From time to time, friends (and my wife) make fun of me because in the middle of the workday, I’ll occasionally run down the street and grab a quick lunch at the nearby Blimpie sandwich shop.
It must be something about that silly name – Blimpie—that just sets people off, like some kind of Pavlovian response (but without the mutts).
“Oooooh! Why would someone eat at a place called Blimpie?” a co-worker once asked me, intimating that becoming a great big “blimp” was not an enticing notion to her. (I never said it was gourmet or necessarily diet-friendly cuisine, but what’s in a name?). Another person put down the quality of the food there, even though she admitted that she’d never actually eaten there.
“Hey,” I’ve responded to all of the Doubting Thomases, “don’t dis the Blimp.” (How’s that for an ad slogan?)
Anyway, a very nice, 30-ish Korean lady named Sue owns and operates the local Blimpie. I don’t want to sound too maudlin or cliché-ridden here, but Sue’s one of those hard-working people who always has a smile on her face when you see her and a pleasant word or two for her customers. And you can just tell it’s genuine. During these tough times, a kind smile and friendly greeting go a long way.
Recently, during a slow afternoon, Sue schmoozed with me a little bit about coming here from Seoul at age 15, knowing no English, getting through high school and college (Towson University, with honors), and starting her own business (the Blimpie franchise, which she bought from another Korean entrepreneur). We marveled about how much Jews and Koreans have in common – an almost obsessive concern with family, a respect for tradition and values, an entrepreneurial spirit, a fixation on education, a strong work ethic, a sense of community, etc.
Of course, there are times when I feel like Jews have become so Americanized, so settled, so affluent and complacent, that we’ve lost some aspects of that rugged, new immigrant spirit in which we look after each other (like members of the Korean community tend to do) and try anything to get ahead. In a lot of ways, we’re sterling examples of the American Dream, but where to go from here?
The Koreans are indeed “the New Jews,” and God bless ‘em for doing what they do, but it’s up to us to determine the direction of “the Old Jews.” Of course, regardless of what we do or don’t do, the tough economic times might dictate what that new direction might be. Depending on each other and being more compassionate might have to become our new modus operandi, just to survive in a tough market, like our grandparents did back in the Great Depression. (How many times did your Bubbie tell you about how her mishpacha and friends helped out each other in the ‘30s and ‘40s?)
Sue told me that her kids, who were born here, are not fluent in Korean and are quite Americanized, but she sends them to Korean school, to learn their ancestral mother tongue and remain familiar with the customs (beyond eating kimche). “No matter what,” she said, “I want them to know who they are. It’s important. My generation will never know what my parents’ generation went through, with World War II and the Korean War, but we have to pass all of this onto our children.”
We can learn a lot from Sue and her Korean brothers and sisters.
And like I always say, don’t dis the Blimp.
People keep using that `D-Word’ nowadays – Depression. I don’t mean the mental or emotional state of anguish and dejection – let’s face it, that’s an ongoing saga for our times, regardless of the Dow – but Depression as in, “Let’s ride the rails, get out our harmonicas and live in hobo jungles, with sepia Dorothea Lange images, `Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?’” kind of Depression.
As a child of Great Depression-era kids, I’m not sure what to make of that word’s current usage. How many times have I heard the stories about how my mother didn’t have soles in her shoes because times were tough back then? Or that my dad had to quit high school and joined the Merchant Marine to make ends meet for his family?
Or that my grandparents needed to leave New York for Baltimore because my grandfather had to find work desperately? Or that my grandmother took in foster kids for a few extra bucks?
A few weeks ago, I asked my old friend Gil Sandler, who lived through the Depression of the ‘30s himself, if he thought reports of a new Depression were greatly exaggerated. To my dismay, he didn’t exactly dismiss the notion. “We have to see how things fall out,” said Gilbert, probably not noticing me gulping and hyperventilating a bit, since I wanted him to say it was utter nonsense. “We just have to see what happens with all that’s going on.”
But when I asked another expert and survivor of the Hoover era – namely, my mother – what she thought, she scoffed at the notion.
“Where are the bread lines? Where are the people jumping out of skyscrapers?” she said. “Everyone’s panicking too fast. Have a little faith. And believe in this president.”
Let’s pray that my mother, who’s been known to be wrong on more than one occasion, is right on the money about this point. We can’t minimize all the pain and suffering already going on out there. Just take a look at the abandoned shopping centers already springing up. But at the same time, we somehow can’t allow ourselves to forget what history and our elders have taught us, or fall prey to alarmism and fear.
