Tuesday, October 6, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 4: The Bolton Street Synagogue Part 2

What can you say about your childhood perceptions that you know are accurate? Our understanding as adults are incomplete enough, but when you're a walking ball of id that would probably eat fritos and shit yourself if left to your own devices, you can't be expected to have accurate perceptions of the world. Even the retrospective glow of my alleged childhood promise is seen through a filter so unreliable that perhaps there is no way to call it an accurate perception - particularly because of the adult this child became.

And isn't it doubly so when remembering the people of your childhood? No matter what age we are, the idea that our memories from a quarter-century ago are completely accurate is a dubious proposal, but at an age when it doesn't occur to you that anything is worth remembering, it's particularly odd to say anything important about it. Add to the fact that nobody has any reason to be interested in another person's distant childhood, and you have a recipe for narcissistic, inaccurate prattling that nobody should want to read.

We're going to plow on regardless, because we're recording a stream of memories about love and acceptance above all else; and it's obvious that there is no time in life that love more crucial than in years when you would die if you didn't have people who love you and accept your flaws enough to take care of you. What follows in this strange history of my life may or may not be a simplified approximation of the whole truth, but it's almost certainly not. There's too much I don't know, and too much I'm simply not willing to talk about. Some memories will be recounted in detail, some will not be recounted at all. Nevertheless, in recounting childhood memories, what is important is not to recount yourself, but the people you remember. I've already extemporized on myself much too much for it to hold much interest for anything further that I have to say about myself. What is important is the supporting cast.

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The logical person to begin this series of memories with is Bubbie, because Bubbie is, in so many senses, my formative influence.

To any kid but one like me, Bubbie would have been, and in some senses is, a horrible grandmother. Almost as horrible as she was a mother to my mother and uncle. My mother seems, in most senses, to have been raised by her grandparents. My grandparents had only one child, Bubbie Witow, who was the saving consolation of their lives. My great-grandfather, Abraham Katz, apparently had a goyisher mistress whom he kept in a house around the Southwest of the city near the bay. By all evidence, my great-grandmother Tessie (Teertzah) Katz was never an attractive woman. Even in her youth, she had the same porcine face with an enormous pug nose and an envelope-shaped mouth which was shared by all three of her siblings. As she grew older, she became enormously fat, well over three-hundred pounds. Eventually she had a stroke which left her paralyzed.

Nevertheless, she was a Bubbie very much like my Bubbie Tucker, a woman worn down by life who perhaps suffered from lingering depression and anger at how life had treated her, but who positively doted on my mother as she did my grandmother before her. Like Bubbie Tucker, much of her passion went into food, and she was by all accounts an amazing cook even after her paralysis.

Even to today, Bubbie's relationship to her parents is doting to a point that creeps my father out. Before I was born, Bubbie absolutely insisted that I be named for her father - Abraham Katz, and so my Hebrew name is Avraham, and I was apparently supposed to be named Abraham in English - though Bubbie suggested Bram as a substitute (ew). When my mother went into labor with me, my grandmother insisted that my mother keep pictures of Bubbie's parents at her bedside.

Bubbie's loyalty to her parents was ironclad, and with good reason. They sacrificed everything to make sure she would spend her life in the upper-middle-class, with a cultural background and graduate-level education they never got. When the Metropolitan Opera came to town for three nights, they saved the often paltry savings from their corner store so that Bubbie could go see it for two of those nights.

Bubbie repaid their loyalty in a way that defined everything thereafter for her, for my Zaydie, and for their progeny. By the end of World War II, Zaydie could look forward to a brilliant career in the Defense Department as an engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. As a Jew, he couldn't get hired by a private engineering firm.  He was one of the key engineers on the team that created the Smart Bomb, and apparently made one of the team's key discoveries himself. But her parents were so miserable without their only daughter to fill their lives that Bubbie ordered Zaydie back to Baltimore, the bad memories place where Zaydie slaved away as a young man to lift himself out of the poor working class, so that they could live with Bubbie's parents.

Zaydie took a job as an the Pentagon, and for a quarter-century, he lived in Silver Spring and only returned to Baltimore on weekends. My mother recently recalled seeing how undistinguished Zaydie's career had become when she came to his work place one day and saw that he had by far the smallest office on his corner. In Washington, Zaydie was nothing more than an administrator, and he loathed it. He wanted to be working on the important Pentagon missile defense that no doubt killed hundreds of thousands, instead he was stuck working in the Pentagon's increasingly fearsome bureaucracy. Who knows how many millions more the Pentagon could have been killed in the thermonuclear light of Zaydie's scientific brilliance? And yet, he ultimately didn't seem to mind it that much. He had children he both loved and didn't have to see often enough to become sick of them. He had his books and hobbies (apparently he even enjoyed solving math problems in his spare time), and took pleasure in being left alone with them. My Bubbie's crazy Tante (Aunt) Miriam always thought he had affairs when he was living in Silver Spring, but while I think Zaydie might have been tempted, anybody might have been when separated from family for five nights of the week. But I doubt he ever truly had enough ambition to find a girlfriend. For the most part, he seemed happiest being left to his own devices.

