Archives for posts with tag: Neighbors

RELIGION COMES TO 50th STREET

I grew up in Wynnefield, a tree-lined section of West Philadelphia. Originally settled by William Penn’s physician, Thomas Wynne, it still consists of a variety of housing ranging from row homes to apartment buildings to large single-family homes. Most were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. My family lived on 50th Street, just one block from a row of mansions on Bryn Mawr Avenue. Like them, our house was clad in Pennsylvania fieldstone and surrounded by mature maple and sycamore trees. But its relatively modest three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths made it a comfortable home, not impressive. Its placement atop an incline made it appear larger than it was.

When I was born in 1956, Wynnefield’s population was as Jewish as any shtetl in pre-War Ukraine. A decade older than I, my siblings attended public school, socialized and suffered through religious education almost exclusively with Jews.  In 1963, however, the first house in the neighborhood sold outside “the community.” As though a race had been started by the crack of a pistol, nearly every other house in the neighborhood sported a “For Sale” sign within weeks. My first-grade class picture from 1962 at Gompers Elementary School, which showed three minority students in a class of 20 gave way to a sixth grade photo wherein I was one of five Caucasians.

“White flight” is a pejorative term. Justifiably. It represents the knee-jerk reaction of racists, or people who are not quite racist, but are still fearful of living amidst people of different appearances or backgrounds. The effects on property values, schools and the sense of community are usually negative. Our property value certainly declined. The new neighbors are vilified without even having a chance to offend. Also unsettled are those who don’t move.  My family, due to some combination of enlightened acceptance of others, or inertia (I prefer the former interpretation) stayed put.

*****

We shared our driveway with a family named Rosen who joined the exodus as though Moses himself were leading it. Almost uniquely, however, the family who bought their home was not from outside “the community.” Rather, my parents learned, the buyer was a young rabbi with a wife and two daughters. In terms of joining Wynnefield’s Jewish community, Harry and Esther Cohen were the last people to purchase tickets on the Titanic.

When I learned our new neighbor was a rabbi, I expected a stern, bookish sort of man. I anticipated having to curtail my endless ball playing in the driveway because he would require quiet. I thought he would wear a yarmulke, sport a beard and, perhaps, a long coat. Wrong, wrong and wrong. Harry was tall and slender, with a clean-shaven face and sandy-colored hair. He was young, affable, and a lover of baseball. He often stopped to talk to me while I played ball in our mutual driveway, but never about religion.   We discussed his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the two woebegone teams I followed, the Phillies and the Cubs.

The rabbi’s wife, however, though short in stature, was formidable.  Born in Israel, Esther had served in their army before emigrating. Often, people regard a petite veteran, and say: “Hard to imagine she was a soldier.” Once you’d met Esther, you’d be surprised to learn she hadn’t been the commander in charge. With her nasal, accented voice, she dominated her easygoing husband. “Harry, take out the garbage NOW,” she would say. “Harry, don’t forget to be home by six. I mean it.”

*****

My family was chauvinistically Jewish, never failing to tout our kinship to the range of luminaries from Albert Einstein to Leonard Bernstein to Sandy Koufax. Yet, we didn’t attend religious services. The view of organized religion most commonly espoused by my father approximated that of the author, Ambrose Bierce. To paraphrase, “organized religion is the use of fear and hope to explain the unknowable to the ignorant.” Owing mostly to my father’s viewpoint, I also knew that the word “orthodox,” which I understood had something to do with those who took religion seriously, was often connected with the word “lunatic.” Basically, our religious observance involved celebration of all the major food groups, from beef brisket to cheese blintzes to fruit compote, a practice my family sustains.

Still, I thought because our new neighbor was a rabbi, my father would at least be pleased.   It surprised me when he didn’t accord Rabbi Cohen much respect. Instead, he said the rabbi “talked too much.”  Initially, I assumed the lack of reverence derived from the cleric’s relative youth, his mild southern twang or the related unlikelihood that a man of religion could come from Texas.   The subject of religion confused my seven-year-old self. Nowadays, I simply have a somewhat more detailed incomprehension of how people form and sustain their beliefs. After a year or two, I recognized my father’s lack of respect for Rabbi Cohen was not due solely to his personal attributes so much as to the hitherto unknown (to me) distinction between “reformed” and “conservative.” From overhearing my parents talk, particularly my father, it appeared that somewhere beneath Orthodox Judaism (too much) and Conservative Judaism (about right) was “Reformed Judaism,” representing “too little.” Rabbi Cohen led Beth David, the local reformed congregation.

