Stop the plane? Not a prayer

where's waldo

Rockland County, N.Y., where I’ve lived for nearly 40 years, is home to the third largest population of Hasidic Jews in the world, trailing only the entire nation of Israel and New York City. Which explains why, in a previous millennium, when I was the Page One editor of The Journal News, the newspaper of New York’s northern suburbs, a reporter and photographer were assigned to cover what was either the bar mitzvah or the wedding of the grand rebbe’s son in New Square, N.Y.

Bar mitzvah or wedding. I’m not sure which one, because I wasn’t invited. On the other hand, I didn’t have to buy a gift.

New Square is a small hamlet (are there large hamlets?) accessed by a single road off a main road that runs through the county. Drive in a block or two and it suddenly feels like you’ve time-traveled back to 18th century Europe. Drive in on a Saturday – Shabbos – and you’re in the only car in town that’s moving. And that guy who looks like he just dropped in from Mars – thats you, because you’re the only guy in town who isn’t sporting a full beard and a long black coat and a wide-brimmed black hat. Continue reading

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The day I made a 14-year-old kid the happiest Jew in New York

Pull up a chair, kids, and I’ll tell you all about the day I made a 14-year-old stranger the happiest Jewish boy in New York.

Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and it brings back memories of something that happened back in 1973 or so, when I was a kid on the sports desk of the New York Post.

The Post was a very different newspaper back then, a few years before Murdoch bought it and turned the steering wheel hard to the right. It was a leftist newspaper, owned by a woman named Dorothy Schiff, and it was very much the favored tabloid of New York’s liberal Jewish population. The popular joke was that on the day the world ended, The Post’s wood would read:

WORLD ENDS
Jews suffer most

The sports department had a list of bylines that was not only awe-inspiring, but coincidentally upheld the reputation. Ike Gellis. Sid Friedlander. Milton Gross. Maury Allen. Vic Ziegel. Paul Zimmerman. Larry Merchant. Leonard Lewin. Leonard Cohen. Gene Roswell. Dick Klayman.

Need a minyan? Call Post Sports.

And that clearly was what the woman on the other end of the line had in mind when the phone rang in the office late one afternoon, a few days before Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. (I don’t remember which, but the rules are generally the same. A “good” Jew puts on a tie and jacket and goes to shul.)

It was late afternoon, and I was all alone in the office. Ike, Sid, Jack, Dick, Bob and Jerry had all gone home. My job, as the kid, was to stick around until the last race at Aqueduct was over, edit the wire report and take it to the composing room. First one in, last one out. What a job!

The phone rang. What follows is pretty much how it went down.

Me: Post Sports.

Her: Are you Jewish?

Me: Ummmm . . . What was that? (WTF???)

Her: Are you Jewish?

Me: Ummmmm, OK, what the hell. Yes. (I expect to be hanging up the phone in a couple of seconds.)

Her: You’re Jewish.

Me: Yes. (Here it comes.)

Her: Great. We’re having a problem and we need you to solve it.

Me: OK. (WTF???)

Her: We have a 14-year-old son and he wants to go to Forest Hills (where they played the U.S. Open back then, before they built the tennis complex at Flushing Meadows) on Friday. But it’s Rosh Hashanah (or Yom Kippur, I don’t remember) and his father and I say he belongs in temple. But he says he doesn’t want to go to temple, he wants to go see the tennis. We need a referee. We’ve agreed to let you make the decision.

(This woman is an idiot.)

Now, I’m sure her son read the New York Post sports pages religiously (ahem), and that she figured she was being a really cool mom letting someone in the sports department make this monumental decision, and that since the sports department had a gazillion Jews, the Jewish person on the phone would make the “right” decision, and her son would do what the guy in the sports department said.

But the Jew she got was me.

Me: Let me get this straight. You want me to decide whether your kid goes to Forest Hills or to shul on Friday?

Her: Yes.

Me: (Lady, you’re crazy.) OK. First of all, I need to make something very clear. I am speaking for me, not for the management of The New York Post or the sports department of The New York Post. In no way does my decision represent that of anyone other than myself. Is that understood?

Her: Yes.

Me: OK. Here’s my answer. You can force your son to go to shul, but you can’t force him to want to be there, and he’ll most definitely resent it, because he wants to go to Forest Hills. My decision is that HE’S OLD ENOUGH TO MAKE UP HIS OWN MIND about these things. I hope he enjoys the tennis.

That poor woman. She got the wrong Jew.

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