Friday, April 30, 2010

A Bite Out of the Big Apple?

Word is spreading that Wal-Mart is looking for sites in New York City. The usual suspects—unions, social activists, politicians, all looking to score points with their constituencies and small business owners—are lining up to block the world’s largest retailer from planting a toehold in any of the five boroughs.

It’s a classic fight that has transpired across the country, most notably in Chicago where Wal-Mart has one store and is angling to place another within the city limits. It has scores of them ringing the Windy City.

It’s also a classic tale of elitism. Of out and out snobbery. I’ve said it publicly so I might as well put it in print—there is no difference between the operating practices of Wal-Mart and Target, or most other large scale retailers, with the notable exception of Costco. Only size differentiates them, Wal-Mart being several multiples larger than any other retailer. They pay low wages. They limit medical benefits. They employ far greater women and minorities in their stores compared to the percentage of women and minorities in positions of management, both at store and headquarters levels. Their sizes virtually assure that some managers are bigots or poor adherents to corporate policy, so the inevitable discrimination occurs in hiring and promotion. Because it is the largest company, Wal-Mart is the target (pun intended) of legal challenges. Back in the 1970s, when Sears was top dog, it bore the brunt of most discrimination lawsuits. Such is the burden of being number one. (Full disclosure: my wife has a modest holding of Wal-Mart stock.)

Target is among the largest U.S. corporations, with revenues exceeding $65 billion. Yet Target enjoys a warm and fuzzy reputation with shoppers, particularly the power elite. They lovingly, disarmingly call it “Tar-Zhay” and feel comfortable inside its stores. Their snobbery makes their skin crawl when inside a Wal-Mart.

The impact a Target or Wal-Mart has on a market can be equally devastating. Or exhilarating, depending on your point of view. There’s no doubt any small business that offers the same merchandise but at higher prices runs the risk of being closed down. It’s equally true that many retailers thrive in the shadow of one of the big box stores.

In downtown White Plains, NY, Target and Wal-Mart compete across the street from each other. On any given day, Wal-Mart has considerably more traffic, strong evidence that even in upscale Westchester County there is a solid customer base for a store that promises, and often delivers, savings on life’s necessities.

The current brouhaha over Wal-Mart was first reported in Crain’s New York Business earlier this week. Wal-Mart was said to be a possible tenant in the Gateway II project in the Jamaica Bay area of Brooklyn, a mostly working class neighborhood. Here’s Crain’s original reporting, though I can tell you with certainty that it parallels events and comments throughout the country over the last 20 or more years:

“’We don't like how they treat workers as it relates to salaries and benefits, and we're not going to have them in our community,” says City Councilman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn. “They will have the fight of their lives.”

“United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 is planning a protest in the next week and is already arguing that Related's (the developer) earlier traffic study presented to gain land-use approval did not take into account a Walmart being situated in Gateway II. The union is planning to send canvassers out to the neighborhood to drum up opposition to a potential Walmart.

“’Walmart was never, ever mentioned once through the entire land-use process,” says Pat Purcell, assistant to the president of UFCW Local 1500. “The area cannot sustain a Walmart, a Target and a BJs. In this area, it's a job killer; it's just the wrong use.”’

Twice before Wal-Mart abandoned projects in Queens and Staten Island. I can’t forecast what will happen at Gateway II. But I can predict that unless more large-scale food retailers open more stores in the inner city featuring wide assortments at competitive prices, Wal-Mart will eventually take a big bite out of the Big Apple.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

They're Coming

As a Jew, an American Jew, a Jewish American, I’m always apprehensive. I have that underlying fear, that tension hard-wired into my DNA by centuries of oppression, scapegoating and progroms, that no matter how good life is in the United States, under the surface the stability and safety of my co-religionists are forever at stake.

