|Carl Epstein Jerry Szubin|
It makes sense that a scrappy, idealistic, self-made man would fall in love with a scrappy, idealistic, self-made country, so the intense, ongoing, eight-decade-long relationship between Carl Epstein and the United States is absolutely logical.
Mr. Epstein, who has lived in Teaneck since 1964, has had a successful career as a turn-around magician. (It is fair, in fact, to say that he has had a storied career, but that is another story.) He also is an ardent student of history and collector of Americana.
Of all the periods of American history that speak to him, the one whose voice is loudest is the Civil War; that was the war, he said, that changed everything. He has gathered physical mementoes of that war, objects that real people held in their very real hands; to look at them and to touch them is to realize that before it became history and then myth, the Civil War was a period of real change, unspeakable tragedy, and, finally, hope.
First, Mr. Epstein’s story.
Carl Epstein was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in 1926, to parents who had been born in Poland and came over with three small children. (One of them died, and another was born in Brooklyn.) Borough Park “was a great community, a great place to grow up,” Mr. Epstein said. “It was the Great Depression, so no one had money.” His parents sent their children to yeshivot. “It was kishke gelt they spent,” Mr. Epstein said; in other words, money “that should have gone on the table.” But that money bought him an excellent education at the Yeshiva Etz Chayim – Hebrew Institute of Borough Park, which since has closed. “It really encouraged attendance by klal Yisrael” – it welcomed all Jewish boys, Mr. Epstein said. “They didn’t ask your level of observance or your background.”
By ninth grade, the school’s highest, the nine boys who remained in the school were taught by seven teachers, Mr. Epstein said; they learned Jewish subjects until the early afternoon, had a short break, and then returned at 3:30 for the English classes, taught by moonlighting public high school teachers. The result was a formidable education that more than prepared him for public school in 10th grade. “When you got to public school” – he went to New Utrecht – “the minute you told them you went to the Hebrew Institute, they put you at the head of the class,” he said.
It was in those small, focused, intense afternoon classes that Mr. Epstein first discovered history.
One of his public school teachers – Mrs. Bouris, whom Mr. Epstein remembers with love and a great sense of gratitude, and whose first name he never knew – saw potential in Mr. Epstein, and urged him to enter a national oratorical contest sponsored by the American Legion.
“The subject was the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” he said. “I did a lot of research, and I won it. There were five of us finalists; we delivered our speeches in a big auditorium. I can’t describe the experience adequately. It had a major impact on my life.”
What did he wear? He sighed. “I had only one pair of good pants,” he said. “My bed was made of old iron springs, and the mattress was folded over. When I was getting dressed, my pants got caught on it, and they tore. I didn’t have another pair of dress pants.
“With tears in her eyes, my sister sewed it up – and when I stood at the dais, I made sure that no one could see that leg.”
And what did he say? “I said that the Hebrew Bible was a major factor in our founding fathers’ thought processes when they created the American Constitution, and that they were well aware of the moral imperatives that flow from the Torah when they created it.
“Most of the founding fathers were deists – they believed in a Creator, but that after that it is up to us – to humanity – to do the rest of it ourselves. That was the reason we were created in the first place.”
Therefore, he continued, quite logically, “I became enamored of history – and then particularly of American history – and then the history of the military. I didn’t realize at that time, but over the millennia, human development has had two organizational models – it can follow the military or the church in terms of organizing society.”
Although the word church here is an umbrella term that includes synagogue, or the earlier Temple, the young Mr. Epstein was “intrigued beyond belief with the military.
“As a youngster, my only ambition in life was to become a professional soldier.”
When he was 16, Mr. Epstein sent a letter to his congressman, Emanuel Celler (whose name might be familiar because he served his Brooklyn-based constituency from 1923 to 1973). He asked for an appointment to West Point.
