white stubble

I realize it is a reflection of my luck, to have lived long enough to see this, but it gives me a small shudder every time. In the bathroom mirror downstairs, with diffused light coming in from the left, the short white hairs sprouting on my unshaved cheek and neck are unmistakable. They are identical to the ones on the lower half of my father’s face, and his neck, a few days after he died, when they popped open the plain pine box to make sure we were burying the right guy. It’s apparently true, hair continues to grow after death, he was clean shaven when he breathed his last.

I often hasten upstairs to shave. I’m not sure why. That white stubble is no different, really, than the tuft of now white hair that reaches up through the open collar of my shirt, tendrils that can only be constrained by the collar of a t-shirt. My father had the exact same tuft of white hair on his chest. I remember it from when he tried on the blue and white flowered Hawaiian shirt I brought him from my trip to those islands. Reaching up like a clump of dry grass, animated by some crazed will to climb.

Thinking of my father’s face in his coffin, I often recall the guy who instructed the gravedigger to lift the lid. He was a cheerful, ghoulish creep in a sharp black suit, a former lawyer. “I like this much more,” he told my mother and me with a big smile, as he counted the eight thousand in cash we had to bring to the cemetery before they’d release my father’s dead body for burial.

The Book of Lost Souls

As my grandmother, who loved me fiercely, was on the bed in my childhood bedroom dying a painful death from colon cancer, I went down into the basement where I slept and wrote a song one night. I was in my early twenties at the time and was certain I knew a great deal more about life than I actually did. I sang quietly there in the basement, playing some nice guitar chords against a plaintive melody I can almost remember. The lyric that I recall, the chorus, was “when you have love, you never die.” The line repeated several times, and then again as the song faded out. It wasn’t true, of course, she died a few days later and remains steadfastly so. The fact is, no matter how much love we have, we always die.

My grandmother was one of seven children born to her parents in a Ukrainian town near Kremenetz, not all that far from Khmelnitsky, a city named for a Ukrainian nationalist famous in Jewish history as an enthusiastic slayer of Jews, a major pogromnik. A talented, ambitious girl and an adventurous young woman, my future grandmother embraced the vision of universalism, equality and the brotherhood of workers she learned from the idealistic young commissars of the Red Army who took over her neighborhood of the Ukraine after a bloody civil war. She brought that vision with her, along with her dreams of some kind of personal greatness, to the United States, where she arrived, after a fairly harrowing ocean crossing, at twenty-one or so, in 1921. She was the only one of her family to leave. My grandfather, also one of seven siblings, followed two years later, also the only member of his family to get out.

As I write about my grandmother, as you read these words, a small sense of her eternal soul flickers and shimmers a bit. Her soul, while I am considering it, is not truly lost. I knew and loved her well.

Then I think of her six siblings, and their spouses and children, and my grandfather’s six siblings and their families. Of all these only her adored youngest brother, Yussele, Joe, has a name that anyone alive (me) knows. I wonder how many were still around when another group of true believers took control of that inhospitable corner of the Ukraine. One airless Ukrainian night in August, 1943 the last of them officially became Lost Souls.

What I know from a small monument in the cemetery where my grandparents are buried (erected by the Vishnivetz Benevolent Society), and from transcripts of translated witness history (the only mention of the atrocity that I have found on the internet) is that the survivors of the hastily constructed ghetto in that small town, after being starved and tortured for a year or so, were marched after dark to a ravine on the north western edge of town.

They were marched to the sound of drums, the clanging of pans and the yowling of brass instruments, to drown out the cries. The ravine had been prepared in advance, the earth softened up. Layer after layer of doomed Jews were buried there, fragments of their bones skitter in the wind to this day, according to a travel piece about the town I read in the New York Times a few years ago.

What to do about these lost souls? Have they nothing to say? No right to their tiny place in the mad story of in the world? Who am I to write about these lost souls? The only one left alive who knows any of them ever lived.

When I was a boy, and learned about this mass murder of every one of my great aunts and great uncles and all of their children, the immensity of the horror was too much for my parents to discuss. My grandparents never uttered a peep about their loss, I never heard so much as a clue from either of them that anything bad had ever happened. Everyone pretended, it appears, that everyone getting a bullet in the neck and being hastily tucked into a mass grave was normal; that bad, even unthinkable, things happen, that you clutch tightly to the people you love, even as you sometimes battle them to the death.

At one point, for two years or so, I sat every day, as I am sitting now, thinking and tapping at a computer keyboard, trying to tell a story that is, at best, a puzzle with most of its pieces missing. I wrote more than a thousand pages diving into the life of my father, holding it against him, at first, as I had for decades, that he got angry when I persisted in trying to learn more about the murder of our family. True, he called me a drama queen (or whatever the equivalent of that phrase was when I was eight years old) and accused me of trying to claim some kind of victimhood I wasn’t entitled to since the people who died were mere abstractions I’d never even met. I understand now that he had no way to process this atrocity, no way to discuss it with his young child. In the context of his own life, articulate, righteous anger was the best he could summon.

When I was thirteen, by the tradition of my religion, I read part of a holy book to the community and “became a man,” I have few recollections of that day, except that a girl from Hebrew School who I liked, who had not been invited to the bar mitzvah party, showed up anyway in that catering hall on Hillside Avenue. She spirited me away from the party, down a flight of stairs, sat on my lap on an upholstered chair under the room where the festivities were going on and kissed me on the lips a few times.

I mention this to illustrate how elusive the past is. I was there, I am said to have an excellent memory, and I remember one detail. I have a few mental images of myself in the chapel, reading from the Torah (my part was read from the same xeroxed and marked up page I’d learned it from). Mostly, no memory at all of that memorable day.

As we also learn, given enough time, a life seems to go by in the wink of an eye. Thirteen years is not very long to be alive. Thirteen years passes quickly, I’ve discovered as 13 turns to 26 then to 39 and so forth.

A few months less than thirteen years before I was born there was a terrible racket in the Ukrainian night, and then, after the ruckus was over, the silence of death. Every Jewish soul that was alive that night when the banging started — that soul was lost forever. Have we nothing to learn from this?