*****

Civility reigned in our little corner of 50th Street, but not warmth. While the Cohen’s shared the driveway and their kitchen door stood just fifteen feet from ours, we never socialized. Besides his stated distaste for his chattiness, my father’s take on Rabbi Cohen was that he was not a “real” rabbi. Beth David stood in the literal and figurative shadow of the Conservative temple, Har Zion. The latter’s massive building was the long-time anchor of Wynnefield’s Jewish community. My impression growing up was that only presumed beatniks or unserious people belonged to Beth David, housed in a modest, former single-family residence.

“What’s so bad about Beth David?” I asked several times over the years.

“It’s reformed,” said my father.

“So?” I said.

“That’s not a real synagogue,” he said.

We never got farther than that. My father’s antipathy towards Reformed Judaism ran deep and shallow at the same time. He felt strongly about it, but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate why. Though I was too young to press my father, his insistence for “authenticity” rang hollow. It was as though a person with absolutely no interest in baseball passionately hated the designated hitter rule.

*****

My only concerted exposure to our neighbors occurred during my last two years of high school. Their younger daughter enrolled in the Friends’ Academy, the same school I attended; thus, we carpooled every other week. Fortunately, no one paid attention to the arrival of cars at Friends’ Academy as they might have at the entrance to a large public school. As though it weren’t bad enough that my carpool partner was in third grade, Mrs. Cohen delivered me in a powder blue Corvair. I didn’t need Ralph Nadar to tell me that it was unsafe at any speed. It looked funny and smelled funny; I can only hope its fumes didn’t shorten my lifespan in a significant way.

I don’t recall specific discussions with Mrs. Cohen, but I think my parents’ indifference had taken its toll. She made no effort to interact and, being shy myself, the rides were awkward. I sat in the backseat while she tried to communicate with her daughter, an exceptionally silent little girl. After I left home for college, I rarely saw the Cohen’s again except to nod or wave to Esther across the driveway during occasional visits home. If I encountered Harry, we’d cheerfully discuss baseball, at least until his wife rushed him along to work or back inside the house.

*****

When I married at age thirty, we chose to have a rabbi perform the ceremony. I asked my father if I should ask Rabbi Cohen, since he was the only rabbi I knew. “Ecccchhh,” or a sound to that effect, replied my father.  The fact that he didn’t offer an explanation still puzzled me but certainly was consistent. As a result, we enlisted a “Rent-a-Rabbi” closer to where we lived. It’s purely speculation as to what Rabbi Cohen thought about my choice. Perhaps, he felt insulted. Perhaps, he didn’t think about it at all.

In any event, my parents remained neighbors with the Cohen’s for seven more years. By 1994, Har Zion had long since been converted to a Baptist Church and Beth David had become a daycare center. Rabbi Cohen was semi-retired. My father’s death occurred immediately upon moving. My mother asked Rabbi Cohen to lead the funeral service and deliver a eulogy. The rabbi’s performance was dignified and professional. Yet, it may not have been as heart-warming as the audience might have expected from a next-door neighbor of thirty years duration. In a sense, one could call the service “conservative.” In that way, the loquacious rabbi had the final word.

