By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
After publishing a memoir of the trials and tribulations of his bar mitzvah prep circa 1950, Arthur Plotnik was one-upped by this reporter as we sat in his shaded Lincoln Square back yard one recent pleasant morning before high heat and humidity blasted into town.
Where Plotnik described a year’s worth of Hebrew cramming at an Orthodox school in White Plains, N.Y, I countered with remembrance of a literal “five-year” plan from 1963 to 1968, including Hebrew classes four days a week, with the final two years scheduled from 5:45 to 7:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. Plus mandatory Saturday-morning synagogue attendance.
On Jan. 26, 1967, I set out for cheder 1½ blocks away at 5:30 p.m., encountering hip-deep snow from the accumulating worst blizzard in Chicago history. By the time I crunched my way to my destination 15 minutes later, I found the school closed. E-mail alerts were 30 years or more away.
“Good G-d!” Plotnik exclaimed.
A combination of Jewish sensibility and free thinking envelopes lifelong writer Plotnik at a spry 82. Some can be traced back to his bar-mitzvah boy experiences detailed in “Aaron Schmink’s First Crazy Love,” a novel aimed at middle-schoolers that is in essence Plotnik’s snapshot autobiography of a specific time in his life. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty, while the time frame was advanced five years to the fall of 1955.
Aaron Schmink is Plotnik, real and literary versions saddled with last names that kids will satirize. He couldn’t be just a Cohen or a Berg. Plotnik’s parents and sisters are present and accounted-for with stage names. Some proto-Fonzie Italian-American buddies are included, for the real Plotnik wanted to be “cool” just like them.
But throughout the self-published book, available on Amazon.com, are twins that rival his journey to official Jewish manhood for Plotnik’s/Schmink’s attention. He becomes friends with a young WASP – Byron Fairchild, hailing from a big house in the best part of White Plains. “It was really another world,” Plotnik said of the real-life houses on the hill. And, of course, Plotnik/Schmink engages in a childhood crush on Byron’s sister Keatsie, famed for her upchucking talents.
Again, these were based on real people in his life. But Plotnik will not name real names for his cherished non-Jewish friend, who went on to become a psychiatrist.
“I learned more from him than he did from me,” he said.
Overall, Plotnik wrote his book “for the love of it,” and nostalgia always sells for those who feel past is prologue. For Chicago Jews, Plotnik’s description of post-war life in White Plains, north of the Bronx, is an education. They did not experience the ethnic mixing in a hyper-political city with traditional strict ethnic and racial segregation. In Chicago, there were Jewish neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods, Irish neighborhoods, black neighborhoods and later Latin neighborhoods – many with defined borders — and ne’er the twain would meet except at the workplace and in public accommodations.
But Plotnik describes a city where Schmink’s working-class family lives in an apartment complex with a number of Italian-Americans. Blacks lived in their own neighborhood, but the schools were integrated. That phenomenon of Jewish life in the East was reported by others. White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf recalled as an 11-year-old, he did not think Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers was a big deal. He already hung out with a cherished black friend in Brooklyn. Such an experience was not duplicated in West Rogers Park, and only briefly in mid-1960s South Shore.
Apparently, Plotnik struck a chord with book lovers. “Aaron Schmink” got a nod of approval from Ilene Cooper in the June 25 edition of “Booklist,” the publication of the American Library Association, for whom Plotnik once worked as an editor:
“Aaron Schmink has issues–with girls, friends, and family, but looming larger than any of those is his upcoming bar mitzvah,” writes Cooper. “At the start of his preparations, Aaron was ready to laugh it all off, yet he learns a little more about life (and love!) with each passing chapter, and his new knowledge informs what he wants to say when he gives his bar mitzvah speech.
“The book does a good job of re-creating the mid-twentieth-century life of a Jewish lower-middle-class family. There is yelling, there is worrying about money, and there is anxiety concerning the place of Jews in American life. Plotnik tackles a lot here, and sometimes the issues, especially those of interracial romance, sometimes seem shoehorned in. Overall, however, this is written with both breeze and heft, and most of all, with lots of humor, all of which comes together in Aaron’s bar mitzvah scene…This multilayered portrait will connect with today’s teens.”
At his backyard table amid the temporarily temperate climes, Plotnik said he chose his bar mitzvah as a personal turning point, a crash-course in Judaism, far more important than the age-old ritual of reading the haftorah and impressing the mishpocha with his on-stage performance.
“I think the bar mitzvah was my main connection to Judaism, for whatever it was worth,” said Plotnik, a Chicago resident since 1975. “I went into it as a wise guy from a pretty non-Jewish neighborhood. I was enamored of (the Italian-American kids). At my age, they were the cool kids who rolled their baseball cap and wore taps on their shoes, and ducktail haircuts.
“My cousins were from more observant families, and they were bar mitzvahed. So there was no question I’d be, too.”
Plotnik already had a sense of his Jewish worth from father Mike Plotnik, son of immigrants from Russia. “He was the new kid in the new world,” Plotnik said. “He fought with Jewish gangs (in Brooklyn). He was a tough guy. He was a defender of the Jews. You weren’t going to knock the Jews in front of him. If I made wise cracks, he’d respond, ‘Shaddup!’
