Commentary Magazine


After All I Did for Israel
A Story

We husbands have our game every Wednesday night while the girls are holding their Hadassah committee meeting. In fact it was my idea for the winners to contribute their haul to Hadassah as that gives the girls an extra source of cash for their organization and also it reduces the gambling fever a little, so some of the smaller fish can stay in the swim. A big guy like Sam Bernstein, with all the money he made in the war, when Sam starts splashing around it’s tough for guys like Doc to stay in the game; though Doc makes a good living, still on one trip to Hawaii Sam probably blows away more than Doc earns the whole year. Anyway this idea of mine discourages Sam a little, and the game is just as good.

Actually, what it amounts to in the end is that I am contributing the most to Hadassah because I’m a steady winner, but I don’t mind, it isn’t exactly like money out of my own pocket. I give my share and more than my share anyway to the UJA and the Talmud Torah and all the appeals they’ve got—they tell you there’s going to be only one campaign but every week there’s another special appeal for a secret submarine or for some Histadrut outfit or the Hebrew University, and you’ve got to give, or you’re on the spot in the community. Nobody can complain about me; if the really big guys like Sam shelled out in proportion to what I do, Israel could have six universities and they could irrigate it four times over, I can tell you. Still, if I didn’t hand over the poker winnings to Hadassah I’d give them to my daughter Babe or to my son Mickey for some foolishness, it’s against my principles to keep gambling winnings, and it starts you a bad reputation in the community.

We have our game in turns at one house or another so everybody gets their share of dragging themselves around and of entertaining, and the girls take the same rotation with their committee meeting; as it happens by coincidence—as they call it—pretty much the same bunch of wives gets elected to the committee every year or it would mess up the gang in our game; besides, the leading spirits in a place like Rivervale don’t change fast.

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This time the meeting was at the Bernsteins. They just moved into that big modernistic house that Mitzi Bernstein talked Sam into building so as to give their new son-in-law a start and attract some commissions in the riverside suburbs, though with the Union Station he built for them he’d better try to set up in business somewhere else. What I can’t understand is a wall that is not a wall or even a partition; this new theory that this Mammerstein boy got from Frank Lloyd Wright or some other screwball is that the wall shouldn’t go all the way up to the ceiling, but that there should be a gap on top. They call it a divider instead of a wall, so Sam and Mitzi got the living room divided into two parts, each part is big enough for two living rooms anyway and this divider wall—amongst friends we call it a garage door—it slides in and out, so the whole shebang can be opened in case of a big affair.

They have a whole philosophy about this kind of architecture, that it makes the family closer because you can hear what is going on all over the house, and Mitzi Bernstein says that way a mother can keep track of her kids—but the Bernstein kids are grown up and married. Anyway, their living room is made to order for the Hadassah meetings because while our game is going on we can kibbitz on the girls doing their business in the other compartment, and sometimes their ideas of business methods really give us a lot of laughs.

Because, what is Hadassah anyway, or any of these organizations, as I see it they are all engaged in the business of raising money for Israel, and all these gatherings and rummages and teas may help to give the girls an activity, but the basis of it all is making money for Israel. Of course the way they do it is like kids selling lemonade, but still they gather up quite a few pennies in a top community like Rivervale during the course of a year, and one thing about Hadassah, every cent goes to their hospitals and schools, they haven’t got any thirty-thousand-dollar-a-year executives.

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Well on this night the game was a little sluggish, you couldn’t build up a pot over ten bucks, and we got to listening to the girls yammering in there about how to complete their annual quota. Every six months they keep doubling their quota on themselves and they are out of ways to raise money. Estelle told me for a fact that at the last rummage sale Mitzi Bernstein undertook to raise three thousand dollars, and they had already had so many rummage sales that the girls were sneaking out to the Salvation Army shops to buy stuff to donate to the sale. Worst of all it seems that since the new look, the rummage garments have got to be up to date or you can’t even buy them to give away to your shvartze. So what did Mitzi do? She actually sold out all of her own wardrobe and even auctioned off the dress on her back, it must have cost Sam five thousand dollars to outfit her, including shopping trips to New York, and I suppose he could have just made out a check for the three thousand in the first place and handed it over to Hadassah—but the girls have got to do things their own way. Mitzi promised to raise it on a rummage, and she had to deliver.

Well, this time they’ve got another four grand to raise to finish their season, and they’ve already had their lawn parties and their circus and their theater parties and their rummage sales and their fifty-dollar plate lunches and God knows what. Archie Solow, the raw sonofagun, he put us in a panic with some of his suggestions how the girls could raise the dough, and pretty soon Lil Braverman calls out over the partition, “We heard you, and if you haven’t got any better ideas, maybe we’ll adopt it! Anything for Israel!”