Though the parallels to Jewish life in pre-Nazi Germany are many—including media power, economic power, intellectual power, political power and the accompanying resentment by many in the population at large because of those power concentrations—we are told that state-sponsored anti-Semitism cannot happen here, that our system of laws with their checks and balances would deny the hate-mongers. But read Linda Greenhouse’s column in today’s NY Times to discover how close we were, and are, to the Supreme Court capitulating to prejudice:

Arizona. So soon after the Texas Board of Education voted to re-write history, Arizona’s legislative and executive actions on illegal immigration frighten me. Politicians abandon long-held beliefs. If a man such as John McCain, revered for his service to his country and for his principled stands, a man who could have become our president, can be buffaloed into selling out basic constitutional rights, it provides a current history lesson on how the Weimar Republic’s president, Paul von Hindenburg, accepted evil incarnate into the German government in 1933.

I am not condoning the influx of illegal aliens, nor any of the abuses any of them perpetrate. But we cannot permit our distaste for this situation to transform us into a police state. As Debra J. White wrote in one of the Letters to the Editor in today’s NY Times, “Immigrants, undocumented and legal, are blamed for crime, unemployment, crowded emergency rooms, pet overpopulation and every other social ill that comes to mind (” Are we to believe these problems would vanish with the banishment or incarceration of illegals? Do these troubling conditions not exist where there are no illegals?

Sadly, our nation’s history is studded with examples of radicalism and bigotry gone amok, from the Ku Klux Klan to Father Charles Coughlin to Joe McCarthy to David Duke to Glen Beck to, yes, even Sarah Palin. Cults of personality cloud too many perceptions, leaving us vulnerable to a step by step loss of our freedoms.

Arizona—and Texas—cannot be considered aberrations anymore. We must all keep in mind the sentiments of this poem by the German pastor Martin Niemöller, and act responsibly:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

Monday, April 26, 2010

French Service

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, we lived an upper middle class life. My brother, sister and I attended private school. We enjoyed eight weeks of summer sleepaway camp. Our father bought a new Buick every five or six years. We accompanied our parents to the theater, opera and the occasional weekend in the Catskills.

But of all the affectations of upper crust living, the one I most remember for its qualitative impression of upward mobility was what our mother called her “French Service,” the practice of placing a decorative cabinet plate at each place setting which was removed before any food was served. She reserved this noble gesture for just a handful of celebratory meals each year, for which she’d bring out from storage 10-inch scalloped plates with idyllic scenes of courtship by the 18th century French painter Fragonard. Here’s a picture of what the plates looked like (the sample is pink, but the plates came in a rainbow of colors):*F%3F&GUID=b2c9d68b1250a0b5833359e3ff833377&itemid=380224731353&ff4=263602_263622

In case you didn’t scroll down, the ebay seller accurately described the plates thusly:

“This beautiful Kuba Porzellan Bavaria Germany cabinet plate measures 10 inches in diameter. The plate features a courting couple in the center with smaller scenes of the courting couple around the border. Each scene around the border is different. The scenes are framed with a gold band that has raised tiny beading. The center scene is bordered with an ornate design in gold with a band of tiny beading below. The center is pink with a gold floral design around the border. The detail on this piece is wonderful. The rim is also trimmed in gold. . . The bottom is marked as shown in the photo and the front is signed Fragonard. A nice piece.”

We have 36 Kuba Porzellan cabinet plates. They haven’t been used since a few years before our mother died in 1996 when she no longer had the stamina or wherewithal to host family get-togethers. Each of her children were to take a dozen plates, but tastes having changed over the years, no one really wanted them. They were a little, okay, more than a little, ostentatious for the type of entertaining any of us did. So they sat in my brother’s basement, waiting for the day one of us would bring a plate to an appraiser and we’d discover untapped inheritance. PBS’ Antiques Roadshow fueled the imagination.

A few weeks ago I took a plate from my brother’s home, determined to discover the truth behind our bequest. A quick Internet search revealed their worth. About $1,000 for all 36 plates. Not an overwhelming find. Especially when one considers the sentimental value behind the plates.