A Few More Thoughts About Time

When I got the call from my sister, during a festive meal at the home of old friends, that my father had been admitted to the hospital after being brought to the emergency room, time changed.   

“When I saw the doctor’s face I knew this was it,” my sister told me, “he looked like the malach ha mavet (Angel of Death).”  The specialists my father had been seeing regularly — cardiologist, endocrinologist, hematologist — collectively had no clue that their patient was in the last stage of liver cancer, days from death.    The ER doctor, assessing my father’s jaundiced color, difficulty moving and tapping his stomach, distended with ascites (liver-related fluid build up in the abdomen) [1] knew at once that this man was in the last days of liver cancer.

Two doctors were at the dinner table when I got the news.  When I mentioned the ascites they both told me not to worry, that ascites can be from many things [2], that I should wait and talk to the doctors at the hospital.  I consider their reassuring lies to have been a kindness, under the circumstances, and always think of their unspoken, united determination to shield me from extra worry with great fondness.

“If you have any family who want to see him before he goes, you should call them right away,” the ER doctor told my sister.

A couple of days later I arrived in Florida.   My father was attached to a bag hanging off the side of the hospital bed.  The bag was filling with the most unhealthy looking liquid I’ve ever seen.   It was the color of cancer.  It dripped away, along with what was left of his life, for the three or four days I was in Florida before my father breathed his last breath.

My father was eager to see his little brother, a man he had always bullied and dismissed.   Once, late in his life, when my father was returning from a short visit to his brother I asked him how my uncle was doing.   My father paused for a few seconds to reflect then uttered this great line:  “let’s just say, he remains unchanged.”   At the end my father was anxious for his brother to be there and his brother rushed to Florida.

I went to pick my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport.   When we got to the hospital he immediately stopped the doctor, who’d met us in the hall to update us about the patient’s condition, to ask if there was any chance of a liver transplant for his dying 80 year-old brother.   I had to take my uncle by the arm to let the uncomfortable doctor get away.  The way the two brothers clung to each other at the end was poignant to see.

My uncle was a bossy man and he instructed us all, at around nine pm, that it was time to let the dying man rest.   For some reason we all left the hospital.  I even attempted to get to sleep, hours before my natural bedtime, which is around four a.m.    Suddenly I sat up, thinking “what the fuck?,” got in the car and headed back to the hospital.   

My father, who’d told me earlier in the day that he wanted to talk to me, that he was still assembling his thoughts, was wide awake when I arrived around one a.m.   He appeared to be expecting me.  I’d always had an adversarial relationship with my father, one I’d tried many times to improve, but my father was so deeply, fundamentally wounded that meaningful peace with him was pretty much out of the question.   

I’m a fairly creative person, with an active imagination, and, once I left my parents’ house, I’d tried everything I could imagine over the years to make peace with my old man.  In the end, when he angrily told me that if he ever told me what he really felt about me it would do “irreparable harm” to our relationship, I saw that his desperation was too great for him to overcome.   He would “win” by destroying what was left of our ability to discuss things beyond the weather, baseball, history and politics.   I stopped banging my head against the locked door at that point.

I am writing about time.   Two years passed from that final slamming of the vault on any hope for real dialogue with my father.  Nobody knows from one minute to the next how long the rest of their life will be.  I can measure it now:  two years elapsed from the time I became certain that no true peace with my father was possible.   

During those years I was in psychotherapy, and I finally reached a point where I was able to understand that my father was incapable of doing any better; that he was actually, sad as it was, doing the best he could.  Knowing this allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.   

Luckily, I had this revelation a few months before I got that call from my sister than our father was not long for this world.  I was ready, in a sense, in a way I couldn’t have been holding on to the pain and anger my father’s righteous prosecutorial rage inspired in me.

Now, on April 29, 2005,  it is after one a.m. on what would turn out to be the last night of my father’s life.   The first question he asked is if I’d brought the digital recorder I’d bought for him earlier in the day.   I’d left it with the nurse, got it, turned it on, propped it on his chest.   

The next thing he said was that his life was basically over by the time he was two.   He didn’t mention why, it was something I already knew (though not from him) — his angry, religious mother had whipped him in the face from the time he could stand.   Add to that “grinding poverty” and turning five as The Depression began, being the poorest of the poor in a small town as everyone in your family back in Europe is being rounded up and killed, you begin to get the picture.   Betrayal by a mother, shame and humiliation are not easily overcome.   I can’t imagine the struggle my father had, to appear strong, infallible, while making only glancing references to the “demons” we all must deal with.

Because I was no longer that angry, because my father was dying, I knew my purpose in that room was to make his death as easy as it could be.   I was not there to challenge him, I was there to comfort him.  I understood without needing to think about it that these moments were not about me, they were about him.

When he apologized for putting obstacles in front of my sister and me, making our lives harder instead of helping us in times of need as a loving father should, I told him he’d done the best he could.   

When he told me he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, I nodded, thankful to hear him finally acknowledge it.   He lamented that he’d been too fucked up and defensive for us to have this kind of conversation fifteen years ago.   

At the time the number seemed off to me — thirty years of war, fifteen of peace?   Later I realized that fifteen days, or even fifteen hours, of this kind of honesty would have been an amazing blessing.

We spoke quietly for several hours, the door to my father’s hospital room open, everyone else on the floor asleep.   The nurse, an angel in human form, sat outside the room.    The look of love she gave me when I left I will never forget.

Early next evening, as the sun was beginning to set, my father told my sister, my uncle and my mother that since I’d arrived it was a good time for them to take a break, go to the cafeteria and get something to eat. 

As soon as they were gone my father said to me “I don’t know how to do this.”   I assured him that nobody did, that it would be fine.   The nurse helped take down the bar on one side of the bed so I could sit closer to my father.  I don’t remember if I had my hand on him, or arm around him, or anything like that, but I sat close by.   

His breathing got shallower and shallower, death from liver cancer is supposed to be one of the gentler ways to go.   After the liver goes, the kidneys shut down and you go to sleep, only forever.   

A friend later told me the Talmud poetically compares the moment of death to removing a hair from a glass of milk.  It is an excellent description in the case of death from liver cancer.