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Don’t Assume

Making assumptions is problematic. A prime example was our next door neighbor where I was raised in West Philadelphia, Villy Leudig. He moved in with his wife, Aily when I was around seven in the early-1960’s; he still lived in the corner house, separated from my parents’ home by only a thin median of grass, when my parents moved away thirty years later.
My first awareness of the then-thirty-something couple was overhearing my father return from greeting them to tell my mother that our new neighbors were Stonians, and probably D.P.’s.
I didn’t know what either of those things were, but I had heard the latter term used by my father to describe occasional customers at his clothing store, and it didn’t seem to be a good thing.
“What’s a Stonian?” I asked my father at dinner that evening.
“Estonian,” he said, emphasizing the ‘E.’ “Our neighbors are from Estonia, a small country north of Germany,” he said.
“Is that a good country?” I asked.
“Well,” he hedged.
My father was usually straightforward in answering my questions, particularly if I showed interest in a business or political sort of subject. His hesitation was intriguing.
“Is it a bad country?” I asked.
“They were not helpful during World War II. The Nazi’s used Estonians as concentration camp guards; they looked perfectly blond, just the way they wanted people to be,” he explained.
I was wide-eyed with alarm.
“Are the new neighbors Nazi’s?” I asked.
“No, no, I’m sure they’re not,” he said. “They seem like nice people. But I think they’re D.P.’s.”
“What’s a D.P.?” I asked.
“A displaced person,” he said. “It means they didn’t have anywhere to go after the war.”
I was still confused, not sure what ‘displaced’ meant. If they had nowhere to go, maybe our new neighbors were bad people.
“Well, how do we know they didn’t work as guards?” I asked.
My father shrugged. “Those murderers melted back into Germany or Poland or went to South America. I don’t think they came to Philadelphia. You’ll be safe.”
He smiled.

I was not entirely satisfied with my father’s assurance. Not an outgoing child, I was reluctant to encounter our new neighbor, but I followed his movements from the safety of my second floor bedroom window. Sure enough, I observed, Villy looked exactly like a concentration camp guard from every World War II movie I’d seen. He was thin and of medium height, with light skin, a blond crew-cut and blue eyes. Aily, too, was a platinum blonde, with hair braided as though she were auditioning for a part in “The Sound of Music.”
During their first week next door, the couple were busy as bees reshaping their yard. While Aily created gardens and planted flowers, Villy undertook a large project to chop down brush and weeds from an area between our houses. He began to build a sitting area, with paving stones, an ornamental wood fence, and a barbecue pit.
Next, he re-tarred his detached garage roof and painted the trim around his house. Never had I seen such a blur of home-improvement activity, especially by a homeowner. Though our neighborhood was not wealthy, it was comfortable, and landscaping and repairs were rarely performed by anyone who wasn’t hired. Villy was the first neighbor I’d seen who cut his own grass.
I finally met Villy after several weeks, because my father said he was going next door on a hot Sunday afternoon (the only day he didn’t work at his store) to examine the on-going projects and offer Villy a cold beer.
“Why don’t you come along?” he said to me.
I didn’t question why my father chose to be sociable but I followed behind him to be introduced.
“Thanks, Lou,” Villy said, accepting the beer, with a vaguely European accent. “Is this, aaaaaaaaahhh, your son?”
“Yes,” said my father, and told him my name. “Say hello to Mr. Leudig,” he said to me.
“You can call me aaaaaaaahhh, Villy,” he said.
I’d never heard someone speak like that, with such a long hesitation. I looked carefully at him, trying to see if any evil lurked behind his kind smile. My father and Villy spoke for several more minutes while Villy showed us his improvements. I couldn’t ignore the speech impediment, but I detected nothing else amiss; Villy seemed like one of the nicest adults I’d met. My father had a new friend unlike any other friend he’d ever had — significantly younger, not Jewish, and not related to the men’s clothing business in any way.
In the next several years, most of what I knew about Villy came from overhearing my parents. I learned Villy and Aily spent most weekends at a home in New Jersey, where my parents assumed they had a large community of Estonian friends and relatives. I learned Villy was a traffic engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Aily was a pharmacist. I didn’t know what a “traffic” engineer was, but any sort of engineer sounded impressive to me. I assumed Villy designed bridges or roads; I assumed his household projects indicated a person of incredible technical know-how.