We’ll probably try to sell the plates. No use keeping them boxed in storage. Perhaps they will provide memories for another family.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Off She Goes

The story has moved off the front page, a casualty of the all-consuming news cycle. But the heartbreaking account of an adopted, difficult child shipped back to Russia brought to mind a more comical incident involving one of my friends and his travails in trying to harness the independent spirit of his elder daughter.

After numerous notes home from her teacher reporting bad behavior, the daughter (let’s call her Carol, and her father, Bob, to protect the not so innocent) had achieved the near impossible. She had managed to vex Bob to the point of absurd frustration. He warned her the next note home would bring swift, irreversible judgment—banishment from home. She’d be carted off to the orphanage.

All went well for a few weeks, but seven-year-old girls have a hard time towing the line for too long, so the inevitable letter came home one wintry day. Bob went ballistic. He ordered Carol to put on her winter coat as he was taking her to the orphanage. She refused. She didn’t cry. She just refused to cooperate. Her younger sister did the crying, imploring her father not to take her sister away. No amount of entreaties from Bob’s wife could dampen his anger and resolve.

A war of wills had been joined, with Bob trying to stuff Carol into her coat and Carol resisting. Being bigger, Bob prevailed. He carried Carol to the car as her sister and mother tried to get Bob to be reasonable.

As they were driving away, it dawned on Bob that he had driven himself into a proverbial corner. What was he to do now? A few blocks away, he drove into a church parking lot. Carrying the threat further, Bob got out of the car and came around to Carol’s side. She locked the door. She locked all the doors. His keys still dangling from the ignition switch, Bob demanded she open the door. She shook her head, no. He screamed at her to open the door. No. He told her he was just kidding, that he wasn’t really going to give her way. She stood her ground. He pleaded with her to let him in, that he’d take her home. She won.

I’d like to be able to report that Carol, or Bob, learned their lesson that day. Truth is, they have pushed each other’s buttons for the next three decades. But they have a wonderful, loving relationship. And a great story to pass down through the family.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Little Education

Here’s how you know your decision to get out of the publishing business when you did was fortuitous if not prescient: an article in Monday’s NY Times on People StyleWatch’s success contained these two paragraphs:

“Still, readers spend an average of 93 minutes with the magazine, something of a feat, since it has few long sentences in it.

“The few times we’ve done longer pieces, something on trying a trend that went on for two pages, it just didn’t resonate,” Ms. (Susan) Kaufman, (editor,) said.” (For the full article, here’s the link:

Now, I never equated business to business journalism with fashion or teen magazine publishing. Clearly the two audiences share very little in reader demographics, especially the part about education. And for the record, the marching orders at trade magazines, including the ones I led, included advocacy of shorter articles. Tight copy was expected to meet the busy, time-constrained schedules of our readers. Articles longer than two pages were to be resisted.

But People StyleWatch seems to be taking taciturnity to the extreme, even beyond the standard enunciated by Jeff Goldblum in The Big Chill, who famously said that as a People reporter his articles were to be written short enough to be read in one sitting, if you get my cleaned up drift.

People StyleWatch’s readers are tomorrow’s leaders, and that includes their being mothers. How can we expect to forge the next intelligent generation when the raw material is so lacking?

Who Needs a Degree? On the other hand, if there was ever a reason to question the value of an education, here it is—37% of those who support the Tea Party movement hold a college or postgraduate degree, according to a NY Times/CBS News poll released last week ( Unless those 37% majored in cafeteria, it does not reflect well on our halls of learning.

Wait. I majored in cafeteria. You can get a good education sitting around, schmoozing for eight hours a day. Those 37% probably ate too much while they were in the cafeteria. From the looks and sounds of too many of them, their brains must have morphed into the food they ate.

Please excuse my obvious distaste for people who just want to take without any desire to give back. They want their social security and Medicare, but demand less government. In other words, cut out programs that don’t line their pockets. They cry about wanting to preserve the Constitution, but were silent when Bush acted to deny basic rights not just to enemy combatants but also to U.S. citizens.