Within twenty minutes or so my father took his last breath.   I reached over and closed his dead eyes with the fingers of one hand, like I’d done it a thousand times.

[1] A 0.66 second search reveals: 

Ascites is when over 25 milliliters of fluid fills the space between the abdominal lining and the organs. It’s usually caused by cirrhosis.

[2]  It turns out they were misleading me, not lying:

But the most dangerous problem associated with ascites is infection, which can be life-threatening. Ascites may go away with a low salt diet, and with diuretics (water pills) ordered by your provider.

1924 (5)

All this focus on the year 1924, a time when there was still no federal law limiting child labor, before any kind of governmental social safety net existed, when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was at its all time peak in membership, and organized xenophobia, following a senseless World War, a massive slaughter the exact cause of which nobody has ever rationally explained, was at fever pitch… why?

It was the boiling world my father was born into. Add to it that young Irving was a tiny, impoverished member of those teeming, sweating immigrant masses that so alarmed the descendants of the original Anglo-Saxon Americans. Add to it that fear of drunken foreigners was one of the driving forces of the Temperance movement that led to the ill-fated Eighteenth Amendment, which stated “the manufacture, sale or transporting of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States … for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” 1924 was year five of the failed fourteen year experiment in banning alcohol.

Eliyahu, my father’s father, a man who never drank alcohol, died young of liver disease. My father was a lifelong “teetotaler,” as he would say from time to time explaining why he almost never lifted an alcoholic beverage to his lips. He’d have a sip of sweet red wine, on ceremonial occasions, but outside of that, I don’t believe he ever drank so much as a beer. He certainly never tasted whisky. By sheer coincidence, Irv died of liver cancer.

My teetotaler father was a lifelong student of history. When I used to have a “current events” assignment in grade school my father stressed the importance of making sure I clipped the date of the article I was reporting on. He instilled this habit in me, the historian’s instinct to place events into a sequence that could be followed later, to note, to the extent possible, cause and effect in historical progressions.

Finally, unable to restrain himself, the skeleton of my father sat up in his grave outside of Peekskill, in Cortlandt, New York. “OK, look, Elie, I know the thought of going through those 1,200 pages of your first draft is exhausting to you– but don’t you think it’s time? Are you seriously trying to write draft two completely from scratch, with this clunky chronological time line? Telling instead of showing, since you know so little about my early life, outside of a few stories from Eli.”

“Well, I do see your point, dad, but I can’t very well skip to the drama of the misshapen blue pants I was so reluctant to wear for the visit to NYU hospital when you were hospitalized with bleeding psoriasis, the round of temper tantrums my refusal to put on those hideous pants caused…”

“Sure, go right there, that’s the way to do it…” the skeleton rotated his head, for effect. “Obviously, I’m in no position to tell you how to write this, or do anything. I’m just saying, it makes a certain amount of sense to review that huge draft you’ve already written and start organizing the best of it into draft two, where you act like you knew what you were doing all along.”

It does make sense, a lot of sense.

For example, I could include something like this (I Just Want You To Be Happy, Nov. 18, 2017):

We were driving north on the Throgs Neck Bridge, my lifelong adversary at the wheel. When my sister and I were little kids, and the family drove back to Queens over the Whitestone Bridge after visits to the U.S. mainland, my father would point to the towers being built in the channel between the East River and the Long Island Sound. “When that bridge is done, we’ll have a much quicker ride home,” he said, or words to that effect. He must have said it several times, because the bridge opened when I was four and a half and I clearly remember him pointing at the bridge being constructed across the Throgs Neck.

We were heading to my apartment on the northern end of Manhattan, I’d had dinner with my parents in Queens, as I did periodically in the years before they moved to Florida. I was close to forty, and had finally gotten rid of my car (impossible to park in my neighborhood). I used to make the drive, around 25 minutes each way, but once I ditched my car it was a ninety minute trip each way by subway and walking. My father was driving me home this particular night. It was a rare stretch of just the two of us being together in a car. On the Throgs Neck Bridge, about five minutes from their house, I asked him, point blank, what it was that he wanted from me.

“You seem eternally unhappy, disappointed, disapproving of my choices in life,” I told him. It must be said, at that point I’d been fired from a series of jobs and most recently blacklisted from teaching in the public schools after a long ordeal by bureaucracy. “What would you like me to do to relieve you of those, no doubt painful, feelings? Is there anything? Would law school do it for you?” I asked. “Would you be happy if I became a lawyer?”

I remember the dark Long Island Sound stretching out to the right of us as we headed toward the Bronx. My father paused. Then he told me that he would feel differently about my life if only I were happy in what I was doing. My happiness, he said, was the most important thing to him. I managed not to say anything snide.

“You know, if you were happy being an artist… you know, I never understood why you don’t try getting a show in a library, or a hospital, or some place like that, just to get some exposure, get a foot in the door. You work in isolation and you… I mean, it just seems like a very unhappy life. I just want you to be happy. If you were happy, I’d be satisfied.”

I explained to him that a show at a library or a nursing home was not a stepping stone toward becoming a professional artist. An artist only makes a living working in advertising, illustration or becoming a darling of wealthy art collectors, curators and influential art critics. None of those options appealed to me, I told him, yet I love to draw and that’s that. I asked him again what it was that I could do that would leave him feeling I was not wasting my life.

“You don’t have to do anything for me,” he said, steering his Cadillac into a lane for the toll booth. “I don’t know where you get the idea that you have to do anything for me. You’ve never sought my advice or input before, I’m a little surprised you’re asking me now.”

I’m asking you now, I told him, weary from decades of senseless war I had little insight into. I’d been an antagonistic newborn, an implacable infant, a relentlessly defiant toddler, an angry, fearful school boy, a rebellious, sharp-tongued, disrespectful teenager. I’ve digested all of these things by now, the first few being patently absurd, the remainder fairly predictable, based on being treated as a challenging little adversary from before my first memory, but at that moment in the car I was seeking a way off of this boundless, senseless battlefield.

“Only if it would make you happy to become a lawyer,” he said. “I mean, obviously, I think you have the mind to be an excellent lawyer.”

