Tuesday, September 29, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 3 - Beth Tfiloh Part 1

I know that everybody who's ever read a poem knows this one, but I think this is the proper place to begin so please humor me for quoting The Second Coming in full:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

We'll get to why this is all important in a few thousand words... But in the meantime, let me talk about my Zaydie Tucker.


When my father took a close college friend of his out to Stevenson to visit his parents for the first time, they sang the theme to Lawrence of Arabia in the car - because Stevenson and Pikesville were as unfamiliar and exotic as the Desert itself. It was ten minutes outside Baltimore city, but in the mid-60's, hardly anyone but some a few Jews would ever think to live there.

Earlier in the century, Stevenson, the back woods of Pikesville, was a place of massive, and massively rich, farmland. Celebrities who owned houses in Stevenson included General MacArthur, Wallis Simpson the Duchess of Windsor, and the greatest of all American operatic divas: Rosa Ponselle. With such magnificent estates existing in the midst of its back woods, there can be no doubt that it was once a place built for plantations.

It is difficult to imagine what Stevenson must have looked like when my Zaydie moved his family to it in the summer of 1964, right after my uncle Harold graduated from high school at City College. Nevertheless, I would have to figure that after seventeen years toiling in the city, Stevenson must have seemed like paradise itself - redolent to them of the open fields and farms of Northeastern Poland where he and Bubbie grew up. At the time, there was barely anything in the 21208 zipcode but farmland and a newly-built Baltimore Beltway that nobody thought would ever be used...

When they first arrived, they had to live in a tiny walkup apartment with their friend from the Old Country and fellow Holocaust Survivor, Jack Rubin, and his insane wife Cheved. The four of them owned a tiny corner store downstairs. My grandparents were not easy people at the best of times, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to live with Cheved. My Bubbie, like so many Yiddish Bubbies, was a truly transcendent cook hobbled only by the fact that she could only make four dishes. She always made an amazing chicken soup with noodles, or Matzoh Balls, or Kreplach, and If Jack would compliment my Bubbie's soup, Cheved would pour out the entire salt shaker into the soup when nobody was looking so that my Zaydie would yell at her for putting too much salt in the soup. The four of them lived with my Dad, Jack Tucker, and my Uncle Harold in a tiny walkup apartment in Lower Park Heights and managed a no larger corner store downstairs. Eventually, my explosively tempered Zaydie and Jack Rubin couldn't stand working with each other anymore, and Jack went into the garment (schmateh) business. By some point in the mid-to-late 50's, my wealthy great-uncle Chaim had enough faith in my Zaydie's business sense to make him a business partner, and Zaydie managed the supermarket they co-owned: the E-ZEE Market in Hampden - the same building which all upper-class Baltimore residents now venerate and worship as The Wine Source. But there was very little upper-class about that building, or Hampden, at the time.

These were heady times in Hampden - a working class white neighborhood where lots of Appalachian Whites moved only a decade earlier to procure factory jobs after World War II. As such, this already high crime area was crawling with Klansmen - Klansmen who would occasionally hold demonstrations. To be a Jewish business owner with the heaviest imaginable Yiddish accent, let alone one who was barely five feet tall, was an extremely high risk scenario. But my Zaydie, ever resourceful in terms of business, solved the problem with an enormous sign out in front of the store: COPS GET A FREE CORNED BEEF SANDWICH!

Temperamentally speaking, my Zaydie was my father to the n'th power. A highly intelligent, highly practical, messianically controlling man who believed that every problem in the world could be solved if people simply followed his instructions. I remember reading Philip Roth's American Pastoral and thinking that this quote was the perfect description of him:

“a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.” 

This could nearly as easily double as a description of his oldest son, or perhaps even of his oldest son's oldest son. But none could possibly resemble this description to anywhere near the extent of this alpha dog Jewish petty tyrant extraordinaire: Maishl Ticoczki, who spent the second half of his life living under the name Morris Tucker. I only knew him as an old man, a highly affectionate but obstreperously demanding person for whom even as a kid it was impossible to not to feel a mixture of great love and exasperated contempt. Much of my first ten years was spent babysat by my grandparents, and it was a Yiddish version of the Costanza household. I'm almost positive that a man as morally obsessed as Zaydie would never ever strike my Bubbie (I feel ashamed that I even mention a small sliver of the possibility), but I do remember hiding in the next room while huge screaming matches would take place in the midst of something clearly being struck loudly - it was probably one of them banging on the kitchen table.... Hotheadedness was the way of the Old Country, and  among European peasants, blowing your gasket was a respectable form of communication.

But as a young man, Zaydie was apparently rather familiar figure in the annals of Tucker-lore - presenting a lethal and extraverted wit to the world, but whose bonhomie was a disguise for an introverted determination and fanatical seriousness of conviction. Anybody who knows me or my Dad, or Ethan, fairly well will recognize that archetype instantly. Tuckers are generally very good performers, but it's all performance art to disguise an intensity that consistently threatens to tear one another to shreds.

