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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Bernie the Cuban


Lester and Rose, 1959

My father, Lester Lyon Skier, was born on September 16, 1923 to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who moved to Brooklyn around 1910. He passed away May 18, 2006, the twenty-first day of the Jewish month of Iyar. His parents spoke exclusively Yiddish in the home, but did not lead a religious lifestyle, and my father had no Jewish education. He never learned Hebrew, never attended Sunday school, didn't have a Bar Mitzvah.

He sold papers on street corners at the age of six, as the depression was beginning. He worked in a movie theater as a young adult, repeatedly watching King Kong from the front row, something he relayed to me after observing how I ran straight to the front row to watch Star Wars some 44 years later. He served as a meteorologist in the Army Air Corps during WWII.

During much of his adult life, he worked in the family business, Skier Manufacturing, a clothing factory. They produced such diverse products as Army Uniforms and oven mitts. Eventually he ran his own businesses. I remember the basement being full of stock-sheets of uncut trading cards from various 60's TV shows.

During my lifetime, he was a fixture on Lefferts Blvd in Kew Gardens, NY, where he owned first a health and beauty aids store, and then a video store. The video store eventually went out of business, courtesy prolonged construction in front of the store by the Long Island Railroad (owners of the bridge on which the store was built), and competition from new video upstart Blockbuster.

He despised how people mispronounced the family name, and went as far as spelling it phonetically as Skyer on the official business documents. As proud as he was of his name (I have no idea of its origins, BTW), he was even prouder to be identified as a Jew. A salesman never left the store without knowing how he felt about Jews and Israel. Perhaps it was his marriage to a Zionistic Holocaust survivor that made him more intent on passing his Jewishness on to his children. I don't think I'll ever know, because it never occurred to me to ask him this. But he was determined to have Jewish children and Jewish grandchildren.

And somehow, again, maybe it was my mother's influence, he figured out that the key to having Jewish grandchildren was Jewish education. So he spent every penny he made on tuition to Jewish Day Schools. He sent his 3 children to Dov Revel, then to Yeshiva University High Schools, and then to Yeshiva College and Stern.

This was certainly radical in the 60's and 70's. None of his friends or relatives did the same. They thought he was crazy, particularly since he didn't seem to be a religious man. He worked Saturdays. He went to non-Kosher restaurants. But he sent his kids to Yeshiva. And over the years, he convinced others to do the same.

And so it was that when I was eight years old, he instructed me to go to the local synagogue, the Young Israel, to learn how to pray. I went. I was shuffled into the Junior Congregation. I had frightening, almost scarring experience. I refused to go back.

My father soon learned of this, and made a decision--a difficult decision, as financially we were not well off--to stop working on Saturdays and accompany me to Shul. Did I mention that he knew no Hebrew? That he had never learned to pray? That Modern Orthodoxy is far from warm and cuddling to those who don't know the ropes?

The two of us sat there in the back of the Men's section, as the crowds around us chatted for hours about their cars or their businesses, occasionally suddenly stopping to chant something in a foreign language or say "Amen," then resuming their conversations.

I can't imagine that he felt in any way comfortable in this setting. He certainly didn't seem to get much out of it. But he never stopped going, and he never worked on Shabbos again. Eventually I found my courage and went down to the Junior Congregation, later the Teen Minyan, and became more and more comfortable in my observance, until it became second-nature to me.

And then, like a man who had thrown an anchor overboard, but forgot to let go of the chain, he got dragged in after me. I made demands on the household. No more TV on shabbos. No more trips to the Italian restaurant for veal parmigiana. No more eating "fish" at the diner. And my parents, like it or not, complied.

And so now they, kenaine hora, have 12 Orthodox grandchildren, soon to be 13. And my father has someone who can say Kaddish for him.

I have many interesting memories of my father doing surprising things, some of which I shared at the levayah. I have a distinct memory of him showing up at a father-son breakfast in eighth grade, wearing tfillin. I never knew he even had a pair. I remember him teaching me to make change as I worked the register in his store, before I was 8. I remember him convincing a waiter at a hotel that, yes, they do indeed have steaks in the kitchen; he just needs to take another look.

