Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Sarah Katzman and the $700 Bat Mitzvah…by Robert M. Katzman

Robert M. Katzman’s Amazing Story:  http://www.differentslants.com/?p=355 

September 2009

 

Part One

I beg for your patience, because to find the glowing nugget of celebration that lies at the heart of this moving and true story, a person must delve deep inside the seemingly hopeless drama that surrounded it, fiercely, during the cruel economic Recession of 2009.

So, to begin, it starts like this:

Some necessary facts—

Joyce, my friend and wife of 35 years, was born Lutheran, is mostly Scandinavian and lived in a completely Christian southern suburb of Chicago, when she was the same age as our youngest daughter Sarah is, in this story.  She converted to Judaism in 1975.

Sarah, my luminescent daughter, now thirteen, is adopted and also happens to be Scandinavian.  She has been part of our lives since she was six weeks old and knows of no other family dynamic or culture, but ours.

Helen, my adored (and how else would you put it?) Mother-in-Law, now ninety, lives with us, next to Sarah’s room and down the hall from ours.  Wise and strong, the mother of eight and grandmother of multitudes, she too is Scandinavian, of course, and remains Lutheran.

So, whatever else you read from this point on, it is very safe to assume that Norway and Denmark are two of the best places on earth.  Why?  Well, just look what they sent to me, steadily, and how much love and goodness came along with those gifts, as you will eventually see.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 After a long slow tortuous decline, reasonably blamed on the run-up to the present killer Recession, the community where I had my collectible periodical and poster store since 1990 began to seriously implode in 2009.

Never a Mecca of excitement to begin with, my town—let’s just call it Sleepyville—was mostly composed of neat, modest middle-class homes and a series of national franchises on a main drag connecting two major very long, very wide Interstate highway on/off ramps, about six miles apart.

A lot of very fast traffic racing between those two Interstates passed my store daily—thousands of cars, too—but year, by year, by year, less and less of those cars bothered to stop at the dozens of small owner operated shops that lined the north and south sides of that east-west connecting road that was the commercial heart of Sleepyville.

There was little crime there, but virtually no night life at all.  People who slept there went elsewhere for entertainment.  But, as the bad times silently crept into each local home, eerily like the fabled Old Testament’s Angel of Death soaring over ancient Egypt and killing all of their first born, more and more people stopped going anywhere.

The economic death of a community is hushed.  A person opening a letter telling them they are no longer employed.  A sixty-five year-old couple reading a statement from their investment company informing them, in bloodless black type, that the value of their thirty years of carefully invested saving’s value has collapsed, and instead of having $100,000 to see them through their twilight years, they now have, perhaps, $25,000.

Retirements delayed.  College tuitions no longer able to be paid.  Travel plans shelved.  No more eating out in restaurants, buying new clothes, buying cars, buying even gas, or going to see a new movie.  These ordinary people become stalled in living their lives, their homes fragile refuges from the terrifying intensity of the unstoppable financial storm.  The people huddled within them clutch their few pennies in their fists; hunker down in their living rooms and bedrooms, listening to the ever growing number of casualties tossed from their homes, losing their insurance bewildered as their fates are trampled by sophisticated and far-away moneymen they never met, who indifferently sold out their futures.

Like being robbed by the wind.

Big stores closed.  Then little ones.  Community mainstays shuttered their doors and all the circulating money simply…stopped…circulating…at…all.

The noose relentlessly tightened.

Dad, a senior executive of his large American company, receives a call and learns that his manufacturing division has closed.  Or moved offshore.  Or has been sold.  And regrettably, he is now deemed valueless, or as they say now, like robots communicating, he is redundant.  He is an excess expense on someone, somewhere’s balance sheet.  Our shareholders demand their 3% annual growth.  Of course, you understand.

No gold watch.  No retirement party.  No more salary and worst of all, especially at his age, no more health insurance.  Dad woodenly drops the phone onto its cradle.  He stares into the abyss.  He is sixty.  He will never work again.

What will he say to his wife?

He can’t sell his house because no one can sell their house since the bloated real estate market balloon burst years ago.  He can’t even get an equity loan since his mortgage is now more than his house is worth.

Before the millions of people affected can grasp the enormity of the economic contraction that’s choking this country, they have to quietly do the math.  And somewhere on their yellow legal pads, they see that the short column of income and assets falls shockingly short of the long column of expenses.  Then, a hand clenches a # 2 pencil and stops writing…pushing the sharp point ever harder onto the paper until the soft graphite crumbles, leaving the blunted pencil nestled in a pile of tiny wooden chips.

Writing stops.  Income stopped.  Possibilities stopped.  Medicine stopped.  Choices stopped and futures are frozen, all because evil men in some executive suite felt safe enough to deliberately make the wrong decision, because the result would be a fat bonus for them.  One can only hope that those criminal executives are some of the stunned many swept up in the wreckage of a manipulated economic national disaster.

One hundred and twenty of Sleepyville’s old and new stores died.  I was number one hundred and twenty-one.  Although I was not a franchise, though my store was so unusual that there were only six others like it in America, that uniqueness couldn’t save me.  Everyone is crushed equally under the massive juggernaut of the meat grinder recession, and my number finally came up.

Two dozen Sleepyville municipal village employees were laid off.  The Chamber of Commerce office, now a bitter joke, closed.  The streets remained empty of foot traffic all day, as did the parking lots.

An ironic blessing: Even though I was four months late paying my annual business license fee, there weren’t enough employees left working at City Hall to notice my delinquency.  That $250 fee due will eventually go to replacing a broken alternator in my 1996 Dodge Caravan.  A well hidden blessing, however, since I didn’t have the $250 to pay to anyone in the first place.

So, on August 1st, 2009, Magazine Memories, consisting of 140,000 periodicals and newspapers going back to 1840—previously in steady demand as birthday and anniversary gifts—and its 30,000 movie posters, faced up to its extinction.  I was its last remaining employee, so there were no other shoulders to cry on.  A silent death.

With my last dollars, I began to buy cardboard boxes which had to be quickly filled and packed away… somewhere.  The first purchase was for 300 boxes.  Although I was the Chief Executive of my employee-less corporation, I did not make any selfish mistakes.  It was my hands that were digging my grave.  No gold watch, after twenty-five years, no retirement party, no more income and no known future.

But as the enormity of the work overwhelmed me, and the August 31st deadline I must be out by loomed, a barely perceptible but incredible thing happened.  Volunteers arrived to help me.  I found the hands of men and women all around me, filling boxes for hours.  A retired history teacher, Paul, filled 200 boxes of old Playboys.

One of them was a dear friend, an actual carpenter named Bruce Matteson, who, though afflicted with a back injury, repeatedly showed up to contribute his large white van, his many skills in disassembling my endless wooden shelving and to try and reassure me that my world was not coming to an end.  I tried to stop him from working so hard, but forget that.  It was suicidal assistance and friendship all smashed together.

Working side by side, we were the ultimate executioners of a terminal store.

Like retail organ harvesters, we wordlessly and methodically took apart my solidly-built twenty-year-old wooden racks that were 12 to 16 feet long and 7 feet high which used to individually hold approximately two to four thousand back issues each, of Life, Look, Post, Playboy, Good Housekeeping or Scientific American magazines, and reduced them to neat and growing piles of planks of wood.

The hundreds of valuable metal support brackets went in one box and the thousands of screws in another.  Like hearts and lungs from crash victims, those recyclable components would live again one day, in a new corporate body.

Bruce, a professional, maintained a serious expression on his face with no distracting chit chat.  Me?  Iwas in mourning and the work was both sad and therapeutic.  I’m saving something.  I intend to rise again.  The classic retail addiction.  But I was lost in my thoughts and had no wish to speak.  All that was heard was the raspy sound of planks sliding onto planks and the steady clink of bits of metal filling cardboard boxes.

This continues from dawn to dark.  Some men spoke other languages and were there because a man I knew, who realized my plight and was someone who understood what a treasure my store was, offered me some money to hire them and to rent trucks.  Big trucks to move endless boxes.

As each hour flew by, I, we, raced to finish the job.  What I initially thought might be, at most, nine hundred boxes, defied my comprehension of what a Herculean task this was.  The number of boxes swelled to become three thousand.   Rented storage unit, after rented storage unit, rapidly filled up: Top to bottom, front to back and wall to wall.  Like mighty ants, the strong young men swarmed over the boxes packing them as tightly as they could, but there were always more to pack, as each night fell.

I thought to myself, in the fog of the unimaginable work, of the futility of this insane amount of labor, as I filled and sealed my thousandth box:

Will I ever open this box again?  When?  If not, what can I do to feed my family?”

And then, the brutal realization.

