Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cadillacs, Suits and Sweet Honey Pastries

Dov couldn’t even pretend that he was sad about leaving behind his life in the tiny village of B’nai Bor. He was going to live in NEW YORK CITY! New York City people. Do you have any idea what a big deal that is? Exciting things would happen every single second of every single day and what’s more is that his father was going to be a millionaire, which meant that he would get a hot car, a convertible probably because that’s what Americans drove, and Dov’s mother wouldn’t have to work ever again. She could just stay home and make briskets and sponge cakes and choose new window treatments.

Back in B’nai Bor the Elis didn’t even have an oven. Nobody did. There was a gigantic communal oven in the middle of the town – a wood oven, and everyone brought their things that needed to be baked and baked them in there together. Baking was a gigantic luxury in Israel. Remember this was back in the days when they were just building the country out of a bunch of sand and tents in the middle of the desert and whenever they tried to build something someone was bound to come along and blow it up. This explains why they didn’t install many gas lines for ovens. Plus it was just way too hot to have ovens in the cramped apartment buildings in which most people lived communally anyway. Dov’s mother hardly ever baked anything in the village oven except for the cholent she assembled every Friday afternoon and cooked in the oven until Saturday afternoon when they took it out and ate it. Everyone in B’nai Bor did this because they were forbidden to cook on the Sabbath and the communal oven provided them a little loophole which allowed them to still have a hot meal on their day of rest. Dov thought the whole thing was ridiculous and primitive and couldn’t wait to go to New York City where they could have an actual oven like real people who lived in the 20th century.

Uncle Mendel and Aunt Sharona had an oven. They moved just before Rosh Hashanah and after a month their letters arrived weekly and the entire Eli family read them with rapt interest. America sounded far more like the Promised Land than Israel. Jews could live there without fear of being shot, kidnapped or bombed. Everyone and anyone who wanted could be a millionaire if they worked hard enough and there were houses with yards and fences and basements that real people could afford to buy and live in with lots of room for their families (remember this is the 60s we’re talking about, it’s not the same anymore, I know). Uncle Mendel remarked of delicatessens where slab after slab of sturgeon and salmon sat piled, glistening with rich fat, under glass cases. Mendel had never seen such cakes as they had in New York and gigantic bowls filled with nothing but cream cheese to spread on soft, chewy bagels that you could buy at any time of day or night. Imagine, you want a bagel, a slice of chocolate cake, corned beef – anything – and it’s three in the morning. In New York you can get it. In America whatever you want – you can get it.

At first the Elis just read the letters for entertainment. They were excited to hear about things like gigantic bowls of cream cheese, because such things were impossible where they lived and it was funny to try to picture it. What would someone do with a gigantic bowl of cream cheese? But soon, Cantor and Mrs. Eli, about to give birth any second, began to whisper and speculate as they lay in bed at night listening to distant gunfire. What if they too could move to a place where Dov and Esther and the new baby could have a chance for a successful life where wealth was possible and violence nothing more than an abstract concept; some thing you read about in the papers that happened in far off countries. Maybe they could go to America too. If Cantor Eli got a job there, started a business maybe, they wouldn’t have to live off the spare charity of a poor village. Cantors are clergy, second to Rabbis. Traditionally the community supports the Cantor and his family as they do a Rabbi. If the Cantor lands a job in a wealthy community he lives well. If he lives in a poor, and often more religious town, he has to scrape by and try to supplement his income in any way that he can. Cantor Eli didn’t want to rely on offerings anymore. He wanted to be a big business man. In America.

The Cantor thought Hashem himself had heard and answered his prayers when his brother in law Mendel called unexpectedly one night to say he learned of an opportunity which the Cantor would be foolish to pass up. A Syrian Jew named Zahid Beshir came to Mendel to purchase a three carat, nearly flawless diamond as a wedding gift to his fourth wife, along with three sapphire rings for wives one, two and three which would serve as consolation prizes. Yes, Zahid Beshir was married to four women at once. Legally, he was only married to the first wife, as polygamy was illegal in the US. Spiritually, or religiously or psychotically, Zahid was married to the other three women and lived in a gigantic house in New Jersey as man and four wives with all of them and their eleven collective children. It was like A Sephardic version of Big Love.

