Eyes on the Prize

By Ed Staskus

   My sister thought Gadi Galilli was going to help her learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But he never helped her, even though they lived together, and she was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues. 

   She met Gadi when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were both looking up at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards she gave him a ride home. Everybody in the immigrant group loved him. He asked her for her phone number. He was a cute guy, and she liked him, but found out later he had almost no patience, even though it is a Biblical virtue.

   He was from a Kurd family, was born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. Rita always thought there was something out of joint with him. He never talked about why he left Israel when everybody else said it was the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, too, but she always drove him. She dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he walked the rest of the way. He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.

   Rita was working at Born to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the far east side of Cleveland and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. She thought, “Maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job.” Gadi and she would have something in common, other than going out and making out. 

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Rita to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they said to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans, making their plans.

   They were sisters and both were fat. They were always at the head of the buffet line. Sandy was usually ahead of her sister. Sima worked hard, but Sandy didn’t, since she had Sima. Sandy fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on triple chins. They both smoked cigarettes all day long, stinking up the office, like it was the most important thing to stick in the mouths, next to chow. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting anytime soon.

   Although Rita wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, she spoke Lithuanian fluently and some German. “I’m pretty good with languages,” she thought. She used to be a schoolteacher and was sure she could learn. At least she thought so until she tried. “I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she admitted. It was like having grown up speaking ghetto and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once. 

    Sima told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Gadi lived. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. She made sure to get there early her first night, although when she got there every last person was already in the classroom.

   When the teacher walked in, Rita could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. The first thing she said was, “Yemenite Jews are the most Jewish of all Jews. Be glad I am your teacher. Sit up straight and pay attention.”

   Her name was Ayala. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet in them to the class. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to. She was all business.

   “Let’s go,” she said clapping at the start of every class.  Everybody had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to the business of Hebrew.

   Rita’s biggest fear was Ayala calling on her. “I would have to speak in front of everyone,” she mumbled to herself. She tried to keep her nose buried in her notebook, scribbling notes. She tried to keep her head down in the foxhole.

   Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for her. Everybody had to tell everybody else their names the first day of class, Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony meant. 

   Everybody in the class called him Gil, although one wise guy called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.

   “Oh, my name’s Rita,” she said hesitating when it was her turn. Right away somebody asked her, “What’s your Hebrew name?” She wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,” but said, “My family calls me Rita.” 

   Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around her answered in Hebrew, she realized they all knew at least some of the language, while she knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but she was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out Rita didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her. 

   Rita couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke, it sounded like she was clearing her throat. She decided she wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. “I’m not coming back,” she decided. But two days later she was back. She told herself, “I am taking the class for work’s sake. I want to travel overseas. I don’t want to admit to Gadi I am quitting after one night.”

   She ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew. 

   Every symbol of the alphabet has to be memorized back to front and back. She tried, but it was hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she copied in her notebook. She wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. She wrote her middle name until she got it right. 

   She wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then she wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.

  The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World, not the Old World. But there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so the Hebrew proposal became history.

   The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Rita’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, watching them go in their door. They didn’t like it, at all.

   “Oh, they’ll never be real Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they said.  

   “Take a look at that shiksa,” a skinny man sneered wrinkling his lips.

   Rita thought everybody believed her mother was Jewish, although she didn’t know why. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. “I don’t look Jewish,” she thought, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.” 

   Gino, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office at the desk opposite her, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when a man walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

   She said it too loud. Everybody heard her say it.. Sandy and Sima put down their cigarettes. The secretary looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.  

   Gino and she were outsiders because everybody else in the office and almost everybody else in the building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sandy and Sima would sometimes say, “I don’t know why the Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s big blue-ribbon plan.

   The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the heavyweight holiday. Everybody in Rita’s class was talking about it. One of them asked her, “What synagogue do you go to?”

   Most of the class lived on the east side, including her. She lived in Cleveland Heights up the hill from Little Italy. Rita thought, “Oh, Christ, there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox.” She didn’t want to look overly conservative. When she drove to work, she passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so she said, “SInai.” 

   It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.   

   Everybody was good with that, even though Rita didn’t wear a wig or have a real Hebrew name. She decided she had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. She took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs. She didn’t have a wig and never went back.