What becomes of Sarah’s very significant thirteenth birthday on September 11th and her Bat Mitzvah the next day, Saturday, September 12th?  Was she to be a forgotten pebble in this terrible avalanche?

 

Part Two

A Bat Mitzvah (which means, a good deed), is a once in a lifetime coming of age ceremony and then a party celebrating what Sarah had worked for four years to achieve.  Now, it was only three weeks away.

Was there to be no mercy for the children, as my country cries and the unemployed zoomed into the millions?

This microscopic, in the grand scheme of things, but highly personal and emotional event in all of our lives was always intended to be a modest event.  But now, even “modest” was out of our reach.

As to: Modest?  A modern day middle-class Bat Mitzvah (Bar means for boys) can easily cost $10,000.  But if the underlying objective is for the parents to advertise their wealth, influence and prosperity to the world, it can be $100,000 or much higher.  But then, it is no longer about the child.

However, with careful planning concerning all details, i.e. choosing invitations, renting a hall, buying a special dress for the girl, ordering the food, having it catered with someone to clean everything up afterwards, a dessert table, a professionally produced movie, now common, about the sequential phases in the child’s life from zero to thirteen, a photographer, a videographer (for the party)—and it is not difficult to go on from there—a very small, unpretentious Bat Mitzvah celebration could still cost $5,000.

But none of this was possible now, on any scale.  Sarah, however, remained unaware of this reality.  Both a blessing…and a lie.

Joyce, afflicted with multiple sclerosis that robbed her of a decade old job as a controller in a surgical center, then consequently, causing the loss of our house as well as half our income evaporated—had watched this last act disaster of the failure of my business from the sidelines, keeping silent, impotent to stop it, a prisoner of her body.  She didn’t know what I knew.  I hadn’t had the nerve to tell her.

Then she too, a strong-willed woman, and then Sarah, plunged in to help box up the sea of our magazines as fast as they could.  Part of a family and unwilling to do nothing to help out.

But Joy still thought, somehow, there was money for a party for Sarah.  And Sarah still thought there was money for a party for her that all her many friends from both Hebrew and public school would come to.  I clung to that lie.  I couldn’t face the rotten reality, or them.  I embraced them for their work, but said nothing of their expectations about our tomorrows.  That secret was an acid that burned my mind, and my heart.

With all the three thousand magazine boxes finally filled, ninety per cent of the store’s 5,500 square feet were empty.  Only the massed thirty thousand movie posters grouped in a large semi-circle facing the store’s double-doors remained to be removed, loaded into the trucks and carted away.

But there was a pause now before the final removal of my inventory.  Almost everyone who was either paid or volunteered to help up to this point, was gone.  I stopped renting trucks.  Thirteen days remained until I must be out, forever.

Cursed with what I knew, I steeled myself to tell Joyce the truth.  But not Sarah.  She continued to study with the temple’s cantor, a professionally trained person who teaches the ancient melodies and rhythm of the Hebrew prayers.  She continued to prepare for her milestone.  I could not face Sarah.

Alone in our bedroom the next morning while Sarah was at school, I told Joy.

Joy collapsed like a puppet without a hand inside of it, falling on the bed.  She was speechless.  She has planned this event in her mind for years.  With all of our other three children either married or gone from our house, this likely would be the last extended family-wide party we would have.  Joyce wanted it to be wonderful.  Special.  Imaginative and unforgettable.  She spent months making the invitations by hand, mailed three weeks before, to save some money and because she is an artist of great talent.  Other people have told her this and many had begun to respond with their little white cards, confirming they are coming both to Sarah’s ceremony and her party, afterwards.

Joyce screamed at me.  She cried.  She was betrayed by me.  She was humiliated.  Then she became very angry.

I didn’t respond to her fury.  How could I?  Though I was innocent in my failure to make a living as the area around my store became a ghost town—to Joyce, to Sarah and finally to myself, I was very, very guilty.  And unforgivable.

Yet still, Sarah didn’t know.

All our relatives still didn’t know.

Sarah’s many friends still didn’t know.

I was the monster.

Joys wasted no time in confirming this image we shared of me.

Then she inadvertently reminded me of our different youths and faiths by crying.

“We’ll cancel the Bat Mitzvah!  That’s all we can do.”

She raged at me, showering me with all she couldn’t do, all she couldn’t fix.

I held her shaking shoulders and whispered to my beautiful former Lutheran,

“Joy, there is no time but this time. There is no rescheduling.  Sarah will never forget, nor never forgive this betrayal.  She is thirteen and among the Jews, this is her time to be recognized as a woman.”

 I fell silent.  My gravely delivered facts remained unfunded.  I was an empty suit, pontificating.

With no faith in it, I resolved to raise the money.  Thirteen days remained until the closing of my store.

My bank said no, as they rationally should.   The few friends to whom I forced myself to confess this sorry situation to wished I had remained silent, so they didn’t have to refuse me as their own lives demanded.

But…I believe in God.

Why must this be so?

Why never any slack?

Why the eternal struggle and have to deny Sarah her day?

I stood alone in the middle of my darkened store…staring at the empty shelves, at the littered floor, at my unplugged cash register.  And I raged.

I raged in the echoing thousands of square feet, hating my cruel indifferent God.

“Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!”

 I screamed in the darkness, but no one heard me.

“Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!  Damn!!”

 Then, silence.

Exhausted, I stopped my cursing and sank down to the floor, sitting with my head resting on my knees.  It would not be the last time I would be this close to the floor of my store in the very few days to come.

Then, feeling empty, powerless, I robotically scanned my retail tomb.

I saw the enormous hoard of movie posters, from the back of them.  They were arced all around the doorway like the Israelites preparing to flee Pharaoh and all of his chariots.

The thousands and thousands of massed posters, all facing the two doors from ten different directions.

My thousands upon thousands of…beautiful…international…posters…which I had sold for the last twenty years for $30 to $100 and more…each.

Until recently.

And the idea came.

Someone…was listening.

 

Part Three

  I stood up and walked over to a table.  There were some blank white sheets of fax paper scattered across the surface, and then I saw a black marking pen.  I quickly wrote down three lines each on two of the sheets:

 

                                             MONSTER POSTER BLOWOUT!!!                                                  

                                          ALL POSTERS ARE  $10.00 EACH!!!

                                                                                     

 Grabbing the 8 and ½ x 11 sheets, I raced out the door to a copy center one mile away.  For nine dollars each, I could blow up the crude handwritten signs to three feet by five feet, big enough to seen by all of those cars racing by my windows, day after day.

I counted the cash in my pocket.

Forty bucks. 

I told the cute clerk,

“Make two of each sign, maximum length and width.”

 Ten minutes later and thirty-six dollars lighter, I raced back to the store, turned on all the lights and climbed into each dusty window. Standing on a couple of plastic milk crates, I taped one set of my two signs as high as I could to the top of the western windows so they can be seen over the tops of any cars that might be parked in front of my store.  Then I did the same on the eastern windows.

Lastly, I plugged in and turned on the dusty, flickering orange “OPEN” sign…and then tied open both glass doors so the world could storm in.

And I waited.

And I waited.

It was August.  Every August for the last dozen years, college-bound kids piled into my store dragging their parents behind them, to buy many of my very unusual posters so they could creatively decorate their dorm walls.  Because they knew, perhaps from older brothers and sisters who had earlier shopped in my store for the same reasons, that it was highly unlikely they would find a store near their campus with as wide and exotic a selection as mine.

Every year.

Every August.

It was still August.  August 18th.

Then I mused, numbly, that in Hebrew the letters for the number eighteen also mean the word “Life”.  It is considered to be a lucky number, and symbolic of our survival as a people over the bloody centuries.

Then I said, out loud,

“Well, let’s see how much life is left in this dying old store.  C’mon.  Show me.”

Who was I talking to?

Never mind.

An hour went by.

Then another.

No people.

I’d been mostly closed for the last three weeks, so I guessed that most of my “regular” customers assumed I was still likely to be closed.  I was patiently rationalizing my empty store.

Then, some teens walked through those wide open doors with their parents.

Then some more kids, by themselves, talking on their cell phones.

Then, some grade school kids and more parents, and they all asked me,

“So, where are all those posters that are on sale?”

That Friday night, then all of Saturday and Sunday, ending on Monday, August 22nd, my store filled with masses of people seeking cheap posters, and then emptied.  Filled, then emptied.  Like the tide.

Many people looked around for an hour and then bought nothing.  Some people bought one poster.  Some people bought two.  One man, bless him, bought ten.

In four days, I sold seventy posters.

$700.

I called my wife, even though she still wasn’t speaking to me.

“Joy,” I yelled in the phone, with irrational exuberance,

” We’re gonna have a $700 Bat Mitzvah!!  Can you do it?”

