Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XIII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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I was wrong.

The ants came back.

They came back with a vengeance, in fact, after a few days of deceptive absence. I opened a kitchen cabinet to get a glass—and three or four of them scurried out of sight. Windex is their bête noire, at I grabbed the bottle from the window ledge behind the kitchen sink and sprayed it liberally in the cabinet, making a mental note to wipe down the glasses later.

Nell bought a set of ant traps, which she strategically placed in the kitchen; they have yet to venture much beyond there. [Eds. note: as of Tuesday, the traps appear to be working]

Saturday, April 18, 2020 was otherwise a quiet and mundane day in our sheltering-in-place haven. When I first checked my iPhone upon awaking, an e-mail from my sister Mindy’s long-term residential facility informed me she had recovered from COVID-19and returned to her regular building; given her age and chronic health conditions, this is remarkable.

For dinner, Nell made pizza from scratch for the third time—achieving the thin crispy whole-wheat crust I had loved the first time she attempted it. Even better: she had restocked our supply of cut pineapple, which I added to pepperoni for my personal pie.

While eating their own pies—our younger daughter’s still without tomato sauce—Nell and the girls watched the third Hunger Games film on our big screen HD television. Following that, Nell and I watched episodes five and six of season three of Broadchurch. And once everyone had gone to bed, I took an earlier bath than usual—I needed a night free from writing and class preparation—then settled on the white sofa to watch Two-O’Clock Courage on TCM OnDemand.

Despite being directed by Anthony Mann, renowned for both classic film noir and noir-tinged westerns, and listed as “film noir” by 12 different experts, I would not classify it as such. Yes, its beautifully-chiaroscuro opening sequence is broadly reminiscent of such iconic films noir as Detour and Scarlet Street, also released in 1945, and it follows the classic noir trope of the amnesiac investigating her/his own possible criminality—mirroring the excellent Street of Chance from a few years earlier. However, it quickly morphs into a standard, albeit mostly entertaining, murder mystery yarn, complete with bumbling police detective, wise-cracking crime reporter, besieged city editor and meet-cute romance.

For all that, I sat up with an animalistic cry of delight during the opening credits, when the name “Bettejane Greer” appeared on the screen. The then-20-year-old actress—with whom I admit to being rather smitten—would soon drop “Bette” from her first name. It was as “Jane Greer” she dominates the absolutely brilliant Out of the Pastone of my three or four favorite movies, full stop. And she steals every scene in which she appears in Two O’Clock Courage, as well.

IMG_3124

Sunday, April 19 was equally banal—in a good way. The night before, I had pulled out my vinyl copies of The Byrds Greatest Hits and a Buffalo Springfield two-disc “best of.” While eating my afternoon “breakfast” then folding laundry, I started to play Side 2 of the latter album—I particularly wanted to hear the propulsive “Mr. Soul”—only to be put off by the poor condition of the vinyl. The Byrds record, however, still sounded terrific, so I rocked out to both sides—especially Side 2, which I practically wore out in high school; at one point, Nell asked me to turn down the volume out of respect for our downstairs neighbors.

For dinner, Nell made a scrumptious all-vegetable whole-wheat lasagna, with a cheese-only version for our younger daughter. The former also stretched her baking chops by making whoopie pies for the first time, using a cookbook I had bought for her the previous summer. I can take them or leave them, to be honest, but these were wicked good. Mirroring the preceding evening, Nell and our daughters watched the fourth and final Hunger Games film, while I worked on my psychedelic rock slides for an upcoming “History of Rock and Roll” class. And then my wife and I wrapped up Broadchurch; I was frankly disappointed with the ending—but I leave it that to avoid spoilers.

Once Nell was in bed, I returned to my slides, easily the single best part of this enforced home schooling. I also confirmed that—despite the blue recycling bins and black trash bins sitting in front of a number of houses on our street—there would be no trash collection on Monday, April 20, a state holiday.

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I had a hard time falling asleep, then had a bizarre series of anxiety-driven dreams in the morning. Actually, I had dreamt the night before I was giving a PowerPoint presentation to a large group of people, but the slides showing on the screen were wrong, and I could not find the correct ones anywhere on my thumb drive.

As for Monday morning, meanwhile: while I never have recurring dreams, per se, I have dreamt on multiple occasions I am back in the Philadelphia area, and at one point I make my way to a 24-hour diner (which never looks quite the same) I know to be in a section of the western suburbs where a main road divides into two roads. No such roads or diner exist, and I can only vaguely describe where these roads would be—Conshohocken, maybe, or Norristown—but it is a joyous thing to go this diner. This is not surprising, given my life-long affinity for such places. In this instance, traveling to this diner—and having a strawberry milkshake?—was the culmination of a series of unpleasant events relating to breaking something behind glass in a hotel, and needing to escape, and being very unhappy in a hotel room at night until it occurs to me I can leave and go to this diner…

Oh…right.

About an hour after Nell brought me my first mug of coffee, I finally roused myself. And I had to decide what—if anything—to teach that afternoon, given that it was a state holiday. Nell told me the girls would be perfectly happy if I did not teach at all, given how well they were playing together at the moment. For her part, Nell had simply written out our older daughter’s schoolwork schedule.

April 20

I deliberated briefly, considering three possibilities:

  1. Watch episode five of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, as I had planned
  2. Skip class entirely
  3. Switch days: read for less than an hour from Chapter 1 of the book I am writing on Monday and watch Jazz on Tuesday

I ultimately settled upon choice #3. After spending 45 minutes having my quiet time with Nell, I finally got out of bed…and saw dried blood on the bottom sheet where my feet had just been. Examining my feet, I discovered that I had bled from the back of my right ankle during the night. Moreover, when I finally went downstairs around 3:15 pm, I saw a spot of dried blood on the white sofa where my feet would have been as I stretched out on it.

Here is what I think happened.

A combination of dry skin and chafing from wearing topsiders without socks—my right foot takes the brunt of my daily cavorting in the backyard with our golden retriever Ruby—had left the back of my right ankle raw. While I was on the sofa, something landed on my ankle, and I shook my leg to flick it off. I do not think I was bitten—there is no swelling or itching. Rather, I think I scraped the raw spot over a rough spot on the sofa, making it bleed.

Meanwhile, when I wandered into the classroom, I saw that our younger had been conducting her own classes:

No holiday on the white board

At 3:35 pm, the girls and I settled into our places in the classroom. After briefly reviewing the adventures of my paternal grandfather Morris Berger, our older daughter began to read about my paternal grandmother’s family—the Ceasars, captured beautifully in this photograph, perhaps taken on my grandmother Rae’s 1st birthday:

Ceasar family c 1903

About six pages in, our older daughter came to this passage.

It is Jewish custom to name a new child after someone recently deceased, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent, and it is Ashkenazic Jewish tradition not to name a new child after someone still living. The best explanation of this tradition is that “…it is a merit for a deceased person to have a descendant (or other relative) named after him or her. If the name is given while its bearer is still alive, this will no longer be possible (in the same family) after that person’s passing.[i]

Furthermore,

…it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.[ii]

While I have never questioned using these draft chapters as way to teach history, Judaism and the nature of justice, inter alia, this external validation was still rewarding.

But our younger daughter had her own thoughts, which she politely raised her hand to share:

  • “Spirits cannot enter a different body once they are, you know, dead.”
  • “Perhaps this is why some people claim to have experienced past lives.”

Rather than point out these are contradictory ideas—unless I misinterpreted what she said—I chose not to go down the metaphor-vs-literal rabbit hole, Instead, I reminded all of us for whom each of us was named, spending a few moments with my regret that I will never meet the man for whom I am named—my paternal grandfather Moshe ben David Laib, later Morris Berger.

At this point, we were only a few pages away from the end of the chapter, so I simply read them aloud myself. As much as our older daughter loves to read, neither daughter objected. Within a few paragraphs, we reached a brief discussion of b’rit milah, the Jewish ritual of circumcising the male penis at eight days of age.

There were grimaces and grunts of disgust as I explained what this entailed. Reading a few more sentences, meanwhile, led our older daughter to exclaim, “You tell them what day your circumcision was?!?”

Well, I replied, they could easily figure it out for themselves—which is not technically true, since I was circumcised at 10 days of age, most likely because October 8, 1966 was a Saturday—the Jewish day of rest. And then it was Sunday…so why not do it on Monday.

I, for one, would not have raised any objections.

Two pages later, we finished the chapter. It was 4:06 pm, and I dismissed class for the day (“Wait, that’s it?”). After washing the dishes and wiping down the kitchen counters, I took Ruby into the backyard for our exercise ritual. To do so, I had to remove some large packages out of the way. One of them turned out to be more SodaStream canisters.

The other had “SNACKS” written on it in bold letters, along with multiple stamps of “Frito-Lay.” When Nell saw it a short time later, she said with some chagrin: “This is what happens when you buy food [online] when there are no salty crunchy snacks in the house.” Indeed, the box was filled with small bags of four varieties of Lays potato chips.

By 9 pm, I had already eaten two of them, with plans to eat more.

Dinner, meanwhile, was leftovers of pizza and lasagna. As Nell was pulling this together, we were talking in the kitchen, and somehow “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes came up. I may have been singing the tune, having bought it on iTunes the night before. In the few weeks I have been teaching the history of rock and roll, I have dropped something like 80 bucks on 56 new songs.

Nell told me how she will always remember the song: as the soundtrack to the moment fans of Moonlighting fans like us had been anticipating for two years. When I mentioned I planned to put the song on the annual birthday mix I was preparing for our oldest daughter, she said, “Well, maybe don’t tell her that part.”

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After falling asleep on the white sofa sometime after 5:30 am on Tuesday, April 21, 2020, I awoke to Ruby crying in her crate. As with her dinner, she thinks she only gets her breakfast if she begs for it. A few minutes later, Nell walked downstairs; to my groggy query, she told me it was 7:45 am. I got off the sofa, stretched for 20 seconds, rinsed out and put my empty kefir glass in the dishwasher, kissed my wife, then went back upstairs—where I promptly fell back asleep.

At 1 pm, I awoke to my iPhone alarm; I then turned it off, resetting it to 1 pm again. Maybe 15 minutes later, Nell came in with my first mug of coffee. As she pulled up the black shades, I saw it was a gray and rainy morning; in fact, I had to rescue one of our now-empty blue recycling bins from the street. Once Nell was settled in bed next to me, and I had sufficiently awakened, she told me Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had ordered all schools in the Commonwealth closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year. We were expecting this announcement—in fact, we were surprised it had not come sooner.

The question Nell and I face now is when—or if—she and our daughters, including the four-legged one, make their way to Martha’s Vineyard, where they would stay through the end of the summer. When Brookline schools first closed, our initial plan was to home school for two weeks, after which Nell and the girls would go to the Vineyard to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has so reduced travel to the islands, the Steamship Authority expects to run out of money by May 31 without assistance from the Baker Administration.

The fear, then, is they would be trapped on the island for months, which nobody wants. For my part, while I would certainly miss my family, I would also welcome that block of weeks—even months—in which to complete a final draft of my book.

As Rachel Maddow would say, watch this space.

Meanwhile, this sequence of three headlines–the first I saw–on Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire elicited an “Oh, for f*ck’s sake” from me:

  • Barr Will Consider Legal Action Against Governors
  • Study Finds More Deaths from Drug Trump Touted
  • Kentucky Lawmaker Charged With Strangulation

When I went downstairs around 2:45 pm, I saw Nell had drawn up our younger daughter’s school schedule for the week:

April 21

Less than 15 minutes later, the girls and I settled into the living room to watch Episode 5 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns; it was only 87 minutes long, so class was dismissed at 4:42 pm. At one point, when the various commentators were discussing Glenn Miller, I paused to explain “damning with faint praise.”

Our younger daughter did have one of her should-be-patented “Ohhhh!” moments. In the segment “On the Road,” we learn how one swing band would cram 10 into a touring car, their instruments in an attached trailer. Confused, said daughter asked, “Why couldn’t they simply take turns driving the car while everyone else rode in the carriage? They could then put their instruments in the car.” Her sister and I started to explain there were no windows in the trailer—until we realized she was picturing a modern-day camper. Once we explained the difference, the light went on—and out came the “Ohhhhh!”

Hey, she was clearing paying attention, and that is all I can ask.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[i] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1158837/jewish/The-Laws-of-Jewish-Names.htm. Accessed September 16, 2017.

[ii] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/naming-children/ Accessed September 16, 2017.

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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I have no further news about my older, severely mentally-impaired sister Mindy, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. Meanwhile, Nell’s mother Sarah has not yet tested positive, despite an outbreak in the critical care unit of her senior living facility, where she has been living since a bad fall last November.

In January, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, requiring Nell and me to clear out the bungalow in which she has lived since July 2013 by February 29. We managed that feat with hours to spare, in no small part due to the prior efforts of one of Nell’s first cousins. We relied heavily upon a storage unit we have rented as long as Sarah has been living in that bungalow. Nonetheless, a load of my mother-in-law’s furniture and belongings now resides in our half of a fairly spacious basement.

And it was into this teetering maze of tables, bookcases, boxes and storage bins I found myself venturing late on the afternoon of Saturday, April 11, 2020. Just two nights earlier, I had written a long e-mail to my maternal aunt and her two children in which I had neglected to wish them Chag Sameach for the second night of Pesach.

It was thus no small irony that what I—a Jewish-raised atheist—sought in the basement was the second of a pair of decorative Easter baskets Nell—an Episcopalian-raised agnostic—needed for the following morning. I was also in search of empty plastic eggs, which I saw almost immediately after insinuating myself into a narrow opening between a dining room table and a bookcase. And while an exhaustive search did not turn up the specific basket I sought—I did find an acceptable substitute—I happened upon two bags of paper grass, one purple and one green.

This was all very satisfying, even if I normally pay little attention to how Nell and the girls celebrate Easter. However, a short time later, as I was headed upstairs for some reason, our younger daughter came bounding into the living room excitedly proclaiming her anticipation of the following morning.

