Category Archives: New York

My Dybbuk and Me

I have a dybbuk. Don’t laugh. I’m serious. I hope those of you inclined to make fun of me will bear with me while I explain.

But first. For any of you who might actually care.   I apologize. I disappeared a few months ago after my summer in Jerusalem. What I disappeared into is the life of a graduate student.   I’ve never been one before. I now understand the immense gap between law school and real graduate school.  What I understand about graduate school – for me the Jewish Studies program at Jewish Theological Seminary – is reading.  Reading more than I have ever read in my life.  Reading from well before dawn to well after dusk, reading while waiting for the bus or train (ok, I walk, I don’t take the bus or train, but it’s a nice trope), reading while eating, reading while washing, reading while everything, from when I lieth down until I riseth up, and then all the hours between riseth and lieth and then back again. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. It has kept me from writing (except in Hebrew). But I feel compelled to write. Because you might one day have a dybbuk too. And you should know how to deal with it. I didn’t.

OK. Back to the dybbuk. Here’s the story. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my favorite chair – reading, if you haven’t yet figured that out – and using my highlighter and my favorite pen to make notes to myself. Absent-mindedly, I put the pen on the ottoman.   I went to pick it up a few minutes later. It was gone.

Stop thinking what you’re thinking. I didn’t misplace it. My tuchus never left the chair. But, after ten minutes or so of funfering around reaching for it, I slid to my knees and started searching the floor, under and around the few pieces of furniture in the corner where I sit. It’s a small apartment. I branched out. No pen.

Now I know a thing or two about dybbuks.  And I know a thing or two about pens.  And I know that a pen simply doesn’t go walking off without a dybbuk to accompany it.

I also know a thing or two about my own absent-mindedness and a thing or two about the memory of a man who is within sight of saying  adieu to middle age (according to the Federal government, but who cares about those apikorim.) I also know that I am sufficiently careful to put things where they belong, at least things I care about. I considered the possibility that I might have misplaced the pen. But after some serious thought, I realized it had to be a dybbuk. Perhaps it was the faint odor of herring in the air – I haven’t eaten herring in months. Perhaps it was the strange nusach that went through my head. Who knows? All I know is that I was pretty sure it was a dybbuk. I mean, everyone knows that the Upper West Side is full of them. It’s just that most people don’t have the guts to admit it for fear of angering their dybbukim.  I’m fearless.  And penless.

Anyway, a pen is a pen and a dybbuk is a dybbuk. Who had time to worry about either of them? I had reading to do. I could find another pen, and it is clear from that herring smell that the dybbuk had what to eat so it shouldn’t be hungry. (Don’t ask about how cranky dybbuks get when they’re hungry.) A reader without a pen is still a reader, and a dybbuk full of herring is still a dybbuk. What was I to do about it?

So there matters lay. A few more weeks passed. I half expected the dybbuk to return my pen, but it didn’t. For all I know it needed the pen to write essays on Mishna, and I probably could afford a new pen better than the dybbuk. (which I needed because I had to write essays on Mishna). I am a charitable man. Let the dybbuk have the pen.

But everybody knows that the thing about dybbuks is, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.   I should have known somewhere between Rambam and Ramban that there would be more tsooris.

There was.  I remember it well – it was a Wednesday evening. I returned home from school at around 7, my normal time. Always I’m a mess when I walk in – hat on hatstand, scarf on scarfstand, coat on coatstand, tefillin bag on – well, you get the point. I went to my room to daven Mincha (it was before daylight savings time ended which I have to make a point of saying in case my rabbi should read this) and then put on my gatkes. I came out of my room. First I put my cellphone on the ottoman – yes, that ottoman. Then I put my headphones beside it.   I can see the picture even now. Order. Ready for anything. A German Jew would be proud.

I returned to my room for a moment. Really. A moment.

When I came back to my chair, I realized something. The headphones were gone!  From that same ottoman. In that very same place. I looked beneath it, beneath the chair, beneath the furniture, in the corner. I pulled up the rug. No headphones.

Now I was angry. Those headphones were expensive. I had to think in the store, what? – ten minutes maybe – to allow myself to spring for them in the first place. Headphones like that you don’t buy everyday, at least if you’re not Schiff. These headphones were special. I always knew where they were. I always put them carefully in their case. (And talmudically kept touching them to be sure they were there.) But not tonight. One night I forget. And they’re gone.

What could I have done with them? Suddenly, I remembered. The Dybbuk! It had been quiet for a couple of weeks. I learned to like my new pen. I forgot.

I should have known. I know enough about dybbuks that I should have known that the little mamzer wouldn’t be content only with a miserable pen. Now it went for my expensive headphones. Forget Rambam. And Ramban. And Buber. And Bubbie. My headphones were gone. And I didn’t even know the dybbuk’s name. I didn’t know if it was a he or a she. The thing had never been polite enough to introduce itself. But it had no problem taking my stuff.

I called to it. I pled with it. I begged it. I reasoned with it.

What a waste. Everybody knows that there is no reasoning with a dybbuk. So I tried to be nice. I ordered three pounds of kishkas from Fine and Schapiro. (I don’t care what its practices are – it’s not going to eat trayf in my house.) It gobbled it all up before I could even tip the delivery guy. And I was hoping maybe for a bite or two. Now the apartment smelled like schmaltz. And what did I have to show for it? Naked ears.

I needed headphones. Hebrew class required them. But who had the money to replace such nice headphones that you had to take at least ten minutes in the store to decide to buy? The next day I bought a (relatively) cheap pair. I didn’t open the box for a while because I was hoping that when I walked through the door with new headphones the dybbuk would have had it’s laugh and would return mine. No such luck. (Did I say that my dybbuk was a bit of a mamzer?) So I opened them and sacrificed the possible return of thirty bucks.

By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that the dybbuk was here to stay. I don’t know much about the care and feeding of a dybbuk except to realize that this one had more than a healthy appetite – and a bit of a gas problem. I wanted to name it, but without knowing its gender that was hard (and a little embarrassing when I went to the shower). I tried to come up with a gender neutral name, although I kept coming back for some reason to Moishele – which should have told me something to begin with.

