Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Father's Day

Monday, June 18, 2012
This weekend was special for several reasons, because of Father’s Day, America’s Favorite Epidemiologist’s birthday and the Bar Mitzvah of the oldest grandchild of my dear in-laws Judi and Stu. That occasion attracted our second and third generations to New York which made the celebration of the other two events so much richer. Given the distances separating our immediate family, getting us all together is rare and quite special, but combining it with Father’s Day and our matriarch's birthday beat geometrically-elevated odds.

Saturday morning we headed to New Jersey for the Orthodox synagogue services for the Bar Mitzvah. I was driving, as usual, but my lovely wife, still a Jersey girl, knew the destination. To play it safe, however, she used the GPS to help us find the quickest route. We arrived at Congregation Keter Torah rather effortlessly. We parked the car discreetly around the corner (Orthodox Jews do not use mechanical devices on the Sabbath) and went in. Because men and women sit separately at an Orthodox service, I walked into the sanctuary while my young bride and her near-equally gorgeous daughter took a moment in the ladies’ room. The large sanctuary was crowded with men on one side and women on the other. Stu and his son, the father of the Bar Mitzvah boy, are tall so I scanned the room for them and any other familiar faces. I looked and looked standing at a strategic position, aided by my height. Finally, a concerned worshipper came over to me to offer assistance. “I’m here for the Bar Mitzvah and I’m looking for family members.” “What Bar Mitzvah? We have none today.” I mentioned the family name, somewhat well-known in these circles, but evoked no recognition. “Hmm,” was my studied response.

I went back to the lobby and asked other men gathered there if there was another Orthodox synagogue nearby. Given that we were in the Teaneck-Englewood-Bergenfield nexus, that was like asking Neptune if there were more fish in the sea. Just then mother and daughter emerged to learn of our dilemma. We set out on foot a few blocks to the next synagogue, Congregation Beth Abraham, where we fortunately found familiar family members milling about. It was a smaller synagogue and placed the women upstairs from the men, not side-by-side divided by a low wall as Keter Torah arranged its seating. When Beth Abraham’s rabbi spoke, he displayed a bit more militancy about the fate of the Jewish people and the land of Israel than we usually hear at our psychologically-sensitive West End Synagogue Reconstructionist services. Maybe our GPS was trying to direct us to the Orthodox congregation that we might find slightly more congenial to our radical Jewish beliefs.

The synagogue service was one of three events tied to the Bar Mitzvah this weekend, and gave me more exposure to Orthodox Jewish practice and customs than I have had in a long time. Throughout the weekend, I heard frequent, fervent references to Hashem, the Orthodox way of naming God outside of prayers. Baruch Hashem, praise God, punctuated almost every speech and conversation. Hashem was thanked for good things, but never held responsible for bad things, a disparity characteristic of almost all believers. I wonder if Hashem sticks to odds-on favorites, leaving the long shots to chance.

My encounter with current Orthodox Jewish practice brought to mind a somewhat strange image -- the old trick of pulling a table cloth out from under a fully-set table. I thought that Hashem was the tablecloth, the underpinning for what was spread out on the table, the disparate elements of one’s existence. Leaving the tablecloth in place provides a balanced and harmonious picture and an attempt to jerk the tablecloth out from under the plates and glasses and knives and forks will probably leave a mess of scattered and broken tableware.

So many of the Orthodox Jews I met this weekend, and in the past, are well-educated, highly-competent professionals, educators or businesspeople who have succeeded in public and private pursuits. I would like to think they would fare very well without the tablecloth, as I believe I have. But, I suspect that the havoc of an unsuccessful attempt to pull the tablecloth off the neatly-set table deters some from risking it. Or, others wish to avoid the existential challenge of an uncovered table (the Universe) set with tableware (the episodes of our lives) without an intermediary. Or, they have a faith that they trust and draw comfort from, as the tablecloth may serve to cushion some of the more fragile items falling on the hard table surface. OK, I’ll stop now before I start in on thread counts and fabric content.

