Humble Beginnings

We were so humble, we couldn't afford the pie.

We were so humble, we couldn’t afford the pie.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS WOULD BE A STEP UP

Chapter 2

Let’s circle back to where it all began. Like David Copperfield, I am born. But sadly for me, in New Jersey. There are actually a few (very few) towns that are fabulous like Bernardsville, New Jersey where Jackie O. had a home and kept her horses. There’s Englewood, where legendary silent screen star Greta Garbo had a palatial estate since many of the silent films were filmed in and around New York City in the early 1910s and ’20s. New York was the original Hollywood, but once they discovered that the New World aka Los Angeles was always warm and sunny, it’s easy to see why the entire film community loaded up their trucks and moved to Beverly…Hills, that is…swimming pools, movie stars.

My province of origin was a much less glamorous affair. I was plopped on Earth in the wee little town of Weehawken, which I fondly refer to as “the welcome mat of New Jersey”. Weehawken is all of twenty blocks long and three blocks wide and is situated on the ass-end of the Lincoln Tunnel. The only redeeming quality of Weehawken was that it overlooked the skyline of Manhattan. Looking at the panoramic landscape of the city lights of New York City from across the way in the “shtettle” I called home, I realized early on that I belonged on the other side of the Hudson River, the right side. As the world-renowned Broadway musical, Hamilton would later prove, Weehawken’s only claim to fame was that it was a popular dueling ground and the site of the most famous duel in American history between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would cross the Hudson from New York to bitch slap each other with gloves before pulling out their pistols, proving that even our founding fathers knew back then that New Jersey was the perfect place to die. This historic legacy taught me one major lesson: I had no interest in gaining notoriety through any means of violence because, with my luck, I’d be the one with a fate similar to Alexander Hamilton…the dead guy. Not that Aaron Burr left that duel a hero. He was ultimately charged with murder and went into self-imposed exile for the rest of his life, which sounds like he became a resident in New Jersey.

Our family residence was a low-income nest nestled on a non-tree-lined street amongst a glut of row houses. Think of the East End of London without the cache of, well, London. One could say these were humble beginnings, perhaps in a press release. But humble beginnings would be a step up to Highwood Avenue. Weehawken was your typical, hideous, blue-collar working town filled with anti-Semites and boozehounds, in that order. The worst part of this scenario was that my parents had survived the Holocaust, and had come to America in search of the streets paved with gold, only to stumble upon the complete opposite. Boy did they make the wrong turn somewhere between Ellis Island and Hester Street.

Arron Burr & Alexander Hamilton knew back then that New Jersey was the perfect place to die.

Arron Burr & Alexander Hamilton knew back in 1804 that New Jersey was the perfect place to die.

We were just about the only family of Jews in this shit-hole of a town. Most Jewish immigrants settled in Brooklyn or the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. Not my parents. Imagine surviving Dachau and a Siberian work camp only to end up in an oppressive environment where your children are chased from their yellow parochial school bus. I don’t know what’s scarier, Nazis or poor, American white trash. It’s a toss-up, frankly. The only real difference is the accent. And believe me, a blue-collar Jersey accent can be just as off-putting as German. Neither are romance languages.

Until I was five years old the kids in the neighborhood accepted me. Once I got on the bus to a private Yeshiva two towns away as opposed to going to public school, (why I will never know) everything changed. Once the little Jew-haters saw a busload of Heebs wearing skullcaps… Wait, skullcaps? Really? Who came up with that term, Sitting Bull? But I digress; back to anti-Semitism.

Being bullied by anti-Semites, I began to grasp the unfathomable horror and pain my parents must’ve endured during the war. Suddenly I hated everybody. I hated Jews for being Jewish, straddled with a stigma that I might never break, especially when you’re fat, four-eyed, and short. I hated non-Jews for hating Jews. I lost faith in my faith and trust in my fellow man, questioning God’s role in these unfortunate circumstances. The one saving grace of humanity was the actors and actresses on the black and white screen of our RCA Victor television, my hiding place.

Something had to change regarding the sad state of my reality, realizing early on that I was different than everyone else, which made me want to be someone else. Someone who was not Jewish, someone taller, someone blonder, someone who didn’t need glasses, someone definitely thinner. And most importantly, from somewhere else. I quickly became ‘the’ neighborhood joke. Only it wasn’t funny.

Despite becoming the town joke and crier for being the brunt of fat-Jew jokes, things at the Gurko house were fairly normal. Happy even. I looked up to my parents like they were members of the royal family. As mentioned, my mother survived the Ghetto and concentration camps in Europe. My father was a war hero. After escaping from Siberia, he joined the Irgun – an underground group of partisans that saved the lives of many innocent women and children by smuggling them out of Germany through the Italian Alps to boats that took them to Palestine. Imagine trying to live up to that legacy? It’s hopeless.