And extensive experience with adversarial proceedings, I pointed out. I don’t recall much more about that long ago conversation, except that I took the LSAT review books out of my local library and took a few sample tests. I learned later that many people take courses to prepare them for this highly specialized test, but I had long experience cramming for Regents Exams in high school and had always had a knack for these standardized tests (though I had mediocre scores on my SATs, as I recall, but those were taken at my personal height of not giving a fuck about anything).

I did well enough on my LSATs that, with my college transcripts, I was accepted to all three of the law schools I applied to. I chose one, took out loans (that I am still repaying more than twenty years later) and the rest, as they say is history.

“So you’re saying you went to law school in an attempt to please a father you knew to be impossible to please?” said the skeleton of my father, a much different creature than the man who drove us across the Throgs Neck Bridge that night.

Pretty much. I’ve spent the day today immunosuppressed, working out different ways to play Hoagy Carmichael’s great Lazy River on guitar. What a beautiful, bluesy, ingenious tune. Hoagy graduated law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, just like I did. He was a musical genius and was soon making money as a musician and so never had to experience the grinding that is the fucking law. I, on the other hand, was forced, for more than a decade, to earn my crust of bread by the stinging sweat of my brow, in the manner of Cain, cursed by his maker.

Playing that tune, with an involuntary smile when he pulls out some of those great lines, I can forget all about it, until it’s time to put the guitar down.

“Well, you know Elie, we all have to put the guitar down some time,” said the skeleton with great tenderness.

1924 (part 4)

Back to that baby, my father, born on June 1, 1924.   It was a hard birth after a no doubt stressful pregnancy, the tiny mother struggled to give birth to a very large baby.   The mother had lost her previous child shortly after birth and must have been undergoing tremendous emotional turmoil.  The family was very poor, the horse that pulled the herring wagon may have already died, for all we know, and, if so, the breadwinner was winning no bread.  Crime was rampant on the crowded Lower East Side where they lived, violent criminals were organizing into a national syndicate to profit from Prohibition which was already proving to have been a massive mistake.

The second time was the charm for my grandparents, the big baby survived.   It was three of them now in the tiny, hot slum apartment during the airless summer of 1924.   What could go wrong?

My grandmother’s older brother Uncle Aren intervened, packed up the family’s belongings in his truck and they made the then long trek up to Peekskill, where Aren lived.  When this happened exactly is unknown.  My uncle, who was fifteen months younger than my father, may have also been a tiny passenger on that trip up the Hudson River, past Sing Sing prison.  Aren’s son Eli, freshly expelled from DeWitt Clinton high school shortly before graduation, helped the little family pack up and move.

Aren installed the little family on the second floor of a three story house he owned in Peekskill.  Little comes down to us about those first years in Peekskill, except that when Eli moved there around that time he had an altercation with the three Ku Klux Klan member sons of the guy who ran the local hardware store. 

“So you’re the new kyke from New York City,” Eli said they greeted him, blocking his way on the sidewalk in front of their store.  “I dropped the biggest one, stepped over him and said ‘Eli Gleiberman, nice to meet you guys’.  They didn’t bother me after that.” 

“Eli’s full of shit!  He’s a completely unreliable narrator and a notorious reviser of history” my father always insisted, particularly after I began visiting Eli regularly.   Maybe so, but many of his stories had the ring of truth.   Eli was menacing and physically formidable even at 85.

What we can establish, with simple arithmetic, is that my father started school just as the Depression was kicking off.   In September 1929 the boy was five.  His school career didn’t start off well since he didn’t speak any English and he was legally blind.  Outside of that, he probably had a pretty normal adjustment to school.  Here is a picture of him, one of very few from his childhood, that was taken during his early school years.   That’s dad in the middle.


“Who’s that kid on the left?” I asked my uncle, sometime after my father’s funeral.

“That’s Henry,” he said immediately.   Henry moved away from Peekskill shortly after the picture was taken, my uncle said, and does not figure further in my father’s story.

We note that young Irv is still not wearing glasses.  He’s smiling, looking at the camera, seemingly everything is fine.   He’s affectionately draping his arms over his friend and his little brother.   All appears right in the world at that moment, during that literal snapshot of time.   It’s probably fine.

1924 (part 3)

My grandfather, Eliyahu/Harry, was, I’m told, a tall, strong man.   On the Lower East Side, in the early 1920s, around the time my father was born, he had a job delivering barrels of herring to the shops.   He drove a horse drawn cart through the cobblestone streets, the horse would stop, Eliyahu would wrestle a barrel of herring off the flatbed and hump it into the store.  He’d collect the money for his boss, get back on the cart and he and the horse would go to the next stop.  He did this for some time and all went fine.  Until, one day, the horse died and they hooked up a new horse to the wagon.

Eliyahu had no idea of the route, had never paid the slightest attention, the experienced old horse had known all the stops.  Eliyahu rolled aimlessly through the streets of Lower Manhattan behind the new horse, not recognizing any landmarks, unable to read the street signs or the addresses on the invoices his boss had given him.  At the end of the day he returned to the warehouse, cart still loaded with barrels of herring.   That was his last day of work. 

I learned this tale about fifty years after my grandfather died, from my father’s first cousin Eli, who told me most of what I know about my father’s childhood.   Eli was seventeen years older than my father, and so was a young adult during my father’s early years in Peekskill.  To the end of his days my father loved and feared Eli, a rough but loving customer (if he loved you), and Eli loved and was proud of my father.  In the end, he exerted himself to try to help me understand my father.  Eli turned out to be an indispensable source of family knowledge I’d otherwise have only guesses about.  

In the last years of his long life I visited Eli regularly, in his subsidized retirement cottage in Mount Kisco.  We spent hours talking about the long ago past, many times long into the night.  He was a great storyteller and a wonderful host (if he liked you — if he didn’t, all bets were off).   He was somewhat estranged from his three adult children, kids he’d famously ruled with an iron hand.  His tyrannical child-rearing was something he told me he didn’t regret, by the way, considering the fine people they grew up to be.  In fact, he gave a speech to that effect at a family gathering, where he allowed that his treatment may have amounted to abuse, if you will, but still, he felt vindicated by how well everything turned out.   He handed me the speech he delivered to look over.   