Perhaps it was because I was still irritated by President Donald Trump’s callous “HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY!” the previous day, even if I have no dog in this fight. At any rate, I demanded to know if our younger daughter, who is on the cusp between accepting and rejecting such entities as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, even knew what was commemorated on Easter Sunday. She actually did, it would turn later, but in the moment was unable to retrieve that information.

And when Nell also hesitated, it fell upon me—or so I thought in that inexplicable moment of prickly self-righteousness—to tell my version of the Biblical story of what happened to the body of Jesus two days after his crucifixion. To her credit, Nell then admirably filled in the gaps of my story, though she insisted on referring to Tetrarch Herod as a pharaoh. And that led us down a further rabbit hole of discord, which Nell and I then carried upstairs then back down into the kitchen. She berated me for saying our younger was not allowed to celebrate Easter unless she knew its backstory, to which I indignantly retorted I only said she should know it, not that she was disallowed.

The background music for this ridiculous contretemps was the movie Nell had turned to on Turner Classic Movies. There are a handful of movies I have essentially memorized–The Maltese Falcon, L.A. Confidential, a few Marx Brothers films–but it is likely the first one I learned this way was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 masterpiece What’s Up Doc?. I could not help but recited the dialogue even as we were having our heated discussion. Such is the nature of good art.

But as is usually the case with the regular dust-ups between me and our younger daughter, it was over almost as soon as it had begun—with some tears and an apologetic father.

Well, except for one karmic postscript.

After Nell and I resolved our own quarrel, I took our golden retriever Ruby out for a needed visit to the backyard. We walked out our front door, down a few wooden steps to the sidewalk, then right to the edge of the driveway. Here, Ruby took off like a shot towards the backyard which slopes down from the driveway; I scampered after her. As I did, something small and furry raced by me in the other direction.

It was a small brown bunny.

Which I promptly relayed to Nell and our daughters with the winking addendum, “Make of this what you will,” which especially amused our younger daughter.

Soon after that, Nell and I settled down to watch a movie; I brought with me some of the same brownies as the night before. We had watched One Crazy Summer as a family the previous Saturday night, which got Nell and me talking about the relationship between Demi Moore and her ex-husband Bruce Willis. Which is why I recommended—it was my turn following Nell’s suggestion of Broadchurch—the 1991 crime thriller Mortal Thoughts.

However, once I told Nell how horrible Willis’ character is in the film, she hesitated a moment; he will always be David Addison to her. And the violent early scenes almost put her off as well. Still, she persisted, and I was rewarded with a “that was better than I expected” when it was over. I observed we had just watched one of two movies released in the first half of the 1990s, the other being Pulp Fiction, to feature both Willis and Harvey Keitel—but never in the same scene.

Once Nell and the girls had gone to sleep, and I had put in a few hours preparing many of the PowerPoint slides for Monday’s “history of rock and roll” class, I was inspired to watch a film which has likely ascended into my top 10 favorites, and which shares a key feature (which I will not spoil) with Mortal Thoughts: The Usual Suspects. Bryan Singer’s 1995 masterpiece gets better every time I see it.

By the time I awoke on Sunday, the Easter celebration had already ended, though our younger daughter has yet to find two of her stuffed plastic eggs. The classroom table was laden with numerous sizes and colors of chocolate eggs and one or two unwrapped chocolate bunnies when I finally went downstairs.

Nell was preparing to cook a large, delectable ham and a bundle of asparagus, much to my delight. First, however, I had committed myself to walking down the hill to a small local grocery store for a handful of dairy items I deemed necessary.

Thus, once I had completed the meal I call “breakfast,” I put on socks, a navy-blue windbreaker and my docksiders—along with one of the yellow and white cloth masks, complete with elastic bands, one of our downstairs neighbor shad sewn for us. In my shirt pocket were two thin white rubber gloves. I was carrying two of the white plastic shopping bags I had been given at a nearby Star Market a few weeks earlier.

I was about halfway down the hill, my sinuses already rebelling against the damp weather and the spring pollen floating in the air, when I realized I had neglected to take my wallet—or any of the other items I routinely put in my pockets before going anywhere; my Swiss army knife, Burt’s Bees lip balm, a pen and pocket-sized pack of tissues. At least I had my keys.

This is how out of practice at going to stores we have become.

I trudged back up the hill, retrieved the forgotten items then walked back down to the store. All but one of the few other customers wore masks as well. Somewhere in my journey, I had lost one of the rubber gloves, so I only used one gloved hand to pick up the few items I needed. Walking to the one open register, I saw blue strips of tape marking six feet gaps on the floor; a large clear thick plastic sheet was suspended in front of both registers.

When it was my turn to pay, I began to put my blue shopping basket onto the counter. “No, you can’t do that,” said the young woman in the gray Mount Washington sweatshirt standing behind the register. “Sorry,” I said, taking each item out of the basket with my gloved right hand, after which I put the basket on the floor a bit further away. I also bagged my groceries.

Once I had lugged those groceries up the hill and into the kitchen, I used a Clorox wipe to “disinfect” each item.  I then put my windbreaker through the neck of a deck chair on the porch off of my office to air out, while I stripped and took my second hot shower of the day. But not before I had distractedly scratched the stubble on my jaw my gloved hand, because, you know.

The four of us gathered for dinner in the living room not long afterward. As we ate, we watched the latest Buzzfeed Unsolved true crime video from “the boys”: the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard. Given the relative youth of the episode’s hosts, I was not that surprised they nelglected to mention the enormously popular television series loosely based upon the case, The Fugitive. And that led me to explain why Philadelphia-born noir writer David Goodis had sued the producers of the series.

A short time later, after I had made significant headway in my nightly kitchen cleaning, Nell and I settled back in the living room to watch the first two episodes of the third and final season of Broadchurch. The epilogue to this was my finally finishing my PowerPoint slides just after 3:30 am.

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When I awoke—slowly, sluggishly, somnambulantly—on Monday, April 13, 2020, a violent rainstorm was blowing outside our bedroom porch doors. In fact, the wind blowing through the glass doors rattling the black, pull-down shade so that the wooden grip at its bottom knocked against the door had been waking me on and off for some time.

I finally roused myself, though, showered, dressed and made my way downstairs.

This is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 13

And on the always-popular white board, Nell had drawn this:

Its Monday Gerald and Piggy

I was running late, so I wanted to gather our two daughters quickly enough to begin class at 3:00 pm. Wandering into my office to collect my desktop computer, I noticed the remains of our younger daughter’s breakfast and her Harry Potter plastic wand on my desk. She now uses my office—to participate in online meetings with her fourth-grade teacher—because it is quiet once the door is closed.

This is fine with me, so long as she cleans up after herself, which she usually does; on this day, she was even more scattered than usual. Mildly miffed, I yelled out for her. When she did not respond, I marched over to her closed bedroom door and knocked rather vigorously on it. Opening the door, I pointedly told her what was on my desk. Apologetic, she scurried into my office to retrieve her dishes—though she still forgot her wand.

I was not actually that upset, but a short time later, as we were about to begin class, she burst into tears. Nell and I were standing in the kitchen with her, and we tried to puzzle out why she was suddenly so upset. She usually does not know in those moments, though I suspect I startled her with my loud door rapping; she reacts poorly to such things—and the loud weather did not help.

But these once again subsided quickly, and she and her older sister settled into the classroom to see this:

British Invasion

British Invasion

We worked through the slides, covering Beatlemania, the early days of The Rolling Stones and The Who, and a few other key British Invasion bands in good time, finishing around 4:45 pm. I did my best to “explain” the first of these, to which our older daughter sniffed, “They’re not that cute.” Our younger daughter was amused by the change from the “mod” Who of 1964 to the more outlandish Who of 1969–even if she is now convinced Animal was actually the Who’s drummer. And the only song our older daughter especially liked was The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Well, there had been one unexpected—and joyful—break in my presentation. The only YouTube video I had not been able to link to a slide was for Devo’s surrealist cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” When I came to that point in the presentation, I went to the URL I had saved. As I was fussed with my mouse to make the video full screen, the video for A-ha’s “Take On Me” somehow began to play.

This is our older daughter’s often-proclaimed favorite song, so I promised we could play it once the Devo video—which I played, along with Patti Smith’s seminal cover of Them’s “Gloria,” to demonstrate the durability of certain iconic rock songs—had ended. At which point our older daughter bounced out of her chair, crying, “I need some room to floss!”

Following both versions of “Gloria—our daughters were not quite sure what to make of Smith, with our younger daughter remarking, “It seems obvious to me stuff happened to her in her childhood”—class was dismissed.

This was my chance to, at long last, remove the slowly-discoloring wedge of lime from the green SodaStream I have commandeered as my own. It took a series of knives of various sizes, a long metal skewer and some very strong fingers to complete the task. I did not replace the soggy mess I removed with a fresh lime wedge, or even a lemon wedge.

The highlight of the rest of the evening was the mouthwatering faux croque monsieur, sans fried egg, Nell cooked for each of us from some leftover ham, despite earlier protestations she was too lazy to make a bechamel and our dangerously-low quantity of cheese. I washed mine down—albeit a few hours later—with a can of Wolfgang Puck’s delicious basil tomato bisque.

Sheltering in place with my beloved wife and daughters has its perks.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing X

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

I neglected to mention—having forgotten all about it—a call I received on Tuesday. One that I received on my iPhone, Nell received on her iPhone, and we received on our landline.

I listened to the voicemail the woman calling had left me and decided it was not urgent.

The same person called me again on the morning of Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

When I went to bed the previous, err, night, I was wicked excited for what I had planned to teach our daughters Wednesday afternoon. And I was still excited when I awoke that, err, morning. Sleepy, but excited.

Once I had gone downstairs, however, I thought I should call back the woman who had called three of our phone numbers four total times in two days before lugging my desktop computer into the classroom.

As I have written elsewhere, my older sister Mindy has had severe mental disabilities since birth. In December 1974, she entered the Woodhaven facility in northeast Philadelphia; she has lived there ever since. I became Mindy’s legal guardian after our mother died in March 2004.

The woman trying so hard to reach me was calling from Woodhaven. I had concluded from her initial voice mail she was simply calling every resident parent and guardian to provide an update on how Woodhaven was dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic. But her persistence swayed me, and I called her back.

What I learned is that Mindy, who is 58 and has numerous comorbid conditions, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. For now, her symptoms are fairly mild: elevated fever and runny nose. Nonetheless, they moved Mindy and a number of other residents to an unused residence on the same campus. But as the woman and I discussed, the novel coronavirus is going to sweep through these units like a scythe through wheat; there is little we can do about it. Not to be overly ghoulish, but a very practical part of me is now relieved I purchased a burial plot for my sister more than a decade ago. This was on the advice of multiple interested parties. Still, I was hit hard by the news—it is the closest the pandemic has come to us.

We had already come very close with my mother-in-law, as there is an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the senior care facility in which she lives. They have already moved her twice to keep her from becoming infected; she loves her current room, which overlooks a garden.

The upshot was that I was less excited when class started some 15 minutes later. We began with my asking if they had heard about United States Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders ending his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, making former Vice President Joe Biden the de facto nominee. They had, and we had a conversation about the relative ages of Biden and possible vice-presidential nominee picks. Then I told them about their aunt. They took this news in stride; to be fair, they have only spent time with her once.

In fact, at this point, our younger daughter needed to tell me about a “joke” she had inadvertently made that morning watching an episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet; they had finished The Blue Planet the previous week. At one point, narrator David Attenborough had been talking about Colombia before switching to a small island off the coast of China. Looking up then—and having missed the transition—our younger daughter exclaimed, “That’s Colombia?!?” This then became a running joke between the three of them for the rest of the episode.

Once I started to talk about how American music did NOT die following the February 3, 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, however, I quickly hit my stride.

Not so sleepy 50s

My simple contention is that, despite a relative period of hibernation for rock and roll, American music actually flourished between February 3, 1959 and the arrival of The Beatles in New York City five years and four days later. It was only 12 years after the fact, and with a blindered, rock-centric view of music, anyone could claim music “died” that day. But in making my arguments the previous Friday afternoon, I rushed my presentation and played no music. So, I created a PowerPoint presentation replete with sample songs for every artist.

The Music Never Died

After listening to songs by the three musicians who died in Clear Lake, Iowa that winter day—with older daughter recalling Holly as “the geeky one” and Nell rocking out to “Chantilly Lace”—I played them one track each from three of the great jazz albums released in 1959: “So What” by Miles Davis, “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus. The first and third tunes elicited little response, but our older daughter reacted excitedly to “Take Five”:

“Hey, I’ve heard that song on Donkey Kong!” (She reminded me later this is a level of Mario Kart.)

A few moments later: “Wait…if hearing this song is education, does that meaning playing Donkey Kong is education?”

Sorry, kid, it is not.

We then moved on to developments in popular music. Our older daughter could not get past Roy Orbison’s slicked-back hair to appreciate the effortless clarity of his tenor singing voice. I did get the chance to explain who Dick Clark was watching Bobby Darin perform “Splish Splash” on a companion program to American Bandstand. Our younger daughter then insisted that Dionne Warwick “sounded French” singing “Don’t Make Me Over.” Her older sister and I never did figure out exactly she meant by this.

The remainder of this section of the presentation elicited little comment, although our younger daughter was quite taken with Frankie Valli’s powerful tenor voice.

After a short break, I quickly ran through how the 1950s were not as sleepy as usually portrayed, all the way through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. I am laying the groundwork for a perhaps-vain attempt to explain why The Beatles made such an outsized impact in the United States in 1964.

And then we reviewed three very different artists who began to wake rock and roll from its sleep. I had summarized the formation of The Beach Boys and The Beatles the previous Friday, so I simply played “Surfin’ Safari” and “Please Please Me.” Our older daughter surprised herself a bit by enjoying the former song.

In between, I started to talk about a young Jewish-raised folk singer from Duluth, Minnesota. Just as I was saying he had been born Robert Allen Zimmerman, our older daughter interjected with, “Oh, is he Bob…Dylan?” When I played a clip of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the same daughter thought he was cute—in no small part because of his tousled hair.

