Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Whose History Is This, Anyway?

One of the reasons I write this blog is to provide a written record of my family’s history for my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Of course, these are my memories. It’s been said, history is written by the victors. In today’s world, history, at least family history, is written by the blogger.

But that doesn’t mean my family always agrees with my recall. My sister Lee insists our father disdained tomatoes for many years until he was offered one by a kindly customer on his stationery sales route outside Danzig, Poland. He had resisted tomatoes, she said, because that’s what he ate almost daily in his small hometown of Ottynia. 

Rubbish, say my brother Bernie and I. How credible would it have been to have caches of tomatoes to eat in the dead of winter in a shtetl in Galicia where indoor plumbing was scarce and paved roads were an anomaly? We think she confused tomatoes with potatoes, a staple of the peasants and townfolk who lived through brutal winters and hot summers. 

Lee also maintains our father liked ham during his years in Danzig. News to Bernie and me. In the 50 years I knew him, Dad never ate any meat or fish that was not from a kosher animal (though it might not have been slaughtered according to Jewish custom). Never did I hear him ever talk about eating ham. Bernie agrees.

Bernie believes our Hebrew elementary school Lag Ba’Omer trips were to a park on Staten Island. He forgets the Verrazano Bridge linking Brooklyn to Staten Island opened in 1964, six years after he graduated Yeshiva Rambam, four years after Lee did and two years after I. There’s no way the school bus trip of several hundred students and parents took the ferry across the Narrows. No, we went to Cunningham Park in Queens.

Lee is of the opinion we all attended Rambam because Bernie was encouraged to do so by a teacher he had at the Talmud Torah affiliated with our parents’ synagogue. That teacher, she says, also taught at Rambam. Bernie agrees he was influenced by the teacher but he was not affiliated with Rambam. Eight-year-old Bernie wanted to attend the yeshiva but his Hebrew skills were not up to snuff. Indeed, the school’s Hebrew principal, Isadore Lefkowitz, tried to talk him out of it, telling him he’d have to give up most of his summer vacation in exchange for intensive tutoring. Bernie enthusiastically agreed. I just heard this story a week or so ago. I am still stunned by his response.

I’ve written several times about Mel Brooks’ penchant for making fun of my given name during his 2,000-year-old-man routines with Carl Reiner. Turns out, my brother was singled out, as well. Here’s dialogue from a 1966 appearance on The Andy Williams Show:

Reiner: Of all the discoveries of all time, what was the greatest—the wheel, the lever, fire?

Brooks: Fire. Far and away, fire. It was the hottest thing going. You can’t beat fire. It used to warm us, it used to light up our caves so you wouldn’t walk into the wall, so we wouldn’t marry our brother Bernie.

Yeah. For once he didn’t say “marry our brother, Murray.” Brooks actually had a brother Bernie, as well as a brother Irving and Lenny. Why he couldn’t stick with those names instead of introducing Murray into many of his routines is a burden I’ll have to bear all my life. 

Speaking of exercise, it’s one of Gilda’s and my recurring disagreements, my lack of interest in physical activity other than team sports. Now, a new study suggests I can blame my parents. Here’s how The NY Times positioned the findings: “A study on rats suggests that portions of the brain that control reward behavior may play a role in the decision to work out or to remain on the couch. If you give a rat a running wheel and it decides not to use it, are genes to blame? And if so, what does that tell us about why many people skip exercise?” (

Gilda and I recently visited my sister in Los Angeles. A problem with visiting relatives is it feeds my hypochondria. Lee wears a night guard because she grinds her teeth. So do I, meaning, I grind my teeth and wear a night guard, as well. Over dinner one night I found out one of our cousins on our mother’s side suffers from gout, as does one of Lee’s children. When I said my toes sometimes hurt, Gilda chided me for thinking I, too, had gout. 

One of Gilda’s missions in life is to cure my hypochondria, or at least puncture some of my more outrageous self-diagnoses. She also is there to expose my indiscretions and correct my mistakes. She’s pretty good at those last two, still has lots of work to do on the first. 

I guess that’s enough Forseter family history for one day. I’ll close with a short comment from the opening of a eulogy our friend Barbara delivered last week for her father who died at the age of 87. The last few years of his life he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. 

Barbara related how at the recent graduation of her daughter Alexandra from Brandeis University, one of the speakers from the Sociology department asked how well the students knew their parents’ life stories. Her father, Barbara said, rarely talked about his early life. My parents, as well, left many of their early years blank in my mind. Through this blog I hope to leave the next generation a more complete picture of our history, even if it is filtered through my imperfect memory. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lox vs. Locks and Tuesday Movies Go Dark

Your faithful correspondent and his wife returned home shortly after 3 am today from a week-long trip to California, first to visit my sister Lee and her husband David in Los Angeles and then to attend a wedding in Laguna Beach where the weather couldn’t have been better—the whole weekend a balmy 71 degrees with a slight ocean breeze. That compares quite favorably to the mid 80s and high humidity in White Plains today.

