Sunday, April 24, 2005

Seders my father and I have known

As I have done every year of my life, I attended a seder last evening. A seder is a Jewish religious feast, marking the start of the week-long holiday of Passover, which celebrates the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage 3200 years ago. The word "seder" means "order," and refers to the detailed ritual that is associated with the feast.
I am not a religiously observant person. But Passover is a very unique Jewish holiday that can appeal even to non-believers. It is a festival of physical freedom, celebrating liberty as the essence of civilized life. ("Freedom and liberty" now seem to have been transformed into political buzzwords.) Although my religious faith may lack passion, I take satisfaction in knowing that, in attending a seder, I am following a tradition my ancestors have practiced for centuries.
The Last Supper of Jesus Christ was a seder attended by his Jewish disciples. I have attended seders in my own home, in the homes of my son, other relatives and friends, in Army camps, and--the most exotic of them all--in the Calcutta mansion of the Sassoons, a famed Iraqi-originated Jewish family once known as "the Rothschilds of Asia." Last night's seder, following the same basic rituals, was arranged and conducted by my very talented friends and neighbors, Florence and Seymour Morgenstern, for a gathering of some 150 residents of my Florida community.
I have never attended a seder, however, like the one my late father enjoyed reminiscing about. My father was raised in a Hasidic community on Manhattan's Lower East Side shortly after the turn of the last century. I have always boasted that my Polish-born paternal grandfather, was one of the first members of this mystical, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect to come to the U.S.
The Hasidim among whom my father grew up were impoverished, working-class people who set up their first congregation on the second floor of a seedy tenement. Below them was a small store in which the proprietor lived with his family in the back.
There are many sub-groupings of Hasidim, each one following the teachings of a special rabbi and often originating in a particular East European town. My father's Hasidim belonged to the Gerer sect. I don't know how they behave these days (virtually all of them now live in Israel), but my father remembered his community as a somewhat rowdy lot whose religious fervor was enlivened by lots of hard-drinking. Traditionally most Jews have not been renowned for their alcoholic consumption. But the Gerer Hasidim of my father's day would hold their own with any non-Jewish hard drinker.
On one particular Passover night after the seder, according to my father's recollection, they became well fueled with "schnops" (I've never been sure whether this was brandy or vodka) and decided to reenact in the apartment the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus. They joyously opened up all the water faucets in the kitchen and bathroom. And as the water flowed on to the floor, they uproariously shouted prayers marching through the pouring water.
Their ritual was interrupted when the storekeeper downstairs rushed up to their door, screaming that the water was flooding everything downstairs. My father couldn't recall how the affair was resolved. But the following Passover, he said, his Hasidim had established their congregation in their own little storefront where, if they wanted to reenact the crossing of the Red Sea again, they wouldn't damage anyone else's property.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Senator Bob Dole and me