And so it was. I had a new roommate. Who, by the way, was not only stealing things but not paying its share of the rent. Other people have their tsooris. This was mine.

Yesterday I decided to clean my apartment. I hate to admit it, but it was filthy. That’s what happens when your nose is buried in the wit and wisdom of the Vilna Gaon.   I mean, I didn’t mind it so much, and I was pretty sure that the dybbuk hadn’t exactly come from a palace, but what did I know? I was cleaning the bedroom. My sweatshirt was on the floor. I picked it up.

My headphones fell from the pocket.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that the memory of an alter kokher led me to put it in the pocket, imagine that I had put it on the ottoman, and that was that. Not true. First, I’m not that alter of a kokher. Second, my memory is pretty good. Third. I am positive – I swear by the name of You Know Hu – that I heard gigging coming from the general direction of the ottoman.

But I am a rational man. Perhaps it is possible that I was forgetful and put the headphones in the pocket myself? Perhaps.

But what about the pen?

I’m hoping my dybbuk will introduce itself. I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay. Perhaps I can drag it to minyan.

My Coffee, My Grandpa

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Grandpa was a coffee man.

I was thinking about him and the business after reading a report in The New York Times that Starbucks has concluded six dollar lattes don’t make it upscale enough.  So it plans to open — what? — super super super premium coffee shops focusing, as small new shops around the city do, on specific regions, beans, roasts, etc.  (OK, I’m not a coffee gourmet, but I kind of thought that Starbucks already did that.)

I think of him often, of course — he was my grandpa — but as the coffee craze has grown from gas station cappuccino in Seattle thirty years ago to what it is today, I have wondered what he would make of it.  I know he would be amused by the plaid-shirted, pierced, and heavily tattooed baristas (who are going to regret it when they’re my age), lovingly crafting each cup of coffee as the line at the register grows.  I think he’d be amazed and perhaps a bit bewildered at the coffee shop proliferation.  And I’m pretty sure he’d find the prices ridiculous.  I know he wouldn’t pay them.

My grandpa’s business was coffee.  To him, it was just coffee. It was a small business in Brooklyn, Mitchell Coffee.  Uncle Jess, whom I remember as pretty quiet, managed the books.  Grandpa — whom everybody loved — was the outside guy.  Mitchell Coffee was a restaurant supply house (except for the constant supply my parents and my aunt and uncle received), and I think it’s fair to say that Grandpa knew every Greek, at least in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  That’s where I remember going on deliveries with him.  We may have hit Queens (I can’t recall), but I’m pretty certain we never reached the Bronx. And Staten Island was only for ferry rides on days we didn’t go to Buddy’s Amusement Park down near where King’s Plaza is today.

Sometimes, when I was off from school, I would go down to Brooklyn and stay with my grandparents.  I went to work with my grandmother (a bookkeeper at St. John) and it was fun to ride the train with her and go to the Automat for lunch.  But going to work with Grandpa was the best.  I would sit on burlap sacks, chewing on coffee beans fresh out of the roaster, while Grandpa got ready to make deliveries. (I can pretty well assure you that I was thoroughly buzzed by the time we left.)  He didn’t have ten different roasts.  He didn’t have two.  He had one, labelled RS-15.  I remember once asking him what that stood for.  “Rat shit,”  he told me. That was the first and perhaps the only time I heard him use profanity.  I thought it was wonderful.  And I worried, just a bit, that the pellet-like bean I had just put in my mouth was, well, I was only about nine years old.

He’d have the car loaded up with the brown and white Mitchell coffee bags by around mid-morning.  That’s when the real fun started.  He managed to park at every diner on every street.  We’d get out, he’d carry in the cases, greet the owner, introduce me and then we’d sit at the counter where he’d have a cup of coffee with the owner.  My grandpa had a titanium gastrointestinal system, because we made a lot of deliveries and he drank a lot of coffee.   Sometimes we’d go in the back.  That was fun. In addition to Mitchell Coffee my grandparents owned a small luncheonette, and I was allowed to go in the back there, too.  Leaving aside the time I thought I was locked in the walk-in refrigerator, it was great.  But I digress.

My grandpa sold the business shortly after the New York blackout of 1977.  That event seemed to bring out the worst in Brooklyn, and he and grandma moved to Jersey and later Florida for the winter.  I recall the name of the buyer — Brooke Bond Foods.  And that was that.  It took my parents, who had never had to buy a pound of coffee in their lives, at least a decade to find coffee they liked.   And my grandparents enjoyed a wonderful and deserved retirement.

Grandpa died, too young, at the age of 91, just two days after 9/11 and within sight of the rising columns of smoke.  Not long before that, he had been playing cards with friends, and a fellow he didn’t know.  When introduced, the man said:  “You’re Dave Mitchell?”  My grandfather — a deeply modest man — was puzzled.  “Did you know,” the man said, “that Brooke Bond sold your recipe to Dunkin’ Donuts?”

Now, I’ve never verified the facts.  But I’ll take it.  Each time you drink a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, you’re drinking RS-15.  And my wonderful memories.  I doubt that Howard Schultz can match that.

 

Lawrence Mitchell

From Generation to Generation: Protecting Lower Manhattan

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The Times reports big plans to create a new ecosystem around the watery edges of Manhattan from W. 57th St. to E. 42nd St., a landscaped series of bulwarks that will protect the island from hurricanes like Sandy and worse. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/nyregion/after-hurricane-sandy-new-york-rebuilds-for-the-future.html?emc=eta1http:// The cost will be billions.  The project will take years.  All I can say is,  just do it.

We New Yorkers are the beneficiaries of the extraordinary foresight and selflessness of our predecessors.  Who remembers DeWitt Clinton (who has a nice park in the West 50s)?  Clinton, a mayor of New York and our 6th governor, was largely responsible for the construction of the Erie Canal, a brilliant bit of foresight without which New York’s preeminence as the financial and commercial capital of our nation (and the culture and amenities that accompany it) would have been unlikely.  Clinton would not of course live to see the consequences of what he worked so hard to achieve.  His work was an act of great generosity.

