Thursday, October 30, 2008

Elmer Among The Sheltering Palms

(chorus of “Down Among The Sheltering Palms,”
Music by Abe Olman, Lyrics by James Brockman, 1914)

One of the fun things I noticed right before Sukkot was an article in the Jerusalem Post in which the writer considered inviting his own ushpizin into his sukkah. Now the ushpizin, the “guests” we invite, one by one, into our sukkahs are in our tradition, seven biblical heroes from Avraham Avinu to King David (although I assume in today’s world, many people think to invite some biblical women as well). But suppose you could make up your own laundry list of characters to invite? The writer in question, cheating a bit by having ten people on his list, got a little creative. He “invited” Molly Picon, the Yiddish actress, Levi Strauss, who basically “invented” dungarees, and, most intriguingly, Lippman Pike, one of the first professional baseball players, who flourished in the 1880’s, long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax.
By the time the holiday came around, our sukkah was ready to host our guests. Our cotton panels, slightly shrunken from a trip through our clothes dryer, were fitted onto the plastic poles with only one small rip in the cotton; our bamboo mat was rolled out for schach (no need for branches from the sheltering palms); I had purchased a few more decorations (imitation fruit purchased on one of my excursions onto Malchei Yisrael). We even had a real light. Barbara had gone into our local Ace Hardware in search of the simple one bulb holders that we had always used in The States. All they had at Ace was a much more elaborate florescent fixture which came without any way of hanging it and without any wiring. Not to worry. Buy it and bring it over to the next counter to the young Russian woman who was spending her day wiring these lamps for use in sukkahs. Then it took us several hours more to figure out a method of attaching it to our sukkah, but we finally got it up. The table and chairs were set up, and we were indeed ready.
For our first guests, we invited a family who had made aliyah only a few months before. This family’s klita (absorption) has been a lot more complicated than ours, which was, in hindsight, a piece of cake. All of the 2008 olim faced one serious obstacle, a port strike which meant that all of the lifts were left to languish somewhere in Turkey until the Israeli dock workers agreed to resume their labors. This family also had a problem with their son’s education. The first school they enrolled him in, while perfect on paper, proved to be a disaster in practice, and it took a month of effort for the local officials to allow them to transfer him to another school (both of which are within walking distance of their apartment, by the way) where he is now doing fine. Then there was their preparation for Sukkot. Last year, when I went to the concession in front of Ace Hardware, they had everything I needed; my only problem was finding a monit with a roof rack so I could cart it home from the Mall. This year, when Michael ordered a sukkah, they didn’t have any bamboo mats on hand. Soon. Well, as does happen here with some frequency, “soon” morphed into “never.” Plus, Michael had tried to order a lulav and etrog from one of the local synagogues, but because of some snafu, he never got it. So there they were a day before the Yomtov, species-less and schach-less, putting out frantic e-mails to the community. Fortunately, they have a wonderful landlady, a veteran Maale Adumimer, who took it upon herself to drive around town and get them everything they needed. So they were a little frazzled from all of these difficulties. Hence I figured that Michael deserved to meet and greet my long-time acquaintance, Elmer.
Elmer T. Lee has been making a mighty tasty single barrel sour mash “for over fifty years” somewhere in Kentucky. I had discovered that Michael, like me, is ambidextrous: that is, he drinks both Scotch and bourbon (although I am also very fond of Irish whiskey, but I still only am allowed two hands). When Barbara went back to The States to visit her mom and to hang out for a week in Teaneck, we all gave her a shopping list. Mine was fairly short: a few items of clothing and a bottle of bourbon, listing a few possible brands. Sure enough, Barbara returned with a bottle of Elmer’s carefully wrapped with her socks in a suitcase. You may inquire: why do you have to go back to Teaneck to buy some booze? Fair question. One, the selection in New Jersey is more extensive than it is here. Two, it’s a matter of price, which is always a matter of some interest to me. While the cost of Israeli wine is a lot less here, the cost of most hard stuff is much, much more. I saw in an article a few months ago that the British government was protesting the unfair tax imposed here on Scotch whisky. (I should note that in Dublin or Louisville it’s “whiskey,” while in Glasgow it’s “whisky.” I have no idea why.) The response of the Israeli government, as is often the