And with that, class was dismissed.

Famished, and having been craving tuna fish salad for a day or two, I made what amounted to a deconstructed cheddar tuna melt—the ultimate comfort food, even if it lacked bacon, tomato and diced celery. That did not stop me from happily consuming one of Nell’s delicious cheeseburgers with sliced onion, lettuce and tomato, as well as the rest of the cheddar-flavored potato chip she had impulsively bought the day before.

After that, pausing Chris Hayes, we gawked at the beauty of the “pink moon.” I quite like that these photographs taken from our upstairs porch are a bit blurry.

Pink moon

Misty-eyed view of Boston

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When I went downstairs on Thursday, April 9, 2020 this is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 9

Once again, I schlepped my desktop computer into the classroom. This time it was to show them a set of slides I had prepared for the “What Is Film Noir” adult education course I taught in October 2018:

Cinematography

I focused on the role of what once was called the “lighting cameraman,” the chiaroscuro tabloid photography of Weegee, and the six collaborations between cinematographer John Alton and director Anthony Mann.

We then moved into the living room to watch the 1949 Mann-Alton film Border Incident. I chose this film over the previous year’s He Walked By Night to demonstrate film noir did not always take place in the criminous urban jungle-and that it could feature, in the expert hands of Mann, an almost casual masculine violence. Our older daughter was favorably impressed when a young Ricardo Montalbán appeared on screen, noting his “charisma.”

I could not agree more, kid.

We stopped the film, however, with about 20 minutes left to go—which includes one particularly dark, in every sense, murder scene—because our younger daughter desperately wanted to watch the second Hunger Games film. The latter is 146 minutes long, and the goal was to watch it before Chris Hayes started at 8 pm.

As the film was playing, Nell came into the kitchen to ask if she could make pasta with sauce and turkey meatballs—well just cheese and butter for our tomato-sauce-loathing younger daughter. She asked me because, well, while Nell can cook almost anything brilliantly, I am better at preparing pasta.

Which is how I came to make dinner that night for the first time in weeks. It was merely boxed whole wheat linguine, a jar of Rao’s marinara sauce and frozen Trader Joe’s turkey meatballs, but I always heavily salt the water, simmer the sauce on low heat and gently stir the pasta in the boiling water to keep the strands from sticking together. Some things simply cannot not be rushed.

And, wow, was it good. Nell later came into the kitchen to say, “This is so delicious, I am taking seconds.” She also called me a “rock star” because I had already mostly cleaned the kitchen—the highest compliment I generally pay.

A few hours later, once everyone had gone to bed and the kitchen was completely clean, I sat down to write an e-mail I had been planning to send for months. It was to my maternal aunt and her son and daughter, and it began by apprising them of the health status of Mindy and my mother-in-law. It also finally brought them up-to-date on all I had recently learned about my genetic family—one of whom I met in person last August in Philadelphia—and my aunt’s father’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department.

One reason it had taken so long to write this e-mail was my desire to attach the chapter of the book I am writing that discusses my mother’s ancestry. But I had had yet to incorporate new information I had learned from this same aunt in January into the chapter, complete with validation through sources like Newspapers.com. This I finally began to do Wednesday evening, with a full chapter edit on Thursday.

The editing and e-mail composing took a few hours to complete, during which I needed to put our golden retriever in her crate. As much as I enjoy writing, this was a particularly emotionally draining experience.

And so, of course, I completely forgot to wish them a Chag Sameach–Happy Festival–in honor of the 2nd night of Pesach, or Passover, despite having just looked at black-and-white photographs of my maternal grandfather’s family holding its annual Seder–a meal during which the story of Passover is told in ritualistic fashion–in 1946 and 1953.

**********

When I awoke on Friday, April 10, 2020, I found a voicemail from my maternal aunt on my iPhone. She had read my “captivating” e-mail and was in the middle of reading my chapter, wondering where the information on her mother’s family was. At this point, I literally said, “Keep reading. Keep reading. It is all there” to the voicemail.

Going downstairs a short time later, already running late to start a 2:30 pm class, I found this in the classroom:

April 10

It was thus closer to 3:15 than 3:00 when the three of us settled in the living room to watch Episode 3 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I prefaced our viewing with a brief summary of the first two episodes. Unlike the previous Monday, though, we watched the episode without rancor or hard feelings. And when we began to hear the story of a clarinet-playing Chicago-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants named Benjamin David Goodman, I paused the episode to point out the similarities with the family history we have been discussing on Tuesdays. And I also made the mistake of foreshadowing the tragic death of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, with whom our older daughter was quite taken.

In fact, both daughters have gotten into the flow of the series, even if our younger daughter fell asleep on the blue sofa about halfway through this one. I later learned a proximate cause: she had a fever of 102.2 degrees. Otherwise, she seems generally healthy. We shall see…

About halfway through the episode, we took a short break during which I toasted the last of our whole wheat bagels. Putting in onto a plate with a knife, I grabbed what I thought was opened foil-wrapped brick of cream cheese and took it back to my seat in the living room. As I spread it on my bagel, however, I noticed the consistency was too thin, and it melted almost like butter. It did not taste quite right, either, though it took me a few bites to realize this was not, in fact, cream cheese. I then found an actual brick of cream cheese in the refrigerator, which made all the difference.

Relaying this mistake to Nell later, her response was an alarmed, “What? You ate Crisco?” She had a similar reaction when I brought out from the office the half-full glass of kefir I had been too tired to finish before going to sleep. We will not even talk about the soggy wedge of life that has been floating in my green SodaStream bottle for a few weeks; you can see my bottle in the center background of the first photograph above.

Once the episode had ended, and our younger daughter had awakened, I dismissed class—and week four of home schooling. At this point, her older sister jumped up from her chair and took off for her bedroom, throwing over her shoulder, “See ya! I am off to play LankyBox!”

At that point, it was time to take Ruby out for her evening romp in the backyard, resulting in her second shower in 10 days. A few hours later, I sat down with Nell and a bowl of her delectable beef stew to watch the final two episodes of season two of Broadchurch, the capstone to our first month of sheltering in place. I followed the stew with a tall glass of non-fat milk and a mixed plate of Nell’s homemade dark chocolate brownies–the recipe being from Alton Brown led me to call them Alton-Brownies: one part from the batch she made for the entire family, one part from the batch she made only, with a special, newly-legal type of infused butter, just for her and me.

I cannot think of a better way to end the week than on this high note.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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Perhaps as a consequence of our recent spate of deeply vivid, sometimes terrifying dreams, Nell and I are physically exhausted. Either that, or the enervating monotony of not knowing precisely when our sheltering in place will end—or whether some number of us will catch COVID-19—has taken its toll. “Chippy” is the word Nell sometimes uses to describe our moods…mostly my mood upon waking.

It does not help that the weather turned cold, wet and raw over the weekend, making going outside onto the porches or into the backyard far less appealing. Our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever, who likes cold air but not precipitation, was particularly flummoxed by the lack of outdoor exercise.

We do our best to be careful—rarely venturing to grocery stores or pharmacies, thoroughly washing hands and surfaces, and so forth—but this is an insidious virus, and even the best-laid plans can go awry.

For all that, however, we are extremely lucky:

  • We live in a large two-story apartment with three porches and sufficient nooks and crannies to provide a sense of separation. As much as we love each other, we need our own space at times.
  • I was already working at home—in the expectation of future, if not current, income—while Nell was only working two days a week, for less than 13 hours in total. It is our daughters who needed to adjust to being home all day every day, other than for long walks and runs in the neighborhood—and so far, they have done a reasonably good job.
  • Nell is a trained elementary school teacher who relishes the opportunity to teach her own children.
  • I have never taught children—but I have taught multiple subjects in multiple settings, and I have a plethora of data sets, PowerPoint presentations, prior posts and book chapters upon which to draw.
  • Our children, for all their quirks, genuinely like to learn.
  • We have financial assets independent of salaried employment, and Nell is an online-shopping maven—so we do not (yet) lack necessities.
  • Nell is also a superb cook who, happily for us, is using those skills to alleviate her anxiety. This gives me much more to clean at the end of the evening, about which I may grumble, but it also makes that nightly moment when the kitchen is thoroughly clean—counters and iron stove-top grillwork washed, dishes either in the dishwasher or washed and put away, coffee maker set up for the morning—even more satisfying.

One other thing I have observed. Major League Baseball Opening Day was supposed to be Thursday, March 26, 2020. Due to COVID-19, however, the start of the 2020 season has been pushed back indefinitely. I am a longtime diehard Philadelphia Phillies fan—and, yet, I do not miss baseball at all. Maybe this is simply perspective—it is hard to get excited about a group of millionaire athletes playing a game, however entertaining and imbued with civic pride, when much of the country is shuttered.

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Our weekend was again very quiet. Nell and I chose to skip our regular weeknight joint 8-10 pm MSNBC viewing to watch episodes three and four of the first season of Broadchurch. For those keeping score at home and know how much I love Doctor Who, three actors in the series—David Bradley, David Tennant and Jodie Whittaker—have all played The Doctor in the  last 15 years, while Olivia Colman and Arthur Darvill both appeared in the first episode Nell and I ever watched, “The Eleventh Hour.” This is precisely why my Anglophilic mystery-loving wife–who half-jokes there are really only like 10 actors and actresses in Great Britain—first watched the series five or so years ago.

While we watched, our older daughter had a “virtual sleepover” with two friends. This ended by 11:40 pm, however, as a sleepy daughter grew tired of watching Black Panther on a friend’s television through her iPhone. Her younger sister still became jealous, though, thinking she was going to watch as well—but was otherwise perfectly happy to FaceTime with a friend all evening.

Still, the following day she cajoled Nell into having her own virtual sleepover. She ultimately chose a friend with whom she has had issues in the past—our younger daughter insists on believing the best about everyone regardless (mostly) of contrary evidence. I expressed my displeasure in rather strong language, but I am sheepishly pleased to report the “sleepover” went very well.

After punting the evening before, meanwhile, Nell chose Saturday to make pizza from scratch for the first time. She used whole wheat flour, which was delicious, and let us each choose our own toppings. Our younger daughter despises any tomato product other than raw tomatoes, so Nell basically melted cheese on dough for her. Our older daughter, who is in what could loosely be called a “healthy eating” phase, had an array of sautéed vegetables and non-sautéed pineapple on her pie, while Nell went with caramelized onions and, I believe, mushrooms. I opted for pepperoni and pineapple. The pizza was flat and crispy, not unlike what you would get from a brick over pizzeria.

While younger daughter had her “sleepover,” and older daughter spirited herself away to her pre-teen bedroom, Nell and I binge-watched the final four episodes of season one of Broadchurch. Kudos to my wife for not uttering a single spoiler, even as I posited one incorrect theory after another.

Much later that night, or early the next morning, I excitedly stretched out on our white sofa to watch The Beast of the City, a proto-noir from 1932. I was disappointed in this choppy film, however, writing in my nightly note to Nell, “Beast of the City? More like nobody in this film except Wallace Ford can act city!”

Sunday was even lazier. With our older daughter having just completed the first book in the series, Nell and the girls watched The Hunger Games that evening. I took the opportunity to write this updated assessment of post-2005 Doctor Who instead. What three of us did share (our younger daughter does not currently have the widest food palette), however, was Nell’s delicious French onion soup, complete with a homemade French bread that turned out more like a homemade Italian bread. No matter, fresh bread is fresh bread.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Monday, March 30, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I have redacted identifying information.

March 30

This was the first week of the revamped “Popschool” schedule:

Monday: Using a single story to illustrate some aspect of American political history/economy

Tuesday: Using the book I am writing to learn about our daughters’ and my Jewish-American heritage

Wednesday: Discussing the history of jazz and rock using my personal collection of DVDs and online tools like Polyphonic. 

Thursday: Learning more applied math by examining a wide range of interesting datasets

 Friday: Film history and, most likely, additional quizzes.

The night before, I had been undecided between beginning to discuss capitalism, socialism and the basic elements of the American economy—despite the less-than-stellar grades I had received in introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics my senior year at Yale—or return to the Constitution of the United States to highlight its 27 Amendments, especially the Bill of Rights.

Nell pointed out that much of what I taught them would not make sense without studying the Bill of Rights, and I agreed. Plus, I had researched their origin for the closest thing to a polemic I have ever published on this site—a call to repeal Amendment II. The upshot was that after I briefly relayed the history of those first 10 Amendments, we read them aloud. Fascinating sidebars on the American judicial system dominated our discussion.

After a 30 minute break, I walked them through both the…impolite…responses I had received when I first started tweeting about Amendment II repeal in July 2017—our younger daughter was particularly amused at the contrived “demseftist” and the absurd right-wing pejorative “snowflake”—and my counters to the 12 categories of opposing arguments I had received on Twitter. I also summarized my repeal arguments on the always-popular white board.

Repeal Amendment II

While she was listening to this point/counterpoint, our younger daughter had been giving herself “tattoos.” She insisted I photograph them, knowing full well they would appear here; she, like her sister, is a wicked awesome kid.

Tattoo you

And then, at about 6:30 pm, I acted like a crazy mad fool.

I climbed into Nell’s SUV and drove to the Star Market on Commonwealth Avenue. Parking in the nearly-empty lot, I grabbed my reusable bags and walked to the lower rear entrance. There, a sign informed me they had temporarily disallowed the use of such bags, so I trundled back to the car with them.

The grocery store had maybe a dozen customers wandering its aisles. Studiously avoiding them, I managed to find everything I sought—even two bags of unbleached King Arthur’s flour—which I then wheeled over to one of the two or three open checkout lanes. Blue strips of tape on the floor informed me where to stand to be at least six feet from the nearest customer. Essentially, one person at a time used the conveyor belt. Nonetheless, once I had unloaded my shopping cart, I instinctively reached for one of the yellow plastic dividers. Realizing there was no point in putting it on the belt, I immediately put it back, observing to the smiling brunette six feet behind me, “Force of habit.” She chuckled her assent.

