About a half-dozen elderly Jews come to the East Concourse Luncheon Club every day by city bus. ìThis is the Waldorf of senior center soup kitchens,î says Ida G., one of the diners. ìThere are places closer to me, but this is excellent, home-cooked, like a mother would cook,î though itís been a long time since anyone has seen their mom.
For $1 you get tomato soup, roasted turkey legs, yams, orange-pineapple juice, and apricots for desert, all kosher. When you leave, you get a pint of milk to take home. A few months ago, meals cost 60 cents but the price went up 40 cents. Thatís $219 more a year. UJA-Federationís Jewish Association for Services for the Aged and New York Cityís Department for Aging subsidize the meals, but everyoneís cutting back. Thereís a war. Billions are budgeted to rebuild Iraq. The economyís bad. Bus fares are going up. Even at a senior citizenís discount, the round-trip will be an extra $1 a day. Combined with the hike at the soup kitchen, thatís $511 more than what it cost to be poor a year ago. As Casey Stengel said, ìIíll never make the mistake of being 70 again.î
Ida Gould remembers, ìWe used to have ration books for shoes, meat and sugar,î during World War II. ìWe didnít feel it so bad in this country. We got by.î
Some donít get by. Arthur Kaufman, 85, speaking in a Polish accent, says, ìWhen the kitchen here gives away a loaf of bread, they run like theyíre out of a concentration camp. They push each other. Some people here, if you need a nickel to go home on the bus, they couldnít give it to you.î
Rose Podolsky, 90, says, ìThis war, I have no use for it. Theyíd tie a Jewís beard to a horse and drag the Jew on the ground. I donít like wars.î
What war are we talking about? ìI was 4 or 5 years old,î in Ukraine, 1917. ì If you were Jewish you were no good. They used to take knives and poke your stomach. My cousin would wear a piece of wood,î under his shirt.
ìMy father wasnít with us, he was in America so he wouldnít have to go in the army,î Rose continues. ìMother worked in a tobacco field. We went to my grandmotherís house, in an area where there werenít supposed to be bombs or soldiers. We were there a half-hour, a bomb fell in front of her windows. Itís too bad I have to tell you these things. A lot of people are going to get killed,î in Iraq, maybe in New York. ìI canít take that. They should only leave Israel alone. This all started when they started killing Jews.î
Down the table, Ida asks the waitress for paper to wrap the remains of her turkey leg.
ìAfter 9-11,î says Ida, ìif Bush didnít hit Iraq then, I donít know. I guess we had to do something after all they did to us. This is payback.î
She remembers other paybacks. ìMy girlfriendís brother was killed in Pearl Harbor. Harry Gruenbaum, he was killed. Irving Portnick, I knew from clubs down near Westchester Avenue. There used to be Jewish clubs down there, with dances on Ward Avenue, Manor Avenue, and Stratford. Irving Portnick, a nice tall fellow, blond, he was engaged. He liked to dance. He was killed. It was terrible. One of the women I know from Daughters of Jacob [Home and Hospital], her grandson was just killed in Israel. An 18-year-old boy. She gets a call, her grandson was killed. A sniper, or something. We play Bingo.î
ìPolitics,î sneers Arthur. ìYears ago I used to be interested. Now, I give up forever. The human race is just a step ahead of the animals. I used to be an anarchist but the strong would kill the weak. Then I had hope in the Soviet Union. I lost hope in that, too. I donít want to think about politics anymore. Iím interested in my own personal health, which is not the best. I have heart trouble, diabetes. Let the next generation worry.î
He was a soldier in World War II, ìbecause Hitler was a monster,î but didnít see action.
He didnít see the world the way his zeyde did. ìMy grandfather used to warn me, the worst Jew is better than the best goy. I said all people are alike. There shouldnít be a difference. We moved from Poland to France and there was no anti-Semitism there.î
In Paris, ìmy younger brother was friends with Herschel Grynszpan,î another Polish refugee, sent by his parents to live with relatives. In 1938, Grynszpan, 17, assassinated Ernst Vom Rath, of the Nazi legation in Paris, a murder Hitler used as the pretext for Kristallnacht.
ìThe Jews made Herschel into a big hero,î says Arthur. ìHe was no hero. He was a crazy little boy. He did more harm than good, didnít accomplish anything. Ach, look, whoever wants to hate Jews will hate Jews regardless.î
And this war in Iraq? ìSince itís my country,î says Arthur, ìI have to support the soldiers whether I want to or not. We have to support our boys.
ìI gave my boys the best of everything,î he said of his own two sons. ìMaybe I gave them too much. When they were kids, I bought them the Lionel [train set]. All the kids from the neighborhood came up to our house to play. Whatever they needed, they only had to want it. About six months ago, I couldnít walk. I called my son, I said I have difficulties, I canít go shopping. You know what he said? Give up your money and go into a nursing home. And for him, I gave away my life? That made me bitter.î
He always supported his boys, and heíll support the boys in Iraq, but whoíll support him?
ìItís like Hillel the Scholar,î says Arthur. ìHe said if Iím not for me, who will be? And if Iím only for me, what am I?î He learned that in Poland as a child. ìHave you heard of Lodz? There used to be such people there, Jewish theater, Jewish newspapers. Youíve been there? How does it look?î
He eyes looked like he was 12 again. When Rose spoke her eyes grew wide, like a Ukrainian child. Irving Portnick is still 24, dancing with girls grown old. n