My father was, apparently, a blogger. He kept detailed diaries for most of his life. He was a man of few words, verbally, but he wrote extensively.

An entry from January of 1950:

"Just for fun, I'm going write down everything I do today." He did. It was excruciating.

October 12, 1969 (9 days after the birth of my sister):

"I hope the new baby is affectionate, because if Rosie is waiting for affection from Mark or me, she is going to have a long wait." This so succinctly crystallized the family dynamic that it is chilling. He saw things very clearly, and described them simply but accurately.

So, I have to give you a little story about my Father, one that I heard for the first time during shiva. We'll call it

Bernie the Cuban


Mom and Dad, 1962


My mother tells me that my father was never one to pass up a "get rich quick" scheme. So when his friend, Bernie the Cuban (to differentiate him from Bernie the Frenchman) came to him with a plan to smuggle hair straightener into Puerto Rico, he jumped at it, borrowing $5000 from the uncle of my mother to buy product and to rent a warehouse in San Juan.

They made a preliminary trip, in which they traveled from drug store to drug store and were assured enthusiastically that Puerto Rican women were in dire need of American hair straightening products and they would buy as much as my parents could provide.

Once the merchandise was in place, they made a second trip to try and sell it at a steep profit.

Nada. Gornisht.

Nobody would buy from them. "What? Hair straightener? What am I supposed to do with that? Give me two jars."

"TWO JARS?? I brought you 15 DOZEN!"

In store after store, on both sides of the island, they heard the same story. They were miserable. Bernie the Cuban was dejected. My mother was in a panic that whomever her uncle had borrowed the $5000 from would want it back quickly or possibly body parts instead. Reluctantly, Bernie offered to buy my folks out. (As a side note, Bernie eventually sold the products and went on to make millions).

All was not lost, because my mother had a "Plan B". She had also brought along some wiglets and sun-dresses that her cousin gave her on consignment. She decided to try to sell them in beauty parlors.

My father at this point was resolved to call the trip a failure, and wasn't interested in going into beauty parlors. So he waited outside while my mother, who spoke fluent Spanish, went from store to store to sell her stuff.

So, they would approach a row of stores in a seedy neighborhood of San Juan, the sun now starting to set, and my mother, dressed in a tight-fitting dress and high heels, impeccably made up, would go up some stairs to the store on the second floor, while my father would lean against a tree, smoking cigarette after cigarette.

In about fifteen minutes, my mother would come down with a wad of bills. My father would take the cigarette out of his mouth long enough to utter, in his American drawl, "Did you bring the money?" And then proceed to visibly count it.

As my mother told us this story over Shabbos, our mouths were hanging open.

"Do you know what your father must have looked like?" she asked.

She answered for us. "Like a pimp!"

39 comments:

Mirty said...

Wow. These are great stories. Wonderful pictures too.

Ayelet said...

Sounds like your dad earned a front-row seat in the world that really counts. That was truly inspiring.

Do you remember what happened that first time you went to shul alone?

Modern Orthodoxy is far from warm and cuddling to those who don't know the ropes

Is that still true today? Do you know what that attitude stems from? How do you find "yeshivish" orthodoxy in comparison?

PsychoToddler said...

Ayelet, I really wish I could put my finger on it. Why does modern orthodoxy seem uninviting to baale tshuva?

Let me put it this way. If you're a baal tshuva, and you're wearing "normal" clothing, and you walk into a room of people wearing all black and black hats, you're immediately identified as an "other". They can either ignore you or maybe judge you, or maybe someone will come over and ask who you are and what you're doing there, and maybe if you need help finding your place.

You walk into a MO shul, and you're dressed like everyone else. They assume you know what's going on. And if you don't, they have little patience for you.