Meanwhile, I had overheard the young man working the cash register tell the customer in front of me that Star Market does allow reusable shopping bags, so long as the customer bags her/his own groceries. We thus have five new white reusable shopping bags for later trips.

Emboldened by this much-needed outing, I filled up Nell’s SUV’s gas tank—requiring me to go into the attached convenience store for my receipt—then drove to a nearby CVS.

Living my life with reckless abandon I am.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 31, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I again redacted identifying information.

March 31

For the first time in 12 days of home schooling, when we convened at 2:45 pm I discussed something other than American political history, statistics or film noir…well, I managed briefly to sneak in the latter. Instead, we began to discuss the history of their father’s family—his legal family, that is: Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement who settled in Philadelphia between 1891 and 1913, with a Philadelphia-born son from one family marrying a Philadelphia-born daughter from another family; they would then in-utero adopt—as their second child—a boy in the summer of 1966.

To set the stage for those stories, I condensed 4 millennia of Jewish history into 24 slides and wrote the names of the birth cities of four of their great-great-grandparents on the always-useful white board. The first one is pronounced “Pruhzh-nitz,” and it is where David Louis Berger was born just over 150 years ago.

Pale of Settlement

The Pale of Settlement

When I came to the final slides, examples of places to which Jews fleeing the pogroms immigrated between 1881 and 1914, I attempted to sketch on the increasingly-valuable white board the River Thames in London, as well as the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Street. This was by way of illustrating how the 100,000 Jews arriving in the East End of London in the early 1880s became a majority of the population around that intersection. In 1888, they became enmeshed in the hunt for a serial killer known variously at the time as The Whitechapel Fiend, Leather Apron, and, of course, Jack the Ripper.

I then wrote the word “Juwes” on the handy-dandy white board to illustrate how the word was spelled when it was written in chalk on the bricks inside the entryway to the Wentworth Model Dwellings on Goulston Street early on the morning of September 30, 1888. The full sentence, according to one account, was “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing,”

Every time I think our younger daughter is not paying attention, I turn around and see she has drawn something like this…and I remember she misses nothing.

Whitechapel sketch

We took a 30-minute break at that point. When we returned, our daughters took turns reading aloud a short summary of the first five chapters of my book, after which I had to reassure our older daughter those were not the actual chapters.

“Oh no,” I said. “Here is Chapter 1,” as I dropped onto the table a sheaf of 17 pages—printed on both sides, Palatino Linotype 12, single-spaced—held together by a small binder clip. Our younger daughter was getting tired, and she is sporting a 102-degree fever, though that is not necessarily unusual for her, so her older sister happily read aloud the first eight pages, starting from the middle of page two. In so doing, she successfully got the Berger clan from Pryasnysz to Philadelphia by way of Quebec.

While our older daughter read beautifully, albeit stumbling over the pronunciation of more than a few tricky names, her mother was listening from the living room, where she was sitting at a table building a Stranger Things LEGO set. I apparently was correcting our older daughter too often because after about two pages, Nell piped up with, “If you keep correcting her like that, you lose the flow of the story.”

She was right—and I loved that she was engrossed in the story—so I limited my corrections only to truly tricky names like the Schuylkill River.

And with that, day 12 of home schooling was over—punctuated by our older daughter jumping up from the table with a “See ya suckers!”

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

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But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

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In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

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I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

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I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

**********

That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

**********

There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.

Happy July 4th! Here is my American story.

Happy 4th of July!

Let me first note, transparent in my pedantry, the Declaration of Independence was actually approved on July 2, 1776. Nonetheless, it was dated July 4, 1776 and signed August 2, 1776.

Allow me next to relate I was physically born (at long-since-closed Metropolitan Hospital, then at 3rd and Spruce) roughly 1/5 of a mile (about 4½ city blocks) southeast of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written.

And permit me to conclude with the fascinating coincidence that both the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams, and the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1826—50 years to the day from the day we designate as our official day of independence from England.

That is, I conclude these introductory paragraphs that way.

**********

A few hours, I began to write a thread on Twitter. It opened thus:

1/ For July 4, I present my American story.

I was born in Philadelphia–where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were written.

I was adopted in utero in the late summer of 1966. Both of my (legal) grandfathers were born outside the US.

The thread ties together the various elements of my background into a single, “American” story. Regular readers of this site will not be surprised, given a series of posts I have written (collected here) telling parts of this same story.

Moving right along:

2/ Morris Berger was born in what is now Poland in 1894 and came to the US when he was 4 years old. A Yiddish speaker, he became a successful business owner and Jewish community leader in West Philadelphia.

His son David Louis was my (legal) father.

He went the other direction.

Two things here (besides proudly observing I was given the Hebrew name Moshe ben David Leib in his honor).

One, the year of my (legal) paternal grandfather’s birth is incorrect. Twitter, however, lacks an edit function, so I could not correct this tweet once it was posted.

Two, there is some uncertainty as to when, exactly, Morris Berger (and three of his siblings) was born.

Next:

3/ Charming, gregarious and generous, “Lou” spiralled down after his iron-willed mother died in 1972. A gambling addiction cost him the business his father and uncle had built. He also lost his marriage–though he never lost me. He died, broke, from a heart attack at 46 in 1982.

David Louis “Lou” Berger died on June 30, 1982, meaning the 37th anniversary of his death was four days ago. By an egregious act of bad timing, June 30 is also the birthday of a close cousin. In fact, my mother and I spent the evening he died at a birthday party for this cousin. As we walked in the front door of our apartment after the celebration, the phone was ringing shrilly. My mother walked behind her white-and-chrome desk to answer it. It was her ex-husband’s—what is the adult form of “girlfriend?”—calling from her hospital bed to inform us of Lou’s sudden passing.

At the time, he was driving a cab for a living (quite happily, I hasten to add, because it gave me a freedom he had rarely known). He was headed to Little Pete’s diner (which closed in 2017) to meet some fellow cabbies for a meal, when he collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel (where my wife Nell and I stayed a few times early in our relationship). He was dead before he hit the ground from his third heart attack in 10 years.

Ignoring decades-old tears and moving on:

4/ Yisrael HaCohen was born in what is now Ukraine in 1904. He came to the United States when he was 7, speaking Yiddish. To join the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1930s, he changed his name to Samuel Kohn (sounded less Jewish) and changed his birthplace to Cleveland.

This story I have told before, so let us proceed:

5/ He served for nearly 20 years, rising to Detective. He ultimately retired to Atlantic City.

His daughter Elaine was my (legal) mother.

Serious reproductive health issues (and hysterectomy) led her only natural child (b. 1962) is “severely intellectually disabled.”

Again, one cannot edit a tweet—that should read, “led…to be.”

Because it is better to laugh than to cry, I sometimes tell the following “joke”: My mother had two miscarriages and a hysterectomy, and then I was born!

It was not until I became my sister’s sole legal guardian and began receiving her annual Life Enrichment Plans that I knew the extent of my mother’s reproductive miseries. Besides the two miscarriages—and a prolonged, painful labor resulting in her daughter being deprived of oxygen at critical moments during her birth process—Elaine Berger also had uterine cancer. Thus, the hysterectomy.

Oy.

Next:

6/ I am my sister’s legal guardian. She lives in a facility run through private-public partnership; she is funded through supplemental Social Security income. Thank you, FDR.

Elaine took the opposite path from Lou. After her marriage ended in 1977, she worked a minimum wage job.

She actually took that job—cold-calling folks on behalf of the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company—some time around October 1976, as her marriage was inexorably coming to an end.

And I must say this: the end of my (legal) parents’ marriage was about as amiable as such an event can be. As painful as it must have been (the night before they officially separated was the only time I saw my father cry), I will always be grateful to them for this civility.

Meanwhile, this is what I mean by “supplemental Social Security income.”

Moving on:

7/ Eventually, Elaine bought that business and, with some help from her own business-owning mother, made a good living for nearly 25 years.

But her reproductive issues returned, and she died from ovarian cancer, aged 66, in 2004.

Oh…her mother. Irene Gurmankin, later Goldman.

Yes, my (legal) maternal great-grandfather—or, at least, his four daughters—also Anglicized his name.

Three years after Elaine Berger began as a minimum-wage-earning telephone solicitor, the owner—a lovely man named (if memory serves) Schwartz—retired. My mother worked out a deal with the man who owned the actual carpet-cleaning machinery to run the business together. A few years after that, this other man retired (or something, my memory defies interrogation on these points), and Elaine Berger took over the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company (a two-person operation—three when I pitched in, mostly by filing or placing leaflets on car windshields—to be sure) for good.

Here she is in 1988 running that business (same desk, different apartment) with her two children framed in the background:

1988-2.jpg

Next:

8/ After divorcing Samuel Kohn in (I believe) 1964–a rarity in those days–she started a cosmetics and costume jewelry business. That business–and her own iron will and fierce work ethic–became fairly successful, allowing her to live comfortably until her death at 92 in 2007.

For some reason, Irene Kohn (she kept the surname) soon moved 60 or so miles west to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she set up shop at the newly-opened Host Farm. Because of her beauty and extroverted (if sometimes cruel—my relationship to her was complicated) charm, she quickly established herself as the unofficial hostess of the sprawling resort. This was a great boon to my cousins and me, who effectively had the run of the place (two pools, a game room, a gift shop, three great restaurants with employee discounts, endless hallways to explore, a superb daylong program called the Peppermint Parlor). Heck, I got to see my man Rupert Holmes perform in the Host Farm Cabaret (for free) in the summer of 1981!

She finally moved back to Philadelphia in 1984, though she never actually retired, running a mail-order business for loyal customers well into her 80s.

Next:

9/ Meanwhile, Morris Berger died, aged 61, in 1954 (correction, he was born in 1893–if only Twitter allowed editing), and Samuel Kohn died, aged 73, in 1978.

OK, that is my legal family, the only family (prior to marriage and parenthood) I have ever known.

I really wish I could have known my namesake—whose death was one of a series of blows to young Lou Berger, who was asked to shoulder more responsibility than he was prepared to. As for “Pop Pop Sam,” for all his “combative personality” and temper, he was a kind and loving grandfather, and I miss him still.

The next few tweets in the thread speak for themselves:

10/ Here is what I know about my genetic family.

My maternal grandmother could trace her ancestry–and family presence in the United States–to the 1700s. English, Dutch. Her ancestors primarily lived in the southeasterern [sic] United States.

Where they fought for the Confederacy.

**********

11/ Alice Mulkey married an Irish Catholic Philadelphian named William Dixon, and moved to Philly. Their first child is my genetic mother.

They lived in what was then a working class area

At 19, while working at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, she met my genetic father.

**********

12/ This part is…fuzzy…so I elide it.

However, the man she met was almost certainly the only son of legendary naval historian Reuben Elmore Stivers. Assuming I am correct, my genetic father died in 2006.

The Stivers family also goes back in the United States to the 1700s.

I exaggerate only slightly when I use the word “legendary” to describe the man who is almost certainly my (genetic) paternal grandfather. When I explained to a different cousin, who serves his country ably and proudly as a Lieutenant Commander, Naval Intelligence, “Smokey” Stivers was likely my ancestor, he said admiringly, “Oh, THAT Reuben Stivers!”

Continuing the thread:

13/ Except they were primarily in Kentucky.

And those men fought for the Union during the Civil War.

“My” branch settled in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. This could explain my (legal) mother’s belief that my genetic father was Colombian.

I miss her (and my father).

Two points.

One, it was not just Kentucky. It was specifically around Lexington, Kentucky, based on what I have learned on Ancestry.com and through discussion with newly-discovered genetic cousins (who have been unfailingly gracious).

But more to the point, I was shocked to learn my genetic ancestors fought each other (perhaps literally, I do not know) in the American Civil War; ponder that counterfactual for a while. This discovery also fits well within the context of my “split identity” first post.

Two, Elaine Berger was so convinced (after a bad game of Telephone: my genetic mother conveyed what she knew to Modell, who passed it on to his client, who probably misunderstood “District of Columbia”–which had only just received its three electoral votes—as “Colombia”) of my genetic paternal heritage she went to the library to see what Colombian children looked like. I do not know what photographs she saw, but she told me numerous times she thought I would be black, or at least much darker-skinned.

She was one of a kind, my mother was.

14/ Upon learning she was pregnant, my genetic mother–unmarried and lacking means–chose to put me up for adoption.

That adoption was arranged through another child of Jewish immigrants, Herman Modell.

How, you ask, did my (legal) father and uncle know the powerful Mr. Modell?

I scrupulously avoid injecting my own political beliefs onto this site, but I make an exception here.

Had I been conceived seven years later, my genetic mother could have had her fetus legally aborted, thanks to Roe v. Wade.

Now, because of her Catholic upbringing—and this is pure speculation on my part—my genetic mother may have carried me to term anyway. She also may have been living in different economic and/or personal circumstances after January 1973. The counterfactuals make my head spin.

And let me back up a second here.

Nell and I have discussed on more than one occasion how much of a role privilege (read: white privilege) plays here. Her own mother was raised with a modicum of wealth, and there is no doubt that if she had found herself with an unwanted pregnancy early prior to 1973, her family would have quietly arranged an abortion for her. It is a near-certainty my genetic mother had no such option (which is why, as long as I am shouting from my soapbox, I have always been opposed to the Hyde Amendment—it denies less well-off women access to a Constitutionally-protected medical procedure and is thus, frankly, unconstitutional. Talk about an “undue burden!”).

But if, under ANY circumstances, my genetic mother had chosen to abort the fetus gestating in her womb—the fetus that would not really become yours truly until the end of September 1966—I would absolutely and unequivocally support that decision.

It was her body, so it was her choice. As it is for all women, everywhere. If you do not like abortions, do not have one, but do not sit in any sort of judgment on any woman who makes that most painful of decision in private consultation with her medical providers and selected loved ones.

