Did Sci-Fi ever appeal to me? Not that I can remember. Even as a kid growing up in the town that built the first atom bomb, spaceships never grabbed me. Real life was strange enough, thank you, and not for the reasons you might guess. In the 50s and 60s, many of the local folks had never seen one of us in the flesh before. I might as well have been from Mars, growing up Jewish in East Tennessee. Once in a blue moon, though, the stares at the horns poking out of my scalp and the surreptitious glances in the gym class shower room at my un-hooded cock tip were all worthwhile. Like the day the caravan came to town.

End of the summer, 1964, one of those humid scorchers in pre-AC days. I was hanging out on the strip mall sidewalk, snoozing while waiting for my ride home. The shrill whine of millions of katydids pierced the air, but the world seemed dead. That’s the only word to describe 5:30 p.m. on an early September weekday down South, in my twelfth year on this planet. Hebrew school had been a colossal drag. The Alef-beys[i] took second position in my kheyder[ii] to the recess smearball games. I was a hopeless pansy when one of the vilde-khayes[iii] with whom I “studied,” dropped a crushed soda can in the middle of the crabgrass circle. The boys stood there staring, tense, on their marks to steal and run. I never, ever had the nerve.

Eager to get home with my treasures from the only bookstore in town, I searched high and low for my mom’s little Renault, another oddity in the Volunteer State. My shame was circumscribed, though, Oak Ridge’s raison d’etre being what it was. At least my folks didn’t own one of those Japanese cars. Not that Toyotas were anathema to my dad. Such hatred was reserved for Volkswagen. Owning a VW was sacrilegious. Those defeated in the Pacific War had paid their price. The Germans never could.

Suddenly, down by the shopping center’s Turnpike entrance, I spotted a line of behemoths entering the lot in an orderly procession. Three low slung station wagons crept up the road, their occupants staring out the windows, bug -eyed. Remember Tom Joad driving that old Ford on his trip to the California? Ever wonder what Moses would have ridden in, given the chance? These hillbillies were members of the same AAA club.


blared the paper banners festooning the rear passenger doors. Verses from Revelations adorned the rear windows. The signs did double duty, announcing the coaches’ earthly owners while concealing door panels pitted with rust, lacking hardware. Slowly, slowly, this train to Jordan pulled to a halt, smack dab in front of me.

“Say there, young feller, could you help us out a minute?” The twang of the driver’s hill-country accent vibrated like a jug band saw. I stepped closer to get a good look, and before I could answer, the wagon doors opened in a cacophony of groaning sheet metal. Six men emerged from each car. Dressed in caftans and sporting chest length whiskers, these fellows came straight out of central casting. I looked around for Charlton Heston, but he was nowhere to be seen.

“Sez by this here map we’re in Oak Ridge, am I right about that, son?” All I could do was nod my head. “And do you know where the Jeeeeewish church is in this town? We’re here on a pilgrimage to visit our Old Testament brethren.” Sounded like some kind of joke to me, but the leader was dead serious. “We’re New Testament Hebrews,” the leader intoned. In the back of the wagon lay a heap of walking sticks. A closer look showed that they were bishops’ crooks, topped by the group’s home-made symbol, a cross emblazoned in gold over a blue star of David. Bumper stickers on the rear of the cars announced the group’s proud home: “Jerusalem Acres – The Promised Land.” My teeth were on edge. Jews in Tennessee all knew of each other’s communities. These guys were not on the list, just some weirdo hicks. Potentially dangerous hicks. Back then there were no cell phones to call your mom or dad and ask their advice, what to do, what to say.

Forty-five years ago, child kidnapping was a rare event. We didn’t lock our doors in Oak Ridge, not the house, not the car. Though the down on my arms was sticking straight up, I wasn’t afraid of physical harm. Not this time. These men were bent on something else. Had I been a boy in a pre-war shtetl [iv], instinct would have told me to beware, not to point the strangers towards the doors of the shul. [v] My deracination was incomplete. I knew I was other and to be on my guard. But safety and security were abundant in mid-century America. So I told the men what they wanted to know. With profuse thanks they headed off.


East Tennessee was the buckle on the Bible belt in the days before the recent flood of fundamentalism engulfed America. My parents, one step removed from Philadelphia’s Yiddish-speaking ghettoes, marveled from behind our curtains at the foot-washing Baptists, the snake handlers, and the summertime tent revivals, where participants fell to their knees in a babbling frenzy, “speaking in tongues.” Conservative Southern Baptism ruled the day in a town sporting forty churches for 30,000 folks. You could hear a pin drop in the middle of the Turnpike on Sunday morning at 10:30.

