I was one of the lucky ones who grew up in a loving, happy, fun-filled home with little drama except for the Broadway musicals blaring from speakers that were the latest in sound technology and my Dad’s pride and joy, measuring 4 feet high and 2 feet across, and serenading the entire neighborhood! (I can only imagine, if he were alive today, how my Dad would react with music coming from a phone you carry in your pocket!!) There was little shrayening or yelling in our house except when the Dodgers scored, my uncles yelled “Gin!” while playing cards or when my aunts screamed at my cousins to stop being so wild! We were one of the only homes with a swimming pool so people were always gathered for holidays, bar-b-ques and fun.
This was a tight-knit Jewish community in East Los Angeles where a great many of the adults had lived and gone to school in Boyle Heights and were raising their families together in the early 1950s new neighborhoods of Montebello and Monterey Park. My Sunday School, Confirmation, BBG/AZA and school friends were all the children of my parent’s life-long extended family. We were a unique Jewish neighborhood where everyone knew everyone and experiences and bonds were sacred.
We lived across the street from our rabbi.
Now that was a life altering experience! I remember one Friday afternoon in December when the rebbetzin called me over to her house and while kashering a chicken for Shabbos dinner, she said, “Nice Jewish girls don’t go Christmas caroling with Girl Scouts and especially on Shabbos!” My Mom disagreed and said it was ok.
The rabbi loved to swim in our pool, especially on Shabbos, (LA, so the weather was swimable all year round). My Dad owned a men’s clothing store and the rabbi was a distinguished looking man, whom my Father dressed and always looked as though he stepped from the cover of GQ. Wanting no one to see him on a Saturday, the rabbi (conservative, orthodox background) would peek out the back door of his house that was high on a hill (pulpit-like), that faced our house, looking to see if anyone would catch him, while his dog followed, wearing his latest cabana swim outfit, and sprinted across the street into our backyard! We knew in advance he was coming so no other invitations were extended for that hour. “Jews are to observe the Sabbath,” he would tell all of us kids as we walked to shul every Friday night, gathering more worshipers along the way. But swimming was not mentioned as an ok activity for the pious. But he made an exception for himself.
Our rabbi was an interesting paradox of Jewish values and how he led his life. Our community had a love-hate relationship with him, but he was THE rabbi and regardless, everyone held high respect for him as our spiritual leader. I remember my Dad would tell stories that once a year the B’nai Brith Men would hire a bus to take them to a Dodger game, and in an extremely relaxed atmosphere, the rabbi would put aside his Hart/Shaffner and Marx suit and don a Dodger cap over his yarmulke. Every year the same thing happened: The men would be on guard in their “good-behavior-in-front-of-the-rabbi” until the rabbi would bellow in his commanding-sermon-type-voice throughout the bus, “Have you heard the one about the rabbi and the lady…?” Our dads were always bowled over with the quality of off-color jokes the rabbi had in his scriptures!
My favorite story was the Saturday morning I woke up to my Mom on the phone and talking in a hushed, nervous voice with smatterings of Yiddish, which meant she didn’t want me know what she was saying! I knew something wasn’t right until my Dad came through the front door looking as though he had been up all night at a frat party and while my Mother bellowed at him, “Where have you been all night?” he couldn’t stop laughing! I looked from one parent to another, as teens often do, wondering if their parents had gone mad!
It seems the night before the B’nai Brith Men had one of their annual fundraiser card-party nights in the basement of a member’s home and some of the up-standing/nice/Jewish/synagogue leaders had a bit too much schnapps and the “fundraiser” got too noisy and a neighbor called the police! The most boisterous of the minyan was upset when the cops started to handcuff everyone so he sauntered (?) over to the freezer that was in the basement and pulled out a frozen turkey and threw it at the arresting officer!!
“Daddy, what do you mean you spent the night in jail???”
A dozen of the congregational leaders, all local respected businessmen, were hauled off to the local jail. While handcuffed to one of the more animated policeman, one of my uncles’, who was about 140lbs and five feet five, was seen being pulled up and down off the floor as the man-in-black was waving his arms and expressing his dissatisfaction over the amounts of cash strewn about the poker tables! My Father had an uncanny response at seeing his brother gyrate like a yo-yo and could not stop laughing hysterically which only made the officers load the group into the patty-wagon that much quicker!
