking them for raising him in the proper Jewish way. The speeches, almost as agonizing to witness as they must have been to deliver, were filled with vows and promises. The speaker, now that he was a man, intended to assume his full responsibilities as a Jew and a citizen. He would work hard to live up to his potential and bring honor, and “nachus”, that special happiness that only good sons and daughters can bring, (and eventually grandchildren — though nothing was said about that at this point), to all the people he had thanked earlier in the speech.
Most boys prepared for their Bar Mitzvah by studying for six months with either my father or the Rabbi. Because few of them had much contact with Judaism before their Bar Mitzvah, they had to learn their Haftorah from scratch. First, they memorized the Hebrew alphabet, then progressed to reading Hebrew. There was rarely time to learn the meaning of the words they were struggling to pronounce. There was also no need. After reading their Haftorah and delivering their Bar Mitzvah speeches, the vast majority of them hardly ever set foot inside the shul again.
For us, my father had something else in mind. He proposed that on our shared Bar Mitzvah, Laz and I conduct the entire Friday night and Saturday morning service. It didn’t seem as though that would be a difficult task. After all, we’d been going to shul every day, and singing with him practically all our lives. However, as soon as we started rehearsing, I discovered that, for me, it was not going to be easy. It was as though, accompanying my father to shul all those years, I’d been like a passenger in a car, touring an unfamiliar neighborhood, and not paying attention to the landmarks. When it became my turn to lead, I found I didn’t know my way very well. This amazed and infuriated my father. “You don’t remember?” became his frequent anguished refrain.
Many years later, I wondered. Did my father’s unwillingness, or inability, to acknowledge his Holocaust losses make him paradoxically and perversely furious at me for not remembering the prayers and melodies, the only things in his life that connected him to his life before the war? Did he feel guilty and terrified that these too would be forgotten? Did he also feel that my slow learning reflected on his ability to teach, to pass along his tradition, his way of life?
My father was a teacher, and a student of teaching techniques, for much of his life. More than sixty years after his own schooling, he vividly recalled the methods of some of his early teachers. In his first year of college, his accounting professor asked each student, “How much is one plus one?” Students who quickly answered “two” were judged to be incorrect. However, those who first wrote down the numbers, added them and then produced the answer, were judged to be correct.
While still a teenager in school, my father served as a tutor to some of his fellow students, receiving meals in exchange for his help. In particular he remembers two girls who came from rich families, who did not want to be tutored, but wanted him to do their homework for them. He wrote out their assignments, faking a different handwriting for each of them, in exchange for bread, butter and jelly. The teachers never caught on.
Later, he taught his younger brother Feri by mail, marking grammar corrections on the letters he received from him and then mailing them back for further study. When Laz and I were small children in Hungary, he taught us the multiplication tables and how to read in Hebrew and Hungarian before we began attending school. When we moved to Israel he continued to teach us because he was the only one in our family who spoke Hebrew. (Although, as he acknowledged later, “I didn’t teach you much in Israel. I was too exhausted to have any energy for that.”)
My father always loved to teach — even subjects about which he knew practically nothing. When Laz and I were fifteen he determined that we would learn to throw the shot put. Never mind that we were two of the smallest, thinnest kids in our school. Never mind that I had already demonstrated some ability as a swimmer and Laz as a sprinter. He never encouraged us in those events. Even after Laz won a varsity letter in track in his junior year in high school, despite missing all the Saturday meets, my father would not even consider bending the rules of Orthodoxy to let him run on the Sabbath. Instead, for reasons I’ve never completely understood, he decided that we were ideally suited for the shot put. And he, who had never thrown the shot, or had any knowledge of it other than what he’d gleaned from watching track meets on TV, would teach us proper technique.
Could he have been encouraging us in this wildly unrealistic activity, as a way of steering us away from sports where we might be more successful, from events that might lead to more confrontations about the straight jacket of his Orthodoxy? Or is it possible that my smooth swimming stroke mocked his inability to swim and reminded him of painful interactions with his father Shaya? Was he jealous, rather than proud of Laz’s sprinting ability? After all, as a young man my father had been a fine sprinter and semipro soccer player. He often told us that he’d been nicknamed “the red devil” both for his speed and for the red shorts he wore to games. Or was it that he wished we were big, strong kids? Or, to be generous for a moment, could he have hoped to boost our self-esteem by encouraging us to feel powerful enough to throw the shot?
Whatever the myriad reasons, his enthusiasm for the shot put was infectious. And we wanted to please him. We enjoyed the extra time he was spending with us, the attention and the rare praise. So much so that Laz and I became briefly convinced that our athletic future was in the shot put. We found a round stone, weighing about ten pounds, (dad wasn’t going to buy a proper shot — that’d be a waste of money) and practiced in our back yard. Every day that spring, after school, even before doing our homework, we’d toss the stone. He’d give us pointers and we’d measure each throw and keep track of our progress. After a couple of weeks, he grew bored with teaching, but Laz and I continued to compete with one another, trying to break our previous records. We finally stopped the following spring when, having grown bigger over the winter, our distance increased, and we started heaving the stone out of our yard and into our neighbor’s — who did not appreciate the resulting small craters in his lawn.
We never told anyone else about our shot putting. Without ever discussing it, even just between us, Laz and I knew that it was a private, back yard delusion, meant only for us and our father.
Our family’s emigration from Israel to America, coming so soon after we left Hungary, was another difficult transition for all of us, but I’ve come to see that it may have been the hardest for my father. My mother, at her work, and Laz and I at school, were exposed to English far more than he was at shul. As a result, my father who spoke fluent German and Hebrew, in addition to his native Yiddish and Hungarian, and had several more years of education than my mother, suddenly was no longer the “expert” or the “smart one” in our family. Now he was the one learning a new language from us. And of course, he could no longer help Laz and me with of our school subjects.
Furthermore, although he was now financially more secure than he’d ever been in his life, I think my father was also beginning to sense that he had reached a career dead end, that he might never again be Cantor at a big synagogue in a major city. For our mother and Laz and I, the horizons were expanding. His vista was narrowing. The prayers and the chants of Judaism became the only subject in which he was still the expert in our family. And I wasn’t interested in learning those from him. School, reading, sports, and nearly everything else in my life, was far more absorbing than shul.
When I look back on my childhood, before my Bar Mitzvah, I recall my father occasionally being irritable and short tempered when he was teaching us, especially when it came to matters having to do with the prayers or shul, but I remember few fights with him until the year of our Bar Mitzvah preparations. That year was hell. Perhaps due to his frustration with his new circumstances, his teaching style came to rely heavily on sarcasm and ridicule. His exasperation with my slow progress was hurtful and made it even more difficult for me to learn. The rehearsals spilled over into every part of our lives and the constant tension and bickering forever altered our relationship.
Well into his eighties, my father still keenly recalled his own Bar Mitzvah, more than seventy years in the past. In his day, and in his community of Balassagyarmat, Bar Mitzvah boys did not give a speech at the synagogue. Rather, the tradition was that the family’s friends would come to visit their home that afternoon, be offered some food and schnapps, and the Bar Mitzvah boy would deliver his “drosha,” his learned speech on a sacred text. My father remembered a seemingly endless stream of visitors for whom he had to deliver that drosha countless times. He hated it.
And, as he finally told me many years later, he also had to endure his father’s criticism. Shaya’s only comment to him that day was that his drosha was too short.
Maybe it wasn’t only his congregation that my father was trying to impress when, forty years later, he decided to have us conduct all the services on our Bar Mitzvah Shabbes. Perhaps he was still trying to make up for that too short drosha, still hoping to gain Shaya’s approval, by having us do so much.
When my father lived in Kunhegyes before WW II, his duties included preparing all the boys in that community for their Bar Mitzvah. In 1997, when I was forty-eight years old, I met one of those boys, then a man in his late sixties. Gyuri Bozoki had lived a few doors down from my father in Kunhegyes in the Thirties, and had been best friends with my half-brother, Ernö, my father’s oldest son from his first marriage.
I met Gyuri through a set of circumstances far too improbable for fiction. Early in 1997, I had begun attending a small gathering of children of Holocaust Survivors that met once a month in Ann Arbor. At our meetings we’d talk about present day events in our lives that seemed related to our being children of Survivors. The group counted more than thirty people on its mailing list, but only a half dozen came for most of our meetings. In that tiny group was another Hungarian, a woman named Eszter Gombosi. When I mentioned that my father had lived in Kunhegyes before the war, she vaguely remembered that her brother-in-law was also from there. She called him at his home in New Jersey and when she mentioned my family name, Gyuri started yelling into the phone, “Slomovits bácsi, Slomovits bácsi!” referring to my father in the affectionate form Hungarian children use when addressing an adult.
Gyuri remembered my father with great fondness. He wrote, “Your father was exactly right, patient, just absolutely fitting to teach adolescent boys for the Bar Mitzvah. Particularly to teach chanting the Haftorah for pubertal ears and singing abilities. He had a friendly and fatherly behavior. His everyday concerns represented our everyday concerns, his hate represented our hate, his joy represented our joy.”
Through Gyuri, I also came into contact with Pista Weisz, another of my father’s students from Kunhegyes. Pista still lived in Kunhegyes and was, as he proudly and also sadly proclaimed, “the last Jew living in Kunhegyes.” Pista also remembered my father with affection, though he did recall that, “Herman bácsi paddled me several times, but I grew up healthy nevertheless. I don’t hold it against him.”
So, perhaps my father was a very different teacher, a very different man before the war. Or maybe, like many people, he treated his family differently than he did other people. Or possibly, it was extraordinarily hard for my father to bring Laz and me to Bar Mitzvah, the manhood ceremony, because he never had been able to do that with either of his first sons.
Gyuri remembers that my half-brother Ernö, by the time he was ten in 1944, was very proficient in singing the liturgy. He remembers saying to him with admiration, “What a little Cantor you are!”
Was I a slower study than Ernö and the contrast between us particularly painful for my father?
I remember almost nothing of our Bar Mitzvah day. I know I made mistakes — although mistakes that I think only my father and Laz noticed. But then, their opinions were the only ones I cared about, the only ones to which I chose to listen.
Although now my brother and I play music primarily for kids and families in schools and concert halls, many of our early gigs were in bars, perhaps not unlike the places in which our maternal grandfather Shamu played piano for much of his adult life. Although there was nothing of our father’s influence on our choice of venues, singing in rowdy, smoky bars being quite a departure from the musical legacy he imparted to us, we were, it seemed, still following in a family tradition.
Our most steady gig in the Seventies was at Mr. Flood’s Party, a small neighborhood bar in downtown Ann Arbor. Ned Duke, the owner and an avid antiques collector, furnished his bar with original Tiffany lamps, antique mirrors, a barber pole, and a juke box that played albums and also housed the bar’s PA system amplifiers. Also decorating the bar were a few plaster statues, including a slightly smaller than life-sized St. Francis of Assisi. Some patrons insisted, especially late at night, after more than a few beers, that the Saint looked like our triplet. There was a resemblance. Laz and I had similar beards and were balding in the same monastic pattern as St. Francis.
Other than sipping a little Sabbath wine on Friday nights when I was growing up in my parents’ home, I had very little experience with alcohol before we began playing bar gigs. I didn’t know a martini from a Martian. I also had no experience with the bar scene. The Cantor’s sons had been quite shielded from the grittier side of life. I still recall my shock the first night at Flood’s when, after I’d carefully gathered all my empty peanut shells into a neat pile on the table before me, a waitress came by and casually brushed them to the floor. I wasn’t used to that cavalier an attitude about tidiness. In college, although I experimented a few times with drinking at the omnipresent beer blasts, my sensitive stomach and thin build prevented me from over indulging. Simply put, I got sick long before I got sloshed. So, when we began playing at Flood’s, I always asked for just a glass of water. Ned would sing out, “Fish bourbon coming up.” However, I soon discovered that a few shots of good rum did not upset my stomach and yet very effectively anesthetized my occasionally sore throat. It took me a little longer to acknowledge that it had the same effect on my ears and spatial judgment. The tiny stage at Flood’s was very high. By the end of some evenings there, so was I. Teetering precariously near the edge of the stage, I sometimes played guitar chords one fret higher or lower than their correct position, all the while giving Laz accusing looks — certain that the discordant sounds were coming from him. After a few months at Flood’s, I found other ways of coping with my sporadic sore throat and went back to “fish bourbon”.
Even though I often felt as out of place at Flood’s as a priest at a frat party, it was there, and places like it, where we learned our craft. Beginning in 1974, until it closed in 1980, we played music from nine to two almost every Tuesday night in front of rowdy Flood’s Party crowds. It was a great education. We learned how to respond to the changing moods of an audience, learned about pacing, and, eventually, learned how to put together a coherent set. When we began playing there, we were perfectly capable of playing a mournful Mississippi Delta Blues, and follow it with the “Irish Washerwoman”.
At Flood’s we also learned how not to get distracted from our music by anything that might happen in the audience during a show, a very valuable skill when we later started playing concerts for children. On one of our first nights at Flood’s, a couple of burly guys started throwing wild haymakers at each other. Laz and I immediately stopped playing. The bouncer, as he ran to restore the peace, yelled back over his shoulder, “Keep playing!” We started up again. After he’d tossed the combatants out on the street, he came back and forcefully hissed, “Never! Never! Never! You neverstop playing if a fight breaks out — or for anything else!” We never stopped again.
Of all the things we learned at Flood’s, one of the most necessary was to never surrender the stage, or our instruments, to strangers. Eventually, when asked, I’d resort to Eric Clapton’s flip line, “Sorry, I never kiss on the first date.” (It was the only guitar-related subject in which I could hope to emulate Clapton.) However, until we learned to say “no” we did occasionally lend our guitars. I vividly recall the last time.
A man with disheveled, shoulder length black hair, wearing a faded T shirt, distended by his bulging belly, swaggered up to the stage and asked to play a few songs between our sets. The bouncer said he was “OK”, so we said sure. We should have sensed trouble right away when he said that since he was such a big guy, he preferred Laz’s guitar, because it was bigger than mine. First, he strummed a few fresh scratches into Laz’s acoustic Goya. Then he proceeded to sing and play ten minutes of the worst shouting blues I hope I ever have the misfortune of hearing. People began hurrying to the door like a ball game crowd leaving early when it’s obvious the home team can’t possibly win. Laz and I were forced to cut our break short so we wouldn’t lose our entire audience. When the guy handed back Laz’s now completely out of tune guitar he said, “Thanks, man. I haven’t played in weeks. I had this real case of musical constipation. It just had to come out.” Laz muttered under his breath, “Yeah. It did sound like shit.”
We gradually recognized that playing in bars did not suit our music, or the way we lived our lives, and after about six years we finally stopped. Laz said he knew it was time when he realized that we were starting all our bar shows with the song “Sloop John B” and noticed how much heartfelt emotion we were injecting into the chorus; “I wanna go home. Let me go home. I feel so break up, This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”
Even before we began playing at Mr. Flood’s Party on Tuesday nights, we had a steady, though non-paying, gig in Ann Arbor. Wednesday nights were open mike nights, or hoot nights as they were still called in the Seventies, at the Ark Coffeehouse. For years, Laz and I showed up religiously almost every week.
We went to our first Ark hoot just a few days after we moved to Ann Arbor. We didn’t own a car, so we walked across town, lugging our electric guitars and a small amplifier. The Ark was on the ground floor of a massive gray mansion near the University of Michigan campus. The house was set far back from Hill Street and when we arrived a little before nine, a few people were strumming guitars and banjos on the huge lawn and on the front porch. At the door we introduced ourselves to Linda Siglin, who along with her husband David managed the Ark, and told her we’d come to play. Musicians got in free. Everyone else paid a dollar to hear twenty or thirty performers play three songs each.
There was no stage. Performers stood or sat in front of the unused fireplace, in what had once been the living room of the huge house. Most of the audience, the front row barely a yard from the musicians, sat on cushions on the wooden floor. Two adjacent rooms, with wide doorways opening onto the main room, held chairs for the rest of the crowd.
Linda waved us toward the “green room,” across the hall from the living room, near the kitchen. It was already crowded with musicians plucking guitars and banjos, a few sawing away at fiddles, and all nervously waiting to perform. Some of them nodded in greeting but most were too intent on their instruments, or their nerves, to make eye contact. We put our cases down, went back to the living room, and watched and listened from a doorway.
There were about thirty people in the audience. It seemed that most of them had come to see their friends perform because almost every singer was greeted with raucous enthusiasm by a few people and polite applause from everyone else. Over the course of the next hour the audience gradually grew, and the music got better.
The musicians ranged from novices like us, who’d been playing guitar for two years and had hardly ever performed before an audience, to veterans of the local bar scene eager to try out some of their quieter songs in front of an audience that listened. Unlike at Flood’s, where the music was always in danger of being drowned out by crowd noise, Ark audiences were quiet, almost reverential. Perhaps this was due in part to the fact that at the Ark, coffee was the strongest, and only, drink served.
Finishing the first set that night was Peter Madcat Ruth. Linda introduced him with obvious respect, telling the audience that Madcat regularly toured with Dave Brubeck and Sons. He received a warm and affectionate welcome as he picked his way through the seated crowd, carrying a colorful metal lunch box filled with harmonicas. Setting the lunch box on a stool before the fireplace, he selected a harp and launched into his first tune without saying a word. I was riveted. I’d never seen or heard anyone like him. His long blond hair streamed as he swayed to the music. He blew intricate rhythm patterns, bent notes impossibly far, and interweaved whoops and hollers into his playing. Eyes closed much of the time he accompanied his blues playing with vigorous foot stomping. His lyrics ranged from the hilarious to the profound, his melodies from softly meditative to driving. He was completely natural and at ease on stage, a total pro, with no egotistical showboating. The audience roared its appreciation during, and after, each of his three songs. Laz and I were too shy and intimidated by his talent to approach him that night but in the next few years we became good friends and Madcat has played on all of our recordings.
After a twenty minute coffee and popcorn break, the music continued. Over the course of the next hour the audience gradually dwindled and there were few people left when Linda informed us that we’d be on next. She introduced us to the crowd warmly enough, saying that we were new in town and this was our first hoot. After the smattering of applause, there was an awkward silence while we set up our amplifiers and plugged in our guitars. Then, a screeching howl of feedback when one of us, I no longer recall who, played a test note. Linda came rushing back to the stage and, with obvious irritation, suggested that maybe we had the amps turned up too high. We turned down and, meager confidence badly shaken, somehow struggled through three songs. I have no memory what the songs were, or how the crowd reacted. I remember slinking out as soon as we were done.