Just as I do not get to sit here, more than 50 years later, and judge my genetic mother for any decision she made (or did not make, or could/would have made). I did not yet exist as an autonomous being…and I if I had never existed as an autonomous being, so be it. It was never my decision to make.

My (legal) mother would often remark something to the effect of “If men could get pregnant, you would be able to get an abortion on any street corner.”

For a woman with only a few years of post-high-school medical technician training, she saw things with exceptional clearly.

Returning to my Twitter thread:

15/ Through their simultaneous membership in La Fayette Lodge No. 71.

Yes, my (legal) father, his uncle and the powerful lawyer who arranged my adoption were brother Freemasons.

To be fair, my (legal) father was asked to leave La Fayette Lodge No. 71 for non-payment of dues.

I have told some of this story before, so let us move on; see also here. I would just add that to the extent you knew my father—and realize he was a Freemason for about 10 years—any support for the myth of the controlling influence of the Freemasons evaporates.

16/ But consider this.

When the unplanned child of two people who could trace (mostly) ancestry in the United States to the 1700s was placed for adoption, with whom was he placed?

The children of Yiddish-speaking immigrant fathers who had built successful lives in Philadelphia.

And there it is…thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.” Often lost in our collective squabbles over immigration: the descendants of recent immigrants often do better economically and socially than the longer-term “original settlers.”

Speaking of bearing with me:

End/ I was fortunate to be raised by loving parents of some means in the leafy suburbs north and west of Philadelphia. Nature and nurture cooperated successfully, and I enrolled in Yale College in 1984, sparking a fairly successful life of my own.

And that is #MyAmericanStory

Here is a photograph of those leafy suburbs, as my (legal) father holds his two children (backstory here):

Sue Ellen Drive Feb 1967 or October November 1967

And here I am with my legal mother and maternal grandmother at my graduation from Yale in 1988.

Yale graduation with Nana and Mom 1988.jpg

Here is the first postscript:

PS/ I am writing a book (inspired by, of all things, trying to explain why I love #FilmNoir so much) detailing this history. Working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir, Identity and a Search for Truth.

For more, please see justbearwithme.blog.

Thank you, and Happy 4th!

Hmm, this is getting very circular.

And, finally:

PPS/ My profile picture is from my (legal) parents’ wedding in January 1960. Their wedding, literally and metaphorically, took place about half a mile south of City Line Avenue. They were on the Philadelphia side, but maybe they could see their future home in the suburbs.

For those of you who do not follow me on Twitter (tsk, tsk–@drnoir33), here is that photograph:

Elaine and Lou Berger with parents January 17 1960.jpg

I do not know who the gentleman on the far left is (a great-uncle?), but from left to right are Rae Caesar Berger (mother of the groom, Lou Berger, Elaine Kohn Berger (photograph taken after exchange of vows), Irene Kohn (mother of the bride) and Samuel Kohn (father of the bride).

I LOVE this photograph, even if the men on either end look dyspeptic.

Please have (or continue to have, or I hope you had) a safe and festive holiday!

Until next time…

My great-grandfather, his brother-in-law…and The Three Stooges?

This coming October 15 would have been my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 150th birthday.

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

Eight days later, I will mourn the 100th anniversary of his passing, under bizarre circumstances, but that is a tale I reserve for my book.

“Louis,” as he preferred to be called (like my own father David Louis Berger liked to be called “Lou”) was almost certainly born in the town of Przasnysz (pronounced “pruhzh-nitz”). His father was named Shmuel Meyer (Berger); I have yet to learn his mother’s name.

Around 1891, Louis Berger married Ida Rugowitz, with whom he would have five children, including my father’s father Morris (born in Przasnysz on August 5, 1893), for whom I was named[1]. Well, we share identical Hebrew names: Moshe ben Dahvid Laib. My mother Anglicized “Moshe” to “Matthew,” which she preferred to “Michael” for some reason.

Morris and Rae Berger

I have no clue where my middle name—Darin—came from.

And the above photograph of my grandparents Morris and Rae (Caesar) Berger was probably taken in Atlantic City, NJ around 1949.

My great-grandfather Louis set sail for Quebec from Liverpool, England on the S.S. Tongariro with his wife and children on May 6, 1899[2]. The ship arrived in Quebec City on May 16 and in Montreal—its final stop—on May 17. I do not know in which city they disembarked—though his United States of America Petition for Naturalization states that he arrived in the port of “Philadelphia via Quebec,” suggesting it was Quebec City.

While I cannot definitively place Louis, Ida or any of their children in the United States until December 2, 1902[3], I do not think they tarried long in Canada. Rather, my working hypothesis is that they immediately boarded a train (or series of trains) for the 500+-mile trek south to Philadelphia[4].

Which begs the question: why Philadelphia?

**********

My great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz (born June 12, 1870, most likely also in Przasnysz) had at least two siblings. One was a brother named Charles (Anglicized from Tzadik) who was born in July 1862, and the other was a brother Daniel born in April 1882; the latter was unequivocally born in Przasnysz, meaning the former almost certainly was.

My great-great-uncle Charles married Rebecca Pearl Berman in 1880, then they moved to Philadelphia in 1886 (or, at least, they arrived in the United States that year—the earliest I can definitively place them in Philadelphia is March 14, 1889, when their son Emmanuel was born). His brother Daniel would not arrive until May 1903.

As I continue to research my book, tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent many mostly-happy hours diving down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia City Directories from 1880 forward, as well as more generally on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. United States Census records can tell me which relatives were living where on a decennial basis, but the city directories (to the extent they are complete—inclusion does not appear to have been as automatic as it would become in the age of telephone-number-based directories) can do so on an annual basis.

This is how I discovered that my great-grandfather Louis (along with his wife and four, soon-to-be-five children) were very likely living at 105 Kenilworth Street, approximately the length of a football field west from the Delaware River, as of 1902; no “Louis Berger” is listed in the 1899, 1900 or 1901 directories. This South Philadelphia address was barely a block east of 712 S. 2nd Street.

From 1899 to 1908, that was the residence and bakery of Louis Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—and I presume my great-grandfather was simply moving to the same American city as his successful brother-in-law—which is to say, his wife’s brother.[5]

**********

Just bear with me while I briefly outline some of the street topography of Philadelphia.

Center-City-map-small2.jpg

The section of the city known as “Center City” is bounded to the east by the Delaware River and to the west by the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River; West Philadelphia extends some 33 blocks west of the Schuylkill (and is primarily where my parents were raised, especially my father, who was born at the end of 1935).

The primary east-west thoroughfare in Center City Philadelphia is Market Street (originally High Street), and the primary north-south thoroughfare is Broad Street, exactly as William Penn planned in 1682, when he designed the grid of streets in his new city of Philadelphia. In 1871, construction began on Philadelphia’s City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market, the rough geographic center of Penn’s original city.

The north-south streets are numbered, moving west from Front Street roughly to 27th Street (the curvature of the Schuylkill makes this somewhat imprecise), with the numbering resuming on the west side of the Schuylkill; “Broad Street” is what would otherwise be called “14th Street.” I-95 actually runs parallel to the Delaware River through Center City—meaning Front Street is no longer the easternmost street in Center City (Christopher Columbus Boulevard is).

The main east-west streets are usually named for trees or other vegetation. Thus, beginning from Market and moving south are Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and South; an alphabet soup of smaller streets and alleys exist within this primary grid. North from Market, meanwhile you find Arch, Race, Vine, Callowhill and Spring Garden.

South Street marks the boundary with South Philadelphia, while Spring Garden marks the boundary with North Philadelphia. There are other neighborhoods (like the “Greater Northeast,” where I spent a lot of time in high school because a close cousin lived there), but they do not concern us here.

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When I was growing up in the suburbs just west of Philadelphia, South Street between Front and about 8th Streets was the center of Philadelphia’s punk and new wave culture, making it the flame to which all us suburban moths were drawn; it has since become more gentrified.

At the turn of the previous century, however, the easternmost-blocks of South Street were the mercantile center of a thriving Jewish community, a roughly 50-block area (bounded by the Delaware River to the east, 6th Street to the west, Spruce Street to the north and Christian Street to the south) where Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement were settling after arriving on the steamships from Liverpool (or, apparently, by train from Canada).

If you walk south on 2nd Street from South Street, the first major street you cross is Bainbridge. One-half block down on the western side of the street is #712, which sits directly across the western end of a one-block stretch of Kenilworth Street[6]. Just one block to the west is 105 Kenilworth Street.

As I noted above, a Louis Berger—variously described as “grocery” and “varieties”—lived at 105 Kenilworth from 1902 to 1905. My great-grandfather was, in fact, a purveyor of “meats” from 1906 (when he is first listed in city directories residing at 2241 Callowhill, as close to the Schuylkill as I hypothesize he had been to the Delaware[7]) until about 1915. Around 1914, he operated his meat business (what I suspect we would now call a delicatessen) out of a store at 2313 Fairmount Street, less than two blocks west of Eastern State Penitentiary.

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I took this photograph inside the penitentiary walls in July 2013. It is every bit as creepy as it appears.

Starting in 1915 (as seen in this section of page 2023 of that year’s Philadelphia city directory), however, the family shifted away from “meats” to the moving/storage/used furniture business that would occupy my grandfather Morris (then just 21, but the emerging English-speaking face of the family) and, later, his brother Jules until they died in the 1950s (when my father took over…but that is also a story for another day).

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And this is where we leave my great-grandfather (who, as I noted, would die just four years later) and his wife and children.

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The first appearance of Louis’ Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz as a baker was in 1895, fully nine years after he arrived in the United States, when he is recorded living at 752 S.  7th Street (one block west of the western edge of the Jewish Quarter described above). This address is literally just around the corner from where his brother-in-law’s first cousin’s widow Lena Berger would be living as of 1899, and possibly as early as 1895 (see footnote 5). In fact, the buildings shared exterior walls.

By the following year, Charles  Rugowitz had moved to 929 South Street, where “Rugowitz and Berman”—variously described as “bakers,” “cakes” and “crackers” would be situated until 1898. Clearly, my great-great-uncle was pushing the boundaries of Philadelphia’s “Jewish Quarter.”

“Berman,” by the way, was Harry Berman, the younger brother of Rebecca Pearl Berman[8], who had married Charles Rugowitz back in 1880. The two men lived together—presumably above their bakery—from 1896 to 1909. I do not know when Harry Berman first arrived in Philadelphia.

Harry Berman was also one of two witnesses to Louis Berger’s naturalization petition in October 1906. The other witness was Max Rugowitz, the first cousin of Charles, Daniel and Ida Rugowitz (and thus my first cousin, three times removed). Max Rugowitz had been born in 1872; let’s posit he was born in Przasnysz as well. United States Census records say he arrived in the United States in 1896 or 1897. The first official record of Max Rugowitz is as a grocer (misspelled “Rugwitz”) living in 1903 at 109 Naudain St—a very narrow brick-paved road running between Front and 2nd Streets, just one short block north of South Street. By 1905, he is selling cigars and living at 533 S. Front Street—the northeast corner of the intersection of Front and South Streets (now a parking lot)[9]. In 1910, he moved to 345 South Street (just off the northeast corner of the intersection of 4th and South Streets—diagonally across from where the legendary Jim’s Steaks would open in 1976). Here, Max Rugowitz would live until his death on April 9, 1929, at the age of 57.

As for Charles Rugowitz, the bakery he co-owned with Harry Berman had moved to 712 S. 2nd Street as of 1899 (this is where Louis Berger came into the story originally), where it would remain until 1910. The bakery was apparently successful, because as early as June 1901, Charles Rugowitz is already serving on the house committee of the Home for Hebrew Orphans[10]. He was still on the house committee in December 1907, when he helped to arrange a fundraising dance at the Musical Fund Hall at 8th and Locust Streets. And, yes, I appreciate the irony of a Jewish fundraising dance being held on the evening of Christmas Day.

That same year, Charles briefly co-owned a shoe store in West Philadelphia (5145 Haverford Avenue) with a man named Lewis (or Louis) Maltz; the former would serve an executor of the latter’s will in May 1924[11]. Emanuel Rugowitz, now 18, lived that year at 5136 Haverford Avenue (across the street) and managed his father’s shoe store.

By 1909, however, the Berman-Rugowitz partnership was coming to an end, as Charles Rugowitz had moved to 245 South Street—one block east from his cousin Max, just off the northeast corner of 3rd and South Streets. Here he would live through 1919; by 1921, he had moved to 114 South Street, where he and Pearl would remain until his death on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68. He left an estate of $15,500 in trust for his wife (and, with her passing, their six children and the Home for Hebrew Orphans, among other recipients)[12]; that would be worth about $235,000 today.

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But let us return to 1910, when the Rugowitz cousins—Charles and Max—first started living just one block apart on South Street.

Ten years earlier, a 21-year-old jeweler named Joseph Feinberg was living with his brother Nathan and his family at 122 Kenilworth Street—just a few houses west from where Louis Berger and his family would be living in 1902.

But by that year, Joseph had married Fanny Lieberman and opened a jewelry shop with her at 606 S. 3rd Street. This was just three doors down on the west side of 3rd street from the southwest corner of 3rd and South Streets, diagonally across from where Charles Rugowitz would move in 1909 (one year after the Feinbergs moved to 246 N. 2nd Street, unfortunately).

It was at 606 S. 3rd Street, however, that Louis Feinberg was born on October 5, 1902. And perhaps it was here that young Louis accidentally spilled the acid his father used to detect gold content on his left arm, burning him so badly skin grafts were required. After taking up the violin to strengthen his arm, Louis became so proficient that he began to perform locally. He also briefly took up boxing while attending Central High School, winning one bout, until his father put a stop to it.

He did not graduate from high school, choosing to perform instead—play the violin, perform Russian dances and tell jokes. In 1921, he appeared on the same bill as Mabel Haney, who later became his wife. Perhaps it was around this time that Louis Feinberg adopted the stage name “Larry Fine,” because he soon joined his wife and he sister in act called “The Haney Sisters and Fine.” While performing in Chicago, IL one night in 1925, a vaudevillian comedian named Ted Healy caught a performance along with two members of his act: brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (born Moses and Samuel Horwitz).