And then there’s Central Park.  Begun in 1858 when, as my grandmother liked to say, “Broadway was prairie,” it, too, was an act of incredible foresight.  William Cullen Bryant, editor of the Post, helped to promote it, and the city acquired the 843 acres of land– land that could have been used commercially and quite profitably — and financed the extraordinary and expensive undertaking, certainly for the benefit of contemporaries but also with the understanding that the great city they imagined we would become would require the kind of relief valve the park provides.

It’s easy to take things like these for granted (or, as in the case of the Erie Canal, even forget about its contribution to the city we now enjoy).  And, as I have written at length elsewhere, we live in a time when we tend to privilege the satisfaction of our own wants over the needs of the future.  (I’ve been at particular pains to show how this is true in the realms of business and finance.)  We all know that young people today do not anticipate living better than we do and, in most reports, not even as well.  And I suppose it’s worth pointing out the the climate changes that necessitate the barrier construction are the result of processes from which we have benefitted. We need to do what we can to make amends.

One way of doing that is to provide for the continuing safety and survival of our city by using current resources to accomplish that goal even if many, if not most, of us will not be around to be the ultimate beneficiaries.  That is what generations do for one another.  That is how humankind progresses.  I hope construction gets started soon.

Lawrence Mitchell

Come to the Cabaret

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Richard Holbrook is  an artist and a consummate showman.  He is also a dear old friend.  Last night I had the privilege of watching Richard’s new show at Don’t Tell Mama, along with 75 others, many gearing up for the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 25th Annual New York Cabaret Convention (at which Richard will be performing).  So the audience was packed with connoisseurs of the form.  They were on their feet by the end of the show, as was I.

Richard presents an exploration of the songs of Fred Astaire.  (By the way, he is repeating the show next Sunday night at 8).   Most of us think of Fred Astaire primarily as a dancer.  But Richard, who is as good a music historian as he is a performer, tells us that Astaire debuted more songs in the American Songbook than any other singer, and that songwriters loved to write for him.  From the Gershwins to Irving Berlin to Burton Lane (in a real tribute to Richard, Mrs. Burton Lane was in the audience), some of our most-beloved songs were Astaire songs, even if we have come to know them by the covers of other artists.  (I, for one, was surprised by how many songs I associate with Sinatra that were premiered by Astaire.  I probably shouldn’t have been.  Richard tells us that a reason writers liked Astaire was that he sang songs the way they were meant to be sung.  Sinatra — despite his occasional lapses into bad taste – did the same.)

From the opening notes of one of the songs most associated with Astaire, “With a Shine on Your Shoes,”  Richard left no doubt that we were in a for a special evening.  I know Richard to be a kind, elegant, and classy guy.  But boy, can he belt out a tune!  Energy, power, and heart — real heart.  Richard put every bit of his into the show, a gesture of generosity to the audience that deeply appreciated it.  But I don’t want to leave the suggestion that Richard is just a powerful voice.  His singing is beautiful and clear, strongly reminiscent to me in timbre of Mel Torme’s (although probably about a major third in range below Torme, and with a tad more substance than the fog).  Richard’s phrasing is wonderful — he sings songs the way they were meant to be sung.  His respect for the music is a natural expression of his attractive humility.

Richard understands well that each song is a story.  And, using his prodigious knowledge, he spun together the story of Astaire’s musical life (with moments of personal poignance included).  I’m not a big fan of medleys, but Richard managed to combine song fragments in creative and intelligent ways that actually gave me greater understanding of the individual songs.  The excellent Tom Nelson Trio provided great collaboration.  And Richard Barclay’s direction was right on the money, with just enough flash to meet cabaret standards but far more restraint that permitted the music to speak for itself. Go see the show if you have a chance.

Lawrence Mitchell

 

America Today

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Yesterday found me, where I so often am, in the Petrie Sculpture Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working on some poetry.  Draft done, I wandered a bit and, serendipitously for Columbus Day weekend, walked right into the Met’s wonderful new exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton’s 1930 murals for The New School, America Today.  What a treat.

I’ve always liked Benton, despite his bad rap as being out-of-touch (proclaimed loudly by his student — and model for some figures in the murals — Jackson Pollock).  Regionalism has long appealed to me.  (My college-era copy of Appalachian Spring — which I played on the first day of each fall semester — features a cover by Grant Wood, living in the Berkshires gave me an appreciation for rural American beauty, etc., etc.)  I appreciate the regionalists’ efforts to ground their rapidly changing society in core American values.  And, as a Civil War buff, Benton’s provenance always appealed to me — his great-uncle, Thomas Hart Benton, was one of the first two senators from Missouri, a big booster of westward expansion, and the father-in-law of decent Civil War general but first-rate explorer, John Fremont (whom Lincoln relieved of command for insubordination when Fremont prematurely emancipated the slaves in the west).

I also have a soft spot for The New School, for the board room of which the murals were painted.  As a somewhat intellectually precocious child growing up in the metropolitan area, I was fascinated by The New School’s bold progressivism (Thorstein Veblen, Charles Beard, John Dewey, and Horace Kallen were among its founders)  and its history as a refuge for Jewish and other European scholars escaping tyranny.  (The University in Exile was created in 1933.) So I guess what I’m saying is that I was predisposed to like the exhibition.

The Met does a lot of really smart things (like building a replica of a medieval monastery in Fort Tryon Park to house much of the medieval religious collection, recreating an entire Zen garden, housing an entire Egyptian temple, etc., etc.).  So, no surprise here, the murals are displayed in a room that is the scale of the original room in which they were painted, complete with false, backlit windows to create the aura of sunlight.  Before arriving, though, you pass through several well-curated rooms providing the context for America Today – Berenice Abbott photos, work by John Steuart Curry and Jackson Pollock, and lots of Benton’s sketches from his travels around the country prior to The New School commission.