My grandparents and great-grandparents owned just one floor of a house on Maine Avenue in Forest Park, which they shared with Crazy Tante Miriam - more on her another time... When Barry Levinson made the movie Liberty Heights, the street upon which the main characters lived was just a cross-street over from the Witows and Katzes. But unlike this family, the living space of my family was so small that my mother had to share a bedroom with her five years younger brother. While her grandparents were doting, her mother was a curious mixture of absentee and domineering, and my mother swore she would be a different sort of mother to her own children.

It's worth talking about Forest Park too. Forest Park was once a Jewish neighborhood in far west of Baltimore. In its original design, it was supposed to be a copy of the far more goyish Roland Park, which was itself America's first planned community, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was also the designer of Central Park. Forest Park was another hugely important symbol of Jewish aspiration, the perhaps misguided attempt of Jews to show that they can be as respectable, as upper middle class, as American, as any Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Reality, as ever, had other plans.

Decency prevents me from going into the sheer barrage of harassment encountered by the Witow/Katz family on Maine Avenue by a few of the blacks who moved in as the Jews moved out, though perhaps the fact that I'm mentioning it means that I'm not being decent enough. But it must suffice to say that at times it was truly breathtaking and horrific - in some ways as bad as a Jew would encounter from Poles and Russians in the Pale of Settlement. It is more than enough to explain the lifelong conservatism my mother and uncle acquired residually, because who can blame them? My mother and uncle, to this day, don't know why Bubbie didn't immediately move the family out when the harassment began, let alone when it became more intense. But my Bubbie, a hoarder and procrastinator who had once heard of organization without ever learning how to do so, kept the family in Forest Park until 1970. When the urban riots happened in 1968, sometimes my family was literally escorted around West Baltimore by a tank.

Two years after moving to Strathmore Avenue in Mount Washington, Zaydie was faced with a choice: early retirement or transfer to Huntsville, Alabama. He was 55 years old, and being on the old government pension plan, got what would today be a prince's sum for his 30 years of service - a pension which my always lucky grandmother still lives upon 43 years after his retirement.

The house into which they moved was the former house of Marvin Mandel, the Governor of Maryland who just died at the age of 95 and who was convicted for racketeering in 1982. To this day, I wonder how Bubbie managed it. She had a realtor license, but my father always implied to me that there was some sort of machination with the Democratic political machine - which is truly ironic considering how conservative my Zaydie, mother, and uncle all were by the end of the 60's. Virtually everybody in Maryland is still registered as a Democrat, because it's the only way to influence elections: in both Baltimore and Washington there is no Republican party of which one can truly speak. My father, ever the contrarian, registered as a Republican twenty years ago - half as a joke, and half because the idea of a Phil Graham scared him (of all things...).

Zaydie Witow was, like his father, a true intellectual. Unlike his father, a Communist whose principles refused promotion to foreman he was offered, Zaydie was educated, a lover of America, and a true conservative at a time when conservatism was deeply unpopular, and even moreso among Jews. My father used to joke ad nauseum that in the Witow household, there were portraits of Richard Nixon in every room, whereas in his house there were pictures of Nixon on the toilet paper.

Zaydie lived only to see his brand of conservatism begin its ascendance, and would never know that his son would eventually rise in the federal government far further than he ever did. Though Nochem has only now rose to levels that shape public policy, it was men like Nochem who dominated world discourse in the 2000's, and had Nochem enlisted in the foreign service fifteen years earlier, he could easily have been one of the neoconservatives that planned (and botched) the Iraq War.

Nochem is a man not unlike his father. Saintly of a sort, utterly non-confrontational except on political matters, a polyglot intellectual, well-read on all sorts of subjects, beloved but a bit distant from his children, and with the kind of bourgeois aspirations that died in American life a half-century ago. There will be much more to say about Nochem at a later date, but for all our political arguments, he has been one of the greatest, most beneficial influences in my life, and I love him as I love few people.

What's worth talking about is Nochem's early career, and how it related to Bubbie and Zaydie. In his twenties, Nochem, like his nephew, didn't really work. Unlike his nephew, he was a gazillionaire. It didn't take much intelligence to benefit from the American stock market forty years ago, but apparently Nochem played it with virtuosic flair in his early adulthood. Why get a job making $50,000 a year when he made or lost that much in a day? The image my father paints of Nochem in those years was that he sat around his various apartments in his underwear until it was time to put on clothes and visit us or Bubbie.

In the late 70's, Nochem, trained like his father as an engineer. By Nochem's generation, Jews no longer trained as engineers. Jews were upper-class enough that those of scientific/mathematical talent were no longer engineers but outright scientists and doctors. And yet, Nochem trained as an engineer and was hired by Westinghouse, who sent him to Iran in the late 70's...