We never again brought our electric guitars to the Ark, but it was many months before Linda’s first impression of us faded. She always put us on stage near the end of the evening. Hers was not a democratic, or first-come-first-served, or blind luck lottery system. She orchestrated the evenings so that the best performers were on stage when the crowd was at its largest. Several times we left without playing when we saw how late it was getting, how many musicians were still left, and how studiously Linda seemed to be avoiding us. We resented her deeply. We thought ourselves deserving of better slots than many of the other performers. But we came back, week after week, because it was our only chance to play in front of an audience. We learned as much playing our weekly three songs and watching the other musicians at hoot nights, as we learned later at Mr. Flood’s. We eventually even came to understand and agree with Linda’s choices. We knew we’d finally arrived when one night, almost two years after we first started coming to the hoots, she invited us to finish the first set.
When my father was in his twenties, studying in Budapest, he went to a different synagogue every Saturday morning to hear and learn from some of the great Cantors of his day. His job as assistant Cantor in a little shul in Pest allowed him to leave early so he could catch the tail end of services at other synagogues. Some Saturdays he hurried to the Dohány Templom to hear Linecki or Abramson or the great Kvartin. Or he rushed to the Rumbach Templom to listen to Israel Tökách. Some weeks he’d go to the Aréna Utca Templom and, less often, to the Orthodox, Kazinczy Templom.
In the same way, forty years later, when Laz and I were in our twenties, we made pilgrimages to the Ark Coffeehouse on most weekends to hear, and learn from, the great folk musicians of our time. The Ark was on the ground floor of a massive gray mansion near the University of Michigan campus. There was no stage. Performers stood or sat in front of the unused fireplace, in what had once been the living room of the huge house. Most of the audience, the front row barely a yard from the musicians, sat on cushions on the wooden floor. Two adjacent rooms, with wide doorways opening onto the main room, held chairs for the rest of the crowd. Sitting on the living room floor, Laz and I heard Tom Paxton, Doc Watson, David Bromberg, or Roni Gilbert of the Weavers. We listened to less well known, but equally talented musicians and songwriters like Gordon Bok; U. Utah Philips, the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest”; Norman Blake, the legendary Nashville studio guitarist; or fiddler Jay Ungar, who later recorded much of the music for Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. (Famed folkies, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, drew larger crowds than the Ark could hold, so David and Linda Siglin, who ran the Ark, sponsored them in local concert halls.)
My father not only learned his craft by listening to the great Cantors in Budapest, he was also able to observe their personal styles. In the stories he tells, they come across as prima donnas, big men with giant voices, and egos to match.
There was the peerless Kvartin at the Dohány Templom. Because he was from Poland and did not understand or speak a single word of Hungarian, he often absented himself during the Rabbi’s sermons. The Rabbi, the well-respected Hevesi, Simon, possibly peeved that people practically applauded Kvartin’s singing, one day suggested that the honorable Cantor might consider modernizing his chanting style. Kvartin is said to have responded, “When I don’t understand something, I go outside.” The Rabbi reported the insult to the board of directors who decided to fine Kvartin one hundred Koronás, big money in Hungary at the time. Kvartin promptly resigned and a few weeks later was on his way to a fabulous career in the US. (Rabbi Hevesi also made it to the US in the late thirties when the anti-Semitic winds began to blow more strongly in Europe. His grandson became a prominent politician in New York.)
Then there was Linecki, originally from Lithuania and one of Kvartin’s successors at the Dohány. He had such amazingly musical ears he could pick out one false note from a choir of thirty or forty singers. He was also a tad vain. When a short statured candidate for assistant Cantor was pointed out to him on the street, he is said to have sneered, “Him? I have something bigger in my pants.”
There was also the great Israel Tökátch, who was chief Cantor at the Rumbach Templom for many years before the war. When my father was studying in Budapest in the early Thirties, Tökátch befriended and mentored him. My father recalls Tökátch asking him once during a lull in the services, “Are the women peeing yet?” crudely referring to his ability to move his listeners to tears with his singing. Tökátch was also a tall man, well over six feet and always addressed my five-foot-five father, albeit affectionately, as “kicsike”, little one.
Linceki and Tökátch weren’t the only ones occasionally more concerned with size and appearance than with musicality, knowledge of the liturgy, or religious devotion. At the Dohány Templom, one of the requirements for allowing a candidate to even audition, was that the Cantor’s robes fit him. Since the robes had been designed for Kvartin, anyone much under six feet was automatically eliminated. When my father finally sang at the Dohány after the war, when this audition criteria had been dropped, (perhaps because there was a shortage of Cantors; so many had died in the Camps or left Hungary following the war) he reminded the board of directors that he had tried to audition more than ten years previously and had been rejected based solely on the robe requirement. The men just laughed uneasily.
Laz and I, at the Ark in the Seventies, like our father in Budapest’s synagogues in the Thirties, also learned more than just music from the giants in our field. But, we absorbed a different style than he did. In marked contrast to the floor length, black or white robes and ornate hats that Cantors wore in Budapest, most performers at the Ark dressed very casually; jeans and plain shirts, or even t-shirts being the standard for men. In addition, unlike the pomp and ceremony at Budapest shuls, where the Rabbis and Cantors entered the sanctuary accompanied by organ music and formally greeted each other by shaking hands in front of the congregation, Ark performers picked their way to the front of the room by gingerly stepping through the floor-seated audience. There was very little distance, physical or psychic between audience and musicians at the Ark. There also seemed to be very little posturing. I remember how Tom Paxton once humorously deflected the “star” aspect of autographing his recordings by saying, “They don’t work until I sign them.”
Of course, the difference between a Jewish house of worship and a folk music coffeehouse dictated many of these contrasts. But it was more than that. It was also the difference between 1930’s Hungary and 1970’s America. In my father’s youth, Europe was just emerging from the age of monarchies and, almost simultaneously, entering the era of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. My hippie generation came of age during the Civil Rights, women’s rights and anti-war movements; our outlook was also shaped by Woodstock, Kent State and Watergate. Also, in this country, folk musicians from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger on, have long been associated with leftist, populist, anti-establishment stances. At the Ark we breathed a very democratic, participatory, American atmosphere; very different from the separatist, elitist, exclusive, “fear authority, don’t question it” attitude with which my father grew up in Europe. We were drawn to the inclusive folk tradition of inviting the audience to sing along with the performer; very different from what we grew up with in my father’s shuls, where the Cantor mostly sang alone, his back turned to the congregation.
Not that the Ark, and folk circles throughout the country, didn’t have their own set of prejudices. In the Seventies, anything to do with rock n’ roll, and popular music in general, was still anathema. I remember some people being upset with Laz and me the first time we played at a hootenany night at the Ark because we brought our electric, rather than acoustic guitars. We should have known. Although it had been years since Bob Dylan was booed at the Newport Folk Festival for coming on stage with an electric guitar, the bias had not yet died.
In folk circles there was also a marked disdain for anything that smacked of glitz, show biz, television, “big, big show,” or the Las Vegas style. I know of one performer who was not invited back to the Fox Hollow Folk Festival solely because he arrived the previous year in a limo and wearing a white suit!
It was at the Ark that I first met Percy “Mr. Bones” Danforth. Laz had heard Percy play the “bones” in the Ann Arbor production of Donald Hall’s play, “Bread and Roses”. He was amazed at how much music Percy was getting from just four little pieces of wood and, because he knew of my interest in percussion instruments, suggested I meet Percy. I called and asked for a lesson. Percy replied that he’d been getting so many requests he’d rather do a class. Would I set it up? I called Dave Siglin, the manager of the Ark, and a few weeks later found myself one of about twenty-five people standing in the Ark’s living room, trying to learn to play the bones.
The bones are four slightly curved, rib-bone-shaped pieces of wood, a pair held in each hand. They are about seven inches long and an inch wide. The bones sound similar to castanets and get their name from the curved animal bones that were the original instruments. They are considered among the oldest musical instruments played by human beings. There are drawings on the pyramids of Egypt depicting people playing the bones; they are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, and they were widely used in the vaudeville and minstrel shows popular in late 19th century America.
Percy learned to play the bones as a child in the early 1900s. They were as common as Frisbees then and everyone knew how to play them. But by the Forties and Fifties they had pretty much disappeared. Percy, however, continued to play them as a hobby all his life. In the 1970s, his wife Fran, herself an accomplished classical musician, composer and piano teacher, was attending a musicology class at Eastern Michigan University when her professor mentioned the bones as an example of an old instrument that had disappeared. Fran piped up that her husband, at the time seventy some years old, played the bones. The professor, thinking it might be fun for his students to see the instruments, and not at all imagining that Percy could play them well, invited him to give a demonstration. Percy blew him away. After the presentation, the music professor asked him, “Did you know you were playing three against two?” (Percy worked with a pair of bones in each hand, and as part of his demonstration that day, played triple meter with one hand and, simultaneously, duple with the other.) Percy replied, “I can’t even read music.”
Over the next eighteen years, until six months before his death in 1992, at the age of 92, Percy played hundreds of shows in coffeehouses, folk festivals, schools and concert halls all over the United States and even in England and Scotland. He was videotaped for the archives of the Smithsonian Library, was the guest of honor and featured performer at an International Percussion Conference at the University of Michigan and accompanied Pulitzer Prize winning composer Bill Bolcom and his wife, mezzo soprano Joan Morris, at Alice Tully Hall in New York. In the course of his travels, he also taught thousands of people how to play the bones.
I was not a quick study that first time at the Ark. Unlike many of the people who were there that night, I didn’t get the hang of the snap and rattle that are the two main techniques of the bones. I was so discouraged that I didn’t return for the class the following week and soon forgot about the bones.
Six months later, I saw Percy again, when he and Laz and I were independently invited to play at the Fox Hollow Festival in upstate New York. He had flown to the festival, we’d driven, we offered him rides to and from the Festival and helped him get his meals. Watching him teach scores of people at the Festival I was inspired to try the bones again. This time it took. By the end of 1976 I was playing them in all our concerts. In the next few years Percy began referring to me as his “prime protege.” He became my mentor, and a link to an older musical tradition, not unlike the Cantors who befriended my father in Budapest many years earlier.
Because my father frequently disparaged and denigrated our choice of career and music, indeed our whole lifestyle, I began holding back more and more from him, telling him less and less of the truths of my life, and looked elsewhere for support. In fact, I’d been doing that ever since I was about thirteen, but now that I was starting to create a life of my own it seemed even more necessary. Living so far from him also made it easier to keep secrets. While he must have known that we played many of our concerts on the Sabbath, we never discussed it and just pretended that was not the case. Also, we were quite circumspect in describing to him the scene at Mr. Flood’s and places like it. In our phone and letter descriptions to him, Mr. Flood’s became transformed into a tame little restaurant. We never seriously worried that he would see Mr. Flood’s. We knew that while he was still working as a Cantor he’d never take a vacation and would never visit and hear us play in Ann Arbor.
When we began our career, our audiences were one of the prime sources of support for our music and lifestyle. They let us know, unlike our father, that they loved and appreciated our music. Paradoxically though, perhaps because I hungered so desperately for my father’s approval, and simultaneously insulated myself so thoroughly against his frequent criticism, I often found, and to a certain extent still find myself unable to fully believe or accept praise from anyone. Compliments still take me by surprise and I frequently dismiss them as not being genuine or worthwhile because, I rationalize, the person is just being polite, or is unqualified to judge. As Elinor says to Edward in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, “The unkindness of your own relations has made you astonished to find friendship anywhere.”
I recall an audience early in our career, at an indoor folk festival in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was the mid Seventies, we’d never before played in Wisconsin, and very few people in the crowd of about five hundred were familiar with our music. After our first song they applauded so long that I began to feel embarrassed. What had we done to inspire so much affection? We had never encountered an audience quite like this one before. We were used to a standard length of applause and knew how much time we had between songs to get a quick sip of water, put on or take off finger picks or change instruments. We didn’t know what to do with the extra seconds of applause. Our timing was completely thrown off. It continued like that for the rest of the set. Afterwards, Laz and I asked each other, and ourselves, “What happened out there?”
Or the audience at a small church on Cape Cod. I was singing one of Tom Paxton’s wonderful songs, “My Favorite Spring.”. In the first verse, the narrator recalls being a talented baseball player as a kid and being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. The chorus is,
That was my favorite spring, I could do anything,
Full six feet tall and lean, I was just seventeen.
My fastball was nothing but smoke, my curve ball snapped and broke,
My changeup made ‘em look bad, they couldn’t hit a thing I had.
In the next verse he is off to a great start in his first minor league season when the Korean war breaks out. He joins the Air Force, is shipped overseas and pitches brilliantly for an Armed Forces team. We hear the chorus again. In the next verse, he’s pitching a no hitter in Japan the day MacArthur is fired. Late in the game, he injures his arm. His career over, he finishes his tour of duty, returns home, marries, has a son, and the verse concludes with the line, referring to his son and baseball, “The first time he asked, I taught him everything I knowed.” The final chorus is a beautiful variation on the previous ones.
This is my favorite spring, He can do anything,
Full six feet tall and lean. He’s just seventeen.
His fastball gives ‘em the shakes, his curve ball snaps and breaks,
His changeup makes ‘em look bad. People say ‘he takes after his Dad.’
I fell in love with the song the first time I heard Tom sing it at the Ark. I learned it immediately and began singing it alone in our concerts. (Laz has never been quite the baseball fan that I am and wasn’t drawn to it.) That special night in Cape Cod, one of the first times I sang the song in public, when I started that final chorus the audience let out a collective gasp of delight as they grasped the variation that was coming.
Given my history of painful apprenticeship with my father and longing for his approval of my choice of career, it’s not mysterious why I was so attracted to that song. To this day, whenever I sing it, I need rein in my emotions, or else I get too choked up to sing it well.
Our first bad review was of a concert we gave at the Pendleton Room in the Michigan Union in early 1979. Eric Zorn, a student writing for the Michigan Daily said, “The problem is basically that their act isn’t dynamic enough…” Of course, he was right. The very restrained, formal manner with which we grew up in my father’s shuls, as well as our unquestioned adoption of the low key presentation of many folk musicians, had shaped our performance style. Although in his review, Eric had many favorable, positive comments about our concert, Laz and I focused only on the negative. And even though we recognized the truth in what he said, the review still hurt. Now, many years later, I see that it also helped. In response to that review, and many other proddings, both inner and outer, our shows changed. I installed a pickup in my acoustic guitar and plugged in, allowing me much more freedom of movement on stage. I’d never liked being forced to stand in one place in front of the microphones when I wasn’t singing. Also, as I became more proficient on the bones I allowed myself to play them more freely and flamboyantly. Laz and I also tightened our spoken introductions from the rambling autobiographical style common in folk music concerts to shorter, tighter, more rehearsed monologues and dialogues. We started paying more attention to the order of songs in our sets and eliminated dead spots in the shows such as when we both changed instruments or got a sip of water. Our song writing became lighter, more humorous, as we began writing for our children’s concerts. Most importantly, I think our shows became more fun, for us as well as our audiences, as we gradually let go our inner view of ourselves as “the Cantor’s sons” and allowed ourselves to discover how we wanted to act on stage.
I remember in particular, an evening at the Good Coffeehouse in Brooklyn that was pivotal in this process. In 1981 we played a live concert on Robert J. Lurtsema’s “Morning Pro Musica” radio program in Boston. We had met him at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in 1976, where he was the guest MC and where he had improvised a hilarious, impromptu introduction for us that revolved around two men having plastic surgery so they could look like twins and form a duo called Gemini. After the festival he began regularly inviting us to be on his show. His daily program was one of the most popular, widely listened to in New England, and by the late 1970’s was also carried on several New York City stations. It was a tremendous opportunity to be heard by a huge audience and also to publicize our East coast concerts, including this particular appearance in Brooklyn. Our parents were living in Queens at the time and so were able to hear us on the radio. Afterward, my father told us with genuine enthusiasm how much he enjoyed hearing us and how good we sounded. (Of course, he also delivered several sharp criticisms of our choice of songs, including questioning why we hadn’t sung a Barry Manilow song, “Don’t you see how everybody loves his music?!”) Nevertheless, mostly he enthused about what he’d heard, and Laz and I were amazed. He had never spoken to us like this, and we allowed ourselves to bask in this very rare praise from him.
Of course, neither he nor my mother came to our concert in Brooklyn the next day because it started on Saturday night before the Sabbath ended.
Had my father known who else heard that Friday morning broadcast, he would not have been so pleased. My high school sweetheart was, unbeknownst to me, now living in Brooklyn. After hearing us on the radio she came to the Good Coffeehouse Saturday night.
I had first noticed her in English class in High School, at first only because she had a Hungarian name, Mary Kovacs, (I’ve changed the name here). She was shy, bookish, a “brain” who, unlike most other girls, didn’t bother to hide it and so all the boys avoided her. In our junior year her father died suddenly of a heart attack. She came back to school two days later, walked up to our English teacher and said, “What did I miss?” My classmates were outraged. “Her father just died,” they whispered, “and all she cares about is her schoolwork. She must not have liked him much. What a cold hearted bitch.” I saw things differently. Somehow, I understood that this was the only way she knew how to deal with her pain. That night I called her up to say I was sorry about her dad. Turned out I’d been right. She had been very close to her father and missed him terribly. I called her almost every night from then on and we talked for hours. I never said a word about her to my father and warned her not to call me at home. My father would not approve because she was not Jewish.
She had just lost her father. And, although I could never have articulated it at the time, I was in the process of losing mine. We had a lot to talk about.
After months of clandestine phone calls, I finally asked my father if I could date her and told him she wasn’t Jewish. He took a deep breath—like someone about to lift something very heavy—and said, “It wounds me deeply that you would even ask. What could you be thinking? The Cantor’s son dating a shiksa?”
I had long despised that word and the venom with which my father and other Jewish men pronounced it. This time, my courage fueled by anger and disappointment, I said so. He looked genuinely surprised. “What’s wrong with shiksa? It just means a non-Jewish woman.”
“Right,” I muttered to myself as I walked away, giving up on the discussion and on him. “Just like ‘shaygetz’ and ‘goy’ only mean a non-Jewish man, and ‘shvartzer’ and ‘nigger’ only means someone with black skin.”
