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. 

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