When all feels punkt fakert

When all feels punkt fakert

Remembering the ‘greeners’ in this upside-down world

Esther Kook’s Aunt Helen and Uncle Sidney
Esther Kook’s Aunt Helen and Uncle Sidney

Yiddish-speaking “greeners” — immigrants — surrounded and enriched my childhood.

Those greeners — as they sometimes were called by Jews who’d been in the country longer — had arrived from Europe, searching, like so many others, for a better life in the “goldene medine,” the golden country.

Except for my father, who worked diligently to sound American, they all spoke with accented English. My mother was the lone Yankee Doodle, born and bred in New York City, and the only accent she had was an authentic New Yawker’s.

Members of my family arrived in America at different times, but they each believed that life here would be better. Maybe it would be goldene. They had big aspirations for the future, believing in working hard to secure their goals. My grandparents, my dad, and his sister, Aunt Helen, came to Scranton before World War II, thankfully, escaping the Holocaust and its atrocities.

But my Uncle Sidney, arrived after the war. He had survived those war years as a partisan, running from and dodging the Germans, and living in the forests. He and my dad became brothers-in-law and best friends when he married Aunt Helen.

Yet they were polar opposites. While dad flaunted his fluency, Uncle Sidney could care less, and his sentences were a mash of English and Yiddish. That didn’t matter, because his charm and drive ensured a successful career in what Uncle Sidney called “plashtics” — plastics. No one could sell those shower curtains and tablecloths like Uncle Sidney. Because my father was the regular rabbi and Uncle Sidney was not someone to be outdone, he dubbed himself the “plashtics rabbi.”

Only in America could they have these lives, my family believed.

So they were grateful.

Thanksgiving was a big deal in my family because they were so appreciative of the opportunities afforded to them, knowing what life was like on the other side of the ocean, knowing about the Holocaust. Each year, we traveled hours to Aunt Helen’s house to partake in her feast with turkey and all the trimmings. To this day, I’m not sure about the magic Aunt Helen performed with her turkey, but it was always worth the trip. Legend has it that she cooked the bird all night, on low. I still can’t wrap my head around that. How didn’t it get burned? Aunt Helen’s turkey was always done to perfection.

In later years, the greeners all visited Israel several times. They loved being there, but America was home. In their minds it was a bastion of safety, security, and civility.

I wonder how my greeners would react to the world since October 7, with the double whammy of the massacre in Israel and the unleashing of shocking and virulent antisemitism in this country and globally. Of course, they weren’t naive and saw hints and shadows of it in their lives. But at that time, the antisemitism was mostly subterranean, and not unleashed like this volcano of hot lava.

Sadly, they are all gone now. The only consolation is they didn’t witness college presidents unable to denounce antisemitism on their campuses. Or endless slurs and skewed information on the news, and unending protesters stopping traffic and impeding people’s lives and shouting “From the river to the sea,” most not even knowing what river and which sea.

Without a doubt, they’d be dismayed and utterly devastated by the current state of events. But if they were here, there would certainly be lots of Yiddish phrases thrown into the mix. They would probably proclaim the country and world has gone “punkt fakert” — upside down, crazy, totally messed up. “Punkt fakert” is the term I’ve been muttering to myself, watching this nightmare unfold.

And we’re not okay, not since October 7. How could we be? Yet we’re not alone in our devastation. We’ve been reaching out with one another, communally, and in Israel. On a positive note, there’s pride in our unity. As in any crisis, it’s crucial we continually share and reach out, as there’s strength in numbers.

My friend Robin Newman of Paramus said, “There’s been an overwhelming feeling of fear and isolation. In spite of these feelings, I have never been more proud to let people know I am a Jew. I have a large Israeli flag in my living room window and a banner that says ‘Bring Them Home Now.’

“The other day as I was shopping and wore a shirt that said “I Stand With Israel,” several people approached me,” Robin continued. “They said they weren’t Jewish but were also supporting Israel and praying for the hostages. It made me realize that there are many good people out there.”

My father, who was a rabbi, often told the story about the first time he visited Israel on a rabbinic mission. He met former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on that trip. Dad introduced himself to Ben-Gurion and said that he was a lantzman — they both came from Plonsk, Poland. Ben-Gurion was delighted by this revelation, and they began to have a discussion in Hebrew, in which my dad was also fluent.

But when Ben-Gurion asked dad when he planned to make aliyah, the tone changed. Dad said that he had no such plans because America was his home. At that point, “Ben-Gurion just turned around and walked away,” Dad said.

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist and freelance writer.

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