I never brought up the subject again. But a few months later, after I came home from the hospital following my bout with the bleeding ulcer, I decided to ask her out anyway. Perhaps my admittedly tame version of a near death experience had shown me that life may be short, had suggested I might consider taking some risks. With my mother’s help creating the necessary alibis, I dated Mary on the sly a few times and we continued talking on the phone for hours most nights. She was the only girl I dated in high school. When it came time for the senior prom though, I told her I didn’t dare invite her. I knew it would get back to my father. Then, foolishly thinking that for the rest of my life I’d regret missing my senior prom, I asked a Jewish girl I barely knew. Feeling like an unfaithful cad, and a spineless wimp to boot, I had a miserable time at the prom.
When we went off to college, Mary to Michigan State, me to the University of Rochester, I tried to keep the flame going but she kindly, clearly and, when she saw I was not getting the message, finally firmly, said “no”. She had valued our phone friendship but didn’t want a romantic relationship with me. She was not in puppy love with me the way I was with her. We continued to correspond infrequently throughout college, then lost touch. When she knocked on our dressing room door before the show at the Good Coffeehouse, I hadn’t had any contact with her in almost ten years.
In walks this gorgeous blonde, giving me a huge, happy smile and holding her arms wide to give me a hug. I responded with delight, even in the split second before I figured out who she was. She had matured from the pretty faced, but somewhat gawky, bookish, shy girl I remembered, into a stunning, vivacious, confident woman. We embraced warmly and then, perhaps making sure I didn’t misunderstand the meaning of the hug, she immediately introduced me to her husband who trailed uncomfortably behind her.
I was on fire that night. The whole evening felt like a pentatonic marimba on which I could hit no wrong note. I made more jokes than usual, and everybody laughed. I sang with more passion, moved more freely on stage than I ever had before. Laz’s future mother-in-law was in the audience. Betty had seen us in concert many times before. She asked Laz after the show, “What happened to San tonight?”
Then there are the gigs that never happened but are nevertheless memorable.
In the late Seventies we got a call at home one Saturday night. “Hello, this is Hippie Joe Disorganized (I’ve changed the name to protect the incompetent) calling from Boston. Is this Gemini?” (our stage name). Turns out we had talked six months earlier about the possibility of us playing at his coffeehouse if, I repeat, if, we were touring in the area. The tour fell through, we’d never confirmed the date, had never discussed a fee, had never sent a contract or promo materials, but now he was calling us—at 7:30 at night—because he was concerned that we hadn’t yet arrived for the 8 o’clock show in Boston. “I guess you won’t make it in time, right?”
I was too stunned to talk. What mode of transportation did he think would get us from Ann Arbor to Boston in half an hour? Was he a Trekkie? Beam me up to Boston, Scotty?
And then there was the call our secretary answered one day. A woman’s voice on the other end asked, “Is this Gemini Productions?” Nanette replied, “Yes, this is Gemini.” The voice continued, “Are these the twin male strippers?” Caught off guard, Nanette could only say, “Well, no. They sing for children and families.” Teasing her later, I asked, “Why didn’t you try and see what kind of fee you could negotiate? Maybe it pays better than folk music. Maybe we could have a second career.”
Another memorable non gig. My phone rings at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. The man on the line introduces himself as a booking agent and says, “I’m offering your band an opportunity to play for a unique audience.” Like a pretty girl who has heard all the standard pick-up lines, I recognize this one immediately. “Offering your band an opportunity” means two things—no pay, and a gig from hell. Its companion line is, “It will be great exposure for you.” After you do a few “exposure” gigs you learn that the only accurate meaning of “exposure” is what people die of in the winter. Turns out that this particular “unique audience” is locked up in a women’s prison. The booking agent called us because our name, Gemini, sounded like we might fit the bill. What kind of music, he wants to know, do we play? I tell him we play folk music for children and families. He reluctantly allows that we might not be the right band for his audience. To this day I wonder what we missed.
The closest we’ve come to playing at a prison have been the several concerts we’ve played at Starr Commonwealth School in Albion, Michigan. The school is for teenaged boys, some of whom have committed crimes ranging up to armed robbery, rape and attempted murder. The concerts are held in the chapel of the school. The hundred or so boys swagger in and, as we begin our concerts, snicker and jeer or sit with arms crossed on their chests, with stone faced, show-me attitudes on their faces. We start with an instrumental tune for the bones and pennywhistle—instruments they’ve never seen, and which we hope will get their attention. Despite themselves they are intrigued. We go on to silly songs like “Apples and Bananas”, the entire lyrics of which are, “I like to eat, I like to eat, apples and bananas.” That phrase is repeated using only one vowel at a time; “Eee leek tee eet, eeples een beeneenees” and so on with each vowel. They howl with laughter. By the time we end our show with “This Little Light of Mine” they are clapping, swaying, stomping their feet and singing with us. They have temporarily allowed themselves to be the boys they still are. After the concert they come to the stage and ask me to teach them how to play the bones. They offer to help us pack and load our PA. We accept gratefully. We’re tired. It was hard work overcoming their resistance, trying to win them over.
And of course, there have been the gigs from hell.
When we were just starting out, in the early Seventies, we played at Alma College, a small school in central Michigan. It was early September and we had been hired to entertain at an event welcoming the new freshmen. The evening was to begin with an ice cream eating contest, followed by a short talent contest and climax with our concert. In fact, it essentially ended when one of the students threw up on the stage, in full view of all his classmates, after attempting to win the contest by stuffing, cramming and inhaling a vast quantity of Borden’s. We played our concert in front of the stage for the handful of people who stayed.
Then there was the nightmare of our one, and so far, only appearance at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Pontiac, Michigan. The Palace is the home of the Detroit Pistons basketball team and is also the site of many huge rock and pop concerts. In 1990 we were invited to be the entertainment for the Opening Ceremonies of the Junior Maccabee Games. We were a logical choice—in some ways. We play music for kids and families, have always included some Israeli and Jewish music in our concerts, and have a strong following in Detroit area Jewish communities. However, for this particular audience we definitely were the wrong choice. The Palace holds more than 21,000 people and on this, by me never-to-be-forgotten-day, it was about half full of teenage athletes who had come from all over the country, and abroad. Although we occasionally sing for teenagers, our music appeals mostly to younger kids and their parents. Our repertoire, appearance, manner on stage and acoustic sound is not exactly teens’ cup of Coke. But that’s not the only explanation for the disaster that ensued. The opening ceremonies consisted of the customary lengthy parade of athletes, followed by an hour of excruciatingly boring speeches. By the time it was our turn to sing, the kids were as restless as a herd of Holsteins under a threatening sky.
The storm hit as soon as we took the stage.
The Palace features huge video screens suspended from the middle of the ceiling. All aspects of the opening ceremonies were televised and when we finally began playing, we too appeared on those screens. Some of the athletes began dancing near the stage to our music, and the cameras picked them up on wide shots. Part way through our second song a few of the dancers got the bright idea that if they were closer to us, they’d be more visible on the overhead screens. So, several of them jumped on the stage to dance. They began bumping into us, our microphone stands, and the table that held our instruments. While continuing to perform, I tried to get them off the stage. We had just started our Deli song, an ode to Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. I sang into the microphone, “Let’s go get a sandwich at the deli,” then turned to the dancers and growled, “Get off the stage!” during the instrumental phrase that followed. Then I turned back to the microphone and sang the next line, “I’m sick and tired of peanut butter ‘n jelly.” Whirling around, I again hissed, “Don’t bump the table!” before turning back to sing the next line. Nothing doing. Laz, playing the fiddle and, like me, still trying to go on with the show, could not move from his microphone. Our instruments were about to be trampled. We were about to be shoved teeth first into our microphones. I looked to the security guards standing around the stage and motioned to them to take charge. Blank faced, they stood frozen. One shrugged helplessly. The dignitaries on the stage, the ones who had delivered the interminable speeches, also sat as though paralyzed. Things got worse. Other kids in the audience, seeing their teammates on the screens, felt inspired and emboldened to join them. They stampeded from the stands and rushed the stage. We finished the Deli tune, only our second song, picked up our instruments and, pushing our way through the crowd, walked off. The kids continued dancing for the cameras.
Of course, there have been more it-wasn’t-funny-at-the-time-but-it’s hilarious-now gigs. And others have mercifully faded from memory—mine, and hopefully everyone else’s who was in attendance. I am grateful though, that no real gig has ever matched the nightmares I have had in my sleep. These thankfully infrequent dreams all start similarly, and quite innocuously. Laz and I are playing a concert and there is some small problem. Maybe the mike stand collapses, and it seems to take forever to get it back up. (Yes, yes, I’m aware of the phallic symbolism. These are performance anxiety dreams, after all.) Or maybe Laz and I are having trouble deciding what song to do next and we get into a long discussion/argument on stage. In some of the dreams, we can’t seem to end a song. We are caught in an endless repetitive loop and can’t find a way to get to the final chord. In all of these situations, and in other variations on the same theme, the audience gradually trickles out while we struggle, seemingly in slow motion. And, the whole time, I am acutely and painfully aware of the need to just ignore the obstacle and go on with the show. But I am unable. Although I always wake before the end, it’s clear that we will never resolve the problem, and everyone will leave and there will be no one left to listen.
In 1997, almost twenty-five years after we first started performing, we began playing concerts with symphony orchestras. These concerts, for children and families, were, and are, especially thrilling for me. They’re often in beautiful halls, in front of large audiences, accompanied by great musicians. They were also, and continue to be, scary — for many reasons. To begin with, when it’s just Laz and me on stage, if either of us skips a song in the set, leaves out a verse, or starts a tune in the wrong tempo, or even incorrect key, we are used to accommodating, adjusting to each other. Usually the audience is even unaware that anything unplanned has happened. How very different it is when there are seventy or more musicians involved, all following written music. If we zig and they zag, what a crash we might have!
But what I really feared when we began doing these concerts was the disdain of the orchestra musicians. I was sure that they would have the same attitude to our music that our father did; that this is not serious music, that it is an inferior style compared to the classical music they were accustomed to playing.
How refreshing to have it be completely otherwise. How amazing to hear conductors and players alike offer sincere compliments. How surprising even to occasionally hear them wish that they could more often play music that is so accessible, so fun. How memorable when, during rehearsal, the timpanist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra stood and swept off his baseball cap in a genuine salute of appreciation after my bones solo; or when the concertmaster of the Kansas City Symphony, an exquisite musician and not much younger than my father at the time, put his arm around my shoulders while telling me how much he enjoyed our program and our manner on stage.
I recall only one orchestra concert when I experienced disdain, disrespect and a lack of acceptance; and though not directed at us, I found it very painful to witness. It was during rehearsal, the day before our concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a world class ensemble and the finest orchestra we have played with to date. Our program consists mostly of songs we have written, plus a few traditional folk songs and one classical piece, the Brahms Hungarian Dance #5. Our songs and orchestrations are not difficult, but because they are unfamiliar to the players and we only have a two-hour rehearsal to prepare for a one-hour program, it takes them a little time to settle into the music. Not so with the Brahms. They relax visibly when it’s time to play it. They’re on familiar ground here. This is what they do best. This is what their incredible music making machine was designed to do. They ripped into it with enthusiasm and tears came to my eyes. I love this music. I felt like dancing and singing along.
Leslie Dunner, the DSO’s longtime Resident Conductor, stopped them to point out something. I was standing near the violin section and heard some grumbling about what he was suggesting. An elderly violinist sneered to his stand mate, “You know he’s not Hungarian.” Leslie is black. Is that what the violinist is referring to? In the next beat I had my answer. The violinist’s stand mate, in a broad caricature of a Southern accent, replied, “This is Brahms with an Alabama accent.”
Orchestra Hall is in downtown Detroit, a predominately black city. (We regularly play in Detroit elementary schools and find that we’re the only white people in the school, with the possible exception of a few of the teachers. Segregation is alive and well — or, more accurately, sick — in America.) The DSO is overwhelmingly white. Besides Leslie, there was only one other black musician on stage. At our concert the next day our audience would also be mostly white.
The joy I felt in listening to the orchestra was suddenly gone. The venom I overheard felt as though it could easily have been directed at me. What have they been saying about our music? Have they been dismissing that with the same callousness? Just as my father did? I felt the sharp pain of those rejections, imagined and real. They echoed the pangs I felt as a Jew in Hungary, a Hungarian in Israel and the infrequent, usually unconscious, but still hurtful anti-Semitic attitudes I’ve experienced in this country. I wondered, how many times, without my even knowing, have people have talked about me as the violinists were now talking about Leslie.
I looked more closely at the two DSO violin players. They were quite possibly Jewish. I recalled how easily my parents, even as brand-new immigrants in this country, even as people who knew all too well the vicious outcome of racial and ethnic hatreds, quickly learned and adopted the prevalent racist attitudes toward blacks. I also once again simultaneously understood, and still loathed, the prejudices of my father and many other Jews toward all “goyim,” all Gentiles.
A lifelong habit of not speaking out prevented me from saying anything to the violinists or to Leslie. I rationalized to myself that there was no point. If I called the two players on their remarks they would probably strike a disingenuous pose and say, “What are you talking about? We didn’t mean anything of the sort.” Also, why would I want to ruin Leslie’s day?
I kept silent. But I churned inside. The next day at the concert I thrilled to the magnificent sound of the orchestra behind us, but I couldn’t release the memory of the remarks. They soured my whole experience of the day.
I remember a Friday night when Laz and I were about sixteen or seventeen. It was a completely ordinary Sabbath night, not a holiday, nor significant in any other way. On this night, as on most nights in the little shul in Kingston, there were barely enough men for the minyan, the minimum quorum of ten required for services; my father, the Rabbi, six or seven elderly men and my brother and me. In Budapest my father’s Friday night prayers, in front of more than 2600 worshippers and accompanied by organ and choir in the Dohány Templom, lasted well over an hour. In Kingston, accompanied by Laz and me, he usually rattled through them in little more than half that time.
This Friday night though, was different. This night he chanted some zmirot, ornate Cantorial melodies, that Laz and I had not heard before. He held the high notes longer. There was a passionate quality in his singing that he usually reserved for special services on holidays. The prayers lasted much longer than usual. I noticed the difference, but the almost constant tension between us kept me from saying a word to him afterward. For most of the fifteen-minute walk home we were all silent. Finally, just before we got to our house, he asked us, “What did you think of my singing tonight?” Feeling somewhat manipulated, we nevertheless dutifully chorused, “You were great. It was special. What happened tonight?” He said, “I do that to remind myself. I am not doing it for these peasants. They have no idea what they just heard.” Then, as my mother greeted us at the door, he said to us, “Tell your mother what happened at shul tonight.”
Now, having been a performer for much of my life, I think I understand what happened that Friday night. My father said he choseto sing like that, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think what really happened that night is that the music overwhelmed him. I think when he began singing, he may have noticed that the sounds coming out of him were a little clearer than usual, or maybe had a special ring. Or perhaps he noticed that the vibrato in his voice had become perfectly synchronized with the rhythm of the tune he was chanting. And so, like a tightrope walker feeling especially confident of his balance, he tried some extra, more daring tricks. He held notes longer, sang some passages higher, improvised intricate trills and ornamentations. And he forgot that he was in a small, nearly empty shul in Kingston, forgot that the Nazis had murdered his family, forgot the past, the present and the future. And just sang — sang from, and for, the sheer love of singing and praising.
I consider myself very, very fortunate. I sing between a hundred fifty and two hundred concerts every year and, at least for a part of most of those shows, I feel the way I imagine my father may have felt that Friday night.
I experience these feelings in all types of concerts, sometimes even in the rare gig from hell. I am as likely to feel them in the dingy multi-purpose room of an elementary school in a tiny rural community, as in a show with a major symphony orchestra in a spectacular concert hall.
My joy at these times is undiluted. It is not the bittersweet pleasure my father seemed to feel that Friday night. My life has been very different from my father’s and I don’t feel bitter and resentful the way he was. Perhaps that is because my highlights are still ahead of me, my career is still growing, expanding, whereas his was shrinking, fading, by the time of my Bar Mitzvah, by the time I became a man. Perhaps I have not identified myself as strongly with my work, as he did with his role and title as Cantor. So, my moderate success has not felt disappointing to me the way his lack of achievement in Israel and in America had been for him. And, I have not suffered the vicious sequence of combination punches he endured — of having his family murdered, of being forced to leave Budapest when he was in his prime, having to start all over in Israel and then again in this country. Throughout my career I have been nourished by voices other than my father’s, but for him supportive voices were mostly silent after we left Budapest.
Who knows what my father was like before his experiences in WW II. Who remembers if he was as quick tempered, judgmental and cold as I saw him to be. Who is left to tell what kind of man Shaya was before his WW I army service. Was he then too as angry, as violent, as frightening a man as his surviving children and grandchildren remember?
My life has been very different from my father’s and I don’t feel bitter and resentful the way I’ve seen him to be. Perhaps that is because my highlights may still be ahead of me, my career is still growing, expanding, whereas his was shrinking, fading, by the time of my Bar Mitzvah, by the time I became a man. Perhaps I have not identified myself as strongly with my work, as he did with his role and title as Cantor. So my moderate success has not felt as disappointing to me as his lack of achievement in Israel and in America has been for him. And, I have not suffered the vicious sequence of combination punches he has endured—of having his family murdered, of being forced to leave Budapest when he was in his prime, having to start all over in Israel and then again in this country. Throughout my career I have been nourished by voices other than my father’s, but for him supportive voices were mostly silent after we left Budapest.
And yet, all my life I have longed for my father’s approval of me and my singing; just as he probably longed for Shaya’s approval, rarely received it, and then was forever denied that possibility by the Nazis in Auschwitz. When, in the early days of my career I would get angry at an inattentive or unappreciative audience, I was, in addition to normal human frustration in a difficult situation, also expressing my anger at my father. In the same way perhaps as when my father, referring to his congregation as ignorant peasants who were incapable of appreciating him, was really talking to his long dead father; perhaps saying something he had never been able to say to him when he was still alive.
I am now, as I write this, fifty years old and, though I still sometimes long for my father’s praise, for his approval, I now rarely demand it from him or from my audiences; and I don’t blame him, or them, when I am unhappy. I am learning that ultimately, approval must come from inside me. I have not stopped striving to challenge myself, to grow as a writer and performer, to take our music to bigger audiences, but I am also learning to release the shame I have long felt, the internalized notion from my father, that he got from his father, that nothing I do will ever be good enough to measure up.