Sunday’s Times had an essay by Alexandra Styron, a daughter of the novelist William Styron, on the occasion of Father’s Day. Her focus was a photograph taken in 1967, when she was a toddler, reproduced with her writing. It shows her in the arms of an African-American handyman “who performed many jobs around our place but none more important, or better executed, than filling the aching void left by our father’s inaccessibility.” Apart from the emotional content of her recollections, I was drawn to the essay by the identity of the photographer, Bernard Gotfryd, sent by Newsweek magazine to photograph Styron who had recently published “The Confessions of Nat Turner” to wide acclaim and controversy.

I knew Bernard Gotfryd at about that time because his son was in my eighth-grade home room class and, believe it or not, the General Science class that I taught in a better-than-average, but not fancy-schmancy private school in Queens. Gotfryd and his wife, both European Jewish refugees, had me over to dinner once and I must have seen them at school functions and parent-teacher conferences during my one-year tenure. He was small, dark and delicate, resembling a pleasant-looking Peter Lorre.

I knew Gotfryd’s reputation; he shot many Newsweek covers. So, I was excited to discuss his work with him on the evening I visited his home. I wanted to know what Kim Novak was like, a recent cover subject of his. But Gotfryd kept pulling out shots that never appeared in Newsweek, pictures of windows, doors, simple architectural details. Few, if any, of those pictures contained people, but he was eager for me to appreciate the symmetry or asymmetry, the light, the dark, the purity of the image, something that I only now might be able to appreciate.

No doubt Gotfryd took many pictures of the famous author that day, but I think that the photograph of the young child in the arms of the handyman was the one that he would have shown in private again and again, even as the now-grown woman cherishes it 45 years later.

Thursday, June 14, 2012
Good friend Burt called at 7:30 AM to tell me that my e-mail account has been hacked and I am seemingly giving unwanted investment advice to the world at large. I apologize to you if you have been bothered by this. I've retired "olderthanusualloveobject" as my password as a precaution.

With the temperature in the mid 90s again today, my new-places-to-eat gene took a rest.

Friday, June 15, 2012
While I’ve had no new Chinatown venues to report on this week so far, last night offered some food for thought. We ate at “London Lennie’s,” 63-88 Woodhaven Boulevard, Rego Park, after visiting Mother Ruth Gotthelf further down Woodhaven Boulevard. The restaurant specializes in fish and seafood although operating from a very land-locked location in Queens. While I did not order them, I was interested in the soft-shell crabs, an in-season specialty. London Lennie’s was charging $34 for three, carefully prepared and presented. You may recall that last week I had three idyllic salt and pepper soft-shell crabs at Wo Hop, 17 Mott Street, for $9.99. So, $34 could get me at least nine salt and pepper soft-shell crabs and put me in a euphoric state for the weekend.

The awning over the front door at 30 Mott Street says Silkroad Place, but the business card on the counter reads Long Feng @ Mocha. There were no menus to act as tiebreaker, so I’ll refer to Silkroad Place as the spot that I passed hundreds of times without entering until today. I’ve ignored it because it appears to serve only beverages and that proved to be nearly correct. In fact, Silkroad Place offers only steamed gyoza, Japanese dumplings (8 for $3), and takoyaki, a ball-shaped dumpling supposedly containing octopus (although you’d never know it) (special $4 for four and choice of drink). I therefore ate everything Silkroad Place had to eat. All else was liquid. I enjoyed what I had; the takoyaki skin was wonderfully flaky, similar to phyllo dough. One long, exposed brick wall was an attractive feature in a space that was quite underdecorated, a rarity in Chinatown. A sign also proclaimed that they had the lowest prices around for Internet access on the two computers sitting towards the back. All of this in combination still attracted almost no other customers while I sat and worked the crossword puzzle.

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