Becoming a man again – at 83

Becoming a man again – at 83

Marlowe Marcus of Haworth, about to celebrate his second bar mitzvah, remembers

If you’ve gone to Yeshiva Etz Chaim in Boro Park, lived or worked in all the outer boroughs except Staten Island, been a jock, moved to suburban Jersey and adapted to it with great enthusiasm, been drafted into the newly peacetime army, gone from retirement as an insurance broker and over-the-counter stock trader to decades as an serious horticulturalist specializing in beeches, a tennis player who has competed in two Maccabiah games, a barbershop singer, and a volunteer tutor who has trained more than 400 children to daven and lein – and if everything you’ve done is underpinned by your Jewish background, which defines who you are and what you do – well, then, if you’re about to turn 83, how else would you mark it than with a second bar mitzvah?

That’s true, at any rate, if you’re Marlowe Marcus of Haworth, who will celebrate that milestone on January 23 at Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, first by reading from the Torah and then with a festive oneg.

This week, Marlowe Marcus wearing his Maccabi jacket.

Mr. Marcus’s father, Samuel, was born in Manchester, England, but he was not British. Instead, “he was born on the way from Romania; they stopped to visit family,” Mr. Marcus said. His mother, Elvira Katz Marcus, was the oldest of eight children, born to a rabbi and his wife who lived on the outskirts of Budapest. “My grandfather, Rabbi Martin Katz, was a very vain man,” Mr. Marcus said. “He had a rubber stamp with his name, Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen Katz, and he had powerful handwriting. And he wrote with purple ink.”

Rabbi Katz went to America in 1922, “and then my grandmother schlepped eight kids from Budapest to Hamburg, and then clear across Europe by herself,” he said. There were misadventures – one child was lost for a time in a train station – but eventually they made their way to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, close to that state’s border with West Virginia. They stayed there until 1929, when the Great Depression struck, and the shul, which still wanted a rabbi, no longer could pay him. He moved to head a small, long-vanished shul on Elder Avenue in the Bronx, in the basement of apartment building. “That’s where I was bar mitzvah the first time,” Mr. Marlowe said.

His father’s mother, widowed young, “manufactured neckware,” he said. Her only employee was her only child, Sam Marcus. The company went under during the Depression; eventually she moved to Palestine. Meanwhile, Mr. Marcus’s parents met at the youth group at the Young Israel of Boro Park, which had been established in the hope of facilitating such matches. Sam was there because he had grown up there; Elvira, whose family was still in rural Pennsylvania, had been sent there, along with two sisters and a brother, because it was a far more likely place to meet Jews than the coal fields of home.

Sam Marcus was not a particularly successful businessman, according to his son. “He was a traveling salesman, like Willy Loman,” the sad everyman protagonist of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” His mother, who was very smart and determined – although she came to the United States when she was 15, she had no accent, because she chose not to have one – was a homemaker. “God forbid she would have to work,” her son said, given the culture of her time and place. He also had a younger brother, Richard, whose death two years ago “knocked the daylights out of me,” Marlowe said.

Oh, and that name? “My mother must have been nuts,” he said. “She had delusions of grandeur.” He is not sure which Marlowe he was named after – maybe Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s detective, although he was born long before Humphrey Bogart played him in “The Big Sleep” – but he does know that “it was not a fun name to grow up with.

“I was a jock, and jocks need a nickname. There is no nickname for Marlowe.”

But then he had a stroke of luck in the nickname department. “In 1946, when I turned 14, there was a new professional basketball league” – the NBA – “and one of the stars of the Washington Capitals was Bones McKinney. He was very skinny, and I was a very skinny guy, so they called me Bones. So now I had arrived.”

