Mayris Webber spoke these words:
Dear Family and Friends,
Alan and I met almost 17 years ago when he responded to a personal ad that I had placed in a Jewish weekly newspaper. In an attempt at humor, I wrote in this ad that one of my "must haves" was a Jewish man who didn’t hate his mother. Alan responded to the ad immediately, almost before I realized that it had run. Given Alan’s age and mine at the time, it was perhaps surprising that Ruth played such a big part in our lives – but she did.
First and foremost, Ruth was amazingly brilliant, even when I first met her at age 85. Denied a Stuyvesant High School education, in fact, denied graduation from any academic high school, her ability with numbers was startling. She balanced her checkbook to the penny and routinely called the bank if they erred in her account. Her memory for both old and recent events was formidable – she never failed to remind Alan, when we passed a particular exit on the Long Island Expressway, that in 1987 he ran out of gas here while they were on their way to a Thanksgiving dinner. As recently as August 2012, about 6 weeks ago, she called me to get the address of my son David’s house, as she knew that 2- year old Noam was having a birthday soon and she wanted to send a check.
As a childrearing parent, she was a captive of her time, perhaps stinting in expressions of love to her two sons, Harold and Alan, but not to me. Alan would stand by, shocked at first, as he heard me say, at the end of a call, "I love you, too." "What?" he would say to me. "She says ‘I love you’ at the end of every call?" "Yes," I answered, she always does and I always say "I love you, too." And it was true.
Now we gather to remember dear Ruth, Chaya Ruchel, with love and pride for a long and fruitful life. May her memory be for a blessing.
Monday, October 1, 2012
I returned to work on this beautiful day. While I observed much of the traditional Jewish mourning practice for the last several days, I resumed my more secular pattern of observance today, the first day of Succos (Succoth, Sukkot). This holiday probably originated as a pre-Exodus harvest festival, but was coopted to connect to the trek across the desert. Jews are supposed to eat all their meals for seven days in crude huts (sukkahs), covered by no more than reeds, palm fronds, or tree branches, reminding them of the fragility of their existence while crossing Sinai. While I know people who build a sukkah in their backyard or even on apartment balconies, I’ll stick to a solid roof over my head.
The mourning period, shiva, from the Hebrew word meaning seven (days), was limited by the calendar, with the Sabbath in the middle and the advent of Succos. Our house was loaded with relatives, friends, colleagues, and neighbors during every available hour. Many knew my mother Ruth Gotthelf, yet many did not, visiting to comfort the mourners, a fine tradition shared by many religions. They also came to feed us, more often than not cookies, but also some interesting offerings that we immediately presented to the next people coming in the door. In the end, we could not dispense the generous provisions fast enough, and we sent bundles of cookies and cakes in four different directions. I even let go, untouched, of a large collection of chocolate-covered pretzels, one of the Pillars of the Universe.
Dealing with the loss of someone close is ultimately a private matter, but shiva is a public event with some ingrained customs and traditions that sometimes chafed. Most difficult for me was the supposed rule against greeting, thanking or attending in any way to your visitors. Quoting from WikiPedia: "no greetings are exchanged and visitors wait for the mourners to initiate conversation." Try that. Someone walks in, poised to say "Sorry for your loss," but waiting on you to say something. You can’t say "Hello," so how do you start? "Nice shoes." "Should the Wilpons sell the Mets?" "I hope you’re taking that box you’re carrying home with you." It’s not easy.
WikiPedia continues: "The mourner is not allowed to serve food to the visitors." Well, that puts so much of what I learned from my mother to a stress test. Ruth Gotthelf, for most of the ten plus decades of her life, would not abide with a visitor not eating something, and then something else and a little something more. For the host to withhold such an offer was not regarded as a virtue, but approached an insult, almost as bad as the guest refusing to accept. In this regard, I am proud to be a Mama’s Boy. I could not refrain from urging food and drink on our shiva visitors if I saw them empty-handed. Maybe I was OK because I did not actually put stuff into people’s hands, merely relying on a loud voice and a bullying manner.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
It probably does not take much to surround a significant event in metaphors, ironies and strange coincidences. Unfortunately, my mother was in no condition 10 days ago to appreciate that her favorite epidemiologist was promoted to full professor. Additionally, Thursday, the day of her funeral, my promotion became effective from Senior Court Attorney to Associate Court Attorney, although it certainly sounds backwards. Of course, the overriding metaphor, in Jewish terms, surrounding her death was its occurrence in the very last hours of the year, as the Book of Life was closing, with our fate sealed for the coming year. One may believe that she had been awarded one last full year ending only a couple of hours before the beginning of Yom Kippur at sundown.