Perhaps you’ve been reading the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES long enough to remember our old “Kvetch” column, which allowed our faithful readers the opportunity to vent about nearly anything that passed through their minds.
No one was more of a participant or enthusiast of this column than a gentleman who went by the poetic sobriquet of “El Syd,” aka Sydney Goldfield of Pikesville. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Syd and his lovely wife, June, a few years ago, and even wrote a profile on him. The piece was written shortly after the column was put to bed, chronicling Syd’s lament over “Kvetch’s” demise.
I recently read in our paper’s death notices that Syd, a true character if there ever was one, passed away. In his honor, I’d like to reprint here my article about him.
May Syd’s memory always be a blessing for his family, friends and those who came into contact with him.
Syd, thanks for the kvetches. Wherever you are, I know that you’re kvetching.
It was the tone of the voice that broke my heart. Captured by the miracle of voice-mail, it sounded dejected, beaten, inconsolable. “I’m really sorry to see it go,” the voice lamented. “Hmmm. That was one of my outlets.” Pause. “Well, that’s how it goes.”
Right off the bat, I recognized the voice as the one and only “El Syd,” the gentleman caller who for the past few years has rung up the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES’ ” Kvetch-line” every Monday morning like clockwork to voice his displeasure about some annoying matter. More often than not, he proffered a witty or ironic observation about the state of the world.
(As most of you undoubtedly know, the JT’s “Kvetch” column was discontinued a few weeks ago after a successful six-year run. Nothing’s forever, folks.)
Still, I worried about El Syd, as he referred to himself a couple of times in his kvetchings. He sounded like an older man on his voice-mail drive-bys, and the column was obviously something he cared deeply about.
“What’s going to happen to that guy who calls every Monday?” queried a former colleague. “Aren’t you concerned about his welfare? What will he do with himself?”
At first, I tried to put it out of my mind, even after hearing his last mournful “Kvetch” submission. He’ll be fine, I told myself.
But then a letter arrived from Syd, bemoaning “Kvetch’s” demise. “I shall miss it; I hope others do, too,” the letter read. “I kept a list of my printed entries, which totaled 185. I had a goal of 200.”
Oy, he kept track of how many kvetches he submitted?! Wow! That was it — I had to meet El Syd face-to-face and figure out who this person is.
Fortunately, he signed the letter and tagged on his phone number to boot, so tracking down El Syd didn’t require formidable investigative prowess.
Turns out El Syd (a longtime self-dubbed moniker) is Sydney Goldfield, a 74-year-old retired RCA executive and Social Security program analyst. When reaching the Scotts Hills residence he shares with his wife of 34 years, June, I immediately recognized the timbre and tone of his voice.
Initially during our conversation last Friday afternoon, Syd, an Atlantic City native and grandfather of three, seemed a bit reticent about discussing something that obviously became an obsession over the years. When I probed too deep, he tended to resort to non-sequiturs. “That’s his way of avoiding the subject,” explained June.
But then it all came out, including the stunning admission that he occasionally recycled his old kvetches just to see if anyone here was paying attention.
“I don’t consider myself a kvetchy person. I just consider myself a humorous kvetcher,” he said without blinking. “I’m definitely compulsive. Small things interest me. I just liked ‘Kvetch’ and thought it was funny. When I get on something, I don’t let go.”
Things evolved to a point where June said she would be driving with Syd to appointments and notice he was jotting things down on the backs of envelopes. Then, he would mull over these ramblings at home during the week and throughout the weekend, with as many as three rewrites for each kvetch. By the time the JT arrived the following Friday, they would play a game in which June guessed which kvetches were penned by Syd.
Just by looking around Syd’s abode, it wasn’t hard to see he’s compulsive about a lot of things. His massive collection of 45s and long-playing records lined the shelves of his den, not far from his stacks of TV Guide fall preview editions dating from the early ‘60s (did someone say Frank Costanza?).
A nearby framed Baltimore Sun article from a few years back hailed Syd for his documentation of more than 9,600 books that he’s read over the course of his life (and he has the handwritten list to prove it). He also collects postcards, autographs and baseball cards.
Hammering home the point about his being compulsive were the stacks of cutout pages of “Kvetch” sitting on his living room table, dating back to his debut on June 12, 1998. Syd also keeps copies of the pages, all dated and indexed by order of appearance, for posterity.