I've been reading recently about former Senator Bob Dole's new autobiography in which he reveals in clinical detail the horrendous battle wounds he suffered during World War II and his prolonged, agonizing struggle to recover. I've often disagreed with Senator Dole's domestic politics. But I regard him as a genuine American hero. And I stand in awe at how, despite serious physical disabilities, he became a nationally renowned political leader.
In contrast to Senator Dole, I was lucky to emerge from that war relatively unscathed, never exposed to actual combat. In three years of service, including more than two overseas, the only time I heard a shot fired in anger was the launching of a depth charge against a German submarine that attacked my troopship off the coast of Brazil. (The enemy missed us; I never learned whether we hit him.)
I trace my good fortune to a series of flukes, starting on my first day in the Army on April 14, 1943. I was one of about 25 Bronx 18-year olds, most of them former schoolmates, inducted as a group at Camp Upton, N.Y. My first lucky break (I didn't recognize that it was one at the time) was when I was unable to get a bed in the same barracks with most of my fellow inductees. As we marched down a street being assigned to barracks, the handful of men behind me and I were directed to a barracks across the street from the others..
Three days later, the men in the barracks in which there had been no room for me were shipped to Camp McCall, N.C. to be trained as glider-infantry men. The guys in my barracks were shipped to the Air Corps basic training center in Miami Beach, Fla. We were greeted by a colonel who, with a straight face, told us that we had been "scientifically selected for the Air Corps as the cream of the crop." Obviously, he didn't know about the bed shortage in one barracks at Camp Upton.
When I came home after the war, I ran into a couple of the men with whom I had been inducted three years earlier. I learned that about half of our group had been killed or wounded in action in France and Germany with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
It is on such strokes of good or bad luck that one's wartime experience evolved. During basic training I had the option of selecting what the Army delicately calls a "military occupational speciality." I volunteered to be an aerial gunner, but was rejected because of color blindness. I have never figured out why my difficulty in distinguishing certain shades of blue from certain shades of green would have inhibited me from shooting down enemy aircraft. Combat records showed that being an aerial gunner was as hazardous as being a glider-infantryman.
Still another fortunate fluke occurred at Camp Patrick Henry, Va., a staging area for the Hampton Roads port of embarkation. When I arrived there in late December 1943, the battle at Anzio in Italy was raging. U.S. casualties were heavy, and all troops being shipped from Patrick Henry were headed for Anzio as replacements, via North Africa.
This prospect for my contingent of men, all of us unassigned to any specific unit, was reinforced when we were issued trench knives, a piece of equipment none of us had ever been issued before. They were quickly taken away from us, however, because so many of the guys had injured themselves opening up beer cans with the knives. Perhaps because of this show of military ineptness, my group was put aboard a troop ship that wound up in Bombay, India, via Capetown, South Africa--far away from the battleground at Anzio.
So my entire military career turned on these three peculiar flukes that probably helped account for my relatively healthy survival from war.
The most potentially hazardous duty that I experienced was doing guard duty in the jungles of eastern India for several days, on alert for Japanese troops invading from Burma. They had already conquered the border province of Manipur. But the Japanese never appeared in my territory. Perhaps they were deterred by military intelligence revealing that a soldier who flourished on flukes was on guard there.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Nuclear weapons: Iran vs. Israel

Yesterday's newspapers trumpeted the news that Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on his visit to President Bush's Texas ranch, urged Mr. Bush to put pressure on Iran to halt its development of nuclear weapons. On the surface, this looks like exceptional chutzpah (gall, for those unfamiliar with this Yiddishism) on Mr. Sharon's part. After all, Israel itself already has its own nuclear weapons. No other Middle East country has such a capability.
But there's a very significant difference between nuclear weapons in the hands of Israel, which threatens no one, and Iran, which belligerently threatens to wipe out the Jewish state.
Israel is a tiny country of a bit more than 5 million people. The bulk of them are refugees and their descendents who fled countries where Jews were killed, persecuted and unwanted. They have rebuilt the homeland in which their very ethnic/religious identify was originally established.
They are surrounded by 22 different Arab nations--most of them hostile--and some dozen other unfriendly Muslim lands, many of whom--like Iran--are dedicated to the destruction of what they call "the Zionist entity."
Against this backdrop, for Israel nuclear weapons are a vital deterrent against its enemies. Yet Israel has never threatened preemptive use of its nuclear arms against any other country.
Iran has made no secret that it wants nuclear weapons to destroy the state of Israel. This objective dominates the sermons of Iran's ruling ayatollahs and is constantly echoed by clerics and some political leaders in other Muslim countries. There is no rational explanation for this genocidal obsession except, perhaps, religious and ethnic fanaticism.
The Iranian threat has recently become more serious. Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, claims that Iran already has medium-range ballistic missiles "capable of reaching Tel Aviv." Moreover, Ukraine's new president has revealed that his country's previous leadership secretly sold to Iran cruise missiles that can carry a nuclear warhead.
No wonder Mr. Sharon had chutzpah.

