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by D. Zhonzinsky

From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

 

IN A CANDY STORE in Brownsville on the corner of Saratoga and Livonia Avenues in 1938 (it could’ve been ’37, probably not ’39), my father placed a bet on a doubleheader being played at Ebbets Field the same day. Seventy-five bucks on each game, Dodgers to beat Cincinnati in both. It was a Sunday, had to be a Sunday, double-headers were played on Sundays. $150, an enormous sum at the time but that was the number he remembered twenty years later. The bet placed, followed by an egg cream or maybe a lime rickey, he hopped a cab to the ballpark. But he didn’t ride alone. Someone else left the candy store and got in the taxi with him. Maybe he, too, had made a bet with that bookie. Or possibly the bookie was in his employ, because gambling was a racket and he was a notorious racketeer. Abe Reles shared the back seat with my father. “Kid Twist” of Murder Incorporated. Abie, who murdered a man in his mother’s apartment. Abie, who in 1941, after turning state’s evidence and dropping numerous dimes on his former cohort, jumped or was pushed out the window of Room 623 of the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, while in police custody. The headline the next day was “The Bird Could Sing But He Couldn’t Fly.”

Maybe they split the fare. Maybe Abie was a sport and it was his treat. How he tipped remains a mystery. But this isn’t about Reles, it’s about a man of his time and place and class: An Orthodox Jew who had his two feet in at least three different worlds: the remnants of shtetl culture in America, the tough streets of working-class Brooklyn, and 1930s anti-fascist Popular Front unionism.

 

MY FATHER came to America in 1920, ricocheting within the global diaspora from Poland to the U.S. Louis son of Mordechai and his family grew up in Brownsville, where there was a shul on every block and a kosher chicken slaughterhouse on Pitkin Avenue. It was strictly Mike Gold country, a neighborhood packed with Jews without money struggling to survive and succeed. My zeyde  pounded the pavement carrying numerous pushkes, a peddler of rakhmones (compassion) in the name of various charities and receiving, presumably, a percentage of the take for his efforts. In a homburg, a dark suit, and a long, well-trimmed beard, he went hat-not-in-hand-but-covering-head as far afield as Boston knocking on doors and making his pitch in Yiddish. He wasn’t a khasid but a devout Jew who spent most free moments praying and studying Torah.

My bubbe Esther, when she wasn’t cooking, also had her head in a prayer book most of the afternoon alone in her apartment on Bristol Street. Her head was covered by a black crocheted net, and in her dark clothes she wouldn’t have been out of place in Lorca’s play, “The House of Bernarda Alba.” At night, before bed, I remember seeing her, even in her seventies, letting down her beautiful, shoulder-length hair, which she hid all her waking hours. No telling what else she kept hidden. Yiddish was spoken at home, nothing but. Years later she would watch Channel 2 at night, never changing the station. She called the man who brought the Beatles into American living rooms “Ed Solomon,” and she wasn’t joking.

They were greenhorns on arrival and remained so until their departure.

My father, on the other hand, had no discernible accent unless you listened closely for sound, not meaning, and then you might a catch a little something that was slightly off, a vestigial Yiddish or Polish inflection. He was a member of the first graduating class of Thomas Jefferson High School on Pennsylvania Avenue. Before that he had attended Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin on Stone Avenue, a school where the students were surely made to venerate their rabbis and old country corporal punishment was still practiced. Stone Avenue! Just the sound of it evokes Europe’s old cities. Ghetto walls made of stone. Forced enclosures. Restricted movement. Pogroms. Contrast that with Thomas Jefferson High, named for a Founding Father, a president, a goy of the highest order, a slave owner (which didn’t trouble anyone back then). Pennsylvania Avenue brought the western frontier to mind; bountiful farms, wide-open fields planted with seed-bearing Americana, infinite possibilities. In a contest between the two avenues, any young man with a zest for life would have chosen Pennsylvania over Stone. And with the switch of schools began a life lived in two worlds, one traditional and tightly circumscribed by 613 mitsves, the other secular, workaday, and riddled with class contradictions that offered the opportunity for militant creativity.

I can recount the high points of the first half of my father’s life, what would be the boldface on his resume. Exactly how he moved from point to point has to be speculative because my father, like most parents, didn’t pass along stories of when he was a young man full of passion and wonder. Young idealism that doesn’t pan out (and when does it?) can, years later, curdle into embarrassment and even shame, better to keep it to yourself. So the full story of how my father got from Jefferson to becoming the first secretary-treasurer of District 65 has some blanks in it. There are dots that need connecting. I know those dots and will connect them with a kind of enlightened deduction that bounces dialectically between personal and social history.