I have said to my father, “I am grateful to you and proud of you. You have triumphed over incredible obstacles and tragedies. You have lived a good life.” Though I would still like to hear him say similar things to me, I now recognize that he is probably incapable of doing that. And even perhaps, that my desire to hear those things from him has made it harder for him to say them. I am coming to understand the futility of that longing and I am beginning to see that I can—indeed must—give that healing approval to myself.
The Bar Mitzvah is a coming of age celebration. It marks the day a boy becomes a man. But of course, it takes much longer than a day.
We all sing. At least in the shower. It seems when we are alone, naked and wet, as we were before we were born, we sing. I’m very lucky. I get paid to sing for people, even when I am dry and have my clothes on.
My father sang with his back to his congregations and received their congratulations for his singing only when the services were done. I face my audiences and they applaud after every song. And yet, our work is similar. We sing, my father, brother and I, because we have repeatedly experienced the power of song to uplift us and our listeners. We sing because we have learned, and rediscover every time we sing, that song can help us transcend all that is small, mean, and painful in our lives. We sing because it is our path to joy.
In the mid Sixties, my father’s congregation in Kingston, like many others throughout the country, built a new shul, moved uptown and sold their old building to a black Baptist congregation. The music in that building changed, moved in the same direction my music did after I left my parents’ home.
I know, of course; it’s simply luck / That I survived so many friends. But last night in a dream / I heard those friends say of me: “survival of the fittest, / And I hated myself. Bertold Brecht
When I was twenty I stopped shaving and grew a beard. I had a number of reasons. I was beginning to grow bald and perhaps hoped to distract girls from that very obvious fact by replacing the hair on my head with hair on my face. I also disliked shaving. It had always seemed a waste of time. I remember calculating that if I spent ten minutes a day shaving and shaved just six days a week, I would spend an hour a week, more than two full days every year, just shaving. In fifty years, I’d spend nearly a third of a year of my life shaving. I couldn’t justify it. Besides, the electric razor my father gave me irritated the skin on my neck and face.
It was also 1969, the year of Woodstock. Everybody was letting their hair grow long and experimenting with mustaches, sideburns and beards. Earlier that year I’d heard the poet Allen Ginsberg speak at the University of Rochester. He said in response to a question about his beard that, unlike most American men, he didn’t feel any compunction to get up every morning and murder the hair on his face.
For a few weeks, until my beard filled in, I looked very scruffy. I relished the look. I imagined it gave me the appearance of having lived a hard life, the life of a rebel, or perhaps a poet like Ginsberg. I hoped it made me look different from the nice, Jewish, middle-class boy that in fact I was.
I also enjoyed my freedom from daily shaving (although I can’t remember to what worthwhile cause I donated the hour a week I saved by not shaving — certainly not to studying). A girlfriend told me she preferred kissing bearded men, because their faces were softer, there was no rough stubble to irritate her skin. Now here was real incentive to keep the beard.
My father, and most older men, found my beard offensive. I had anticipated, and probably enjoyed, the reaction of the other men. They all had short hair and shaved every day. However, my father’s hostility to my beard was somewhat puzzling. I reminded him that he’d had a beard when he was my age and off and on for many years after.
“That was different! A Cantor need a beard those days. Otherwise people think he not religious.” That was true. Even today, in some Jewish circles, a man without a beard is considered to be somewhat of a heathen. My father went on accusingly, “Besides, you not grow beard because you religious.” That was also true. I had by this time drifted far from my father’s god.
In one of the three surviving pictures of my father taken before WW II, he is sitting near his father in a family portrait. They are both bearded and look very similar, more like two brothers than father and son. The main difference between them is that Shaya’s beard is graying while my father’s is not.
My father was forced to shave his beard when, in 1942, he was conscripted into the munkaszolgálat, the work detail of the Hungarian Army, attached to the German Austrian Armies fighting in Poland. When he was liberated by the Russians in late 1944 from a forced labor camp in Delatyn, Poland, he walked and hitched rides for two weeks to get back to his home in Kunhegyes, Hungary. One day a Russian Army truck stopped to offer him and his three companions a ride. After they climbed in, the soldiers took away his tefillin, the ritual phylacteries that religious Jews wind on their left arm and head during morning prayers and which he had somehow, miraculously, managed to hang on to through several years in the Camps. The soldiers laughingly unfurled the long leather straps over the side of the truck before flinging them in the road. Then the soldiers robbed them of what meager belongings they had and threw them off the truck.
When he finally arrived home, he weighed less than 82 pounds. He had lost almost 70 pounds under the harsh conditions and little food in the munkaszolgálat. Without his beard, and looking like a skeleton, no one recognized him in Kunhegyes, the small town about 100 kilometers east of Budapest, where he had lived for more than five years before he was forced into the munkaszolgálat.
Orthodox Jews traditionally don’t shave for a period of thirty days after the death of a loved one. Some even grow a beard for the first eleven months they are in mourning. When my father returned to Kunhegyes in 1944 he had plenty to mourn. Not only had most of his family been decimated, his whole way of life had also been destroyed. Of the two hundred and twenty four Jews who lived in Kunhegyes before the war, only ninety five returned. His pre-war work, as Rabbi, Cantor and teacher for that community, was gone.
The day he returned from the labor camps, my father found Russian cavalry officers stabling their horses in his house. (They were also using the synagogue for a stable. Both buildings, and many others belonging to Jews, were considered “abandoned property” by the local government after their occupants were deported to Auschwitz.) The Russian Army, advancing from the east, had captured most of Hungary from the Nazis and was heading for Budapest. My father’s fortunes were also turning. When he demanded that his house be returned to him, he discovered that an officer of the local Russian unit was Jewish and, unofficially at least, sympathetic to Jews. He ordered the horses out of my father’s house.
My father didn’t re-grow his beard. Instead, he put his newfound anonymity, and his grief and rage, to good use. For several months he worked for the Russians and the Hungarian Communists who were then coming into power, identifying and prosecuting the people who had belonged to the fascist Nyílas party and had willingly worked with the Nazis, killing Communists and Jews or sending them off to concentration camps.
One day, he was assigned to enlist the help of the mayor of Kunhegyes in returning the homes and possessions of the few Jews who had survived the Camps and munkaszolgálat. The townspeople, in the interim, had appropriated them, thinking that none of the Jews would come back. They were reluctant now to give them up.
In response to my father’s request, and no doubt convinced of its justice by the presence of the armed Russian soldiers supplied by the Jewish officer, the mayor stood up from behind his desk and stridently proclaimed, “If anyone is caught with anything that does not belong to them, I will personally see to it that it gets taken away from them immediately.” My father replied, “Then drop your trousers right now. The ones you are wearing are mine.” He had recognized a distinctive pair of his own pants.
Another day he interrogated a man, a former Csendör, a member of the hated rural police.
“Did you know a Mrs. Etta Slomovits?”
“Oh, yes. A fine woman. I felt terrible when the Nazis took her away.”
“Did you steal anything from her?”
“Oh, no. I was just helping her carry her possessions to the train. We didn’t know where they were going.”
At this point my father, unable to control himself any longer, dove across the table, and attacked the man with the butt of a pistol. He had testimony from a number of witnesses, including his next-door neighbor, that this was the man who had brutally beaten his wife and daughter before they were forced onto the cattle cars to Szolnok and eventually Auschwitz. That he had screamed at them, “Where is your gold? Where have you hidden your gold? It’s not possible that the Rabbi’s family has no gold.”
Justice was swift and harsh. Once a man’s guilt was established, he would commit “suicide.” That is, he would “jump” from the third floor of the building where he had been interrogated.
A year after the war ended my father applied for a job as Cantor at a synagogue in Budapest. When he was hired, the secret service police in Kunhegyes, for whom he had worked identifying fascists, gave him use of a train to transport his furniture and belongings to his new home in Budapest. My father never forgot the eerie sensation of being the only passenger on the entire empty train. Did he think, during that solitary journey, of the train that took his family, packed in like cattle, to Auschwitz? Could he have avoided thinking of the contrast?
In Budapest, in that cosmopolitan city, a beard was out of place, even for a Cantor or a Rabbi. He didn’t grow it back. Perhaps, having barely survived the persecution of the previous years, he also preferred not to wear such a visible symbol of his Jewishness. Perhaps he wanted to start his new life looking as different as possible from the man he had been before the war. Maybe it helped him to forget what he had lost. He did however grow a small mustache. When I look now at pictures of him taken during that time period, his mustache seems to me shockingly similar to the style Hitler wore.
He re-grew his beard ten years later, when we moved to Israel after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Soon after we arrived in Haifa, my father discovered that in Israel he would face nearly as much—though certainly not as lethal—prejudice for being Hungarian, as he had in Hungary for being Jewish. “In Hungary I was a Jew. Here I am a Hungarian.” Israel was populated mostly by Polish and Russian Jews. Some of them, survivors of the Holocaust, had arrived after the war, but many were the original settlers of Palestine who had come in the period between the two World Wars. They had long perceived Hungarian Jews as being less religious and less committed to Judaism and Zionism. Some of them also carried a perverse resentment of Hungarians for not having suffered as long, or as harshly, under the Nazis as they, the Polish Jews, had.
In an effort to appear more religious and aid his chances of getting a job as a Cantor, my father let his beard grow. When it came in then, it was partly gray. He looked like his father Shaya in the pre-war family portrait.
The beard didn’t help much in Israel. My father recalled being invited back for a second audition at a synagogue in Haifa and hearing loud shouting when he walked in. The Hungarian and German members were arguing on his behalf, while the majority, the Polish and Russian Jews, were voting against him. It was obviously an old issue between the two factions. My father turned around and left without auditioning. As he was walking out, the men were on the verge of a fist fight to settle their differences. He wore his beard for the two-and-a-half years we lived in Israel. The day we arrived in New York, after we disembarked from the ocean liner, and after my aunt and uncle drove us to their apartment in Queens, he disappeared into the bathroom. When he came out, he was clean shaven.
At the beginning of my senior year at the University of Rochester, I tried out for the track team. Laz had run all three previous years and was now co-captain of the team. I’d hung out with him and the team during those years and, in the spring of my junior year, had begun running with them in practice. I continued running with Laz throughout the summer and knew I could make the team.
There was one problem. We had a new coach that fall, and he informed me that he’d let me practice with the team but would only let me race in meets if I shaved off my beard.
Everett Phillips, the track coach for our first three years in college was much loved. He had been a genuine father figure to many of us associated with the team. I recall our friend Atlas Evans, a fine sprinter, (whose build made it seem as if his parents had chosen that name for him after they saw how he was turning out) driving in Mississippi on semester break in our freshman year when the transmission fell out of his car. This was 1968. Not a good time for something like that to happen to a young black man driving alone in Mississippi. He called Coach Phillips for help, even before he called his family. Coach wired him the money to fix his car.
The new coach was different. Sporting a very short buzz cut and military bearing, he began treating us as a drill sergeant commands his raw recruits. It was a style that may have worked in the Fifties. It sure didn’t work in 1970.
The new coach was also clearly out of place at the University of Rochester, where even the “jocks” were mostly pre-med or pre-law students. When one of our long distance runners developed severe shin splints at the beginning of the year and stopped running for a few weeks to heal, he told the new coach, “I’ll bicycle for an hour every day. At least I’ll keep my cardiovascular system in good shape.” The new coach replied in all seriousness, “Yeah, and it’s good for your heart and lungs too.”
In my best holier-than-thou tones I argued with the new coach about my inalienable right to wear my beard. I even remember shamelessly and self-righteously citing the principles of personal freedom this great country of ours was founded on. Nothing doing. I was the only one on the team with a beard and, frankly, was not talented enough to have much impact on our scoring potential or on his team rules.
Then a new freshman came out for the team. He also wore a beard and got the same ultimatum from the coach. But, this guy could run. He showed promise of being our best middle distance runner and of possibly becoming conference champion in his first year.
Coach decided that winning was more important than molding the moral fiber of young men, especially when that fiber was growing on their faces. He changed his rules. Wearing a beard was “cool by me” he said — how strange that expression sounded, coming out of his mouth — as long as it was neatly trimmed. He had figured out a way to save face, literally. The other runner had been carefully sculpting his beard, while I’d let mine grow wild, a la Allen Ginsberg. If I “cleaned up my act” — that too sounded as if he was speaking a foreign language — I could race.
I decided I’d clung to my principles long enough. I trimmed my beard and ran. The freshman didn’t live up to his potential and turned out to be a good but not spectacular runner. I lived up to mine and became a mediocre one. We all learned a bit about principles.
One night some years ago, my wife and I were getting ready to go out for the evening. She was putting on her makeup and I, also in the bathroom, was trimming my beard. I use a small battery powered beard trimmer that has variable settings. The closest setting shaves almost to the skin, while the highest setting barely trims. Bren and I were talking, and I absentmindedly dragged the trimmer over the right side of my face. The trimmer was set at the closest trim. A big clump of hair fell in the sink and we both froze in disbelief. Bren burst out laughing and I, quickly accepting the inevitable said, “I’m gonna have to shave it all.”
The trimmer did not shave close enough. I ran it over my face several times but when I was done I still had a very noticeable five o’ clock shadow. I don’t own any other kind of razor. Bren came to my rescue. Digging out her Daisy razors, the pink ones she uses on her legs, and, using soap for lather, she shaved my face. It took four Daisies to get a clean shave.
My face looked pale. My skin had not seen the sun or felt the wind in almost twenty-five years. There was a hint of double chin I’d never suspected, and a frailness and a vulnerability about my face that made me uneasy. I felt weakened, like Samson. I remembered something the fifteen-year-old daughter of a friend of mine had said to him when he shaved his beard for the first time in her life. “Now you look like all our relatives.” She did not intend it as a compliment.
I haven’t shaved since that night. My beard grew back quickly, and I felt very relieved to once again have my familiar face look back at me from the mirror. Laz’s son, Daniel, then seven months old, had the most dramatic response to my shaving accident. When he saw me without my beard the next day, he began crying. He’d never reacted that way to me, before or since. Perhaps he thought I’d been wounded. And I suppose, in some way, I had.
Laz and I play most of our concerts now for young children and families. Coincidentally, most of the top male musicians in the field of children’s music, Raffi, Bram of Sharon, Lois and Bram, Fred Penner and several others, have full beards like us. Maybe the kids view us all as singing Santa Clauses, bringing our gift of music. Near the end of our concerts Laz and I always leave a little time for questions from the audience. It’s my favorite part of our shows. The kids, like most adults, start with the obvious, “Are you twins?” But then they go on. “How long have you been twins? Have you always been twins? How did you get to be twins? Why are you twins?” (Interestingly, they were just as preoccupied with these kinds of questions at our concerts in the weeks that I was re-growing my beard and Laz and I looked less alike than we had in years.)
The kids often want to know, “Which one of you is older?” We tell them to guess. They invariably pick me. I ask them to tell me why. “Because you’re taller, because you weigh more,” and, with children’s’ brutal honesty, “because you look older!” Finally, my favorite, “Because your beard is longer.” They are very observant. I tend to wear my beard a little fuller than Laz. I tell the kids that I am only twelve minutes older than Laz. In twelve minutes, I add, his beard will be just as long as mine.
I’ve had my beard for more than half my life now. Gray around my chin, and salt and pepper on the rest of my face, it is aging in much the same pattern that my father’s and grandfather’s did.
When I turned fifty-two, on a visit to my parents, my ninety-year-old father greeted me at the door by noting, with wonder in his voice, “Your beard is gray.” As though he was surprised to find himself old enough to have a son with a gray beard.
I too have wondered. Have I worn my beard all these many years partly as a way for me to remember, and grieve for my grandparents, and countless other relatives who perished in the Holocaust? Has it also perhaps been a way for me to grieve for the man I think my father was before the Holocaust, before I was born, a happier man, an unbroken man?
If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? Rabbi Hillel
The first two songs I recall singing in public in this country, other than the Cantorial pieces or Yiddish songs that we sang with our father, were “On Top of Old Smokey” and “I Don’t Want No More of Army Life.” The occasion of our first performance was probably a Sisterhood or Men’s Club dinner at my father’s shul in Kingston. Laz and I, likely about twelve at the time, probably learned the two songs in summer camp and belted them out with equal, and great, enthusiasm. Today, I don’t remember any but the first verse of “On Top of Old Smokey” but I can still easily recall several verses and the chorus of Shelby Darnell and Esther Van Sciver’s “Army Life.”
The coffee in the Army
They say is mighty fine
It’s good for cuts and bruises
And tastes like iodine
I don’t want no more of Army life
Oh, gee but, I wanna go
Gee but, I wanna go
Gee but, I wanna go home.
The biscuits in the Army
They say are mighty fine
One fell off the table
And killed a pal of mine
And my favorite verse, then and still;
The girls in the Army
They say are mighty fine
Most are over eighty,
The rest are under nine
It seems to me now that the song perfectly embodies the love-hate relationship so many men of my father’s generation, Europeans and Americans alike, have with the military. On the one hand they hate the Army for its legendary waste, inefficiency, and outright stupidity, not to mention, for those who are war veterans, the conditions and horrors of war. Yet, at the same time, they also have an abiding affection for the institution and the circumstances that served as a true coming-of-age test for them.
We sang that song often at shul social functions. Our audiences never seemed to tire of it. And, of course, that was reason enough for us to love it. But there were other reasons. By that time my father had begun telling us some of the stories of our grandfather Shaya. In those stories he always spoke with pride of Shaya’s military service, of his toughness and courage, and of the medals he received for bravery. It was also around that time that my father began telling us of his own service in the munkaszolgálat, or musz as it is familiarly called among its survivors, always emphasizing his few humorous memories. Black humor to be sure, like the time one of their officers, walking backward while barking orders to the marching men, fell into an open latrine ditch. Or how once, on a long march, when my father was ordered to sing chants and songs to keep the men in rhythm, he mixed patriotic Hungarian marches with love songs and popular ditties that commented sarcastically on the patriotic songs and on his and his fellow inmates’ lost freedoms. He rarely mentioned the horrors of the musz. And, of course, I will never know how many stories he has chosen not to tell—or may have mercifully forgotten.
In World War I my grandfather Shaya served as an advance scout in the 85th Infantry of the Hungarian Army. When he was drafted in 1913, and stationed in Balassagyarmat, he moved his family there from his birthplace, the tiny town of Kozépapsa, near Sighet (the birthplace of Eli Wiesel). In 1915, Shaya was sent to the front, my father does not recall where. Before he left, he remarried his wife Rose in a civil ceremony so that the family could qualify for the higher pay that married soldiers received. They had already been married for more than eight years, had four children and a fifth one on the way, but had only had a religious, or egyházi wedding service, which the Army did not acknowledge as legitimate. Rose had only been fifteen or sixteen years old when they married, Shaya about four years older. She was so young on that wedding day that before the ceremony, as she later related to my father, she was playing a children’s game with buttons in the dirt, outside the shul with her girlfriends.