When “Larry Fine” then agreed to replace Shemp, that started the process resulting in the formation of The Three Stooges (with the addition of Jerome Horwitz, better known as “Curly” Howard), who would make 190 short films for Columbia from 1934 to 1958, becoming one of the top comic acts of the 20th century.

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The idea to honor the birthplace of Larry Fine/Louis Feinberg began with a suggestion in the Philadelphia Weekly. David McShane was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of Jon’s Bar and Grill (which moved into 606 S. 3rd Street in 1981); it was dedicated on October 26, 1999, with Larry Fine’s sister Lyla (then 78 years old) in attendance. The mural was repainted in October 2005—and I took this photograph of it in July 2013.

Sadly, in November 2018, Jon’s Bar and Grill announced that it was closing after 37 years in business.

I would like to think that a young Louis Feinberg, with or without his family, would have found his way at least once a few blocks south and east to the bakery of Rugowitz & Berman at 712 S. 2nd Street.

Or, conversely, it is easy to imagine the successful baker Charles Rugowitz spending time shopping for watches or other jewelry in Joseph Feinberg’s shop at 3rd and South Streets.

Even if neither of those things ever happened, though, I would still be fascinated by the fact that my great-great-uncle lived for nine years just a stone’s throw from where the great Larry Fine was born…and that perhaps, just perhaps, my grandfather lived across the street—however briefly—from Larry’s then-single jeweler father.

Until next time…

[1] He died on November 14, 1954, nearly 12 years before I was born. This is important because it is Jewish custom not to name a newborn after a living person.

[2] His United States of America Petition for Naturalization, dated October 26, 1906, lists the day as “May 5, 1898.” However, the Tongariro did not make its maiden Liverpool-Quebec voyage until August 1898, three months later. Louis Berger was most likely simply off by one year in his recollection—the last Liverpool-Quebec voyage began on May 6, 1899. If he, Ida and their four children (their last child Julius would be born in Philadelphia in 1904) boarded the vessel the night before their departure, that would be May 5, 1899—exactly one year after the date written on his naturalization petition.

[3] I scoured the 1900 United States Census, to no avail.

[4] It is about 500 miles from Montreal and about 600 miles from Quebec City.

[5] When I was a boy my father and I prepared a list of “Bergers —  death dates” which included a Joseph Berger and his wife Lena. Joseph Berger’s death date is listed as “March 6, 1900,” when in fact (according to his headstone) it was March 6, 1898. That same headstone tells me he was born on April 18, 1860. My guess is that he too was born in Przasnysz—but I may never know for sure. He married the London-born Lena Cohen around 1879 or 1880…and by April 1881, when their eldest son Philip (who appears on my “death dates” list) was born, they were living in Philadelphia. While there are a handful of listings for “Joseph Berger” in the Philadelphia city directories starting in 1888, none seem to fit the broad criteria (or were still alive—going by their listed occupations—after 1898). Only in 1899, does “Lena wid Joseph” first appears, with the address 702 Clymer Street. Given that Joseph, Lena and three of their sons (Harry, Philip, William) appear on the “death dates” list (implying a close familial relation), and given that Joseph was born just nine years before Louis, I assumed Joseph and Louis were brothers. However, examination of each of their headstones (it is often the case that the Hebrew names of the deceased—“first name, son/daughter of father’s first name”—are also written on the headstone) reveals Joseph was the son of Yitzchak (usually Anglicized Isaac) while Louis was the son of Shmuel Meyer (Samuel Meyer). My new working hypothesis is that Joseph Berger and Louis Berger were first cousins…making Joseph Berger my first cousin three times removed. All of which is to suggest that another reason to for Louis Berger to choose Philadelphia as the new home for himself and his family was the presence of his first cousin’s widow Lena and their eight children (as of May 1899).

[6] I suspect Kenilworth once ran from river to river, but has since been chopped up into a handful of one-block lengths to accommodate larger structures.

[7] The westernmost stretch of Callowhill has long since been demolished to clear the way for the admittedly majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[8] Rebecca was born on August 15, 1863, in modern-day Lithuania, while Harry was born on December 12, 1874, presumably in the same place.

[9] It seems cousin Charles bought the property for him from a Patrick Sexton for $1,450 on July 9, 1903; this would be about $42,000 today. “REAL ESTATE TRANSFERS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 11, 1903, pg. 5.

[10] “Hebrew Orphans in New Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 24, 1901, pg. 8.

[11] “WILLS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 2, 1924, pg. 32.

[12] “W. M’L.FREEMAN LEAVES $214,048,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 1, 1931, pg. 12.

Was Jack the Ripper Jewish?

In saying that he was a Polish Jew I am merely stating a definitely ascertained fact.” [1].

Sir Robert Anderson wrote this sentence on page 138 of his 1910 memoir The Lighter Side of My Life. Its context may be found in a preceding paragraph:

And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews; for it is a remarkable fact that people of that class in the East End will not give up one of their own number to Gentile justice. And the result proved that our diagnosis was right on every point. For I may say at once that ‘undiscovered murders’ are rare in London, and the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes are not within that category.”[2] (boldface added)

Anderson was named Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of London’s Metropolitan Police on August 31, 1888. At about 3:45 that same morning, the body of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (still barely breathing) was discovered lying on the sidewalk of a short narrow thoroughfare called Bucks Row.

Eight days later, on the same day the mutilated body of Annie Chapman had been found in the rear yard of a house at 29 Hanbury Street, Anderson would begin an enforced restorative vacation in Switzerland. He would not return to London until after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on the morning of September 30. Six days later, Anderson would assume full control of the investigation of these four (and counting) murders.[3] In the interim, however, Anderson had named Chief Inspector Donald Sutherland Swanson day-to-day director of the investigation into the killer who later that month would be given the name “Jack the Ripper.”

Soon after the publication of his memoir, Anderson presented Swanson with a copy. At some point, Swanson penciled his own commentary in the margins of page 138 (which continued onto the book’s blank back pages). In what would become known as the “Swanson marginalia,” the former Chief Inspector described an unhesitating identification of a Jack the Ripper suspect by “the only person who ever had a good view of the murderer,”[4] before ruefully noting that the witness refused to

“…give evidence against him because the suspect was also a Jew and also because the evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind.”[5]

Swanson goes on to describe (somewhat erroneously, as it turned out) how the identification took place, followed by the suspect’s subsequent internment in, first, Stepney Workhouse, then Colney Hatch, where he soon died.

The final words of the Swanson marginalia are “Kosminski was the suspect.”[6]

This was not the first mention of a Polish Jew named Kosminski as a top Ripper suspect. In 1959, typed memoranda written by Sir Melville Leslie Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of Scotland Yard during the investigation (which was officially closed in 1892) were unearthed. In the memoranda (three versions of which have been discovered), he lists three possible suspects, one of them being “Kosminski, a Polish Jew.”

Pioneering research in the mid-1980s would lead Martin Fido to uncover a Polish-born 23-year-old Jewish barber named Aaron Kosminski as the likeliest match to the suspect alluded to by Anderson, Swanson and Macnaghten. Interestingly, Fido himself would ultimately assert that Jack the Ripper was really a man named “David Cohen” who had been confused with Aaron Kosminki[7]. Opinions continue to fluctuate about the viability of Kosminski as Jack the Ripper, with Robert House’s 2011 book Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect[8] an excellent summary of what little is known about Aaron Kosminski[9].

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Lost in the dispute about names and evidence, however, is this simple fact: three key on-the-scene investigators and one contemporary investigator believed that Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

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Just bear with me as I veer into the personal.

As I have noted previously, I was raised Jewish. More to the point, I am the (adopted) son of a woman and a man raised in the mid-20th-century Jewish enclave of West Philadelphia, both of whose fathers were born in the Pale of Settlement, one in what is now Poland and the other in what is now Ukraine.

That I now identify as a “Jewish-raised Atheist” testifies to the conclusion I reached after an adulthood immersed in epistemology: organized religion is not my cup of coffee[10].

Nonetheless, I am proud of my Jewish heritage (even if I no longer practice “Judaism”), even more so as I write my book. Intended initially to trace the genesis of my love of film noir, it will now include opening chapters detailing the immigration of four Jewish families from the Pale of Settlement to Philadelphia between 1893 and 1912. Because I realized I cannot understand my childhood (and attendant immersion in detective fiction, Charlie Chan and “classic” black-and-white films) without understanding how David Louis and Elaine (Kohn) Berger came to be living in Havertown (a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia) in the mid-1960s. And once you start peeling that particular onion…

At the same time, I consider myself an amateur Ripperologist. It is thus not surprising that in what will probably be Chapter 2, I find myself describing late-19th-century Jewish migration to the East End of London:

Ultimately, 100,000 of these Jewish emigrants landed in the crowded slums of the East End of London[11]. At first treated with sympathy, native-born Londoners’ feelings soured as Jewish immigrants soon became the majority in a number of areas, particularly the southwest section (NewTown, Spitalfields) centered on the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Road[12]. The established, assimilated Jewish authorities of London were also wary of this immigrant influx, fearing that these uneducated peasant Jews would cast their own community in a poor light, even though, as I have noted, while they may have been impoverished, they were also literate enough to support a wide range of newspapers and works of literature. The alienation of native British Jews from their own Jewishness (stemming from their recent fight for emancipation from anti-Jewish statutes) has been described as their “Anglicization”[13] and it led the arriving Jewish immigrants of the 1880s to establish dozens of new, traditional synagogues in the East End and elsewhere. Soon, there was at least one synagogue on nearly every street in that area.[14]

Anti-Semitic feeling reached a boiling point in the late summer and early fall of 1888, when a series of brutal murders came to be attributed to the Whitechapel Fiend and, later, Jack the Ripper. One of the first people to be publicly accused of committing the murders was a local Jewish butcher named John Pizer, aka Leather Apron, who was arrested on September 10, 1888. Quickly establishing his innocence, he noted that he had not left his house for days for fear of being torn to pieces by an angry mob[15].

In other words, it is impossible to separate Jack the Ripper from the increasingly visible Jewish immigrant population of the East End. As of 1888, 45-50,000 Jews (9-10% of the total population) lived in the East End. If you assume, as I do, that Jack the Ripper lived in geographic proximity to his crime scenes, there is (as a sort of baseline estimate) roughly a 1-in-10 chance he was Jewish.

You also cannot separate Jack the Ripper from the appalling conditions prevailing in his killing fields. It is no accident that Paul Begg opens Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History this way:

During the 1880s the East End became the focus of a great many general anxieties about unemployment, overcrowding, slum dwellings, disease and gross immorality. It was feared that the unwashed masses would tumble out of their dark alleys and bleak hovels, sweep beyond their geographical containment and submerge civilized society. A working class uprising and revolution was an imagined reality that waited just around the corner. Jack the Ripper gave those fears substance and form, flesh and bone, because Jack the Ripper was a product of ‘the netherworld’ who could—and in one case fractionally did—move out of the warrens of hovels and alleys into the civilized city. And if Jack the Ripper could do it, so could the diseased savages themselves, espousing socialism, demanding employment and fair wages, education and acceptable housing, and bringing an end to the world as the Victorian middle classes knew it.”[16]

Much of the socialism being preached in the East End resulted from the writing and agitation of recent Jewish immigrants, as I observe in “Chapter 2”:

As I noted above, the Pale of Settlement served as an incubator for a variety of socialist and other pro-worker movements. Morris Winchevsky, born Leopold Benzion Novokhovitch in the Pale of Settlement city of Kovno, in what is now Lithuania, founded the radical socialist Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend) newspaper in London in 1885. The editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint were housed in the rear of the IWEA [International Workingmen’s Educational Association, founded in 1884], also known as the Berner Street Club. The IWEA was a central meeting place for the newly-radicalized Jews of the East End, both native-born and recently-arrived. In fact, on the night before the murder of Liz Stride, a man named Morris Eagle led a discussion entitled “Why Jews Should Be Socialists.”[17]

And here we come to the crux of the matter—the morning of the “double event.”

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At 12:45 am on the morning of September 30, a Hungarian Jew named Israel Schwartz turned from Commercial Street into Berner Street. At the gateway to 40 Berner Street, he saw a man stop to speak to a woman standing there. The man was about 30 years old, 5’5” tall and broad-shouldered, with a fair complexion, dark hair, small brown moustache and full face. He wore a dark jacket over dark trousers and a black cap with a peak; he held nothing in his hands. As he was trying to pull the woman into the street, he turned her around and threw her down on the footway of the gate; the woman screamed—though not loudly—three times.

Schwartz, who spoke little English, wanted to avoid this tussle, so he crossed to the opposite side of the street. There he saw a man standing in the shadows, lighting a clay pipe. This second man was about 35 years old, 5’11” with a fresh complexion and light brown hair; he wore a dark overcoat and an old black hard felt hat with a wide brim.

As Schwartz crossed the street, the first man called out “Lipski,” but whether he was addressing Schwartz or the man with the pipe, we do not know. Later that morning, Schwartz would tell police officers he did not know whether the two men were together or even knew each other. He would also identify the body of Elizabeth Stride as the woman he had seen.

Once the first man called out “Lipski,” Schwartz walked away. The second man began to follow him, and Schwartz ran as far as a nearby railway arch; the man did not follow him that far. Schwartz then told his story to the police, which was summarized by Chief Inspector Swanson.[18]

Stepping back a moment…on June 28, 1887, a 22-year-old Polish Jew named Israel Lipski had been arrested for killing a young Jewish woman named Miriam Angel by pouring nitric acid down her throat. Lipski had been found under her bed with traces of the same acid in his mouth. Protesting his innocence (and with no motive offered by the prosecution), he was sentenced to death; he finally confessed on the morning he was hung[19]. At that point, the name “Lipski” became a sort of casual anti-Semitic insult.

