My clever, zany Mom was always saving me from myself and others. But her efforts went aground regarding my engagement to Irv.
From that time on, my Mom and I were like two storm fronts moving against each other. We didn't argue — she didn't have time for that. As a matter of fact, my Mom didn't have time for anything that concerned my wedding. She was up to her eyebrows in two projects that sounded quite bizarre, but for a clever, zany woman, they were pretty much in character. Frankly, I couldn't really tell, for my upcoming marriage had reduced my IQ to that of an Ice Age vegetarian, rendering me as deep as a bottle cap.
My Mom's first project was located in Mott Have, the southernmost — and least affluent — section of the South Bronx. My Mom figured that if a garden designed by school-children were planted there, the positive results could be twofold: it could dislodge a major street-corner drug-selling operation, and in the process reclaim a small piece of the neighborhood as a safe haven for children and other living things.
My Mom got the idea from "Success Garden" which opened in the early '90s in an overgrown, weed-infested empty lot in central Harlem, the haunt of crackheads and wild dogs. The scheme fantastically lived up to its name, and since the time that Success Garden took root, the idea has been spreading into vacant lots all around the area.
Community gardening seemed like a fine and innocent enough idea to me, although it did smack strongly of a makeup test for the recycling and health-food stores of the 1960s and '70s. Then again, Flower Power and the Greening-of-America days did bring beauty, bountiful harvests, and renewed hope to many abandoned lots all over the City.
Objectively, I saw the wisdom in the plan, but what I couldn't figure out was why — with the City's Parks and Sanitation Departments so heavily involved in these projects, and a budget subsidized by the Board of Education — Liz Feldman was losing so much sleep over the matter.
But this project was fluoridated tap water compared with my clever, zany Mom's "Spiced Vodka" — the code name for her other idea. Spiced Vodka evolved when she managed to arrange a tour of the infamous Lefortovo Prison in Moscow around the time of my engagement.
Walking up and down the dank and acrid-smelling corridors, lined on both sides with heavy, windowless locked doors, she stumbled upon a notion. My Mom was always stumbling over something: sometimes a discarded shoe, sometimes an outlandish idea. And once she stumbled, she always stopped to ponder the obstacle and find a solution.
Lefortovo was pathetically overcrowded, in part because many of the inmates had not been convicted of any crime. In the C.I.S., trials are still reserved for the guilty; suspects may be kept as long as five years while the authorities make certain.
When my Mom questioned this policy, she received an indirect answer. Everyone, from guards to the warden himself, assured her that there were no more political prisoners in Russia. "There isn't a single prisoner of conscience in the entire country," the warden boasted to my Mom, "– only criminals. The Gulag is empty!"
And that's when it hit her! For the first time in three centuries, the camps and prison towns of Siberia were deserted! What a missed opportunity, she mused. With a little negotiation we could restore justice in America and help Russia regain a measure of pride — all at once.
How? By renting Gulag and sending Russia our felons.
Don't laugh; she was dead serious. And when my clever and zany Mom hits upon an idea, she holds on with near-Wagnerian tenacity and resolve.
Prisons in America are in a no-win situation, she reasoned. The pundits are divided about the causes of crime, politicians feel guilty about the proportion of minorities incarcerated, and we all feel confused about the purpose of prisons. As a result, we invest incredible sums to provide inmates with work-out rooms, state-of-the-art television screens, well-stocked libraries, and a host of other amenities that provide living conditions better than most of them have ever known on the outside.
But our American hang-ups don't faze the Russians. They have a tradition of punishment, and they have some serious know-how when it comes to rehabilitation.
Think of the wondrous effect on society if a judge were to look down at a defendant and say, "Young person, you have earned yourself fifteen years in Siberia. I truly hope you will make the most of this opportunity."
My Mom could wax thick and fast about the advantages of her export plan: It could return thousands of correction officers to productive work, and give our felons their first real chance to begin life afresh in pedagogically rehabilitative (albeit stark and freezing) surroundings.
And as to the objection that a prisoner is entitled to live near his family, she would counter that there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits punitive exile. Pushed to the wall, her fallback position was that the program could be offered only to those under sentence of death or life without parole.
"Which is worse?" she would demand with the excruciating solicitude of a physician confronting a patient obvious to his own terminal condition. "Toiling in the open, invigorating expanses of Siberia, or languishing for years on Death Row?"
"It's a win-win situation," she would rhapsodize. "The program will be good for the Americans and for the Russians, turning America's need into Russia's profit, saving US taxpayers billions of dollars a year."
Maybe — probably — had I not been so involved in my wedding preparations, and equally enthralled with my eleven-years-my-senior fiancé, I might have noticed how absurd these schemes were, but I was cruising on a different planet.