“Cellar ran a test for everyone who wanted to go to West Point,” Mr. Epstein said. “I got the best grades, higher than anyone else’s. Then I had to go to Whitehall Street for the physical.”
He flunked it.
He was too short.
West Point had no height requirement until 1872, Mr. Epstein said – and in fact the most successful Civil War Union cavalry general, Phil Sheridan, stood 5’2″, but from then until much later, students had to be at least 5’4 1/2″. “I was 5’4,” he said. “For a lousy half inch, the army lost its most successful potential general.”
He graduated from high school a semester early, “and the minute I turned 17, in 1943, I enlisted,” he said. “Height was not a problem then. They would have taken me if I had been 4’2″.
Because Mr. Epstein had enlisted at 17 but combat soldiers had to be at least 18 – and because he clearly was very smart (as he does not say but is clear nonetheless) – he was sent to a training program at Syracuse University, and then on to another one at Auburn Theological Seminary, also in upstate New York. Mr. Epstein was being trained in engineering – “I was so incredibly bored,” he said – and at the same time moving up through the cadet ranks, from sergeant to first sergeant to lieutenant to captain, “the number two non-regular Army rank you could get,” he said.
Because the U.S. Army had been terribly hit at its first engagement in World War II, in Kasserine Pass, the brass suddenly decided that the training program was an unsustainable luxury, and it was killed. Only a few cadets – the top-ranking ones – were left behind to close it up, while everyone else was shipped off to Europe. Mr. Epstein was among those cadets, so he got to Fort Dix two weeks behind everyone else.
“That probably saved my life,” he said. Instead of going with the 106th Division, which was sent to the Ardennes and found itself almost wiped out in the Battle of the Bulge, he was trained as an operating room nurse.
He never used that skill – and learned that he did not want to grow up to be a doctor. He was sent overseas – his war took him to England, France, Holland, Luxembourg, and Germany – but he never was in combat. “I was involved in handling the wounded, which was very difficult – heartbreaking – but I had some unbelievably good luck,” he said. “I speak French, and I spent three months in Paris. I was the EMT taking care of the soldiers who were detached from their units.”
At the end of the war, he found himself frozen in place in Wiesbaden, Germany, where he was the chief surgical NCO, in charge of triage. Once he had trained his successor, though, finally he was able to go home.
To what? “All I knew is that I had to go to work,” he said. His parents were aging and needed help. He was the only unmarried sibling, so it had to come from him. (Although the G.I. Bill sent literally millions of veterans to college, including Mr. Epstein’s older brother, that group did not include Mr. Epstein, who is not a college graduate.)
He became part of the 5220 Club – “after you were discharged, you got $20 a week for up to 52 weeks, or until you got a job, to help tide you over.” That helped.
He thought back to some of his school experiences. His training in oratory made him a good salesman, and his high-school job, at a “very fancy confectionary shop,” taught him how to approach customers, so he took a job selling magazines door to door in Massachusetts. “It was a horrible experience, but I really learned something about selling, even though about half the magazines I sold never existed. But some creative juices flowed.”
He told one of his favorite stories from that period. “I’m on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. It looks like the East Hill in Englewood. The house was gorgeous. I think,What do I have to lose?,’ so I knock on the door. There was a knocker, not even a doorknob.
“A maid in a little apron comes to the door, and she says, ‘Yes?’ I say, ‘Please tell Mrs.-Whatever-Her-Name-Was’ – her name was on the mailbox by the road – ‘that Mrs. Epstein’s son from New York is here to see her.’ She says, ‘Yes,’ and she goes away, and she comes back and says, ‘Follow me.’ I can still see Mrs. What’s-Her-Name; she is wearing a magnificent dress, with long sleeves and ruffled cuffs, and she has that little blue tint in her gray hair. She looks at me, and says, ‘Young man, I have to apologize to you. I don’t remember ever meeting your mother.’ And I say to her, ‘You know what? You never met her. But if I told your maid that I was here to sell magazines, you wouldn’t have seen me.’