My father used to say he welcomed the idea of paying $100,000 in taxes. That would imply that he was making a helluva lot of money and he’d be ever so thankful for the opportunity this country provided him. The same NY Times/CBS News survey revealed that Tea Party supporters are better off than a majority of their fellow Americans, with 56% earning more than $50,000 a year. Only 6% are unemployed. Half are middle class.

It bares repeating—the measure of a country and nation is how it cares for the less fortunate. A society of Tea Partiers would be a sad, self-centered congregation.

Where It Began: Have you been to the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at 97 Orchard Street?

About six years ago I attended a planning meeting there as part of my magazine’s co-sponsorship of a conference on the retail industry’s global labor responsibility. The Tenement Museum presents a fascinating perspective on the life of immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Until recently, my interest in the museum was purely academic, as my parents arrived here in 1921 and 1939 and never lived in the squalid, cramped quarters of the walk-up apartments of the Lower East Side.

But twice in the last two weeks I was informed that my father’s first independent business transpired in the shadows of what is now the Tenement Museum. At 99 Orchard Street he ran a street level store, selling shirts and other clothing. I always wondered why he was so intimately familiar with all the shopkeepers on Orchard Street, one of the first discount meccas in the city. Now I know.

Speaking of Discounts: How would you like to travel back in time? It wouldn’t be too long a trip, just 30-40 years, back to a time when retail stores could not easily and extensively provide discounted brand name merchandise without the manufacturer’s explicit approval.

That in essence is the tip of the iceberg for what is at stake in a battle between Costco and Omega, the Swiss watchmaker. I’m not a lawyer, so I won’t burden you with an interpretation of copyright law which is at the heart of the legal wrangling (

But I can tell you, based on three decades of retail reporting, that retailers and manufacturers have been battling for more than half a century over the availability of brand name merchandise at discounted prices. E.J. Korvettes (no, the name does not stand for eight Korean War veterans) was among the first companies to circumvent restricted manufacturer distribution policies permitted under Fair Trade Laws. The rise of the discount store industry, from Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart, all of which began in 1962, to specialty stores like Toys “R” Us and Best Buy, depended on access to product and the ability to price it according to a retailer’s, not a supplier’s, needs. Most Fair Trade Laws were repealed by 1975.

We live today in a consumer society. Two-thirds of our economy is supported by the goods and services we buy. If Omega is successful, and other manufacturers seek similar restrictions on the distribution and pricing of their products, we may well undermine the foundation of a key part of our nation’s financial stability.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Addressing Gettysburg

Sometimes current events have a way of dovetailing with personal experiences.

Case in point: After a weekend in the nation’s capital visiting my brother and his family, and also spending time with our in-laws celebrating Jim’s retirement from ExxonMobil and the birth of his two grandsons (one of which—Finley—we share), Gilda arranged a two-hour guided car tour of Gettysburg. Over the last half dozen years or more, we’ve often driven by the turning point battlefield of the Civil War, but never took the initiative to stop and contemplate how different our country would be had the South emerged victorious in this decisive engagement.

King Richard III of England was said to have lost the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 “for want of a nail,” the full text of unknown authorship being:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

As described by our able guide, Ray, the Army of Northern Virginia might well have carried the day on the climactic third day of battle (July 3, 1863) if not for some inopportune occurrences during the fog of war. I won’t tip you off as to what they were. I’ll let you read about it elsewhere, or better yet, you can visit Gettysburg on your own. But I do want to point out the coincidence that our time in Gettysburg earlier this week overlapped the dust-up over Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proclamation of April as Confederate History Month. His original pronouncement excluded any mention of slavery as a cause of the Civil War.

I’m not going to pile on my distaste for McDonnell’s reasoning and the evident bigotry of his thinking and the apologists who have rushed to turn the Civil War into a states rights issue and not a human rights issue. Instead, I commend to you an essay by Grace Elizabeth Hale (and reader reaction) from the web site:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Between You and Me

Between you and me, I’ve had it with the Obamas.

It’s not their politics that gets me excited and excitable. Rather, it’s their lack of savoir-faire, their poor role modeling. They may appear elegant, sophisticated, urbane on the surface, but they disappoint upon deeper presentation.