From what I hear and I’m sure this has all changed significantly since the 60s, Syrians were the Mormons of Judaism. They used to allow polygamy. They encouraged it even. They don’t anymore, but I’ll bet there are still some renegades with visions of harem girls, who still try to pull it off. I have a feeling that Zahid Beshir was just trying to show off, because he was a very bombastic sort of individual. Uncle Mendel admired his sharkskin suits and jeweled rings on seven fingers. When Zahid Beshir purchased the stones from Uncle Mendel, he graciously invited him to his big gigantic house in New Jersey.

“You never saw a house like this.” Uncle Mendel wrote after visiting, “Not a house. This man lives in a castle. In the States you can buy a castle and you don’t have to be a king. Mr. Beshir’s home is like nothing I ever saw.”

Uncle Mendel described balconies and balustrades, curved staircases, gold veined marble and stained glass windows. They sat on antique Persian rugs and shared a hookah. The four wives, the youngest of whom was fourteen, fed them grapes and dates and sticky, sugary pastries flavored with rosewater and pistachios before pouring mint tea from ornate silver tea pots with long spouts and pearl handles. “You never saw a woman wear so much jewelry!!” Uncle Mendel scribbled excitedly.

In between bites of fruit paste and Turkish Delight, Zahid Beshir, whom Mendel now believed to be his best friend, because why else would a man like this invite him to his home to be fed and pampered by his four wives, asked him a fateful question.

“You have relatives in Israel, no?” asked Zahid Beshir.

Of course Mendel had relatives in Israel. He had no one in America.

“I’m starting new business. Import/ Export. I have hundreds of customers, finest shops and boutiques in the city waiting and have no one to work. I can bring your relatives here to work and give them a percentage of the business. I am busy, busy man. There is no time for running stores and managing workers. I need smart men, smart men like you Mendel, to do the business for me, but you have business already. I think to myself, a smart man like Mendel has a brother maybe? Maybe a brother who can run my business, another Jew, someone I can trust. Must have someone I can trust. Too many thieves in America. Don’t know who to trust.” Said Zahid Beshir.

Third wife wiped a droplet of honey from her husband’s lips. Fourth wife admired her gargantuan new diamond ring, which cast prisms over the room when the candle light hit it at certain angles. It dazzled Mendel. Second wife fed him another pastry.

“I have a sister in Israel. My brother in law is a Cantor. He is a very smart man. Escaped the Germans in Hungary and then came back to smuggle people into Israel. You don’t know how many lives my brother in law saved and now he has devoted his life to God. He is a good man, but poor. He talks all the time about wanting to start a business. He wants to be rich. He wants to send his son to a good Yeshiva.” Mendel told him.

Zahid Beshir was interested.

“Ahhh. I know the head of the finest Yeshiva in New York. We can get your nephew in. I can bring your family here. I can pay all expenses for them to come. There may be problems at Immigration, but I have connection. I can get it done. Please, telephone your brother in law and tell him. You will use my phone. First Wife!! Bring the telephone!!”

First wife dragged the telephone, cord and all from a crystal table across the room. Mendel didn’t know what to do. It was one ‘o’ clock in the morning in Israel, and his brother in law didn’t have a telephone. The apartment building had one phone that everyone shared. The fact that Zahid Beshir had a phone in his house, on a crystal table, with a cord that could be dragged across the room, along with the fact that this extraordinarily wealthy man was willing to make an overseas phone call from his own phone to call Mendel’s brother in law, was too much to take in all at once.

Mendel called the operator who tried to connect the call. It took three times and an elderly woman on the first floor answered. She could barely hear. Between the staticky line and her deafness, it took several attempts to get her to understand that she needed to go get Cantor Eli. All Mendel could think about was how much this call must be costing Mr. Beshir and how that must mean that Mr. Beshir really, really wanted his brother in law to come to America. How wonderful would that be, Mendel thought. They could all be together living safely in the United States making more money than they ever imagined possible.

Cantor Eli thought someone died, and came to the phone in a panic.

“I have an offer from a very wealthy business man. He wants YOU, brother in law, YOU to come with your family to run his business in America!!” Mendel exclaimed, his voice shaking with happiness and anticipation.

Zahid Beshir grabbed the receiver and passionately described the wonderful opportunity. He threw out numbers, figures and names that sounded prestigious and American. He talked about Park Avenue, penthouses and Cadillacs and an expensive hat store for his wife. Send her measurements and Zahid Beshir will have a hat and a suit sent for her. She can not come to America without fine attire. Zahid Beshir offered to have a suit made for the Cantor as well. Working as a big business man, the Cantor would need a tailored suit as well.