His “Seinfeld”-esque observations have railed against the medical community, SUVs, youngsters with a penchant for loud and irritating behavior, and incompetent drivers. (Syd always kept away from sex and politics).
Some of his favorites:
“When you push an ‘up’ elevator button and the red light comes on, someone behind you will push the same button. I guess they think their touch is better.” (Nov. 27, 1998)
“My kvetch is that suddenly I cannot think of a good kvetch.” (April 30, 1999)
“We kvetch when it doesn’t rain and when it does rain.” (Sept. 6, 2002)
“Ever do physical therapy? Oy, does it hurt! Now that’s a kvetch.” (Sept. 20, 2002)
“I see where reality shows are the big thing on TV. Well, we don’t watch them.” (March 7, 2003)
During his prolific career as a kvetcher, Syd said one of his pet peeves was another regular of the column, a woman who enjoys calling herself “Kvetchy Suzanne.”
“Suzanne has always bugged me,” Syd confessed, while admitting he doesn’t personally know the woman. “Three of her last four kvetches were mine. And I think she goes on and on. I’m always concise. Also, I always felt the ‘Kvetch’ column was for kvetchers without names. She wanted the glory. I don’t.”
That’s not to say Syd didn’t occasionally “out” himself and tell those closest to him that he was one of the unheralded kvetchers. June even scanned some of his best offerings and e-mailed ‘em to friends and relatives across the country
“A couple of relatives I shared my kvetches with said they didn’t get them. You’d have to wonder, ‘What the hell is wrong with these people?’” Syd growled. “I was saying things that should be said. This was my way of expressing my point of view.”
Now that “Kvetch” is history, Syd said he’s thinking of looking into the possibility of having all of his kvetches published in a book. But what about the fact that they’re all anonymous? No problem, responded Syd, he keeps a log of all of his kvetches, each original and rewrite handwritten and dated.
I asked him what publisher would seek this kind of, shall we say, unique material?
“Look,” Syd snapped, “I already have been published, whether anyone likes it or not. ‘Kvetch’ was addictive for me. I set the goals. First, it was getting 25 kvetches printed. Then, it was 50. And then 100. It was the thrill of getting printed.”
But then came that dark day a few weeks ago when June opened the Jewish Times and said, “Uh, Syd, you’re going to be very unhappy.” Learning about the column’s abrupt ending, he said, “was very traumatic. I died. I demised. Pages were wet.”
Still, Syd said he’s managing to keep his chin up. “I’ll be OK,” he promised. “I’ll miss writing them, but I’m 74. This isn’t the first thing I’ve run into in my life. Life goes on. I’ll keep kvetching, with the hope that someday, someone will start it again.”
Well, you can’t blame a good kvetcher for dreaming, now can you?
Sometimes when I go to shul – just about any shul – I can’t help but think about how the maintenance staff views what’s going on there. After all, the majority of maintenance workers at our synagogues and temples tend to be non-Jewish, and you’ve got to wonder what goes through their minds when we conduct our services, gatherings and such.
This thought particularly weighed heavily on my mind the other night when I attended Purim services at a local mega-shul (which I’ll leave anonymous). The scene was typical for Purim. The service, of course, was pure pandemonium, bedlam and decidedly juvenile, and understandably so—to get the kids revved up about the holiday. After all, Purim is really a holiday for kids, even though it deals with such heavy themes as potential annihilation, bigotry, revenge and sexual exploitation.
But what the heck, the kids love it! And the truth is, most Jewish holidays are so serious and morose, so let the young ones have one.
The aftermath of the service, however, is what surprised me a bit (although not too much). The auditorium at the shul was basically transformed into a discotheque, with thumping beats blasted by a deejay, adolescent girls on the stage dancing suggestively, kids stuffing their faces with hamantaschen and running amok, etc. I’m not saying I felt like I was watching a director’s cut of “Caligula,” but `over-the-top’ might not be an inappropriate expression here.
The corridors of the shul, of course, were turned into an endless sea of brash teenagers (are there any other kind?), flirting each other up like crazy and relieved to be far from their dorky parents and li’l siblings. The scene looked more like a Jonas Brothers concert than a house of worship.
Then, the aforementioned dorky parents, who were situated about a mile or so away, in another part of the shul, enjoyed their alcoholic beverages (which is encouraged on Purim) and took turns at shredding eardrums by singing on a karaoke machine. They, too, just seemed glad to be away from their offspring, and I couldn’t help but wonder when Bill Murray would show up, as his old “Saturday Night Live” lounge lizard singer alter ego, to entertain the crowd.