   Her classmates knew she lived with Gadi. He dropped her off at school and picked her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everybody thought she was Jewish she knew she had to start being crafty about it. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the plaza beside Born to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.

  An old lady with a scratchy voice, the mother of a woman she sat next to in class, called her one evening. It was a week before Christmas. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.

   “What did you do today?” she asked.

   “I just finished all my shopping,” Rita said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve. They were dyed in the wool Christians.

   “But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.  

   “In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” Rita explained. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told her to say donuts if she ever felt she was being called out.

   “Oh, I see, that’s good,” the old lady said.

   Rita was never certain whether she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew, or not. After every class she thought, “I’m never going back.” One night she finally didn’t go back. She couldn’t bring herself to do it. That night Alaya called her at 11 o’clock, just as she was going to bed. 

   “Why weren’t you in class?” she asked. 

   Rita wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But she told her because of the holiday coming up, she had to clean her cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast in the kitchen.

   If you’re ultra-orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace of the stuff.  Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everybody believe she was more conservative than them, she was expected to be serious about ritual.

   “It never was my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit it never came up,” she explained to Gadi. What was worse, she was Catholic. That side of her didn’t like Jews. The Lithuanian side of her didn’t like Jews, either. She kept her peace of mind by doing breathing exercises.

   After Alaya hung up, Rita had to meet her on Sunday morning, just the two of them, to make up the class. It was impossible to keep her head down with her teacher breathing down her neck. Alaya told her she was making progress. It made Rita glad.

   Gadi’s brother Oz from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Rita in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of the language. It sounded like something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Gadi ever did.

   Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Gadi turned off all the lights in the apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left, they left Rita sitting alone in the half-dark.

   At the end of the class Rita got a B, even though she more-or-less staggered through it like wandering in the desert. Her reading and writing were sketchy, but by graduation time she spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, she was glad when it was all over.

  She started chaperoning Born to Travel tours to Israel soon afterwards. Sandy and Sima saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their long Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy. They bought giant hot pretzels to tide them over.

   Rita stayed with Gadi’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Oz still lived at home, the family home, and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Rita wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other side. After the ceremony she sat at a table with the women who passed around platters of food. 

   They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of the chatter too fast for her. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall. The groom wouldn’t say a word to her when she tried to talk to him. He and his bride didn’t dance together, not once. Rita danced with some of the other women. She had a wonderful time.

   The more often she went to Israel the better her Hebrew got. One day she was walking around Jerusalem by herself, sight-seeing the way she liked it. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked her something as he was passing by.

   “What’s that?” she asked.

   “Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.

   Her tour group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it met Jaffa Road.

   She pointed over her shoulder.

   “It’s over there,” she said in spotless throat-clearing Hebrew.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Ground Zero

By Ed Staskus

   The General Hospital of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened in Sudbury on Paris Street in 1950. It was the first English speaking not just French hospital in northern Ontario. It had a brick façade with a steel beam grid system. The parking lot was close to hand right at the entrance, which was handy if you were dragging a broken leg behind you.

   Nobody needed to speak English or any other language to get around. “They used to do this cool thing,” Ginette Tobodo said. “On the walls they painted certain colors, one color for the lab, another color for the cardiac department, and you just followed the color to where you needed to go. It was easy to find your way around.”

  Susan Cameron was the lead blast off. “The hospital was not officially open, but my mother was in labor,” she said. It was unofficial but necessary vital time sensitive. When it’s your time to be born, it’s your time, no matter what anybody officially rules on the matter.

   When I was born the next year in March 1951 everybody was already calling the hospital the ‘General.’ I don’t remember a single second of being in my mother’s womb. The next thing I knew there were bright lights, voices, a pair of scissors, a slap on my butt, and I was being held up for inspection like a hunk of ham. I couldn’t make out what was happening. Everybody was wearing clothes and I was naked as a jaybird. It seemed like I had come into being not knowing anything.   

   The whole thing was such a shock I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it for almost two years, by which time nobody wanted to hear about it.

