I should add that not all situations where we recast unhappy relationships in our lives with new players are neurotic exercises in masochism. They can also work out wonderfully for one or both parties. Teenaged Mike Levine was delighted to find a bright, funny, understanding man like Irv, and Irv was happy for Mike Levine’s admiration, adoration. They both got something they needed deeply out of the relationship they couldn’t get from their birth relationships. Perhaps the greatest example of this was my father’s relationship with his last and longest lasting surrogate son, Benjy.
Benjy was an Orthodox Jew, modern orthodox, not a Hasid. A big man with an outsized, extroverted personality, the camp’s young business manager often led songs in the camp dining room after dinner. He compiled the updated song book kids used when learning the Israeli songs. The book was called Benjy Sings. When the campers clamored for it he would treat them to a ribald song called “Lipstick on My Tsitsis”. Tsitsis are the fringes of the garment religious Jewish men wear under their shirts. The chorus chides the singer, lipstick on your tsitsis, shame on you! After a lot of innuendo, the singer protests that the lipstick got there innocently. Come on, she was religious, she bent down and kissed my tsitsis! The teenaged campers loved it. He was a showman with a good sense of humor. My parents were both very close with him.
When they all left the employ of the overbearing Hadassah volunteer executives they discussed opening a restaurant together. All three loved to eat and Benjy’s expertise was in the food business. The last time I saw Benjy he was well on his way to 400 pounds. My mother, who’d been heavy her whole life, until her last few years, when lonely widowhood and chemo left her almost gaunt, told Benjy several times during that last dinner that he was going to die because he was so unhealthily fat. It was a fair, if annoying, point she kept hammering at as we ate a delicious meal in a kosher Indian restaurant in Teaneck. It turned out to be the last time she and Benjy ever saw each other.
Benjy and my mother fought about virtually everything, he was as stubborn and opinionated as she was. My mother once described him as having “little beady eyes, like a pig”, about the most cutting description of a religious Jew’s face I can imagine. They fought constantly but they truly loved each other. Benjy and Irv were best friends.
My father felt too young to retire, and there was still money to be made, and neither he nor Benjy ever wanted to work for anybody again if they could help it. Since Benjy was the businessman, my parents deferred to him on all business matters. Once they persuaded him, that is, that rather than a kosher steak house they should open a kosher Chinese Restaurant. Benjy was against the idea, since he’d never had Chinese food. My parents took him into the city to eat at Moshe Peking. He agreed the food was delicious, and that there would be a great advantage to being the only glatt kosher Chinese restaurant Queens, if they could get a location in the heart of a religious neighborhood near where I was born.
They found the location, site of the former Royal Hungarian, on Main Street in Queens. Benjy came up with the name of the restaurant: Tain Lee Chow. It is Hebrew for “Give Me Chow” and had a nice Chinese feel to it. Benjy created a menu full of witty names for the dishes. The “perfect marriage of beef and chicken” he called “My Bashaert” — the blessed mate intended for me by Heaven. They found an excellent Chinese chef, Sonny Chow, who they paid a large salary to each week, mostly in cash. As long as all kosher ingredients were provided to Mr. Chow he was free to cook as he always did. The food was excellent. Most dishes were, anyway. There were some that just couldn’t be faked, though the customers, who had never had the things being unsuccessfully imitated, ate them anyway.
The restaurant did well, Irv in the back, by the fryer, with Mr. Chow and his assistants, and a couple of African pot washers like Lamine Souwame, Benjy at the counter. At first he worked along side my mother, then just Benjy (“fuck you, Benjy” I think my mother said when he tried to convince her to stay) and later a succession of friendly young people who had the customer service skills Benjy lacked. They had a chance to expand the place when the store next door became available, but though they were at the height of their popularity at the time, and the money was flowing, they all hesitated to take the risk of expanding. In time the small, mostly take out place, faced competition from other kosher Chinese entrepreneurs and the business declined, eventually changed hands. Nobody ever got rich from Tain Lee Chow, though it provided several people with a good livelihood for several years.
They remained close friends for the rest of my parents’ lives. At my father’s funeral, coming down from the hill where my father’s grave is, I paused to tell Benjy that he was the son my father never had. I said this matter-of-factly, since it was a matter of fact. Benjy nodded and said “and he was the father I never had.” He also said this seriously, without any irony, since it was plainly the case. It worked out well for both of them, I have to say.