It’s been several months now, since my father – “Aba” – died, and the memory of these last, difficult years has receded just enough for some of the earlier, happier ones to begin to re-emerge.
Aba loved childhood and was very good with children, and my best memories of him are from my own childhood and Victoria’s. The last substantial thing I worked on with him was a book about the impact that coming up through Weimar Germany, Mandatory Palestine, and the post-WWII United States had on his life. Since Aba and his family fled Germany in 1933, when he was only five years old, and as he spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence in Mandatory Palestine, more than half of the book is devoted to his life before the age of 20.
A typical story recalls one time in Mannheim when his mother gave him money and sent him out with his grandfather to get a haircut. Once they had left and after a brief consultation, the two agreed that the money could be put to better use [my father was four-years-old at the time] and that his grandfather could cut his hair perfectly well himself. The results, unsurprisingly, were somewhat poorer than his mother had hoped for, so a straw hat was found, which my father had to wear whenever he went outdoors, until his hair grew back. And this is just one of many charming stories of Aba’s relationship with his grandfather.
I loved to go shopping with Grandpa. We walked. I tried to keep up with him, and when we got tired, we would take a break at the big hall in the railroad station. Sometimes, we would sit down for a stein of beer, a hardboiled egg, and a pickle. I was an enthusiastic participant in these libations, would sip my fill of beer from Grandpa’s stein, summarizing it with my appreciative moto “Alex hat Glueck gehabt!” (Alex was lucky.)
My father savored experience; so much so, that no amount of upheaval or trouble or danger could dampen his enthusiasm. His “motto,” Alex hat glueck gehabt! (“Alex was lucky’”) is repeated in the early parts of the book, even in the midst of terrifying and sometimes civilization-overturning events; the kinds of things that today are almost always treated as sources of trauma rather than excitement. Aba’s sheer love of life, even in poverty, dislocation, and war is hard to ignore and is infectious, especially in this excerpt, where he described his reaction when the ship on which his family had fled Germany arrived in Jaffa.
I glanced at my parents, whose faces expressed the full reality of our situation: we’d left a normal life behind us; arrived in an environment where we were not wanted; run the risk of being turned away and shipped off to Poland or who knows where else; and even if it all worked out, we were in a strange country with virtually no money.
While I had some glimmer of understanding of these worries and concerns, as a young boy, I was loving it. A different, strange architecture, both Turkish and Arab. Hundreds if not thousands of people in weird dress, with rough voices speaking languages I had never heard before. People sitting on the floor in cafes eating with their hands. And food of every kind at every corner. Slaughtered, hanging sheep; chicken; ducks; and of course, piles of fish, freshly caught from behind our ship. Camels and donkeys cut a path between the crowd to deliver their goods (and occasionally, to relieve themselves). All I could do was look and listen and revel in it all.
I had been thrown out from one place, only to find myself in another place which I liked. Problem solved. Very lucky.
[L] My father and his cousin Ruth in Mannheim around 1932/3. [R] My father’s ID card in Mandatory Palestine, around 1940.
By the time I was four or five (1972-3), my father had an established, successful design company and workshop that made museum, travel, and other displays and exhibits. They employed a system of interlocking extrusions and panels [Syma structures] that could be assembled and disassembled quickly and easily.
Aba would find applications of this “technology” well beyond this original purpose. Most notably, he used it to build prefabricated housing for the “instant-towns” that would appear around oil fields in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and pre-revolutionary Iran. Much more important to me, however, was the use to which he put Syma in our house.
I was an only child, growing up at a time when the sorts of personal entertainment to which children today are accustomed did not exist. My father worked 9-5 – which became 6-7, when you added the commute from Long Island to Manhattan – and though my mother was a homemaker, she was busy and couldn’t amuse me all day, when I was not in school.
Aba, employing Syma and under the guidance of his formidable creative imagination and love, built me a playroom that encompassed almost all of our otherwise unfinished basement. It was a place where I could draw, paint, hang my creations on a built-in corkboard, and even stick my head through a mock-porthole. It also became one of a number of places in and around our house, where my friends and I could play together.
The playroom my father built for me in our basement in 1972/3.
I don’t know exactly when my father began playing tennis, but it was he who first started me on the game. When I was six, he started me on private lessons [with a Romanian coach named “Drago,” who I can still hear repeating “back …. stretch” over and over again], then, after a few years, moving me into group instruction at Roslyn Racquet Club, and then finally, a few years later, to the Port Washington Tennis Academy, where John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulitis, and other champions had been trained in the cohorts just ahead of mine. This is where I really developed my game and trained for high school Varsity tennis, which, on Long Island, was extremely competitive. My father and I played together throughout, and would even go on tennis vacations together, once memorably to Laver’s International Tennis Resort, in Delray Beach.
[L] With Aba, in Key Biscayne, 1974. [R] My first year of Varsity tennis, 1982. If you look closely, you can see the Port Washington Tennis Academy logo on my shirt.
If you’ve read Brighton Beach Memoirs or any of the great Jewish-American literature of that era, you’ll know that Jewish immigrants have had a special love for certain elements of Americana, especially baseball. And if you were an American boy growing up in the suburbs in the 1970’s [as I was], you watched lots of baseball and played lots of baseball, and in particular, you joined Little League.
My father loved all of this, despite not understanding the game in the slightest. He took me to Mets games at Shea Stadium. He played catch with me endlessly in the backyard, even though he really couldn’t catch or throw a baseball. But it was the Little League games he loved the best. Especially hilarious and endearing to him was the formality and solemnity with which small children were expected to engage in this activity: little dwarfs, still not entirely in control of our limbs, dressed in uniforms and cleats and helmets that seemed gigantic on us, while brandishing equally oversized bats and gloves. In the first year of Little League – fourth grade – we were so inept at the game that there was no actual pitching, batters hitting off of a tee, and pitchers only pretending to pitch. Funnier still was how seriously the parents took the whole thing, screaming and yelling as their kids played uniformly terribly and regardless of who was winning or losing. [When pitching did finally start the next year, it was so appallingly bad that one regularly would hear parents whose kids were at-bat yelling: “Don’t swing! Let him walk you!”] But the thing that my father found the funniest of all was that our team’s coach – a lovely, kind-hearted man we called “Mr. Bernstein” – happened to be in the women’s undergarment business, my father referring to him throughout as “the brassiere salesman.”
[L] My first Little League team coached by the “brassiere salesman,” 1977. [R] Sporting my All-Stars hat, after having made the cut into the All-Star game in 1980.
When Victoria was born in 2002, Aba’s excitement was uncontainable. He designed and printed custom-made baby announcements, designed a special border/trim that circled her entire room, and even wrote a book about her arrival, Viva Victoria! From 2002 until his death, twenty years later, she was his entire world; the person he cared most about.
Though we lived halfway across the country from one another at this point, we would travel to and from New York/Missouri regularly and often, since “Pop-Pop,” as Victoria called my father, could not get enough of her. They would sit and read or draw together. They would go on walking excursions to a store near my parents’ house, to buy a particular Japanese Ramune [soda] that she liked. They shared a love for DiMaggio’s Ristorante in Port Washington [he for the Clams Oreganata, she for the Linguine con Vongole], and by the time her Bat-Mitzvah came, the adoring, heartfelt speech he read on the bimah was a testament to how strong, how close, their relationship was. Aba loved us and enriched our childhoods beyond all measure, and we will miss him dearly.