Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Boy's Day At Home

Fiction Sunday

This excerpt is part of a novel, Jack Miller's Story, which I started writing more than fifteen years ago. It has undergone many changes since then, but now is in a form that I find suitable for publication. It contains biographical elements, no doubt, but it is not biographical by any means. Memory, unlike mathematical operations, does not always produce the same result.

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 In Part 1, "A Boy's Day At School," Jack returned home after an ugly incident with some boys, which informed him that some people look at differences more than similarities. Jack now played outdoors in the courtyard with his two brothers, waiting for his father`s return home from work. His mother, in a flurry of activity and emotion, prepared supper.

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In die yidishe historye, iz di veg tzvishen krank zein un shtarben zeh lang.

In Jewish history, the road between being sick and dying is a very long one.
Issac Bashevis Singer,
Nobel laureate in Literature


Mama could hear the footsteps of Jack's father as he entered the front door. He was a short, muscular man, with a shock of dark brown curly hair, graying slightly at the temples. As he started to walk down the long linoleum-covered hallway, dark purple with a flower pattern, mama met him near the door, still wearing the torn apron, and took his jacket and cloth cap, the kind worn by Jewish tradesmen, and quickly hung them in the hall closet.

They exchanged a few words in Yiddish, and his father nodded his head, and they continued walking down the hallway. When they both reached the kitchen, his father took a bottle of schnapps and made a quick l'chaim to his family's health.

As he put down the glass, he eyed the the Forverts, the Yiddish newspaper, which lay at its customary place on the table in front of his chair As he always did after work, he hopped into the shower, to wash the day's dirt and sweat from his forty-seven-year-old body. For the last few years, Jack's father has been working at a furniture factory as a cabinet-maker, a profession that he learned in Poland in the early 1930s. "Nu, they don't want quality like they used to," his father would often say in Yiddish, waving his right hand palm down in a dismissive fashion.

But there he worked, for a number of reasons, including the need to provide for his family. Parnassah, they called it in Yiddish. To earn a living. But there were other more compelling personal reasons. The factory was owned by a landsman, Mr. Zylberberg, who came from the same shtetl as him, near the city of Lodz. Both had somehow survived the war. And he was paid fairly, every week. He heard his mother saying a few times to her older sister, Esther, that his father earned $50 a week. Jack had no idea if that was enough, but it seemed like a fortune to him.

Father is now in a good mood. After mama called the three boys to the table, who were outside playing in the courtyard, she began to serve supper. It was 5:30, and they always ate supper around this time, as long as Jack could remember.  Jack and his two brothers, Benny and Yosef, came in talking and arguing about hockey, and sat down at the table after washing their hands. Mama dropped a bowl of hot soup, filled with kneidlech and lokshin, in front of father. She then served the boys and herself last. Everyone ate the meat-filled dumplings and the thin soup noodles.

"So, mama told me a little bit what happened in school today, mayn yingele" he said to Jack in Yiddish, between mouthfuls of soup. "Nu, what can I tell you. I am sorry it happened. What can you expect from the goyim? They are always trying to stop us from progressing, from making things better. Such are their ways, to always hate. Me lost nit leben! Why is it like this?— Ikh hob nit keyne idey. Di farshsteyst? This has been mine experience. The most important thing to remember is to not forget who you are. Di bist a Yid. Di Farshteist?

Mama did not contradict father, and instead offered him more soup with keidlech, which father ate with gusto, Father always ate with gusto. 

"Yes, daddy," Jack said, as he took a last mouthful of soup. "I understand. 

Mama then served father a large piece of flanken with boiled potatoes and vegetables. For the boys, she served minute steaks and boiled vegetables and potatoes. The conversation revolved around school, local happenings and politics.

After supper, his father would retire to the living-room and watched the 6 o'clock news on CFCF-TV with Bill Haugland. Sometimes, Jack and his brothers would watch along with his father and notice a bald-headed man delivering a point of view on something political. "This is Bert Cannings," he would say, after finishing his short editorial comment..

"It's the egghead," they would all say, giggling and laughing uncontrollably at the sight of something they did not understand.

"Shah," his father would say, admonishing them that it was important to listen to the news. Jack and his brothers would leave. After viewing all 30 minutes of the newscast, he would read his Yiddish paper, his connection to his homeland. Mama meanwhile cleared the table and put all the dishes in the sink. Jack and his brothers went to the room they all shared and did their homework. If there was enough time, before bedtime at 7:30, Mama would let him watch TV.

Sometimes, she let Jack go to bed a little later, especially if The Perry Mason Show was on. His father usually went out to the mountain nearby to meet his landsman and talk about politics and social justice and tikkun olam, making the world a better place through social action. That's where his father found his place and raison d'etre. There and at the weekly meetings of the Workmen’s Circle or Arbeter Ring (אַרבעטער־רינג), a Yiddish-speaking fraternal and labor organization founded in 1900 in New York City, dedicated to social justice and the continuance of Yiddish culture and Jewish identity.

That was important, but so was getting together with friends after a hard-day's work. He rarely heard his father laugh, except when he went with him to the mountain and his father was with his landsman as they spoke in Yiddish. Then he laughed. Heartily. Jack understood most of the words, but not their inner meaning or mystery. It seemed déraciné when transported from Europe to America, an uprooted plant.