You may recall back on September 21, 2009, I chastised the president for showing off his shins while sitting for an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News ( Presidents may reveal national security secrets if they so choose, but socks are intended to cover up, not expose skin.

Proper sock length for a president extends well beyond the ankle; in this area I found Obama to be lacking in leadership. He appeared to make it acceptable for all future interviewees (and interviewers) of the male gender to flaunt their skinny or flabby ankles. It gives me the willies just to think about this presidential no-no. Since that fateful miscue, Obama has refrained from compounding his fashion faux pas, at least to my discerning eye. Thank heaven for that.

But his wife has taken up the cudgel in insidious fashion to undermine the integrity of the English language. She has perpetuated the casual dismantling of a centuries-old rule of grammar, that the object of a preposition cannot be “I”, it must be “me”, whereas the subject of a sentence can be “I” but never “me”.

For those who might have missed television coverage of Michelle Obama’s surprise visit yesterday with Jill Biden to earthquake–ravaged Haiti, here’s a clip from CBS:;contentBody. You’ll notice early in the footage the first lady speaking at a microphone saying, “...a deeply moving day for Jill and I.”

Ouch! This Princeton University and Harvard Law School educated woman flaunts the rules of grammar. “For” is a preposition—she should have said, “a deeply moving day for Jill and ME.” Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a link that provides more perspective:

You may say lots of people make this mistake. They do. But that doesn’t make it acceptable or correct. I expect more from the First Couple. I want leadership in more than just universal health care, nuclear disarmament, banking regulation, deficit reduction, education reform, equal opportunities for all, climate control, energy initiatives, foreign affairs, nutrition enhancement and a whole host of other presidential concerns. I want the Obamas to look and speak presidential.

We are, after all, living in an age when a pin-up ex-governor and an ex-pin-up model are the darlings of the Republican Party and its Tea Party cohorts. Will the American public reject thoughtful politicians in favor of those willing to pander to their plebian interests? I hope not. But 10 and six years ago we chose a president based on our belief that he’d be a good person to share a beer with, forgetting that he was on the wagon. So anything’s possible, between you and me.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Justice for Clinton

Here's how I see President Obama filling the soon to be vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court:

After weighing the pros and cons of all the candidates, he will nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton.


Having been vetted for her role as secretary of state, Clinton should sail through the confirmation process easier than any other possible replacement being considered for Justice John Paul Stevens. The last thing Obama needs is another grueling, divisive battle. Though Clinton is not universally liked (by either party), she has already received the Senate's seal of approval. It shouldn't be hard to get it again considering that she has no judicial record to come back to haunt her. Not being a judge should not be seen as a negative. There was a time when placing non-judges on the Supreme Court was considered a plus. It's time we revisited that practice.

Placing Clinton on the Supreme Court would remove any possibility of a palace guard revolt to Obama's candidacy in 2012. In addition, though she is older than most of the other strong contenders, Clinton would bring religious and ethnic diversity to a court currently dominated by male Catholics.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fear of Falling

Does anyone know where I can get a large, a reeeeeally large, rubber band? An industrial-sized rubber band, capable of being the launch-pad of a 9-foot slingshot on the border of my front yard, just in case we get attacked by giant Orcs or some other creature from someone’s weird imagination.

Yesterday I traveled to Hartford, leaving home at 10:30 am. By the time I returned at 6:30 pm, the tree that stood inches from my property line in front of our home was halfway down, a tree service truck parked ominously overnight at the curb. This morning the cutters came back to complete the grim task, leaving a 9-foot trunk standing just where the tree Veed off into a perfect wishbone or slingshot form.

The tree was not rotted. It displayed no telltale signs of imminent collapse. It easily weathered last month’s snow, rain and wind storms. But fear of falling has taken over suburbia. The buzz of chain saws has drowned out the music of the song birds of our yard.

Around the corner, a homeowner this week cut down six stately pines that fronted his property. As of this morning, the trunks stood like totem poles, or Greek columns, projecting an image of starkness, however, not beauty.