Reflections on a 61-year old photo

One of the first things that I see when I wake up every morning is a framed 4"x6" black-and-white photo on my bedside table showing nine young American soldiers in their underwear. I'm one of them. The picture was taken at a U.S. Army base near a tiny village named Panagarh in eastern India during the early spring of 1944. I have no idea why we are in our underwear. We're lined up in two rows. An Indian boy with a water jug on his head is seated in front of us. We are all smiling, healthy-looking, and four of us have bottles of beer in our hands. In the background is a volley ball net with clothing hanging on it, drying in the torrid sun.
I study the photo daily to remind myself that I wasn't always an old man with aches and pains in every joint as I get out of bed. It reassures me that I was once as young, healthy and as happy-looking as the GIs in the photo.
Memory plays strange tricks. I often have difficulty remembering what I did last week or even yesterday. I frequently forget the names of people as I speak to them. Amazingly, however, I have extraordinary recall when it comes to this photo. In exquisite detail, I can remember the names and personal backgrounds of virtually every one in the picture.
On the extreme right on the top row stands Gordon Tombleson who came from a small town in Oregon. He was a handsome, always cheerful guy with a great sense of humor. He's pictured holding a water canteen on the top of the head of a man named Walsh who sits in front of him.
On Gordon's right is Marlan J. Miller (I even remember his middle initial), who always described himself as a "lapsed Mormon." Marlan was raised on a ranch in Mesa, Arizona.
About 25 years ago, my wife and I spent a day at a motel in Scottsdale, Arizona before starting on a bus ride to the Grand Canyon. As I usually do in a new city, I browsed through the local telephone book which covered the Phoenix metropolitan area. I noticed that Mesa was shown as a local suburb. The ranches that Marlan knew as a youth have obviously been replaced by shopping malls and housing developments.
I decided to look him up in the phone book. Sure enough, a Marlan J. Miller was listed in Mesa. I phoned and a woman answered. "Is this the home of a Marlan Miller who served in India during World War II?" I asked. "Yes," she replied, "but he doesn't live here any more. But I can give you his phone number in Tempe." That's another nearby suburb.
I assume that the woman was Marlan's wife and that they were separated or even divorced. But they were apparently on good terms, because when I called the Tempe number just a few minutes later, Marlan was expecting my call. The woman had alerted him that an old Army buddy was in town. He immediately drove to our motel, and we spent several hours reminiscing about the Army and India. My wife quickly excused herself to go swimming. Marlan turned out to be a retired art professor at Arizona State University and was now running an art gallery specializing in Western art.
In the photo, I'm standing on Marlan's right, staring at a beer bottle in my hand. My stare was probably prompted by the fact that I rarely drink beer. The troops in India received a monthly beer ration, and I became very popular because I almost always gave my ration away. Similarly, we had a cigarette ration, and since I didn't smoke, I also gave that ration away. (I hesitate to boast about my ethics, but less scrupulous non-smokers sold their ration to black-marketeers.)
Wally Swanson, a blond young guy from Iron Mountain, Mich., stands to my right. Wally was a serious beer drinker, which is obvious as he points to his beer bottle with extraordinary delight. Many years ago, I received a letter from him addressed to my Business Week office. I had reviewed a book about India, and the review was reprinted in a veterans publication that Wally had read. "Are you the Mort Reichek who was in the 903rd Signal Co. in India?" he wrote. "And do you remember me?" He provided his phone number and I called him.
"Not only do I remember you," I said, "but I remember that your mother is Italian." He was astonished by my reference to his mother. With his Scandinavian name and the map of Sweden on his face, the fact that he had an Italian mother obviously had made a deep-rooted impression on me (I have always been an ethnicity buff), and it remained in my memory bank so many decades later. In civilian life, Wally was a retired high school music teacher.
To Wally's right in the photo is Jerry Schaefer, one of the few married men in our outfit. Jerry came from Newark, N.J. and had been an industrial arts high school teacher. In our outfit, his job was repairing airborne electronic instruments. In his spare time, he had a private enterprise fixing watches for his fellow GIs. We became friends on the troopship taking us from Newport News, Va. to Bombay via Capetown, South Africa. We went on shore leave together during our brief stay in Capetown. I had lost my wrist watch aboard the ship. Jerry said that Capetown was an important jewelry center and volunteered to help me buy a new watch.