 

AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, Louis H. Levine, known as Lou or Louie — as in Costello, Armstrong, or Lepke — became a proletarian. The Depression landed like an anvil on the working poor, and his father’s pushke couldn’t have been overflowing at that point. The family needed every member to pitch in. Louie went to work at a company named B.I.B. What they made or did is uncertain, but as they were organized, with his help, into District 65, it was more than likely a light manufacturer of garments or a warehouse that stored and shipped them.

With an intellect honed by years of Talmudic extrapolation and argumentation, he came to the notice of the new union’s anti-capitalist leadership. It could have been the teachings of Hillel or the words of Moses when he broke up a fight between two slaves — “Why do you strike your brother?” — or merely his own experiences of employers screwing workers, but he threw himself body and soul into the union. By 1936, Louie’s name began to appear on the list of attendees at the union’s executive committee meetings, and in 1937, in the first election for the full smorgasbord of union officers, he was elected secretary-treasurer. (Years later he held the same position in perpetuity for the Young Israel of Sheepshead Bay, bringing home the books every month. Black and red ink were used the same way in every ledger.)

Fragile yellow typing paper containing the minutes of the executive committee meetings are now in archived boxes at the Tamiment Labor Library.  The motions are all made by men, but I suspect the minutes were typed up by a woman. Local 65 was as progressive as any union, but it was also a product of its times. Some of the records can be touched and handled, while others are too brittle and have been transferred to microfilm for safe perusal. What the record recounts from month to month doesn’t vary: the names of new union members in two columns, union business, organizing efforts, fundraising drives, and — it being the  1930s — the union’s participation in the international fight against fascism.

March 3, 1937 — Finance Committee: report by Louis Levine. The committee recommended a donation of $3.75 to the Italian Anti-Nazi Committee of Yorkville. This amount will be in payment of five tickets to their dance.

October 4, 1937: A project to raise $2,500 to pay for an “Ambulance for Spain.” Union members were urged to donate $1, which was payable in twelve weeks.

May 12, 1938: “A Memorial Day Youth Peace Parade” to be held on May 28th. “All members urged to attend to show a united front in our fight to lift the embargo on Loyalist Spain.”

Too late. Republican Spain was doomed, Franco had gotten the upper hand. The Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact would come a year later and with it a change in the “international line” coming out of Moscow. Suddenly the fight against fascism was pushed to the side. How could a militant trade unionist without a deep connection to Mother Russia make sense of this change of heart? He couldn’t. It was in these moments that my father’s lack of an overarching political consciousness made him an irritant, a guy who asked too many questions and needed too many things explained to him that were self-evident to the local’s leadership. By 1941, he was on his way out of the executive committee and into the Air Force. He emerged from the war as a shopkeeper in the wholesale district below Delancey Street on the Lower East Side.

 

AS A KID, I remember the union paper coming in the mail. I didn’t know exactly what it was or why it kept showing up and I don’t remember ever seeing my father reading it, but in the 1950s it would have contained articles on Local 65 protesting the murder of Emmett Till and its support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That was the kind of union that my father helped to build.

He had some regrets about it. He was certain that the Air Force had denied him a place in officer candidates school because of his association with a leftwing union. Still, all was not forgotten or renounced. Before I knew who and what Jim Crow was, I had heard the names Bilbo and Eastland, senators from the great state of Mississippi, spat out at the Sabbath dinner table in a tone of voice reserved, until the end of time, for the Amalekites who set upon the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt.  I learned that there was no greater villain than Judge Irving Kaufman who had sentenced the Rosenbergs to death, because “the SOB wanted to show that just because he was a Jew he wouldn’t show them any mercy.”

The Dodgers dropped both games of the doubleheader to the Reds that Sunday. Was my father just throwing money around, sowing his wild oats, feeling full of himself the big union honcho, or was he maybe trying to make a quick hit and donate a large sum to Republican Spain? On the way over to the ballpark, did he try soliciting a donation from Kid Twist? Unlike his father, Louie wouldn’t have done it with pushke in hand. And Reles wouldn’t have known or cared about the Spanish Civil War, but he might have wanted to come off as a thug with a heart to his young idealistic cab mate. “Hey, wait a second, I’m supposed to be the shakedown artist here.“ Then, pausing for menacing effect, he says, “Just kidding,” as he peels off a twenty from a fat roll of bills, maybe two of them, maybe a fifty instead, and then tells him with a wink, “Here, kid, sure, you go send it over to Spain or someplace. It don’t matter to me none. If I was you I’d spend it better on a dame.”  And the ambulance fund would be 2 percent closer to its goal as Franco’s four columns closed in on Madrid.

 

D. Zhonzinsky has put aside his acting and is devoting his creative energy to writing. He is working on his first novel, which involves the unsolved murder of a European head of state in the 1980s.