   A man wearing a mask counted my toes and fingers and pinched my arms and legs. He stopped when he seemed satisfied. I wanted to ask him what he was doing but didn’t know how to talk. That month’s issue of Sudbury’s Inco Triangle newsletter had a poem called “Man’s a Queer Animal” on one of its inside pages.

   “With a lid on each eye, and a bridge on his nose, with drums in his ears, and nails on his toes, with palms on his hands, and soles on his feet, and a large Adam’s apple, that helps him to eat, with a cap on each knee, on each shoulder a blade, he’s the queerest thing made.”

   I looked myself over. I didn’t seem queer, but what did I know? I checked the other newborns but couldn’t see any difference between them and me. Were we all off the wall? I was reassured when I heard a nurse say, “They are all such little miracles.”

   Inco was the corporation that ran most of the mining in Sudbury. Its head man died a month before I was born. Robert Crooks Stanley was a mining engineer who patented many new refining methods including the Stanley Process. He became president of Inco in 1922, when the company was at a low ebb. He had to close operations owing to a loss of war orders. Six years later, recovering his poise, he launched a $50 million dollar building and expansion project. 

   When I came down the chute the mines were booming. My mom was getting her bag ready for the hospital the day Len Turner and Nifty Jessup arrived at the Bank of Toronto in the Donovan neighborhood, one of Sudbury’s oldest neighborhoods, with Inco’s weekly payroll. Going up the steps of the bank, the pay clerks were suddenly brought up short by two men armed with revolvers.

   “Let me have that case,” one of them snarled.

   Len made a grab for the man’s gun. The gun went off, the bullet slamming into the bank building. The bank was unharmed. The gunman grabbed the payroll case and the thieves drove off in a stolen car towards North Bay. For all that, they made a wrong turn, got trapped on Fir Lane and the Sudbury police, more of them and better armed than the bandits, rounded them up.

   “A little of that excitement goes a long way,” Len said to Nifty after they got their company’s payroll back.

   Sudbury came into existence in the early 1880s as a construction site for Canadian Pacific Railway that was laying tracks for a transcontinental line. It was a company town and all the stores and boarding houses and everything else were operated by the company. W. J. Bell cut down every tree he could see to supply the railroad, at least until the day the railroad was done and left town. It looked like the end of Sudbury.

   It was saved from stillbirth by prospectors who found vast mineral deposits, what became known as the Sudbury Basin. It is the third largest impact crater on the planet, when something big from outer space crashed there about 2 billion years ago. “By 1886 we knew Sudbury was going to be a mining town,” Florence Howey wrote. In that year mining and smelting was started by Copper Cliff. Seven years later the town incorporated itself.

   Meanwhile, Sam Richie formed the Canadian Copper Company in Cleveland, Ohio, which was an unknown place to me in 1951, although by 1959 I was finding out all about it since my parents, with my brother, sister, and me in tow, migrated there. At the turn of the 20th century Canadian Copper was merged with International Nickel, controlled by J. P Morgan, and moved to New Jersey.

   Sudbury’s nickel plating on warships helped win the Spanish-American War for the United States. Afterwards, the British and their international military cousins sat up and took notice. The arms race was on, and Sudbury was rolling in dough.

   Even though my mother and I had been inseparable for nine months, the next thing I knew I was being separated from her. I was carried to a nursery and spent the next week in the company of a gaggle of strangers. Half the time half of us were crying. The rest of the time we were sleeping or looking around for food.

   The boy next to me seemed to be hungry 24 hours a day. Whenever anything edible was within reach, he reached for it. “He’s a nice boy but he’s got more nerve than a bum tooth,” I thought, even though he was far off from cutting his teeth. A girl on the other side of me wiggled her legs and giggled. She started wiggling her arms, too. 

   I couldn’t take my eyes off her, baby fat and all. “That girl is fidgety as a bubble dancer with a slow leak,” I tried to tell the hungry boy beside me, but the words wouldn’t come, and besides he was eating again.

   The nurses gave us a bath every morning and fed us every three hours. The nurse who scrubbed me from tip to toe was all business. She tested the temperature with her elbow, soaped me up, and I went gently down into the water. One day something scared me, and I jumped like an electric eel. I was crazy slippery from the soap and slipped out of her hands. I landed face down in the baby bath. The commotion I caused would have made anyone think she was trying to kill me.

