Friday, September 21, 2012

5773 and Still Counting

Monday, September 17, 2012
Some of my best friends are Jewish, but, fortunately, some are not.  I thought about this as I walked to services this morning to celebrate/honor/observe the Jewish New Year.  Without question, my stew of Jewish practices is unique, unscripted, and unpredicted.  (I say unpredicted instead of unpredictable, because I am more fascinated at just where I am now than in speculation as to where I am going on the great continuum of Jewishness.)  While I now eagerly participate in the High Holydays, I admit to being out of touch with their overarching tenet of forgiveness, which is the basis for atonement.  I know that I will not be entering the new year with a clean slate, free of grudges, resentment and outright antagonism.  It would be asking me to live without memory, starting each day, approaching each person or situation anew.  I can’t do it and I’m not sure that I would want to do it. 

So, I was not bothered that I was bothered while walking to services by the conduct of two radio broadcasters.  Each morning, as I prepare myself for the day, I move back and forth between my bathroom (the Palazzo is blessed with separate facilities, a key to a happy marriage) and the music room/den/guest room/study/computer room/library which also houses my clothing.  Each room has a radio, which I turn on and off as I go in and out.  I need to do this, because each radio is turned to a different station, although they are both sports talk stations.  In the morning, both stations pair an ex-jock (football player) with a civilian, who has devoted himself to following sports since boyhood.  While these two civilians substantially differ in style and temperament, they are both Jewish, one from New Rochelle (once the archetypical New York City suburb, as immortalized by George M. Cohan as “45 Minutes From Broadway”), and the other from New York City (in fact, from Stuyvesant High School).  This morning, as usual, I went back and forth, listening to first one and then the other radio broadcast for a few moments until I heard each of these two guys, became annoyed and muttered all the way to shul (actually church because we rent a nice Gothic church to handle our far-larger-than-normal crowd).  I was annoyed at these guys because, if you’re Jewish, stay home on Rosh HaShanah.  You don’t have to go to shul; you don’t have to dress up; you don’t have to spend time contemplating; just stay home.  We have been separated from the rest of the world, often involuntarily, for millennia.  If only to honor our past, stand apart for a day or two.  

There is a Jewish history extending over 5,000 years.  Why stop it now?  I’ll suggest two answers, neither of which satisfy me.  First, there is an atomic view of humankind, one for one and none for all.  It holds a romantic view of the self-made person, above and beyond any community or societal grouping.  This view last had a basis in reality when Adam still had all of his ribs.  It still seems to appeal to some adolescent boys, enamored of their omnipotence, who occasionally grow up to become Congressmen from the Midwest.  Clearly, not for me.  The other view, held by some of the finest people I know, is quite the opposite, a universalist, all-men-are-brothers (adjusted for gender) view, often unwilling to distinguish group differences.  I find this view impractical, at the very least, and ahistoric, even though it makes for good folk songs.  After thousands of years of human development, differences have become ingrained in populations, for better or worse.  We are not one; we do not blend effortlessly.  If, as the universalist believes, there is good in us all, I am led to believe that there may be good in our clustered groupings, and, inevitably, a need to choose among them. 

While I do not believe in a transcendent force intervening in human affairs, if only because there is so much to be accounted for, I marvel at the tenacious continuity of the Jewish people over thousands of years and our associated core values.  Therefore, I am willing to stand for and with those people. 

I realize that there are retorts to my antagonism for those radio broadcasters, such as, who are you to judge?, and everyone draws a line somewhere.  Maybe I should wait until next week, for Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish Holydays, more commonly known as the Day Sandy Koufax Did Not Pitch.  Of course, I will not be able to offer a judgment on the conduct of the Jewish broadcasters then, because my line shifts from listening to the radio on Rosh HaShanah (and watching television as well) to total abstention on Yom Kippur.     