My childhood fear that Villy might have had something to do with concentration camps disappeared. By the time I went to college, Villy was an important, positive part of our lives. After my father retired in his late-70’s, he waited for Villy to come home from work like a pet waiting for his owner, so that he had a companion to share a drink and conversation. When I came home on school breaks, Villy and I played spirited ping-pong matches in our basement.
Villy offered advice and assistance on home-repair projects, like replacing toilet innards or repairing leaky faucets. Even though these tasks were basic, they were easily beyond the ability of my father or myself. Villy’s early burst of energy on his own house gave way to several curious attributes, namely: he never actually finished a project. Patio paving stones remained stacked up near the barbecue for decades, though the job could probably have been finished in a day; a porch he commenced screening-in within weeks of arrival remained mostly unscreened twenty years later; the garage that Villy had roofed and painted upon arrival became filled not with a car but with stacks of newspapers and boxes, from floor to ceiling. Villy, it turned out, was a hoarder.
We accepted Villy’s quirks in a friendly way because he was otherwise so decent and sympathetic. We learned that a traffic engineer was actually someone who did not construct things, but counted how many cars went past an intersection. Sometimes, Villy sat alone in his city-owned car for eight hours and monitored traffic flow at a stop sign, to determine if the sign needed to be moved a few feet in one direction or another. Still, the lack of professional status we’d assumed for Villy was no impediment to our affection for him.
The problem: when I came home from college or, later, visited my parents from the town where I worked, Villy’s frequent presence puttering in his yard presented a dilemma. Talking with him was torture. He rarely completed a sentence without an “aaaaaaahhh” and any effort to provide the missing word was counter-productive. For instance, if he said: “I’m going to get gas in the aaaaaaahhhh…” and you offered “car” he would begin again as though you hadn’t spoken: “I’m going, aaaaaaahhhh, to get gas in the aaaaaaaahhhh, car.”
I learned not to “assist” him, but there was still a significant disincentive to speak with Villy. He simply couldn’t converse “normally” and, if I had to be somewhere quickly, or just wanted to get inside the house, it was impossible to hasten the conversation. Every time I snuck into my house without saying hello and/or formulated the thought that I had to avoid Villy, I felt like a horrible person.
“How do you talk with Villy?” I asked my father once, when I was in my twenties.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “Plus, I’m never in a hurry.”
That was true. Since his retirement, my father viewed his leisurely conversations with Villy to be enjoyable, the longer the better. Little did my father suspect he was about to have more time with Villy. Late one evening, when I was visiting my parents, our doorbell rang, an extraordinary event. I was upstairs, and heard my mother rush to the door and greet Aily, who was crying hysterically. I couldn’t hear distinctly what they were saying but eventually understood that Villy, in his mid-fifties, had suffered a heart attack. The ambulance had just taken him to the hospital and Aily feared he wouldn’t survive. My mother comforted her at the kitchen table for an hour that seemed endless.

The next morning, my parents visited the hospital with Aily. Villy was stable despite a massive attack, but my parents returned home saddened not just by his physical condition. The vast Estonian community they assumed for the Leudig’s simply did not exist. They learned that Villy’s house in New Jersey was just a small cottage in the woods and, in fact, they knew almost no one there. Without suspecting it, my parents had become the Leudigs’ closest friends.
When Villy was discharged from a rehabilitation center after several weeks, he retired from his job on disability. He was home all day long, which was perfectly okay with my father. Villy, too, seemed satisfied to be finished with the traffic department and, other than his pledge, finally, to quit smoking, he seemed unaffected by his near-calamity.
I asked my father once: “Did you ever find out what Villy did during the war?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve never asked. And he’s never told me.”
Though hard to fathom, this sort of non-communication is not unheard of among men. In any event, I was pleased to know Villy was around. As my father approached eighty, his old friends from the clothing business dwindled due to deteriorating health, their inability to drive or, in many cases, death. Villy was available to talk or walk slowly around the block, or go out to get a sandwich.