I guess there isn't this sense of choosing either this or that. MO has this hybrid philosophy of "you can be secular AND frum." So if you're secular, it's like you're only half a person. The yeshivish and chassidish worlds want you to choose, secular OR frum. They see a secular person walk in, and they see either someone they disapprove of, or a challenge--someone they might bring over to their way of thinking.

So my initial brush with the MO world...I guess they assumed I was one of them, but one who was inferior since I didn't seem to know what was going on.

People sometimes liken what my dad did--going into shul for the first time--like someone walking into a Buddist temple and trying to blend in. It's not the same. If he looked and dressed like all the Buddists, and was the same race, but didn't speak the language or know what was going on, then it would be more similar to what he actually did.

I had a little more education than my dad at that point--but not much.

Ayelet said...

Interesting. I hear that. It makes sense. Although I'm not so sure the "yeshivish" friendly guy necessarily wants you to cut yourself off from your secular life "choose" their life.

What community do you identify with? (I know the obvious surface answer, as I have read your blog for a while. At least I think I do.) Why? Where do your kids stand? (There seems to be a trend in my generation moving towards the "right". I'm always amused to see the population in the hotel I go to for Pesach shift, as more and more of the MO parents' kids marry "yeshivish" and come back with kids that "have payos behind their ears") (How's that for too many "quotation marks".)

wanderer said...

Wonderful stories. Thank you for sharing them and giving us all a little flavor of what your father was like. You honor his memory by sharing them.

cruisin-mom said...

Beautiful, P.T. Now we know how you became the devoted dad that you are.

treppenwitz said...

"...like a man who had thrown an anchor overboard, but forgot to let go of the chain, he got dragged in after me."

In one perfect sentence you have summed up the Ba'al Tshuvah generation's impact on their families. Even those (like mine) who didn't come along for the full program have sown from the small seeds they planted.

treppenwitz said...

Er, perhaps I meant reaped. But you got that, right? :-)

Yid Erotica said...

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Ezzie said...

Great stories and pictures. As Wanderer said, you are honoring his memory by sharing them.

Ayelet made an interesting point about this generation swinging to the right: She's correct, but only to an extent. I find that at the same time that people shift to the right, there is a rejection of [need words] shtussim that stem from the right. In Cleveland I noticed that the new generation that is building up a great community is made up of really good, nice, frum young couples who are serious about their Judaism and learning - but not into some of the other stuff that maybe their parents were. It's gone from extremes on the right and left to a right-leaning middle.

Shmiel said...

May your retelling us these stories continue to provide you with as much solace as they provide us with food for thought and entertainment.You do indeed honor his memory with them

Kiwi the Geek said...

Love the stories, PT! I hope you write a lot more about him.

PsychoToddler said...

Mirty, Wanderer, Cruisin Mom, Shmiel, Kiwi: Thanks. I think I've been taking my parents for granted for a long time. They really did some amazing things. But isn't that true for all of us?

Ayelet: I guess if you read back all of my old posts, you'll have a pretty good idea of where I stand, but I'm finding that even my values are in a state of flux. Recently I've been told that shul policy is that I wear a jacket when I daven for the amud. So I got one. Is a black hat next?

Here's where I put myself: I'm a Torah-observant Jew. I keep shabbos, kashrut, I go to shul and I daven. I learn Torah as much as I can, but I really don't enjoy it.

I don't believe that you need a special "uniform" to be a Torah Jew. I believe that there is nothing in the Torah that states that colors other than black or white are forbidden, or that Moses came down from Sinai wearing a black fedora or a shtreimel.

I believe that forcing people to adopt uniforms is divisive and will only cause strife within our already small people.

I believe that adding extra restrictions (baal tosif or whatever you want to call it) will ultimately either cause more people to leave the fray or cause those left within it to be small-minded and boring.

I think Orthodox Jewry needs to focus more on the "big picture" and not the minutiae like whether there are microscopic bugs in water (here's a clue, there have ALWAYS been microscopic bugs in the water).

