This is the first real installment of my ongoing autobiography project, where I post chapters from my life’s story every Friday. Enjoy!
On a bright day, when sunrays danced on water so pure that every grain of sand glimmered on the sea bottom, I was launched into conscious life. I was two and a half at the time. My mother held my hand as she led me gently up to my waist in the briny water. She cuddled me under my belly and laid me facedown in the warm sea. I instantly panicked, arching my back to get my face out of the water. Then she did it again, speaking to me calmly. I couldn’t breathe, the water rushing into my nose and mouth. She urged me to kick, to splash with my arms and, assuming that there was purpose to her dunking me, I frantically obeyed. Two, three, four times she patiently lowered my face into the water. Each time I came up sputtering and coughing from the salt that stung my eyes and lodged in the back of my throat. Finally, my tears, my protest, convinced her that I’d had enough that day.
“Take my hand little one,” she said and led me up onto the warm, sandy beach. We were at Long Beach in New York, the summer of 1943. It was the only time we ever vacationed there, but I remember my swimming lesson vividly. Everything was new, and my senses were glutted with that newness. The feel of sand under my feet, the taste and smell of the salt water. I can still feel those waves on my body. Eventually, I got the hang of having my face in the water and, from that point on, the umbilical cord was severed. I was my own boy!
After swimming, I remember lying on the beach with my mom. A large propeller-driven airplane zoomed overhead, menacingly low, flying over the water. I jumped at the time, startled by the noise and how close it seemed to crashing into the waves. Now, I assume it was a military plane taking off for war from nearby Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. WWII had been declared two years before I was born.
It was a time of chaos, when my country was fighting to save itself and the rest of the world from the evils of despotism, fascism, communism and anti-Semitism. A great struggle for good-over-evil was taking place, one that would dramatically impact my life.
My parents were both first generation Americans, the children of Polish Jews who had emigrated to New York City in 1913—just before immigration from Eastern Europe was shut down. Both had grown up in the stifling, overcrowded tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
My mother’s family, while as poor as many of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island—those who inspired Emma Lazarus to write the sonnet, “The New Colossus”—were of artistic and intellectually rich stock. My father’s family, in contrast, were street-smart, working class shtetl Jews. Their grit and humor transformed Manhattan’s garment district from predominantly uniform manufacturing to women’s wear and eventually to Haute Couture.
Not long after the summer of 1943, I first encountered the man who would be one of the great influences in my life. Dr. Gabriel Kirschenbaum practiced general medicine out of a three-story brownstone across the street from us on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That day, he had crossed the avenue and climbed the stairs up to our third story walk-up apartment to extract the whole pistachio nut that I had, personally and intentionally, lodged up one of my nostrils. Even though he was a bear of a man with a gruff roar, Dr. Kirschenbaum was surprisingly un-scary. I stood in my crib, unrepentant as he approached, arm-in-arm with my short, round, loquacious mother. She beamed up at him, and he affectionately scowled at her and then nudged me under my chin. My mother then began her trademark barrage aimed at educating Dr. Kirschenbaum on the finer nuances of nostril nut removal. He finally turned to her with glaring eyes and declared, “Shut up, Helen,” and by G-d, she did. She closed her mouth, still looking way up at Kirschenbaum with those adoring eyes. I don’t remember the extraction, but I do remember the power he had in that moment—to help me, and to make my mother stop her verbal stream.
Seven decades later, with all the retrospect wisdom that comes along with stiff muscles, aching joints, and decreased libido, I offered up a heartfelt thank to you Kirschenbaum. He impregnated this infant’s mind with the goal of a tireless and selfless effort to be of help to others, and therefore to be loved. Kirschenbaum: the father of my dreams.