case, made us seem like a bunch of blithering idiots. They mumbled something about taxing whiskey based upon its alcohol content. Of course, you can get rot-gut vodka here basically for the same price as soft drinks. (That’s because there are a million Russians here, and no one is going to mess with their vodka. When we have a million Anglos here, we will have similar clout.) Towards the bottom of the article, I noticed the following amazing statistic. Three quarters of the whiskey purchased here comes from the duty-free shops at the airport. And that’s only what can be quantified. There’s no way to count the number of bottles of booze that enter our Ancestral Homeland legally and illegally from The States, or more likely, England(where it’s a lot cheaper than the duty-free shops). Can you find a better illustration of the haven’t-got-a-clue-ness of our government? They have an astronomical tax on a product, but they collect it on perhaps one fifth of the items purchased. So the only individuals they collect it from are those too poor to travel, too much of a freier to notice, or too drunk to care. I could swear that the l’chaims we made with Elmer’s fine brew tasted even better because of its tax-free status.
Anyway, we had the fine meal which Natania and I prepared, and we sat for quite a while, enjoying the rapidly cooling evening air. Our Shabbat and Yom Tov table is more likely to involve brilliant conversation rather than vocalizing; but on this night, our various neighbors more than made up for it. Our immediate neighbors, the ones who share the building with us, are Russians, and from them, sounds of the Volga enhanced by vodka wafted our way. On the other side of us lives a Moroccan family, long time residents of our town. The mother, Tzippi, is very friendly and often brings us samples of her excellent cooking and occasional leftovers (her family does not like to eat reheated meals; remember that there was a time when most people here in The Land did not have enough to eat). The following Thursday, a son would be a bar mitzvah, and so they were in a particularly festive mood, sitting in their sukkah and singing for hours on end. If we listened closely, we could hear our neighbors up and down the block singing as well, on into the night. But, as usual, I began to hear the sound of my pillow calling to me, and we called it an evening.
Over the next several days, I kept thinking about Lippman Pike and the other goofy guests whom our JPost reporter had virtually “invited” into his sukkah. I’m as “creative” as this guy; why don’t I compile my own list? I just ask for one easement: I want to invite them all at the same time, have a real sukkah party. Since I myself don’t sing in the sukkah, why not invite some of my favorite song writers? I figure that Irvin Berlin would be too busy writing “White Christmas” to come, but perhaps ask Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen. Maybe lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart, Otto Harbach, and Dorothy Fields? I could ask Al Jolsen, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor to sing. If that idea doesn’t pan out, how about a little comedy? Imagine a sukkah with the Marx Brothers inside. Of course, even including Zeppo, that’s only four, room for some more. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and George Burns would liven up the evening. Of course, nobody else would get a word in edgewise.
I kept mulling this over and over in my mind. These lists were all well and good. But what it came down to was this: if I could actually invite, “virtually” or for real, anybody I wanted to into my sukkah, it would have to be the guys I grew up with on 208th Street in The Bronx. We are scattered. Some of them I am still in contact with; some are long gone. Some have quarreled and are not speaking to one another. But I can see them now, arriving at Hamitzadim, my street in Maale Adumim, a little bit east of Yerushalayim, coming down the steps to our front door. On chol hamoed, we could get out the cards and resume the poker game where we left off some fifty years ago. At a certain time of night we would put away the cards and go out to Schweller’s delicatessen for a bite to eat (a sandwich or a hot dog, depending on our evening’s fortunes); so perhaps we can order some really good and really kosher corned beef or pastrami and have it speed-sent from The States. And plenty of Dr. Brown’s soda! That you can get here. (For reasons I could never quite fathom, my friend Al was partial to their Cel-Ray. The rest of us would be content with cream soda or black cherry. Remember that we were too young for anything stronger.)
I will be continuing this series, describing real people whom we met and places which we saw over the holiday. But if Sukkot is zman simchateinu, you will forgive me a moment of reverie for a long gone time in my life, which, in its own innocent way, was a time of happiness for a special group of friends.

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