Town Jew Convention

Riverbabble 2002

Editor/writer/wanted for small journal. Modest pay/ one part-time assistant/ needs knowledge of Jewish history & culture, plus ability to read Hebrew. Send or fax C.V. to Lipshitz Foundation,Lipshitz Building Greenwich CT.

I was told that I was one of the two finalists and taken to a deli for lunch after my second interview. Like so many Jewish delis, this one named their sandwiches after famous Jews, but unlike the others, they didn’t restrict themselves to movie stars. I ordered the “Franz Kafka” — brisket and a kasha knish on dark Russian Pumpernickel with a borscht dipping sauce. The interviewers were obviously regulars because they ordered without a menu—a “Sandy Koufax,” a “Leopold and Loeb,” and two “Moishe Dayans.”

The next day I got a call telling me that the job was mine. The foundation member who called, confided in me that the deli was part of the interview process. “Your competition ordered a “Haman”—that’s the brisket and cheese on white with extra mayo. Enough said,” he said. “Feh,” he added. It was fourteen years ago that I was hired as editor/writer with a part-time assistant of the Lipshitz Foundation sponsored, THE RURAL M.O.T. JOURNAL (member of the tribe). Once a year the board of directors would fly me to New York for a luncheon meeting to discuss the budget I had submitted for the coming year. Nothing is ever denied except the changing of the part-time assistant to a full time one.

They would change it if they could, they tell me, but the Lipshitz family stipulated that the staff was to remain the same as when the Journal began, and so I had to make do. Of course I was allowed to pay outside writers and consultants and often used my part-time assistant, Harry Cash in this capacity.

The M.O.T. JOURNAL is a quarterly with a subscription list of three hundred and nineteen. It is mailed in a manila envelope with a PO box of the foundation as the return address. It is as nondescript and anonymous as possible, and for good reason. There are many small towns and villages throughout the country that have but one Jew in their population, and in order to keep that person or family abreast of Judaism, the Lipshitz Foundation took it upon themselves to start and fund this magazine. Our personals have led to a dozen weddings and our dial-a-minion call for saying Kaddish by speaker phone is one of my most popular innovations next to the “Ask The . . .” columns.

We have “Ask The Rabbi,” “Ask The Maven,” and the most popular, “Ask The Yenta” columns. The Yenta column answers everything from recipes to advice to the lovelorn. There is also a very, very lively letters to the editor section, very often refuting all of the other columns. Harry Cash, my assistant, is the Rabbi, the Yenta, and the Maven. Up until now this has not presented a problem, but in one of the letters to the editor some one suggested that this small group of T.J.s get together, and the letters to the editor that followed backed up the suggestion.

So, I came up with the idea of The Town Jew Convention. They would come together for the first time and there would be socials and seminars and all around camaraderie. We would discuss mutual problems and workable solutions and even the benefits of being a T.J.

Most of our people live in the mid-west, so naturally Chicago came to mind first, but in a poll of our readers, the Catskills was voted in by a whopping three to one margin. I had Harry make some calls and he came up with THE TIVOLI, a modest resort hotel about a half mile from THE RALEIGH.

          Dear Rabbi, 
           My family and I have been looking forward
           to the convention, but several weeks ago the
           dry cleaners in town was sold. The new owners
           are Jewish. We are concerned that if we close
           our furniture store for a week the new Jews in
           town may push us off our perch.
           Wondering In Tarville.

           Dear Wondering, 
           As Adam first said to Eve—“That, you call an
           apple?” It will take more than a week to displace
           you in the hearts and minds of the people of
           Tarville. Come! Enjoy! Pledge!
           The Rabbi

           Dear Wondering, 
           I would also like to respond to your problem. Do
           they think there are no towns left without Jews?
           Drop a hint or two such as, “We’re going to visit
           family for a week and we’ll do a little traveling and
           look at our options.” You said everything and
           nothing—how much more Jewish could you be?
           They just might run those new dry cleaners out of
           town in the week you’re gone.
           Yenta

This exchange created a series of debates in guest columns, letters to the editor, and “Ask the . . .” columns. It precipitated our newest column for which we had to hire an outside consultant. Harry was a little miffed that he didn’t get the job, but when he realized the hours it would take, he calmed down. The column was called, Jews without towns: towns without Jews. It was apparent to many of us that as our population got older, our children did also. Where were they to go? Realizing that not every kid’s goal was to grow up to be The Town Jew, we also realized that there was a tradition of Jewish sons following in their father’s footsteps. We needed to research those towns still Jewless, and those Jews still townless, and make a shidech, a match.

That’s where Myron Lansky came in. He was one of the three responses to our ad in our newsletter and in several Jewish newspapers. He was the great, great nephew of the infamous Meyer Lansky and had the credentials that were tailor made for this job. His resume showed that he had worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, a fund raiser for the UJA, Director of The National Small Town Chamber of Commerce Collective, and was now on a sabbatical from Temple Beth and Marty Shalom, where he was a tenured professor of Jewish History in the Adult Education Department, teaching among other courses, Jewish Lives: Senses and Census. The Small Towns in America 1850-1920 and The Jews That Inhabited Them.