During the fateful ride, as my Father continued the story, everyone was talking at once trying to explain to the officers that “This was a fundraising charity event where all the money would go to our organization, no one was gambling for themselves or would pocket any of the proceeds!” Since all the Jewish lawyers were part of the jailbirds, the one phone call was made to the rabbi, who often had middle-of-the-night phone calls but not from the local police asking, “Do you know these guys?” He rushed to the jail upon hearing the names of his most valued Temple members to vouch for their integrity. It was daybreak before the release of the infamous minyan.
The rabbi was the best teacher I have ever had in all my years in school and college. I can still remember direct quotes from our confirmation days; he had drilled so much Jewish history, culture and values into us. I am still friends with all those kids from East LA and at a recent 50-year reunion we could still spout off phrases from our confirmation manual! And as I speak, his daughter is still my closest friend, after 60 years. We all share a history.
But the most important take-away I have of this man is that when I needed him, he was always there, in my face to give the spiritual and emotional support I was crying out for.
His teachings have been a part of my life that has connected me to G-d and I always knew the rabbi would be there in a time of need. And until he passed away, my family and I could count on him.
In 1960, my 32-year-old uncle became very ill and it took months for doctors to diagnose that he had a hole in his heart the size of a quarter and was a candidate for open heart surgery. He had the seventh by-pass surgery in the United States. The doctors told my family, “The operation was a success.”
The day after the surgery, our phone rang at 6:00am. The doctor told my parents and grandparents to get right to the hospital, as my uncle was in distress. I was 13 at the time and my parents had me stay home from school to get my two younger brothers ready for school and wait till they notified me with news. I am sure my parents knew our phone would be ringing off the hook the day after the surgery and having me home would let family and friends know the status. I filtered calls all morning, telling everyone “The doctor said he needed 24 hours to know the surgery results, though, the new-found procedures had worked, but he did call early this morning and asked them to immediately come to the hospital.”
At 9:30 the phone rang again and one of my aunts simply said, “Sandy, I am so sorry to tell you Uncle Miltie passed away a few minutes ago. I will be over soon.” I remember holding the phone, looking at the phone, but not believing what I had heard. It seemed minutes had passed when I heard the door bell ring. I finally hung up the phone and slowly walked to the door, in a bit of a daze.
There, standing in front of me was the rabbi. I felt a shock wave through my body and could only mutter, “What are you doing here?” “I came over to see how Uncle Miltie was doing.” “He just died.” I felt this was my first encounter with G-d, because He knew I needed the rabbi in that moment.
In his Hart Schaffner and Marx suit, the rabbi went running across the street to his house, went in the back door and within seconds came running out to his garage, got into his car and sped down the street. Seconds later, in her bathrobe, the rebbetzin came running to our front door and took me in her arms. We both sobbed. Soon, my aunt arrived and the rebbetzin went home to dress and so she could present herself like the rebbitzin. Both stayed with me the entire day as people and food streamed in and out of our house, till night-fall when my parents came home.
My Mother kept saying in between her tears, “The doctor said the surgery procedure was a success but, unfortunately, the patient had no will to live.” My uncle was going through a devastating divorce and his estranged wife had promised for months to bring his two small children to see him, she would set a day and time and never show. Before the surgery she promised again to let him see the kids but she never kept the promise. He died without having seen his kids for months.
My uncle’s funeral was difficult with hundreds of people attending that included his Boyle Heights school friends and music industry people that he had worked with. At the end of the service, walking down the chapel isle, dressed from head—hat and veil— to toe in all black was his estranged wife who hadn’t seen him in six months and was on the arm of a B class Hollywood actor. My Mother and Bubbe lost it and attempted to charge at her until the rabbi stepped down from the pulpit and quickly escorted the two out. What a scene! The rabbi kept everything in order.
My Mother and Bubbe never seemed to have recovered from my uncle’s death. The look in their eyes was always one of grief and deep sorrow.
The death of my uncle has had an imprint upon me all these years later. The saddest part was that the wife kept my cousins from the entire family, even after my parents financially supported her while my uncle was sick and for a time after his death. She reappeared in our lives 15 years later suddenly wanting the children to know their father’s family, a shock to all of us, as she had changed their names, married and divorced. I was cautious of her true intentions but soon found out she believed the family had money put away for the children and she wanted it. The kids were under 21 and I was leery of what she would do with the money at that time but would be willing to give it to them after the kids were of age and give it directly to them. Our family argued about what to do.