I know some trimming is inevitable and required. Heck, as long as the tree cutters are next door I have asked them to cut down a dead tree in our side yard and to take 10-15 feet off two of our tall pines that lean a little too precariously toward our house. But the incessant buzzing unsettles me. Now our neighbor has them cutting down another two seemingly healthy trees in his back yard. I want them to stop cutting. It’s hard to rationalize away someone else’s fear. And perhaps I should be thankful he’s being proactive. The trees he’s cutting down might well hit our house if they were to go down in a storm.

The chain sawing has stopped. Now it’s the wood chipper I hear mutilating the afternoon tranquility...

Who needs the New York Times when you have No Socks Needed Anymore to give you earlier and more succinct views and news? Case in point—today’s NY Times Style section has a BIG article on “Eliot Spitzer’s Long, Winding and Slightly Bewildering Road to Redemption.” Read it, if you will, at But, keep in mind that back on February 26, I wrote the following:

Client Nine: Finally got around to viewing the Feb. 19 first episode of the new season of Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. I won’t go into the political discussions (which were entertaining and informative) but I will note that one of his guest panelists was Eliot Spitzer. The disgraced former NY governor is hard on the comeback trail, submitting Op-Ed pieces and making appearances on various programs. He is a formidable commentator. Given all that has transpired in men-behaving-badly mode since Spitzer resigned, he’s looking and sounding a lot less tawdry these days. Still it is hard to ignore the number 9 that seemingly rests on his receding hairline.

Sad Sign: Spitzer is not the only New York politician with an image rehabilitation problem. Here in White Plains our newly elected mayor, Adam Bradley, is in damage control mode. His wife has accused him of physical and mental abuse. The public has been “treated” to some pretty damaging email texts allegedly sent by Mrs. Bradley detailing the alleged misbehavior.

Across the street from the Greek column of trees, a constituent has placed a damningly altered Bradley campaign poster on the front lawn. He’s drawn a circle with a diagonal line through it, the international symbol for “NO.”

Dumbest Sports Comment of the Year (So Far): On the drive home yesterday, I almost lost control of the car when I heard Mike Francesa of WFAN talking with the YES Network’s Kim Jones about the desire of NY Yankees super reliever Mariano Rivera to play center field before he retires. (Rivera is often said to be a naturally great athlete who enjoys shagging fly balls in the outfield during practice.) Rivera is in the last year of his contract and hinted to Jones on Tuesday that this could be his last season as a player.

Saying that his body of work entitled him to have his wish fulfilled for an inning or two of a meaningless game, say “an 8-2 game,” Francesa said he’d put Mariano in the outfield. How dumb could anyone be? Unless it’s the seventh game of the World Series and the score was a more ridiculous 15-2 or something like that, and Rivera had absolutely, positively, irrevocably without doubt or Brett Favre precedent on pain of death stated he was retiring at the end of the Series, the idea of putting him anywhere but on a pitching mound is dumb, dumb, dumb. Athletes get hurt when they play anywhere but the position they trained for. Nothing is routine in a game. When the adrenaline starts flowing, Mariano could leap at the fence and break a wrist, or slide to make a catch and break a wrist as Hideki Matsui did a few years ago. Or he could throw his arm out trying to nail a runner at the plate. Any number of “oh, no” scenarios come to mind. You don’t risk anyone’s career, or the team’s future success, to fulfill a player’s “wish,” even if that player “earned” the opportunity.

Small Victory: I’m proud to report a small victory over one Inanimate Object, a screen door. Rather than spend $65 to $150 to repair or replace the door, I opted to try my hand at self-screening. It took several hours of slow, often interrupted, tedious work, and $11 worth of screening, but the job was done by my own hands. And quite nicely, I might add.

With the money I saved I was able to not bat an eyelash the next day when I called the dentist for an emergency appointment to fix the tooth I broke during breakfast. The dentist thanked me for making his day more interesting than routine cleanings and fillings.