There is no subtlety to the mural’s messages, but then again, there was no real subtlety to the often outspoken Benton.  It is America at a crossroads, vibrant and powerful following The Great War and the Roaring Twenties, but at the cusp of the Depression, having just suffered the 1929 Crash (a future Benton hints at with a transom panel over the entry door depicting raised hands, money, and bread).  Rural life is changing, although clearly less-so in Benton’s panel on the South. Money becomes dominant, traditions break apart.  Farm machinery begins to dominate the Midwest.  Coal’s dominion spreads from mountain to city, broken workers bent with picks held low.  Muscular steel mills manned by muscular men (with the Pollock-modelled figure).  Ominous clouds of black smoke rising above Texas oil wells.  And several tawdry gardens of urban delights, from flappers to strippers to preachers to Salvation Army soldiers to musicians and bar tenders and, in a corner toasting the completion of the murals, Benton himself, with New School President, Alvin Johnson.

It really is Benton at his best.  The motion and rhythms of the murals are entrancing, even overwhelming.  The relatively small scale of the room intensifies the mural’s power.  I had to go around several times, and take a break before returning.  The human figures are touchingly  expressive, from the chain-ganged African Americans, to the aforementioned miners, to the absolutely laugh-out-loud hilariously wonderful figure of the burlesque dancer.  The power, the despair, the dignity, and the riotous rebellion against traditional strictures, are clear, powerful, and undeniable.  The colors are vibrant.   Even the dull silver framing (which very cleverly helps to separate scenes and direct one’s viewing) has a subtle motion as well as an Art-Deco elegance.

The exhibition concludes (just outside the visual respite of the Frank Lloyd Wright Little House living room which, trust me, you’re going to need to walk in to), with a brief film on the history of the murals and the Met’s acquisition of them.  I, for one, am quite grateful to AXA Equitable for keeping them together after The New School sold them, and for the Met’s acquisition.  It would have been a tragic loss for them to have been separated.  As it turns out, the Met does justice to Benton’s work.  I encourage you to go see it.

Lawrence Mitchell

Our Town, or, You Can’t Go Home Again

So, I might have mentioned that one of the joys of being home again is catching up with, and spending time with, friends from whom distance has kept me more or less apart.  There is nobody more special in this regard than Childhood Friend (he of the impulsive ferry ride).  How many people can you count (other than relatives) with whom you have been close for 52 years?  Right.  Not many.  (Bruce, who is also special and of the same vintage, and I have had major gaps, so the same time, but not the same continuity.)

In any event, CF was down from Boston and in the area again, this time in our home town in the northwest suburbs of New York.  (No, not Jersey.  And I wish people would stop saying that when I tell them where I was raised.  OK, it’s near Jersey.  But it is definitely not Jersey. Seriously.) Actually, it wasn’t really even our home town.  I know nobody among my contemporaries who actually was born there.  Some, like Bruce and I, are Brooklyn-born (I, proudly 4th generation Brooklyn).  Others came from the Bronx, some from Queens.  I knew nobody born in Manhattan.  Our town wasn’t that fancy.

But there CF was, checking in with his dad (whom I adore) and planning to attend a reunion for the high school created when our class was divided in two and they built it (the new one) when we were in ninth grade.  (We stayed in the old one but CF had some grade school friends in the new one and he is endlessly curious which is why he was going to the reunion.) And I, not having seen my own parents in too long, and attempting to forestall any assays in Jewish guilt, went up last evening and stayed over to spend time with CF today. (Now that I am a fancy Manhattan-type faynshmecker I don’t own a car but I’m not like a Goldman guy so don’t have a black car at my disposal and I didn’t feel like dragging my dad back here late at night to drive me (upon which he would have insisted) or shlepping on the bus to the Port Authority (on which I would have insisted)).  So I stayed.  And dad cooked the best meal I’ve had since moving home.  But I digress.

There was a reason other than my perfectly understandable distaste for the hideous fluorescence and urinary perfume of night-time Port Authority for me to stay.  CF and I were going to morning Shabbos services at our home town’s Chabad (which most assuredly did not exist when we were growing up and the Catholic kids got dismissed early on Wednesday and bussed in public school busses (which I now know to be a definite violation of the First Amendment — at least until Scalia is the lone justice — to their “release time” at St. Augustine’s when we had to wait until the end of the school day and then be shlepped by carpool to Beth Shalom for Hebrew School where I fell irretrievably and to this day still in love with the beautiful, raven-haired, and charming Mrs. Horowitz (whom I continue to visualize leaning over my desk) after whom I named my pet rabbit (who got offed by a neighbor’s dog while I was in summer camp and about which my parents informed me on visiting day rather matter-of-factly which — I hereby inform them — was not — I repeat — not — mitigated at all by the care package they brought)), in part because, well, both of us gravitated to more hard-core versions of Judaism as we aged (far different from the gentrified Reform Judaisim of our youth during which we both were conspicuously in trouble (conspicuous because at different times each of our fathers respectively presided over the shul and maybe because we were just a little loud) for too much humor and conversation during our Yom Kippur services at Ripples of Rockland (because the shul was too small) which, by the way, is where I had my bar mitzvah which was nothing like a Yom Kippur service — even a Reform one — replete with a Viennese Table and my grandmother frustratedly attempting to teach me to dance, and, where, when the morning service ended, I distinctly remember CF’s dad saying (when we were about 13) that it was time to go home for lunch which, to adolescent Jewish boys just obligated to fast, was nothing short of hilarious.)  Among the things I love about Chabad is that you simply can’t get into trouble for too much conversation and humor (except perhaps if you disrupt the Torah service, which by me is perfectly legit).

And we were going because, well, it sucks, but CF’s mom (to whom we all referred as my second mom, as my mom is to him, and whom I also adored), left us last November, and CF needed to say Kaddish, and we weren’t sure there would be a minyan, and it was good for me to go anyway, so we went.

We needn’t have worried about a Minyan. Chabad of New City is a fairly big operation as it turns out.  As it also turns out, there was an oyfruf that morning and both the bride’s and groom’s family and friends (although not of course the bride whom it is torn for the groom to see) were there which gave us the opportunity to engage in the charming custom of pelting the groom-to-be with candy after his aliyah as he attempted to use his tallis as a shield.  (Surprisingly, it’s evidently halachically OK if candy gets thrown (unintentionally) at the Torah. (I guess that’s simchas Torah.))  It also meant a really good kiddish.  With lox.

[For my gentile friends:  An oyfruf is a custom in Ashkenazic Jewry (I don’t know if the Sephardim do it) during which, on the Shabbos before the wedding, the groom is called to the Torah. And pelted with candy.]