Kids do that, though. They put their parents on a pedestal and it’s only a matter of time before they come tumbling down to the lower depths of the real world where they spend the balance of their existence not being forgiven. My mother had a beauty mark on her left cheek just like Elizabeth Taylor and my father was a robust handsome man not unlike Richard Burton. They were my Liz and Dick just without the booze, money and celebrity status. It’s amazing how we can look at our parents with such enormous rose-colored glasses. It wasn’t until I saw the film Cleopatra that I figured out that my parents were not, in fact, Liz and Dick but a very bad Jewish version. They weren’t royalty, though sometimes, like all parents, they could be royal pains in the ass. When Cleopatra came out and the press was hounding Liz and Dick, I begged my mom to start wearing Pucci tops and white Capri pants, and that they needed to lollygag on yachts, sipping martinis. Instead, they were relegated to hustling my sisters and me around in a rowboat in the Catskill Mountains in the summertime, sipping Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine and the occasional snifter of Slivovitz. Every summer my family rented a small house upstate New York in Swan Lake, the Borscht, nowhere near or anything like the Riviera, French, Italian or otherwise. Au contraire, this was near Monticello, where Liz and Dick wouldn’t be caught dead. It was before the Liz and Dick phenomenon when Elizabeth Taylor converted to Judaism and married singer, Eddie Fisher that she made her one appearance at the Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskill region. Surely after five minutes in that environment, Liz must’ve thought, “I gave up the Cote d’Azur for this Yenta’s Incorporated fest?”

Liz Taylor at Grossinger's Hotel in the Catskill Mountains made the Borscht Belt palatable.

Liz Taylor at Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskill Mountains made the Borscht Belt palatable.

The Gurko family was close-knit. Too close-knit in fact. It’s weave woven so tightly that we sometimes couldn’t untangle. I was the youngest of three with two older sisters; we bonded in a house where it seemed that everything was fine. But, like everyone’s family on Earth, we were all enormously screwed up, unwilling to admit it, and quick to judge others.

So, I retreated into the celluloid world and watched lots of movies. I loved the movies. I lived in the movies. I lost myself in the movies. If you’re a fat boy from New Jersey, the movies are a great place to escape or hide out. You could be anywhere, do anything, love anyone, and even kill someone. Heaven. That first Catskill summer I saw Gone with the Wind and West Side Story and so began my obsession with Hollywood. What better entrée into the world of make-believe?

Early on I realized that being Jewish had its drawbacks. Between listening to horror stories from my mom of her experiences in concentration camps to having to dodge anti-Semites from my school bus, I knew life was not going to be a bed of roses for me. Being an underdog is not the best starting point. The only thing I did have, unlike the majority of people in the United States, were parents who survived the Holocaust. It was a cross to bear that I realized years later had given me great comfort. If I had inherited the survivor gene, then I could definitely take on life on life’s terms. The survivor gene was the saving grace to taking on life as a short, chubby Jew with limited skills (outside of verbal) and even fewer resources.

Once I’d concocted a past worth having, I’d have to rekindle my Hidden Talent or H.T. as my mother called it. It was very important to my mother that at least one of her children became a singer a.k.a. famous. She would take each of us, one by one, into her shocking pink bedroom and force us to sing to show her whether or not we had H.T. My mother was a coloratura soprano in her youth before the war. Her career was cut short by the double whammy, Hitler and the Russians. According to lore, she was en route to her first solo performance to be featured on the radio in Vilna, being the first “Jewess” to publicly sing Ave Maria. It was October 1939, she noticed mass confusion in the streets; people running, screaming, mothers grabbing their children, personal belongings being hoisted onto wagons and an overall sense of doom. The Russians had invaded Poland, hence her moment of glory was stolen, along with her innocence, and shortly thereafter, her dignity. That life-changing day and the denial of that accomplishment stayed with her until her last breath.

She secretly hoped that one of us would continue in her stead. To have the life she never would live out and could instead live vicariously through us. She wasn’t a typical stage mom, as she was way too consumed with herself. But every once in awhile, she would emerge from the dark reality of what she’d been deprived, to test our musical acumen.

When it was my turn to take the H.T. Challenge, the sudden shift from being my mom to being a scary casting director as I’d imagined them to be in Hollywood (sans couch) was disheartening. Sheepishly I crept into the mouth of the hot pink sanctuary not sure of myself or what song to sing, settling on something from West Side Story. She loved that movie and had an affinity for Leonard Bernstein, who had accompanied her in a post-war concert in Germany during the Nuremberg Trials, the high point and penultimate performance of her career.

“OK, now tatele, sing, sing.”

Deep breath in.

I feel pretty, oh so pretty,

I feel pretty and witty and gay?

And I pity any girl, um, boy who feels like me today.

Not that I felt pretty, witty or gay…at least not yet. I did have a good voice, but the overall package was no Cat Stevens and didn’t stand a chance. She wouldn’t dare say a word about my appearance. She loved me too much and hopefully felt guilty about creating the Pillsbury Dough Boy look that I was sporting. Thanks,Ma.

 

 

 

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