I did one thoughtful thing that sunny spring day in the First Hebrew Congregation cemetery on the outskirts of Peekskill, and one unthinkably thoughtless thing. As the eulogy I’d written was being beautifully read by a man who called himself a Jewish Druid, a guy who chanted in a soft, haunting voice and read wonderfully, like the trained actor he was, I noticed my niece sobbing by herself a few steps from the grave. I had my arm around my mother, my sister and her husband had their arms around their young son, and, for some reason, my niece was standing alone. I whispered to Sekhnet to stand with my niece and she went over and put her arm around her. Everyone felt better.
Afterwards, as we headed to the cars, I did the stupid thing. At the bottom of the hill my father’s good friend and surrogate son Benjie waited to greet me. Benjie and my father truly loved and appreciated each other. They’d met when Benjie was the young dining room manager and then business manager of the camp my father directed, Tel Yehudah, a Zionist camp by the Delaware River in the heart of German Bund territory. Several years later both finally quit around the same time, both had been treated disrespectfully by the Hadassah women who held the camp’s purse strings.
They remained good friends for the rest of my father’s life and were, for a time, business partners, proprietors and operators of the first Kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens, Tain Lee Chow. Benjie was a large, extroverted religious Jew with a good sense of humor and a zest for life.
He sometimes led singing after dinner in the camp dining hall. The meal was followed by a long prayer of thanks for the food, called the Birkat HaMazone, sung to a nice bluesy melody. Many of the old-style Jewish prayers are set in that pleasantly melancholy minor key. After the Birkat there was a spirited session of songs, all kinds of songs, but mostly Zionist related songs; Hebrew songs from Israel, old and new, songs sung by the original kibbutz pioneers, the early Israeli army, songs of romance, songs of longing for the Sea of Galilee and other personified regions of the Holy Land. Several bawdy songs were included in the rotation and Benjie often answered a curtain call to do his special number “There’s Lipstick on Your Tsitsis (Shame on You!)”.
The singer of the song, after building up what could only be a sacreligious misuse of a sacred garment (the fringes of which hang at a religious Jew’s waist) and the violation of several of God’s commandments, bursts out with the innocent explanation. It brought the house of teenagers down. Benjie loved to perform. When the old worn-out songbook was reprinted, it was under the title Benjie Sings.
Benjie also loved to eat. Though he carried an oversized stomach and did not appear to be athletic, he could hit a softball a mile. He regularly parked pitches by trash-talking pitcher Mel Reisfield deep into the woods, over the outfield and beyond the dirt road. He’d take a slow trot around the bases, his yarmulke bobbing on his head, tsitsis flapping, making cracks at Mel, to the delight of the crowd.
Benjie was a witty man who liked a laugh. He was not averse to mixing it up with anyone who sassed him. My friend Melz once sassed him. Melz was working as a kitchen boy at the camp one summer and Benjie was tasking the kitchen boys with some job none of them wanted to do. Melz made some crack and Benjie, in his inimitable way of speaking, told Melz “Melzer, don’t give me this shittttzzzzzssss.” Benjie’s way of speaking was not inimitable, it was irresistibly imitable, actually; distinctive, is what I should have said. His dismissive remark to Melz was a widely imitated phrase for years afterwards. We would all say it to each other whenever the occasion arose, or out of the blue, making the final syllable sizzle like a burger on a hot griddle. Benjie, of course, had no idea his throwaway line had become immortal.
He waited for me at the bottom of the hill, after the burial of my father and his great friend. He extended his hand and as I took it I thoughtlessly said “Benjie, don’t give me this shitttttzzzzsssss.” He had no idea what the hell I was talking about, as he certainly hadn’t given me any shit. A look of utter confusion was on his face. I didn’t take a moment to remind him of that long ago throwaway line to Melz, cars were leaving, other people were waiting to tell me how sorry they were, I had a sense there wasn’t time. Or maybe I just wasn’t thinking.
I said, sincerely, “you were the son he never had.” He nodded and said with equal seriousness “and he was the father I never had.” I nodded. We completed our handshake and headed to the cars to take us to the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill center where the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches were piled, alongside the coleslaw and cold cans of Dr. Brown’s with the beads of water on their aluminum sides.
Years later I think of what a tender moment that was, both of us recognizing the healthy, loving father-son relationship these two good friends managed to have. I also feel like a bit of a schmuck for not explaining why I told Benjie not to give me this shitttttzzzzzzsssss. Maybe I’ll print out and send him this piece, as I haven’t actually spoken to him since the day before my mother died.
“Yeah, you’ll send it right after you send the sample of this ms. to the prospective agents, I’ll wager,” said the skeleton of my father, cannily seizing the last word, snatching it out of Sekhnet’s mouth.