The three men talked for almost a half hour. Mendel couldn’t stop thinking about how many dollars Mr. Beshir spent on this phone call, and all to help his family! Many things needed to be arranged. It would take a few months but Mr. Beshir had connections and he would make sure the right people in the highest places got everything done quickly so the Elis could come as soon as possible and start making money.

“You make money fast, I make money fast. Everybody make money fast!! Then we go to Mendel to buy more big diamonds!” Beshir declared, panting and salivating at the tantalizing prospect of wealth and abundance for everyone.

Cantor Eli hung up the phone, dizzy, confused and overjoyed. Never before in his life had Hashem answered a prayer that quickly, because at the very second the old lady from downstairs knocked at the door with news of a phone call, the Cantor had been praying for money to make Dov’s Bar Mitzvah the finest in the history of B’nai Bor. Then he prayed that the new baby would be a healthy son and finally he prayed for a chance to give his family a big house with a yard where all the children could play. And Hashem heard him. Finally, God rewarded the Cantor’s lifetime of good deeds.

He woke his sleeping wife.

“Ruthie my love, my dear, wake up!! We’re going to be rich! We will have a big house. We never need to worry about money again. A beautiful suit is coming from America for you – with a new hat!! Take all of our savings, all of it, and spend it on Dov’s Bar Mitzvah because you will have more money than you ever dreamed possible in just a few months. Order the duck a l’orange my love. Let’s show B’nai Bor the biggest Bar Mitzvah they ever saw! A huge celebration!! We’ll keep it a secret. I’ll announce it at the party. Don’t tell anyone, my love. We’re moving to America!”


jeff said...

A Sephardic harem... yep. I wonder if they all took him to the cleaners, including the 14 year old, after "No Fault" divorces became the thing in the 70s....

amy said...

Wow. I'm really nervous for Dov's dad... something about this seems really fishy!

Michelle said...

Something isn't kosher about this, I just know it. Tell us more, more, more!

A Margarita said...

Yup, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Excellent story. You build suspense. I'm always holding my breath.

NicoleinAZ said...

Oh dear heavens, I can't wait...MORE MORE MORE!!!!

We KNOW there is drama here, nothing is that easy.

SB said...

Aiie, SW, I'm biting my nails here!!!!!! So you could maybe write some http://and not keep us on tenterhooks?

Anonymous said...

WOW you are a great writer i loved your wide lawns stories but these are so much better i can't wait for more.

tazzie said...

Wow, I think all that fish in those casese went sour. Because, something sure smells fishy!!

Charlotte said...

There's something shady about the guy with four wives...I can't wait to find out what it is! This blog is better than a soap opera!

Anonymous said...


You are killing me.

I'd put this on the book jacket "A natural story teller, taking fact and laying it out better than any fiction mystery/drama."

: )


JDogg said...

And how the story keeps coming...YOu had best keep the juicy parts for the book!

booda baby said...

uh-oh. You left a good smoking gun on the table.

Which suddenly doesn't make sense to me. What does that MEAN?!

Oh well. It's early.

Zizikos said...

^ NOT!

MP said...

MAN!! At least you didn't wait until Friday this week.
I can see it on the big screen..after it's becomes a NY Bestseller.
What an odd pair these two make, I can't wait til they meet!

Sarah S. said...

Your writing has such charm and wit about it - I love reading your stories.

Fantastic, absolutely fantastic.

Subservient No More said...

MP, from your mouth to Hashem's ears. That's God for you gentiles, by the way.

This is what I have planned. I could totally see it as a movie. I want Drew Barrymore to play Sissy and Adrian Grenier to play Dov.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog for some time now and loving it more and more all the time. I sure hope you save some good stuff for your book. You are planning on writing a book right? I would buy it in a heartbeat.

Tom H said...

Could you please, please, please go back to describing your real (more or less) working life. I used to get a kick out of it.

This blog has gone the same way as Mimi in New York, Clublife, Hog on Ice and others. Once you've left the funny, amusing, poignant, scary or crazy things that (more or less) really happened to you, it's just not that enthralling. You see, we get a kick out of seeing a different kind of life for a while. Your blog & the others I mentioned, gave us a sort of "Being John Malkovitch" moment, a quick peek at how someone else lives their life. Now you're all just wanna be authors. YAWN.

