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.
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!"