A chilly Norwegian silence. Then she answered, slowly, in her flat Midwestern voice,

I guess we’ll have to.”

A pause.

“But out of all those invitations I sent out, one hundred people are coming.  How can we do this?”

And I answered her,

“Joy, it’s a party.  Not a coronation.  It’s a party.  Let’s give Sarah a $700 party.”

And here’s what happened next…

Part 4  will be posted on November 15th, 2009. 

Sharpen your pencils!

 

Part 4

We went to our giant local discount food source, Costco Market, and bought sixty chicken breasts, for the adult guests, and some vegetables.  $100.00.

Then we went to a party supply center and bought pink, red and black paper and plastic plates, cups, balloons, napkins and boxes of assorted plastic forks, spoons and knives for our estimated seventy adults and thirty children.  And a bubble gum pink, portable, disposable helium balloon-inflator.  Another $150.00.

We ordered a cake we estimated was big enough—although only a single layer—from our local bakery.  A red velvet cake with a large full-color horse on it, because Sarah, our Calamity Jane, loves horses.  $110.00.

Our avant-garde filmmaking son, David, Sarah’s thirty-year old brother, agreed to bring two of his break dancing friends as unconventional entertainment, mostly for Sarah’s friends who won’t expect it.  $100.00.

There was a sale at Walgreen’s on Coke’s two-liter bottles. Four for $5.00.  We bought twenty for $25.00.

Sarah’s older sister, Rachel, sixteen years older, took Sarah to buy a special dress with her own money.

Sarah’s other older sister, never mind, Lisa, whose new baby Natalia makes Sarah Aunt Sarah (and who also makes Joy and I grandparents) had Sarah’s ears pierced and bought her beautiful earrings.

Joy’s sister Gail’s daughter Erika brought a large fruit bowl for dessert.

I was the photographer.  I actually am a photographer, but that’s not the point.  I’m not for hire.

Sarah said she and her friends would bring a bunch of CDs they liked, to play as dance music.

A nice woman I knew from our temple, Donna Ruelli, who prepares food for people after Shabbat services on Friday nights (called Oneg-Shabbat), and with whom I was friendly, was also a caterer for parties.  She agreed to work with Joy to arrange all the food Joy cooked in a buffet style, so all the guests could serve themselves.  Her cost?  Far less than her normal fee, she told me, and would be $20.00 an hour, for four hours, or $80.00.

We went to a McDonald’s near the temple and gently negotiated with them to give us a better deal on fifty double-burgers (without cheese, of course) from the kid’s happy meal menu and fifty small bags of fries.  They charged us $100.00 and then threw in five extra double-burgers.  Bet you didn’t think you could do that, did you?

So far, that made the party’s budget: $665.00.  With taxes, almost exactly, $700.

Maybe the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers wouldn’t come, but then, they weren’t invited anyway.

Two of our friends from the temple, brother and sister Rana and Bruce Matteson, (yes, the carpenter) close enough to us to know what’s what, volunteered to help organize things, set up the tables and clean up afterwards. Both were aware of Joy’s limited energies no matter how determined her objectives. Rana also happened to be one of Sarah’s Hebrew teachers.

Rana is a popular member of our temple and Bruce, who isn’t a member, hunts deer which to some people is a religion in itself.  Bruce went to fetch the paid for burgers and fries during the religious services prior to the party, so that they would arrive on time and still be hot.  Fortunately, no deer crossed his path during that errand or he might have brought us fresh venison instead.  I’m not sure dead deer are kosher, though. 

The temple generously waived the normal (significant) rental fee for the party room in exchange for Joy agreeing to supply her accounting skills, as needed, to the reduced staff in the temple’s administration office.

I noticed that the party room was carpeted and was told by Eugene, the temple’s engineer and all around guy who keeps the place going, that there was this parquet dance floor stored, in fifty pieces, at a nearby cooperating hardware store.   He said we could use it for free, but we had to go get it ourselves.  Actually, Eugene told this to Joy, and she managed to remember to tell me about it the day before the Bat Mitzvah.

Also, we had to assemble it ourselves.  Nice. Each piece was four feet by four feet, a steel frame filled with many little wooden squares. They were very heavy to lift.  This was not a nice surprise for me.  There was also a steel perimeter that had to be attached all the way around it.

The hardware store people loaded up my minivan, twice, and I brought my parquet treasure to the temple, where Eugene and a crew of his helpers, whom I dubbed the Genettes, helped me unload the tonnage onto two wheeled carts, breaking at least one cart in the process.

The Genettes were: Lance Wheatly, Nathan Alvarado, Travis Booth, Seth Cunningham and the mysterious one-named Lian.

This was far less fun than it sounds, and I spent the morning, shirtless, swearing and pouring sweat, shuttling squares back and forth with the genial Genettes.  I don’t remember specifically taking the Lord’s name in vain, especially so close to His office, but there are many ways to creatively express one’s unhappiness.

Joy and I assembled all those big squares by ourselves, with Joy in charge of attaching all the edging.

So, let’s see: Joy has MS and is disabled.  I’ve had thirty operations and both of us are closing in on sixty.

Fortunately, neither of us died assembling that cursed dance floor, which would have kind of dampened the party’s festive atmosphere.  People later came up to us and said how nice the floor looked.  The day before, piles of tiles were falling out of the old squares and I pounded them back into place with my hammer.

I smiled at the people who talked about the floor and said to them, sweetly,

“You know, Joy and I made it ourselves…yesterday.”  

Like it was a cake.  A twenty-eight foot by forty-eight foot cake.  Those people laughed and thought I was funny.  I was not so amused, but I smiled anyway.

But this is not the end of this unorthodox story of heartache, friendship and determination.

It gets better.

And then worse.

And finally, mysterious.

 

Part Five

So, all the volunteers gathered, and started putting all the pieces together.

I schlepped all the food from home. Rana and Bruce, Dana Kruger, a grown-up childhood friend of Sarah’s older sister Rachel, was there, too.  Donna was commandeering the kitchen, doing six things at once.  Joy was setting tables and others were blowing up balloons with helium and making little table decorations in Sarah’s colors.

I did whatever I was told to do.  Bruce brought in the cake.  A man’s job.  All the place settings were distributed, carefully, making sure that family members who couldn’t stand each other weren’t sitting at the same table.  Then there was the Republican table and the Democrat table, and so on.  Complicated.

As we left the party room, Donna pulled me aside in the kitchen.  I didn’t resist.

She informed me that she wasn’t accepting any payment for her work at the party.  I was stunned at this news, and immediately protested that she was wonderful to make the offer, but she had worked so hard and deserved to be paid.  Besides, I told her, I already had the money ready for her.

But she brushed all that aside with a gesture of her hand and this “Don’t you get it?” look on her lovely face, saying,

“I believe in karma—what comes around, goes around.  Besides”, she continued, “you’re out of work now and I’m not.  Ya know you’re gonna need it.”  

 Not willing to let her do this to herself, I persisted and told her I really wanted to pay her for making the party possible because there was no one else who could have done what she did for us.

Donna is Italian and Catholic, or is it the other way around?  She fixed me with this This-Discussion-Is-Over look in her dark eyes and said in that unmistakable Italian way,

“Don’t worry about it.  Enjoy your party.”

I did as I was told.  One thing I’ve learned is not to argue with a determined woman, Italian or not.

Catching up to Joyce who was going into the temple’s sanctuary for Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony, I said nothing about it, but, feeling a little disoriented by my unexpected moment with Donna, I thought to myself,

Where do people like that come from?

But, her tribe increased.

A week earlier, Sarah’s older brother David had filmed her riding a horse she liked very much at a place where she worked, periodically, taking care of other people’s horses.  This came about in a spontaneous way, when the person (whom I am electing not to identify) who gave the riding lessons, was somehow able to figure out that Sarah was not just another rich kid from Barrington or Lake Forest.  I found out about this person, and this situation, after the fact.

In a subtle way, when Sarah was kind of hanging around the stable, not riding, just looking, and longing, the perceptive riding instructor came over to her and asked if she wanted to help out around the stable in exchange for free riding lessons.  Sarah, not quite believing this offer was possible, immediately agreed.  This meant, pulling the saddles and blankets off the sweaty, snorting horse’s backs, brushing them down or as Sarah later confidently explained to me, “Tacking up the horses”.

She cleaned their hooves with a pick and removed all the mud from them.  She learned some of the lingo and became very comfortable around the large creatures and eventually, began learning how to ride, and then to make low jumps.  When I watched her, her posture was perfect.  Like she was born to it.