Wednesday, September 19, 2012
My favorite quote of the week does not contain the number 47.  Rather, it comes from a 1971 essay by Ayn Rand on stamp-collecting: “[N]o matter how dreadful some of mankind’s activities might be, here is a field in which men are functioning reasonably, efficiently and successfully.”  And, may I add, COLLECTIVELY (no pun intended).  Postage stamps come from government agencies, even in Janesville, Wisconsin. 
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Language is a mysterious phenomenon.  Why are there so many?  Why does proximity not always breed similarity?  These days, new media seem to hasten the process of the invention and evolution of words and phrases.  This came to mind with today’s e-mail offer from Google to purchase “a homespun dinner for two on the Lower East Side.”  As you may recall, just a few days ago, the New York Times substituted “Homespun” for “Jewish.”  So, I read the restaurant offer carefully, expecting this Lower East Side establishment to feature the food that Gwyneth Paltrow’s father and I grew up on.  While “delightfully fluffy pancakes” are promoted as a house specialty, additional copy strayed far from the traditional Gotthelf/Goldenberg cookbook; “buttermilk fried chicken and a house-ground burger crowned with sweet, savory, and smoky sugar bacon.”  Maybe the Paltrows ate this way, but the Lower East Side Gotthelfs and Goldenbergs fried their chickens in schmaltz, without the benefit of any dairy products.  Which also reminds me that when a poor Jew ate a chicken, one of them was sick.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Passage of Time

Monday, September 10, 2012
My father Jack L. (Yaacov Leyb) Gotthelf was born 109 years ago today, probably in or around Zuromin or Biezun, Poland, towns roughly 70-75 miles northwest of Warsaw. His mother Yetta (Ita) came from a family called Lato, eventually Latter. As I have noted before, the Latter family is still a formidable presence in New Orleans and vicinity. Remarkably, there is a physical copy of my grandmother Gotthelf’s birth record of June 16, 1878, born in Zuromin to Mordka Lato, a tailor, and his wife Marya. On the other hand, I have not found any physical record of my father’s birth, although there never seemed to be a question about his birthdate.

With the weather so nice, temperature in the low 70s, bright blue skies, a walk to find a new restaurant was warranted. However, the food and beverage industry did not cooperate, because after walking almost 3/4 miles, I found nothing new. But, I discovered something else new and quite surprising. At 5 Allen Street, the name for First Avenue this far downtown, between Division Street and Canal Street, a new Howard Johnson’s hotel is about to open, an entirely new building. That’s just three short blocks from where my mother was born almost 103 years ago, in a less than fashionable neighborhood that drew few tourists. There must have been boarding houses and people taking in boarders back then, but certainly not hotels.

Howard Johnson’s emerged after my mother, as a drugstore in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1925. Its soda fountain proved popular and led to a chain of beachfront concession stands, featuring soda, hot dogs and ice cream, what I call a balanced diet. Restaurants followed up and down East Coast highways, but the first motel did not open until in 1954, leading, in my mind, to the debasement of the brand. Even today struggling to reformulate its identity in hotels and motels, Howard Johnson’s now operates only two restaurants, in Lake Placid, New York, and Bangor, Maine. Inevitably, Howard Johnson’s destroyed its great claim to fame (forget the stupid orange roof), its 28 ice cream flavors, which predated Baskin-Robbins by decades. And, here they are now: Banana, Black Raspberry, Burgundy Cherry, Butter Pecan, Buttercrunch, Butterscotch, Caramel Fudge, Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Coconut, Coffee, Frozen Pudding, Fruit Salad, Fudge Ripple, Lemon Stick, Macaroon, Maple Walnut, Mocha Chip, Orange-Pineapple, Peach, Peanut Brittle, Pecan Brittle, Peppermint Stick, Pineapple, Pistachio, Strawberry, Strawberry Ripple and Vanilla. I was particularly fond of Orange-Pineapple, although, as a young man, I seemed to have lacked the necessary powers of concentration to take me through the entire repertoire. Therefore, I have no personal recollection of Frozen Pudding or Pecan Brittle, I’m sad to say.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012
The weather was fine again, but as soon as I walked outside on this haunted day I was sorry that I had not arranged to have company at lunch. Nevertheless, I set about looking for a new restaurant again and again had no success. Having headed north instead of east, I went into Canton Kitchen, 171 Hester Street, where I had, but did not remember, a barely passable meal before (May 20, 2010). This time, things were quite different. I ordered Singapore chow fun ($7.50), not on the menu per se, but easily arrived at when I pointed to listings for beef chow fun and Singapore chow mei fun. The large portion was near perfect, restoring my regard for Singapore chow fun as a hallmark of Chinese cuisine. The broad noodles were stir-fried with green pepper, red pepper, hot pepper (maybe jalapeño), egg, shrimp, two kinds of meat, green onion, yellow onion, and bean sprouts, spiced with curry powder that had some bite to it. My only quibble was too much green pepper, which were easily pushed aside.