In response to several inquiries, any charitable donation in memory of Ruth Gotthelf would be appreciated. Our suggestions are the Ruth Gotthelf Scholarship Fund (established 2001) at Cardozo School of Law, 55 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10003, or West End Synagogue, 190 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10023.
As a result of the confluence of the coming of the new year and the passing of my mother, I seem to be more moderate in my reaction to events around me, more accepting, less agitated. Therefore, I’ll ask you, in the absence of my traditional voice, to provide your own commentary on the following subjects:
Only time will tell if the kinder, gentler me will survive the buffeting of reality.
I was not ready to explore the area today, especially with the steady rain that arrived late morning. When I went to the counter at the rear of Kam Man, 200 Canal Street, the Zabar’s of Chinatown, I expected to eat several orders of the Peking duck wrap that I had enjoyed on December 22, 2011, at the newly-opened Kam Man Noodles. However, the name is now Kam Man Café, with more Japanese than Chinese food, and no Peking duck wrap. I ordered curried chicken ($4.95) and beef teriyaki ($4.95). The chicken was 5 or 6 small pieces of dark meat on the bone, and there were 5 or 6 thin slivers of beef. Each modest helping was served with a medium portion of rice and together made a filling lunch.
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Journalist/novelist/friend Tom Adcock joined me for lunch and I introduced him to Xi’an Famous Foods, 67 Bayard Street. A good time was had by all.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
I took off today in order to begin, with the help of my brother, Maria 1, Maria 2 and Efraim Mosquera, to clean out my mother’s apartment. It was both a chore and a delight. I found my birth announcement, all my elementary school report cards, a note from a Stuyvesant assistant principal requesting a visit from my parents to discuss my conduct, photographs from every stage of my existence, and so much more. The presence of some materials was almost unimaginable, such as, a letter to my father, dated 1932, from Mr. Lipman, an administrator at a New Orleans hospital, confirming that Lipman had written a letter of recommendation for my father to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, his eventual employer for 37 years.
As exciting as some of my finds were, the biggest find of the day was registered by Ittai Hershman, a brilliant and dogged researcher. As a result of information I gave him about my mother’s family, the named-from-nowhere Goldenbergs, when he paid a shiva call, Ittai found the manifest of the S.S. Vaderland, sailing from Antwerp on February 13, 1909, landing in New York on February 24, 1909, carrying Malke, Chaim and Sore Chelchowsky, a mother and two young children. The document also specifies that Malke was going to her husband Joseph at 13 Essex Street. Nine months and 2 days later, my mother Ruth was born at 13 Essex Street to Molly and Joseph Goldenberg, joining her brother Hymie and sister Sophie. Through Ittai’s marvelous research, we’ve filled the gap by recovering the consonant-ridden name (as I previously described it) that my mother’s father and his family bore.
Friday, October 5, 2012
An op-ed in a major publication today, written by someone I admittedly dislike, argues for the United States Supreme Court to put an end to racial preferences in its upcoming decision in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. His argument, as that of many other current opponents of affirmative action, offers hymns to "a Nation of equal citizens in a society where race is irrelevant to personal
opportunity and achievement," as expressed in Richmond v. Croson, when the Supreme Court overturned a municipal ordinance which required non-minority-owned prime contractors awarded city construction contracts to subcontract at least 30 percent of the dollar amount of the contract to one or more minority business enterprises. The Richmond, Virginia (former capital of the Confederacy) city council acted after it heard testimony that, although minority groups made up half of the city’s population, only 0.67% of the $24.6 million which Richmond had dispensed in construction contracts during the five years ending in March 1983 had gone to minority-owned prime contractors.
The big problem is that the essayist and so many voices on and off the Supreme Court have become race-neutral only very late in our country's history. Even if they have scrupulously conducted their affairs in a race-blind fashion, not having actively participated in Jim Crow activities, if only because they were born too late, these historians, legal scholars, and political commentators ignore the rich history of racial preferences that characterized this country from its inception until, at least, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in public accommodations. After 175 years of legally mandated racial preferences in favor of white people, which eliminated educational, political, financial, cultural and social opportunities for millions of people and severely circumscribed them for millions of others, we hear these historians, legal scholars, and political commentators making passionate pleas for supposedly-equal justice. It seems to be of no consequence to them that eliminating racial preferences now (insert shoe-on-other-foot cliché) will enshrine the evil product of white racial preferences for time immemorial. In other words, 0.67% of $24.6 million spent by a half-minority city is constitutional, in the best American tradition, but 30% is not.