When my Aunt Adele, my deceased mother’s younger sister (and who also helped raise me) heard about this unusual situation, she bought Sarah some very snazzy-looking riding boots, so Sarah would feel like she “fit in” better with the other riders in the school.  Sarah and her Great-Aunt Adele were already close, so this thoughtful gesture only made it more so.

There was virtually no money involved and I remain very respectful of the compassionate riding instructor.

She wasn’t Italian, either.  Nice people come in at least thirty-one flavors.  No one has a lock on decency.

Meanwhile, David quickly edited and scored the five minute film, and brought it with him to the party along with his two break dancing friends, who, by the way, really appreciated the smooth parquet dance floor.

Using the temple’s existing projector, sound system and screen, David displayed his gift to Sarah.  It was flawless, funny, and made Sarah look like a queen on horseback, riding and jumping.  And to the delight of everyone there, especially adults of a certain age, he had her doing all of these things to the stirring music of The William Tell Overture, better known to millions of Baby Boomers as the theme of the fifties TV classic, The Lone Ranger!!!

People saw it, heard it and roared!

Cost?  Zero!

The retired rabbi, Neil Brief, who delivered the eulogy at my father’s funeral, which occurred just fifteen days after four-year-old Sarah was adopted, and who gave her her Hebrew name on the spot, as Israela, after my father’s original name, Israel, was also there nine years later, to give the important blessing over the challah, or traditional Jewish bread.  My parents weren’t there, but people who represented them were.

The prior week, when my wife picked David up at his apartment, since he doesn’t drive, and was bringing him to film Sarah, she called me to tell me that her car was overheating, that they barely made it there and would I please meet her at the stable and help her with our 1996 Dodge mini-van.   I immediately zoomed out there in my 1993 Chevy van, the antique cavalry coming to the rescue.

While David, Joy and Sarah were going through their paces in the enormous stable (I had a small part, later), I checked all the fluids, saw that the antifreeze was low, filled it and figured that everything was ok.  Nothing was leaking from the bottom of the radiator or anywhere else, either.  But, to be safe, I exchanged cars with them so that if something happened, only one of us would be marooned in horse country, instead of three.

After they left, I attempted to follow them, but within a mile the dashboard’s temperature gauge needle shot up to the red dangerous zone and I pulled the old car over and parked.  I was fifteen miles from home.  I called AAA Motor Club and assumed that in the nice weather they would come immediately.

Three hours later, standing in the dark and shivering after the night chill set in, a long flatbed-type tow truck pulled ahead of me and pulled my dead car up upon it, locking it in place with big heavy chains.  The driver and I—about the same age—exchanged stories about our lives as we lumbered back to my mechanic’s lot, and how time was treating us.

His story was pretty bad, I thought to myself.

When he finished unloading my car, I tried to tip him $5.00, but to my surprise he refused it, saying,

“Hell man, you keep it.  Your life is way worse than mine!”

And he drove off.  I stared at his bouncing red rear taillights as they became smaller, thinking: that was one damn competition I didn’t want to win.  It was a sobering moment, as I stood there in the dark on the gravel lot, while waiting for Joyce to come get me.  Fifty-nine years old, and the tow-truck driver is sorry for me.

A short time later, I was telling this story to a friend in my synagogue, trying to figure out how I would pay for what eventually turned out to be a busted water pump.  Buried behind the motor, it’s all labor and expensive to repair it. All this happening just days before the Bat Mitzvah.  I was living in a bad movie.  My friend listened, commiserating with me.  I was not asking him for money, because he didn’t have any, either.  I was just venting.  Miserably.

A couple of days later, an envelope appeared at my house, anonymously, with cash in it to help me pay the mechanic for my dead car’s repair.  Not a loan.  A gift.  I didn’t try to track down my benefactor, because if he wanted me to know who he was, there would have been a note in the envelope.  My job, as I understood it, was to fix the car and continue to look after my family.  A mystery.  A good, kind mystery.

One of my ambitions, if life ever gives me the opportunity, is to be that guy.  The guy in a solid enough position to be able to put cash in an envelope when he learns about someone who really needs it and has no place else to go. I want to be that guy, and see how it feels to be able to do something meaningful like that.

But, wait.  What about this…my mechanic stuff…like I had a fleet of race cars or something?

I just met him, briefly, recommended to go there for some minor repair a couple of months earlier by an older member of my congregation.  I barely knew him.  We were strangers and nothing more than that.

My wife drove me there early in the morning and waited for me while I talked to him.  I explained what happened and Ray–that’s his name, Ray–told me to call him or come by later that day and he’d tell me what the situation was.  I did that.

He was sitting in his tiny office filled with bits and pieces of spare parts covering virtually every level surface, including the floor.  From the outside, his shop looks like a gingerbread house in a fairy tale instead of a place that fixes broken cars.  It’s on an obscure gravel street, almost invisible under the shadow of the interstate and you’d never find it unless someone told you how to get there.  There’s not even a sign on it telling you what the hell it is.  But the large bumpy gravel lot surrounding his shop is filled with all kinds of cars, foreign cars, so someone is evidently telling someone else about Ray and his tiny two-bay garage.

Well, I still owed Ray from that other repair, and then he gave me the bad news about the water pump.  I must have sagged visibly, because the cash in the envelope paid for part of it, but not enough and I felt like a total loser standing there in front of him.  He didn’t say anything, just sat there watching me, studying me. Deciding.

Me?

I had nothing to say.

Then he looks at me and says,

“So, if I fix your car, will you pay me when you get the money?”

I snapped out of my trance and tried to understand what he said.  I’m nobody to him.  Just a sad face with an old car that keeps breaking.   Suddenly I felt more like a person and less like a schmuck.  He was trusting me.  Why?

But what I said was,

“Why…yes, of course I will.  But, uh, how do you know I’ll pay you?”

Ray replied,

“Listen, you said you’d pay and I believe you.  So, let’s shake hands and now we’re friends.”

I’m speechless.  But not Ray:

“I’ll call you when it’s ready in a couple of days.  I got some other guys ahead of you I’ve gotta get out of here first.  Go home; your wife’s waiting for you.  Women don’t like to be kept waiting.”

I nodded, dumbly, and left.  We’re friends?  Don’t I have to do something nice for him first to earn that?

Well, I’ll go out on a shaky limb here and tell you what I really think.

I think God sprinkles the earth with people who want to help.  Help anyone.  How do they find each other?

Maybe we live in a sort of ‘universe of mercy’, where one person’s misery triggers another person’s compassion.  Some kind of Physics of Balance that makes life possible to live, even during the worst of times.

But how do these strangers know who is who?

Some sort of choreographed cosmic collision where those in great need irresistibly attract those who must help them?  Are we sending out distress signals?

These thoughts…this stupid illogical idea…has me spinning around, because it makes no sense.  No sense.

Where do these people come from?

So….

I thought about all this and decided to learn a little more…about Ray.

To lessen the mystery, perhaps.  He’s only one man.  But who is this guy?

Ray is an Assyrian.  His last name is Yacoub.

Assyrians are Christians, either Eastern Orthodox or Catholic, from the general present day areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.  They are an indigenous people from the mountains in that area and they are not Arabs. There are an estimated 3.3 million Assyrians worldwide, with about 150,000 in the Chicago metro area.  Their history goes back about 6,750 years, far longer than recorded Jewish history.

So, we are very different, and we are not—at the same time.  Abraham, the legendary biblical Father of the Jewish people, is believed to come from the city Ur, in what was Southern Mesopotamia, or what used to be the Assyrian Empire thousands of years earlier.  So, not really so different from me at all, the more I learn.

They speak a language descended from Neo-Aramaic, the language of Jesus, which was the common language of all peoples in that general area, the same way that English is the one unifying language today for most of the world.  A way to freely communicate.  It is also called Caldean or Syriac.

But whenever I heard it spoken over the decades of my life, it sounded much like Hebrew, but not quite.  Then I learned the Assyrians are a Semitic people…just like my family.  So, that means an “anti-Semite” doesn’t like Assyrians, either.  I wonder if the anti-Semites realize how wide they cast their web of hate?

The name of their ancient capitol in Mesopotamia, which means the land between the rivers (the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), was Ashur, and the Assyrians derived their name from that place.  They also invented the chariot, something they are very proud of.  I know this.  I asked many Assyrians about it, over the years.

And Ray?

His Assyrian name is Rah-yd, which he told me, means “Spaceman.”  He is 46 years old, and his family emigrated here from Kirkuk, which used to be Iraq but is now part of Kurdistan.  So the town may change national ownership, but Ray is not an Iraqi, nor is he a Kurd.