“Not one of them accepted my fucking apology,” Eli told me indignantly.  I read him back his words, pointed out that it was hardly an apology, the way he’d phrased it, the complete lack of remorse, and we proceeded to fight it out, the way he and my mother always fought.  He was fierce when angry, short and powerful, built like a sinewy bullfrog, he jumped to his feet, his face immediately magenta, veins popping, the white hairs on his head quivered, foam formed on his lips.  He had the menacing aspect of a panther when he was angry.  After the fight, like at the end of every one of the many fights between Eli and my mother, there were no hard feelings, we hugged goodbye and I headed down the dark, twisting Sawmill River Parkway to my apartment.

I wanted to learn more about my grandparents who’d died before I was born, people my father said virtually nothing about.   I wanted to know about my grandmother, Eli’s beloved Tante Chava, who Eli loved above everyone else and, even more so, my grandfather, a mysterious, silent character whose wry smile I’d seen in the two photographs of him that exist.   In one he is in a dark interior space, probably the synagogue, with his wife and younger son, my Uncle Paul,  at that time about sixteen.   Eliyahu is in a dark suit, wearing a fedora with a wide, downturned brim, smiling a wry and utterly incomprehensible smile.

While Eli had many stories about beautiful, hot-tempered Chava, my grandmother, he struggled to describe my grandfather to me.  He used a Yiddish word, fayik, I’ve never met anybody who could translate (or had even heard of), in explaining how hard it was to describe him.  Google Translate translates fayik as “fayik”.  I have only found one reference to the word on the internet, this frustratingly short fragment:  “The root, fayikmeans. creative, skilled or …” summarizing a link that leads nowhere. 

“People say he wasn’t fayik, but it wasn’t so, he was just very quiet, very withdrawn … he had a sense of humor, he was very funny, I may have been the only person who realized how funny he was, because it was so subtle and always done with a completely deadpan face…  no expression at all… He always called me ‘big shot’ ” he struggled to describe the man’s face.  Then he came up with a kind of beautiful haiku. 

“His face was just two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” and he imitated the face, staring straight ahead, like a mask, making a zipping  motion over the straight line of his mouth, to indicate how rarely Eliyahu spoke.

I quickly got the sense that he’d kept his mouth shut to avoid getting socked in the head.  I’d always wondered how my grandfather’s English name was Harry and his brother, one of my father’s uncles on his father’s side, was also named Harry.  The two sons named Harry was like a Polish joke until Eli gave me the obvious explanation.   My grandfather’s mother died and his father remarried.  The woman he married had sons named Peter and Harry.   This evil step-mother did not tolerate the second Harry, hitting him hard in the head with whatever came to hand, including sturdy pieces of wood.   

“So, I guess he just checked out after a while, his whole life seemed to be devoted to not getting cracked in the skull, and Chava could be tough too,” Eli told me.

While many apparently considered my grandfather mentally deficient, Eli saw his dry, deadpan sense of humor, his wit — his hidden fayik nature.   He finally dug up an example.  Eli’s father, my great-uncle Aren, ran a garage in Peekskill.   He hired Eliyahu to work in the garage, he fixed cars and provided parking for others, but because Eliyahu couldn’t drive he was limited to releasing the brake and manually moving the cars around.   Eli took him out one day to teach him to drive, it had become clear it was senseless to keep him at the garage if he couldn’t drive.   

“Peekskill is hilly country,” he said, “and we’re going up a hill and the car starts losing power, and your grandfather is just looking ahead with that face and I say ‘Uncle Harry, give it gas!  Give it gas!” and a second before we start sliding backwards he turns to me and says ‘gas costs money’ and we start going backwards down the steep hill, we’re about to get killed.  I managed to get my foot in there and downshifted and pulled the car over and told him to get the hell out and that was the end of his driving lessons.”

It appears Uncle Aren (who ran my father’s little family) made the right call sending his little sister to explain to the school authorities why her son spoke no English when he started school.

1924 (part 2)

On the first day of June, 1924, Israel Irving Widaen was born in a crowded slum on the lower east side of Manhattan Island.  He was named after his mother’s father, Azrael.  According to Jewish tradition, which frowns on naming a child for someone still alive, this means that my great-grandfather Azrael was already gone by June 1924.  The baby’s last name, at birth, was Widem, shortened a few years earlier, likely by a harried attendant on Ellis Island, from Widemlansky.  It was rendered on his birth certificate as “Widaen”, a spelling my grandmother, who didn’t read English, apparently signed off on.  My father’s father also didn’t read English, and so the mistake stood when my father, who until the age of eighteen was known as Irv Widem, was drafted into the US Army as Israel Irving Widaen.

Here is a key, basic, highly determinative, never considered detail of my father’s early life that didn’t dawn on me until years after my father’s death: he was born legally blind.  For most of his life, up to a few years before he died, when laser eye surgery became common and effective, he had 20/400 vision, vision he said qualified him as legally blind without his glasses.   20/400 means that what the average person can see clearly at twenty feet looked four hundred feet away to the newborn Israel/Azrael.

His mother’s face, for example, after the tremendous exertions this tiny woman endured to give birth to a huge baby (by a husband in an arranged marriage, a man she hated), would have appeared hazy to the uncomprehending infant.   That she may have come to treat the baby as unresponsive, stubbornly, aggravatingly retarded because he was basically blind, never seems to have occurred to anyone.   The effect of this unknown blindness certainly didn’t occur to me until weeks or months into writing every day about my father.   Think of the effect on your life, on your self-image, if nobody caring for you realizes you are legally blind until you are six or seven years old.

I have a picture of my father reading on the couch before dinner, after his day job, before his night job, his thick black-rimmed glasses up on his forehead, or on a nearby surface, the New York Times held a few inches from his face.  He was nearsighted, like the famous Mr. Magoo, but unlike Magoo, he wore powerful corrective lenses that allowed him to drive on the right side of the road, serve in the U.S. military, lead a fairly standard life.   If he wanted to read something he could easily read without glasses, as long as the print was very close to his face.  He eventually settled on bifocals, which allowed him to read through his glasses, holding a book or paper like anyone else.