My grandparents lived in the most unassumingly middle class suburban rancher you can possibly envision: three small bedrooms, a reasonably large living room separated from the dining room only by a large fireplace, on the side of the two was a den, a kitchen, and a waiting room. Almost all the books in the house were my father's from his final two years at Johns Hopkins, and I'm fairly sure that my father had chosen most of the artwork too.

The only extraordinary thing about the house was the enormity of the land upon which it sat - a full two acres if memory serves me correctly. My Zaydie honestly bought it with the idea that his children would build houses adjacent to his and their families live at his beckon call on the same plot. On the one hand, such situations are not all that abnormal outside of America, and it was the ultimate middle class insurance policy - if times ever became as bad as they were in the Europe of Zaydie's youth, and if my Dad or Uncle ever became destitute, they and their children could simply come live with their patriarch, and Zaydie would build them houses with the money that he guarded and controlled as fiercely as he did his children. On the other, holy crap that's really fucked up!...

Money was Zaydie's pathological obsession. He certainly took a great thrill in making it - my father would relate to me how he would occasionally drive my Zaydie as an old man to the Signet Bank on Old Court Road just so Zaydie could go into the vault and count his silver coins. But if money truly gave Zaydie pleasure, he could have made a lot more of it than he ever did. He loathed the stock market and real estate speculation as idle gambling - he only wanted money which he knew he earned. What he truly loved was the security which money brought. Apparently, one of his most time-honored sayings to guilt my father was 'Alz Ikh hob Ikh hob far eich' - All I have I have for you.

So paranoid was he about money that he would bury cash in his lawn in case of an emergency - cash which my Dad and Uncle never found before they sold the house. Eventually, the paranoia devolved to outright insanity, and in his final years when he suffered from dementia, Zaydie would regularly badger my Dad to drive him to the banks, whereupon he would promptly accuse the tellers and managers of stealing from him. Once, when he caught my Dad motioning to the bankers to humor him, Zaydie accused my Dad of stealing too - one day I'll tell that story here.

Zaydie's one vanity was suits, and he only wore suits because he thought it was a responsibility of a respectable businessman to look the part. To the end of his life, he refused to leave his house in anything but a suit, and would even wear them to my parents' cookouts. He insisted that my father do the same, and one day when my father visited him but forgot to wear a watch, Zaydie started to cry.

When Zaydie first bought a house in Stevenson, it must have seemed like paradise itself. He had finally made it in a world that continually conspired to kill him off. All the worries of his life: World War I, the Russian Civil War, Weimar Hyperinflation, The Great Depression, the Stalinist Invasion, the Nazi Invasion, the Holocaust, the Postwar Bloodlands, refugee status in Frankfurt, being a poor immigrant in Baltimore, being at the mercy of the Klan... and after fifty years of constant worry, he'd finally made it back into the Middle Class into which he was born and then some. A long, leisurely retirement was finally in sight, but when he'd finally come through a half-century of bloody history to the other side, it was almost too late to enjoy it. In 1969 he had misdiagnosed subdural hematoma, and after a series of botched operations, he spent the final three decades of his life in varying states of aphasia. Many times thereafter, he would say that it would have been better for him to die then than to await death for so many decades longer.

If only the strong survive, then Zaydie was an Olympian. He was tested throughout his life with misfortunes that killed nearly everyone who underwent just one of the many tests he thrived upon. He was not merely a member of the Jewish Middle Class, he WAS the Jewish Middle Class. His business sense preserved him through The Great Depression, and the loyalty and resourcefulness he engendered among his employees saved him through the years of Stalin and Hitler. He arrived in America, like so many millions of others, with nothing, and he was the last generation for whom the idea of this country as the Land of Opportunity held no irony at all.

In his final years, it's amazing to think now of how his fate aligned with the unravelling of The American Dream. When the stability of the American Middle Class began to come undon in the late 60's and early 70's, Zaydie became partially incapacitated. When the country started spending well beyond its means in the 80's and 90's, Zaydie began to go senile. In 1998, the year before Glass-Steagal began to truly kill the American Middle Class, Zaydie died while sipping a cup of tea.

We were in Chicago visiting relatives when it happened. But I will never forget coming home and hearing the frantic message of my grandparents' Yiddish-speaking caretaker on the phone to my parents' answering machine: 'JECKIE! JECKIE! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT! JECKIE! DEIN TATTEH IST TEDT!'

Were Zaydie alive today and in good health, maybe we could know what he'd think of the world of Baltimore Jewry as it now is. I would imagine him seeing contemporary Pikesville and Stevenson, with all its prosperity and success and well-being..., and to be honest, I'm sure he would fly into another of his trademark rages - fulminating until he exhausted himself at his neighbors' ostentation, their luxury, their lack of seriousness, their materialism, their laziness, their moral abdication to the people they provide for. And no doubt, there's no one at whom he'd have lost it more often than me... In one of my Dad's... well... more tactful moments... he said to me "Oy Evan. If your grandfather were alive to see you now, he'd take a long look and just say: Ochen Vey! What a disappointment!"


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