The rabbi helped us to decide to give the little bit of money to them right then, as they probably needed it and he said, “Don’t punish the children for the sins of the parents.”
And then two years later, while our family was still mourning for my uncle, the unimaginable happened. One Sunday night, my parents and I had driven three San Diego AZA friends of mine to the LA bus depot for their return trip home after a weekend conclave. On the ride back home, a few minutes from the bus depot, crossing the 6th Street Bridge over the LA River (a location continually seen as a backdrop to numerous TV shows, movies and most recently American Idol) our car was hit head-on by a drunk driver instantly killing my Mother and Father.
I was thrown from the front seat of the car along with my Mom onto the side-walk. I remember thinking I was dreaming and tried to wake up until I felt my Mother lying right next to me. She cushioned me and saved my life. My Dad was pinned to the steering wheel and in 1962 there were no seat belts or jaws-of-life.
My story of that night and the experience I had at White Memorial Hospital, a Seventh Day Adventist facility, is for another time. I was fully conscious awhile after the crash, spoke with a by-stander and rattled off to the police our name and address, then the rabbi’s, four aunts and uncles and a family friend’s name and phone numbers while repeatedly begging them NOT to go to our house because my brothers were home alone, “PLEASE GO TO THE RABBI’S HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET!” The police DID go to our home and tell my 13 year-old brother there was an accident and the jock that he was, barreled across the street to the rabbi’s house.
The first recognizable face I saw in the emergency room was the rabbi’s. There he was when I needed him, knowing he would spear-head all that had to follow.
The most difficult task the rabbi had was to tell my grandparents. He, the rebbetzin and a doctor, the next morning, went to break the news to my Grandparents. Honestly, I am glad I was not there.
For the past 52 years no words adequately express the horror and shock my dear grandparents, brothers, family and community felt over this tragedy. I have not amply been able to put the feelings and emotions into written words; no rhetoric seems to fulfill the overwhelming enormity of such an experience. There are heart-breaking stories of how people were informed, through middle of the night phone calls, radio and TV reports the next morning, on the second page of the LA Times and word-of-mouth. My parents were the first of their school friends to die.
And I can’t believe that as recently as a couple of years ago at a reunion of family and some high school friends, did I hear for the first time, stories from individuals who were afraid to tell me back then what they and their families went through after hearing about the accident. One of my cousins told me that his mom, my Dad’s sister, sat at her kitchen table for one year almost mute, didn’t cook, didn’t go anywhere, barley took care of her family.
Because I was in the hospital for 17 days, bruised, cracked pelvis bone, concussion but no major injuries, I could not attend my parent’s funeral. That is something I still cannot believe and have heard many, many stories of other’s suffering through that day. Again, only a couple of years ago, a friend told me of another friend who was standing in the chapel with over 700 mourners, and while leaning on a wall, slide down and fainted. It is so beyond difficult to reconcile that I was not at my parent’s funeral.
And of course, the rabbi, strong and a pillar of the community in difficult times, took everyone through a spiritual and sorrowful journey. He visited me in the hospital everyday and after I came home, sat and told me about the eulogy he gave and how much G-d needed my parents. I know my grandparents could never have survived without the rabbi and rebbitzin.
The following Yom Kippur when the rabbi usually gave a plea for funds to maintain the old building that housed our congregation, he proposed a project he and fellow Temple members had worked on for many months. My Mother had been our BBG advisor and my Dad was an officer in the Men’s B’nai Brith so all the different factions of the congregants were asked to contribute to the building for a room in the name of my parent’s that would live-on as a youth lounge. After much fund-raising and time to build, the dedication ceremony to the GREENE ROOM is something I will never forget, especially the plaque that was placed above the doorway, and still remains today, over 50 years later while the lounge still serves the congregation: FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN WE HONOR THE PARENTS.
My rabbi was a foundation for my life. He was his own person and in that, was a lesson. He instilled in me a love of Judaism, its history and culture, a feeling that we are never far from the connection of home and a sense of belonging to something bigger than we could ever understand. And that includes our little shul, in a little community that to this day is huge in its memories and friendships that continue to endure. May his teachings and memories be a blessing for those who loved him.