But seriously, the girls seemed to be in a spot. Right now they’ve got this additional program, TB. No use kidding ourselves, Mitchel Becker was over there himself for a week and brought back the confidential dope, a lot of the human material they’re getting over there is anything but top grade, but what can you expect after what they went through in Europe. They are full of TB and everything. As a matter of fact between ourselves we ought to be glad they are not coming over here.

But there is a problem even worse than the material from Europe and that is the Jews from all these Arab countries, Yemen, and all these African Jews, I never realized they existed. The Doc’s wife had a report on them—they are no better than the Arabs, uncivilized, you’ve got to build them from the ground up. Sometimes I wonder if we really need them in Israel, but I don’t want to mix in too much in such discussions, that’s their job over there to decide. We’re lucky we’ve got it so good over here, and I’m glad to help out. So from all this we could see that the girls really needed the money, because in addition to the TB program they have undertaken a children’s program with these African Jews.

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About the only idea they’ve got left is to have a series of lectures and concerts of Jewish culture and music; I know who that idea comes from, the culture lady, that’s Doc’s beauteous spouse, and I can just see myself getting dragged to these affairs. Besides after getting through paying for halls and speakers and ads and printing, what would they have left? “You’ll work your heads off and bother everybody to death and bore everybody stiff and maybe clear two hundred bucks on the series,” I yelled over the divider. I was on my last card for a flush and naturally drew the wrong color.

“Okay, then you give us an idea,” Mitzi said. She was just coming through with a plate of lox sandwiches.

“Why don’t you do something in a big way,” I said, “make it all on one deal.”

“All right, what?” she said.

Estelle called out if we slobs wanted some coffee, or were we sticking to Scotch? “Why don’t you give Sam a break and have some coffee and give us your valuable ideas?”

“Go about it in a businesslike way,” I said. “Don’t try to force on people things they don’t want. First figure out what they wantany businessman will tell you that”

“Yah,” Sam said. “And then you’ve got to remind them they want it. You’ve got to stimulate their appetite.” The way he’s kept up his sales since the war, he ought to know about psychology.

“Okay, tell us, we’re listening,” Mitzi said. “What do people want?”

“Ask yourself,” I said. “What do you want most?”

Mitzi couldn’t answer right away—fur coats, her own car, trips to Hawaii she’s got. But Lil Braverman piped up, “What I want most I can’t announce right here”—she never misses a chance—“but next to that I’d like a Cadillac.”

“Look how everybody perked up at that idea!” I said. “Everybody wants a Caddy, So why don’t you give away a Caddy?”

It wasn’t long before I had them convinced of the soundness of my idea. To get you have to give. Look at all the giveaway programs on the radio.

We moved into their meeting and got pencils and paper and figured out a deal on the basis of fifty cents a chance. Even the goyim would take a fifty-cent try on a Caddy. We’d sell twenty thousand tickets in no time. And Sam could get us the Cadillac free of dealer’s profit from Harry Straus—there was nearly a grand we saved for Israel right off the bat.

But some of the girls were tame. How were they going to sell twenty thousand tickets when the best they ever did was to sell eight hundred seats for the premiere of Ethel Merman?

“Just show the car around,” I said. “And give your salesmen some incentive.”

“Isn’t Israel incentive enough?” the Doc’s wife says.

“Look at Archie’s movie business,” I told her. “He’s got incentives such as Clark Gable and Greer Garson—but when he throws in some free dishes he sells more tickets. So throw in a television set for the one that sells the most tickets, get some salesmen’s prizes and you’ll have every one of our kids bothering the hell out of us to buy blocks of tickets.”

They went for it unanimously, provided I accepted the chairmanship of the drive, and how could I refuse?

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Naturally from then on all the work and responsibility fell on me and it turned out to be more of a job than anybody imagined. Because even though it was a sure thing, my mind wasn’t going to be free until I had taken in enough to cover the cost of the car. The first week, honest I felt as if those women were worried I was swindling them. They must have called a hundred times a day with some excuse or other, just to bring in at the end, by the way, how are the tickets going, have we paid for the car yet?

But once I start on a thing I see it through, and I had everybody in Rivervale buzzing to get that Caddy. I put the bee on Milt Richards for a TV set and got him to display it in his window. I got a dozen more prizes out of the leading shops. As soon as we got the Caddy, I started Mickey driving it around, with a big sign, How Would You Like Me For Keeps? My only fear was that the kid would fall in love with the dreamboat and start working on me to buy one. As it turned out, I wish that was all that happened to me out of this campaign, I’d be satisfied.