Given the chance (if you call Dad’s being drafted good luck) my folks fled from the Northeast and their meshuge[vi] families. My father looked mighty uncomfortable out on that drill field in Fort Benning, Georgia in the summer of 1944. Though tens of thousands of Jewish boys entered the Army, their lives in boot camp were always strange. Just making out what barracks mates were saying required studious attention. The Babel of accents was as thick as molasses. Basic training was redneck Berlitz school, a full-dunk baptism. “Are you a yid ?” a naïf would ask. You just kept your head down. Cy never toted so much as a BB gun back on Diamond Street in West Philly, much less a rifle like the one digging a hole in his shoulder at 7:00 a.m. one June morning that fateful summer. Roll call over was over, and 3000 GIs stood there in spit-polished rows. The drill sergeant took one last look before the magic words were barked “At Ease.”

“Gott zay dank !” [vii] escaped my father’s lips, under his breath. And then a miracle occurred. Striding back and forth, riding crop in hand, the sunburned master sergeant referred to a scrap of paper in his left hand to make sure he read off the camp commander’s orders correctly: “All right, men, listen up. All of you who’ve finished college, and taken two years of chemistry or physics, step forward.” Dad had graduated University of Pennsylvania in 1939 with a major in chemistry, gotten his M.A. two years later and had worked for several years in a government assay office. Something good was definitely up. Down the rows, men came out of line, ten, twenty, then forty. The sergeant took a thorough look.

“Those of you, out of ranks, face left towards that rail siding over there. You have one hour to get your kit together and board that train. March left, check in with the roll clerk here, and get moving. That’s an order.”

At the end of the field, a drab L&N troop train idled, smoke puffing from its coal-fired locomotive. Six passenger cars sat behind the tender, a red caboose bringing up the rear. And this explains why I’m here on this planet. The rest of my father’s company finished basic, and wound up in Europe a few months later in a place called the Battle of the Bulge. Many made a one-way trip. Where the L&N was headed was a big fat secret, much less why the men were ordered onto it. But it sure beat being pinned down by the Wehrmacht counteroffensive in the winter of ’45. Many of the grunts on the train were young Jews from American cities, conscripted to work on the atom bomb. Its mystery had been solved in the nick of time. And on that very same day their journey began, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles of the same GIs scrambled aboard trains all over Poland, throughout the Pale. Guns at their backs, dogs at their heels: their journeys began to places unknown.

Packed in the fetid cattle cars, Jews were herded from other concentration points, headed to Maidanek, Theresienstadt, Dachau. Inside the barracks and on the killing fields, a dozen tongues were heard and spoken, before they suddenly went still. Men and women, girls and boys, those who were spared immediate selection, whether from Danzig, Warsaw, or Riga, learned, if needed, a common tongue. Yiddish was the lingua franca of the camps, binding together the educated and the great unwashed, the Germanophone Viennese gentility and the shtetl hayseeds.

My father put in long, long days, gaseous diffusion of U-235 consuming his mind. 4000 miles east, millions were dying from a different poison gas. Some larger force, though, battled among the deadly molecules, keeping a precious culture alive. Putrid smoke wafted from the crematoria chimneys, but the Yiddish of the martyred lived on, even in those as yet unborn. I’m no believer in New Age kook shit: Oak Ridge schools made that for sure. Something arcane science must explain why Yiddish infused my youthful brain.

As kids we squirmed at my mom and dad fighting. But their secret language had such a warm taste. They spoke it, too, to convey things quite amorous. Five kids, three bedrooms, no privacy at all. I picked up a few words, the usual twenty, but overall it was hidden; we knew not to ask. They, too, spoke in tongues. It sounded like music. A longing began in me, growing each day. Yiddish took on a redemptive promise, much like the hillbillies’ search for their long lost tribe members in Oak Ridge.

The guys in the caravan wandered from home, drawn by the same thing that I’ve long sought. Salvation from Babel comes in countless forms, each alluring to those who dream. Decades have passed and I’ve become one of them. Jerusalem Acres and Brooklyn, New York. For both of us, the land of Canaan. Milk and honey, may it be soon.


Down by the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Flushing Avenue entrance, a derelict trailer sits on the corner of Hall Street. A faded tin sign: The Kosher Café. Dilapidated wooden steps sag onto the sidewalk. Iron mesh blocks what little light might pass through the windows of the shack, were someone to wash them, even once. The owners set up on a vacant lot, hoping to cater to the Hasidim who work in the area’s factories, a short hike from the southern edge of Williamsburg.

You see them all day long, in their kapotes, the long black coats that the orthodox men wear, waiting for rides a few blocks away. Prayer shawl bags securely tucked under their arms, headed who knows where in the middle of the day, perhaps it’s Moshiakh, the Messiah they await. Though on their way to business, they’ve always one foot in the world to come.