Just as I was cleaning my plate except for the green peppers, about 20 Asian teenagers walked into the restaurant. After most of them occupied 2 empty round tables, I invited the 4 leftovers to sit with me. These kids, early college it seems, were from China and Japan, visiting the USA, first stop New York. I never learned the purpose of the trip, but we chatted for several minutes. All 4 had some facility with English, and one young woman was particularly adept. I explained that New York had 3 Chinatowns, but Japanese people tended to live in the suburbs. I told them how to see a baseball game tonight cheap in a very attractive stadium with a very weak team. The most important information they sought from me was how and how much to tip in a restaurant. I told them about doubling the NYC sales tax, which appeared on my bill from Canton Village in a timely fashion.

In sum, this lunch turned out to be special, ending with the kids including me in a group photograph. I could not have planned it better.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012
I’m sorry Mitt. I’ve underappreciated you. Until now, I thought that you began your fight to preserve the security of the USA in la guerre du Viêt Nam only in France from 1966 to 1968. According to today’s New York Times, your battle against the international Communist conspiracy began before that, waged on the campus of Stanford University as a freshman. While some might speculate that you sought a student deferment from the draft (kids, ask your grandfather what that means) for selfish purposes, in fact, you stayed behind in Palo Alto to confront the anti-war, anti-draft demonstrators rife on campus. Photographs now available show you wielding placards with the aplomb of a seasoned veteran, standing outside in bright sunshine, possibly unguarded by sunblock. Clearly, no one can say that Mitt Romney was a Johnny-come-lately to putting himself in harm’s way for the good old USA. You didn’t wait until you were shipped overseas to fight the good fight. I just hope that we give you the opportunity to continue taking risks for the good of us all.

Thursday, September 13, 2012
Stanley Feingold is in town and our cohort met for lunch today at a pub in midtown. Since I rushed in and out of the subway station in front of the courthouse in order to get to and from lunch, I had to bypass the festivities sponsored by the International We ❤ U Foundation held on the plaza between Centre Street and Lafayette Street. As much as I wanted to, I was unable to exchange ideas with the large group of young people wearing the foundation’s attractive blue T-shirts. A little research informed me that Zahng Gil-Jah is the chair of the foundation, which is a good thing for them because she is known as God the Mother to the World Mission Society Church of God, a Korean organization, founded by her late husband, who was believed to the second coming of Christ. It’s obviously quite a busy family, and I’m not sure whether Madame Zahng was even present this afternoon.

Friday, September 14, 2012
Reade Street from Church Street to Centre Street is plastered with notices of filming which will deposit lots of vehicles and equipment on the streets and sidewalks for the next few days. The production is Golden Boy, which first aroused my curiosity on April 2, 2012 because of its familiar title. A crew member told me then that it was a police/crime show, not at all related to the Clifford Odets play, first produced on Broadway 75 years ago, the story of Joe Bonaparte, a young, gifted violinist who is torn between pursuing a career in music and earning big money as a prize fighter. By coincidence, Lincoln Center is staging a revival of the play later this Fall. As to the TV show, according to a recent publicity release, this “Golden Boy is a drama about the meteoric rise of an ambitious cop who becomes the youngest police commissioner in the history of New York City, and the high personal and professional cost he pays to achieve it.” I was unable to learn whether Commissioner Walter William Clark, Jr., at least plays a musical instrument.