We found an upscale jewelry store that reminded us of Tiffany's in New York. The man behind the counter wore a morning coat and a white tie. He stared at the both of us and said: "You're Jewish chaps, aren't you?" We apparently had the maps of Israel on our faces. The man, who was a Jew himself, was the store's proprietor. He had never met American soldiers before, let alone Jewish-American troops. He invited us to his home for dinner that night, and we were entertained lavishly. When I moved to New Jersey from Maryland in 1965, I discovered Schaefer living in Livingston, N.J., not far from our new home in Parsippany. We had a reunion dinner one evening, boring both our wives with wartime tales.
Standing to Jerry's right in the photo is a man named Evans. All that I can remember about him is that he came from Cincinnati. In front of him sits Nick Palazzo, like me a boy from the Bronx. Nick was our outfit's machinist. He was also an opera lover and occupied the bunk next to mine. Almost nightly he would put me to sleep humming opera melodies. I don't recall how, but Jerry and I discovered that Nick was a chiropractor near Paterson, N.J., and we invited him to join us with his wife for our reunion dinner.
The years passed and I lost track of Nick until a couple of years ago when I received a phone call from him. I live in Concordia, an age-restricted community in Monroe Township, N.J. In Florida, where I also have a home, it would be described as "an active adult community." Nick had retired, sold his home, and had just purchased a smaller house in Concordia. "How did you find me?" I asked, astonished to hear from him. Our community publishes a monthly newspaper. One of its features is a listing of the residents' birthdays. Nick picked up the latest issue which showed me as one of the month's birthday boys. And so another reunion. Nick lives several blocks from my home, and I visit him frequently. I gave him a copy of the photo I'm describing here. His power of recall is apparently not as acute as mine. He can only recognize Jerry Schaefer with whom we had had dinner some 35 years earlier.
In the photo, crouching to Nick's left, with a water jug on his head, is the Indian boy Durga. He was what the locals called a "bearer." He made our beds, swept the barracks floors, washed the windows, shined our shoes, and spent his spare time sitting outside as if he were guarding our quarters. It was the first and only time I had a personal servant.
I believe we each paid Durga a couple of rupees a week. (A rupee was worth 30 cents at that time.) That probably made him one of the top wage-earners in his impoverished village. One day Durga, who was about 16, asked us for a day off. He was to be married that day. As a wedding gift we all chipped in and gave him the equivalent of $10, a magnificent sum for an illiterate kid who was either a very low-caste Hindu or even a so-called untouchable--the type of Indian consigned to such lowly work as bearers.
He invited the nine of us to attend his wedding. We got our company commander's approval to attend the wedding on one condition. We were not to eat anything. This presented a serious social problem. Treated as special honored guests, the villagers plied us with heaping portions of food we had never seen before. We politely begged off, claiming to have eaten before out arrival.
I wrote an article about our wedding experience for the weekly CBI Roundup, which was our war theater's counterpart to the much better-known Army newspaper, Stars & Stripes. It was published on the first page. As an aspiring journalist, I was thrilled by my first published appearance anywhere. To my dismay, I lost a copy of my article by the time I was back in the States.
I was delighted when Wally Swanson sent me a copy in his letter. He had sent a clipping to his local weekly newspaper, which published the article, much to Wally's embarrassment, under his byline. I can recall little about the two GIs crouching to the left of Durga in the photo. But I do remember that the one wearing eye glasses came from the Boston area and that he was of Lithuanian origin. Again, my bent for ethnic affairs, comes into play. Next to him is Walsh, with Gordon Tombleson's water canteen perched on his head. I believe that he was an upstate New Yorker.
And so, as I awaken each morning, staring at the 61-year old photo from India at my bedside, I try not to dwell on my current geriatric state and look back at a time when I was young, healthy and, I must admit, even happy, despite being in the Army in wartime, half-way round the world from my home in the Bronx.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