Kiss of Death? The boiler had its annual servicing earlier this week and received an exceptionally sound bill of health. Though at least 28 years old, the boiler could last another 10 years, the serviceman said.

I’ve already started my boiler replacement fund. Contributions appreciatively accepted.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Thou Shalt Not Speed & More Commandments

My friend Ken F. chastised me for a seeming lack of caring for my fellow man (and woman) driver for failing to pass along a USA Today story on the increased risk of getting a speeding ticket because municipalities are looking to make up for lost tax revenues. So here it is:

As Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to say on Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there.”

IO Update: Inanimate Objects (IOs) continue to plague me. Since my report 10 days ago about a replacement car window regulator, replacement water heater regulator and new microwave, here’s the latest damage report:
* Gilda’s hair dryer almost set her hair on fire. An undetected frayed wire started sparking. Luckily, she noticed it before any injury.
* The screen door leading from/to our garage needs a new screen or total replacement.
* Our dishwasher started making strange noises. A call to the repairman is in order. Good thing we have a second dishwasher, installed when we remodeled back in 2001.

Technical Problems: Apparently I’m not the only one done in by an IO. During last night’s Yankees-Red Sox season opener, no sooner had Michael Kay described a new pitch count and pitch speed feature to be shown after each pitch on YES Network baseball broadcasts than it broke down. It was quickly reinstated, but the point was made—technology is not to be trusted, especially when you talk about it.

Extra Commandments: Since I had several days before I had to return The Ten Commandments to the library, I took the time over the weekend to watch the extra features on the DVD, including a voice-over commentary throughout the film by Katherine Orrison, author of Written in Stone: Making Cecil B. DeMille’s Epic, The Ten Commandments.

I often wondered why the Egyptian government cooperated on a film that portrayed their ancestors as the bad guys and the Israelites as the good guys. Keep in mind The Ten Commandments was filmed from 1954 to 1956, that Gamal Abdel Nasser had just deposed King Farouk and was espousing pan-Arab nationalism. The answer, Orrison related, harked back to DeMille’s 1935 movie, The Crusades, and its positive portrayal in Nasser’s eyes of Saladin, the Islamic leader. Nasser effectively gave DeMille the keys to the kingdom, even making the Egyptian army available as extras.

Some other tidbits from Orrison:

* William Boyd was DeMille’s first choice to play Moses. Does the name sound familiar? It should if you were a fan of Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd turned down the part because he was too identified with the cowboy character he portrayed. Charlton Heston was chosen because he resembled the Michelangelo sculpture of Moses. DeMille also wanted Audrey Hepburn to play Nefertiri, but she did not look right in the form-fitting wardrobe and wigs created for the princess/queen of Egypt. So the role of Moses' love interest went to the more curvaceous Anne Baxter.
* DeMille incorporated ancient Egyptian practices as he saw them through the eyes of an American public of the 1950s. Aristocratic Egyptians had shaved heads, to ward off lice. So pharaoh, played first by Sir Cedric Hardwicke and then Yul Brynner, appeared bald, as did the priests. Though Moses was a prince of Egypt, Heston had short-cropped hair because DeMille did not think the public would accept a bald hero. Middle class Egyptians had pencil thin mustaches, but DeMille passed on that affectation. The lower classes wore shoulder length hair.
* DeMille also eschewed the elaborate eye makeup worn by upper class Egyptians. He didn’t think the public cared. The makeup, said Orrison, actually was a form of insect repellent.
* Camels, according to Orrison, were not part of ancient Egypt (some historians believe they were not domesticated until around 1100 BCE, about 100 years after the exodus). Yet DeMille used them in his film because the public had been conditioned to believe camels and Egypt were synonymous. It didn’t hurt that the popular cigarette brand showed a camel in front of a pyramid.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Passover Wonders

How did she do it?

How did my mother, who worked full-time with my father in his business, manage to cook and store food for 20 to 30 people for our annual Passover seders when all she had was an old oven and stovetop and a small International Harvester refrigerator-freezer?