Why did Nochem train as an engineer when there were so many other options open to a promising young man of the Baby Boomer generation? There are a few explanations of this. One is that Nochem loved Zaydie and always idolized him, so perhaps he went into the same field as Zaydie. Another is that Nochem, like so many people with Witow lineage, felt directionless, and so he chose a field which his father could help him navigate. A third explanation, a more gloriously theatrical one, is that a young man as promising, as politically knowledgeable, as polyglot, as Nochem could not have gone unnoticed by places where promising young men were recruited. With his head for making money, he could easily be headhunted by a financial firm, and indeed by the early 80's he was in Columbia Business School. But the facts are these: He worked as an engineer for Westinghouse when the Sha fell, he spent six weeks in the USSR just a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union. When he joined the State Department at the age of 40, his first assignment was in Mexico just as the one-party system fell after seventy years in power. He was stationed in Israel as the Second Intifada happened, and he worked on the Afghan desk just as America began its withdrawal.

At this point in my life, I find the possibility of Nochem working for the 'agency' extraordinarily unlikely, because he would have to hide in plain sight. Considering that my father mentioned the possibility of his working for the CIA in a toast at his wedding, I think an agent would have to work under much deeper cover than Nochem ever would have. But who knows? Many relatives have often speculated as to what my uncle did.  If he's with the 'agency', he's done a horrendous job covering his tracks and it won't make any difference whether or not I talk about it here, but perhaps that's his plan... Even so, I find it very hard to believe he is. Even if he worked for them, he'd probably be a simple administrator (think Louis CK in American Hustle), but the romantic in me would like to picture him as the kind of assassin no one would see coming, with G. Gordon Liddy right wing obsessions, who knows 100 ways to kill us all, because such a figure seems so unlike the person he is. Imagine the James Bond parody you could make from Nochem's CIA career...

I'm 98% certain that the reality of Nochem's life, as reality usually is, is much more mundane. After Columbia Business School, Nochem moved back in with my grandparents, just as my grandfather entered the last year of his life - dying of colon cancer. It was only in the last few weeks of Zaydie's life that Nochem moved out of the house into his Bonnie Ridge apartment. I'm pretty sure that both my Bubbie and parents were furious at him for it, but who can blame him? From the moment Zaydie died, Nochem would have been under Bubbie's thumb. A few years later, Nochem's financial portfolio took a huge nosedive from which it never recovered. He was probably a much richer man at 30 than he will ever be again. The independence of the rest of his life probably hung in the balance. Five years later, he was married, and five years after that he was stationed abroad for what's become a distinguished career in the State Department.

In any event, the act of living alone was the best thing that ever happened to Bubbie. She sacrificed everything, including her husband's happiness, to keep her parents together, and while I'm not sure how good a job she did, she did what she could to take care of her parents and children. She is the American Jewish ideal, or at least my picture of it - not assimilated at all, and yet completely accepted by the world. She is completely Jewish yet basks in the acceptance and love of quarter-century younger non-Jewish friends who hold her in awe. Many family members find her remote and difficult in ways I haven't even elucidated here (some of which are hilarious, eventually I'll write them up...), but to people she just met, she has more social skill than any of us. Were she twenty years younger, she might have been a politician as skilled as Barbara Mikulski or Helen Bentley. In two weeks, she'll be 95. She seems to have more energy than my parents, and take more joy in living than anyone I know. She is the youngest of us all.

But how did she grow so young?

There are many factors in this - the independent means she had from her husband's pension and stock portfolio have their part. The community of little old ladies with whom she experienced a second adolescence had its part too (and it really is amazing how much like adolescents my Bubbie usually acts...). The fact that her children were fully grown and she was unencumbered by taking care of them played its part. Her relentless curiosity about subjects and people alike played its part as well.

I don't want to take credit that is not mine to take, but I do think I can say that I was a small part of it. Even in my case, I think she was surprised how well she took to the job of being my Bubbie. Bubbie was already in her late 70's before her younger grandchildren have any memories of her, and to her younger generation of grandchildren, she is the epitome of the out of touch old person. They are typical kids who have no interests in common with her, but I already had many memories of her by the time Bubbie was the age my father is now. I have many memories of her husband doting upon me, but in my first few years she always seemed to be a couple feet away. It was only as I became a precocious little twerp that she really warmed to me. Were I not, she probably would have felt as awkward and resentful around me as she was with her other grandchildren - a resentful awkwardness that has by no means sometimes absented itself from our relationship even so.

It often seems that her younger grandchildren can't stand her. Who can blame them? If ever there's a retrospective candidate for an undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder, whom if not her would it be? And yet, when a narcissist sees a kid so much like her, who takes an active interest in everything cultural that she loved, who was so clearly as disorganized and perhaps as selfish as she, how could she not fail to love him? For her, I was like a prize possession she could show off to friends. The way she loves may be misguided, but it can never be mistaken for anything but love. I think her relationship with me was perhaps no small part of what allowed her to claim more joy in living than anyone in her family has yet experienced.

She is the dream of assimilation - to remain completely apart from assimilation while still assimilating. She did not assimilate, she associated. It would not have been possible without her amazing luck - parents (and now children) who doted on her, an emotionally low-key husband who provided for her spectacularly and accommdated her every wish, and a feisty personality which makes a searing though positive impression on those who associate with her in small doses. We should all aspire to be like her, and yet her negative personal qualities show precisely why this dream is a bit hollow.


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