Anyway, the service was lovely, although as usual I was left behind in the davening dust, having come relatively late to my observance with relatively halting Hebrew, which might have been less halting had I paid more attention to the Hebrew and less to Mrs. Horowitz (but there’s no way I’m gonna regret that).   When it was over, and we had enjoyed the kiddish, off we went for a bit of a ride (and to visit CF’s dad).

Now, here’s the thing.  My parents left hometown for the river when I was in law school where they have lived ever since.  By law school, most or all of my friends from high school had dispersed.  As a consequence, I had not set foot in hometown in literally 35 years.  CF, who had been there with some frequency, warned me that it had gotten smaller (a charming reference, of course, to the fact that we had gotten bigger, and thus our perspective on the monumentality of our town would be different).  That, I anticipated.  What I hadn’t anticipated was something else.

I barely recognized a thing.  Really.  Nada.  Nothing.  Bupkus.  Seriously.  As we exited the parkway I had exited countless times in my youth and headed down the hilly boulevard that bisects our town, I was confused.  I had never before seen this place.  As we approached the perpendicular hill on which Old Friend (with whom I had a drink this past week for the first time in 40 years and who, despite his charms, had become distressingly Republican) lived, I had a vague recollection of the topography.  I recognized the sign for our synagogue, but not the shul itself (even though I have memories of my dad on the roof hammering asphalt as it was being built). And, as we approached what we in our youth  referred to as “town,” I recognized not one building.  Not one.  Well, I did recognize the strip mall in which existed the Carvel that employed my brother at the bottom of the hill and supplied us with ice cream cakes on our birthdays, but that was it.

And on it went. It’s not because our town had changed.  Although CF had warned me that it had, the age of the buildings and a slow but gradual recognition of some of them led me to think it hadn’t changed much.  And the ages of the houses were a dead giveaway that it wasn’t them, it was me.  I just didn’t remember.  A place or two, perhaps.  But this was a town I had traversed constantly on foot, in which I had delivered newspapers on bicycle (and that for much of the town — CF and I used to help each other out on our respective paper routes which were, respectively, on either side of the great divide).

Now, to be a little fair to me, our town is rather anodyne.  There is nothing especially charming about it.  It lacks any form of monumentality or architectural distinction.  It was perfectly purely engagingly bland suburbia.  Not even the glitzy suburbia of John Cheever’s imagination, the suburbia of restrictive covenants (places like Bronxville and Tuxedo Park that wouldn’t have had us even if we could have afforded it, or the fancy suburbs that would take a Jew or two which I assumed was for kids born in Manhattan, like Scarsdale and Chappaqua), not the suburbia of martinis and illicit affairs about which everybody knew.  Nope.  Bland, developer-model house suburbia. With streets named after the builders’ wives and kids (which was really weird when we moved to the fancy part of town and the builder and his wife and kids lived across the street from us).

That said, you would think.  Wouldn’t you?

And, just as an aside, there is absolutely nothing wrong with my memory (or so I thought).  Nor my ability to visualize. (Just ask the artist, Native Companion, about my visual sense.)  Nor my sense of landmark and direction.  Seriously, I can (and have) gone to cities around the world in which I’ve never ever been and find my way all around them on foot.  But something was amiss.  I think I had a happy childhood, so traumatic repression can’t explain it.

There you have it.  I write this (at risk of personal embarrassment) not so much to explicate (for what have I to explicate?) but to posit and explore.  Has anything like this happened to any of you?

Please don’t tell me that it hasn’t.

Lawrence Mitchell

Fear and Loathing

I’ve been struck by a contrasting set of reactions to two world tragedies.  On one hand, almost the entire world is highly (and, I think, unreflectingly) critical of Israel’s self-defense against an enemy sworn to destroy it and that rains down bombs on its citizens by the thousands. On the other hand, most of the world is oddly averse to leveling even the mildest criticism against Russia for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.  This is strikingly true of the two countries most affected, the Netherlands and Malaysia.  A principal explanation of each reaction, I think, is fear, and so I shall spend the next couple of posts musing a bit on fear and loathing.   Fear, I shall argue or at least speculate, is the root of most evil.  Fear can lead seemingly decent humans to behaviors that, viewed clearly and without apology or excuse, none of us can respect.

I think there is little question that what is happening in Gaza is tragic, and that the loss of civilian life is terrible.  And, although I am no great fan of President Obama’s, I also doubt very much that he (who has shown himself to be very cautious) would have accused Russia of complicity in the bombing of the airplane without some pretty good evidence (a statement I would not have made about his predecessor).

Why the different reactions?  Why the loathing, in the case of Israel, and the fear, in the case of Russia?  Well, I don’t know, but I’m going to speculate that in both cases the answer is fear.  Fear, I think, produces loathing as well as its more mundane variety.  The difference, I’m going to speculate, is in the relative power positions of those reacting.  So, the Netherlands is highly economically dependent upon Russia for energy.  Never mind that Russia reaps profits from selling the Dutch oil and would likely not forego those profits because the Dutch stood up for themselves.  But, one can at least see how the Dutch perceive themselves to be highly vulnerable.  Vulnerability leads the fearful to be silent.  Prime Minister Rutte’s reaction echoes the voice of Neville Chamberlain.

Israel is strong, at least relatively speaking.  The complexity of world reaction to strong Jews is itself a phenomenon, but one I shall skip in these postings.

The Dutch and Malay are dishonoring their own dead in giving in to their fears, and repeating an historical pattern that in the long run only leads to disaster.  The world, in general is, in its loathing, isolating Israel in a manner that could legitimately produce defiance of that world rather than cooperation.  No matter how it manifests, fear is a terrible emotion. Because ultimately fear brings hate, contempt, and retribution.

So to begin.  Fear, like most human emotions, comes in a variety of forms.  There is of course the simple fear of physical danger.  This kind of fear is immediate and must be confronted.  We are told that the well-known fight or flight response characterizes this kind of fear.  And most of us do flee or fight.  But it’s not as simple as all that.  There is the biological reaction to fear — survival. And then there is the moral reaction.