I’ve pedaled by this beat-up single-wide countless times over the past five years, but never stopped, even to peer in. I’ve wanted to, even ached with the desire. Something’s always held me back, though, made me hesitate. I tell myself I’m in a hurry, I’m not hungry, whatever excuse I can muster. I’ve stood outside, over and over, afraid to immerse myself in what I know will be a powerful experience.

Last Thanksgiving weekend, Sunday midday, I was on my bike., out all alone. I had places to go and things to do, but no fixed schedule encumbering my mind. I rode past the lot, the streets unnaturally quiet even for a Sunday. Many times the Kosher Café has been closed when I ‘ve gone by. But I spotted a light on and after a moment’s deliberation, I doubled back. I chained my bike up while I sucked in my breath. There was no going back once my lock bolted shut. With trepidation I mounted the rickety stairs, testing each one with gingerly care. I peered inside the scarred aluminum door and after noting carefully where my bike was parked, I stepped inside, ready to roam.

It is said that in ancient times, when the High Priest celebrated the Day of Atonement, he was permitted to enter the holy of holies on the one day of the year when it was permitted to be so close to the presence of the Almighty. After bathing and praying, the kohen hagodol [viii] would don fresh white garments and tie a rope around his waist before entering the sanctum sanctorum. In case anything untoward happened in God’s presence, at least his corpse could be retrieved. I was after something a bit short of total expiation, though: a tuna fish sandwich and a cup of coffee would do just fine, plus an opportunity to exchange a few words of Yiddish with people who use it day in day out in all its Galitzianer gorgeousness.

On the right as I walked in stood a battered stainless display case, topping a steam table that had stopped steaming a few years after Sir James Watt had his bar mitsveh.[ix] On the floor, or so much of it as I could detect from under a protective coat of grime, lay a diamond pattern of black and mauve asbestos linoleum tile. I’m no talmud khokem [x] no expert in the sforim, the religious texts that every single man over the age of thirteen entering those premises knows as I do J.D. Salinger. But somewhere in those convoluted books, I hear that permission is given for religious Jews to have disorderly yards outside their homes. What’s important is inside, not the lawn or pink flamingoes. They matter not, these worldly concerns. What counts is one’s place in the world to come. Getting oneself ready is a full time job. Cleansing the soul is a matter of life and death. Mowing the lawn is not. And keeping flies out of the kitchen and the refrigerator case below 70º in one’s restaurant play second fiddle to complying with the finer points of kosher law.

The offerings in the case were few and far between but picky I wasn’t. It was Sunday on a holiday weekend, (at least for the goyim) and I was famished. From back in the kitchen a sixty-ish man with a kind face emerged, his salt and pepper beard adorning an angelic pair of cheeks. “What can I get you,” he asked quietly, instantly recognizing me as a random interloper. My favorite moment of moments ensued. In fluent Yiddish I ordered my sandwich, even using a fair imitation of the local accent. The food was cold but he warmed to me right away. I smiled inside. I knew I was in.

The back of the Kosher Café, which does mostly a takeout business, holds the remains of variegated dinette sets whose factory warranties have long since expired. Even by Southside Satmar[xi] standards, where poverty and spiritual economy dictate squeezing out the last drop, these pieces are forlorn. Mismatched Naugahyde, torn foam, and crumbs everywhere give the back “room” a heymish[xii] feeling par excellence. Three young men, all Hasidish, sat at a table, coatless, the remains of their mid-day meals strewn across crumpled paper plates. I didn’t want to be rude, but I was fortunate. The layout allowed me to plop myself right down by the boys, though ostensibly keeping to myself.

The trailer was uncrowded but busy enough; I could sit in the back and almost melt in. Knowing a language opens a whole world of travel, and in New York your ticket costs one Metrocard. Sure we live in the 21st century. But step across Flushing Avenue, go up a flight of broken steps, and you turn a very, very long corner. Eighty years and four thousand miles just vanish. I sat on the Balut in pre-War Lodz, a gaggle of young men in a street café plotting some scheme aimed at the local all-rightniks. The rhythm of a good con filled the air as one boy intoned for his mates to hear: Feldman Lumber, do in Vilyumsbrg – Er is a gvir, shteyn raykh, meyn ikh... Feldman, the local lumber dealer, here in Williamsburg, he’s a rich man, loaded I do believe…