When I married, at thirty, Villy and Aily were among the few non-relatives on my parents’ guest list. They drove two hours to the rehearsal dinner and I was happy to see them, though careful not to be cornered one-on-one by Villy. There were simply too many people to greet and details to attend to.
During the course of the meal, various of the sixty or so guests stood to offer toasts. Some were funny, some were sweet, and a couple were a little edgy. But the evening flowed without anxiety for me until, to my amazement, Villy rose from his seat across the room and tapped his glass.
“Oh, my,” I thought. I tapped Katie’s arm beside me and pointed: “Uh-oh,” I said.
For a long moment, after he had the attention of the entire room, Villy was silent. I feared he was frozen in some way that would become more memorable than any other aspect of the delightful event. The room fell completely silent. Another moment passed. Someone dropped a spoon. I heard a cough. Everyone waited expectantly. Only a few knew of his impediment. Several guests shifted in their seats. My heart pounded. Finally, Villy began to speak.
“I’m thrilled to be here this weekend to celebrate the wedding of two wonderful people,” he said, sounding like a professional public speaker. He held up his glass to us. “I’ve known Stuart and his family for over twenty years and consider them to be dear friends. I’ve battled Stuart in ping-pong and suffered with him over the Phillies. I’ve seen him grow up and go to college and become a lawyer and a man and I have just this to say: when Stuart and Katie slide down the bannister of life, may all the splinters be pointed in the right direction.”
With that, Villy concluded his toast amidst boisterous laughter and waved to us with a broad smile. All my fears were for naught. My negative assumption was wrong. I’m not sure who was more relieved and appreciative, me or him, but Villy had absolutely NAILED his toast.


CONSISTENCY

Jimmy was our teenaged neighbor when we were freshly married and living in northern New Jersey.  Unlike the typical high school students in our high-achieving town, Jimmy was not fixated on attending an Ivy League college and in obtaining the BMW that was certain to follow.  Rather, he was interested in auto maintenance and handyman tasks.  This desire was useful, since his parents’ collection of aged hatchbacks required the former, and our semi-renovated Victorian house required the latter.

When Jimmy was not peering under the hood of a car whose color was unknown to nature, he was in our house destroying old plaster walls and discovering new sources of seepage.  He worked deliberately but charged so little that it never occurred to me to complain.  Jimmy was a quiet perfectionist.

Jimmy’s parents were devout church-goers but his Dad truly sought salvation in the performance of his favorite football team.  His mother found excitement and happiness in her garden.   Besides odd jobs, surprisingly, Jimmy’s passionate interest was in fundamentalist Catholic theology.  To that end, for a couple of years after graduating from high school, he sported hair and a beard like Jesus’s.   He saved his earnings from repair jobs and a part-time position at an auto body shop to visit sites in Europe where minor miracles (as opposed to the big splashy ones, like the parting of the Red Sea) had taken place.

Jimmy’s eyes misted over when he described a shack in Poland or Romania where thorns had reportedly turned to flowers or water had turned to wine, or some similar cause for skepticism on my part.  Each place was named for an obscure saint with a previously unheard of name.  Jimmy’s absolute sincerity precluded overt ridicule; one had to respect his fervor.

When my office required construction of a wall, we called Jimmy.  When our basement needed painting, we called Jimmy.  Even though he finally entered Rutgers on what was to become a leisurely, seven year journey, Jimmy remained available to complete an assortment of household projects.

The primary personal characteristic of Jimmy, who, around age twenty-seven, became known as “Jim,” was a sense of indecisive acceptance.  “Yeah, well, you know.…” he would say regarding almost anything.  Faced with disagreement, he would say:  “Yeah, sure, I guess.”  Responding to a question, he would answer, “Well, maybe, I suppose.”  Despite his extreme passivity, we sensed there to be acute intelligence somewhere deep inside.  Jim was unfailingly patient and kind; he designed and built a soaring tree house for our children with leftover wood, and then refused payment for the work.

After he graduated from Rutgers, Jim found work as a mechanic for a trucking firm and moved to an apartment closer to work.   One day, I saw him arrive to visit his parents and I rushed to greet him before he went inside.

“How’s the job?” I asked.

“Well, you know,” he replied.

“Is it interesting?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You should consider design school or architecture,” I stated, with conviction.  “That tree house is amazing.  You have a special talent.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Never really thought about it,” he replied.

“Great to see you,” I said.