His father, Theodorus, came from Mosel, and his mother, Nazhat, came from Baghdad.  Besides Assyrian, he also speaks English, Arabic, Greek and Armenian.  Ray is no educated linguist and neither was my own grandmother, Celia, from Poland, who spoke five languages.  If you can’t communicate with as many people around you as possible, she told me, you could be dangerously misunderstood and killed.  You learn what you must to survive.

So, with all this detail, I now realize Ray is so much like me, a third-generation American Jew of Eastern European descent, he may actually be me.  I also realize that the chances of our being actually related from thousands of years ago, are probably very high.  That makes so much sense to me.  I kinda like it, too.

We are so different, but we are also likely to be cousins, a thousand times removed, from mighty ancient Empires that are now sand and dust.

So, knowing all this about him now…Who is Ray?

I suppose the bottom line is that he is a kind man who decided to extend credit to me, a stranger, because I was in big trouble and needed him.  None of all that complicated ethnic stuff makes a damn bit of difference, in the big picture.  He is only one man, but he has become important to me.

That is who Ray Yacoub is.

 

Part Six  

The ceremony, falling off the ladder, and the hospital incident, but not in that order  

The actual religious ceremony, which Sarah shared with another boy, went perfectly.

The temple’s longtime rabbi, Jonathan Magidovitch, provided a comfortable setting that made the event both special for the two participants and less tense for them as well.  Although he has done this probably hundreds of times, he nevertheless makes it seems fresh each time he addresses the child and blesses them.  I know he set Sarah at ease, to the limited extent that can be done as one hundred people were watching her, with half of them Christian relatives who couldn’t read Hebrew, nor were they familiar with the temple’s patterns and customs. 

Sarah was also assisted in her chanting the ancient melodies of the Hebrew prayers by the temple’s beautiful cantor, Lynda Dresher, who has a soaring voice and, initially, was a major reason I joined the temple in the first place.  When I was a child, there were no female cantors or rabbis either, so this, to me, is real progress in both equality and the quality of a religious experience.  With three daughters, I want no barriers to them.

Sarah’s speech was an important part of the event, where she thanks people who have helped her to get to where she was, at the podium, but also to make a declaration of faith and how Judaism mattered in her life.  Not so easy to write at thirteen, but her speech was flawless and flawlessly delivered.  Many people said so to Joyce and me later on at the party.

While our synagogue has many interfaith marriages, this was the first joint Bar/Bat Mitzvah I’d ever been to where BOTH of the children were blondes.  The concept of somebody supposedly”looking Jewish” may soon have no meaning.  Still, there was a degree of culture shock for me, being the grandchild of exclusively dark brown-eyed, dark brown-haired Yiddish-speaking Eastern European immigrants.

But I thought Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah in particular rather pushed the envelope on interfaith family events.

Without too much elaboration, this is who participated: Besides Joy and I, and her sisters, Rachel and Lisa, and later David, all Jewish, Sarah’s grandmother Helen Bishop was there (her actual father’s mother) and she’s proudly Lutheran.  Joy or I drive her to her church on Sundays.  Her grandfather, Robert Coffin (her actual mother’s father), is Swedenborgian, people who follow the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborgen (1688-1772) Swedish founder of the Church of the New Jerusalem.  This is a rare case where there are less of his followers in the United States than there are Jews, not that it’s a contest or anything.

Her (other) handsome older brothers were part of the ceremony, too.  William Nelson, 17 and Robert Nelson, 15, both Catholic, were there with their adoptive mother, Judy, whom Joy and I view as a sister to us and Sarah sees as an aunt.  Actually, it’s not all that confusing to any of us.  Religion has never seemed to be an obstacle to love, in any of our families.  Sarah had also been to Will and Robert’s Communions and nobody tries to convert anyone to anything else.  It’s confusing enough as it is.

Lastly, and frankly, the most fascinating to me, was (Aunt) Sarah’s new baby niece, Natalia.  This beautiful child, with dark brown eyes and dark brown hair, is the seemingly unique combination of the following countries and peoples: English, German, Lithuanian, Polish, Byelorussian, Native American (Ottawa, Ohio and Ojibwa Tribes) Mexican and best of all, Basque!  And Jewish.

I can’t wait until someday, someone says to her, on a playground:  

“Hey, Talia!  So…where’s your family from…?” 

All of these wonderful moments occurred on Saturday afternoon, September 12th 2009.

Exactly two weeks earlier, however, on Saturday afternoon, August 29th 2009, I was alone in my store and standing on a six-foot ladder, disassembling the seemingly endless and quite valuable wooden shelves so I could take them with me—enough lumber to build a small house—by the time I was done.

Somehow, I lost my footing and awkwardly fell off the ladder, slamming onto the concrete floor of the store.

Now, I’m pretty agile and know how to protect myself when I lose my balance, in most cases, but not this time.  It happened so fast with no time to brace myself or roll over or anything like that.  I fell flat, hard, and laid there for a while, stunned.  It was frightening and I was afraid something had broken, but I didn’t know where or what.

I was carrying a large ring of keys, about thirty, from a leather loop on my belt on the left side of my hip.  The jagged keys dug into my upper thigh like a fist.  My first thought was I had done the greatest harm to my leg and maybe fractured that.  There was also quite a bit of pain where my left elbow had jammed itself into my ribs on the left side.  My hands were flat on the ground and amazingly, my head seemed intact.

After about five minutes, I tried to crawl a bit to see what would happen.  Nothing happened.  A lot of pain, but nothing seemed to be broken.  A deep sigh floated up out of me.  First, resignation, and then, completely out of the blue, exasperation and humor joined together, and I said to God,

“Is this really necessary?  If you want my attention, just call me!!  Or send a burning bush, damn it!!”

I actually believe, when it’s my time to go, after all the anger dissolves, the last thing to leave will be my ironic sense of humor—the one thing that keeps me sane.

Then I slowly raised myself to my knees, got up and went back to work.  There was intense pain in the two places that absorbed the most shock and impact, and it would soon worsen in the days to come.  But I only had that day and two more to collect all I could to take with me, so I could start over somewhere, somehow, someplace.  I didn’t have the luxury to bemoan my fate or anything like that.  I had shelves to take apart and too many of them to stop and bitch and moan because of a stupid accident.

I reflected on what might have been, when I climbed right back up that same miserable ladder with my electric drill switched onto reverse so I could remove the million screws that kept the shelves from reverting back to lumber.  In a strange way, I was very lucky.   Amazingly lucky.

I have a little door in the top of my head where a couple of benign brain tumors were removed in January and April, 2004.  I can feel the four tiny screws under my scalp, if I press them slightly.  My left jaw was removed in December, 1968 due to a rare form of salivary gland cancer and was first replaced with Titanium steel wire.  Not as quite as strong as it sounds, that was soon replaced by the top of my left hip.  That failed almost immediately, but twelve years later, at age thirty-two, I had a rib transplanted to my face from the left side of my rib cage.  The side my left elbow had just smashed into.  So, consequently there was less protection than would normally be there.

Altogether, I’ve had about a dozen large and small operations on my face or neck. That can eventually make a person philosophical, or should.  So the fact that my head was uninjured in any way was truly quite remarkable…and lucky.   Knowing this, it can be easier for another person to understand the source of my bizarre sense of humor.  What else can I do but laugh at these things that are beyond my control?

In the days following, the impact of the bunch of metal keys on my legs became a very large black, blue and purple bruise on my upper left leg, but it hurt only when I was standing or sitting.  It was ugly, but tolerable.

My chest however, with no visible damage, was another matter.  The pain on my side was intense and terrible.  I could only sleep on my back, when I could sleep at all, and my old beagle, Betsy, so used to cuddling up to my left side while resting her muzzle on my left shoulder, was unable to comprehend why I couldn’t have her touch me.  I felt bad for her, because how could she understand why?  I endured this misery as long as I could.

One week later, Saturday morning, September 5th, when I could feel two ends of my rib cage rubbing freely against each other on the left side of my chest, near my heart, I went to my local emergency room in a nearby hospital.  I was 59, my old store was finally emptied out and now I was unemployed.  During the month of moving, my weight dropped from 183 to 160.  So far, that was the only positive result of all that had happened as a result of the exodus from my store.   The Bar Mitzvah was still a week away.

Having broken ribs seems vaguely logical to me, in my current situation.  I mean, why not pile on even more? Needless to say, I have been to many, many ER’s in my strange and intricate medical life.

I sighed and thought, “Here we go…again.”

So, the first of the usual sequence of four people came in to look at me and asked me the same questions over and over, for what would become several hours.  I have learned, if conscious, to always bring a New York Times with me to the ER.  Or a thick volume from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

My second inquisitor was a lovely young nurse, about 25, blonde, built, etc. who took my blood pressure, asked the height and weight questions, wanted to know my political affiliations and my astrological sign, and then asked me my birth date and age.