Back on Berner Street, the 9-12-foot-wide gateway at number 40 was the entrance to a passageway called Dutfield’s Yard. It was adjacent to the building housing the IWEA (aka Berner Street Club). Only a few hours earlier, Morris Eagle had lectured in that same building on why Jews should be socialists.

For the previous six months, a Jewish trader of cheap jewelry named Louis Diemschutz had served as the club’s Steward. At 1 am, just 15 minutes after Israel Schwartz’s encounter with the two men and a woman, Diemschutz turned his pony-drawn cart into Dutfield’s Yard. Something made the pony shy to the left; when Diemschutz touched what we thought was a pile of mud with the handle of his whip, he had discovered the body of Elizabeth Stride.[20] And after Diemschutz ran into 40 Berner Street for help, it was Morris Eagle who brought the first two police constables to Dutfield’s Yard.

Whether or not the man Schwartz saw grappling with the woman was Jack the Ripper, he was unlikely to have been Jewish. In fact, I have always believed he called out “Lipski” to the second man as a prelude to a form of anti-Semitic bullying; one can see the two men walking away laughing almost immediately[21]. It also does not seem credible to me that the man with (possibly) Elizabeth Stride would then kill her in the same place he had just been seen by Schwartz and the man with the clay pipe. Curiously, there is no record of Israel Schwartz giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Elizabeth Stride, though it may have been given in secret[22].

Elizabeth Stride was not abdominally- and genitally-mutilated the way other canonical victims of Jack the Ripper (Nichols, Chapman, Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, the latter on November 9) were, suggesting either that she was not actually a victim of Jack the Ripper or that he was interrupted by Diemschutz before he could do so.

Thirty minutes after the discovery of the body of Elizabeth Stride, Police Constable (PC)

Edward Watkins walked through Mitre Square, in the City of London (and thus outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police), and saw nothing out of the ordinary[23]. Five minutes later, at 1:35 am, three Jewish men—Joseph Lawende, Joseph Hyam Levy and Harry Harris—left the Imperial Club[24], a short distance away from
Church Passage, the entrance to Mitre Square. Levy had earlier remarked that Mitre Square should be watched, presumably because untoward things happened there.

Walking by the darkened Church Passage, the three friends saw a woman (who they later felt certain was Catherine Eddowes[25]) standing there with a man. Lawende, who was walking a bit in front of Levy and Harris, passed within nine or 10 feet of the couple, and he glanced briefly at them. He later described the man as about 30 years old, 5’9” tall, with a fair complexion and a small light moustache; he looked ‘rather rough and shabby,’ and he wore a cloth cap with a cloth peak. Other than the four-inch difference in height, this description is broadly similar to that given of “Man 1” by Schwartz. That said, the description would have fit many men in the area. Meanwhile, Lawende would repeatedly assert his inability to identify the man again[26].

The other two men paid little attention to the couple, although Levy was quoted as telling Harris, “I don’t like going home by myself when I see these sorts of characters about. I’m off.”[27]

Five minutes later, PC James Harvey saw and heard nothing standing on the edge of Mitre Square at the end of Church Passage, though Mitre Square was not lit. The couple seen by the three Jewish friends was gone (or hiding in the gloom).

But five minutes after THAT, at 1:45 am, PC Watkins walked through Mitre Square again. And that is how he found the viciously mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes.

Jack the Ripper may thus have been seen by as many as four Jewish men between 12:45 and 1:35 am on the morning of September 30, 1888. One of them was called an anti-Semitic epithet a few yards from the rear entrance of a club for Jewish socialists, and another Jewish man would find the body of Elizabeth Stride lying near that same entrance.

And the morning was not yet over.

At 2:55 am, PC Alfred Long walked down Goulston Street on his beat[28]. He had done so 25 minutes earlier, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. This time, however, he saw a piece of bloody apron lying near a stairway leading to 108-119 Wentworth Model Dwellings. The near-universal consensus among Ripperologists is that this was a piece of Catherine Eddowes’ apron, which her killer had cut off and used to wipe his bloody hands and knife[29].

PC Long also observed writing in white chalk on the wall where the piece of apron was found. He recorded it as “The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing.”[30] As Jakubowski and Braund put it, “There has been a great deal of dispute over the meaning of the message, because it is not clear if the Jews should be blamed or excluded from the murders or whether the word ‘Juwes’ actually means ‘Jews.’” Nonetheless, rather than wait for sufficient light to photograph the graffito, a possible clue, fears of resulting anti-Semitic rioting led then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren to order its erasure at about 5:30 am.

Even if Jack the Ripper stood next to that wall while he wiped his hands and/or blade, it is not plausible to me that—knowing members of both the Metropolitan AND City Police were scouring the area—he would then take the time to write an obscure message. Nonetheless, somebody took the time to write that putatively anti-Semitic graffito shortly before 2:55 that morning.

There is one final “Jewish connection” to Jack the Ripper.

At 6 pm on November 12, 1888, three days after the unspeakably savage murder of Mary Jane Kelly in her tiny room at 13 Miller’s Court, 26 Dorset Street,[31] a friend of hers named George Hutchinson (who had not given evidence at the inquest, held earlier that day) walked into Commercial Street Police Station to give a statement. At about 2 am on the morning of Kelly’s death, he had seen her talking to a man near the Dorset Street entrance to Miller’s Court. In his remarkably detailed description, Hutchinson noted the man “…wore a very thick gold chain, white linen collar, black tie with horse shoe pin, respectable appearance, walked very sharp, Jewish appearance. Can be identified.”[32] (boldface added)

Hutchinson, who was himself seen watching the entrance to Miller’s Court at 2:45 am, may have invented the wealthy Jewish-appearing man to cover his own presence near the crime scene. But even if he did see such a man, he was unlikely to have been Jack the

Ripper, as the best estimates put Kelly’s death at between 4:00 and 5:45 am; it is extremely unlikely the “john” would have had sex with Kelly (a prostitute like the preceding four victims) in her room then waited there for two or three hours to kill her.

Mary Jane Kelly is the last of the five canonical victims (though I personally include Martha Tabram [or Turner], killed on a stairwell in George Yard Buildings on the morning of August 7, 1888 as well) of Jack the Ripper, although Alice McKenzie (July 17, 1889) and Frances Coles (February 13, 1891) are sometimes included.

For what it’s worth, not one purported victim of Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

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For the record, I have absolutely no idea what Jack the Ripper’s real name was, although “a Polish Jew named something like Kosminski” is one of more plausible suspects of the hundreds put forward, if only because of the writings of Anderson, Macnaghten and Swanson[33]. For some perspective, John J. Eddleston’s indispensable Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia lists 113 suspects—including a catch-all “Polish Jew” and “Unknown Male” (rated a “5,” meaning “a strong possibility” that someone not yet named was Jack the Ripper). For context, Aaron Davis Cohen (the real name of Fido’s suspect David Cohen) is listed as a “4” (a very good possibility) as is another East End Jewish man named Nathan Kaminsky (who may or may not have been Aaron Davis Cohen). Aaron Kosminksi is rated lower, at “3” (a reasonable possibility), while “Polish Jew” is rated a “2” (a remote possibility).

Moreover, the perceived certainty about Kosminski is undercut by Macnaghten himself, as he names two other likely suspects (a barrister named Montague John Druitt and a “mad Russian doctor” named Michael Ostrog). And other high-ranking officials had their own preferred suspects. Secret Department[34] Chief Inspector John George Littlechild, in a 1913 letter, would cite an American “doctor” named Francis Tumblety as “to my mind a very likely suspect.”[35] And Inspector Frederick George Abberline, one of the top officers assigned to investigate these murders, ultimately decided a convicted wife poisoner named Severin Klosowski (aka George Chapman) was Jack the Ripper.

Other Jewish residents of the East End have been put forward as suspect, meanwhile, including Hyam Hyams.

And the suspects keep coming. In 2007, retired CID homicide detective Trevor Marriott somewhat fancifully named Carl Feigenbaum (who also went by many other names).[36] This video makes a somewhat tortured case for a mortuary attendant named Robert Mann (who gave evidence at the inquest into the death of “Polly” Nichols), while this video makes an intriguing—if highly circumstantial—case that Jack the Ripper was a carman named Charles Alan Cross (aka Charles Alan Lechmere)—the first of two men (along with another carman named Robert Paul) to find the body of “Polly” Nichols![37]

My point was simply to delineate the nexus between Jack the Ripper’s crimes, the increasingly Jewish (and socialist) character of the East End of London in 1888, ensuing anti-Semitic backlash and the roles played by numerous Jewish residents (including, perhaps, Jack the Ripper himself) in the discovery and investigation of the murders.

Until next time…

POSTSCRIPT: In separate books in the 1990s, Paul Harrison and Bruce Paley each argued for the candidacy of Mary Jane Kelly’s former lover and cohabitator Joseph Barnett; the circumstantial evidence is interesting although the ascribed motive is…creative.

In 1937, my great-aunt Rose Goldstein married a man named Joseph Barnett Spungen, who had been born in Leeds, in the north of England, in 1908. (If the name Spungen sounds familiar, it is because this was his brother’s granddaughter). I always do a double-take when I see his first and middle names.

I do not really think there is any connection between Whitechapel’s Joseph Barnett and my mother’s first cousin by marriage…but I will keep interrogating the extant records nonetheless.

[1] Anderson, Sir Robert. 1910. The Lighter Side of My Official Life. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, pg. 138 (Quoted in Begg, Paul. 2003. Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History. London, UK: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 268.

[2] Ibid, pg. 267.

[3] Much of the information in these paragraphs comes from Eddleston, John J. 2001.Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. as well as my own deep familiarity with the details of the case.

[4] Begg, pg. 267-69.

[5] Ibid, pg. 269.

[6] Ibid, pg. 269.

[7] An excellent summation can be found in Fido, Martin. 1999. “David Cohen and the Polish Jew Theory,” pp. 164-86 in Jakubowski, Maxim and Braund, Nathan, eds. 1999. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.

[8] New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. See especially Chapters 17 and 20-26.

[9] Who, for example died on March 24, 1919, not sometime in the 1890s as Swanson seemed to think.

[10] I am not much of a fan of tea, either.

[11] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[12] http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/life-in-the-jewish-east-end

[13] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/london

[14] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[15] Begg, pg. 157.

[16] Ibid. pg. 1. Carrying this argument to an absurd, pointed extreme, George Bernard Shaw wrote a letter on September 24, 1888 to The Star newspaper which began, “Will you allow me to make a comment on the success of the Whitechapel murderer [the name “Jack the Ripper” was still three days away] in calling attention for a moment to the social question? […] Private enterprise has succeeded where Socialism failed. While we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation, and organization, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling [sic] four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.” Quoted in Begg, pg. 2.

[17] Ibid., pp. 171-74.

[18] Preceding four paragraphs from Begg, pg. 179 and Eddleston, pg. 114.

[19] Begg, pg. 139.

[20] Ibid,, pg. 174.

[21] The counter-argument that he was attempting to distract from his own Jewishness by calling out “Lipski” has always seemed far-fetched to me as well.

[22] Or Schwartz was Swanson’s Jewish witness, who refused to testify against a fellow Jew.

[23] The next few paragraphs from Begg, pp. 193-94.

[24] At 16-17 Duke Street, now Duke’s Place.

[25] This despite the fact Lawende only saw the woman’s back. The identification seems to be have been based upon the black jacket and bonnet she was wearing and, I surmise, the fact she was a few inches shorter.

[26] Which again begs the question whether HE was Swanson’s reluctant Jewish witness.

[27] Begg, pg. 193. Begg goes on to say that he—and contemporary observers—felt that Levy was being evasive.

[28] The ensuing few paragraphs are drawn from Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 41.

[29] It matched a gap in the apron Eddowes was wearing when her body was discovered.

[30] The City of London police believed the graffito read, “The Juwes are not the men That will be Blamed for nothing.”

[31] The crime scene photograph of what was left of the approximately 25-year-old Irish-born Kelly is the ghastliest thing I have ever seen.

[32] Eddleston, pp. 70-71. Eddleston actually believes Hutchinson is the most likely suspect, as he details on pp. 275-84.

[33] According to the invaluable on-line Casebook: Jack the Ripper, “By some counts, more than 500 individuals have been put forward by various experts, historians and theorists – most based on flimsy or non-existent evidence.”

[34] Later known as “Special Branch,” this was the unit devoted to preventing Irish (or Fenian) terrorism. Eddleston, pg. 126.

[35] Quoted in Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 100. An excellent analysis of Tumblety’s not-unreasonable candidacy is Evans, Stewart and Gainey, Paul. 1995.Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer. London, UK: Century Random House UK, Ltd. The edition I own is the 1998 paperback reprint published by Kodansha America, Inc.

[36] Marriott, Trevor. 2005. Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation. London, UK: John Blake Publishing, Ltd. Marriott did not actually name Feigenbaum until the 2007 paperback edition.

[37] The inevitable “well, maybe not” counter-argument may be found here.

Samuel Joseph Kohn: exemplar of the Jewish immigrant experience

He had been a powerfully-built man, which served him well when he spent nearly two decades as a Philadelphia police officer (rising as high as plainclothes detective in the late 1940s). His 1940 World War II draft card lists the then-36-year-old patrolman as 5’10” tall and 210 pounds, dark-complexioned with black hair and brown eyes. But the stroke he suffered at 73 had left the right half of his body paralyzed, making him seem much frailer. Nonetheless, as I stood next to his bed in the rehabilitation center, he had more than enough strength in his massive left hand to grip my smaller 11-year-old hand tightly.

As he held my hand, he made me swear to him that I would become either a doctor or a lawyer, the professional pinnacles for late 19th– and early 20th-century Jewish immigrants and their immediate descendants. At that age, I was far more interested in math and history—and not particularly good with blood (I still am not)—so neither option appealed to me.  However, I adored my grandfather, so I did as he asked.

None of us in that room, in the early fall of 1978, had any idea what “epidemiology” was, but that is the field in which I earned my doctorate 36 years later.

That counts, right?