MEMOIR: "The Man Who Smoked Cigars on the Sabbath"

When my paternal grandparents arrived in America at the turn of the last century from Poland, they adhered to the same marital division of labor that they had followed in Europe. My grandfather, who was a Hasidic rabbi, retreated to his Talmudic studies. My grandmother went into business and became the family's primary breadwinner. I've never figured out who took care of their five children.
According to family legend, my grandfather was dispatched to this country by the head of his Hasidic sect, the Gerer Rebbe, to establish a Hasidic presence here. Shortly after his arrival, he founded and headed what was probably the first Hasidic congregation in the U.S., Beth Hasidim de Palen (House of the Hasidim from Poland) on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
In Poland, my grandmother engaged in what I like to boast was the "oil business." In her case, it was vegetable oil. My grandfather was considered a highly attractive marital catch because of his renown as a Talmudic scholar. But his scholarly talents were unlikely to provide a family with much of a livelihood. So his older brother, an affluent distiller and lumber dealer, paid to set up my newly married grandmother's vegetable oil venture.
In the U.S. my grandfather enjoyed tremendous religious prestige, but again this did not produce sufficient earnings to support a large family. Once more, my grandmother had to become the primary family breadwinner. She intended to resume producing vegetable oil, but my grandfather discouraged her, saying "Rockefeller was in that business." He obviously was so ignorant about the oil industry that to him "oil was oil."
She eventually opened up a small retail dairy store. When he was in his early teens, my father, who was a yeshiva student, worked in the store after school hours. Whenever my grandmother ran out of milk, butter, or eggs, she sent him to a rival dairy store several blocks away to obtain whatever products she needed.
Over the years the other dairy store proprietor became very fond of my father. The competitor had a daughter. Indeed, he was so impressed with my father that when my father and the daughter both turned 16, the rival storekeeper made overtures to my grandfather, suggesting that the two teenagers would make an excellent marital match. Apparently, youthful marriages were commonplace in the community at that time.
My grandfather, however, quickly spurned the other storekeeper's suggestion. The man had a reputation for failing to observe the Sabbath, much to my pious grandfather's disgust. Moreover, he infuriated my grandfather by having been seen smoking cigars in public on the Sabbath. In short, to my grandfather the man was unsuited to be linked to our family and to become his son's father-in-law.
The non-religious dairy storekeeper who offended my grandfather so much was named Breakstone.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Terri Schiavo Case: Tragedy and Disgrace

Terri Schiavo is dead. Perhaps now the hypocritical Republican politicians and the religious zealots who intervened into such a sorrowful family situation can pack up. The hypocracy of the Bush Administration and its Congressional allies was displayed in an extraordinary fashion. These are the jokers who plan to cut Medicaid funds, rushing to "defend the life" of a severely brain-damaged woman apparently kept alive for more than a decade by Medicaid.
These are the guys who preach the sanctity of states rights, interfering with Florida's judicial system to rule on the Schiavo case. But, I almost forgot, they did the same thing nearly five years ago and deposited George W. in the White House.
And then there's that brilliant heart surgeon, Dr. William Frist, who doubles as the Senate majority leader, making a long-distance neurological diagnosis of a patient via a dated video shown on a TV news program. This is a potential Presidential candidate in 2008?
Finally, we have the religious fanatics galloping to the patient's bedside with their medieval agendas. These are the folks who want to ban the stem-cell research that might lead some day to important medical advances. Then they want to set back educational standards to the Middle Ages by outlawing the teaching of evolution.
Latching on to the phony "pro-life' and "pro-family" labels (have you ever known anyone who is anti-life and anti-family?), the zealots exploit Mrs. Schiavo's tragic plight to argue the need to deny a woman's freedom to have an abortion--as if women are clamoring to abort just to exercise their rights. And how does one contend with the cruel habit of many of these "pro-lifers" to kill and threaten anyone who disagrees with them?
All this said, however, I was disappointed by Michael Schiavo, the husband. He could have dealt more kindly with the obsession of his wife's parents and siblings to continue keeping Terri on a feeding tube. He was apprently offered the opportunity of divorcing his brain-dead wife and transferring guardianship to her family. In all candor, I am dubious about his claim that his wife, when only in her mid-20s two decades ago, declared her wish not to end up in a vegetative state. The Florida courts, of course, considered his claim credible. There is obviously such a deep-rooted hatred between the husband and his in-laws that any rational resolution was impossible.
Rest in peace, Terri.

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