As he was dying he insisted he’d been the “dumbest Jewish kid” in Peekskill.  This was incomprehensible to me.  Whatever critiques could be made of this often contentious man, it is impossible to argue that he wasn’t highly intelligent, well-informed, quick witted.  In the hospital room that last night of his life I questioned his assertion that he was the dumbest Jewish kid in the small town he grew up in.  “It’s impossible for me to believe you could have possibly been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill,” I said.

“By far!” he insisted, with a “humph!” hours before the end of a long life as a well-read, highly articulate intellectual.

Picture now being born in 1924, a year when the resurgent Ku Klux Klan reached its high-water mark in registered members, with 2.4 million nationwide. It was early in the ill-fated experiment in Prohibition, when murderous gangsters ran neighborhoods like the one where my father was born.  There were no federal child labor laws on the books.  A president sympathetic to the Klan and other xenophobes had signed a restrictive immigration bill into law, imposing strict quotas which effectively meant that the rest of the family in Europe was doomed to whatever Fate had in store for them.   Your little family is bitterly poor, and, try as you may, you can’t make out the details of anything in the world around you.

Infantile blindness and its lifelong effects would have been an interesting subject to follow up with the baby who grew up to be my father, an old man who still believed he’d been dumb because everyone around him, teachers and classmates whose faces he couldn’t make out, laughed at him and called him a big dummy. Another subject I never got to talk about with the man who belatedly apologized for senselessly fighting with me my whole life.

There was a glancing reference to my father’s early struggles in school in the very limited family lore about his childhood.  Like most of the details I know of my father’s difficult early life, this was humorously recounted by that great story-teller Eli Gleiberman, my father’s first cousin, Uncle Aren’s first born son. Aren had saved money and sent for his youngest sister right around the time World War One started.   Eli reported that his tiny, red-haired Tante Chava (many years younger than Aren) was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen and that she and young Eli had experienced mutual love at first sight when he and his father went to pick her up from the boat.  Eli was a good-looking kid and, according to him, his aunt’s lifelong favorite.

The story goes that my grandmother Chava was called to school after my father, the oldest, biggest kid in his class, (in addition to being odd in his expressions, presumably) showed up for school without a word of English in his head.   The school sent for her to find out how it was possible for a child born in America to grow up to the age of five or six without learning English.  The answer was that they only spoke Yiddish at home, but that answer really answered nothing.  Eli, by then in his early twenties, probably taught Chava the line she delivered in response to the school authorities.  In a heavy Yiddish accent, when confronted by the school authorities about her son’s lack of English, she said “hee’l loin.”  Eli’s face would light up in his devilish grin when he told that story.

The boy would indeed learn, and become a voracious reader with a vast English vocabulary.  He would go on to graduate from Syracuse University and later get a Master’s Degree in American History at Columbia, one unfinished dissertation short of his Ph D. That would only happen, as it turns out, once someone at the Peekskill elementary school discovered that it was not mental deficiency, but legal blindness that made it impossible for this odd boy to learn his letters.

A related question arises, when I think things over now in the cool light of all of my detective work over the years. My father’s father, Harry, (for whom I’m named– his Hebrew name, Eliyahu, is my name) the “illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world,” I learned not long before Eli died, spoke English with no trace of a foreign accent.  He’d come over from Europe as a baby and picked up unaccented American English, somehow.  Go figure.  Why didn’t he go to school to talk to the authorities? Because he was an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by this world, I suppose.  His sphinx-like presence, and his mysteriously unaccented English, would have no doubt made things even worse, Aren, the small family’s patriarch, must have reasoned.  He was probably right.

1924 (part 1)

Some time around 1922 or 1923, a year before the Immigration Act restricted the entry of people like my grandparents, in the crowded, polyglot slum of New York City’s Lower East Side, my father’s mother gave birth to her first child, a girl. The baby did not live long and the whereabouts of her tiny corpse are unknown. In fact, I’m not sure how I even heard about this poor child, born of two desperately poor immigrant parents. Probably from my father’s first cousin Eli, source of much of what I know about my father’s early life. History records that on June 1, 1924, my father was born in that same slum, moved to Peekskill as a toddler (in his Uncle Aren’s truck) and later lived, as a middle class homeowner, to be almost 81. I was there to close his eyelids after he took his last breath.

My father never went into the details of his years of grinding poverty. He always used that term, “grinding poverty,” spoken through gritted teeth, to evoke the circumstances of his hard life before the army. Of his mother, who turns out to have been a savagely unhappy little woman, all he ever said, in Yiddishized Hebrew, was “may she rest in peace.” He said the same about his father, about whom even less was ever revealed. A few hours before his death, my father described his father, in his breathy dying man’s voice, as “an illiterate country bumpkin, completely overwhelmed by this world.” He did not speak of his mother. I knew by then pretty much why.

The rest of my father’s large family, outside of his mother’s brother, Uncle Aren, the American patriarch who’d fled the Czar’s army in 1904, disappeared into the fog of war, literally. Their muddy hamlet in the Belarusian marsh, somewhere between Pinsk and Stolin, was erased from history, wiped off the maps, if it ever was on any map. That little town met the fate of hundreds of other little Jewish towns in those dark years when Hitler was restoring Aryan honor to Germany. After the German occupation of those areas the towns and their inhabitants simply ceased to exist.

The family in Europe was disappeared while my father was training to fight in what would become the Air Force. The immensity of this loss was something my father never spoke about, outside of dismissing it as talk of “abstractions” when I got old enough to know and be deeply disturbed by it.

The arc of my father’s life is almost unimaginable today, an impoverished boy from the slums growing into a well-educated, solidly middle class burgher. He worked hard, two jobs, followed the rules, took advantage of the GI Bill (which worked wonders for white vets, not so much for other vets) and a rare moment in history when the American Dream of a life of financial comfort could actually be lived by children born in extreme poverty. He made this transformation along with tens of thousands of the generation who fought World War Two.

My father, according to my sister, never had a happy day in his life. It’s an interesting question, because, though he had all the tools for happiness, she might be right. He found the humor in things, he was quick, he had a dark take on things (though he loved animals and small children), was beloved by his few close friends, was an avid reader with a deep interest in history and justice. He made his friends laugh and often his family as well. He could also be cold, hard, unbending. He died with terrible regrets, he’d learned basic lessons too late to put them to good use. At the very end all he hoped for was one actual conversation before he died, one that wasn’t a death match. We managed to have that talk, and then he was dead.