A survey was released today examining average wages, prices and purchasing power in 72 cities around the world. It measured the effort needed by the average worker to purchase 122 goods and services. The news report centered on the Big Mac (a largish creation of McDonald’s) as the unit of measure, and stated that it took 9 minutes of work to purchase a Big Mac in Tokyo, 10 minutes in New York City and Hong Kong, 29 minutes in Shanghai, 42 minutes in Istanbul, and 84 minutes in Nairobi. Needless to say that I have found other ways to use my 10 minutes.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Deep Throat

Monday, September 3, 2012
Children, the first Monday in September used to be called Labor Day, but, in one of his first acts as President of the United States, the beloved Mitt Romney changed the holiday to be Venture Capitalists’ Day. Dear Mitt, the first president of the then-newly formed Republican Party, reasoned that, partly as a result of his own vastly successful professional efforts, the US was now home to more venture capitalists than laborers and should celebrate accordingly. Just as the American people entrusted the Republican Party with the presidency just months after its formation as a successor to the discredited Whig Party, they welcomed President Romney’s bold expression of his oft-stated Belief in America.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012
“His ability to craft the English language is breath-taking. You find yourself experiencing so many emotions as you read this book and when you come to the end you don’t want it to stop.” Deserving or not, this is not about me. It seems that R.J. Ellory, a British crime novelist, wrote that, and other laudatory comments about his work on the Amazon book review site under pseudonyms. He regularly gave himself five stars. Ellory, whom I do not recall reading in spite of my predilection for that genre, ironically was quite successful, well-reviewed by real people and winner of writing awards. So, rapacious acquisition need not be limited to the material realm. Hmm.

There are many different ways of categorizing Chinese restaurants. Size, cuisine, decor, price level are all effective ways to differentiate establishments. For simplicity’s sake, and to help understand the new place I found today, I offer this two-cell delineation: Busy places regardless of size, such as Wo Hop downstairs (small), Excellent Dumpling House (medium) or Jing Fong (large) vs. joints that only appear to offer friends and family of the owner(s) some place to spend time, in daylight hours at least. Bamboo Restaurant, 30 Market Street, belongs in the latter cell. The 2 large round tables with turntables and the 4 large square tables, that open to double their size, were empty except for one employee picking through bok choy and chatting with her friend, and a 9-year old girl playing with a bubblegum pink laptop computer. Additionally, there were sounds of two or more people from the kitchen in back, out of sight. Sixteen cartons of beer stacked against one wall were also a sign of life, of a sort. Just no one else ever came in to eat in the 25 minutes I was there.

The menu is not for tourists. It includes beef feet, pig feet, lamb stomach, goose web, frog, rabbit, pork stomach, and duck kidney presented in various delectable ways. I stuck with clam pan fried noodle ($6.75) and was pleased with the result. A big plate of mei fun, stir fried with egg, scallions and ample pieces of clam. I added a bit of soy sauce and a touch of hot sauce for a very tasty lunch. A bowl of hot, tasteless broth accompanied the noodles, but there was no water available, except by the bottle ($1), and the Coca Cola had not had the calories extracted.

Thursday, September 6, 2012
Obamacare works. It's a success as I can attest. This morning I went to NYU Medical Center so that Rabbi Traube, MD, JD, could look into my kishkes, otherwise known as an upper endoscopy. All proceeded well, and right on schedule. The obvious benefit of healthcare reform that so impressed me was the new gowns to put on when you take all your clothes off. I fit with room to spare, unlike earlier versions which left little to the imagination of unfortunate spectators. I didn't mind going here, going there, getting on the gurney, getting off the gurney. I was camera ready. Thank you, President Obama.

I approached the procedure with some trepidation. After all, I've been putting special demands on my gullet since 5770 when I moved over to 60 Centre Street. However, besides the general confidence displayed by the professionals at the hospital, I was encouraged to learn that Esther, Imelda and Winnie, 3 of the nurses assisting Rabbi Traube, MD, JD, have the same birthdate as I do. How can anything go wrong under those circumstances?

Friday, September 7, 2012
Indeed, all went well yesterday, and Rabbi Traube, MD, JD, seemed to be very impressed by what he saw down my cavernous maw. I strolled through midtown afterwards in the pleasant company of Irwin Pronin, CCNY student government president, spring 1962.

This morning, however, I slept until 9:20 AM, much later than usual. I must admit that, although I seemed to have been following my normal routine in the weeks preceding the procedure, I was anxious about flouncing through hospital corridors immodestly wrapped in tissue paper, and was not able to relax and get the rest I required. However, thanks to the progressive policies of Barack Obama, I was amply covered in all ways throughout my visit to the hospital, and got more than a good night’s sleep when I returned to the Palazzo di Gotthelf.