So here we were, one week before my wedding, and my mother still had not bought herself a dress, returned a single call to the caterer, inquired about the menu, made the seating arrangements, gone with me for the fitting of my gown, asked which rabbi would officiate, expressed an opinion regarding the musicians, etc., etc. It would have taken a supreme effort for her to have more thoroughly ignored my upcoming marriage. As a matter of fact, she told me that she hoped to land a radio spot to explain her idea for exporting felons the very afternoon of my nuptials!
Now if it sounds like my clever and zany Mom was so involved in her own life that she had no time for me, that was not the case. When it came to me, she always had time and infinite patience, which is why it was so maddening that now, when I needed her most, she was busier than she had ever been.
Was I foolish? Yes. Was I blind? Absolutely. Was I unappreciative? Outrageously.
A long time ago my mother discovered how to deal with me. I was always a little different — not only did I look different, but I enjoyed schoolwork, did not like to eat, and only hung around kids older or younger than me, never my age. But my Mom had shown the wisdom not to try and shove a square like me through a round hole, or try and raise me as if I were the same as everyone else. This took a lot of bravery, for in our religious community, for some, non-conformity is considered non-normality. My Mom never allowed me to believe that because I was different, I was odd.
Thanks to her methodology, I was more or less mainstreamed to seem as conformist as everyone else by the time I finished junior high school. The only residuum was my voice, which was somewhere between a squawk and a quack — or as she called it, a squack. You might say I sounded like a grievance committee doing a duck call. My other quirk was my hair, for I have a head of shocked manila-colored tresses that stand erect like a dandelion gone to seed. If my appearance didn't cause heads to turn, when I opened my mouth, I had everyone's attention.
How did my other handle this? In the most brilliant and courageous way. She never tried to silence or stifle me, or even hint that I try and get my hair permed or glued to my scalp.
Just when I have located my favorite story and wish to cherish it, Hanoch Teller goes out and writes a new book and then I have to pick my favorite story all over again. He is forgiven this time, again, with his latest gem, In an Unrelated Story.
There are few in the Jewish world that have Teller’s craft for telling a story; he can make the trite interesting and the interesting riveting! And he does this with such ease, playing with our emotions every step along the way.
Hanoch Teller devotees, among which I am one, remember that numerous of his books such as Courtrooms of the Mind (about the evil of judgmentalism) Above the Bottom Line (about the requirement of integrity) It’s a Small Word After All (about how a small word or gesture can change lives) Give Peace a Stance (about avoiding argumentation and strife) are thematic. In an Unrelated Story is a collection of stories that have no theme connecting them (other than inspiration) and I suspect that the stories that compose this volume were spectacular stories that Teller had in his trove but could not squeeze into any of his themes.
Regardless, it is a marvelous read, with action drama, pathos and humor on every page. As in all of his books, the reader will learn a lot, enjoying every minute of the process.
Reviewed in Hadassah Magazine
Words of Praise
|“In an Unrelated Story is a great read, and once begun, almost impossible to put down. I love stories and felt privileged to get to know the truly great people whom your deft pen brings to life. I thought long and hard about what a book like this means to me and for me: I have read many wonderful things about many wonderful people – all without becoming in any way, wonderful. I have often become inspired, but, as far as I can remember, hardly enough to motivate action. And, I have learned from my Rabe’im, that inspirations left dangling may well be a liability in one’s Avodas HaShem.I suspect that I may not be alone in this. So why do I wish to encourage you in every possible way to publish this book and continue in future volumes to enrich us with similar insights and ideals? Because I think that even for those of us who fail to emulate the greatness expressed in these stories, they are still invaluable. It seems to me that they fill a function similar to that of the mitzvah: בצדק תשפט עמיתיך. I think that the Torah wishes us to be דן לכף זכות because living among good people will encourage us to be good. If nobody around me cuts the grade, why should I bother? If everybody is trying their best, I would also like to be part of it. Knowing that there are people who can create such beauty out of their lives, encourages me to try and coax a little beauty out of my own. Meeting heroes makes heroism – even if it is only mini-heroism – an option. It enables us to warm ourselves a the fire of true goodness and feel Az ez is gut tzu zein a Yid. Those are big accomplishments.R’ Hanoch, you are touching many, many lives! Keep up the good work. We are all indebted to you for showing us what can be done. If nothing else, you have made us dreamers – and dreams chazal (Berachos 57b) teach – have a smidgen of prophecy animating them.|
My best wishes for your further Hatzlacha.”
Rabbi Moshe Eisemann
|“In an Unrelated Story is unrelated to the writings of any other author. Hanoch Teller’s stories are unique; they are very well written, thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining, inspiring and thought-provoking. Some of these stories will make you laugh, others will make you cry. All of them will make you proud to be a Jew.”|
Rabbi Shimon Finkelman