Years later I took many months, a couple of years back, writing an unwieldy first draft of “The Book of Irv,” an attempt to fully think his life through. My idea was to put a tricky story into perspective, letting nobody off the hook, but at the same time, taking pains to also not vilify or punish anyone. To my amazement, this long exercise in trying to see the whole picture left me with the ability to see my father’s life and sometimes troubling attitudes and actions completely from his point of view. Seeing his viewpoint clearly doesn’t make me agree with the worst things he decided, but I can understand them, even empathize. A few years earlier, before my long exploration of his troubling life, the thought of reaching that understanding was unthinkable.

Because my father was often harsh to me and my sister, I was usually harsh in my judgments of him.  There are certain things I took him to task for that I understand now were completely reasonable and within his rights.  This understanding emerged only after I became able to see the position from his viewpoint. As a boy and a young man, I was hard on him for the way he permanently banished good friends who hurt him. People we once enjoyed the company of, laughed long and loud with, were suddenly dead, simply dead.

He was famously unable to forgive, in the end unable to forgive himself for the rigidly black and white way he’d seen the world, for how that worldview often made him act toward the people closest to him. I see now that those two traits, cutting friends dead and being unforgiving, don’t necessarily add up to an unreasonable position; although a fault may come into play it doesn’t always negate a perfectly understandable motive.

I’ve learned about that terrible moment when it becomes clear that friendship is returned grudgingly (if at all) and looking away only prolongs the estrangement that is already well underway. This is not merely a matter of being unforgiving, sometimes it is simply the way it is between humans who have long been close but who have stored up grievances against each other. As I observed in my own life, and learned from my father’s steady example, there is sometimes a point of no return, even in once close relationships.

To tolerate painful treatment from someone you trust is being a party to your own abuse and there is no healthy reason to do it. Abuse is where you have to draw the line, in every case where you have choice in the matter. If you point out to a friend that they are hurting you and your friend says “I am not, you have a problem and your vicious accusation is yet another example of it” it is probably time to use the door. The old man was not wrong about that, however quick he might have been to slam that door, to shut friends into eternal darkness when they hurt him.  The timing of this inevitable moment, one you see it, now seems to me a matter of pulling the bandaid off quickly or slowly.

My father’s skeleton has been quiet, outside of remarks he made over the course of a few months, a couple of years ago. Those unexpected conversations with my father’s skeleton often had moments of real surprise for me, as if I really was hearing things for the first time, things my father would have said if that conversation the last night of his life had continued. Somehow I knew that it wasn’t merely my imagination conjuring these responses, they made organic sense to be coming from my father’s now wiser skeleton.

If the voices of my father’s parents, the ancestors he never saw, ever spoke to him, or cried out to him, I cannot say. He rarely spoke of either of his parents, and if he did, it was only to comment that they should rest in peace. If the murdered souls in that unlocatable marsh near Pinsk could call out to me, it would be in a language I can’t understand. The closest I can come to imagining them is the few of them I knew, and the lessons of those lives are the stories I am interested in telling now, before the clock runs out on my time to tell them — before the next personal extinction arrives.




Book of Friedman (8)

Friedman once accused me of using my friends as lab rats, making them unwitting participants in my lifelong psychological experiments. All of us here are lab rats, to some extent, as we can see by looking around at the peculiar setup we find ourselves in. Most of us, as we live and learn, calibrate the amount of grief we are prepared to accept from those closest to us in this ongoing, partially voluntary, experiment.

Since this giant and supremely predictable lab mouse Mark is no longer with us, I am drafting him to stand in for all those who, by their often self-destructive actions, give the rest of us clues and insights into why we act the way we do. In the end I can see that Mark’s tragedy was set in motion by the emotional challenge we all face: the eternal mammalian need for love in a world where everyone dies in the end. Mark’s painful life was ruled by his inability to find and return the love he needed to thrive. It’s a kind way to put it, perhaps, in the case of a supremely self-centered rodent who could never accept the love he needed (none was ever perfect enough, sadly), but I can now see clearly that his doomed quest to love and be loved shaped his painful life nonetheless.

After I told a friend part of a long, sad story of a badly frayed old friendship, languishing on a ventilator, she sent me one of her longtime psychiatrist’s rules. Rule Twelve reads:

A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

I can see quite clearly now, in light of this rule, that I spent my early teens into my thirties (and sometimes much later– as the recent case of my old friend X illustrates) facing the same unlearned lesson. I repeated the same primal scenes over and over with a cast of characters, dear friends all, who were uncannily like my difficult, defensive father in psychological make-up. In the individual cases, I was eventually able to see the ongoing harm these relationships caused. The pattern was much harder to see, and only became clear when I found myself with my back against the wall. Like Dr. House says: the lesson will be repeated until learned..

X is about the last of these stand-in for my father left in my life, and our friendship is literally hanging by a thread, there may well not be any way to salvage it (we’ll see how strong his expressed desire to fix this comatose friendship really is — see rule 13 anecdote, below) but at one time there were quite a few of these Irv stand-ins among my closest friends. A kind of intimate fifth column, undermining my progress by repeating that an angry person like me is incapable of overcoming the reflex to act out of temper, no matter what we might think. No matter how many times we may have believed we’ve demonstrated our progress.   

The lesson I needed to learn, and kept having to repeat until I began to learn it, was that somebody who is smart, and funny, and sometimes kind, but who often doesn’t listen and insists on blaming you for any conflict, is an unhealthy person to be around.  Amazing how many times I had to live through the identical storyline until I started learning to recognize the signs and take action earlier and earlier. In case after case I learned where the line was when things became intolerable and how to protect myself by acting contrary to how my programming (and I was programmed by this very type, mind you) had taught me to react.   Each time I was unable to see the mechanism, until some flare-up made it painful enough to see, bad enough for me to cut ties.   