As I fled the scene, I couldn’t help but notice that the building was basically trashed, with broken grogger parts, shards of paper, miles of crumbs, and other jetsam and flotsam everywhere on the floors of the shul, as if Woodstock had just concluded. And again, I wondered about these people who clean and take care of our synagogues – what could they ever think of us and this surrealism as they watch? Because of job security, they must keep their lips zipped. But at times, they must think to themselves, “Just exactly what kind of religion is this?”
My guess is that they could write at least a few volumes about American Jewry in the 21st century, and where it went wrong.
Sometimes in our busy, chaotic existences, something happens that shakes us out of our dusty zones and reminds us that something else may be going on in the cosmos. It extracts the cynicism and fear that tend to dominate these times and makes you think about what some people like to call “the bigger picture.”
That happened to me recently when writing a news article about a young lady named Hannah Schlessinger.
In March of 1998, Hannah, a beautiful, vibrant 7-year-old Bolton Street Synagogue religious school student, was on her way to a ballet class with her mom when they got into a three-car collision near Greenspring Station. Hannah didn’t make it, and one look at her beaming face in the family photos tells you that the world lost a major ray of light that day.
Hannah’s parents, Andy and Kitty, her sisters and Bolton Street recently dedicated a memorial sculpture—by Baltimore-based, internationally-renowned sculptor Rodney Carroll—in the back of the Roland Park synagogue, near its playground, by the Stoney Run stream. The sculpture, a bench and Chai-shaped arch with 18 chimes to signify Hannah’s intense love for life and Judaism, was dedicated in honor of what would have been her 18th birthday.
When I started working on the article about the memorial, I went into the Jewish Times’ Web site archives, just to check if our publication ran an obituary on Hannah in 1998. I found the article, but also noticed in the archives that Hannah’s name was mentioned in a piece dated about six weeks earlier. When I looked it up, there was no mention of Hannah, except for a caption.
I then looked up the article in our bound volumes from that year, and I found a profile on Bolton Street. Sure enough, Hannah was not actually mentioned in the story, but there was a beautiful photo taken by former JT photographer Kyle Bergner of a smiling Hannah and a proud Mrs. Schlessinger, the mother’s arm lovingly wrapped around her child. For some reason, the article never mentioned the Schlessingers, but a photo was taken of them and published.
I found the original picture in our photo files, had it scanned by our art department, and emailed it to the Bolton Street folks, to see if it would be OK if we ran the picture with the article on the memorial. They, in turn, sent it to Hannah’s parents. Andy Schlessinger immediately wrote, informing me that they were overwhelmed since they had, for some reason, never actually seen that photo before. It surfaced out of the blue for them.
As a parent myself, I can only imagine how emotional and moving seeing that photo must’ve been for the Schlessingers, especially since it was likely one of the last pictures ever taken of their daughter. And to boot, Mr. Schlessinger told me that that day itself happened to be Hannah’s actual 18th birthday.
The story doesn’t stop there. Mr. Schlessinger asked if they could have a copy of the photo, and of course, it was sent to them. A few days later, I got an email message from him. It seems that a few days before the official dedication ceremony, the sculpture was transported from Mr. Carroll’s studio and installed on Bolton Street’s campus. Mr. Schlessinger dashed out of his house, grabbed his mail and raced to the synagogue, to oversee the installation with Mr. Carroll and the workmen.
After getting there and watching the meticulous unpacking and placement of the sculpture, Mr. Schlessinger said he scanned his mail and opened the envelope with the Jewish Times logo. As he pulled out the 11-year-old photo of his wife and daughter, he said a gust of wind suddenly began ringing the chimes and made all of the workers stop in their tracks. It was almost as if Hannah’s soul was passing through, making its presence know.
“Everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered round, looking at Hannah and hearing those chimes,” wrote Mr. Schlessinger. “It was a moment that could not be staged or repeated. … It remains something of an epiphany for me: it was Hannah saying, yes, this is the way I want to be remembered, forever part of children’s lives, their play and their dreams. It all made sense.”
Now I know that some of you might read this anecdote, shake your head, roll your eyes and call it hocus-pocus or wishful thinking. But to quote the immortal bard, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Perhaps, in her own way, Hannah was telling us that she never really left our midst after all.