Religious Jews in those days rarely had a civil, or polgári service. “What? Have a goy officiate at my wedding?” The presiding judge at Shaya and Rose’s civil ceremony upbraided the groom roundly. “Sándor, (for my grandfather had started using that name when he went into the army) aren’t you ashamed of yourself, marrying such a visibly pregnant woman?” My grandfather’s reply, if any, is lost. Was he, I wonder, meek and obedient, or did he retort in the fearless and fierce way he was to do in so many situations later in his life? And what did Rose say, the blushing bride and already the mother of four?
After the wedding, Shaya was gone for two years. He was back on furlough for a week in 1917, returned to the front, and finally came home for good when the war ended in 1918.
The week of the furlough was an eventful one. Shaya had his first sight of his fifth child, my aunt Ami, by then almost two years old. My father was seven at the time and still remembers the stories Shaya told during that brief stay; how, many of Shaya’s fellow soldiers were so ignorant that they literally did not know left from right, so the officers ordered them to tie tufts of hay to their left boot, and tufts of straw to their right boot and when they gave marching orders, instead of chanting, “left, right, left, right” they’d call out, “széna, szalma, széna, szalma” hay, straw, hay, straw. My father also remembers the medals Shaya received for bravery, and the scar behind his right ear, where the doctors had to remove part of his skull bone to cut out a piece of shrapnel.
(Here is another tiny, but to me fascinating resonance between my grandfather and me. When I was two years old I contracted scarlet fever and because of some complications, the doctors recommended minor surgery to drain some fluid near my right ear. My mother refused to allow it, worrying about the possibility of an unattractive scar. I recovered just fine without the surgery.)
Shaya’s family had struggled in his absence. To help make ends meet, my grandmother Rose had baked bread and pastries to sell to soldiers stationed in Balassagyarmat. She prepared the dough during the night to have it ready before dawn. Then my father and his older sister Lenke, would carry the dough in loaf pans to the baker. After the breads were baked, they’d bring them home in time for breakfast, which Rose served at their home for Jewish soldiers who were trying to maintain kosher. My father excitedly told Shaya how one day a soldier stole some bread, hiding it under his coat. Rose noticed and quietly said to several of the other soldiers, “Watch and see what a slap he’s going to get.” When the soldiers were getting ready to leave, she walked up to the thief and slapped him so hard that his coat fell open, revealing the theft. My father watched as the other soldiers threw the man outside and beat him, yelling, “You would rob a woman with a husband at the front? And five little children to feed?”
After breakfast, my father would take any leftover breads and kukorica mála (a type of cornbread that was a favorite of soldiers from the Maramaros area) and, carrying them in a basket nearly as big as he was, sell them on the streets. One day a soldier, calling him a dirty little Jew, (two thirds of which epithet, at least, was of course literally true) overturned the basket on the ground and stomped on the bread. My father threw a stone at him, clipping him in the back of the head. The soldier chased but could not catch him. My grandmother Rose complained to the local governor, who was Jewish, and the soldier was disciplined and ordered to pay for the bread.
That furlough week Shaya also learned that my father had not been going to Cheder, the Jewish school. Partly this was because he’d have missed some of every morning due to his bread selling, but mostly because Rose didn’t have money to pay the malamud, the teacher. My grandfather, after ascertaining that the malamud lived and taught in the synagogue’s attic and was hiding there to avoid serving in the Army, got dressed in his full Army uniform, attached a bayonet to his weapon, marched up the stairs to the attic of the shul, introduced himself and had a brief discussion with the malamud. After that, my father was welcome to attend Cheder for the remainder of the war.
What Shaya didn’t learn during his week at home, was that while he was at the front, Rose was secretly feeding her brother who was also hiding from the Army. She must have known that Shaya would not have been pleased, both because his family had barely enough food and because he was fighting at the front. Twice a week, my father and his older sister Lenke carried a basket of food to their uncle Elye, who was living in a cornfield just outside Balassagyarmat. He too, not wishing to soldier, served as a malamud. His home, and his schoolhouse, was a hut in the cornfield; his students, the children of the farmer who owned the field. (Twenty-five years later, Elye’s son Jozsi, tried hiding from the munkaszolgálat in exactly the same way but was discovered and sent to a work lager. He managed to escape and wound up, willingly as it finally turned out, fighting for Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. During that same time, my father’s only brother, Feri, hid from the authorities of his native Balassagyarmat, by living with my father’s family in Kunhegyes, substituting as Cantor in my father’s absence, while my father served in the munkaszolgálat. Feri was killed in Budapest in 1944 when he was captured outside the ghetto in a nighttime roundup and shot on the banks of the Danube, his body left to float in the river.)
Shaya and Rose did one more thing during his week at home, before he left to go back to the front. They conceived their sixth child. Shaya was not to see his daughter Szidi until he returned a year later in 1918.
When he came home, Shaya continued serving in the Army for several more months after the war ended, as border skirmishes continued well after the declared truce took effect. His duties now consisted of transporting the wounded; in particular, carrying them across the Ipoly River, which served as the border between Hungary and Checkoslovakia at Balassagyarmat. My father, eight years old at the time, cried in terror when Shaya came home some nights covered with the blood of the wounded men he’d carried on his back.
Even after his return, Shaya and Rose’s struggle to feed all the kids did not end. That first year he was back, Shaya had to pawn his silver watch, so they could buy matzo for Pesach. Their poverty was lifelong. When my father turned thirteen he began travelling to nearby villages to serve as a chazzan, a cantor and for the first time in his life began making money. After he collected his first payment for singing at high holiday services, he excitedly told his father how now he’d be able to buy his first pair of new shoes. Shaya shook his head. “Your sister Lenke is getting married. They need a bed.” My father told me that story probably fifty years after the event. His pain and deep disappointment were still evident on his face.
When I went to register for the draft, the day before my eighteenth birthday, and just a short time after I got out of the hospital following the bout with my bleeding ulcer, I was asked to describe any identifying marks on my body. At first, I was stumped, but finally remembered the faint but large birthmark that covers almost my entire right shoulder; still another small concord with my grandfather Shaya—that was the shoulder he broke when the lookout tower collapsed under him.
Even though in the late Sixties it was becoming increasingly fashionable to do so, I never burned my draft card. I did, however, nearly get burned by it. During my first week of college I loaned it to a fellow freshman in my dorm. He was not yet eighteen and wanted to get into a bar. Not long after he left for the evening, he was back at my door, sheepishly handing back my card. Turns out he’d casually showed it to the bar bouncer checking ID’s at the door. The bouncer, just as casually, asked him what his name was. My hall mate had met me just the day before, only knew me as Sam, and had no idea what my last name was. When the bouncer, luckily for me, handed him back my card, and my hall mate saw my difficult-to-pronounce last name, he decided that next time he’d borrow someone else’s card.
I never served in the Army. I was a junior at the University of Rochester, on a college deferment, my version of hiding in the cornfield, when the first lottery drawing took place on December 1, 1969. My number was 251—high enough that I was certain not to be called. (Our mother, whose birthday was December 4, said it was the best birthday present she ever received.) I’m not sure the Army would have taken me even if I’d had a low number. A 5’9” 130 pound boy with a history of a bleeding ulcer does not sound like a drill sergeant’s dream recruit. As it was, because of my high number, I never even had to take the physical. I was very relieved. I had dreaded failing the physical. It would have been demoralizing. Like not being invited to a party, even when you really didn’t want to go.
A high school friend, the one who taught Laz and me our first guitar chords, enlisted while he was in college. He had a low lottery number and reasoned that by enlisting he was reducing his chances of winding up in Vietnam. The first week of basic training turned upside down all his 1960’s innocent notions about love and peace and getting along with people. He was instructed to never say “gun” but to use the word “weapon”. The word “gun” was to be used only in referring to his penis. He recalls a chant; This is my weapon, this is my gun. This is for fighting, this is for fun. That chant, among many other things, drove him over the edge. He went AWOL, called his parents and asked to come home. His father, a WWII veteran, threatened to turn him in. He hid from the Army, and his father, for the rest of the war—and for years after.
I think my parents must have been frightened that Laz and I might be drafted. How could they not have been, given their history, but they never brought up the subject. (Although my mother had often said that one of her main motivations for leaving Israel was the realization that my brother and I would certainly need to fight in the Army there.) Occasionally I made proclamations to them, and to my friends, about how I would refuse to go, should I be drafted, how I would not support this immoral war, how I’d be off to Canada in a flash. Many of my classmates said similar things, right up to the night of the lottery. I don’t know of a single one, even ones with low numbers, who ever went to Canada, or to Vietnam for that matter.
But, even then, I could hear the half-hearted quality in my voice when I’d make these declarations, as though in some way I knew I’d not be called, knew I’d not be taken even if called, and knew I’d never go to Canada.
I didn’t march in any of the protests against the war, except after Kent State on May 4, 1970. In the wake of those killings, the University of Rochester shut down and many of my fellow students went out into the city to march and go door-to-door to talk about the war. I joined them and didn’t go to classes. Even at the time, I was honest enough to admit to myself, if not to any of my professors, that a large part of my anti-war fervor had to do with the fact that I was hopelessly behind in several of my courses. The professors, as their contribution to the anti-war effort, handed out passing grades to every student who asked to be excused from class in order to protest the war.
When the Vietnam war effectively ended in January of 1973, I barely noticed. Later that year, unlike many other Jewish-American men and boys, Laz and I never even considered going to Israel and fighting in the Yom Kippur war. Nor did my parents and we ever discuss that possibility, just as we hadn’t when the Six Day War was fought just weeks before we graduated from high school.
Did my parents’ disappointment in their experience of living in Israel make them less fervent than other Jews in their feelings about the Jewish homeland? Did their losses in the Holocaust make them unable and unwilling to even consider losing us, even in a fight for Israel? Or did their treatment in WWII at the hands of their fellow Hungarians, who eagerly gave them up to the Germans, rather than shield them the way the Danes and Bulgarians and some others, protected their Jews, make my parents lose all feelings of patriotism, of duty to homeland, that they may have felt before that? Or were these feelings already diluted by their lifelong sense that, as Jews, they were not full citizens of Hungary, not fully welcome there, or indeed in any country, save perhaps Israel? (Where, paradoxically, they felt unwelcome for being Hungarians.)
And, did I somehow mysteriously, silently, absorb these feelings, these attitudes, the way I internalized so many other unspoken, secret attitudes of my parents?
In Exodus it is written that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. On the other hand, it is also true that on Yom Kippur, and at other times throughout the year, Jews invoke z’chut avot, the merit of our fathers, to help achieve forgiveness for sins. Maybe it is also true that the trials parents endure become gifts to their children. Perhaps Shaya’s ordeals in WWI helped prepare my father for what he faced in WWII. And perhaps what both of them, and my mother, experienced during WWII has helped me. Unlike my grandfather and my father, I have not had to go to war. I’ve not had to endure the traumas they experienced. I have sometimes felt guilty about that; about not fighting for my country, or for my Jewish homeland. And sometimes I’ve felt cheated that I’ve never been tested in that way. Would I have measured up, endured, like my grandfather, my father and my mother? Or did it fall to me to fight my battles on the inside, and to serve on the home front?
Because the question for me was always whether the shape we see in our lives was there from the beginning or whether these random events are only called a pattern after the fact. All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy
In August of 1998 the Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky story, like a very messy pot of soup that had been pushed from front burner to back, to front again — simmering the whole time — finally boiled over and spilled untidily unto all the front pages and television screens. I happened to be visiting my parents at the time. My folks rarely talked politics. Perhaps a legacy of the times in their lives when it was dangerous, even lethal, to discuss anything relating to the ruling regime. Still, watching the news one night, seeing the famous public hug for the zillionth time, my father sighed, “If only she wasn’t Jewish.”
That thought had never entered — much less crossed — my mind. I saw again how differently my father and I viewed the world. For him everything was colored by Jewish glasses, and by old, and in his case, well founded fears. In his world, Jews always needed to be extra careful not to give people another reason to want to kill them. I, who came of age in the much more tolerant atmosphere of 1960s United States, am less burdened by such fears.
Kenneth Starr was on the screen and my father stabbed an angry finger at him and said vehemently that “the judge” was the real villain of the whole scenario. And Linda Tripp. Even Lewinsky was more at fault than Clinton. My father didn’t refer to her by name. He called her “egy kis ringyo,” a little whore.
My thoughts about the whole tragicomedy were somewhat more complex and nuanced than my father’s. I felt simultaneously critical and sympathetic of Clinton and Lewinsky—though not of Tripp and Starr. I started to bring up issues of privacy, loyalty, sexual harassment, perjury and marital fidelity. But my father was not having any. For him it all came down to good people and bad. Clinton was good people, and, therefore, could be forgiven. Starr and Tripp were bad. Also, Lewinsky, even though she’s Jewish. They didn’t deserve forgiveness. By way of conclusion, my father offered his Old World take on the scandal. “Look, he has the hardest job in the world. If he needs a little extra sex now and then to relax, so what’s the big deal?”
I found myself thinking he’d not been this relaxed and candid about sex when I was a teenager. I remembered instead, dour warnings about not getting anybody pregnant and that masturbation would make me go blind. On further reflection, it occurred to me that those warnings were not in contradiction with his present views on Monicagate. After all, Bill was careful not to get Monica pregnant and he was not masturbating.
My mother listened impassively throughout my father’s monologue, though she nodded vigorous agreement with his judgment of Starr. She didn’t comment, didn’t even raise a questioning eyebrow when she heard my father’s rather casual views on the sanctity of the marriage vows. Later, however, she pulled me aside and said, “Did you know that your father didn’t know what oral sex was?” I looked at her in helpless astonishment. What was the politically correct response to this? Seeing the look on my face, she immediately gestured dismissively, “No, no, no. Of course, he knows. He just didn’t understand it in English. We were watching TV a few days ago and he asked me, ‘What is oral sex?’”
“So, Mom, did you explain or demonstrate?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop myself. She gave me exactly the kind of look you would expect a mother to give a son who asked a question like that. I asked no more.
Actually, I know where she learned the meaning of “oral sex” — in English that is. Her school was the garment factory in Kingston where she worked for about eighteen years. Her daily classes were undoubtedly the earthy and juicy discussions of the other women; her homework was the sharing of some of those gabfests with my father, brother and me, undoubtedly in highly censored form. (Actually, in not always so appropriately censored form. My mother was always proud of her large breasts. I remember her relating gleefully that one of her co-workers told her, “If I had jugs like yours, my husband would never let me out of the house.”) Her textbooks in this specialized English language school, which she continued to read to the end of her life, were the latest novels of Danielle Steel, and also paperbacks sporting covers of heavily-muscled, bare-chested rogues and deep cleavaged beauties entwined in passionate embrace. With liner notes full of phrases like, “pulse pounding. . . thwarted passion. . . jealous fury.” When my brother and I were still living at home, those books used to be hidden in the drawer of her nightstand, but later they were in plain sight, on the coffee table in the living room. On every visit to their condo I leafed through her latest selections, and just as when I was a teenager, I skipped the boring parts and read just the sex scenes. There is plenty of information in them about oral, and every other kind of sex.
My father read only the Torah, other sacred texts and “The Forward”, the Yiddish newspaper. And while the Bible and “The Forward” are full of stories involving sex, there are no English references to oral sex in either.
When I was about eight years old, only a few weeks after we moved to Israel, an older girl, maybe ten or twelve, taught me the word, “kussambak”, Arabic for “your mother’s ‘vagina’.” (I learned much, much later, with Google’s help, that it’s actually two words, not one; kess ommak (kiss om-mak), but it still remains kussambak to me.) I never have figured out how she managed to convey the meaning of that word to me — she certainly did not use visual aids — or how I fathomed her explanation. Not only didn’t I speak almost any Hebrew, nor she a word of Hungarian, I also hadn’t a clue when it came to sex. I was only aware of sex in the way children are, sensing the mystery, the excitement, and noticing most adults’ paradoxical fascination and discomfort with the subject.
A little later, still in Israel, at a social gathering at our house, my father introduced me to one of our guests. Marcus Freid looked down at me solemnly and said, as he reached out to shake my hand, “I am the man who shortened you.” There were other people standing near, including twelve-year-old Judit Schöen, the first love of my life. When Mr. Freid came out with this mysterious greeting, everybody laughed. I had no idea what he was talking about, nor why everybody was laughing, but I knew without a doubt that this had to do with sex. And I was certain I had not wanted Judit to hear what had been said. My face reddened violently, I jerked back my hand and ran off to the bathroom.
Where the light dawned as soon as I glanced down when I peed. Shortened indeed. This was the moehl, the man who had performed my circumcision. A few days later, my father confirmed my brilliant insight about our visitor. But it was only many years later, when I was in my forties, that he told me that this man had also been his brother-in-law, had been married to his first wife’s sister. And that Marcus Freid had also performed the circumcisions of both of my father’s sons from his first family, the ones who perished in Auschwitz.
How profoundly bittersweet our circumcision ceremony must have been for both my father and Marcus Freid. How filled with melancholy memories. And what an act of faith on my father’s part, coming so soon after the war years when a man could be stopped on the street in Budapest, ordered into a dark alley and forced to unzip his pants. If he was circumcised, it meant he was Jewish, and his fate was sealed.
It wasn’t just the vast mystery of sex that I was only vaguely aware of as a child. The Holocaust, like sex, was somehow always there, in the background. In our family we hardly ever talked about either. With both, I was like a blind man piecing together a jigsaw puzzle without ever having the finished picture as a guide. I could only sense that there were some very big pictures out there, and that there were a great many pieces to these puzzles. It has taken me a long time to begin to understand that no one really knows what the finished pictures look like, that everyone’s pictures are different, and even, that the pictures, and the pieces, are always changing.
Kussambak is one of the very few Hebrew words I learned in Israel that I still remember today. When we moved to America and began learning English, we stopped speaking Hebrew. My brother and I spoke Hungarian with our parents — and with each other when we didn’t want people to understand what we were saying — and though we continued to chant the daily prayers in Hebrew, the modern, conversational Hebrew soon disappeared under the tidal wave of English that flooded my mind. I have almost totally forgotten this language that I once spoke fluently. Today, I have to think about how to say “yes, no” or “one, two, three,” in Hebrew, but I can still easily conjure up “kussambak.”
