Tikkun Olam

by David Hirshberg (Bedford, NY)

My grandfather spent his last year at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Boston, vibrant and spellbinding until the end. Our last conversation took place just a few days before he died in 1970. He was eighty-six, slowed but erect, with enough thinned white hair to hold a part that angled toward his left eye, adding an exclamation point to his winks.

“I have to ask you something, grandpa,” I began, and he instinctively motioned for me to accompany him to the far side of the common room.

“Let’s get away from the altekakers,” he said without irony, many of whom were younger than he.

“Did you . . .,” I hesitated, seeking to gauge his understanding that this was not going to be a question about some mundane issue, a message I’d  tried to convey by accenting the word have, a clear giveaway that something important was on my mind. “Did you have second thoughts about the events during the summer of 1952? And before, going way back, to the early part of the century?”

“O’Connor,” he said, lifting his voice ever so slightly at the end to allow for ambiguity that this was either a question or a declaration. At first, I thought this was a non-sequitur, and not in any obvious way a response to my question. Out of deference, however, I nodded, remembering countless stories of this Irish immigrant who worked for John Francis Fitzgerald—Honey Fitz—beginning before the First World War.

“He comes to me one day, David, and says, ‘Honey Fitz is gonna run for mayor,’” imitating Mr. O’Connor’s brogue, stepping back almost three quarters of a century. “‘So’s I need a favor, I do,’” he continues, and it’s as if I’m not listening to Ezekiel Ginzburg, but rather to an Irish immigrant who’d grown up with John Francis Fitzgerald. “‘Honey Fitz wants to know if youse,’ he meant me and the boys, ‘would help him, ha ha, off the books, coola boola? He asked me special to ask ya, he did, he sends his regards, personal. Ya see, Zeke, the thing of it is, this conversation never took place, are ya with me boy?’”

He was back in 1906, my grandfather staring at me, but recounting this tale to his Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish cronies, the good-hearted but tough-as-nails immigrants who’d decided that it was time to shed reticence and deference, and to turn on the Brahmin clans that had kept them from the best jobs, schools, political offices, and neighborhoods. When it wasn’t outright bigotry, they resorted to shunning, an effective tool that came without their using up any social capital.

He came back to me. “I didn’t have to respond, David, I’d been around O’Connor long enough to know where the conversation was going—it was all about getting the votes. And, then, well, more.”

He started up again channeling O’Connor in that sing-song Irish cadence that was second nature to this Jewish man born in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement.

“‘Well, we won’t have to worry about us micks, don’t ya know, we’re as good as gold, darn near to a hunnert percent, I’ll drink to that, my friend. And the dagos, especially in the North End, well, Honey Fitz, he grew up there, practically a wop himself, if ya know what I mean. The polacks, too, good Catholics, ya see where I’m headin’ Zeke? Now the Yankees, their investments buy a pol’s pound of flesh, no offense, mind ya, and outside of town, they have the numbers, they do. Have ya ever seen a Pope’s man in Lexington? In Provincetown? In Amherst? Count ‘em up, Zeke, count ‘em up on one hand I tell ya. The numbers are against us and the cash is too, by Jaykers. Ya can’t fight ‘em with the nickels the firemen and the transit workers give us, not with the real money the customers’ men have and the dough they raise with the wives at tea. Did ya know, Zeke, that they spend more on tea than a workin’ man spends on rent? That’s a fact for sure, so it is. They laugh at us, they think we’re eejits, they roll prátas on our stoops at Christmas and throw lumps of coal at the kids on All Hallow, and don’t be fooled, they wished ya’d never come here, would’ve sent the boats back lickety split, one two three, be done with ya’, kicked over the meltin’ pot and spilled it into the harbor, they would. Then they’d send a bowsie Paul Revere, all over the place, he’d ride through every town and village, the yids are gone, the yids are gone, and all the folks would come out, clappin’ and hollerin’ and whoopin’ it up, yes sir. Yahoo! And now they’re saying that ya’re Bolsheviks, communists, and pretty soon ya gonna be blamed for the flu for chrissakes. Ya can’t let them do this, Zeke, will ya stand with Honey Fitz, will ya stand for the workin’ man, will ya stand for the immigrant, the sons of immigrants? ’”

And then he stopped, dead in his tracks, the musicality and poetry of this story replaced by the workaday language of 1970.

“You see?” my grandfather asked me.

I did. I saw all the post-1906 events in which my grandfather participated, the detritus that flowed from Honey Fitz’ election as the 38th mayor of Boston, how my grandfather worked the lists of voters who’d get the $10 bills stuffed into an envelope, the money culled from the shakedowns of officials who’d been caught in compromising positions, and the skims from the bribes of contractors who did business with the city, all to curry favor with the most powerful man in Massachusetts. I saw Grandpa Zeke with the phony documents for my father who left Germany in 1938 on a cargo ship with no papers, met in Montreal by one of my grandfather’s Italian hoods, who drove to the border crossing near Jackman, Maine and presented the agent with a U.S. birth certificate and driver’s license for his passenger, a German man named Heinz Lupholdt who’d never been to the U.S., and a marriage license as well as a Ketubah indicating his betrothal to my mother in Brookline, a place he’d see for the first time when he did eventually marry her in 1939 under his real name—Reuven Hirshberger. (He liked to remark that he had a second circumcision when he dropped the ‘er’ at the end of his name to become Hirshberg.) I saw the results of the polls prominently displayed on the front page of the largest circulation Massachusetts newspaper leading up to the 1952 election of Honey Fitz’ grandson to be a U.S. senator, showing the uptick in voting for young Jack, a testament to his surging popularity, a signal to the undecideds to get on the train of a winner, not knowing that the polls were false, created by my grandfather and the boys at the bar across the harbor in Southie, paid for by the paper’s owner, who’d been caught in flagrante by one of Grandpa Zeke’s hangers-on, only too happy to take on this assignment, knowing a refusal would be accompanied by crippling blows to his arms and legs, the usual punishment for a guy who couldn’t keep a secret from his main line of work as a secretary for the City Council. This was for the cause of taking down one Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the Republican senate opponent, the scion of the well-known Cabot family, for whom the ditty,