I replied,

Fifty-nine. Sixty next April, Miss”. 

She stopped, lowered the clipboard, and stared at me.  I knew what was coming.  This happened repeatedly with my father, even in his eighties.  Now, I guess it was my turn.

“You’re fifty-nine? She exclaimed.

“I don’t believe it!  Your blood pressure’s perfect.  Your weight is really good; you have excellent musculature for someone, uh, of your age…….” and so on, from Miss America.

This only happens to me when I’m either incapacitated or in the ER.  So, I decided to go with it.  I suspected she’s wasn’t a member of Mensa.  Not much else to do in the ER, anyway.

“Well, it’s this new diet, Miss, called the Antique Magazine Diet.  All you have to do is lift ten thousand magazines for sixteen hours a day—to keep your heart rate up—and you’ll lose at least one pound a day, guaranteed.”    

She stared at me.  The Cutie Without a Clue.

“I don’t think it’ll catch on though,” I continued, “but that’s just a hunch.”

And then, lastly, before her eyes crossed completely,”  

But, y’know, you’re in pretty great shape…for your age…too, Miss.” 

Then Florence Nightingale blushed and she went away. 

And that was the most fun I’d had since falling off that damn ladder.  Almost worth it, too.   

Then, about two hours later, the actual doctor arrived. By then, I was no longer in a humorous mood.  The pain was as bad as before, and I was given to understand that there was nothing to be done about it, in any event.      

 

Part Seven

When the senior doctor (and the fourth person) finally had the opportunity to read my x-ray results and came in to discuss things with me, he informed me that I had two broken ribs.  He seemed incredulous, having heard from the earlier doctors how much pain I was experiencing, and no sleep, and then he asked me, with that exasperated tone people reserve especially for idiots,

“Why did you wait a week to come to the hospital?  You might have had a punctured lung, or worse.”

I thought to myself about how much work I still had remaining to do, those last three days I had to empty out my store.  I had deliberately left the hardest task for last, because I didn’t want to do it at all.  Disassembling a ten foot wide, eight foot tall rack, that only used ten square feet of floor space but held, incredibly, four thousand copies of Life Magazine from the Sixties.  I was proud of how well I’d used the limited storage space, and how durable the rack was, but never dreamed that one day I’d have to remove it.

But to make that storage capability possible, I used two inch thick shelves, many steel brackets and a bracing buttress to keep the whole wall of Lifes from falling on the steel shelving two feet away from it.  It was very hard to build and, even if I felt fine, it still would have been very strenuous to take apart.  But I didn’t feel anywhere near “fine” and it took me two hours to salvage all that wood, instead of about thirty minutes.  I ended up drenched and exhausted.

I thought about the thousands of pounds of lumber I had to load into trucks those last days, aided by several people who volunteered to help me do what I couldn’t do alone.  One of them, interestingly, was the president of my synagogue, evidently a hands-on guy, Mike Rosen, who spent long hours sliding the twelve to sixteen foot long shelves into the truck while I did my best to stack and sort them for unloading while staying inside of the truck. This was the morning after the accident.  It hurt to stand and it hurt to breathe.  But I had so much hard work to do.

I was still unaware of my broken ribs, but Mike could see how much difficulty I was having carrying the long planks to the truck, so he suggested that he do that part while I sort the planks by size, and not have to lift so much.  I looked at the guy, an executive who travels the world for a national company, and whom I assumed lifted nothing heavier than a laptop and a cup of coffee while flying over the continent.  He was only a bit younger than I was, so I told him my concern was that he might have a heart attack from the sudden increase in work, and I wasn’t kidding.  People do what they do, and I didn’t want someone to die while helping me.

He told me not to worry about him, that he works out in a gym on a regular basis and besides, he rightly pointed out, while matter-of-factly looking on either side of him and then facing me in the truck,

“Who else do you have to help you?  I don’t see anybody else, Bob, so…let’s get this job done.”

 I felt chagrined that had I underestimated him and what he was capable of doing, as if he didn’t already know his own limitations.  The job was grueling, took hours to do and he kept at it until we had moved every piece.

Then I turned to the exasperated and obviously impatient doctor and said, simply,

“Doc, I didn’t have the time.” 

He shrugged his shoulders at such an idiotic (to him) attitude, and then he explained to me what I could do about the terrible chest pain.  But I wasn’t listening.  Hearing my own illogical words made me drift off and think about how things really were , that I was no self-sacrificing hero, that I was…normal.

I thought about small business people everywhere who worked under terrible conditions, uninsured, in pain and unpaid, just to keep their doors open another month, another week, another day.  I thought that it must be very hard for both employees and professionals alike to understand the why of it.  That I’m not so special.

There were tens of millions of people just like me, everywhere, spread across my fractured country.

The battered casualties from a manipulated economy.

People who want to control their own fates, no matter how much it costs them, in time, money and sometimes, blood.  A sense of driving our own destinies and not being subjected to someone else’s arbitrary whims–that was what fueled us, day after day.

I thought, we are tough people, men and women, in all the ways a person can be tough.  That we will rise again, millions and millions of us, from the wreckage of our businesses:

Welders, small repair shops, carpenters, artists, writers, mechanics, farmers, medical clinics, churches, temples, child care people, gardeners, printers, beauty shops, tailors, collectible stores, craft shops, quilters, designers and uncountable innovators…who hire people and make this country not only survive, but grow stronger, because of their unbreakable faith in themselves, even if nobody else ever understands what compels them to stubbornly be that way.

The powerful desire to be independent will drive a man to keep on, relentlessly, when many others will fall away, seeing only the risk of tomorrow and nothing long term.  I am just one of those millions, and I couldn’t live my life any other way.  I will start over, and I will succeed.

And mister, don’t you dare to doubt me.

Our country will recover.  We are stronger than any recession.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I snapped out from my indignant reverie, probably only seconds of real time, and refocused on the annoyed doctor droning on, and who was writing a prescription for some new kind of powerful pain killer.  I took the script, thanked him, got dressed and walked out of that place.

Then I filled the prescription of which I was unaware had this side effect, sometimes, which caused me to have powerful paranoid hallucinations for the next two nights.  Terrified, I threw out the rest of the pills and, resigned to my situation, laid on my back every night for the next six weeks, waiting for my body to heal itself.  Betsy, the beagle also waited, patiently, to snuggle up to me again.  The long nights crawled by.

Eventually, by mid-October, I was fine.  I decided to avoid ladders…but, just for a while.

 

Part Eight 

What went wrong, and then right…at Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah; My undelivered toast and the eerie and unexplainable 1958 incident.   

About a week before Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah party, I asked her to see if she could find a CD she could borrow from the temple’s library that played the traditional Jewish celebratory song, Hava Nagila.  When people have weddings, Bar or Bat Mitzvah’s or any significant Jewish or Israeli celebration or party, this is the song that’s always played, and then the people joyously dance to a folk dance called the Hora.

The Hora usually involves a large outer circle with everyone holding hands and dancing in a clockwise direction.  Then, inside of that circle is another one, going in the other direction, usually with the married couple or the person being honored in the inner circle.  The music is played loudly and raucously as the circles spin faster and faster, with more and more people joining in as people overcome their shyness.  The song goes on for a long time, or until everyone passes out.

I’m not much of a dancer, but this is one I never miss.  Or that was until, at my middle daughter Rachel’s wedding in December, 2008, it went on for too long, and too fast, twisting back and forth as the dance requires until my knee blew out and I wore a brace on my leg for about a month after that.  But man…it was a great wedding!

So, the point is, this extremely frugal Bat Mitzvah had no band and no slick DJ.  I figured we could use the temple’s sound system and existing equipment to play dance music for the kids in general and Hava Nagila for the Hora, in particular.  It mattered to me.

At this point in the American Jewish Diaspora, there are probably more Christians, and even Moslems, too, that have been to so many family celebrations over the last one hundred years, that there are now collectively more of them who know about this dance, than the total number of Jews in this country.

But, just in case any of my readers don’t have a clue what I’m writing about here, I found this on Wikipedia to make it a little easier.  You can find anything there, I guess.  My thanks to Wikipedia for this great chart. 

“Hava Nagila” (הבה נגילה in Hebrew) is a Hebrew folk song, the title meaning “let us rejoice”. It is a song of celebration, especially popular amongst Jewish and Roma communities, and is a staple of band performers at Jewish festivals.

The melody was taken from a Ukrainian folk song from Bukovina. The commonly used text was probably composed by Abraham Zevi (Zvi) Idelsohn in 1918 to celebrate the British victory in Palestine during World War I as well as the Balfour Declaration.