After graduating from Etz Chaim – the first yeshiva in the United States to teach Hebrew and Aramaic texts in Hebrew rather than in Yiddish – and then from New Utrecht High School Mr. Marlowe went to City College in 1950, just as hostilities in Korea began. Although there was a draft, his status at the top of his class kept him in school. He planned to go to graduate school and maintain his status when the war ended, de facto if not yet de jure. “So I withdrew my applications,” he said. He spent the first year of his army service in Fort Dix, N.J., – in “the cushiest job in the U.S. army, and most guys would have given their eyeteeth for it” – and the second year in Heidelberg, Germany. He had been an accounting major and that led directly to his army job as a statistical analyst. “It was fun,” he reported.

Back home, working with an uncle, Mr. Marlowe used his street Spanish to develop a thriving business selling auto insurance in the South Bronx. Eventually the two men developed an expertise in over-the-counter stock trading that displaced the insurance work. The company stayed open for 30 years.

Mr. Marlowe met his wife, Lila Zlotnick, on the ferry to Fire Island in 1958. “We both had shares in houses there, before it was in vogue,” he said. “I was on the ferry, and I saw a chick, reading the paper like a guy,” folded into eight long narrow sections, in the space-efficient style commuters used on the subway. Two years later, in 1963, they married; soon they moved from Forest Hills, in Queens, to Haworth.

There were not many Jews in Haworth. Of course, Haworth is a small town – there are not many people in Haworth – but relatively few of them are Jews. The synagogue closest to it was Beth El, so that is where the Marcuses joined.

Mr. Marcus retired in 1986. He was 55. “And the next week I went to Rabbi Pomerantz” – Beth El’s longtime rabbi, Fred Pomerantz, who coincidentally grew up in Pennsylvania, one town over from Uniontown – “and like Abraham Avenu” – our father Abraham – “hineini.” Here I am.

Because he knew how to chant from the Torah, Mr. Marcus became a volunteer tutor, working with the cantor and their teachers to train bar and bat mitzvah students. He taught beginning Hebrew reading to adult beginners who did not know even the letters when they started; 10 of them learned enough to celebrate becoming b’not mitzvah there.

Mr. Marcus played senior tennis avidly; he made the Pan-American Maccabi team that went to Uruguay in 1991, and in 1997 he played in the World Maccabiah Games in Israel.

When he first moved to the suburbs, Mr. Marcus planted fruit trees; his children have vivid memories of picking bushels-full of rotting fruit from the ground, and of their mother using homegrown fruit – vividly colored apples and sweet plums – for pies. But soon he tired of that, and replaced those trees with conifers and beech trees. For some time, he said, he had the biggest collection of beech trees in the country, and his daughter Lisa Marcus Abramovitz had the second biggest. He studied landscape informally, learning by compulsively doing. Unwilling to pledge himself exclusively to deciduous trees, he is also a member of the American Conifer Society.

Mr. Marcus, who played the guitar for years, always had been fond of barbershop music, but in 1977, the New York Times carried a story about “barbershopping in general, and the Teaneck chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society in particular.” He joined immediately.

Barbershop music is four-part harmony – tenor, lead, baritone, and bass – sung only by men. It has surged and ebbed in popularity; the society once had 38,000 members and it now has 30,000. That’s not so low, but the average age, at least in his chapter, Mr. Marcus said, is “old.” It meets in the Richard Rodda Community Center in Votee Park.

He sings lead, Mr. Marcus said, because it is the lead who carries the tune, and “I can’t sing harmony. I am one of the lesser lights of the chorus.”

Oh, and he also plays platform tennis every week; some of the guys he plays with are significantly younger than he is.

Marlowe and Lily Marcus have three children – Lisa, who lives in Tenafly, Jeffrey, who lives in Florida, and Julie, who is on the Upper West Side. They have 17 grandchildren.

He is planning his second bar mitzvah in response to the tradition that comes from Psalm 90, which tells us that “The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” Thirteen years after passing that allotted lifespan, it is time to celebrate coming bar mitzvah again.

Because his huge range of activities has given him a huge number of friends, Mr. Marcus is expecting a crowd as he celebrates by reading from Parashat Bo again. Everyone is invited to join him there.

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