It’s always baffled my brother, sister and me, especially when I see the preparations Gilda makes each year for our seder of equivalent size, the food she cooks in advance and stores in our two fridges with their freezers and our stand-alone freezer.

Our mother no doubt bartered space in neighbors’ kitchens in exchange for portions of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup. I’d be in charge of delivering the goods each year, not one of my favorite chores as I was rather possessive of her handiwork. Her gefilte fish was an exquisite blend of pike, carp and whitefish she personally bought from the fish monger’s truck at the corner of Ocean Avenue and Avenue W, a block and a half from our home in Brooklyn. Simply put, her gefilte fish was to die for.

My sister Lee loved her matzah balls (I was more partial to the kreplach she made for Rosh Hashanah). Each matzah ball was exceptionally soft and fluffy. So it was more than surprising when one year everyone almost broke their teeth, literally almost broke their teeth, on her matzah balls. Without telling anyone, she had hidden a blanched almond inside each sphere. Her unsuspecting family and guests assumed their knedlach would easily melt inside their mouths. The crunch and resistance we all felt made everyone uneasy. Too embarrassed to say anything, we wondered if she had somehow mixed chicken bones into the matzah ball batter. When she finally noticed everyone avoiding finishing their knedlach, she volunteered that she had hidden a “surprise” inside each matzah ball. Enlightened and relieved, we gobbled up the rest, and thereafter joked about it at all subsequent seders.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, we lived in an attached two-story row house. Before I turned 13, we’d hold the seder in the basement. Tables would be arranged in a U-shape. Our immediate family, aunts, uncles and first cousins totaled 18. On top of that came mostly people related to our father by kinship or friendship, swelling our numbers to 25 or more, as many as 40 one year. Uncle Willy, who ran a dry goods store on First Avenue in the East Village in Manhattan, always brought us new clothing for the holiday.

In the 1960s, after the seder moved upstairs, my brother Bernie and I were tasked with rearranging furniture to accommodate a long table run down the center of the living room. We moved the couch and chairs into the dinette. Our father presided at one end. Willy sat a few seats down. Our mother sat at the far end, gossiping with her three sisters. In between, the nine cousins, two more uncles and assorted guests, most of whom could not read Hebrew, and even if they could they would find it hard to follow the melody Dad and Uncle Willy brought with them from Galicia. But that didn’t stop our father from plowing ahead in Hebrew, expecting participation from his Hebrew school-trained children and at least silent devotion from everyone else. He didn’t skip a word in the haggadah. It was an excruciatingly long service, broken up by the not-so-occasional remonstrance from Dad to be quiet. When the noise overwhelmed him, he’d threaten not to continue, which made us all the more fidgety and anxious to get to the midpoint of the haggadah so we could eat.

Food. It always came back to the food. No matter how long the service, no matter how many at the table, the seder hinged on the quality and quantity of the food. Mom piled on the food. Each year she’d make a crown roast, until she traded that signature dish in for rack of lamb. Same meat, different presentation. Almost 25 years ago, it became too much of a burden for her to prepare the seder. We knew it was time to transfer the torch, er, spatula, to the next generation, to Gilda, when there wasn’t enough meat to adequately serve everyone. Because there were no leftovers, Mom thought she had ordered “just enough.” It was one of the first signs she was failing to appreciate reality.

Over the years, the cast-in-stone liturgy of our haggadah has changed as we graduated from the Maxwell House version Dad used to a text assembled by Bernie, then me and now our daughter Ellie. The themes of liberation, equality, emancipation, egalitarianism remain constant, updated to reflect current humanitarian concerns. Constant, too, has been the function of the meal, a celebration of plenty, a symbol our generation are not slaves in Egypt, or shtetl dwellers in eastern Europe, or refugees squeezed into Lower East Side tenements.

I witness how exhausted Gilda is after preparing the seder meal, how taxing it is for her to do this while working full-time, how physical it is even with all the modern day cooking conveniences. And I wonder how our mother was able to do it all. It was, no doubt, another miracle of Biblical proportions.