   When we were done with breakfast lunch dinner and goodies, which was all the same mush, they bubbled us, changed us, and put us back to sleep. I wasn’t fussy or gassy and slept like a log. As soon as I woke up, I was hungry again.

   The boys took it easy in blue beds and the girls in pink beds, what the bosses in white uniforms called cots. My mother got to stay in a room with another woman, chatting it up, eating in bed, and reading Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. I saw her twice a day for a few minutes for some real food. One day my dad showed up.

   “Who’s that?” I wanted to ask.

   My cot was near a window. When I looked out all I could see was ice and snow. More than a hundred inches of snow had fallen that winter and there were snowbanks as far as the eye could see. The month before the thermometer had gotten stuck between 30 and 40 below for a week. It was still bitter cold. I pulled my blanket tight around me when I heard one of the nurses say, “It’s too bad we can’t take them out for a little airing.”

   The minerals in the Sudbury Basin had a high sulphur content and needed to be roasted before smelting. The open pits burned for years. The roasting yards puffed yellow gray clouds all around the compass. There were slag and mine tailing piles, soil erosion and blackened hilltops. When I was born Sudbury was largely barren and treeless. Everybody said that was the way it was. Everybody cashed their paychecks and got on with it. Tourists on their way somewhere else called the Sudbury Basin the Canadian Death Valley.

   I was an infant and didn’t have a clue that engineers and corporate executives can be a burrito short of a combination plate. The executives were sly dogs, though. What their mines paid in taxes was the equivalent of about one-half the revenue that Sudbury would have gotten if it had been any other heavy-industrial city in that part of Ontario. The national press was always saying my hometown was a “slum” or “a smaller version of Katowice, Poland.”

   My dad belonged to Local 598 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. It was the biggest trade union in Canada. Local 598 and Inco hated each other’s guts. The local built union halls and a children’s camp where we went to hear music and see movies. I saw Walt Disney’s “Treasure Island” and “The Littlest Outlaw.”

   It wasn’t like I needed a day off like my father and godfather, who worked long hours miles down in the ground. One day my godfather walked up to me at the camp and said, “What are you doing here relaxing? You haven’t worked a day in your life.”

   “You’ve got to love livin’,” I said.

   He coughed up a mouthful of mine dust and cigarette smoke and laughed. “If you aren’t laughing, you aren’t living, my baby boy,” he said, reaching for his Export A’s when my dad walked up, so they could kick back together for ten minutes.

   My baby days were behind me, but I let it slide.

   My parents didn’t live in Lively or Onaping Falls, where class and race paid the bills. Little Warsaw was where the Poles lived. Little Italy was under a line of smokestacks and the Italians lived there. I ended up living in the middle of town where the East Europeans and Finns lived. The Finns liked to wrestle and ski, although not at the same time. My parents and their friends liked to play cards smoke drink and dance. They worked like Puritans, though, saving their money, so they could get ahead. They left the DP camps of Europe in the late 1940s on separate freighters with a duffel bag and enough cash to buy a snack.

  When it came time to pack up, I wasn’t ready. I had gotten used to the nursery and had made friends. I learned soon enough that all good things come to an end. It was a sunny day towards the end of the month when my dad gathered my mom and me up and took us home. There weren’t any crocuses showing, but most of the snowpack had melted away.

   The General did fine work by me. I was hale and hearty when I got to what I found out was home. I had been living on the bottle, but my mom switched the menu up, feeding me herself. My parents lived in a small, rented house on Pine Street. My father was working in the tombs of outer space, taking all the overtime he could get, and was planning on buying a house on Stanley Street, just down the street.

   Sometimes the hospital couldn’t get it done and people took matters into their own hands. Edmond Paquette, an Inco pensioner in his 80s, had suffered a paralytic stroke that left him unable to walk. He vowed an act of penance, building a built-to-scale church inside a five-gallon glass carboy. When he was done, he stood up and walked across the room to tell his son-in-law Dusty that he had accomplished his mission.

   “You’re walking unaided,” Dusty exclaimed. 

   “It’s a miracle,” Edmond said.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”