Jack was living in two worlds. First there was the world of his parents, notably his father, where Yiddish was the mame loshn, the secret language of communications between Jewish people for the last thousand years. Yiddish, Jack's mame loshn, the culture his parents and their friends fiercely held on to, seemed to Jack a throwback to another era.  Or so it seemed, when put into sharp relief of modern American and Canadian culture, where English was the lingua franca between peoples and nations.

And then there was the matter of Jack attending public school, where, as his mama put it, "there was a League of Nations." Jack wanted it both ways, to please his parents yet become accepted and fit in the greater wider exciting world of humanity. It was dangerous uncharted territory for a young Jewish boy in 1960s Montreal. He hadn't met many others among his peers yet who thought as he did.

When Jack went to bed, he prayed to G-d, who he believed listened to prayers. But given how busy he was running the universe, Jack offered him help in locating where he lived. So, he always started off prayers like this” This is Jack Millerman, who lives at 4597 park Avenue in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, North America, Planet Earth, Milky Way Solar System, the Universe. Help me to avoid those boys who beat me up. Good night.”

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Jack rose early the next day, around six. He went to the front door, opened it and took in the two bottles of milk the milkman had delivered early in the morning. He wondered what time the Borden’s milkman made his deliveries. It must have been very early, when it was dark outside. The two bottles were neatly arranged on the stoop. The bottles were rectangular-shaped and made of thick glass. He noticed, rather excitedly, than one of the bottles contained chocolate milk. “It’s going to be a great day, after all,” Jack thought to himself. “Mama rarely gets us chocolate milk.”

Jack already knew from experience that the white-paneled  delivery van, emblazoned in red fancy script with Weston's logo, would come shortly with some loaves of bread. The butcher would deliver the kosher meat, as he always did, on Thursday morning when Jack and his brothers were at school. It was Thursday morning, so that might mean a surprise dish was in store for them when they returned from school. Perhaps hot dogs and French fries.

By then, his two brothers had already awoken, and were busily getting ready for school. Mama made breakfast, two toasts with butter, and some scrambled eggs, with some weak coffee, with more milk than coffee. But it made Jack and his two older brothers feel more grown up. The radio was tuned to CFOX-1470 on the AM dial. It was Andy K spinning records, The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night followed by Barbra Streisand's People, playing out of the kitchen radio.

With the words, People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, ringing in his ears, Jack struggled with his reluctance to go to school. He loved learning, his teachers and school in general. Although Jack cannot yet articulate the reasons of what he's doing, he knows that he doesn't want to miss a day for any reason, and gets ready. He wanted to see his school buddies.

That settled in his young mind, Jack gathered his brown satchel, checked that his books were all inside, and put on his light summer jacket, since it was Indian Summer. His mama sensing that he was about to leave, ran down the hall, saying as she always did before he left for school: “Don’t forget to buy The Montreal Star and The Forward for your father,” and gave him thirty-five cents for the papers, and a few pennies for candy.

When he would come home for lunch, he would walk the four blocks from school, with the English paper for his mama, the Yiddish paper for his father and the candy for himself. "We’re having liver and onions for lunch,” she said from the front stoop, raising her voice above the passing of the number 80 bus and the early morning traffic. Jack nodded his head, and waved his hand from the sidewalk of Park Avenue, already in full locomotion, clutching his brown satchel of schoolbooks

“Not my favourite dish," he said to himself. But he’ll gamely try to eat it, always remembering how his father was constantly hungry during the War. The Holocaust. The Shoah. By whatever name was applied to it by historians and researchers, it all boiled down to the consumption of lives, the majority Jewish. One million Jewish children perished, consumed by hate and nationalistic ideology. Six million Jewish individuals in all.

There were others, of course, but the chief targets of the program of extermination and ethnic cleansing were, as were the case throughout two thousand years of history, The Jews. The Chosen People. It was a heavy burden that no one wanted or accepted, except for the Jews. That’s what the Talmud said. The Torah, what the Christians often mistakenly called the Old Testament, also contained a message from one of the prophets that in order to rid the world of the Jews, one had to get rid of all the stars in the universe. That would include the sun in our solar system.

By that logic, the Torah established the impossibility of ever achieving such a foolish gesture. It would be an act of self-annihilation. Yet, many megalomaniacs have tried and failed, only bringing more destruction and havoc on the earth, including the eventual destruction of their own people. Such only shows that hate is ultimately a destructive force, never failing in its mission to divide and conquer and impart misery to many. Such was what his father told him.

Benny and Yosef, his two older brothers, had already left for school, not waiting for Jack. They had their own friends. As did Jack. Jack turned the corner, walking past the Greek Restaurant and the newsstand, waving hello to the man sitting in the wooden kiosk and walked to corner of Mont-Royal and Jeanne-Mance. It was 8:20 am, and James was there, having arrived a few minutes earlier. As they walked to school, they talked about homework and what they watched on television the evening before, including The Perry Mason Show, a detective series.

Everything seemed normal.

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To be continued.

Copyright ©2011. Perry J. Greenbaum. All Rights Reserved.

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. While the author might have been inspired by some true-life events, names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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