“She laughed, and I knew I had her. I ended up selling her $50 worth of magazines. That was a huge order. And I kept the commission – 40 percent – so I got 20 bucks out of it.
“I learned something about selling – that the key is that you have to get in front of the buyer – if you don’t, everything else is waste – and you have to be creative about it.”
Despite his epiphany, he still hated the job, so soon Mr. Epstein returned to New York and took a job with C.J. Van Houten, the chocolate and cocoa company, where he learned a great deal about marketing, most of it self-taught. That began his rapid rise through the business world.
“I worked in 42 different companies or divisions,” Mr. Epstein said. “I went from sales to marketing to senior management. I was president of a number of companies, including BVD, Danskin, and Halston Enterprises, and general manager of several divisions of International Playtex. He also came up with the idea of the domestic microwave oven, and of the doughnut hole, he added.
“I became a turnaround specialist so I could go into troubled companies, big or small, and either cure them or kill them.” Actually, he added, only one company had to be killed on his watch.
Some of his work took him into glamorous worlds. “I danced with Elizabeth Taylor once,” he said. “I was so disillusioned when I put my arm around her and felt a spare tire.” He met dancers through his affiliation with Danskin, and became friends with the great ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn.
At the same time that Mr. Epstein’s professional life flourished, so did his personal life. In 1950, he married Rita Begun, whom he had met in high school. “My marriage was made in heaven,” he said; it lasted until Ms. Epstein died in 2006. They had two daughters and now have two grandsons as well.
“My wife was treated like the Queen of England,” he said. “Her wardrobe was by Halston.”
Of all the turnarounds Mr. Epstein shepherded, the one of which he is the most proud, he said, is the Jewish Home. That began in 1990, right after he retired; he worked with Marvin Eiseman, a founder of the Frisch School in Paramus. The home then was on the verge of bankruptcy, but the two men, using all the knowledge they had gleaned over the course of long careers and the creativity that had fueled them all along, pulled it out. “If Marvin had not come up with the six-point plan we used, and if he hadn’t sold it the way he did, the home probably wouldn’t be in existence today,” Mr. Epstein said. “It was a team effort – and the rest is history.”
Ah, that word again.
Two aspects of history particularly fascinate Mr. Epstein. “There is the Civil War itself, and its impact on the world, which we are still feeling,” he said. “And then there is the story of Jews in America.”
“The Civil War was the first war in the world that was affected by the Industrial Revolution,” he said. Mass production, one of that revolution’s most obvious byproducts, “created the ability to build things of a size and scope that couldn’t be done before,” he said. Railroads, telegraphs, food preservatives, engineering equipment – all that made a huge difference to the military. Photographs that brought the war home to noncombatants, and the newspapers that distributed them so widely, cheaply, and easily – all that was new.
The American North had been industrialized by the time of the Civil War but the South had not been, so “the South never stood a chance,” Mr. Epstein said.
The history of the American Republic and the Jews are inescapably intertwined, he continued. “It is incredible that in the 2,000 plus years of our diaspora, never in our history to this very day has there been a diaspora as fulfilling, rewarding, and free as the American experience,” he said. “The first time in 2,000 years that a Jew voted in a municipal election in any society – well, maybe the first time in 1,800 years, because it happened in 1654 – happened in New Amsterdam.
“The more I dug into it the more I realized how little our own Jewish community knows about this. They don’t know that the contribution and participation of Jews in the American military is disproportionately high, on a per capita basis, compared to the general population.
“I know that is an astounding statement, but it is true. From early on, having come here after running away from the Inquisition, Jews recognized how incredibly marvelous this new society and this new world was.
“Freedom is God-given. The reason humanity creates governments is to safeguard that God-given, inalienable right. We must understand that our freedom does not come from a government.
“The real exercise of that freedom is that the electorate decides who they will trust, to whom they will entrust the responsibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”