Do You Remember the Catskills?

    July 2010            
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Moving Zayde’s Bones

By Ronald Pies

Look, you don’t remember the Catskills the way I do. How could you remember? You were still in diapers when all this happened. Me, at 70, I can remember: Sekofsky’s Department Store and the hot pastrami sandwiches at Joe’s, in Loch Sheldrake, back when Brown’s and Grossinger’s and the Concord were still spilling out crowds on a Saturday night. I mean, zaftig ladies in their furs, big-bellied, cigar-smoking liquor store managers from Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens—with money to burn! Nowadays, all you see are the skeletons: the closed-down malls, the shuttered windows. A good deli, you don’t find anymore in the Mountains. You don’t even have the Hasidim the way you used to, dancing, davening, throwing stones at the cars passing by on Shabbas. Sure, I know—the arts are coming back. A big deal, this new Bethel Woods center. Maybe it will take, maybe not. What I know is that you’ll never understand the tsuris we went through back then, arguing over Zayde’s bones. And with my dad and Uncle Morty gone, nobody except me can give you the whole story.

It was just after the Korean War, the armistice—you were what? A year old, maybe two? I was thirteen. I know this because I was still spending my bar mitzvah gelt, buying “Superman” comics in Monticello, fishing tackle at Sekofsky’s, pushing nickels into the pinball machines at the Garden House, just down the road from our bungalow. Now you need to understand, Richie: back then, there were two Jewish cemeteries near us. In Woodbourne, you had Ohav Shalom—a decent burial grounds, but not a great setting, very noisy, right off the highway.

In South Fallsburg, you had B’nai Yisroel, a beautiful place on a hill where Zayde, may his memory be a blessing, was buried since 1946. You never knew my father’s father. The man had been strong as an ox well into his 90s. Then, one day, loading hay into his wagon, he collapses, out like a snuffed candle. In B’nai Yisroel, he would have been happy forever, looking out over those hills. He loved the Mountains, Zayde. His favorite expression—he would come up to you and ask, “You like the Mountains?” Then, before you could answer, he’d say, “So stay another week!”

What do you mean, I’m getting distracted? I’m trying to paint you a picture, boychik! The Catskills back then, you have no idea. It was like paradise, coming up to that mountain air, two hours from our little apartment in Brooklyn. And me, at thirteen—just getting interested in girls, seeing the women walking around the pool at Kutsher’s, half-naked. Did you know that Floyd Patterson trained at Kutsher’s, and after him, Mohammed Ali?

Anyway, so back to the cemetery. One day, in the summer of ’53, we hear there’s a plan afoot: B’nai Yisroel is no longer going to be a Jewish cemetery. I mean, there will still be dead Jews there, but soon they’ll bury the goyim alongside. What, “insulting”? I’m just saying, the gentiles. We got along just fine, you know, without your Ivy League politics, the Jews and the Christians. Appleton, a farmer just down the road from our bungalow, as goyishe as mac and cheese, he used to bring us sweet corn, fresh from his garden, a nice man. But it’s a different thing, getting along, from who they bury you next to, a neighbor for eternity! At least, that’s what Uncle Morty thought, my father’s brother.

My dad and Morty—you couldn’t find two brothers more different. My mother used to say, “ An untersheyd vi fun himl biz tsu dr'erd!" – as different as heaven from earth! My father, Jake Ackerman, he was a shtarker, you understand? Arms like you’d see on a heavy-weight champ, a Marciano, with legs to match. And down to earth. My dad liked nothing better than watching a good ball game, having a beer, a little nosh, maybe go out to nice restaurant once, twice a month. Tinkering with cars was his greatest pleasure in life, and he could fix anything –transmissions, alternators, carburetors, better than the mechanics.