When the object of our fear is not human or not animate, how do we react?  If the danger confronts us alone, it’s hard to imagine immoral reactions, unless the consequence of our reaction is to put others in danger.  But what if we are not alone?  I don’t have to outrun the bear — I only have to outrun you?  I’ll get off the ferry and abandon the passengers?    We’ll kill and eat the weakest among us so we don’t starve?

We are slow to judge the morality of most of these types of behaviors simply because the physical imperative is so immediate.  Sometimes (as in the cannabilism case), our inherent utilitarianism provides a justification in the greatest good for the greatest number.  Sometimes we understand that we ourselves don’t know how we actually would react in such circumstances, although we like to think we’d act morally, by which I mean with regard to other people.

Another relatively simple and obvious kind of fear is fear of the unknown.  I will have little to say about this except to suggest that our reactions probably run the gamut of our reactions to other kinds of fears.  But, related to this, is another kind of fear — fear of the other.  We know what that often produces — prejudice and hate.

And then there is fear of a threat to our general well-being, whether it is specific or general. It is this kind of fear that explains the silence of most Germans in the face of the Holocaust.  It is this kind of fear that explains Vichy France.  It is this kind of fear that, every day, leads individuals in the workplace, in families, in institutions and organizations, to remain silent in the face of obvious injustice.

One of the marvels of the human mind is our ability to rationalize.  And it is in fear that our rationalizations often are most creative.  Those of us who allow harm to come to others for our own perceived safety, whether that harm is physical, imagined threats of the other, or threats to our sense of well-being, generally convince ourselves that we act with motives other than fear.  In the case of physical harm, the threat is obvious and we can identify with it enough that less rationalization usually is necessary.  Everybody understands the survival instinct.  It’s when the threats are less immediate and physical that rationalization triumphs. “Not enough evidence,” is a good excuse, and is the one used by Prime Minister Rutte.  “I don’t know who’s right.”  Sometimes we even blame the victim.  “She had it coming to her.”  “If he hadn’t done x, this never would have happened.”  Variations of these latter are used in the case of Israel.

Enough for today.  I urge every reader to think about the ways in which we translate fear into bad behavior.  And of how fear can breed loathing.

Lawrence Mitchell

Do the Hustle

New York is full of great things to do all-year round.  But, for me, the more serious pursuits of autumn — opera, museums, drama —  give way to freer-spirited festivities in summer. Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor concerts, riding the ferry to nowhere (the last of which I did, albeit somewhat unintentionally, with Childhood  Friend last weekend.  Who knew that you had to get off at Governor’s Island, buy a return ticket, and wait for the next boat?  I suppose we would have had we paid attention, but CF and I talk to one another entirely too much for that.  Besides, we’re both just a tad impulsive.)

One of the funner things I’ve recently done was to attend Midsummer Nights Swing in Damrosch Park (which is basically my backyard) with Boon Buddy.  On the particular Thursday night we chose to go,  the theme was disco, hosted by the wonderfully-named Losers  Lounge (who are neither losers nor a lounge), and the dance lesson was of that venerable staple of my college years, the Hustle, which none of us back then knew how to do.  At least I didn’t.  I more or less Peanuts danced with white man’s overbite.  Turns out that a forty-five minute lesson doesn’t do much to change this.

Permit me to pause on the music before we reach the dancing.  The history of American popular music seems to reveal the requirement that every generation must reject the music of its parents before, a decade or so later, it returns as nostalgia for those who hadn’t quite lived it. The nostalgia is invariably accompanied by irony so, heaven-forbid, your friends don’t think you actually like the stuff for its own sake.  But then, something funny tends to happen. Once the irony starts to wear off, everybody realizes that they actually like the music for its own sake.  And why wouldn’t they?  Good music is good music.  We don’t throw out Rembrandt just because Picasso started painting.

So it is with disco.  Good disco is good music.  It’s fun, the beats are great, the harmonies, orchestrations, and vocalizations generally are lush, if a bit straightforward.  It’s happy music.  What’s wrong with that? Ok, leisure suits, gold chains, pointy shoes.  But I’m talking about music here, not fashion.  In order for the fashion industry, like the auto industry, to survive, it requires consumers constantly to be changing their preferences in order to keep them buying.  It does this by making it embarrassing to wear perfectly good if outmoded clothes. But music is infinitely elastic.  True, we only have so much time to listen.  But we don’t have to throw away music to hear more music.  You can only wear so many clothes.  You can listen to music all the time.  In any event, I’m glad it’s ok to listen to disco again without irony.

That said (about fashion), I seized the opportunity to wear my flamboyant jungle-print Versace silk shirt, white pants, and white shoes.  I mean, it’s disco, right?  (I got a lot of compliments on the shirt.  It is kinda gorgeous in a Robin Williams-Birdcage sort of way.  But I can’t wear it to the opera.)

In any event, we met at Damrosch Park which was decked out like the high school gym on prom night (except most people, bowing to the reality of a reasonably humid June night, had the good sense to wear light clothing, including shorts for men.  I’m not going to take your time on my rant about how men of a certain age ought not to wear shorts unless they’re playing sports, and most certainly should never wear shorts in a restaurant lacking a 99 cent menu (which I see them do all the time), but I did get the point, especially about 15 minutes in when my Versace was rather wet.  Anyway, I digress . . . .)

The dance floor was large and nicely assembled.  The big stage was ready for some serious music and dancing.  The teacher came onto the stage.  And then.

“Take a partner.”  Oops.  This wasn’t high school prom, it was junior high dance.  Yours truly, who is very shy around women, turned to BB in horror. But BB, far more composed and self-assured (as he has always been) was confidently striding toward a woman.  Lucky for me, as I turned a bit further, a very kind young woman took pity on me and asked if I would be her partner.  Phew.

It got worse.  You see, this is a really fun event.  But, before you take a dance lesson with several hundred other people, it probably helps if you have some idea how to dance in the first place.  Our instructor was doing her best, but she had forty-five minutes and was up on the stage.  Nevertheless, the terms “ball turn” and “Michael Jackson Michael Jackson” didn’t mean very much to me.  Fortunately, neither did they to my partner.  After a few false starts, we conferred.  She suggested, quite intelligently, that we try to make sure we were doing whatever it was we thought we were doing at least in the right order and at the right times, and that perhaps other things would fall into place.  At least I think this is what she was trying to say when she gave me a dirty look and said, “do it.”