My only complaint about the trip was I never got an opportunity to watch any episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. Here’s an example of why I miss those two shows:

When you’re a Jewish comedian as Stewart is, you run the risk of telling an “inside” joke your gentile guest has no idea you’re making. During his interview with actress Ellen Page Monday night, Stewart couldn’t contain his positive feelings about Canada, especially Halifax, Nova Scotia, Page’s home town. He concluded his gushing by saying, “and by the way, the lox that they make ...” To which Page immediately responded, “I know, you can’t break the locks.”

I laughed at Stewart’s ethnic culinary joke and even harder at Page’s non sequitur response. To his credit, Stewart didn’t flinch. Though he tried to salvage the joke, the conversation quickly moved to another topic. No doubt, when he reviewed the tape of the show he mused and was bemused by the shmeared exchange.

It’s Tuesday Free Movie Day: Only until the end of May. My fellow senior citizens and I have been dealt a cruel blow. In the same week The NY Times came out with its summer movies preview section, we received notice that free Tuesdays and discounted-films-all-other-times at Clearview Cinemas we qualify for as part of our Cablevision Optimum Triple Play package will terminate by the end of the month. 

Cablevision has sold Clearview Cinemas. Until the company follows through on a promise of new movie deals, this will be a looong summer. Not just for me but for many seniors who took advantage of the free movies on Tuesdays. The promotion was not restricted to those in the sunset years, but we have been the major beneficiaries of the benefit. With everyone trying to stretch their bucks as far as they can, the free movie deal was a real bonanza. Consider this: Seniors normally pay $8 per ticket. You were entitled to two free tickets per week. If you went to the movies at Cleaview just one Tuesday a month, by yourself, you’d save $96. Go more often, or with a spouse, partner or friend, and the savings really added up. 

During the winter, the first screening started around 4 pm. But during the summer it was pushed up to around noon. Over the last few years I thought I’d take more advantage of the deal but something more important always came up. Now I’m feeling kinda disappointed I didn’t see more free films. 

News Updates: Gilda’s averaging a little more than 45 miles per gallon in her Ford C-Max. She’s even logged in a 50-plus mpg drive to work (the car informs you what your mpg was each time you turn off the motor). ... A quarter of the baseball season has passed and the NY Yankees are in first place. I readily admit it, I never expected this. Nor did I expect the Yanks to be among the American League team leaders in home runs, have the best earned run average and be ranked third in team defense. All this without a laundry list of high-priced veteran stars on the disabled list. Which should make Yankee fans wonder if our pursuit of top-dollar free agents might be a mistake going forward. Perhaps all we need are hungry-to-succeed players bolstered by a Robinson Cano who is having a monster of a year. ... Did you notice that American retailers did not join in the global effort to monitor and fund work and building conditions in Bangladesh. The plan was good enough for foreign-based retailers such as H&M, Inditex (Zara) and C&A to sign on, but U.S. companies like Wal-Mart and Gap resisted, believing their individual efforts would be better. Perhaps, as well, they feared being told what to do. It’s the same mentality that scuttled U.S. approval of a proposed United Nations treaty that would regulate international weapon sales despite the treaty’s specific language guaranteeing each country the right to maintain its own internal regulations, in our case the Second Amendment right to bear arms. ... JC Penney’s new/old boss Myron “Mike” Ullman has reinstated sales and pushed an aggressive advertising campaign acknowledging mistakes and asking disillusioned customers to come back. The ads have good production quality but the problem is they don’t reflect what’s going on inside the stores. Until Penney shifts its merchandise to match its customer profile, no amount of advertising will turn the battleship around. ... Here’s another example of Target getting a pass on a practice Wal-Mart would be crucified for: A new union election has been ordered for a Long Island store after it was ruled Target  acted improperly to stifle the vote, including threats to close the store if the union won certification. Wal-Mart’s constantly being harangued for its anti-union attitude. But few if any of the “sophisticates” who prefer “Tar-zhay” to Wal-Mart reconsider their patronage of the Minneapolis-based discounter.  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Building Community in Eshkol

So I asked the woman, what was the news back home? What were the people feeling about the latest incidents?