Now, my uncle—looking at him next to my dad, you’d think somebody dropped Morty by parachute into the family! A small guy, a face like a china doll, with one of those pencil-thin moustaches you used to see on, what’s his name? Clark Gable, in “Gone with the Wind.” Only without Gable’s looks, Morty. Now, here’s the thing. Morty fancied himself some great Talmudic scholar, always spouting off on Pirke this, and Baba Metzia that. But he never went to Temple—I mean, as long as I knew him, not even on the high holidays. Morty, he was too good for any congregation in Brooklyn, you see what I mean? Instead, he got mixed up in a lot of mystical crap and mumbo jumbo that even the Hasidim wouldn’t go near. Stuff about merkabah and the “throne chariot of God”, the Sefer Yetzirah—I mean, my dad would just whistle through his teeth and laugh!

The amazing thing was that they didn’t kill each other, my dad and his brother. They were both egg men, a small business they took over from Zayde. I remember, in the kitchen of our apartment, my dad and Uncle Morty, holding eggs up to this big, naked light bulb—“candling”, they called, it, talking about bloody whites, blood spots, meat spots, cracked shells. They worked pretty well together, my dad and Morty, considering they were like oil and water.

But then came the cemetery mishugas. What with B’nai Yisroel mixing Jews and gentiles, Morty gets it into his noggin that we have to move Zayde. “A shandeh un a charpeh!” Morty is shouting, waving his arms like an Italian cop. “A shame and a disgrace!” Morty goes into this whole big deal, and how the shekhina—the Spirit of the Lord—will no longer descend upon B’nai Yisroel if the goyim are buried there! What Morty wants is to have Zayde’s bones moved to the all-Jewish cemetery, Ohav Shalom, in Woodbourne. Of course, my dad thinks this is completely mishugah—why move Zayde from a place overlooking the mountains he loved? The place he had chosen to be buried? Zayde was never that religious in the first place, so why would he care if a few gentiles were laid to rest in the same burial ground? His wife—my bubbe, may her memory be a blessing, I never knew. She was laid to rest in Poland, and Zayde wasn’t going to ask us to ship him back to the old country. He was happy to be buried in the ground he loved, with the mountains in the distance. Besides, the family had heard from cousins in Warsaw that Bubbe’s burial ground got turned upside down by the goddamn Nazis, bodies and graves all fermisht. So who even knew where she was anymore, Bubbe?

Anyway, my father didn’t knuckle under to Morty. A religious scholar he wasn’t, my father, but he knew enough about Jewish law to argue with Morty about moving Zayde’s bones.

“Moving the dead from their burial site,” my father says to Morty, “isn’t that a desecration, Mr. Hot-shot Talmudist?”

“Usually, yes,” Morty says, looking like a well-fed cat, with that silly moustache of his, “but not in certain circumstances. If there is flooding in a cemetery, you can move the body. If the state comes in to take the land, under eminent domain, you can move the body. If a grave is about to be desecrated, you can move the body. Putting the goyim next to our own flesh and blood—is that not a chillul hashem, a desecration?” Morty fires back.

But my father was at least as stubborn as Morty and wouldn’t budge. “There is no way we are going to move Pop from the place he wanted to be laid to rest,” my dad says in no uncertain terms. “Other than in Poland, next to Ma, there’s no place else Pop would want to be buried.”

So, this is America, right? When there’s a dispute, you either call a lawyer, or if you’re a Jew, maybe you call a rabbi. Well, so—my dad phones the only rabbi the family knew in the Mountains, Rabbi Saperstein, in Monticello. A learned man, and a mensch, though I didn’t know him well. Morty, of course, wants nothing to do with him. “Saperstein, you consult on this?” Morty says. “The man is learned, yes, I’ll give him that. But he is all text and analysis—Saperstein does not know how to raise the sparks!” This, I guess, was just Morty’s mystical mishugas, raising the sparks.

Anyway, my father and me, we drive off to Monticello and meet with the rabbi in his ramshackle little office, right next to Temple Emeth, off Main Street, by the diner. Saperstein is friendly, welcomes us in, sits us down. A thin, wiry guy, with a beard neatly trimmed, not like the rebbes in Crown Heights. His whole office, Richie, from head to toe, covered with books! And so he begins to explain the problems with moving Zayde. I mean, he explains the problem, knot by knot, with lessons from the Talmud, Midrash, whatever. Actually, it felt to me like he was tying more and more knots, the more he went on, Saperstein. I wish I could quote him—even my father was impressed, and like I said, Dad was not a very observant guy. So Saperstein goes on and on about the laws of kavod hamet, which means something like, “respect for the dead.”

