As absolutely horrible as COVID-19 is, the majority of us will survive and have to navigate an uncertain future. There will be a worldwide economic depression. That seems inevitable. These days, all of my dreams are about breadlines, poverty, homelessness, a society overwhelmed by the very structures it chose.
As a Jew, I am also extremely aware that every time there is a large economic contraction, people kill Jews. It’s happened all over the world for centuries. HBO’s THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA (which I urge everyone to watch), struck me as both a warning and a road map.
All of this brings back memories of my Grandpa Abe. He died when I was a teenager and was vital and energetic when I was very young, but that is not the man I remember.
My Grandpa Abe was stooped over almost in half, and walked slowly, yet with purpose. He wore a thin tan windbreaker made of an undefined material, and although I remember one hand being gnarled, I think that might be my writerly brain taking liberties. Even as a child I understood that Grandpa was deeply sad, and yet I couldn’t understand why. Over the years I learned that he and his sister had barely escaped WWI, and he came to NYC knowing not a word of English. Around 1918, he got a job at Yonah Schimmel’s selling hot sweet potatoes from a cart a few blocks from the store. Many years later, the theater company I worked for would rent a building a half-block from where his cart used to be. For those of you who don’t know about hot sweet potatoes, they were a nickel or less and served as both breakfast and gloves for kids too poor to own gloves. You would buy two (one for each hand, natch) eat one when you got to school and save one for later. Eventually, he saved up his money and bought a gas station.
Grandpa Abe told me none of this, as he was an extremely quiet person. I learned it higgledy-piggledy over time. My parents and I would drive from Philadelphia to Brooklyn at least once a month for years, and stay for the day. Grandpa would always want me to sit next to him, yet he would rarely speak. We would sit in silence, eating, and if there was a game on we would watch it together.
Imagine my surprise, then, when one day, during a football game, he leaned over to me and said,
“Did I ever tell you I was a KA-boy? (pronounced KAH-boy.) “A what?” “A KA-boy, a KA-boy!” I must have looked very confused, because after a minute he added: “Like Bonanza!”
Suddenly, the light dawned. This sad old man who had struggled for everything he ever got and managed to make a life for himself, his wife, and three kids running a gas station used to be a cowboy?
“A cowboy?, I said, a question in my voice.” More excitedly than I’d ever heard him, he said “Yes! A KA-boy!”
Being a naturally inquisitive lad, I asked, “Why did you stop?” With utterly perfect comic timing, he took a beat and said, “I didn’t like cows.” That’s it. Nothing else. We went back to watching the game in silence.
Jump forward about 15 years. I’m living in Manhattan and working with The Living Theatre. We are preparing for the annual New Year’s Eve party, and someone decides to order two trays of Yonah Schimmel mini-knishes. As I was the newest member of the company involved in the planning, I was dispatched to fetch them.
Opening the door, I see a man who is both old and ageless. I tell him the order, he puts it together for me, and just before he hands it over glances down at the slip.
“Rothbart, huh. Did you know Abe Rothbart?”
“He was my grandfather.”
“How is he?”
“Yeah, well, it happens. Did he ever tell you he was a KA-boy?”
“Why yes, yes he did.”
“I’m the guy who brought him there. See, Abe and I started out together, and I had a buddy who I met on the boat. He didn’t want to be anywhere near a city, and so he went to Montana. He got a job on a ranch, but he was the only Jew for miles, and so when they needed people he figured it would be a chance to get me out there, and I talked Abe (excuse me, your grandpa) into it.”
“Had either of you ever ridden a horse?”
(rueful laugh) “No. I didn’t even know there would be horses out there — it just sounded better than the Lower East Side.”
“What did you think you’d be doing out there?”
“Cow things? Whaddya want, I was 19. It was an adventure. You should go before it gets too crazy out there.”
“Just one last question: Why did my grandpa say he was leaving?”
“Personally, I think there was a girl — but what he told everybody was that he didn’t like cows.”
As suffering in this country increases, so will hate crimes and discrimination against anyone who is not white, male, and Christian. If you don’t fit into that category and have stories, whether they be yours or of your family, write them down now. Get your history into the world while you still can.