Silly me. I thought Batia would tell me about reaction to the air strikes by Israel in Syria and the rise in tensions along Israel's borders. Instead, the news of the day, she told me, on the lips of all, was the report that one of the unmarried news anchors of Channel 1 was pregnant. As if that wasn't enough of a blockbuster, an anchor of Channel 2 was involved in a traffic accident. No word on her condition.

Life goes on. Amid the bombs and rockets, life goes on.

Batia was one of eight women brought to the United States by Shalom Yisrael to enjoy two weeks of rest and relaxation  from the daily stress of living and working in the Eshkol Regional Council in Israel, the most frequently attacked district of their country. Situated along the southern portion of the Gaza Strip, hugging the border with Egypt, the Eshkol area is home to some 13,000 residents. It was a mostly peaceful 1,000 square miles when the women chose to live there, not out of any Zionistic fervor but because Eshkol was beautiful and away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. 

All that changed in 2005 after Israel withdrew from Gaza. After Hamas brutally ousted Fatah, mortar after mortar attack ensued. It was from the Eshkol region that the soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and held for five years in the Gaza Strip until released in 2011. The incursion into Israel last year by terrorists who stole two armored Egyptian vehicles occurred in the Eshkol region. Last November, when 1,200 rockets landed in all of Israel, 463 fell in Eshkol.

Some of the communities in Eshkol are so close to the border there isn’t time for an alarm to sound. Only the percussion of an exploding rocket or mortar startles residents into defensive activity. It is then that Batia and her colleagues spring into action as first responder trauma care providers. That’s not their primary jobs. Normally, they are social workers and psychologists in schools and welfare agencies, administering to the needs of the area’s population. When explosions break the tranquility of the day—a rocket landed Wednesday—they are transformed into first responder trauma care providers. 

By necessity, their discipline has been mostly self taught. As I wrote last year, when eight other first responders visited as part of the Shalom Yisrael program, the 32 communities of Eshkol (14 kibbutzim, 13 moshavim and five residential communities) are vulnerable in space and time. If their homes are within four and a half kilometers (2.7 miles) of the border they have been outfitted by the government with “safe rooms” built to withstand a direct hit. In communities more than four and a half kilometers from Gaza, no safe rooms are retrofitted to existing homes. The only government funded security is a shelter for kindergarten children. If they are lucky, they have, perhaps, 15 seconds to seek cover. 

Still, life goes on, as close to normal as the Israelis will permit. Tamar, a mother of three boys, 10, 5 and 3, and a 13 year old daughter, demonstrates her resiliency and determination by refusing to give in to fear. She purposely drives the road near the Gaza Strip rather than a route further away from danger. She will not allow the terrorists to alter her lifestyle. 

During their two week stay in New York and Washington, DC, which ended on Mother’s Day, the women visited many cultural and historic sites. And, of course, they shopped. But perhaps their most unique experience involved an aspect of Judaism they had never encountered. They are secular, for the most part, even to the edges of agnosticism because of the smothering influence the religious right has on the Israeli way of life. Their host families brought them to their respective synagogues on Saturdays, where they experienced prayer services far more inclusive and welcoming than any they knew of in Israel. Several received a joint aliyah, an honor of being called up to the Torah. And the Friday before they left they joined a demonstration in Madison Square in Manhattan in support of Women of the Wall, the Israeli group trying to gain equality for women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Again, they received recognition from the New York community.

Community. Even though Eshkol is bombarded more than any other region, it doesn’t get the foreign press Sderot generates from attacks at the northern edge of Gaza. At times, the residents of Eshkol can feel isolated, alone. But two weeks of sharing and nurturing from heretofore strangers, two weeks of freedom from terror, recharged their internal batteries and revealed to them that their values were shared by a community across the ocean. Life can go on, knowing they are not alone. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Bangladesh and Corporate Social Responsibility

In the three weeks since an eight-story garment factory building in Bangladesh collapsed and entombed more than 1,100 workers, there have been lots of media reports about the responsibility of American and European retailers and brand name companies to be more proactive in monitoring and demanding greater safety in the factories that inexpensively produce goods to be sold throughout the world at prices that would be far beyond the reach of the women and men who make them for an average monthly wage of just $37.  

The scramble is on. The scramble to avoid the appearance of insensitivity. Retailers and their brand name suppliers are scrambling to distance themselves from multiple tragedies in Bangladesh and Pakistan, even as worker-advocates press them to force their foreign manufacturers to be more conscious of safety and living wage measures ( 

They don’t want their good names sullied by horrific misfortunes half a world away. Yet, like our politicians who often kick the can down the road rather than tackle controversial issues such as social security or tax reform, the retail community rarely takes decisive action. My 30-plus years covering the industry, reinforced by my reporter’s sensibilities, make me a cynic. Sadly, my feelings can be summed up by the last paragraph in The NY Times story linked above: 

“Kellie A. McElhaney, an expert on corporate social responsibility at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that these pressures would hardly sway the companies. ‘They are feeling a lot of pressure, but it’s not coming from consumers. It’s coming from N.G.O.’s,’ she said, referring to nongovernment organizations. ‘They’re not feeling it in the marketplace. I believe they’re going to do the bare minimum. The N.G.O.’s need to make more consumers aware of this.’”  