“And this is good old Boston,

the land of the bean and the cod.

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

and the Cabots talk only to God”

was coined.

I saw it all, including the pride on Grandpa Zeke’s face, not a smugness associated with the arrogance of superiority, rather an admission that the ends had justified the means. He’d been at the epicenter of a social revolution, and had emerged not only unscathed, but had ridden the wave that sprung from this cultural tsunami to a vantage point where he could take satisfaction from seeing the results of what he and his pals had achieved.

I nodded. We sat quietly for a minute or two.

“No, David, I had no second thoughts. It was a measure of tikkun olam,” he said, rather matter-of-factly.

“How were you repairing the world?” I asked incredulously, my mind racing through the images of bribes, vote stealing, fixed races, betting on outcomes when the results were known in advance, theft, forged documents, illegal immigration, kidnapping, shakedowns, and beatings, the stuff of family legends, acted out at Purim, recounted at Seders and Shabbat dinners, so different from the stories my friends told of what went on in their family gatherings.

“Those were different times,” he pronounced as if he were an instructor in a classroom, “so context is everything, David. It wasn’t like it is today, where you, your sister, your children, friends, any of you has access to whatever you want, any kind of job or school. You can be a lawyer, work on Wall Street, join a big company, buy a house in any neighborhood, go places, serve in government, appear in a motion picture, and not think for even a minute about how being a Jew would affect you, not having to change your name.”

“But repair?” I asked.

“It was broken, the world was cracked, the seam right down the middle. The WASPs ate the cake for three centuries; they threw us the crumbs, patted us on our heads, told us we should be grateful. It had to be fixed; not by anarchy, you’ve seen how that plays out. We took a page from their book: the Irish built the railroads, the Italians the streets, the Poles the tunnels, the Jews traded.” If I’d been talking with one of my grandfather’s pals, he would’ve said the micks, the dagos, the polacks, and the yids. “We all saved our nickels, had lots of children, bided our time, got the vote, and then we turned on them; yes indeed, we gave as good as we got.”

His voice was clear, his tone serious; his eyes glistened. He’d given me an epilogue to his life story; there’d be no more chapters, no encores, no need to take a bow. He winked. I gave him a longer-than-usual hug as I took my leave, thinking about how he and his pals had harvested the resentments, slights, oppressions, and grievances of generations of immigrants, and transformed them into a powerful force that generated lasting changes for the good, using the only means at their disposal.

I’d never thought of a revenge motive associated with tikkun olam. I had to process this, in light of its seeming incongruity with the obligation to continually strive for social justice, which heretofore I’d associated only with behavior of the highest moral values. Were unethical activities ever justified in seeking to do good? Was Grandpa Zeke’s trying to right the wrongs of those who’d suppressed the civil liberties of immigrants in Massachusetts by carrying out various illegal schemes so different from his contemporaries in Palestine who plotted to use any means necessary to remove the Arab-aligned British, including blowing up the King David Hotel? Was there a scale of misdeeds where one could assign values from unjustifiable to acceptable, representing black and white? Trying to place myself in his time—and understanding how difficult it was for Jews and other immigrants for whom the American dream could be a nightmare—drew me to the gray that represented the ambiguity that could fit between these two extremes.

I couldn’t make a negative judgment on my grandfather’s methods—not because of our familial relationship (I like to think that I’d come to this conclusion even if he’d been a stranger)—but because of who I was allowed to be as a result of what he’d accomplished. The purity of his motives as evidenced by his acknowledgment that he was out to repair a broken world trumped the skirting of the law. This was the Jewish lesson he taught, and I was the embodiment of his legacy, which unburdened me to think how I might react, should I ever be in his position.

David Hirshberg is the pseudonym for an entrepreneur who prefers to keep his business activities separate from his writing endeavors. As an author, he adopted the first name of his father-in-law and the last name of his maternal grandfather, as a tribute to their impact on his life.

He is the author of the multiple award-winning debut novel, My Mother’s Son, published in 2018. His essay—A Gift—was also published that year. His second novel—Jacobo’s Rainbow—will be published in 2021. His work, Honor Code, is being developed as a stage play.

He is an active member of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, and is the creator of the Shavua Tov Boys Breakfast Club that meets on Sunday mornings to discuss books that deal with the American Jewish experience, as well as the Sichah, a group of 10 Jewish men representing four denominations, who meet to discuss important issues that affect the lives of Jews today.

Hirshberg lives in Bedford, New York with his wife and two setters. He received an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and a graduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently enrolled in a two-year course at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

You can read more of his work here: https://www.amazon.com/David-Hirshberg/e/B078SZDGKZ?ref_=dbs_p_pbk_r00_abau_000000

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