“It’s very complicated,” Saperstein says, as if anything the rabbis say isn’t! “You see,” he says, “removal of a met—the deceased—from his burial site, it is considered a form of theft, in Jewish law. You are depriving the deceased of his “home”, especially if the gravesite was paid for. Our sages tell us, “it is pleasant for a person to rest near his ancestors." There are only a few exceptions. For example, you may move the met to new burial grounds if the deceased was buried without permission of the landowner; if the grave and the body are likely to be damaged by water, or vandalism; if the position of one grave causes damage to other graves, and things of that nature. Some of our sages say that disinterment is permitted if the deceased is moved to a place where surviving children and family can come to pray or visit. However, on the other hand…”

And on and on with the whole megilah, Saperstein talks to us for half an hour! By this time, my father and I are both starving. So we thank the rabbi, make some excuse, and head over to the Miss Monticello Diner for a little nosh. Of course, by now, my dad knows that none of this stuff about kavod hamet is going to make any difference to Morty, whose ear is right next to God’s mouth! My dad has to come up with a new plan, a strategy. He decides to pull a Solomon. No, that’s not my Dad’s term, it’s mine. My dad, he had some Jewish teaching in mind—something about “shalom bayit” and how it’s sometimes OK to change the facts a little bit, for the sake of peace. But you remember the Solomon story, right? About the two mothers who both claim the same baby? And our wise King Solomon tells them, “OK, so we’ll cut the baby in two and each of you will get half!” So when we get home, Uncle Morty pretends he’s not interested in what the Rabbi had to say—for about ten minutes. Then the conversation goes something like this.

“So,” Morty says, “What did the Maggid of Monticello have to say, already?”

“Well,” my dad says, very nonchalant, “The rabbi was very clear. No question about it at all. We need to divide up the bones.”

Morty gets a look on his face, like somebody just put an ice cube on his schmekel. “Oy, es vert mir finster in di oygen! “ he says. “My eyes are going dark! Not even Saperstein would come up with that! What did he really say, Jake?”

But my dad stays very calm. “I’m telling you, Saperstein says, half Zayde’s bones should stay in South Fallsburg, the other half should go to Woodbourne. What’s fair is fair, even-steven, Saperstein told us. So that’s what we’ll do, Morty, divide the bones.”

“A nahr bleibt a nahr” Morty says: “A fool stays a fool.” He paces around in our little bungalow for a few minutes, while my mother puts up a pot of coffee. I don’t think Morty really believed my father, but he knew Dad was stubborn enough to go through with it, divvying up Zayde’s bones. So after a few minutes, Morty turns to my dad and says, “OK, Gantseh Macher, you win. Zayde will stay where he is, may God forgive us!”

So that’s what happened, Richie. Zayde, may his memory be a blessing, stayed in his “home” at B’nai Yisroel. I wish I could say that Dad and Uncle Morty made peace with each other, but that never happened. I mean, they barely spoke for the next twenty years, except to do the candling and go over the books for the business. And before anybody could blink an eye, both of them were gone—Morty after a stroke, my Dad, from cancer. You can probably guess the rest, you’re a smart kid. That’s right! Morty is buried in Woodbourne, at Ohav Shalom, right off the highway, with Jews only. My dad, he’s right next to Zayde, in South Fallsburg. To this day, at B’nai Yisroel, they bury the Jews and the goyim together, and from the grave site, you can see the mountains in the distance.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Phil Ratzer, for reminding me of several facts about the Catskills, in his memoir, "Once Upon a Time in the Catskills - A Memoir of Summer, 1958". However, the material that I present concerning the two cemeteries is purely fictitious. Material on kavod hamet was drawn in part from an article by Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz []. I also wish to thank Michael Wex for some suggestions on Yiddish expressions.


from the July 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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