I don’t remember much about what it felt like to learn English. It must have been easier in some ways than Hebrew. At least English and Hungarian, unlike Hebrew, shared the same alphabet. Mostly, anyway. The letter w, which doesn’t exist in Hungarian, gave me fits. For a long time, I substituted the letters v and w indiscriminately for each other. My struggles with “vowel” or “weathervane” particularly delighted my young classmates. Even many years later, whenever I sang the familiar country song, “The Long Black Veil” I would be extra careful. Otherwise I might slip and sing, “The Long Black Wail.” Or, even, “The Long Black Whale.”
And then there was spelling. In Hungarian everything looks exactly the way it sounds, and you pronounce everything exactly the way it looks. In Hungarian the rules are fixed, unchanging, very consistent.
As my parents often said in frustration, “English? Hah!”
With words like “knife”, “Worcester” and “colonel” looking wildly different from the way they sound. Not to mention “kernel” and “colonel” — pronounced identically! And why is reveille pronounced as though it had a “lee” at the end of it?
There was a Hungarian girl in our fifth-grade class when we moved to Kingston, two months after we arrived in America. Her family had emigrated from Hungary at the same time as ours but moved directly to the US. Because she was already fluent in English, and, of course, in Hungarian, she translated for us. A mixed blessing. It was comforting to have someone explain things, but it also made us rely on her, rather than find other ways of communicating. We made little progress with English for the first few months of school. After the school year ended though, Laz and I went to summer camp and she did not. And, our camp counselors — wisely — separated Laz and me from each other. Forced to speak only English all day, we quickly learned.
Early that summer, my camp group went on a long hike through the woods. Near the end of the trek we came to Mt. Everest. Or so it seemed to me. An ominous rocky cliff, shooting up impossibly high; at an apparent ninety degrees. Everyone, boys, girls, counselors, immediately began scrambling up. I stood at the bottom protesting — in Hungarian — “I can’t climb that. I just can’t.”
Of course, they all ignored me. Laz was in a different group and no one else spoke Hungarian. So, as I watched them climb farther and farther away from me, I turned up the volume. When I began crying and wailing, the counselors and some of the kids, while continuing to climb, yelled back incomprehensible exhortations. I stood paralyzed. Then, everyone was at the top and about to disappear. My cries turned to shrieks and screams of desperation. I was about to be abandoned in the wilds of Kerhonkson. They continued to yell encouragement down to me. I did not understand most of the words, but I got the gist. Still fussing and whining, I began crawling up on all fours. I got about a third of the way up, slipped, lost my footing, grabbed ineffectually at some roots and shrubs, gave up totally and rolled helplessly, hopelessly, back to the bottom. Scratched and bruised, I lay there sobbing while one of the counselors, effortlessly maneuvering his way down the treacherous slope, came back for me. Performing a quick triage assessment, he determined I had no broken bones, nor any scrape too large to necessitate more than a band aid and proceeded to bodily drag me up the mountainside.
Everything loomed impossibly high to me then. I could not speak the local language — again — after having had to learn another new one just two years before. I had no friends and was just beginning to learn the customs and rules of yet another new country. Like Sisyphus of the ancient legend, I felt I was condemned to constantly push a heavy burden, in my case, me, up steep mountains, only to find myself slipping, falling back to the bottom and being forced to scale the impossible heights again.
Later that summer we hiked that same trail and I saw Mt. Everest again. I was flabbergasted. It was a little hill. I clambered up easily.
During the course of the summer, I had grown a little taller and stronger, but my life had also smoothed out. I was almost fluent in English, though I still carried a heavy accent. Our family felt more settled. It didn’t look as though we were going to move to yet another country, to start all over.
And during that summer Laz and I also discovered something that would help us face and climb the hills and mountains of life, as well as give us rest and occasional escape from them. For the first time in our lives, we fell in love with books. We began reading voraciously and indiscriminately. Comic books, The Adventures of the Hardy Boys, Jules Verne, David Copperfield, countless books from the Book of the Month Club in which my mother enrolled us, and later, Shakespeare and The Iliad and The Odyssey. And like Trojan horses, these books smuggled into my mind ideas, and whole worlds that were foreign, unfamiliar, and ultimately revolutionary. They helped overthrow the narrow, orthodox, confining ideas that until then had ruled my world. They helped me glimpse lives and circumstances that I never encountered in Kingston and would not have come to know even if I had lived next door to them.
We kept to ourselves, our family did. My father refused to take vacations, so we hardly ever went anywhere as a family. Because there was no kosher restaurant in Kingston, we never ate out. We also never ate in anyone else’s house. No one in Kingston was kosher enough for my father. Even when we went to visit my father’s sister in New York, we brought along our own food.
Laz and I read obsessively, hours every day, sometimes even under the covers by flashlight at night. And especially, every Saturday afternoon. We had begun chafing under the rules of Orthodoxy as we saw that, unlike us, all our schoolmates, even the Jewish ones, were allowed to play outside, go to movies, bicycle around town, permitted to be free on the Sabbath. We weren’t. Our consolation prize was reading. It almost made up for everything we felt deprived of. Every Saturday afternoon, while our parents napped, and even after they’d gotten up, we stayed in our rooms, devouring books.
By ninth grade, less than four years after he first heard English words spoken, Laz was beginning to write poetry. Soon after, his poems were being published in the school’s literary magazine. I showed no such talent. Instead, I followed my lifelong interest in numbers and became the business manager of the magazine. But we both were inspired by some wonderful English teachers. I vividly remember Mr. Lawrence Mannion in ninth grade who led an after-school poetry reading club that Laz and I never missed. He radiated a dedication to teaching, and an infectious love of literature and of precise language. (He often railed against the expression, “a lot”. “What is ‘a lot’? Is it five? ten? a baker’s dozen? too many to count? Then why not use a more accurate word or phrase?”) Then there was Mr. Schaeffer in tenth grade. I can still picture him standing before our class, head thrown back, eyes closed, singing “Moon River” in his mellow Perry Como sound-alike voice. He was so good looking that all the girls were in love with him, and so smooth that all the boys wanted to be like him. He gracefully deflected all this adulation and redirected our infatuations to books and songs. It was in his classes that, for the first time, I began listening carefully to the lyrics of folk and popular songs.
At the beginning of my senior year of high school I began keeping a journal. I no longer remember what prompted me to start, nor do I still have that diary. But I do recall my first entry. I wrote that I felt happier, more at home, more at ease, than I ever had in my life, that I was enjoying being a senior, being familiar with my classmates and teachers, knowing where everything was, understanding how things worked in school and, it seemed, in my life. I felt secure enough to take some risks, in particular to try out for the swimming team. I wrote that I felt as though I had come through a difficult passage, one that had taken almost seven years, since we had moved to this country.
What I recall most vividly about that first entry though, is how surprised I felt after I saw what I’d written. The act of writing had somehow revealed perceptions and insights that I’d not been aware of until I put pen to paper. Writing about my experiences that day seemed to transform them, make them clearer, more understandable for me. I’d never had that happen before with writing, not in any of my school assignments, not in letters.
Discovering that my writing would reveal things to me came fresh on the heels of another discovery. The year before I’d taken my first full length classes in American and world history. I loved them. I found I had a good memory for dates and events and, more significantly, I was fascinated by the patterns and relationships of historical events. For the first time in my life, I was beginning to see a bigger picture, and began to have glimmerings of where I fit into it. Though I still had very little sense of it at the time, or even for many years after, what I was doing in my journal was recording and studying my own, and my family’s history.
Five years later, right after we graduated, from college, Laz and I began writing songs. Everybody our age was playing guitar and writing songs. The logic was, if Bob Dylan could write songs without a music degree, if Lennon and McCartney could without anyone showing them how. . . why then, we could too. Laz had been writing poetry for years. Songwriting was a natural next step for him. And, although I was not a poet, I never doubted I could write songs. After all, I could sing. I knew what did and didn’t feel good in my throat. And song lyrics were clothed in melodies, they had the support of steady guitar rhythms. They didn’t have to stand alone, naked, like poetry.
Our first songs were, like most amateur songwriters’, autobiographical, expressing our anger at our father, our ambivalent feelings about being twins, or of our longing for girls, often hiding that yearning behind crude teenage macho, or sexual innuendo.
I didn’t hit my stride as a songwriter until I started writing songs for kids. In 1981 I wrote a song called “Lunch” which described a harried parent throwing together lunch for his kids. Clearly not autobiographical, nor from my own experience, yet I could hear at once that it was an effective song and convincing. I didn’t know where it had come from. My girlfriend at the time, my last one before I met my wife, said the first time she heard me sing it, “You’re ready.” She meant for fatherhood. She was right. I was discovering a longing to have a child. My writing, in song form now, was revealing things to me, and would continue to do so, just as it had when I started my first journal in high school. Less than a year later I was married. And in the next few years Laz and I made the transition to writing and playing music almost exclusively for children and families.
As in many other aspects of our lives, when it comes to language, writing, and even songwriting, there are a number of intriguing resonances between my brother and I, and our parents and grandparents.
My grandfather Shaya made up zmirot, tunes for texts from the prayer book, and niggunim, wordless tunes, to while away his long, solitary working hours, floating on timber rafts when he was a woodcutter, or riding in his cart as a peddler. Friday nights, when he’d return home for Shabbes, he would sing his new songs for his family.
Like Laz and I, our father had to learn a second language, in his case Hungarian, when he began attending public school at the age of ten, after WWI ended. Before that, at home and at the cheder, he spoke only Yiddish. (In time-honored fashion, when needing to discuss subjects not for little ears, parents resort to spelling, talking in code, or, if available, another language. In my father’s childhood home, the language of secrets was Rumanian, in our family, it was Yiddish, despite my mother’s limited command of that language.)
In the years just before WWII my father was preparing for publication a manuscript of the Shabbes sermons he gave as the Cantor and Rabbi in Kunhegyes. The manuscript, along with almost all his other possessions, disappeared while he was in the munkaszolgálat, when his house was first looted by neighbors and then used as a stable for Russian cavalry. After the war, he found work only as a Cantor, never again as a Rabbi, and didn’t have the heart to recreate all he had written. He did continue writing though — melodies this time. He began creating tunes for the liturgy and sang his settings, alone or accompanied by choir and organ, at the Budapest synagogues where he worked.
Like my father, I too have written music for words other than my own, but many of the lyrics that I have written have been inspired by people and events in my life. My father, though he used only existing texts, sometimes did the same. One of his best settings is from the “Zichronot”, the “Remembrance Verses”, a part of the Rosh Hasonoh and Yom Kippur services. “Is not Ephraim my beloved son, my beloved child, for even when I speak against him, I remember him with affection. Therefore, my heart yearneth for him: yea, I will surely have compassion upon him, saith the Lord.” Jeremiah 31:20
My father’s only brother, murdered sometime in 1944, was named Ephraim. I remember how passionately, almost tearfully, my father always sang this setting.
“Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned” — Heinrich Heine — German Jewish Poet
When I had been a small boy, someone told me that the blood in your veins was blue, the way it looked through the skin, and that it only turned red when you exposed it to air. What I felt was one thing when I kept it in. It changed color entirely when I exposed it. — The Widening Gyre — Robert B. Parker
It was the day before my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary. Laz and I were visiting them in Florida. We had attempted, earlier in the year, to organize a family reunion for the occasion but my parents refused to allow it. They said they didn’t want to pay everyone’s hotel bills during the visit. When we pointed out that nobody expects them to do that, and that our relatives can all afford to pay their own way, they countered that they didn’t want to be indebted and have to go to their relatives’ family events — which they hardly ever did anyway. Nothing we said would change their minds. They had each lost so much family that, paradoxically, they had little attachment to anyone beyond our immediate quartet.
A few weeks before this visit a friend of mine said to me, “You need to know more about your dead brothers and sister.” And with a shock, I suddenly realized that I’d never thought of them that way. That these people, who have served as a faint, shadowy scrim to my whole life, who I’ve always thought of as my father’s first family and never as being related to me, were my half brothers and sister.
Laz and I have known since we were sixteen, when our mother let slip one day that she was our father’s second wife, that our father had lost his first wife and three young children in Auschwitz. Long before that revelation, we’d heard about our father’s other relatives who were killed in Auschwitz. Our father occasionally told us stories of these people. The stories often ended with, “They were taken to Auschwitz.” I can’t recall a time when I felt a need for further explanations. Auschwitz was a part of our family history that I inhaled as naturally as many other far less remarkable facts. It seemed as if it was always there—like air—not really hidden, but nevertheless usually invisible.
Though our father sometimes spoke of his parents, brother and sisters who perished in Auschwitz, he never mentioned his first wife and children. And while there were pictures of his other relatives in our family photo albums, we never saw any pictures of his wife and children. Our mother did tell us once that shortly after she and our father married, she’d found a photo of them in his wallet, had asked him about it and had not seen it since.
It wasn’t until I was in my late forties that I finally braved talking with my father about his first family. He did not seem surprised then that I knew about his wife and children. I asked for stories about them, asked him to describe what they looked like. And he did. Briefly, haltingly, and with so much pain and sadness on his face that, feeling guilty about opening old wounds, I always dropped the topic after a few minutes. Only to find myself, days, weeks or months later, feeling compelled to bring it up again. But I never asked about the picture of his first family.
Finally, on this golden anniversary visit, I got my father alone and asked him if he had a picture of his first wife and children. (Not wanting to create problems between my parents, I didn’t tell him that I already knew of its existence from my mother.) My father made a grimace, looked away, and said, “No.” I wanted to spare him the pain, but my longing to see these people had become so strong that I persisted.
“Are you sure you don’t have any pictures of them? Weren’t there any left when you returned from the Camps?”
Irritated, he snapped back, “You don’t understand. There was nothing left in my house. They were using it as a stable.”
In my best investigative reporter/prosecuting attorney manner I continued. “But you have pictures of your parents and brother and sisters.”
He went on the defensive, “I have no idea where I got those from. Maybe from one of my sisters who wasn’t taken to the Camps.”
I was about to give up, but my mother, overhearing our conversation from the kitchen, called out now. “Herman, you used to carry one in your wallet. I saw it. It was of your wife and two of the children.”
Embarrassed, either at being caught in a lie, or at having his fading memory pointed out to him, my father said slowly, “You’re right, there was one picture.” Then he quickly added, “But the children were not in it.”
My mother, with fifty years of practice in standing up to him, was tenacious. “No, Herman. Two of the children are in the picture. I remember the little girl.” My father snorted in disgust and left the room.
My mother began setting the table for supper. I joined her, and we worked silently. I could hear my father rummaging in his study. A few minutes later he was back, carrying a small black prayer book. Holding it open to the middle with one hand, he was fingering a small photo with the other. Softly, in a tone of wonder, he said to my mother, “You are right, Blanka, the children are here.”
I reached for the photo, but he stopped me and said, pointing to the page in the book opposite where the picture had been secreted all these years, “See, this is where I recorded your birth dates.” I looked where he was pointing and there, in my father’s beautiful Hebrew printing, was the abbreviated heading “Boruch Hashem, Blessed is the Lord.” Below that, my brother’s and my Hebrew names, the date of our birth according to the Jewish calendar and the words, “bonai hajkirim,” my dear children.
I stared silently at the writing and the picture. I stood frozen, numb. A myriad of conflicting emotions stormed in me. Many of them I only recognized and sorted out weeks and months later.
Resentment and jealousy—Lord help me—because I didn’t have the page to myself; I need share it, of course with my brother, and also with these other children. I’d always only thought of them as my father’s first children. But I now freshly realized—they are also my half brothers and sister.
Rage. My fists clenched, my jaw clamped. What monsters could shove these people into gas chambers?
Pain. Like the agony of someone whose anesthesia has worn off after major surgery. For the briefest moment, before I am overwhelmed by the horror of it and need to push the emotions away, I truly feel my father’s anguish. How he must have ached when he looked at this picture. What was it like to lose your wife and three children like that?
Next comes grief. For the first time in my life I began to consciously grieve for my dead brothers and sister and for the woman who might have been my mother.
Hard on the heels of the grief came guilt—recognition of my father’s and my own. When he insisted on showing me what he had written in his prayer book before allowing me to see the picture, my father was perhaps trying to reassure me that he loved me as much as his other children. In my father’s prayer book, and maybe in his silent prayers, all his children were together. Did he ever feel guilty that he was betraying their memories by loving us?
And there were my feelings of guilt, of shame, the by now familiar guilt and shame of the child of a survivor of the Holocaust; shame that I might dare feel resentment and jealousy in the face of the horrific losses my father has endured;
guilt, that my very existence mocks those losses. After all, I might not have even been born were it not for these people dying.
Finally, through the din of all these emotions, I recognized gratitude. My father was giving me a priceless gift. He was telling me, in the only way in which he was capable, that I have been dear to him; that he has loved me, loved us, though he needed to keep his love secret, as he kept secret his love and grief for his first family. “Bonai hajkirim,” my dear children. He was letting me know that, contrary to the way I’ve sometimes felt, I’ve not been merely a replacement, an inadequate substitute, for all he has lost.
Finally, I admitted to myself that perhaps the reason I hadn’t dared ask my father about his first family was not only to spare him pain but also because it was too painful for me—too painful to contemplate that my mother and brother and I might not be first in his affections. I saw how we conspired, colluded together to keep these secrets. Perhaps I, like my father, also needed to pretend all these years that these people have disappeared from our lives.
And for the first time in my adult life I began to think of him not as my hand-me-down father—the father who first belonged to these other three children—but as my own father; worn, torn, patched and faded by all he experienced before I was born, but still shielding me, protecting me, as he was unable to shield and protect his first children.
An absurd memory flashed in my mind. When my brother and I were in our early teens, we loved to play Monopoly with our father. It was the one game that he ever played with us, and one of the very few leisure activities in which we could engage him. For several years we played it regularly, sometimes with my mother joining us, but often just the three of us. We all took childlike delight in accumulating the piles of fake money and the various properties. Perhaps my brother and I reveled in having him all to ourselves at those times—being able to monopolize him, not having to engage in the felt, but as yet unknown, unfair competition with our dead brothers and sister.
During these games my father was always very lighthearted, not somber or serious, not critical and judgmental, the way he seemed to be at most other times. Maybe he could relax with this make-believe wealth, this fantasy city. Maybe it reminded him of his happy life with his first family. Or maybe it allowed him to briefly forget.
