It all Started with a Dream or Schlemiel Origins (Take 2): My Dad’s American Dream(s)

Like many a schlemiel, I have inherited my father’s story.  I have inherited his dreams and his failures.  His story is a major part of my own.  But it’s a long story with lots of twists and turns.  And one blog entry will certainly not do justice to it.  So, rest assured, I will turn back to this story in future blog entries.  As I hope to show, over a few blogs, the impetus for any consequential schlemiel story is not foolishness; it’s the clash between dreams and reality.  But, while it begins in trauma, it doesn’t end in trauma.  Which is not to say that the schlemiel’s story has gone beyond it; in fact, the schlemiel’s story, while humorous (depending on what you regard as humor), is not redemptive.

The schlemiel’s story is on-the-way to redemption, to something better, to something else.

(Note: do keep in mind that this blog is named Schlemiel Theory and that the secret of Schlemiel theory is Schlemiel practice.  Regardless, I would be dishonest if I were to say that my theoretical insights into this character had nothing to do with my relationship to my father who, as I hope to show, possessed many Schlemiel-like qualities.  He was my first schlemiel-teacher.  And while I will do my utmost to be ‘objective’, I must admit at the offset that his schlemiel-teachings, so to speak, bleed into my work.)

Ok, so here it goes:

Growing up, regardless of how much I tried to deny it, I looked at myself in terms of my father’s dreams.  And I measured them against his successes and failures.  The tension between his dreams and reality introduced me into the dynamic schlemiel-universe where the forces of dreams and actions interact, exchange, and transform reality (for the better or for the worse).

As with any Schlemiel, it all starts with a dream.  And that dream was not a Jewish dream; it was an American dream.

My dad was a boy-genius who dreamed the post-WWII dreams of America.  He grew up walking the streets of Manhattan, marveling at its skyscrapers and urban life.  He lived on the Upper West Side in a nine room flat (89th and West End Avenue) until he went to high school.  Then, he and his family moved to the Mayflower Hotel on Central Park West.   They were moving up on the social ladder.

They had a chauffer and a chef.  They had a view that said one thing to my immigrant grandparents: We made it!  In America dreams do come true!

My father was the son of an extremely successful Leather merchant who came over from Europe to make a living.  Menachem Menkis, who I am named after, grew up above a synagogue in a small town in the mountains.   His father was the Rabbi.  And when Menkis (the name he went by) was old enough, he left for school in Vienna and for a stint in WWI.

My grandfather was a Corporal for the Austrian military.  He led a Jewish-Polish platoon and, for his service, was given many medals and honors.  He was proud of his achievements; he certainly didn’t think of himself as a schlemiel.  For as any German or Austrian knew, a schlemiel is not something you want to be.  A successful and committed soldier is, as I will show in another blog, not a schlemiel.

But this was only one success.

Menkis learned the leather business in Austria and, before coming to America, he did a lot of business in Odessa. Upon coming to America, he met my grandmother Rose (who was, at that time, his secretary).  They married, had several children, and moved their way up.

My father was the youngest son.

(Be forewarned, this may sound a little like Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral; but that’s for another post. Roth has a fair share of Schlemiels in his novels and he did, in fact, write about a Leather family and the small town I grew up in: Gloversville, NY.)

My dad, who my grandfather named Marshall (all of his children save for one had Germanic names), was a child prodigy.  He spent most of his days, after school, in the New York Public Library.  He worked hard and constantly studied.  When I was growing up, he used to tell me that he memorized the dictionary and could give me any definition (on the spot).  His obsession with New York Times crosswords and his incessant correction of my speech constantly reminded me of his grammatical passion.

He went on to become the Valedictorian of Brooklyn Science. And, after being offered fellowships to Harvard, Yale, MIT, etc he decided to go to Columbia University.  He wanted to stay in Manhattan.

He studied economics, politics, and engineering at Columbia and went on to be the  Valedictorian.   His Valedictorian speech bore his passion: to get the man on the moon.  The sciences were the way for America and my father believed he was at the crest of its wave. This was his first big dream.  And America gave him the opportunity to “live it.”

His brilliance won him the NASA Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University.  My father accepted the scholarship and went on to doctoral study in engineering and physics.  During Vietnam, he worked for the American military and designed weapons and war games.   After his service was filled, he went on to work for Lockeed-Martin while working on his doctoral thesis.

But when his father decided to retire, my father left his doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University for the Leather Business.  His dream changed.

He was offered one fourth of a multi-million dollar making leather business.  He would have to share it with his three brothers.   When he accepted, strangely enough, his brother Jack died.

Now, it was my father, his oldest brother Irwin, and his older brother Myron (Mike).

Then my grandfather passed away.

That’s when it all went downhill and that’s when my father’s dreams started crashing on the shores of reality.

My father was kicked out of the family business.  He always claimed that they had doctored the will so that they could split all of the money and assets 50/50.  (And this lead to a lifetime of dramatic law suits, which I will recount in another blog.)

I was born into this world; a world that had spun out of control.  My father was on his own.  His oldest brother cursed him.  And, as I learned, he also cursed me and my mother.  We were all damned.   We were forbidden to see his side of the family from then on.  (My grandmother, who I didn’t meet until she was on her deathbed, was forced to go along with it all.)  It didn’t (and it doesn’t) make any sense.

Against all the odds, my father managed to build his own leather business.  He had a factory in Gloversville, New York and in Buenos Aires, Argentina.   That worked…for a little while.  But then Argentina went down the tubes.

I remember, when I was six years old, when the bottom fell out.  My father grew morbid and then manic.  My grandfather (father’s mother) sent my father off to Elmhurst Hospital, which at that time, was one of the worst in the city. My father would always bring this up as he was traumatized by what he saw.  As a child, he used to recall to me the madness on the ward.  He described things to me that were shocking and inappropriate for a child’s ears.  As a child who grew up in wealthy Manhattan and in the Ivy League, my father had never seen this side of life.  It lingered with him.

My father’s mania, coupled with events that were real, such as real crime, and real threats, was a mixture of reality and fantasy.

As a child, I wasn’t sure which was which.  He always managed to use reality as evidence.  But I knew something was wrong.

As time moved on, he grew interested in Kabbalah and described the world and all events through it.  His Kabbalah was a mixture of science, physics, mathematics, and prophesy.

I was his main audience.  He would educate me.  I was to carry on his dreams and visions.  He would take me along on his Schlemiel journeys across America.  (I’ll divulge some of the details of that itinerary at another time.)   My mother was at a loss at what to do.

It took me years to figure out that what my father really was and what he wanted to teach me was how to live on air.   A schlemiel lives on dreams.  A schlemiel doesn’t see reality.  But is this so bad?  Who needs to dream when reality can become your dream?  And what happens when that dream is made out of reality?  And what happens when odd or twisted dreams actually change reality?  (To be continued…)

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