Transliteration Hebrew text English translation
Hava nagila הבה נגילה Let’s rejoice
Hava nagila הבה נגילה Let’s rejoice
Hava nagila ve nis’mecha הבה נגילה ונשמחה Let’s rejoice and be happy
(repeat stanza once)
Hava neranenah הבה נרננה Let’s sing
Hava neranenah הבה נרננה Let’s sing
Hava neranenah ve nis’mecha הבה נרננה ונשמחה Let’s sing and be happy
(repeat stanza once)
Uru, uru achim! !עורו, עורו אחים Awake, awake, brothers!
Uru achim b’lev sameach עורו אחים בלב שמח Awake brothers with a happy heart
(repeat line four times)
Uru achim, uru achim! !עורו אחים, עורו אחים Awake, brothers, awake, brothers!
B’lev sameach בלב שמח With a happy heart

 Sarah told me she would look for it in the library or ask her friends about borrowing it.  A week went by.  The day before the party, I asked her about it again, and she assured me that she had found it on the web and had recorded it, in some new way I didn’t understand.  But she knew it mattered to me and told me not to worry.  I trust Sarah, so, I didn’t.

At the party, after everyone had finished eating, the thirty or so girls and three boys ran out on the floor to dance to the CDs they and Sarah had brought with them.  Her big brother David had already used the temple’s existing sound system and the video played perfectly, so I assumed the music would work just as well.

But it did not.

Nothing worked.  There was some unfixable glitch and not a note could be heard.  David had to leave early to get a ride with his two dancers, so he wasn’t there to fix it.  The kids milled around, and Sarah was upset that not even this was going to work out.  The part that represented the most fun to the kids.  I watched her from a distance, powerless to do anything about it.

Then Donna, still in the kitchen, somehow produced a boom box (An amazing woman, people.  Where did she get it?).  The CDs, although not as loud as they would be with a professional set-up and big speakers, were enough evidently for the undemanding children and they happily danced to the tinny sound the small plastic box produced in the very large room.  So, this was going to work out after all, I thought to myself.

I had already accepted the fact that there was no way to read the special toast I’d written to honor Sarah on this important day in her life because the temple’s microphone didn’t work, either.  But I was happy with what was able to work out.  Sometimes, you just have to go with whatever is the best you can do.

Then Sarah pulled the Hava Nagila CD out from her purse and put it into the boom box.  She pressed the button.  Nothing.  She tried again.  Several other adults tried to make the thing play, but it would not.  No music.  No Hora.  No way to make this happen.

I don’t know how many other people cared about it, but with both of my parents dead and all the other European immigrants in my family whom I’d known as a child also dead, I wanted this one old tradition keep going.  I wanted the spirits of all my missing family to hear the joyous music.

Sarah knew that this was important to me, but what could she do?  The damn CD wouldn’t play.

I was looking down at the floor, the floor that Joy and I slaved over to make all the dances possible.  I was feeling pretty bad about this miserable situation, and then I looked up.  There were the thirty girls standing in a big circle, holding hands, with a smaller circle inside of it, where Sarah was, in the traditional Hora style.  I stared at this silent sight, wondering.

Then all at once, all the girls began singing Hava Nagila in loud voices, in perfect unison, and then they began to dance.  The outside circle going one way, the inside circle going the other, faster and faster as the danced and sang.

Tears filled my eyes and ran down my face.  They were dancing to the music they made by themselves.

Yes, I didn’t have a job, and my ribs were still broken and I hadn’t a clue what tomorrow would bring.  But people, when all those children spontaneously began singing in their high girlish voices, overcoming all obstacles and making what they, and I, wanted so much to happen…oh God, it was one of the finest moments in my life.

And best of all, it was real, it was wonderful, they made it happen and it was something money couldn’t buy.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(The Undelivered Toast) 

About Sarah, at Thirteen 

No one will ever make any jokes about dumb blondes near my daughter Sarah, if their future plans include keeping all their teeth.

When she was four, in spring 2001, she was with me and one of her older brothers, David, then 23.  He was assisting me unloading a van-full of 2 X 4’s I bought to build fixtures for my expanded magazine store.  Sarah watched this for a moment, when I told her to stay out of the way so she wouldn’t get hurt.

Then, resolute, she jumped out of the van and grabbed some of the smaller three foot pieces of wood also in the back of van.  She was very determined to do her bit and not be a bystander, while her dad and brother did all the work.  I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and watched this little dynamo compete with David to bring in her pieces of wood as fast as he did his.

David, at first annoyed, eventually saw the humor in the situation, and slowed down a bit so Sarah could keep up.  I saw the look on her face and there was no arguing with her.  She was unafraid of hard work, even at four.  Not many four-year-olds have that level of confidence and self-esteem.

A few days later, while her mother Joyce operated a table saw, cutting long pieces of wood into short pieces I needed so I could finish building the display racks, Sarah was the go between, rushing back and forth from her mother in the back room to me on the main show room’s floor, assembling all the pieces.  She was fast, didn’t complain and saw herself as our equal in this work, which she was.

That, was in 2001.

Last June, in response to a situation that I didn’t like where someone thoughtlessly slighted her, and she was looking very deflated, I resolved to lift her spirits.  I proposed we build—together—a 17-foot tall tree house in our back yard.  She got this happy gleam on her face she gets when she’s challenged.

This was no little project, and the agreement was, she had to unload every single piece of lumber, big long heavy pieces of treated lumber, and drag them into our yard so I could assemble them.  She accepted her responsibility instantly.. She also helped me build the thing, and learned how to use a hammer, too.

She was the same determined, strong girl that she was eight years earlier, except now she had sleek muscles, grace and coordination.  She has always impressed me.

Sarah has grit, something a century ago people out West used to call “sand”, meaning solid character and an ability to do the hard thing, without complaint.  She is no “suburban cupcake.”

There are lots of smart, athletic and pretty girls out there, but Sarah has something more within her to get her through difficult times.  I think Sarah can handle anything life throws at her, and still come out on top.  I think Sarah Hannah Katzman is a sensational young woman, and I am so honored to be her father.  Some gifts come only from God, and she is proof of that to me.

Congratulations, Sarah! 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Epilogue: Fifty years ago… 

In 1958, I was leaning hard against the rough brick wall—I can still feel it—of the dark red building in my grammar school playground.  I was eight years old, talking to my very tall best friend, Greg Weeks, about how miserable I was.  He was quietly sympathetic.  We walked to school together every day, for years.

My house was hell, I was telling him, screaming, fighting, beatings, people throwing things—it was terrifying and I couldn’t escape it.  I was feeling very sorry for myself.  Trapped.  And angry.

When I grow up” I swore to Greg, through my tears, “I’m gonna find a nice person to marry and we’re gonna have a happy family.  Everyone will love each other and nobody will ever be scared.”  

I paused for a moment, thinking about what that would be like.  Then I thought about my loneliness and estrangement from my only sibling.  Defiantly, I looked up at Greg and told him, in a matter-of-fact way,

“…and I’m gonna have four children, too, and they’re all gonna be friends.”  

Seventeen years later, I met Joyce.  I already had a child, Lisa.  David was born three years later and Rachel in 1980.  I decided that was a handful and we’d better stop there.

Sixteen years later, in 1996, Sarah arrived at our house as an infant and changed all of our lives.

It took four years to adopt her, but in May, 2000, Sarah legally became our fourth child.  After thirty-four years, I’m still totally in love with Joy.  And our kids?  Well, they’re a family and very nice to each other.

But then, sleepless one night shortly after the Bat Mitzvah was over, I somehow remembered that long ago bitter moment with Greg Weeks and that determined little boy’s bitter prediction from over fifty years ago.

Four children?

Stunned by the eerie recollection…I thought to myself, with a profound sense of awe, of wonder:

“Someone else…must have really…been listening….”

 

Part Nine   

The Inevitable Postscript…five months later  

In April 1963, my immigrant Grandmother, Celia Warman from Poland, gave me a $1,000 United States Savings Bond as my Bar Mitzvah gift, as she did her three grandchildren before me, to help me pay for my tuition to college in five years.  For the Jews, education is more important than gold.

She couldn’t know, as I myself didn’t know, that I would leave home suddenly the very next year, June 1964, at fourteen, and have to find a way to support myself.  But the Bond remained in a box, as time ticked by.

By August 1965, at age fifteen, I opened a newsstand in Chicago’s Hyde Park with a friend, Rick Munden, whom I’d met three years earlier in 6th grade at Caldwell School on the South Side of Chicago.  It was seven days a week and hard, hard work, especially in Chicago’s terrible winters.  Whatever you may imagine about the “romance’ of running a wooden newsstand when Chicago was the last city in America with four daily newspapers, well, somehow I didn’t see it that way.