“My mother Annabelle was (religiously) ambivalent. She still tried to find who she was. For a period when she was unhappy, a friend took her to the Christian Science church. She took me once. She was finding some solace there. But that didn’t last long. In the end, she was very culturally Jewish.”
As with so many other mid-century Jewish children, their need to know things around the household ended with an abrupt transition to Yiddish by parents or grandparents.
Then came the Jewish education that deterred kids from after-school play, paper routes and more ardent pursuit of puppy love. Plotnik/Schmink wrote of his placement in a windowless basement at an Orthodox institute “mainly because it was closer and cheaper than the more modern Conservative or Reform temples and my parents knew someone who was a regular there.”
He also described the archetypes of cheder whom bar mitzvah boys, mining their memories, will conjure up clear as a bell:
“Mr. Rubin, the bony Jewish History and Torah instructor with fishy breath and a way of saying my name – A-haa –ron – so I got the full herring.
“My dozen or so classmates, some with embroidered skullcaps – yarmulkes – stuck on their pincushion heads with bobbypins. Bulldog-ish, redheaded Moshe Levin was typical, acting grown up and righteous, Mr. Big Defender of the Faith. When I invented funny names for the Jewish holidays, like “Poor Him!” (pointing at Moshe) for Purim, Moshe twisted my arm.
“Bearded Rabbi Klein, head of the Institute, slumped behind his desk looking weighed down by the world and his meaty ears. One of his burdens was to deal with bad ‘deportment,’ but in my case he didn’t have much leverage.
“You were joking in class, Aaron?
“I guess so.
“You think studying Torah is a joke?
“I don’t know.”
In real-life, Plotnik said he engaged on “two tracks” toward his bar mitzvah.
“I wanted to be bar mitzvahed like my cousins,” he said. “That was my duty as a good son. I wanted to please my parents. Hebrew school introduced me to another dimension of Judaism. What did it mean to me before Hebrew school? That I’d be different from everybody, that I’d be called names. If I said anything bad (at home) about the Jews, I’d be called names.
“We had nice food on Sundays and we listened to the ‘Jewish Calvacade of Stars.’ Lox. And then we’d visit family – that was pretty Jewish. Kibitzing. But I didn’t know Jewish history, really. Hebrew school gave me more than just teaching the haftorah. It gave me history and culture.
“I was living in two worlds, trying to be cool. As soon as I left (Hebrew school), I walked by Mt. Carmel (church) on the way to the bus, thinking about what a great gym they had. It wasn’t ‘til high school until I got involved with Jewish groups. I think it was called the Templars. I realized these guys were cool themselves.”
For his actual bar mitzvah, Plotnik recalled “big-time stage fright…every ritual of manhood involves pressure. If done right, it’s a great step forward. It’s a lesson in public speaking and performance and self-confidence. Overall, it went off well. The mishpoha said, ‘beautiful voice.’ I pretty much memorized it.”
Even after nearly 70 years. Showing an example, Plotnik started into his haftorah with the correct cadence in his chant.
Plotnik set the scene in “Aaron Schmink” of his ascent to the bimah:
“Dad and I mounted the platform together and I climbed a stepstool so I could look down on the Torah and out onto the crowd. Directed by the cantor and the gabbai, my father unfolded the prayer shawl and read a blessing, using the spelled-out Hebrew words the gabbai put before him. Dad then draped the shawl over my shoulders and stumbled through another blessing.
“After that, he stepped away and left me at the podium. The cantor stood off to one side, and the gabbai arranged sheets of text and set down a fancy silver pointer for marking my passages in the Torah as I read them. The gabbai leaned close and whispered, ‘if you can’t read the Hebrew, you’ll read from here.’ He pointed to the blessings and readings spelled out in our alphabet.
“’I think I can read the Hebrew.’
“’Wonderful. Just in case.’ He adjusted the microphone for me – ‘Don’t put your mouth too close to it’ – and stepped back.
“’The Big Attraction’ – yours truly – now stood at the podium with every eye on me, every ear waiting to hear what would come out of my mouth.”
Any Jewish boy who stood on the bimah well before his time as a public speaker can relate to that feeling, that pressure of his whole world watching.
In addition to the funny and nostalgic narrative, Plotnik provided a glossary of Yiddish words that are totally foreign to young people today who never grew up with Jewish immigrant parents. They are: bubkas, farbrissen, gelt, goyim, kvell, mensch, meshugge, nachas, nebbish, nudnik, patch, pisk, putz, schmendrik, schmuck, shnook. Basic Hebrew words and descriptions of the bar mitzvah process also are defined.
If Plotnik advanced his own Jewish awareness through his bar mitzvah, he figures he’s having another epiphany as a senior citizen. He feels he is becoming more Jewish as he ages.
“The older you get, the less you care what people think,” he said. “You can be whatever moves you. I never wanted to be a Jewish author. No author wants to be (defined). But this is a Jewish book. I kibitz more and act more Jewish with my friends.
“You connect with the far past. In the end, you complete the circle.”