Ezzie: Yes, I see this all the time. But I really think it's more of a pendulum. It swings to one extreme, and eventually it will swing back to the other. I'm going to hang out here in the middle. At least I'll be right twice as often.

Trep: Yes, I don't think my folks knew what they were getting themselves into.

Ezzie said...

I believe that adding extra restrictions (baal tosif or whatever you want to call it) will ultimately either cause more people to leave the fray or cause those left within it to be small-minded and boring.

Well put. We had a completely irreligious young woman here last night, asking us all kinds of questions (until 2am) about different aspects of frumkeit. She was there with her first cousin, mostly questioning what that cousin's now very religious sister did. (Still with me? Good. :) ) She noted, "People like M are terrible for Judaism. Watching her do some of this stuff makes me wish I wasn't Jewish. She - with her wacko sense of religiousity - turns people away from Judaism."

Sadly, I couldn't disagree.

But I really think it's more of a pendulum. It swings to one extreme, and eventually it will swing back to the other. I'm going to hang out here in the middle. At least I'll be right twice as often.

Heh. Me too. :)

Mirty said...

I was wondering how your mother came to be fluent in Spanish. She's very beautiful too. Is she from Spain?

PsychoToddler said...

No, she's just very smart ;-)

She learned Spanish in high school--in New York.

She's Polish, speaks the native tongue plus Yiddish, Hebrew, German, some Russian, Spanish, English, and maybe a few more.

Jack's Shack said...

Great post. I really enjoyed this.

Shira Salamone said...

"he spent every penny he made on tuition to Jewish Day Schools."

Hmm, at last report, you had two kids in yeshiva, two kids in boarding yeshiva, and one kid in Yeshiva, not to mention the one in a Jewish pre-school. Your father must have been very pleased to see that you have the same priorities that he'd had in raising you and your sisters. He must also have been aware that, without the yeshiva education that he and your mother gave you, you wouldn't have known the words to the songs to which you've written almost all of your music! You honor your father every day.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

PT: I loved these stories -- thanks very much for sharing them.

By the way, one of the things I loved about Israel is that people can walk into shul without feeling (too) strange, and we always walk up to people and try to make them feel comfortable. (Then again, I know people in the US who did the same).

We have people in our shul with black hats, sometimes shtreimels, others with just white shirts and blue slacks, some wearing shoes, sneakers or sandals. And sometimes t-shirts and jeans. (always clean though). We have a box of kippot if someone forgot or doesn't have one...and soldiers are always welcome.

I don't think that Modern Orthodoxy is neccessarily cold to people, but rather a function of the people...some are nicer than others.

Shira Salamone said...

"...like a man who had thrown an anchor overboard, but forgot to let go of the chain, he got dragged in after me."

My parents just took a little longer. It wasn't until about 15 years after we kids had insisted that they stop bringing bacon, our only "pork cheat," into the house that they finally went kosher.

By the way, Orthodox synagogues don't have a monopoly on coldness. The welcome at non-Orthodox synagogues varies widely from shul to shul, some being known for friendliness, others for a chilly reception. Showing a friendly and helpful face to "newbies" and guests is something that every variety of synagogue has to put some effort into.

Shira Salamone said...

I remember you showing us that photo of your parents standing by car when we came to pay a shiva call. They certainly were a pair of "lookers" in their day. No matter they have such gorgeous grandchildren.

Stacey said...

What a great post, PT. And I love the pictures.

Oh, and I spend a small fortune to straighten my hair. I would have bought all of his inventory!!

PsychoToddler said...

Jack: Thanks.

Shira: I think anyone who sends his kids to a Jewish school can say that he spends every penny he earns on tuition. It doesn't matter how many kids you have in the system. Jewish education is just TOO DARNED EXPENSIVE. We need to spend less on tennis courts and olympic swimming pools, and more on funds for tuition relief.

Jameel and Shira: true, it's not just MO. And there are plenty of warm MO communities. The YI of Hillcrest was not one of them in the mid 70s.