When my grandfather Shaya busted up my father’s plan to become a Rabbi, my father, then nineteen, moved to Eger to finish his studies and become a Cantor. He was there for a year and a half and a silver lining developed in the cloud Shaya had cast over his dreams.
Jacob Weiser, the longtime Cantor of Eger, liked to invite a few Yeshiva bochers to his house for dinner every Friday night. He enjoyed their lively company, was proud to show off his considerable talents as a cook and — not incidentally — gave his seven daughters plenty of opportunities to meet, and eventually marry, some of the brightest and most promising young Rabbis and Cantors in Hungary. Jacob took a liking to the new bocher who moved to Eger from Budapest, and my father became a regular at these Friday night dinners. And he noticed Jacob’s youngest daughter, Etta.
Turns out he was not the first bocher to notice her. But, after my father expressed interest, Jacob let it be known that he favored my father over Etta’s previous suitor. This did not sit well with the aforementioned suitor and in the manner of young men since time immemorial, he ordered my father to “stop hangin’ ’round my girl.” Whereupon, continuing in the same time-honored tradition, my father suggested that said suitor take a hike. Having butted heads and locked horns in this ancient mating rights ritual, the other suitor now predictably offered to do serious bodily harm to my father. To which my father responded, still following the traditional script, “You throw the first punch.”
One Friday night in the courtyard of Jacob Weiser’s house, after a Shabbes meal, that first punch was thrown — and several more — and when the dust settled, my father was the only one standing. Grandfather Shaya would have been proud.
Etta and he were married in Eger on Lag B’Omer in 1932. (Lag B’Omer is literally, the thirty-third day of the counting of the omer. The omer was a measure of grain brought to the Temple as an expression of gratitude or prayer on each of the forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuos, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah.) This seven-week period is traditionally a time of mourning in memory of a terrible plague that befell the students of Rabbi Akiva. Lag B’Omer is a happy holiday celebrating the temporary easing of that plague. It is the only day in the seven-week span when traditional Jewish weddings are permitted.
The young couple moved to Kunhegyes soon after the wedding and their first child, a boy they named Ernö, was born a year later. The next ten years were very happy for my father. Just as Lag B’Omer is a brief interlude of joy bordered by two periods of sorrow, those ten years followed his difficult childhood and came before the horrors that awaited him.
Kunhegyes was a community of 11,000 people. In 1930 there were 273 Jews living there. They could not afford to hire both a Rabbi and a Cantor. My father was ideal for them. Having finished his Cantorial studies, and with several years of Rabbinic studies behind him he could serve as their Cantor as well as perform all the functions of a Rabbi. He taught in the Jewish school, delivered sermons, and performed weddings and funerals for all but the wealthiest and most prominent. (Those worthies rated a visit from the Rabbi of Karcag, the nearest large city.)
My father had one other important skill of great value to a small Jewish community. Somewhere along the way he had also completed training as a schohet and could perform the ritual slaughter of poultry and beef in the prescribed, kosher manner. He didn’t mind working hard and enjoyed being busy. He had risen to a position not dreamed of for the son of an impoverished peddler.
The years in Kunhegyes were nearly idyllic for him. He was happily married to a woman who, his surviving sisters all agree, adored him. Two years after the birth of his son Ernö, Etta delivered a girl whom they named Zelda and a few years later another son, Gyuri. My father was also loved and respected by his community and was, for the first time in his life, financially secure. Part of his salary was in the form of farmland that he was allowed to lease to tenant farmers. Every morning these farmers delivered fresh milk and eggs and just-churned butter to his door. They also regularly brought chickens, ducks, geese, vegetables and flour. Every morning, except on Shabbes, the town baker would bring a loaf of bread, wrapped in a white cloth, fresh from the oven. My father was even able to send food to his parents and younger sisters and brother back in Balassagyarmat. Every Wednesday, he would ship home the largest duck or goose available, so they’d have it in time for Shabbes. His sister Ami, who was still living at home with her parents at the time, remembered that Etta also sent along delicious cakes for the whole family.
But soon after my father and Etta settled in sleepy little Kunhegyes, far way events set in motion actions that were to have profound and disastrous effects on their happy life. On January 30, 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. In March of that year Himmler founded Dachau for political prisoners. On April 1st, 1933 a one-day boycott of Jewish businesses was organized in Germany. This was in response to American threats of a boycott of German products because of Hitler’s hate mongering against Jews. Later that April the Gestapo was established.
Anti-Semitism had been a recurring disease in many parts of Europe for centuries and predominantly Catholic Hungary was no exception. But the period from when my father was born in 1910, to the early 1930s was a relatively quiet time for anti-Semitism. Jews, including my grandfather Shaya, served in the Hungarian Army in WW I and were honored for their contributions. Hungarian Jews were often assimilated, especially in the larger cities, and well-integrated into the life of the nation. Many held prominent positions in business and government, albeit usually only after changing their Jewish sounding names.
Kunhegyes and the surrounding area was typical of Hungary in this respect, but with one unusual twist. Unlike the rest of primarily Catholic Hungary, this region was mostly Protestant. Here the tensions between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority rivaled the anti-Semitic feelings both groups shared for the Jews. The three groups existed in a fragile peace until the mid-1930s. Then, as the cancer of anti-Semitism came out of remission in Germany and became increasingly virulent, signaled by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 forbidding marriage between Jews and Aryans, it began to spread to other parts of Europe. By the late 1930s it had reached Hungary. A whole series of laws were enacted defining levels of Jewishness (both parents, one parent, four grandparents versus just two, etc.) and placed more and more restrictions about what Jews could and could not own and do.
Horthy, Miklos, the Regent of Hungary at that time, had his summer villa in Kenderes, near Kunhegyes. My father, in carrying out his various duties, frequently passed by Horthy’s large contingent of Csendör with their huge plumed hats, guarding the Regent’s estate.
One day, officiating at a funeral near there, my father decided to use the occasion to make a small political statement. Apparently, as different as he was from his rough and tumble father, there was still some of Shaya’s bluster in him. In his sermon that day, he translated a prayer from the Hebrew into Hungarian and then added a phrase of his own. “God, who gave the earth to all people, regardless of religion.” It was a typical Shaya bravado move, but the times were changing. After the service, as they were driving to the grave site, the man driving my father’s wagon peeled off from the funeral procession and took him home, telling him he ought to lay low for a bit. The man had observed some of Horthy’s men in the funeral crowd and overheard them suggesting that my father ought to be arrested for his remarks.
Still, life went on pretty uneventfully in quiet, little Kunhegyes until the spring of 1940 when my father was first ordered into the munkaszolgálat. And even then, he was only taken as far as Debrecen, still within Hungary’s borders, and served as chaplain for other conscripted Jewish men. They were also at this time still treated reasonably well, like low-ranking military men, not as slave laborers. After nine months, my father was allowed to return home and remained there till December of 1942. When he was taken this time, it was not as chaplain. He, along with all Jewish men in his region under the age of fifty-two, were shipped to Poland and worked as slave labor for Hungarian, Austrian and German army units. He didn’t return to Kunhegyes untill November of 1944. He never saw his family again.
For a year and a half, they carried on without him. The neighbors were kind and the farmers kept bringing food to their house. The Jewish school was closed because my father and the other teachers were gone. All the Jewish kids were sent to the Catholic school. The Protestant school was bigger and had more room but refused to allow in the Jewish kids. It made no difference to the Slomovits family. Etta did not want her kids in any non-Jewish school and sent her boys, Ernö and Gyuri, to Balassagyarmat to live with their grandparents and study in the cheder there. She kept her daughter Zelda with her. Perhaps she did not consider Zelda’s Jewish schooling to be as important. She would see her sons only once more — miraculously, agonizingly, and for but a few short-lived moments.
Meanwhile, life for the other branch of the Slomovits family in Balassagyarmat also continued fairly uneventfully in the early Forties. Shaya did lose his weapon license and was forced to give up his pistol, but the Hungarian laws forbidding Jews to own a business or work in the professions had little effect on an impoverished peddler. Because of his age, and his injured shoulder from his first stint in the munkaszolgálat, Shaya was not recalled in 1942 along with so many other Jewish men. He was allowed to stay at home with his wife Rozsa and two of their daughters, their youngest, Evike, ten years old in 1944, and Erzsike, who was twenty, married for less than three years and, unbeknownst to her, by then widowed. (News of her husband’s death in the munkaszolgálat never reached her. After the war ended, her surviving nieces learned that he’d been shot by a sniper while standing watch one night. The story was related to them by the guilt-wracked man who had traded assignments with him, the one whose turn it had been to stand guard that shift.)
Living a few blocks away from Shaya and Rozsa on Hunyadi utca in Balassagyarmat was their eldest child, Lenke, with her four children. Her husband was also away in the munkaszolgálat, near Miskolc, and was also to die there. Her second daughter, Lilly, my cousin though she is nineteen years older than me, has been the source of most of the little I know about what happened to my grandparents and other relatives in the years just before Auschwitz. Lilly was fourteen in 1944 and remembers our mutual grandparents fondly. “I spent more time at their house than I did in my own.” She loved her grandmother, Rozsa, and says about her, “We all knew that grandma had a big apron.” That is, she was soft hearted and covered up for her grandkids when they got into trouble. Lilly recalls that Shaya was very religious, very strict, but with a sense of humor. She remembers his beautiful white teeth and that Rozsa had none of her own by the time Lilly was a young child. She remembers both our grandparents being very hard workers. Her most vivid memories are of Friday nights, walking to the beautiful synagogue on Tököly utca with her mother, older sister, two younger brothers and her aunts and grandparents, and my father’s sons, who lived with them from 1943 on, everyone dressed in their Shabbes best. The synagogue, built in 1866, was only blocks from their house. After the Germans occupied Hungary, they stored their munitions there and then blew it up when they were retreating in late 1944. When Lilly returned from Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Ascherslaben in mid-1945, the synagogue and both Slomovits homes, on Hunyadi and Tököly utca, were gone as though they had never existed.
Lilly also remembers Havdallah, the weekly ceremony on Saturday nights marking the end of Shabbes, in her grandparents’ house. “The youngest child would stand on a stool holding the braided candle while grandpa recited the prayers. I loved smelling the special spices in the beautiful container that we passed around.”
These comforting rituals came to an abrupt halt in the spring of 1944. On March 19th Nazi troops occupied Hungary. (On March 24th, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a statement appealing to Hungarians to help Jews escape from the Nazis. My parents, unlike most American Jews, never had a high regard for FDR. They only remembered his passive stance about the St. Louis a few years earlier.)
Immediately after the Nazis arrived in Hungary, they installed a puppet regime and sent Adolf Eichmann to oversee the deportation of Jews. On March 29th all Jews in Hungary were ordered to wear a yellow star. By April 21st all Jewish property was confiscated, and on May 2nd, the first transport of Jews from Hungary arrived in Auschwitz. By July 9, 1944, 148 trains of cattle cars had carried 437,404 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. (The Nazis kept impeccable records.) Most were gassed within hours of their arrival.
Pesach, the holiday celebrating the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, began on April 14th in 1944. The rounding up of Jews for deportation to Auschwitz began soon after that. The job was mostly carried out by the Hungarian police and csendör and began in the rural areas. Budapest was saved for last. The Jews of Balassagyarmat were herded to tobacco curing sheds on the outskirts of the town, kept there for a number of days and then forced into the cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.
The train from Balassagyarmat, carrying my brothers Ernö and Gyuri, my grandfather Shaya, my grandmother Rozsa, my aunts Erzsike, Evike and Lenke, and her four children, my cousins Edit, Lilly, Yossi and Yankele, arrived in Auschwitz on June 13, 1944. Amazingly, a train from Szolnok, carrying my father’s wife Etta and my sister Zelda, arrived on the same day.
I was nearly fifty when my father told me of this outlandishly unlikely coincidence. He had learned of it after the war from a Balassagyarmat acquaintance who was also taken to Auschwitz but survived. The man told him that the date they all arrived in Auschwitz, on the Hebrew lunar-based calendar, was Sivan 22, which is why every year my father observed that date as his Yahrzeit, his day of mourning for his whole family.
My father went on to tell me that this man not only saw Etta and Zelda, but — even more improbably — witnessed Etta as she caught a glimpse of her sons in the lines as they stood on either side of their aunt Erzsike, clutching her hands. Etta cried out to them but was prevented by the guards from getting closer. I was agog at this story. I pressed my father for more details. Did the boys hear their mother? Did they strain to reach her? But my father only gave me a dark frown, equal parts anger and pain, and said nothing else. And I, made timid by his anger, disheartened by his pain, couldn’t bring myself to press him more. We sat in silence, looking at each other and finally he added one more detail. “Erzsike probably died because she was holding the boys’ hands.” I didn’t need to ask for clarification about this. I understood that Mengele probably assumed she was their mother and sent her to the gas chambers with them. Otherwise, he might have selected her for forced labor, and she might have survived.
My father said nothing else, but I could not stop thinking about this story. I always found myself imagining it through Etta’s eyes, never through Ernö or Gyuri’s eyes. Perhaps, because of my age, it was easier for me to identify with an adult than with the children. Or maybe it somehow felt safer, less terrifying.
I asked Gyuri Bozoki, my father’s former Bar Mitzvah student, for his memories about what happened in Kunhegyes before the deportations. With the details he supplied, and coupled with the stories my father told me, I pictured how, after months of anxious uncertainty and rumor, wondering if she’ll ever see her husband and sons again — she hadn’t seen them in over a year — one day in May of 1944, Etta and her ten-year-old daughter Zelda are forced to leave their home in Kunhegyes, the only home Zelda has ever known. Possibly on an hour’s notice, probably at gunpoint, and allowed to take only one suitcase. A Csendör beats Etta, screaming at her, “Where is your gold? Where have you hidden your gold? It’s not possible that the Rabbi’s family has no gold.” And she insists she has no more and doesn’t tell him that she has buried some jewelry in the back yard. Because she still thinks that she’ll be back. (She did tell a neighbor though, in case she doesn’t, and the neighbor told my father, when he returned six months later. My father made a few half-hearted attempts to find and dig up the jewelry, but without success. Maybe someone had already stolen it. He abandoned the search. It’s not the jewelry he wanted to unearth anyway.)
Etta and Zelda, along with all the remaining Jews of Kunhegyes, are moved to the outskirts of town where the Roma were camping. From there, along with Jews from the small communities in the entire region, from Karcag, Kunszentmárton, Kisujszállás, Kunmadaras and Turkeve, they are forced into closed box cars for the two-day trip to Szolnok, the nearest large city. They are given no water. They arrive dehydrated, exhausted, and are herded to an abandoned sugar factory. For days they sleep on the ground, most under an open sky. On cold nights they all crowd into the buildings and press together for warmth. They have little food. They are cut off from the world, no newspapers are allowed into the ghetto, all radios have been confiscated. A few people manage to cobble together a primitive crystal radio and furtively listen to the faint signal. And miraculously, they hear the news of D-Day on June 6th. The rejoicing is restrained though. The Nazis, the Nyilas and the Csendör must not discover that the Jews know. So, the news spreads quickly but quietly through the ghetto, like sunrise over a dark ocean. They feel hope that all this misery will come to an end soon. But, no. It goes on. In response to questions, the csendör reply, “You are going to Wansee”, i.e. “you are going to die” referring to the conference where the plan for the “final solution” was concocted. But none of the Jews know this yet.
One day the csendör announce that some of the Jews will be shipped to Strasshof, Austria, and some to Auschwitz. They order a committee of Jewish elders to decide who will go where. Of course, no one knows what awaits them at either destination. They’re only told that they’ll be put to work. The elders are told to separate the families who are leaders in their communities, who have men who served with distinction in the first world war, or who have men in the musz. Etta and Zelda belong in this group. But people switch from one list to the other, trying to stay with family and friends. As the trains are being loaded, some people begin to notice that most of the youngest children seem to be on the train bound for Auschwitz. So, some people on the other train, reasoning that the Nazis would not murder little children, sneak off their train and squeeze onto the other, having no way of knowing that they are giving up life and choosing death. Out of the 224 Jews from Kunhegyes, 95 came back, most from the train that went to Austria. (Gyuri Bozoki and his family are shipped to Strasshof and manage to survive.) Only a handful of the 129 people who were on the train to Auschwitz returned.
Now come the inconceivably hellish, nightmarish days in the cattle cars, enveloped by an overpowering stench and filth, perhaps packed in so tight that it is impossible to lie down. I don’t dare picture this in more detail. Finally, the train stops, the railroad car doors are ripped open and everyone is ordered off. No one knows where they are. And Etta, still clutching Zelda with one hand, her suitcase with the other, stumbles out, her eyes assaulted by the light after being in the dark so long, her ears bombarded by barked commands in German, the language so similar, yet now sounding so much harsher than the Yiddish she has spoken all her life, the voices of hundreds of others like them creating a frightened, frightening din, their already fragile senses overwhelmed by the chaos. Perhaps she notices the huge metal letters in the arch above the gate in Auschwitz, Arbeit macht frei — work makes you free — and remembers being told that they were being deported to work. Work, any kind of work, would be a welcome change from what they’ve endured recently.
And then, fantastically, unbelievably, in all the mayhem, she sees her sons. Maybe there is a fence between them, or perhaps they are separated by a crowd of people. But she sees her Ernö and Gyuri. They are clutching their aunt’s hands. And she screams their names. Do they not hear her? Do they not turn their heads? Or do they manage to hear amidst all the cacophony and turn her way; and can’t spot her at first, but finally do, and begin shrieking, “Anyuka, Anyuka?” Is Erzsike trying to bring them closer? But the guards are roaring their orders, the tide of bodies is carrying them farther away, and they lose sight of one another. And Etta keeps straining, craning over the crowd, crying out their names. And then she and Zelda stand before Mengele and he points to the left and then. . . I can picture nothing else.
After hearing this story from my father, I asked my cousin Lilly, who was also there that day, if she remembers. She does not. She only remembers her own mother, grasping the hands of her two young sons, Lilly’s brothers Yossi and Yankele. And she remembers Mengele motioning her sister, Edit, and herself to the right, and her mother and brothers to the left. And then her memories stop too.
That day before my parents’ golden wedding anniversary, the day my father first showed me the picture of his previous wife and children, long hidden in the pages of his prayer book, I could not look at him. I just stared at the picture between the pages. Finally, after a moment, I reached out and picked it up. I held it gingerly, as though it was a rare archeological artifact.