Fiction? I've got fiction coming out of my eyeballs. I can read fiction anyday. But being a subservient worker dealing with rich arseholes? or a bouncer? or a stripper? I've never done that & probably never will. It was the "slice of life" that made the blogs interesting. Take away that slice & you take away the interest.

Sorry to come across like a mean arsehole, but I'm just telling you what I think.

Subservient No More said...

Sorry Tom H. You can't please everyone. No matter what you do half the people will love it and the other half will hate it.

I didn't enjoy what I was writing before. It was too easy and it wasn't making the world a better place at all. I want my writing to be entertaining and inspiring and I didn't feel what I wrote before was my highest calling. I felt like I was becoming what I hated. Plus, I just wasn't growing as a writer at all.

I was born a wanna be author. I'm in an MFA program for Gods sakes. I've always said that I wrote fiction, so fiction is nothing new.

The most ironic thing is that what I've been writing now - it's true. This is the story of my family, which is far more outrageous than anything I've ever written before now. Dov is my dad. Sissy is my mom. This stuff really happened.

I don't know how much more of an unusual slice of life you want. We have immigrants, con men, drug dealers, religious fanatics and you're about to have a lot of violence and some murders.

I know everyone says their family is crazy. Yeah, all families may be crazy but you didn't have four parents two of which were convicted felons and the other two of which were Baptist missionaries. You didn't (I hope) move 29 times and go to 8 high schools. Your sister isn't actually your aunt, no one dropped off an abused black child at your house for you to take care of and most of all - you didn't have a monkey. At one point, we actually had 3 monkeys.

So I want to write about that. Half of you will like it and the other half won't. Thanks to the one half for sticking around and encouraging me.

The other half - sorry. Go, be well and just read something else. There are many other great things to read on the Internet.

I think my writing appeals more to women anyway and that's why you, Tom H., don't like these stories as much.

And if I really wrote about an actual slice of my real life you all would be as bored as I am.

Want a sample? Here.

The other day I got up and took a shower and the cat threw up grass on the floor. Then I drove a very long distance, hoping it would rain and I sat in a class with a bunch of feminists who hate the entire world and listened to them argue for 3 hours. Then I went to dinner with my friend and had a burrito. When I came home I watched Top Chef and Ghost Hunters and there were some dirty dishes that I cleaned up and then I had to feed the cat I thought the AC was too cold. My husband read me some of The Tipping Point before I went to bed and then I was scared because of Ghost Hunters and then my in laws called and we talked to them for a while and then I realized I was going to bed too late. I also had acid reflux and threw up in my mouth, which reminded me to take a Nexium. When I brushed my teeth I realized I needed more toothpaste. Finally, I went to bed.

See, totally boring and also a bit disgusting. You don't want a slice of my life. Trust me.

Zu said...

I can't really grasp Tom H's POV. Yes, I loved your old blogging, but damn - The new and improved stuff is just incredible. Your life has been fascinating and I am on pins and needles waiting to see just how bad its going to be for your Dad's family. This rich guy seems like a complete con artist. I won't say what I think is going to happen, because if I'm right(not likely), I don't want to spoil anything.

Don't let the Toms of the world get you down!

The Cleaning Lady said...

I think mr "pay the way" is setting up Dov's family for indentured servitude...or slavery, if you will.
sad, but even today, it still happens.
enjoying the unfolding of your story.

amy said...

Hey Subservient No More, I am looooving the new direction you're taking with this blog!

I really loved the Wide Lawns stories, but you're right - your life is way more interesting, and those stories all were basically the same anyway (ie: rich assholes doing asshole things).

If I were you, I'd just totally ignore the haters. What I don't get are people who come and read stranger's blogs and then complain about them. I mean, how does that make sense? It doesn't. It's stupid.

Carry on, carry on!

Jen & Rob said...

oy. I'm loving this stuff! I've been checking multiple times a day, hoping for a new installment.

I can not wait to read more....more please MORRREEEEE.

miss tango in her eyes said...

I smell foul lox!

ADW said...

I lurve, lurve your new style. I have to say I was a little sad at 1st, but not any longer. Now I keep checking for more stories and I have to say that I can totally see you as a professional author.

Next installment - puh-leaze

Dave said...

sounds like the begining of a modern day Isaac Beshevis Singer story! Give it a twisty mystical ending!

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