Over the years I began to see the actual mechanism at work, always very, very similar in its operation, yet I couldn’t figure out how to get past the constant traps set by this brilliantly insane type.   Manipulative, able to convince you they really cared about you — inwardly angry and able to express it as well-camouflaged, perfectly deniable hostility (virtually all of these people were very smart, like my father was, and most also witty, in a sardonic way that could be used as a weapon, or to disarm). Part of the genius of this type is their ability to make you believe that you must be crazy, oversensitive, at fault for any ugliness that might crop up. 

The gradual learning I had with these types (virtually all of them gone from my life now) may have culminated in this one last lesson with my longtime friend now.  I say that knowing that no progress is permanent, that we always take steps backwards and forwards. In the case of X, a guy I’ve known since we were kids, I have been able to lay out the syndrome in granular detail — not only for him, but for his girlfriend, who heroically tried to make peace, for Sekhnet and for myself.  X continues to express bewilderment that I seem to have been so hurt by his mistreatment, but the two women and I can now view things with clarity.  

The things that killed our friendship, step by step, are literally there on the table, in black and white, for anybody with the ability to read to follow.   I now know the workings of the incredibly subtle (at the same time incredibly crude)  game I am up against better than I know almost anything.  In every case of a “last straw”, the final proof is only the latest example of a long list of things.  

I had a poignant email from his girlfriend, sentimental, kind, intelligent, asking me to please explain why I cannot accept that X is really trying, that he truly loves me, values our friendship, etc.   Her letter moved me, and I wrote her a long letter back, illuminating exactly how each skillfully veiled, arguably unintended, “fuck you” was constructed, made to look like a gracious statement, or a generous offer.   When I was done writing the letter explaining things to her I felt a surge of energy, of completeness.   

I felt like I’d finally mastered that particular difficult decades-in-the learning lesson.   It was gratifying to know I had set so much of it out so clearly, at last, like I was reciting the lesson, finally learned.   Like I’d completed my Masters Thesis and it had been accepted. When I read Sekh the letter I wrote to X’s mate, the would-be peacemaker,  she understood for the first time that I was not being merely being a “man”, petty, mean, proud, venting anger, manfully exacting revenge for perceived mistreatment, trying to teach him a lesson– I was only making clear exactly what was intolerable to me, the kind of no-quarter argumentativeness I would no longer accept.   

I’d laid out for his girlfriend (as I had previously for him) everything that was toxic in the relationship and recounted his defensive attempts to place his increasing callousness in the context of eternal friendship, his own bewilderment and my constant misunderstanding.  I provided everything needed for her to understand our respective roles in the conflict, how patronizing his ostensibly peacemaking emails had been, couched in polite, seemingly conciliatory language containing repeated instances of clear, snarling, yet subtle “drop deads” (arguably even unconscious on his part).   Felt like I’d graduated, being able to explain it so precisely, and also, never losing my temper while having endured more than a little abuse from X over the course of the last few months.

Mark Friedman was the poster boy for repetition compulsion, for living and reliving the unlearned lessons of his life.  I understand now, thanks to this 12th Rule (A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.) that Mark kept trying to learn something by this repetition that he was never able to get any insight into. In the end, I believe, it was his lack of insight into his misery that did him in.

How many years can one perform the same sickeningly familiar three act tragedy over and over and over, new cast each time, identical, infernal dramatic arc?   Act one: great excitement!  amazing new person, or idea, or program, nothing like it — thrilling, life changing!   Act two; ominous cracks begin to appear, imperfections, warning signs.   Act three: violent reprisal against Mark, anger, betrayal, repudiation.   

It depressed me to hear this same story a hundred times over the years.  Finally could take it no more — plus, our friendship was the same airless drama, only the longest running version of it and Act Two was being endlessly drawn out.   In the end, he never learned any lesson from his predictable misery, died a wealthy man, completely alone, having alienated virtually everyone he ever knew.

Which brings us to Rule 13, a reminder that even an asshole, if he is motivated, is not doomed to be an asshole. It also reminds us to be kind, whenever we can:

People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

This was a big lesson I was fortunate to learn shortly before I got the sudden news that my father was dying.   A parent is a different case than a friend — my close relationships with all those friends who stood in for my father were attempts to learn the lessons I needed to be able to work out with my father without it being total war (my dad generally insisted on total war).  I had a breakthrough in psychoanalysis maybe two months before Irv suddenly found himself on his death bed with a few days left to live.   

The timing of my psychological breakthrough was very lucky.  I’d come to realize, truly, that he had not been able to do any better than he did — the truly horrible abuse he’d suffered as a baby and throughout his childhood had given him a lifelong emotional disability that prevented him from being able to do the painful work necessary to not be that way.  He did not believe anything he did or might do could change anything for him — or for anybody else, for that matter.   What he did as a father, while often not what a child might wish for, was the best he was capable of. 

That revelation– that he was sadly, truly unable to do better — allowed me to let go of a lot of the anger I had toward him.  I came to this when I digested how atrociously he’d been abused as a young person.  As he was dying he was full of regrets, I was able to keep sincerely reassuring him that he’d done the best he knew how, that he could not have done better.  It was a small reassurance for him — his main efforts before he died were expressing his many painful regrets. Without the insight that he’d truly done the best he was capable of, I could not have been as open with him as I was. He would not have been able to unburden himself the way he did if I hadn’t been hearing him with so little judgment in that hospital room.   

That is speaking of my father, the rare relationship where it is almost always worth the exertion to try to heal.   A friend, X for example, who does the best he can but simply can’t hear — because of lack of a role model for how it’s done, or out of an excess of myopic self-regard, or competitive mania, or whatever reason  — I won’t be around to comfort him on his deathbed as he expresses his regrets.   I don’t owe it to X, as I didn’t owe it to Mark, though I felt I should try to give it to my father, to make his passing easier.   It was a wonderful gift to both of us that I was in a position to hear him, and he to feel heard. These, rules 12 and 13, are two excellent, important life lessons to digest and put to use.   

Here they are again, for your consideration:

12: A lesson is repeated until it is learned.  A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it.  When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

13: People always do the best they can.  If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Here is her doctor’s Rule 8, always well-worth recalling, if we are to be as merciful to ourselves (and others) as possible:

There are no mistakes, only lessons.  Growth is a process of trial and error, of experimentation.  The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”