Here’s why I’m a cynic: Perhaps 10 to 15 years ago my magazine co-produced a conference called Making It Right. We worked with several corporate social responsibility NGOs to raise awareness about the sordid conditions many foreign workers were forced to toil under as they prepared apparel, sporting goods and other products Americans eagerly consumed because they were less expensive than they would be if U.S. workers produced them, or if higher wages were provided to the populations in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, China or any of the other Third World countries exploited for their cheap labor. Meeting at the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to plan the event, our conference advisory board had representatives from Gap, J.C. Penney and other retailers. Held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, the conference attracted several hundred industry attendees. It was a thematic success, but little of any progress was made.

My takeaway from that conference was that price was the overwhelming driving force behind corporate decisions where sourcing would originate. For a few scant pennies per item, manufacturing contracts would shift from one country to another. Bangladesh became the second largest apparel producer in the world, behind China. If tragedies persist, and they surely will, the result most likely will not be safer standards or higher wages in that impoverished country. Rather, the people of Bangladesh, who rely on the garment industry for much of their economy, will be hurt by the desertion of apparel contracts as retailers and brand name companies migrate production to countries with low wages and labor conditions not (yet) under the media spotlight.

Though there have been some reports consumers are becoming more conscious of where and how their purchases are produced, I’m not optimistic there will be a tidal wave of change. I don’t profess to be any better than the next person. I’d rather spend less on everything I buy, assuming the quality is comparable. But I do believe retailers, especially large companies like H&M, Wal-Mart, Target, Nike, Gap, and their important suppliers, such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, can demand more accountability from their overseas factories, even to the point where they underwrite safety improvements. The few pennies more each of us in America and Europe would pay to prevent catastrophes would hardly impact our way of life. But it would go a long way into assuring a better life, maybe even continued life, for those faceless workers who make our lives easier and more fashionable.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Is It Safe?

Spoken by Dr. Christian Szell in the book and movie Marathon Man, the three most chilling words of dialogue are, “Is It Safe?”. He would ask that question of Thomas “Babe” Levy in his quest to determine if it was safe to recover stolen diamonds he had hidden. To secure the answer he desired, Szell would probe Levy’s teeth with all the sadistic, excruciating skills he practiced as a Nazi dentist at Auschwitz.

With my wisdom tooth extraction Monday, I’m reminded of my own hair-raising dental experience some 20 years ago. My dentist at the time was located in Yonkers, on North Broadway not far from the Executive Boulevard exit of the Saw Mill River Parkway. When my early morning appointment to replace a filling ended, I drove back to White Plains to park in the commuter garage and board the 10:05 train to Grand Central Terminal. In Manhattan I started walking up Park Avenue to my office, but before I even exited the east walkway of the Helmsley Building I felt a twinge where the Novocain had started to wear off. Not a good sign, so I did a quick about-face and caught the first train back to White Plains, which, fortuitously, left within five minutes. 

By the time I arrived in White Plains 35 minutes later all the Novocain had worn off, leaving me in piercing pain. I hot-rodded it down the parkway, alternating between singing at the top of my lungs and screaming. I extended my left leg as far as I could, lifting my buttocks out of the seat. I howled my distress. It took about 12 minutes to get from White Plains to North Broadway in Yonkers. Like a madman I ran into the dentist’s office, demanding IMMEDIATE attention. The other patients must have thought I was crazed, and indeed I was. But the dentist quickly shot me up again and did some more work on my tooth. 

It was now too late to go to work, so I drove back to White Plains and decided to do some shopping in a Pergament Home Center. As I bent down to reach an item on the bottom shelf, I felt another twinge. I knew right away what that meant, but I wasn’t fast enough. I was howling again down the Saw Mill River Parkway. Once more I appeared in front of a different set of startled patients as crazed. 

The net result was the start of a root canal procedure. Since that time I am always alert to the slightest twinge whenever I visit the dentist. I haven’t had another such excruciating experience, other than the dry socket for the wisdom tooth extraction I described in my last post. You might be wondering if I stayed with that dentist. I did, until his untimely death from cancer. He was a good dentist, as well as a friend.