All you heard around town was Who’s going to get the Caddy? It was the main topic of conversation at every bridge party and if you walked through Aunt Hetty’s Chicken Shack any night you could hear it being discussed at a dozen tables. I started a story that Sam Bernstein was buying a book of tickets every day and that if he won the car he was going to donate it to Israel, to Ben. Gurion.

The first couple of thousand we sold easily, but then the plugging began.

The worst of it was the UJA crossed us up by running their campaign at the same time. And in the middle of it all I got a hurryup call from Herbie Axlerod, he’s on that Haganah committee, now they’re collecting tents, tarpaulins, anything in that line. Even with the summer trade ahead, I sacrificed to them my whole stock of tents that I still had from the army surplus sales, I gave it away at cost price without even figuring handling and overhead and all the rest. Right there I figure I made one of those real donations to Israel that never shows up at the showoff meetings where everybody announces their contribution. Okay, I’m not doing it for the credit. If they haven’t got even tents to live in, I’m ready to help out.

I figure I must have spent more of my time on Israel than on my own business, but after all I said they could sell twenty thousand chances, and if I pulled it off, it wouldn’t hurt my reputation. I don’t even know how much it cost me. To tell the truth, I would have done better to buy blocks of tickets myself, but it wouldn’t look right if I won the prize. So I started to give away a chance on the Caddy with every sale over ten dollars, in my stores, figuring that if at least a customer of mine won, it wouldn’t hurt business, as the saying goes.

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The last week, we had one of those Israeli war heroes. He came in the UJA campaign to give us the inside dope at these trade lunches where they put the quota on you. He was a colonel. Turned out to be a young kid—twenty-four. Colonel Amos, one of those boys born and raised there. A real cleaneyed nice looking kid, like those sabras seem to be, from over there. He was the first one that got through on that road they made, the life-line from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, I think, though he never said so himself, this boy was very modest and sincere and wouldn’t even admit he was a hero, on the contrary all the stories he told were about his chaverim.

The first thing you know, the Hadassah got hold of him to stay over, and my wife said why should he be lonesome in a hotel downtown and waste Israeli money, when he can stay with us. So we had this young fellow at the house. He talks a pretty good English. The kids took to him fine, right away they were calling each other chaver and sholom and all that Hebrew.

Next thing I knew, Babe was wearing her Star of David to school. Let there be no misunderstanding, I gave it to her myself for her sixteenth birthday. With all these Catholic girls wearing their crosses all the time, a Jewish girl can wear her star. I think it’s suitable around our own circles, around the Temple and on Jewish holidays and occasions like that. But in a high-class suburb like ours where there is already talk about too many of us coming in since the war, you have to be a little discreet, you don’t have to throw it in people’s faces. I know for a fact that some of the teachers at her high school don’t like us so much. But I didn’t say anything to Babe. Luckily she is only sixteen and as I figured it would pass over in a week or two, it was only a childish crush.

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We still had two thousand dollars to sell, and Mitzi and Sam Bernstein came through again. They offered their house for a big final party at which we would invite only the best in town, the kind of people who would know they had to come through for that last batch of tickets.

Mitzi opened the garage door of their living room and I have to admit it was impressive. There must have been three hundred people in that room. The liquor alone must have set Sam back a couple of centuries. Babe and all her girl friends were dressed up like ladies, and they were running around trying out their sex appeal on everybody, with their books of tickets, and though everybody had their pockets full of tickets already, business was good. I must say it made a real impression, like a high society scene in the movies, the wives made a lot of us put on our tuxedos, and it was a real climax to my campaign, I was proud.

The Doc’s wife had found a soprano that sang some Palestine songs, and then some of the youngsters did a hora dance that Colonel Amos had taught them, and the final event was a speech from Colonel Amos.

So he got up and started talking. He isn’t a real speaker, but he makes everybody feel like they want to help him get it out He went over a lot of stuff we heard before about the biggest homecoming in history and how everybody in Israel is ready to give up their own bed to take in a refugee, but all the time I had a feeling he was leading up to something. “You give us your money,” he said. “Thanks, we surely appreciate it and are ready to do a good job with it as you know we can do.” They’re not bashful over there, and that’s okay with me, I like people to be proud of what they can accomplish. “You give us your time,” he said, “and thanks, though honestly we think it is the best thing a Jew can do with his time is to help Israel. Now we have your money and your time but we want even more,” he said. “We want you. We want your sons and your daughters. . . .”

I still couldn’t guess what he really meant though I felt he was maybe running off the line. Sure, I had thought of making a trip over there sometimes, maybe next year if business doesn’t turn out too bad. I had it in mind as soon as they get some decent hotels built, since I always wanted to go to Europe, we could take a trip to Paris and Italy and wind up looking over Israel.

