Guest columnist Jonathan Kahane: Memories of my dad

  • Jonathan Kahane of Westhampton. Gazette file photo

Published: 6/18/2021 6:26:26 PM

Bits and pieces of this essay about my dad have been sitting on my desk and in several of its drawers for decades. It’s quite personal and highly emotionally charged. I’m not sure if my dad would have wanted me to publicize it. (He died 33 years ago.)

I decided to do so, because the few people with whom I have shared it, to a person, have advised me that I should not “bring it to the grave with me.” “It’s history and people should know about it,” they said.

Yes, this is yet another tale of a son writing about a part (a small part) of the relationship he had with his father. I’ll share one main story and a couple of other experiences which seem to be resonating in me this Father’s Day.

My dad was brought up in an orthodox Jewish household, as was my mom. As a boy, my father lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a filthy rundown tenement. He — and my mom — were dirt poor as kids and lived through the Great Depression. After my parents married, the orthodoxy of Judaism ebbed for them, but its cultural values flourished. They were Zionists.

My father told me that one of his earliest memories was that he always saw his mother drop pennies in a cup on top of the icebox whenever they were lucky enough to have some money come into the house. One day my dad asked her why she did that? She replied, “It’s for the doctor.” That’s when he decided that he would be a physician.

Getting a good education was of primary importance in the family. Among other things, it was the way out of the ghetto. My dad felt that DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx was the best school in the city at the time. It was far from his home district. He took a two-hour subway ride each day to get there. It was against the law, but he did it anyway. The New York City Board of Education didn’t seem to notice or care. He graduated and went to City College. (He was heartbroken when the infamous basketball scandal hit the news.)

He graduated with honors and got into New York University Medical School amid raging anti-Semitism. He told me that his “interview” was an “inquisition.” A light was shined in his face while five professors sat in a semi-circle behind it. One of the questions hurled at him was, “Have you ever read ‘Babbitt’?” He said, “No.” One of the “interviewers” snarled, “You should.” (“Babbitt” is a novel by Sinclair Lewis with anti-Semitic undertones.)

When the U.S. entered World War II, my dad went to enlist as a physician in the army but was rejected. They thought that he might have had tuberculosis as a child. He told the recruiters that he would forfeit all of his veterans’ benefits (which he did) and signed a paper stating that they would not be held responsible if anything happened to him. He was inducted immediately after that.

The army, in its infinite wisdom, then assigned this young Jewish doctor to the front in France where he was put in charge of the health of Nazi POWs. He was to take care of the same band of thugs who had tortured and murdered members of his and his wife’s families. This sounds to me like a perfect example of the oxymoron- “Army Intelligence.” I don’t know how he did it, but he did.

My dad didn’t like talking about his wartime experiences. The only other story I know from that period was that during a two-day furlough he went to Switzerland and bought my mom a music box. I still have it. It plays, “The Blue Danube Waltz.”

Since I have pen in hand, here are a few more short insights about my father.

After he returned from overseas we lived in a very modest apartment in The Bronx for the rest of his career. He didn’t want to move north (even to Yonkers) because he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to see his patients in the hospital if there were a snowstorm.

He had a very special way of teaching me things. During one Chanukah/Christmas season, my neighbor and best friend, Johnny Sullivan, invited me over to help decorate his Christmas tree. I, of course, asked my dad if we could get a tree. He replied, “Does Johnny Sullivan have a menorah?” Case closed.

Every Easter Sunday, my dad took the family to the Bronx Zoo. One year I asked him why? He said, “There are lots of police there. It’s safe.” It seems that the Christians in our neighborhood were told that the Jews killed Jesus Christ. There were lots of fights and some serious injuries. It was, and still is, difficult for me to fathom all of that as all of us kids were in the schoolyard the next day playing stickball with each other.

I was having an argument with my mom one day. She was the disciplinarian and did all the spanking. (That’s one thing I did not pass on to my kids.) As I was going back to my room I must have cursed at her under my breath. My dad heard it, and that was the only time he ever hit me — with a hairbrush. I deserved worse.

After my junior year in high school, my parents had the “bright idea” to send me to summer school to get a leg up on my senior year. I didn’t study at all and failed the course. For the next four weeks (including weekends) my father sat down with me after coming back from the hospital and studied with me until I passed “his” test.

The only time I ever heard my parents argue with each other was when one of my dad’s patients called on the phone and said that he couldn’t afford to pay the bill. My dad would say, “OK.” My mom would take issue with that. She didn’t like to see him being taken advantage of.

Finally, and completely off the subject, (but maybe not as I continue to think about it) I was heading out to the schoolyard to play some baseball, and my dad was watching the Yankee game on our old Dumont. Gil McDougald was at bat for the Yanks. My dad was a Yankee fan, which just goes to prove that nobody is perfect. He arrogantly told me to wait for a second and watch Gil hit a home run. The next pitch went into the bleachers. That’s when I became a Brooklyn Dodger fan.

As I said at the start, I don’t know if my dad would approve of my writing this for publication, but one thing is for certain. After having explained to me why it wasn’t a good idea, I would have been forgiven.

Jonathan Kahane lives in Westhampton.


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