Interestingly, I was shuffled down into the same Junior Congregation room the shabbos of my shiva (only now it was an early minyan). I felt much deja vu and the same level of discomfort. Jameel, your shul sounds a lot like R. Twers. shul here.

Shira: Yes. I admit it. I stole it.

Stacey: I wish I could help you out. Bernie the Cuban moved all that inventory years ago.

RR said...

Funny how stories about people you (in this case, we) don't even know can be so interesting. Thanks for sharing :-) Great pics, too.

Soccer Dad said...

You wrote This was certainly radical in the 60's and 70's. None of his friends or relatives did the same. They thought he was crazy, particularly since he didn't seem to be a religious man. He worked Saturdays. He went to non-Kosher restaurants. But he sent his kids to Yeshiva. And over the years, he convinced others to do the same.
My father says that his father thought that the only people who sent their children to YU were Rabbis. Little did he (my grandfather) know that someday two of his own grandchildren would attend YU.

PsychoToddler said...

RR: Glad you enjoyed it. My dad was quite a character in his day.

David: when were you at YU? I graduated 87.

Ezzie said...

PT: CBJ (right?) is a very warm shul, I must say. They have some very interesting minhagim, IIRC, but I felt more comfortable there than most shuls I davened in in Chicago in those days.

PsychoToddler said...

Yeah, CBJ is unbelievingly warm and welcoming. People don't believe me when I tell them I daven in a Chassidishe place, but it's very different from Boro Park.

Ralphie said...

I'll echo the "great post" sentiment.

Mirty beat me to the Spanish question. The most out-of-left-field part of the story, in my opinion.

Everyone knows Moses came down from the mountain in a black velvet yarmulke. Under a Yankees cap.

As for welcoming in shuls... what you said is probably true of my shul, which as you know is beyond Modern Orthodoxy into "HyperContemporary Orthodoxy" or just plain ol' liberal orthodoxy, if such a thing is possible.

The outfit thing is indeed a difficulty - although usually the kippah is a dead giveaway. If they have a shul-issued satin beanie, they're just visiting. I will certainly go out of my way to help someone find the right page - but that might be due to the fact that I need to be loved by all and to be considered important, even if only in my own mind. But I don't want to insult someone - maybe he would find it embarassing, or is just there for the bar mitzvah and doesn't care, or really does know what's up and just lost his kippah.

I err on the side of helping and just ask. Also, if there's a big bar mitzvah and it's obvious that a large portion of the crowd could get lost, the rabbi will announce various points about what's going on in the service.

Jewish Blogmeister said...

Excellent post and very moving!j

Sweettooth120 said...

I know this post is about your dad, but your mother is gorgeous!

Kiwi the Geek said...

Ironically, I really relate to all the stuff about shuls being unfriendly. Christian churches have the same issue. OTOH, some evangelical churches do welcoming so well that a shy or introverted visitor could feel smothered. It seems to depend partly on the group dynamics.

Ezzie said...

People don't believe me when I tell them I daven in a Chassidishe place, but it's very different from Boro Park.

Funny way of putting it. I wouldn't describe CBJ as a "Chassidishe place" if someone asked: It's just Rabbi T's shul, and many of the people are clear followers of his - but it's not like a traditional Chassidish shul.

Wickwire said...

Good reading. We are lucky that both of us came from great men.

HaJew said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
HaJew said...

Well written. So sorry about your loss.

Anshel's Wife said...

I was so sorry to hear about your father's passing. But I do love your stories about him. (I have to admit that I'm quite jealous of your beautiful prose) After reading this post, I've decided that I really need to call my father more often. Living 1500 miles away from my parents makes it easy to be too busy to call or visit. Now that I'm an adult, I feel that I can really appreciate my parents.

(A.K.A. Yettabettaboo)

PsychoToddler said...

After reading this post, I've decided that I really need to call my father more often.

Wow. I hope you'll follow through, Yetta. Thanks. What's with the name change?

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