But Amos had more to say. He doesn’t want us to come only as tourists! They are building a new Jewish people over there, he says. They’ve got the survivors of Europe as their building material, some of them are good but most of them are not first-class material. They’re getting all these Yemenite Jews and they are a depressed people, uneducated and primitive, the way I get it they are not much better than the schvartze over here, and though they will bring in some good qualities, they have a wonderful spirit and they are tough, still, this is not the type we want to dominate the new Jew. So what they really need over there are some American Jews to raise up the average of the stock!

That’s what he wants our sons and daughters for.

Well, I figured maybe he was cleverer than I thought—maybe his speech was a kind of smart compliment to us American Jews, telling us what a high type we are. I figured that he looked pretty good himself as a sample of the new Jew they got over there, and that they would get along all right after they are over the hump of the next few years. Still, I thought it was a little out of place, what he was saying—not everybody would understand it the way I understood it, that it was intended as a smart compliment; people might feel offended if they thought he meant we really ought to send our children over there.

I looked around to see the reaction. The women were all hanging on his words with their lips half-open, with that encouraging grin on their faces, as if they wanted to help him make his speech. Just like when their kids are young and are given a piano recital. I don’t think many people really knew what he was saying; they were just looking at him, what a fine sample of Palestine youth, and every one of the women was figuring maybe he would fall in love with her daughter and she’d put him through medical school and since the war was won over in Israel, he wouldn’t have to go back, and she could set him up a fine downtown practice.

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After his speech we had the last tickets sold, and then the drawing of the lucky number. The Caddy was won by Doc, and everybody was happy, it made the whole campaign perfect. The TV set should by rights have gone to my boy Mickey for the wonderful job he did, but we’ve got a video, and I fixed it up so it would go to Lil Braverman’s girl Sheryl.

It was the biggest deal Hadassah ever pulled off around here, and the girls admitted they could never have done it themselves. In fact they gave me a very nice vote of thanks and a token of appreciation, a silver cigarette holder from Jerusalem.

Nobody said anything about Colonel Amos’s remarks, and he and my kids and some more youngsters left for the Chicken Shack at about midnight, though Mitzi was serving cold chicken and turkey and real delicatessen chopped liver and anything you could want. Youngsters have to go somewhere else.

We got home pretty late. The kids were already home but they weren’t asleep. They were talking in Mickey’s room. Our house hasn’t got these new dividers like the Bernsteins’, but anyway you can hear straight through the walls. Those youngsters were talking through half the night.

The plain fact is, this Israeli put the bug in my kids. I thought after he’d gone it would wear off in a few days. Well, it wasn’t so bad with Babe, she soon got a crush on Louis Braverman because he’s full of some Utopian ideas about a world government and he convinced her that Israel is a return to chauvinism. But my boy Mickey has been reading all these books on Palestine kibbutzim. Kids of his age have to be idealistic, and everything idealistic-sounding like socialism appeals to them. So this Israeli talk has a double attraction for them, they’re going to set up a socialistic Utopia as well as build up this new Jewish people.

With Mickey, it’s serious. He wants to give up his courses in business administration and start studying agriculture.

I had a serious talk with him. “Look, Mickey,” I said, “we’re Americans. We have Israel now just like the Irish have Ireland—but how many Irish kids want to go to Ireland to raise potatoes?”

It’s not the same thing, he answers, and he starts in with a lot of talk about it’s only an accident that he was born over here, and he really belongs in Israel.

I tried to give him the facts. I told him how they haven’t even got tents to live in over there; I told him such hard conditions don’t matter to refugees, they are used to even worse conditions, and the Arab Jews never had anything better than tents. For them Israel means progress. But why does a man have to go backwards in civilization?

It’s pioneering, Mickey says. The people who first came to America gave up a better life for their ideas, too. All that line of talk. He’s swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

So finally I had to make him see how ridiculous it was. “Do you mean that we should all go to Israel?” I demanded. “There are six million of us. There isn’t even room for us in Israel.”

No, he says. Only a select few have to go. The best ones.

I’ve got a real problem on my hands with that boy. He’s stubborn, and like me, when he goes after something he does it all the way. I’ve told him, “Mickey, I’ve spent my life building up something. It’s not for me. It’s for my family, for the idea that it will be perpetuated in generation after generation. I’ve built up the best chain of sport shops in the state. I’ve made our name mean something in the community, and even among the goyim. It stands for honesty and a square deal. . . .” My sincerest words fell on deaf ears. I already feel as if I had a stranger staying in the house. I feel as if my life were wasted. My own son isn’t interested in our life any more.

After all I did for Israel, this is how I get paid for it

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