So I did.  Forty-five minutes later, I can’t say I quite knew how to hustle, and still didn’t get “Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson,” but, as the lesson ended, my partner smiled sweetly and thanked me for the dance.  She went to find her friends.  That would have meant I had to ask another woman to dance as the dance actually began. Fortunately, BB wanted a beer, so we hung out for a couple of hours, mostly watching the professionals in the crowd and trying to analyze their steps for next time, I pretending that I was just too cool to ask just any other girl to dance.  But it’s good that we tried to learn something. Because we’re going back.

Lawrence Mitchell

Storm King

Fifty miles north of The George Washington Bridge, on the west bank of the Hudson, is one of New York’s cultural treasures. Storm King Art Center is, in my experience, the most extraordinary outdoor collection of sculptures ever assembled.  But it is more than a collection of sculptures.  The landscape and art are curated together (and, in the case of one remarkable Maya Lin installation, are one and the same), creating almost a symphonic interplay of shape and color, structure and freedom, theme, counter theme, obligato, and counterpoint.  At least that is how it seems to a musician who loves the visual arts.

A day at Storm King would be special even without the sculpture.  Although it is hard by the Thruway, you can close your eyes and pretend that the ebb and flow of traffic noise is nothing more than the waves lapping the shore (except when a truck backfires – but that’s only a foghorn)!  The mountain is lovely.  Broad mowed fields, clumps of forest, high wavy grasses. The topography is gentle.  Hills, yes, but nothing terribly strenuous.  (If you must, there is a tram that circulates throughout the property.  Native Companion, who is herself an artist and has visited Storm King many times, insisted that we board it.  Fortunately for me — I love walking — we always just kept missing it, and so walk we did.)

It was a glorious day, apple green beneath a Simpsons sky.  Although I know the hot and sticky weather is coming, after 20 years of living in Our Nation’s Capital it is a pleasure to have the occasional summer day that is sunny and warm enough but (relatively) dry. The parking lots were full but, among the other joys of Storm King is that the facility (I know, a strange word choice for a mountain) is so vast that you would never have known.

I will refrain from using the word “monumental” more than once, for the sculptures at Storm King are almost entirely of a scale that befits a mountain.  But — just once.  We parked in the South Lot and began to stroll down the tree-lined, unfortunately named “Bunny Road,”  a name that seems to me to belie the intensity of the art.  And, to our left, arising amid a rolling meadow, was a collection of — here it comes — monumental Mark Di Suvero sculptures.  As we say on Pesach, dayenu!  Abstraction be damned, nobody had to tell me which of the ten sculptures was Mozart’s Birthday, nor Beethoven’s Quartet for that matter.  Just as Bruce Lazarus creates sculpture out of music, so Di Suvero creates music out of metal.  Up a meadowy hill to the right and – there was  Maya Lin’s Wavefield.  One looks down upon a vast installation of earthwork, grass-covered, mini-mountains and valleys. Not western mountains, but eastern. Anybody who has ever flown over the Alleghenies or Catskills would easily recognize the rhythm and flow.  Anyone who has ever stood on the beach at Nauset would see the continuum of earth and sea. Anyone who has been to the Vietnam Memorial would recognize the artist. Rain had soaked the earth, prohibiting us from walking among them, but no matter.  Breathtaking.

Don’t worry.  I’m not going to comment on all 136 sculptures in the permanent installation.  Yes, count them, 136.  And that doesn’t include the truly extraordinary special exhibit of the work of Chinese sculptor Zhang Huan, about which more later.  But indulge me on just a few.

It was a pleasure to see a Roy Lichtenstein that reminded one of why he was a great artist, before all the knock-offs made him seem quondam. HIs Mermaid, a fancifully painted sailing yacht’s hull, positioned by the water that meanders through the property, made me smile.   Up the mountain and on the other side of the museum building, the Noguchi beckons you to sit on it, even from a distance, and the breathtaking Richard Serra invites you to ignore the improbable balance and stand beneath it.  Nevelson, Smith, Calder, Moore, Oldenburg, etc., etc., and so forth.  It seems as if every great modern sculptor is represented.  Down towards the north parking was one of my favorite places — a pasture populated with two Alexander Liberman pieces.  Again, smile.  Despite their industrial monumentality (sorry, there it is again) they seem like such a natural part of the landscape that you can’t help but just be happy that humans are sufficiently brilliant to collaborate on art and nature in such an aesthetically satisfying manner.  It’s certainly beyond my imagination.

And then — the Zhang.  Holy Buddha!  As we walked up the hill bordered by the achingly beautiful dry-stone serpentine wall created by Andy Goldsworthy, emerging from the shade of the trees, one sees on the hill a gigantic bronze temple bell from which is suspended as a clapper (but below the rim of the bell to make it wholly-visible) a life-sized sculpture of the artist in gold leaf.  The manner in which this literally binds the artist to his cultural and religious tradition is profound.  But it took me a moment.  To an American observer, it bore at first a disturbing resemblance to a lynching.  But art, if nothing else, allows us access to other cultures in a manner both intellectual and visceral, and my first reaction gave way to appreciative wonderment.  Zhang creates, among other things, intentional ruins, as the outstretched copper-clad  arm of a Buddha statute beckoning in the grass called.  And he plays with tradition, as his Three-Legged Buddha, disembodied head in the grass below the tripod of legs,  led me to think about the adaptability of tradition.  Inside the small, Dutch-stone museum, was a video of Zhang, both engaged in his performance art and talking about his work, as well as several smaller pieces constructed of the ash from temple incense.  The Zhang exhibition runs only through November.  See it.

Departing the mountain, the contrast of the view into the valley (to dignify it) of Woodbury Commons Outlet Mall was more than a little striking.  Just a few miles south of an experience so profound as to be religious is the other side of us.  Lest you think I’m snobby, I would have stopped to shop — honest — but the crowds were overwhelming.  I was happier letting the Storm King experience slowly penetrate.  I can’t wait to go back.