Which it is. Taken sometime in the mid Thirties, it is a sepia toned, informal, outdoor portrait of my father’s first wife, Etta, his oldest son, Ernö, and his daughter, Zelda. Etta, smiling faintly, possibly pregnant with their third child, Gyuri, wearing the traditional wig of orthodox Jewish women, is sitting on a simple wooden chair, her hands folded in her lap. Zelda, blonde and plump, about four years old, wearing a simple, short white dress and white knee socks, is standing to her left, looking suspiciously into the camera. Ernö, two years older, is standing next to his sister, wearing a dark cap, white sailor outfit with short pants, also with white knee socks, and holds a small ball in front of him.
I pulled the picture close. I searched for a resemblance between my half brother and sister and my brother and me, but I was too stunned, numbed to be able to make that judgment. To this day I can’t tell. However, I noticed with some amazement the strong resemblance between my father’s first wife and my own mother.
I noticed something else. Three sides of the photo are professionally trimmed, but the fourth, the side where Ernö stands, is uneven and rough. Suddenly, I recalled another photo, one that I have seen before, in one of our family albums. It is of my father, seated in a chair identical to Etta’s. I realized with a start—this was a family portrait that had been cut in half. I was holding the picture of the family that was torn away, destroyed in Auschwitz. My father had been hiding them ever since, keeping them safe, as he was not able to then.
I asked my father, “Why was this picture cut?” I reminded him of the other half. Did he cut it so he could fit this half into his wallet? Or had someone else cut it?
My father looked at me incredulously, “This was more than fifty years ago. Do you think I remember?”
Was it my father who cut this photo? Was it he who literally cut himself out of the picture, cut himself off from his first wife and children, as he was cut off from them by the Nazis? Was it he who removed himself from them, disappeared from the picture, as in a way he also has from us, his second family?
In the next few days, I searched meticulously through all my parents’ photo albums. I could not find the other half of the picture anywhere. I began to question whether I ever did see it.
But I knew I had. It was the only picture of my father from that period of his life. Did he hide that picture too? Did he throw it away? Has it vanished as completely as the man he was then?
More than a year went by before the other half of the photo turned up. I moved a bookshelf my mother wanted to relocate, and the picture, along with a few inconsequential scraps of paper, was underneath it. Neither of my parents claimed to have any idea how it got there. I put the two pictures side by side. The jagged edges fit perfectly. Together, they formed a picture of my past; a past I never saw, yet a past I can never forget.
A year later, and six months to the day after my 50th birthday, Laz and I were playing a concert in Muskegon, Michigan. As part of the Muskegon Summer Celebration, we were on an outdoor stage at the corner of Clay and Third Street, one of a handful of sites where live music was offered throughout the city.
I was not enjoying myself. It was an oppressively hot afternoon and the stage was in full sun. Clay Street had been closed to vehicular traffic, but cars spewed fumes and noise behind us on Third Street. Folding chairs had been set up in rows in the middle of Clay Street, but they were mostly empty. People either browsed in the arts and crafts booths which ringed Hackley Park on our left, or clustered in the few available shady spots and in the beer tent behind the chairs. The sound system was poor, and we could barely hear ourselves. To the right of us, on the sidewalk next to the Muskegon Chronicle building, stood five light blue PortaJohns. The banging of their doors provided intermittent, not-in-rhythm percussion accompaniment to our songs. I felt that we, and our music, were quite irrelevant to the scene.
Although we wore hats and, in the course of the one-hour concert, I drank two full bottles of water, my mouth and throat still felt dry much of the time. In order to save our voices, we played more instrumentals than usual. Near the end of the concert while Laz played a series of Irish fiddle tunes, I played the bodhran, a large Irish hand drum. My hands and arms felt stiff and weak and by the end of the medley I was laboring just to keep up. When the concert was done, I said to Laz, “This was much more tiring than usual.”
A little later, already in our van on the way home, I revised. “This isn’t tiredness. Something else is going on.” My left arm was numb, my chest felt tight, I was nauseous. Laz noticed I was very pale. Despite the air conditioner roaring in our van, I was sweating profusely. We suspected mild sunstroke, and gradually, in the course of the three-hour drive to Ann Arbor, the symptoms eased. When I got home, I mentioned to my wife, a former respiratory therapist, how I’d felt, and she said, “Sunstroke is not accompanied by numbness in the arm or tightness in the chest. We’re going to Emergency.” I protested, but she was having none of it. We went to Emergency.
Where I protested more strenuously when they immediately brought out a wheelchair and ordered me to sit in it, so they could wheel me to an examination room. I insisted I’d walk. They were having none of it either. I sat. They did an electrocardiogram which showed nothing and ran blood tests which were also normal. I wanted to go home. They insisted I stay overnight for observation. My wife agreed with them and I finally gave in.
I spent the night hooked up to an electrocardiogram machine in Emergency, had some more blood drawn, slept poorly and was awakened at five the next morning by a nurse who said, as she began pushing my bed to a different room, “We’re admitting you. Your heart enzymes are elevated.” I was not feeling elevated. I was feeling grumpy. It had been a long night. I snapped, “Could you repeat that in English please?” She was grumpy too. Probably had also had a long night. Snapped right back. “You’ve had a heart attack.”
That shut me up. Even after a doctor came by and assured me that it was, based on the blood test, a very, very mild heart attack. I became very, very agreeable. Very, very cooperative.
More doctors came and interviewed me and declared that my lifestyle — vegetarian, non-smoker, physically active, not overweight, no family history of heart trouble — made me an extremely unlikely candidate for a heart attack.
So, what was I doing in the hospital?
Then the next blood test results came back. The enzyme levels had climbed some more. I asked the intern how high were they. He replied casually, “I’ve seen worse.”
I began to feel very, very frightened. “I’ve seen worse” is, to my mind, not a hopeful diagnosis. To me, “I’ve seen worse,” means “This is pretty bad.” Despite what the doctors had told me, despite not having any more symptoms since the day before, I was now certain that I’d not suffered a mild heart attack. What I had, it was now obvious to me, was a very rare and grave heart condition with no visible symptoms. This disease was silently, but inexorably, gnawing away at my heart, seriously damaging it. The enzyme levels would continue to climb until the intern will not have “seen worse” and I would die. Or, worse yet, be rendered an invalid.
I called my wife and cried with her on the phone. She tried to reassure me. I was not reassured. I called my brother, who has a profound mistrust of modern medicine, who scoffed at the doctors, who sounded hollow and worried. I was not reassured.
And then something happened that, to this day amazes me whenever I think of it. I found myself sitting up in bed, my fists clenched, my teeth gritted, glaring fiercely at a blank spot on the wall across the room, and feeling a rising, overwhelming fury and rage. In a guttural, hissing voice I barely recognized as my own, I suddenly growled — no — snarled, “No fuckin’ Nazi is gonna kill me!”
I could not have been more astonished if an SS storm trooper had just goose stepped into my room. Where had this outburst come from? And why now? I’d never in my life had a thought like that, much less said it out loud.
Was it possible that I, who have never had to face anything remotely resembling the virulent, vicious and lethal anti-Semitism that my parents and brothers and sister did, nevertheless carried deep within me the same terrors they may have felt? Was it possible that this lifelong anxiety predisposed me to interpret my present crisis as a Nazi attack on me? And was there in me a never before fully felt and expressed rage at the people who had terrorized and murdered my family?
My mind suddenly reversed back to what I’d said to my parents when I was seventeen and in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. “Now I won’t be able to work hard for the rest of my life.” Then, I had felt frightened because it seemed I was to be weakened for life. Now, I heard those words differently. Had I been echoing the anxiety of many who had stood in selection lines in the concentration camps, fearing that if they were judged unfit for hard work they would be killed? Hadn’t I heard my mother relate that in Ravensbrück she was always urging her sister Anci to stand straight and to puff her chest out? Hadn’t she told me how they’d pinched their cheeks to try to bring some color into them, so they’d look healthier? Or that when she had bled internally in Ravensbrück, she told no one and refused to go to the camp hospital, fearing that if she was not fit for work, she’d be killed?
My startling eruption seemed to act as a healing crisis. I fell back into bed, spent, but relaxed and no longer worried. A friend of mine called a little later, a nurse who years before had worked in a cardiac unit. She said, “Never listen to interns. They like to be dramatic. Listen only to your doctor.” And sure enough, when my doctor arrived, and I asked him about the numbers, he said that even the higher numbers were so low that a few years earlier, before the availability of these more sensitive tests, he would not have even categorized what I’d had as a heart attack.
The next day I took a treadmill stress test and echo cardiogram that detected no damage to my heart, and I was discharged from the hospital.
I never told my parents about my heart episode or what happened in the hospital. Just as I’d never told them, many years earlier, when my ulcer had flared up again.
I was twenty-three then, parking cars in Rochester. It had been six years since my first bleeding ulcer episode. One day I happened to notice that my stool was black. I knew what it meant. I was bleeding internally, like I had in high school after swimming practice. I went straight to the hospital. While I waited to be admitted, the radio in the emergency room played the entire Rolling Stones album, “Let it Bleed”, starting with “Gimme Shelter” which begins, “Oh, a storm is threatening/My very life today. If I don’t get some shelter/Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.” The lyrics of almost every succeeding song seemed to relate to my situation. I listened, fascinated. By the time the album ended with the lines, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you’ll get what you need,” I was laughing out loud. The universe was giving me a signal that everything would be all right. And everything was. Though not at first.
It was a teaching hospital and I got an inexperienced intern who proceeded to try to push a tube up my nose, so he could get some ice water down into my stomach. Didn’t work. After he tortured me for a few minutes, he finally decided I must have a blocked septum. His confidence shaken he decided not to try the other nostril. A few hours later, perhaps because he felt guilty, he came by my room, invited me to a nearby lounge and said, “So, tell me. What’s been happening in your life lately?” Neither of us, I’m sure, anticipated what happened next. I burst into tears and began talking nonstop about how I hated the way people treated me when I parked their cars, how anxious I felt about my upcoming move to Ann Arbor with my brother and his girlfriend, and finally, getting to the heart of the matter, how sad and hopeless I felt in the aftermath of the painful end of a romantic relationship, my first sexual one — with a non-Jewish girl to boot — though I didn’t tell him either of those details. He listened for nearly an hour, hardly saying a word. When I finally was spent, he said, very gently, “Seems like you needed to talk about some things.” And gave me a name and a number to call when I got out of the hospital.
The bleeding stopped the next day, and I was discharged the day after. I went to see the therapist the intern had suggested and found, to my surprise, that I didn’t say much about what I’d poured out in the hospital. Instead, I began talking about how sad I felt for my father, for his losses during the war, for having to give up his prestigious job when we moved from Budapest, for leaving Israel and being forced to learn a new language when we moved here, for being stuck in a community that was not worthy of his talents.
When I started talking in that office, I didn’t know I felt that way about any of those things. I’d never before thought or spoken of them. That day I got my first hint that the feelings of hopelessness and despair that I had poured out to the intern, the feelings of aimlessness and lack of purpose that seemed to pervade my life, were related to what I was saying now, that my sadness at having lost someone I cared for, my discouragement at having to start over and find someone new, may have mirrored the feelings my father must have felt when he returned from the Camps; that my guilt for dating a non-Jewish girl was related to my anxieties about hurting my father because of his past. Many years would go by before the hints I received in those sessions developed into a deeper understanding, before I began to comprehend how my parents’ experiences during the war had colored my entire world view.
I saw the therapist only a few times before I moved away from Rochester, and then didn’t continue that work once I got to Ann Arbor. I got caught up in my music and in new friendships and relationships. It wasn’t until almost ten years later, after several more of my relationships had broken apart, that I went to see another therapist. This time I barely talked about my parents’ Holocaust experiences. I’d forgotten all about the conversations with the earlier therapist in Rochester. Now I focused only on my difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships with women. Of course, I talked much about my father, and the therapist helped me begin to understand that my father’s constant criticism and disparagement had contributed to my low image of myself, which in turn made it hard for me to initiate relationships. I always waited for women to pursue me. And then, if they did, I didn’t want, as Groucho Marx said, “to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” In other words, I developed a low opinion of these women, simply because they were attracted to me.
My therapist also helped me to see that, over and over in my alliances with women, I was reenacting my relationship with my parents. As I had in my parents’ home, I still often served as a wedge, as a distraction, in troubled relationships. It seemed that most of my lovers (and I am not implying I had dozens — it’s a small sample from which I am drawing this conclusion) had another steady guy in the picture, and they were just freelancing with me. I was not top banana, but odd man out. And naturally, as I had with my parents, I secretly enjoyed this role, and at the same time, felt depressed and extremely guilty about it and found myself unable to fully engage or commit.
The therapist also encouraged me to create some appropriate boundaries between my brother and me, pointing out that the close-knit trio of my brother, his wife and me, made it difficult for me to form my own relationships. With what I thought was powerful psychological insight, I responded by suggesting to him that perhaps in this trio I was trying to replicate the Oedipal triangle of my brother, mother and me. He smiled big and nodded his head repeatedly, like a teacher responding to a clever kindergartner.
Over the course of a year of therapy, learning to recognize and confront these patterns, I got clear enough that I was able to begin a new relationship that would prove to be different from all my previous ones.
Like a war or a great fire, the effects of a storm go rippling outward through webs of people for years, even generations. It breaches lives like shorelines and nothing is ever the same. The Perfect Storm — Sebastian Junger
In the summer of 2001 my mother, at the age of 82, was diagnosed with kidney cancer. And for the first time in my life I was confronted with the possibility of my parents’ death. That seems like a strange thing for a fifty-two-year-old man to say, but my parents, especially my mother, have been extraordinarily healthy, durable people and have not had serious, life-threatening crises that might have forced me to think about their deaths earlier. When my mother told me the news she said, “Well, you’ve had me for more than fifty years.” A poignant remark from a woman who still feels the pain of losing her father when she was only twelve, and her mother when she was twenty-five.
My mother had the cancerous kidney removed on the morning of September 10, 2001, coincidentally, my nephew, Daniel’s ninth birthday. She came through the operation well. I was in her hospital room the next morning when the news of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks came on the air.
And now, for the first time in my adult life, I have experienced firsthand something akin to what my parents’ lives must have been like in the 1940s. So far, thankfully, only a small something. As deeply affected as I was by the events of September 11, they were safely distant from me. They didn’t happen in my hometown, down the street from me. The tragedies, unimaginably horrendous though they were, occurred hundreds of miles away. They happened on one day. They are not, I pray, the first in a series of nightmares, that will go on every day, for years. Yet now, like my parents, I have the constant awareness of the possibility of more random, senseless attacks. I now share with my parents the sickening knowledge that people want to kill me simply for being who I am. My parents were hated and targeted for being Jewish. I, for being an American.
I was seven years old at the time of the Hungarian Revolution — the first crisis that changed the course of my life. Emily is also seven now. How will these events change her life?
Two weeks after September 11, I finally told Emily about what happened that day. Brenda and I had made a deliberate decision in the days following the tragedy to shield her from the news, especially the horror-filled TV pictures.
But now it was time. We knew if we did not tell her, she would hear about it from someone else. So, in the car, after school, on our way to an event where I knew it was likely to come up, I told Emily. Briefly, with a minimum of graphic details, but leaving nothing out.
It is a natural urge all parents have, to protect their children from terrifying images and frightening stories. To wait as long as possible to expose them to the sometimes cruel, unbearably sad realities of our world. My mother waited till I was sixteen before she told me about my father’s and her own Holocaust losses. The information she gave me that day was too vast, too incomprehensible. I asked few questions. She and I rarely talked about it again, and more than thirty years went by before I was finally able to talk about that subject with my father.
Now, in the car, Emily also only asked a few questions. “How far is New York? When did this happen?”
We were driving on one of Ann Arbor’s main boulevards and I began pointing out the many American flags and the God Bless America signs and told Emily that these were some ways that people were trying to express their support of our country and for the people who lost friends and relatives. We stopped at a busy intersection, where members of the Ann Arbor Fire Department were collecting donations. I waved one of them over to our car and put all the cash I had into the tall boot he held out. After the light changed and I drove away, I told Emily about the firefighters in New York and how the money I gave would help their families. She said, “Dad, what can I do?”
I was touched and also relieved. There was no fear in her question, no hidden levels of despair or helplessness.
We brainstormed. She too would make a God Bless America sign, she’d empty her piggy bank.
Then she said, “Dad, what else can we do?” I suggested we could be kind to everyone we meet. She enthusiastically amplified; “We could help people. Like if someone falls, we could help them up? Or if someone is lost, we could show them where to go?”
“Yes,” I said, “Those would be very good things to do.” Over the course of the afternoon she kept bringing up the subject and continued asking, “Dad, what else can we do?”
She didn’t ask me about forgiving and I was glad. I was not sure I would have known how to answer. It was two days before Yom Kippur. In Judaism it is customary on Yom Kippur to ask for forgiveness for any harm we may have done, and to forgive those who have harmed us. But for me, it felt too soon to forgive.
I thought of my parents. What did they do on Yom Kippur after they discovered what the Nazis had done to their families? Did they forgive? That night, after Emily was asleep, I called and asked them, first about the hijackers. Did we need to forgive them on Yom Kippur?
“No”, my father said. ”If someone comes to kill you, it is your duty to try to kill them first.”
Which was the most poetic justification for violence I’d ever heard, but not really a reply to my question, so I pressed on. Had he ever forgiven the Nazis on any Yom Kippur in the last fifty years?
“No,” my father said again. “Forgiveness does not apply to situations like that.” My mother was silent.
Perhaps they are right. Maybe forgiveness does not apply to situations like that. Nor to the events of September 11th.
Emily asked me why firemen were the ones collecting donations. I told her of the New York City firemen, and of all the other people who performed brave, kind and loving actions on that day and since. People who tried to save lives, did save lives, sometimes at the cost of their own.
And I thought again of my parents. How they and others in their families survived, while so many others were destroyed. How they were saved through the grace of God, their own personal strength and courage, and also because of the kindness of strangers who helped them, often at the risk of their own lives.
I will not desecrate the memories of the victims of either the Holocaust or of September 11 by comparing them. Yet I choose to remember, about both events, the generosity and the selfless sacrifice of strangers. I think of the words of Anne Frank. ”It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
And I think often of Emily’s question, “What else can we do?” The question has several levels, though I think she intended only one. I try to remember that one, the one without despair or helplessness.