Three of the boys totaled in age maybe 65 years, and just what they were about on a Sunday afternoon remained a bit of a mystery to me, even with my ears pricked wide. It had nothing to do with the language, though. Like machine gun bullets, bursts of Yiddish spat from their mouths as one of the gang made feverish notes. English, Chinese, Xhosa, it makes no difference. Rapid fire is tough to handle. But I got plenty of the gist. With two or three cell phones apiece, rings of keys dangling among their tsitses, [xiii] these boys were meeting to launch a campaign (be it charitable or some newborn Ponzi), to extract money from businessmen active in the local real estate boom. None of the group had any personal acquaintance with the targets. Each name was bandied about, an office phone number hungrily copied down by the recording secretary, chops licked all around about the millions the “name” had under his mattress. Surely riches would flow to the group with just one phone call. Believers have but one way to live, be it in shul or on the street. Bitokhn, the certainty that things will happen if you just wish them so, burned with every word the boys uttered. Glen Gary, Glen Ross, the new edition: Slivovitz would be downed if a mark was closed.

I’m thinking of asking the International Olympic Committee and the Guinness Book of Records to set up a new category. I’ll then assign myself the first world title: “Record dawdling over a single tuna fish sandwich.” I sat there for a full hour, pretending to fiddle with my Palm Pilot, making phone calls with one ear cocked, my mp3 player in my ears but the volume on mute. And I did good. Unlike in many such situations, I was mostly ignored. The boys went on dreaming and I went on kvelling,[xiv] their words a river, kaching, kachong.

A steady stream of carry-out customers filtered in, used the tiny water closet, only to run back to their production lines. Thanksgiving is a khog nor bay di goyim, a holiday only for gentiles. This was a workday like any other, no time to relax if gainfully employed. My lunch break, too, was over, and reality beckoned. It was also my time to go. Volley after volley I’d returned the ball, batting fungo on a field of dreams. To the guy who tried to bum a cigarette I’d retorted that not only did I not smoke but that it did not bother me if they did. I felt how hard I could hit each pitch, blazing towards me from their bearded lips. This time though, I played ball without fear, marveling how accurately, how grammatically, how extraordinarily long, I could drive the ball to the outfield fence. A natural end comes to these interactions, however, and I’m careful to not make myself unwelcome for the next and the next. My league is large and games unscheduled, so out I went with my glove and my bat, my appetite sated, my mind aglow..

Heading home up Flushing Avenue I came to the corner, the one where the frum wait, their rides coming soon. I stopped and I stared, I must have been dreaming, because of the accent I thought that I heard. I thought I saw faces; I knew them from somewhere, but the voices were redneck and the clothing not black. There on the corner, station wagons idled. The Oak Ridge pilgrims waved big hellos. If I’d paid attention in Hebrew school fully, what would I have learned and who would I be? It’s 40 years later and I’ve come full circle. Now making up for the time that I lost. I thought they were crazy, those hicks in the caftans. Jordan-bound, we’ll be brothers on that train coming soon.


Note on transliteration:
With the exception of the word “Hasid” (with respect to which I have followed contemporary Anglicization) I have transliterated the Yiddish words above using the system devised many decades ago by YIVO, the pre-eminent secular Yiddish language cultural and linguistic organization founded in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the late 1920s, and transplanted to New York in 1940. The overwhelming majority of modern academic Yiddishists employ this transliteration system, known to them as “di klal transliteratsiye sistem,” the rulebook transliteration system.

[i] alef-beys is the Yiddish and Hebrew equivalent of the ABC’s; the words are the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet with which both languages are written.

[ii] kheyder here means religious school. Literally, in Yiddish, a room.

[iii]vilde khayes are wild animals, an appellation most commonly applied to little boys by their parents

[iv] shtetl is the diminutive form of shtot, a city, but in Yiddish it denotes a village, a dorf or even moreso a derfl

[v] shul: a synagogue

[vi]meshuge: just plain crazy

[vii]My father’s commonplace Yiddish equivalent of “thank God.”

[viii] kohen hagodol is the high priest in the Yiddish pronunciation of the Hebrew phrase

[ix]bar mistveh, literally son of commandment, refers to the calling of a 13-year old Jewish boy to read from the for Torah the first time, at which point he becomes an adult in the community, responsible for his own behavior. At the next Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he, rather than his parents, must atone for his sins.

[x] a talmud khokehm is a man well-educated in the Talmud

[xi] The Satmar community of Hasidim in New York have traditionally been located in the area of Williamsburg south of the Williamsburg Bridge.

[xii] heymish: home-like, comfortable (idiomatically), “down home.”

[xiii] tsitses are the fringes laced through the corners of Jewish prayer shawls, the talesim worn under a man’s garments except on the Sabbath, Shabbes, when it is customary to wear the prayer shawl as an outer garment, in shul as well as in the street on the way there and back.

[xiv] kvell means to have a wave of pleasure wash over oneself, as at one’s child’s religious confirmation. The word derives from kval, a wave, in Yiddish.

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