Rick decided to move on in December of 1966 and I stayed there, renaming my little corner of the world “Bob’s Newsstand”.  You may possibly be wondering, what does this have to do with Sarah?

It’s coming.

And once again, it’s eerie, man.

In 1968, I was accepted at the University of Illinois, when tuition there was $50 a quarter.  I hear it’s somewhat higher now.  At that cost, the newsstand could pay for it, and my grandmother’s Bar Mitzvah Bond slept on in the box.  I entered the school in September, 1968, and was diagnosed with cancer in December, that same year.  The surgery was done on my Christmas vacation, removing the left side of my jaw, and I went right back to school in January 1969.

I dropped out in September 1969, deciding that I didn’t need college to figure out my future, and instead concentrated on running my still wooden newsstand.  But, on a Saturday night, November 28, 1970, the bone dry structure filled with a thousand Sunday newspapers, burst into flame and was totally consumed in hours.  It lit up the night sky and hundreds watched it burn.  I had been home sleeping for a couple of hours before the midnight shift, and when someone called me, I, too, was one of those watching my future turn to ashes.  There was no insurance for wooden newsstands, which surprised no one.

The next day, standing in front of the remaining charred floor and a few still upright two by fours, I stood on the corner selling newspapers to shocked customers.  I was numb.  There was no heat and no roof.  My several thousand dollars worth of magazine inventory also burned up in the fire.  I felt bewildered and crushed.

Then I remembered: The Bar Mitzvah Bond.

By 1970, when I was twenty, it had matured and was worth the full $1,000, still a good amount of money forty years ago.  With it, I was able to buy enough lumber to rebuild the newsstand—fifty per cent larger, this time—and learned how to put on a strong shingled roof and hang two doors, taught by a friendly customer who was also an immigrant Norwegian master carpenter.  He was also a good customer at the local liquor store, so it took a while for carpentry class to resume on some days.  There was no tuition, however.  His name was Arne, and God sent him to help me.  He wouldn’t take a dime from me, either.  He told me he had helped the United States Army fight the Nazis during World War II and they let him become a citizen in appreciation.

The money also allowed me to rebuild my magazine inventory and after a while, everything was as before.  My grandmother was aware of the choices I made, and also of the way I was responding to what life was throwing at me.  She was wise, and said nothing, but I was conscious that I was the first grandchild to not complete college.  She however, had experienced far worse during deadly Pogroms in Europe, so perhaps she was waiting to see how things evolved.  She was 69 in 1970 and lived to be 96, dying in 1997 when I was 46.

She got to see how a lot of things evolved, including Sarah, her last grandchild, coming into our lives less than a year before she died.  But she knew about Sarah, born in September, 1996.  Their lives overlapped, but just barely.

So, that Bar Mitzvah Bond paid to rebuild the newsstand and less than a year later, on June 1971, I married my high school girlfriend, Barbara, a very smart and beautiful girl.  She was just eighteen and had been accepted at the University of Illinois as well, by coincidence.  The newsstand’s income paid her tuition for the next four years.  By then, the state raised it to $75 a quarter.  Jesus Christ!!

So, although the Bond didn’t pay for my education, it did pay for someone’s tuition, indirectly.  So, I felt that the Bond had fulfilled its purpose.  Barbara, the college graduate, and I divorced in 1977 and Joy and I joined forces after that.  Bob’s Newsstand remained in business until 1985.  Twenty years, in all.

And the world kept spinning…

On August 31, 2009, almost forty years after cashing in that Bar Mitzvah Bond to jump-start my life of self employment in Hyde Park, I locked the door on my Sleepyville back-issue magazine store, Magazine Memories, and was unemployed when Sarah had her own Bat Mitzvah, twelve days later.  That unemployment stretched into long months, during which I discovered there were no jobs for a 59-year-old man of my antiquated talents.  There were no jobs for millions of other people in America, of any kind of talent, either, during the soul-killing Recession.

After many dead ends, during which my friends kept me going and my family afloat, I accepted the fact that self-employment wasn’t a choice for me—it was the only thing open to me.  There was nothing else.

With continued support from a range of friends, some even from grade school, I was able to find a smaller place, but in a better location (Skokie, Illinois).  It required hiring many men during a freezing winter to move 3,000 boxes of old magazines from six storage units to the new place.  This took weeks, and was a stop and start kind of situation, as I developed a bronchial infection and sometimes, also ran out of money.

This wasn’t like the movies where suddenly everything was terrific and bluebirds were singing.  It was self-enslavement, twelve to sixteen hours a day, for seven solid weeks, sorting the boxes, building every single wooden rack by myself—no Arne, this time—in what turned out to be seven hundred running feet of wooden shelving six to eight feet high, using all that wood I took with me, as well as all those steel brackets and every single screw, too.  I didn’t have to buy any wood, but I did buy over a thousand screws.   Perhaps my Byelorussian grandfather, Jacob, a skilled carpenter who came to America in 1901, was watching over me.   I bet there are slivers in his wings.

But who knows?  I inherited his incredibly heavy wooden toolbox, so maybe his spirit came with it.  Must be, because his son, Irving, who was my father, had no carpentry skills whatsoever.  I think about that.  Grampa died at 78 while he was sawing wood, when I was eleven in 1961.  I think about that, too, whenever I’m sawing wood.

During this period from December 2009 to February 2010, there was a day I simply ran out of money and wasn’t able to rent the large truck I needed or hire any men to load and unload it.  With the constant fear of blizzards making the move impossible, and we did get caught in one, too, I didn’t want to risk stopping while the weather was still good.  What to do?

Sarah knew what was happening and she loaned me $100 of her Bat Mitzvah money to keep going.  I didn’t want to take it, but she is a wise child, like her grandmother Celia was, and she saw the way things were.  There wasn’t a lot of conversation about it, as I remember.  It was enough money to rent the largest truck and one man, for one day.  I did that.

The store opened February 11th, exactly six months after Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah.  Now I was employed again, even if I had to create the job by myself, damn it.

Oh, and as it happens, the new back-issue magazine store, partially funded by Bar Mitzvah money, again, is named Bob’s Newsstand.

I opened the place with no sign in front, no computer, no advertising, no fax machine and no website.  But the original and wooden newsstand I opened with Rick Munden in 1965 didn’t have any of those things either, and that seemed to work out pretty well.   Besides that, this one doesn’t need a poisonous kerosene stove to keep me warm and I don’t have to stand on the curb in the sleet and snow to wait on cars honking at me for a Chicago Daily News.  So there’s that, too.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but somehow, I seem to be in a time warp where things keep repeating.  How do these things happen?   Is this a second chance to get things right, this time?

But I suppose you could reasonably ask,

“So, will the reborn Bob’s Newsstand eventually send Sarah to college?”

Well, how the hell do I know?  I’ll be sixty-five by 2015, assuming I’m still here and rational.

On the other hand, if Joy and I could somehow manage to pull off a $700 Bat Mitzvah, well…I suppose anything’s possible.

Isn’t it?

 

Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: https://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $24.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.

 Twitter handle:bob_katzman

I retired from selling antique magazines in April 2016, after 54 years, and am currently organizing two thousand pages of stories and poetry into an autobiography in a (possibly) more coherent way. Also to record the stories in my own voice. Perhaps some interested party out there wants to discuss that objective with me? I’m seeking an agent to become better known as a writer and storyteller.

3 Comments »

Comment by Don Larson

October 5, 2009 @ 9:19 am

Sad times for sure. It is all part of the Free Enterprise system instead of a state controlled system. Recession and boom times are the adjustments to changing times and conditions.

There will be many more hard decisions and choices for Americans in the years to come. We can elect whomever we collectively want, but we can’t turn the clock back on reality. We are in a global economy and we have rivals in our markets. The money will flow to the least cost provider and lowest paid worker.

What you have described in your article is the result of a global economy seeking equilibrium.

Don

Comment by Don Larson

October 5, 2009 @ 10:17 am

Sadly, an article to support the theme presented by Bob.

Great Time for Consumers: America Is On Sale:

Don

Comment by Paul Eisenbacher

October 31, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

Bob
I have been traveling on and off the past month, so please forgive me for being out of contact. Sometimes are lives become to myopic. I just read the first three parts of Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah and I feel sorry that I couldn’t do more to help you. What you did to remove all those boxes was remarkable and shows your great tenacity and attitude of just never giving up. I also wish I knew about the difficulties surrounding Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah. I would have helped,in some small way, to see your lovely daughter enter adulthood. I worked with her, for a few days, what a nice young lady. You both should be proud. I look forward to hearing more about Sarah’s Bat Mitzvah with great anticipation. Stay well, Paul

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