Friday, January 4, 2013

January 4, 2012

from Al's Childhood & Old Age Journal (today's entry):

A brand-new website arrives on the internet, and I email the woman, Heather O'Donnell responsible: company name, She had posted an announcement on a special collections librarians' listserve I'm attached to . . . her first catalogue is available. It's the most creative website I've ever found in the world of books. Miss Heather is an antiquarian bookseller, offering things like a first edition of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (1755).
Here's a recent edition–there have been hundreds--two volumes. 2,500 pages. Turns out Ms. O'Donnell wants a Unicorn Press book, Apollinaire's Calligrams, which I published in French and English in 1969. There is suddenly a lot of interest in this book, almost 50 years after I published it, because the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has decided it's important in the history of the development of Abstract Art, and they are displaying a first edition of it this month in Manhattan.
     The main reason I mention Miss Heather and her new enterprise is that she's located in Brooklyn. This morning I emailed her the book is on its way, and I told her the three times I had lived in Brooklyn.
     My mother, Sara Birnbaum, was born in Vienna, in the 19th Century–in those days in a European city like Vienna, Jews had to live in a ghetto just for Jews, and it was locked up, locked in, at night. Her father was a rabbi there. But in 1900, he moved his synagogue and his family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
     Consequently, my mother went to Washington Irving High School. Her 1917 graduating class was probably the brightest in the history of education, giving us all the good guys and the bad guys that are responsible for the good and the bad in our american world today. Mom was the Valedictorian. But her Orthodox Jewish father, wouldn't let any of his eight daughters go to college. Men, he felt, were ordained by G-d for study, women for drudgery to free men for study.
     Sara's sisters all went into the Garment Industry (today it's called The Fashion Industry in a wealthier america). Tilly was some kind of clothing broker, and Gussie was a tailor, and Vivy was a seamstress, as was the oldest, Anna. The one son, Moe–well, I was there the day The Pope (that's what my father called Mom's rabbinic Cohanite father) threw him out of the family–Moe became a plumber, and paid off enough of the corrupt Brooklyn politicians to land several plump plumping jobs and became a rich man. What goes around comes around. His eldest daughter Gloria married a fellow, Gene Levy, and when my brother, David, killed himself, Gene, whose wife had died from cancer, married Dave's widow. Yes, mine was an enormous, incestuous family. All those wonderful aunts . . . I had 53 first cousins.
     Mom was too bright to be a mere tailor, she became a secretary! Meanwhile, Dad had run away to New York from the farm on which he was "incarcerated" (to hear him tell it) for 18 years.
     In those days, in The Russian Empire, Jewish men had to serve 24 years in the Russian Army, so my grandfather, Dad's father, Jakov brought his family to Ellis Island. They were all Russian peasants, so the JNF (Jewish National Fund) bought them a farm in Connecticut, from which, as we have seen, when he was 18, Matthew Brilliant, my father, Jakov's son, ran away to work in the Garment Industry in New York.
     Dad needed a secretary. He had been born in Russia, in the Ukraine. In fact, his mother was born a slave, because when she was born, Russian serfs were still slaves; they were freed by Czar Alexander in 1962. Dad, too, was a 19th Century Jew, from a little village, Tiraspol, that you know all about if you ever saw it portrayed in Scholem Aleichem's short story, "Tevye and His Daughters," which became the movie, Fiddler on the Roof. The author, you see, was also born in the little village of Tiraspol, 20 miles west of Odessa, on the Black Sea, a village of 12,000 souls.
     Dad needed a secretary, because he owned five factories. A "factory" on 7th Avenue in those days (right after WW I, which Dad claims he missed being conscripted into by one day) wasn't what you think of when you hear "factory." It had a dress designer, and a model who came in occasionally, a pattern-maker (usually the designer), a cutter, a presser–all male professions–and a few sewers, usually women. Dad's brother, my Uncle Jesse, was a cutter all his life. His son went to Harvard, but Dad's son only to Columbia. Dad's sister's boys also went to Harvard. Aunt Cecelia married a dress salesman, probably the richest member of the family, my proud Uncle Terry. Jack, the oldest of Dad's siblings, also owned dress factories, but he held on to his when The Depression hit.
     "Macky," as my father was known, was quite a lady's man, but Sara was strictly brought up–she was really a religious addict–and she wouldn't sleep with him, even if she was his secretary. So he had to marry her.
     I was born, 1936, in St. Louis. Dad had lost his little factories and was one of the 25% unemployed in this country where the streets were paved with gold.
There was a rumor of a job in St. Louis, but when that didn't pan out, Sara found succor in Bensonhurst, where her father and mother and all her sisters now lived. No more Lower East Side. Brooklyn now. So I spent ages 1 and 2 in Brooklyn.
     Still no job. So, in 1939, the Brilliant Family bought Dad a car (a '39 Pontiac) and a farm. And I got brought up in Franklin Township, New Jersey, a two-hour drive from Bensonhurst through the Holland Tunnel. It was "back-and-forth" even though gasoline was soon rationed.
     I think had the Depression not come, had I been a typical bright Jewish boy from the Lower East Side, had there been no farm, I'd be a boring college professor today, like my oldest friend, Herr Professor Goldstein, whom I've known since he was a freshman in Brooklyn College. But I had a garden at age three, and learned from Brownie my cow and Spotty, my Beagle dog, from the farming families on Davidson Road, an 8-acre family farm, two miles from Bound Brook, in Central Jersey, on the Raritan River and its Canal, ten miles from New Brunswick where our farming co-op was. Mom saw to it the shochet came regularly (for ritual slaughter of the animals)–chickens and eggs were the cash crop, a smart move when World War II came along.
     And when WW II ended, they sold the farm, alas, and I was moved back to Brooklyn, where the family bought an apartment house in Boro Park. That only lasted two years, for Dad finally got a job, in (ugh) Camden, New Jersey. So I got to go to the worst high school in the history of education–and in the worst city in america. Later, I'll tell you all about that. And how a hoodlum like me became a poet and a printer and a publisher, just like Camden's Walt Whitman.

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