Lawrence Mitchell

Crying Over Spilt Borscht

As you know from previous entries, Jewish history and culture are among my interests.  Thus it was that, Saturday morning, I was train-bound for Tarrytown, New York.  There I was met by my dear and erstwhile friend to whom, for purposes of this essay and in tribute to the late, great David Foster Wallace, I shall refer as Native Companion.  For Native Companion had been raised in Liberty, Sullivan County, New York, in a Brigadoon that was known in its day as the Borscht Belt.  Better yet, Native Companion is herself Borscht Royalty.  A relative of fairly close consanguinity owned one of the great hotels, and employed her father and, later, her.  (Come to think of it, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Jennifer Grey.)  So, while not on the level of a duchess, she occupies a rung somewhat higher than a provincial peerage. In any event, her life and upbringing creates in her some of the embodied history of that storied place.  She’s also got some great stories.

My family wasn’t especially borscht.  I am fourth generation American which, by Eastern European Jewish standards, makes me eligible for membership in the Mayflower Society.  (Or at least the Sons of Flatbush.) By my parents’ generation, although we were reasonably observant as far as Reform Jews went and culturally quite Jewish in a New York sort of way, we were also pretty well assimilated.  Even my grandparents were well on the way to Americanism.  That said, my mom’s parents had a bit more of the borscht in them than my dad’s, and were habitués of the Homowack hotel in Ellenville.  They were kind enough to bring me with them on a couple of occasions.  It was a treat I remember well

Nonetheless, Native Companion had it all over me. As we followed the rising sun into the beautiful Catskill mountains, she fairly kvelled.  And kvell she should; it was truly beautiful, and she was home.  Ellenville,  South Fallsburg, Kiamesha, Loch Sheldrake, Liberty.  The Homowack, the Raleigh, the Concord, Brown’s, Grossinger’s.  The names resound with the echo of tumult, raucous dining rooms, and raunchy comics.  I was thrilled to be there.

And then. Grossinger’s. Peaking proudly above the hill, just as it always did.  Up we drove.  Approaching the unmanned gate, we saw the mass of a sprawling, burned-out hulk. Acres of ruins.  I understand precisely what it must have felt like for a middle class Roman, circa 480 or so, to go back for a visit.  Chain-link fencing surrounding the property (which was better than the Paramount in Parksville which is equally a wreck and wholly unguarded).  Overgrown everything.  Trash everywhere.  What a change from the era in which these institutions competed to have the most modern and up-to-date facilities, the cleanest and most beautiful properties.  What a change from an era in which the hills echoed with the sounds of Saturday lunch.  (Dairy because it required no cooking on Shabbos– bagels, lox, fish — fantastic).

It’s easy to make fun of the Catskills.  And, as recently as at last night’s Tony Awards, people have.   There was, after all, a vulgarity about the massive and constant quantities of food, the inactivity between meals of the patrons lounging amid unused recreational facilities, the acts in the nightclubs which could range from the extraordinary to the simply crude  (coexisting in brilliant balance in Buddy Hackett).

But the Borscht Belt mattered.  It mattered for several reasons.  First, it gave New York Jews of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, a place to go.  They weren’t welcome at gentile resorts.  This was the era of the gentlemen’s agreement, when  towns like Bronxville still maintained restrictive covenants in deeds, when young Jews graduating from law school could find work in only a handful of firms, and young engineers — forget it.  These were places were Jews could go and be embraced, comfortable within themselves. And the kosher menus meant that Jews of all levels of observance would be accommodated.

Second, it was a place where middle class Jews could go.  These resorts were not expensive.  Their all-inclusive nature meant that families of modest means could spend time there without worrying about racking up an unexpected and unaffordable bill. And they were close to New York.  Transportation was cheap, and families could stay throughout the week with dads coming up on weekends.

Third, they provided their guests, many of whom had only recently entered the middle class, with a patina of sophistication.  I will never forget the thrill I experienced at the childrens’ “cocktail party” at the Homowack, when I was given a ruby Shirley Temple in a highball glass glistening with ice, with a huge, multicolored paper fan sticking out.  (I’m not even mentioning the pigs in blankets or little eggrolls, which will lead me to crash the next bar mitzvah I can find!)  Menus were written creatively to rename ordinary dishes in European style.  The modernist architecture of many of the hotels conveyed its own sort of sophistication.

Fourth, they were safe.  They were in the country, the properties were self-contained, and there were plenty of activities for kids, who could roam at will.  Finally, they were places where hard-working balabustas could leave the kitchen and relax, where women whose role in life was to take care of everybody else could, for a time, be taken care of by others.

There are many reasons why the hotels finally failed, but I’ll mention just a few.  First, by the 1970s, and certainly by the 1980s, gentile resorts could no longer afford to exclude Jews.  We had very solidly entered the middle class, and had become as prolific consumers as everybody else.  Second, as Jews increasingly assimilated, the attraction of kosher resorts diminished.  Third, options increased,  Atlantic City opened.  Resorts developed in the Poconos.  Air travel and cruises became more affordable.  And, like all Americans, middle class Jews were anxious to see their own country and the world.

My reaction in the mountains on Saturday was one of deep sadness.  On reflection, I think that was the wrong reaction.  Sure, nostalgia for one’s youth, for loved ones who are gone, for a culture that was very special and specific to time and place, tugs at the heart.  And it is sad that the properties clearly haven’t sold or, if they have, the buyers have not seen the economic viability of tearing down buildings and developing alternatives.  Saddest of all is to drive through the towns and see once prosperous middle class houses owned by the hotel workers and the professionals who served them sitting as wrecks only slightly better than the hotels themselves, to see already small houses subdivided into apartments, to see the economic devastation of a region that politics has prevented from prospering.

But for the story of the Jews, sadness is misplaced.  The hotels are gone, largely because we have succeeded.  We have entered the mainstream, become American, have been accepted as American.  (I want to be very cautious here because we all know that anti-Semitism is alive and well and on the rise, but I am writing here in relative terms).  The story of the fall of the Borscht Belt is the story of the thriving of the Jews.  I’ll take the trade.

Lawrence Mitchell