Jim took a moment to reply.  He seemed to be pondering what I had said earlier.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, trailing off, more distracted than usual.  Then he brightened, and his voice caught with emotion:  “I’m going to Bulgaria next week to see where Saint (Unpronounceable) prevented a flood by reversing a river.”

“That’s great, Jim,” I said, trying hard to sound sincere.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to be a saint?” he asked.

I shook my head.  “I definitely cannot.”

I was gratified, several months later, when Jim’s mother told me he was starting architecture school.  I thought I might have made an impact.  Shortly thereafter, we moved to a different town and lost touch with Jim and his family, except for annual holiday cards.

Several years later, we were having a vacation house constructed in Costa Rica.  Our builder was confident that he could obtain all the necessary permits with the plans he drew up himself, but he was surprised to find out he needed a sealed and certified architect’s plan for the complicated roof line.

“It’s urgent,” he said.  “I’m so sorry for this short notice.  I’m afraid that if I do not have an official plan to present when the inspector comes out next week, he will not be in the region again for months.  The whole project will be held up.  Do you know any architects?”

We did not know any architects, we thought, at first, then remembered Jim.  Sure enough, his parents told us that, at age thirty-five, he had recently become a fully licensed architect.  He worked at a small firm in south Jersey and, they were sure he would be delighted to supplement his meager income with a moonlighting assignment.

“After all,” said his dad, “a roof system for a whole house is more exciting than the baseboards and mantel pieces they have him working on now.”

“Do you have an e-mail address for him?” I asked.

“He hasn’t gotten around to that, yet,” said his mother.  “But here is his phone number.”

Like his dad, I thought Jim would be excited to create drawings for a vacation home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  I was surprised it required several messages before he called back.

“Hi, yeah, I heard about the house,” he said.  “I guess I could draw up something.”

“Jim, the floor plan is already done,” I explained.  “We need a roof system drawn up, but we only have a few days.  Can you do it?  You can be creative, like with the tree house.”

“Okay, I guess…. I suppose,” he said.

Jim agreed to come up and meet with us the next day.  We spread out the floor plan on the dining room table and provided photographs of the mountainside lot and its views of the Pacific Ocean.  We waited in vain for some reaction as Jim stared impassively.  He started to speak and stopped several times:  “…this room, uhhhh… hmmmmm, yeah, okay, hmmmmm….”

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, after a long pause.  “I guess, ummm, this will work out.”

After another hour of similar hemming and hawing, Jim said he would produce a plan in a day or two.  He asked if he could charge $50 an hour and said he could finish in just six or seven hours.

“Jim,” I said.  “This would have cost us a minimum fee of $5,000 with an architectural firm.  I won’t pay you less than $1,000, no matter what.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

I could not resist asking Jim a question before he left:  “Do you enjoy being an architect?”

“I suppose,” he said.

“Do you remember when I suggested you consider it?”

He looked perplexed.

“Hunh?” he replied.

I dropped the subject.   Jim justified our faith by producing a series of precise and interesting drawings and calculations in just two days.  We e-mailed them to our builder who pronounced them excellent.  Our architectural crisis was averted.   Jim needed weeks of prodding but he finally forwarded an invoice, his #001, for $1,000.

We forwarded early photographs of the construction to Jim since we thought he would find them exciting or, at least, interesting.  We did not hear from him.  When the roof finally went on and his job #001 was actualized, we mailed him color photographs and a note thanking him for his help.  Again, we did not hear from him.  Afraid that we did not have the right mailing address, we called Jim.

“Did you receive the pictures?”

“Oh, yeah, I got them.  Thanks,” he said.

“The house looks stunning, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess.  It looks pretty good, I suppose.”

We hung up feeling vaguely unfulfilled.  Perhaps, we wanted to pierce his wall of seeming indifference.  Perhaps, we wanted to hear an architect enthuse about our house.  Perhaps, we wanted Jim to express just one iota of wonder at his own, earthly accomplishment.

Upon reflection, we had to conclude that Jim’s outlook and behavior is not ours to change.  It is hard enough to influence immediate family members; how could we presume to influence what excites a mere friendly acquaintance?  Finally, who knows?   If consistency is a sacred virtue, Jim might well be a saint someday.