**********

Wednesday, December 12, 2018, would have been Samuel Joseph Kohn’s 114th birthday. Here he is, with my grandmother Irene (who he would divorce only a few years later), at his younger daughter Elaine’s 1960 wedding to David Louis Berger. Six years later, the young married couple would adopt a boy and name him Matthew…but that is an entirely different story.

Irene and Samuel Kohn January 1960

More precisely, what I learned growing up was that a man named Samuel Cohen had been born in a town near Kiev (in modern-day Ukraine) called Shpola (sometimes Shpolakievagubernia[1]) on December 12, 1904. And that date of birth is clearly recorded on his headstone:

IMG_0012 (2).JPG

However, as I wrote with regard to my paternal grandfather Morris Berger (and his four younger siblings), dates of birth are hard to pin down when official American birth certificates are not available. Decades after the fact, researchers (and curious descendants) are forced to rely on documentation such as naturalization papers, military service documents and United States Census (“Census”) records.

But it is not just dates of birth that can be difficult to verify. Things as supposedly straightforward as name and place of birth may prove tricky as well…especially when those facts were deliberately altered to fit in better with an early 20th-century urban American milieu.

I do not mean this to sound sinister. It was no secret when I was a boy that sometime between 1930 (when the Census records 25-year-old “Samuel Cohen” living at 1842 N. 32nd Street) and 1934 (when his marriage record to Irene Goldman lists him as “Samuel Kohn”), my grandfather changed the distinctly-Semitic (and distinguished) last name of “Cohen” to “Kohn,” believing it to be more ethnically ambiguous. He had done this, supposedly, anticipating anti-Semitic resistance when he joined the police force (and even when that occurred is a bit of a mystery). When you consider that his father, Joseph Cohen had been, variously, a rabbi, a shochet (Kosher butcher) and a Hebrew school teacher—and that he and his 11 brothers and sisters were purported to be direct descendants of the legendary Shpoler Zaide [2] (“the Grandfather from Shpola” or, as I knew him as a boy, “the Dancing Rabbi of Shpola”), the surname change is even more striking.

It may not have been simply joining the police department, though. Sometime after landing in Philadelphia in 1911, Yaakov Gurmankin of Cherson (in modern-day Ukraine) became “Jack Goldman” of Philadelphia—and his four daughters (of whom Ida—or Irene—was the eldest, born August 11, 1914) became the “Goldman Girls.” Adopting a less “Jewish” sounding name was a fairly common occurrence for these newly-arrived immigrants, a natural part of their slow assimilation.

But let us return a moment to his 1940 draft card. It lists his date of birth as December 12, 1904 (so far, so good) and his place of birth as…Cleveland, OH?

When I located this draft card via Ancestry.com sometime last year, as I began my family research, I was less surprised by the birth location as I was by how early Samuel Kohn had begun claiming it.

In February 2015, “Snowmageddon” shut down Boston’s Logan Airport, forcing me to spend two extra days in the San Francisco area (Burlingame, actually) following the conclusion of that year’s NOIR CITY film festival. As I enjoyed dinner (including a nice chianti) at Café Figaro my first night in Burlingame, I had a long text exchange with my maternal aunt and her children (which, unfortunately, I have since deleted). It was then I learned Samuel Kohn had changed his birthplace from Shpola to Cleveland, adding to his slow Americanization.

OK, so how do I know he was born in Shpola?

Let us start in 1979, when a grandson of Joseph Cohen (first cousin of my mother and her older sister) took three sheets of orange paper and wrote out the family tree of the descendants of Joseph Cohen and his wife Bat-sheva (later Bessie) Koslenko Cohen. I have no photographs of Joseph (so far as I know), but my great-grandmother struck quite a pose:

Bessie (Barhseva Koslenko) Cohen

The 1979 record lists the eight children of Joseph and Bessie Cohen who eventually made their way to Philadelphia: Sima, Bella, Sarah, Benjamin, Sophie, Samuel, Anna, Jack. Some 60 years earlier, meanwhile, Joseph Cohen’s United States of America Petition for Naturalization (dated June 4, 1918) listed eight children (with dates of birth) of Joseph Cohen (and wife Bessie):

Sima (later Sarah; July 3, 1887[3]),

Rebecca (later Bella; November 10, 1890),

Sara (October 4, 1897[4]),

Benjamin (November 28, 1901),

Sofia (February 12, 1903),

Israel (November 22, 1905),

Anna (April 1, 1908[5])

Jacob (January 1, 1912)

According to this same document, Joseph Cohen (and his wife Bessie) hailed from Shpola, Russia (forcing him to “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign, prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly to Nicholas II Emperor of all the Russias[6], of whom I am now a subject.”). The eldest daughter, Sima, also hailed from Shpola, according to the Naturalization Petition of her husband Leib (later Louis) Goldstein. Put two and two together…

Joseph, Bessie and six or seven of their children[7] were among the 1,091 steerage (I presume) passengers who sailed on the SS Haverford from Liverpool, England on November 18 (or 20), 1912, landing in Philadelphia on December 3, 1912.

SS Haverford

Photograph from here.

It was quite a harrowing journey, according to the front page of the December 4, 1912 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer. I wonder how close my grandfather and his family truly came to perishing in the North Atlantic (only eight months after the sinking of the Titanic), which would have rather dramatically altered my family’s history.

Rough voyage of Haverford 1912

Wait, hold on, back up a second.

Who the bleepity-frick is “Israel Cohen,” born November 22, 1905?

**********

When my mother died in March 2004, I acquired a handful of documents relating to my grandfather. One of them was a small white piece of paper on which was written my grandfather’s Hebrew name as it was supposed to appear on his headstone; I recently came across it digging (again) through the “genealogy” folders in my filing cabinet.

Samuel Kohn headstone information.jpg

Clearly, at some point between December 3, 1912 and January 14, 1920–the date on which the 11-person Cohen household (including 15-year-old “Samuel”) at 729 Morris Street in South Philadelphia was enumerated by A. S. Burstein—”Yisrael (son of Yosef) HaCohen” became “Samuel Joseph Kohn.” I do not know why Rabbi Levin did not put this Hebrew name on the headstone; perhaps he simply could not reconcile “Yisrael” with “Samuel” (whose Hebrew equivalent is Shmuel).

As for when a date of birth of “November 22, 1905” became “December 12, 1904,” it is telling that the latter date is more consistent with the ages listed for Samuel Cohen on the 1920 (15) and 1930 (25) Censuses. The former is consistent with a date of birth between January 15, 1904 and January 14, 1905, while the latter (conducted April 4-5, 1930) implies a date of birth between April 6, 1904 and April 5, 1905.

The bottom line is this: upon embarking from the SS Haverford onto the Washington Avenue pier 106 years ago (what must the city have looked like to him, his parents and siblings coming from a town that had a population of about 12,000 in 1897?), a sea-sick Yiddish-speaking seven-year-old boy named Yisrael HaCohen from Shpola, on the rural outskirts of the Russian Empire, slowly transformed into the English-speaking Philadelphia police officer Samuel Joseph Kohn from Cleveland, OH. Why he chose “Cleveland” and moved his date of birth back 11 months and 10 days remains a mystery.

**********

In April 1930, Samuel Joseph Kohn was an attendant at a Gulf Refining Station—and probably starting to play pinochle, which would be the great passion of his life. Sometime in the next four years, he met a lovely teenager who lived about five blocks north of his packed house at 1842 N. 32nd Street. He married Ida “Irene” Gurmankin, I mean Goldman, at the Jewish-catering Imperial Hotel in Atlantic City in the summer of 1934. The would have two daughters, including my mother Elaine in January 1938. It was a contentious marriage—two hotheads separated in age by eight or nine years—but he was a great father. Later, he would be a beloved grandfather—and family patriarch.

As I have noted, his time on the force remains a large black box, but a handful of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer[8] and conversations with my aunt (plus this book) tell me he was stationed in at 28th and Oxford (not far from his Strawberry Mansion house) in February 1937, where he was an incidental part of a post-shootout car chase. By 1948, he was a plain-clothes detective working on the Crime Prevention Squad (which targeted juvenile offenders); in November of that year, he and partner Jack Auerbach arrested two brothers at 23rd and Venango for running a numbers bank with a daily take of $1,200.[9]  In 1951 and 1952, a patrolman again, he worked in South Philadelphia (7th and Catherine) busting rackets under Acting Staff Sergeant Frank Rizzo (who would serve as a very controversial police chief, then mayor from 1972 to 1980); Rizzo and my grandfather looked very much alike, actually. My aunt told me he always voted Republican (despite living in a family that adored Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt) in those years because he thought his career depended on it.

A few years later, he had retired from the force and begun to operate a series of taverns in “seedy neighborhoods” (according to my aunt), at first with his brother-in-law Harry Alterman. I would love to imagine David Goodis frequenting one of those taverns.

His father Joseph died in October 1930, followed by his mother Bessie in November 1941. In January 1922, his sister Sophie had died seven days after giving birth to her only child, a daughter named Evelyn; she was only a month away from her 20th birthday (as I put it to my wife Nell, this is when this type of research “gets real.”). His sister Sima died in October 1944.

And by 1930, his brother Benjamin had moved to New York City to start a family. This left Samuel the male head of a rapidly growing family that would meet every year (becoming known as the “Cousins Club”) to celebrate the first night of Passover with the ritual Seder meal. (This tradition would continue for decades; as a boy, I looked forward to seeing all of my cousins at the vast Doral Caterers—which closed in 1989—near the intersection of Bustleton and Cottman Avenues, where inevitably one of us would be injured after an evening of high-spirited shenanigans).

Here he is, standing alone in the back, running the show in 1946 (my eight-year-old mother is sitting alone in the bottom center)…

Cohen Family Seder, 1946

…and again in 1953 (my 15-year-old mother is in the white blouse, seated on the right edge).

Cohen Family Seder, 1953.jpg

Five years after this Seder, in 1958, both his brother Benjamin and his sister Bella died.

But on January 17, 1960, he proudly watched his daughter Elaine marry a charming and handsome young man named David Louis Berger. His first (of four) grandchild, Mindy, was born on March 8, 1962. And then I arrived (literally) in September 1966.

By 1964, meanwhile, he had divorced his wife of nearly 30 years and moved to Atlantic City, where he drove a jitney for a few years before retiring; I used to spend hours riding them up and down Pacific Avenue for only 35 cents in the summer of 1974 and 1975.

It is those summers I remember when I think about my grandfather. By then, he had settled into the Warwick Apartments, just off the beach on Raleigh Avenue; I would occasionally spend a weekend with him there over the winter (I loved it, but let us just say that my grandfather could give Oscar Madison a run for his money).

619963-large-fullheightview-view-from-the-southeast

Occasionally, he would take me for a ride on one of the double-decker (we always sat on top in the open air) boats that departed from Captain Starn’s seafood restaurant and sailed lazily south along the beach then north again. He would treat me to an ice cold can of Coke or Dr. Pepper from a vendor with a cooler; they remain the most delicious sodas I have ever tasted.

And then there was the night—probably in the summer of 1974—when my mother and I had dinner with him in his apartment. At the start of the meal, I was served a steaming hot bowl of tomato soup (most likely Campbell’s cream of tomato). It was a hot night, so I sat at the table shirtless. Then, somehow, my grandfather tipped the entire bowl of soup onto my bare chest.

Owwww!!!!!

At this, my grandfather—tough-as-nails Philly cop, tavern owner and Cohen family patriarch—became completely distraught; I have never seen a man look so shattered. And while my chest was still stinging in pain, despite the butter (yes, butter) being rubbed on it, his reaction had me feeling sorrier for him than anything else.

Just over four years later, on November 15, 1978, Samuel Joseph Kohn (and Yisrael ben Yosef HaCohen) succumbed to complications from his stroke (“cardio respiratory collapse” from “myocardial infarction”), ending an extraordinary rich life that typified the 20th century immigrant experience. Less than one year later, I wore his yarmulke at my Bar Mitzvah. Despite being a Jewish-raised Atheist (married to an Episcopalian-raised Agnostic), I still wear it (with my father’s tallit) when I light the candles of the menorah on Chanukah.

IMG_3304

*********

I end where I began, with this excerpt from page iv of my doctoral thesis.

Dedication

          This dissertation is dedicated to the memory of three late members of my family whose love and support I miss every day.  

          First  is  my  maternal grandfather,  Samuel  Kohn.  Toward  the  end  of  his  life,  he  made  me  promise  that  someday  I  would  become  either  a  lawyer  or  a  doctor.  

Pop-Pop  Sam,  I  kept  my  promise.

Until next time…

[1] “Shpola in the governing district of Kiev”

[2] In early November 2018, a man reached out to me on Ancestry.com, seeking information about Joseph Cohen. He believes (and there is some decent evidence in support) that his great-grandfather Yankel Cohen—a rabbi from a town just 10 miles south of Shpola called Zlatopol (now part of Novomirogrod), whose younger brother were also rabbis—was my great-grandfather’s older brother. And he alerted to the researches of Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull, who has traced, through Y-DNA, the male descendants of the Shpoler Zaide. Somewhere in here lies the truth of our descent (or not).

[3] Curiously, the date of birth listed on her husband Leib (Louis) Goldstein’s Naturalization Petition is July 10, 1886.

[4] Or was it July 4, 1894?

[5] This was actually a guess based upon her being born on the third day of Passover in 1908, which she later learned was April 19.

[6] The italicized words were handwritten on his Declaration of Intention, dated June 1, 1915.

[7] According to the 1930 Census, Sima Cohen arrived in 1914, though that date is almost certainly 1913, when she and her husband Leib arrived in Philadelphia on the SS Breslau. Meanwhile, the 1930 Census says Bella arrived in 1899, though she would only have been eight or nine years old then; I suspect that is a miscommunication.

[8] “GUNMEN FLEE POLICE SHOTS IN TWO DUELS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 28, 1937, pg 4; “Brothers Seized On Numbers Count,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), November 27, 1948, pg 15.

[9] A little over $12,600 in 2018 dollars.