My wife likes to joke with me that I collect old guys.
Well, everyone needs a hobby.
But it’s true. For some reason, I connect with older gentlemen on a personal, visceral level, much more so than with guys my own age and of my own generation. Maybe I’m an ancient soul, or perhaps I’m just in training for my own geriatric years.
I just find I can learn so much more from older folks than those who’ve lived through the same fairly dull times as myself.
Last week, I lost one of my old guys, Morris Martick. Morris was the owner, operator, chef and head bottle-washer at Martick’s Restaurant Francais, a French bistro on Mulberry Street that would’ve never existed if not for the sheer force of personality, innovativeness and quirky determination of this irascible, idiosyncratic man. To call him a true Baltimore character of the highest order would be a colossal understatement.
I’ve lost a few other great old guys in my time whom I still miss. One was Harry Zweback, a Toms River, New Jersey, chicken farmer who originally came from Poland. I met Harry when he and his ailing wife, Bella, lived downstairs from me and my wife at Pickwick Apartments. Harry had a thick East European accent, and even though he was a small man, he had the muscular arms and shoulders of a guy who had worked with his hands all of his life. He used to call me and say, “Come on, lemme take ya to the Suboibian sometime,” alluding to the Suburban House restaurant. He loved deli.
Then, there was my old Yiddish teacher, Dr. Solomon Manischewitz. Back when we first got married, my wife and I decided to get in touch with our roots and learn the mamaloshen. But what we learned early on while taking evening classes at Baltimore Hebrew University with Dr. Manischewitz was that Dr. M didn’t fool around. He didn’t look at Yiddish as this cute little language in which to tell corny, outdated jokes. He took Yiddish quite seriously and academically – conjugated verbs, past participles, you name it – and he expected the same commitment to the language from his students.
Naturally, I started trying to cut his classes, because I wasn’t prepared at all, but my wife forced me to go, especially when it became quite clear that Dr. M took a particular shine to me. (My wife called me the teacher’s pet.) He used to smile at me and cup my face in his hand, saying, “Ah, he’s a good boy.” (Of course, I was in my early 30s at the time, and not so good in reality.)
Frankly, my strong hunch is that he liked me because I work at the Jewish Times. Anyway, I could do no wrong in that class in Dr. M’s eyes, and here was my wife pulling me by the ear into the classroom. Let’s just say she wasn’t too pleased. I still hear about it on occasion.
The last time I saw Dr. M was in the supermarket a few years after taking his class. He was very friendly but had just lost his beloved wife, and he said to me, “Everything I went through during the war and in the [concentration] camps, nothing compares to what I’ve been through with my wife.” His eyes were full of pain, sorrow and fear. I’ll never forget it.
And then there was the one and only Sol Milgrome, the Torah reader at my old shul, Shaarei Tfiloh Synagogue by Druid Hill Park. I still can’t drive by Shaarei Tfiloh without thinking of Reverend Sol. I could hear his voice chanting Torah on Shabbos morning and feel like I was being transported back to the Polish shtetl, hearing it all done the authentic way of my ancestors. This former student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had a tireless love for his shul and for people in general. He used to walk all over Baltimore, just to schmooze with people and shed a little of his unique light upon them. He liked to be a street philosopher and dispense his life’s wisdom, whether you were interested or not. Yes, he could sometimes drive you a little meshugah after a while with all of his preaching and jabbering, but you always knew Reverend Sol was good people.
He was a real mentsch, he wanted to make the world a better place, not by writing checks or sitting on committees but simply by talking to people and enlightening them, maybe just giving them a chuckle. And when someone didn’t come to shul, he’d always take it personally and yell, “What? He wants to sleep?! There’s always time to sleep when you’re dead!”
These guys are all gone now. They were among a vanishing, rare breed. I know it sounds trite, but they can’t be replaced. They had something – I don’t know what you call it, character, a zest, moxie, a generosity of spirit, an aversion to B.S., a humility, a je ne sais quoi as they say in Yiddish (I told you I was a rotten Yiddish student) – that precious few of us have. Certainly not those of us born after World War II. They were byproducts of their time and places, perhaps emblematic of their era. Maybe as my father used to say, they were graduates of the College of Hard Knocks. Maybe that’s what made them so special.
Hopefully, for those of us who enjoyed their company, sat at their feet and learned from them, they still live in a part of our hearts and spirits. I know they’ll always bring a smile to my face.