His second interview was held at the same deli where all our major interviews are held and he won our hearts by passing over the “Meyer Lansky” and ordering the “Roseanne”— a plate of kishka (stuffed derma) with gravy over a bed of groats. He finished off with an egg cream.

Both ideas had come together at the same time, and the Journal hummed. Myron quickly put on two assistants, two college girls who were bright and gorgeous. Myron was bright, but not good looking. He topped out at maybe five-six, was an impeccable dresser with creases everywhere, and he smiled. Not all the time, but always when he was speaking to someone—especially someone on the phone. His chin ended just under his lower lip and seemed at one with his neck.

Harry Cash was different. He was so rumpled it was hard to guess his weight or height—both of which were over average. While Myron was clean shaven, Harry had a salt and pepper full beard and light blue, almost feminine eyes. He laughed a lot but almost never smiled. He also had to add a couple of assistants for the convention. He hired his sister Bernice and her husband Murray, both retired and looking to supplement. They weren’t there for a cushy paycheck—when Harry said jump, Bernice told Murray how high. They were obviously used to listening to Harry and they made a great team. The convention was coming together nicely.

We held a staff meeting, Harry and me, and decided to tell the families that the Rabbi, the Maven, and the Yenta opted out of showing themselves at the convention in order to maintain their neutrality in future correspondence. Myron had no plans for going to the convention but I put him and his assistants on standby just in case they were needed. He was busy lining up a travel schedule to visit the Towns Without Jews.

Then the call came. I was summoned to the Lipshitz Foundation Headquarters and asked to explain my emergency appropriations request. It was more than the budget, but the directors seemed satisfied with both concepts and the progress being made. However, they made it clear that should either or both of these projects fail then I was out of a job.

“And when they succeed?” I asked.

“That’s why you’re in charge,” I was told.

Since we are a very low key organization we chose to call it a reunion rather than a convention. Thus was born THE CAMP GRIBBENES BY THE SEA REUNION. It would be the perfect cover and the real business would be discussed in closed rooms. A special issue of “The Journal” was sent out telling our members about Camp GRIBBENES By the Sea, and listing the possible workshops and talks for people to sign up. The issue, our first special ever, was a big hit and we got a perfect return rate for those T.J.s who were able to come. The most popular seminars were:

Christmas is not going away—So make the most of it.

What to wear if invited to a pig roast—Turning anti-semitic remarks into compliments.

Jew me down—The art of negotiating like an Episcopalian, and Judaism and the internet, or How to get a good bagel in the boonies.

Myron didn’t go to the convention. We could have used the help but he convinced us that he couldn’t break stride and would have almost everything in order by the time we got back. I left with Harry and his assistants two weeks early to prepare at the Tivoli.

We had all two hundred and seventy of their rooms. They had WELCOME CAMP GRIBBENES REUNION on their marquee and other welcome signs everywhere. We were golden, and the seminars were great. Our guest speaker, Soupy Sales, was a big hit. A few romances blossomed. We set up and ran quiz shows for two evenings entertainment: Tel-Aviv Squares and Jewish Jeopardy, and gave prizes. Bernice was our tumler, our own Brooklyn Mistress of Ceremonies. The laughter never stopped.

We did discover that two of our long time members, both named Rosenberg from different towns, were not Jewish. After meeting privately with each family we decided to keep one and dismiss the other. The Joseph Rosenbergs thought it all a big goof and we sent them packing, while the Michael Rosenbergs really wanted to be Jewish and we signed them up for a conversion correspondence course—compliments of The Journal.

The Rabbi, The Yenta, and The Maven were missed, but Harry Cash and I were instant celebrities. We were cornered and asked questions so often that we set up an “Ask the Staff” night. where for over two hours we answered questions. Of course, the guests insisted that Bernice be on the panel. I wished the Board of Directors could have been around but they had declined our invitation.

On the last day of the convention, during breakfast, there were toasts galore; to us, the Journal, and to each other from our conventioneers. Then, to our surprise, in walked Myron Lansky with an entourage of about two dozen. Without waiting for me to say something, Harry quickly got up and went to Myron, taking him outside while his group milled around, whispering to each other. The door opened and Harry motioned for me.

“What’s going on,” I asked Myron.

Harry answered. “These are new T.J.s he’s planning to sign up and he thought that seeing the Convention would get them to sign on the dotted line.”

“What dotted line?” I asked. “Sign up for what?”

“Don’t get your kishkas in an uproar,” Myron said. “These people are all from my JEWS WITHOUT TOWNS: TOWNS WITHOUT JEWS project. That’s what I’ve been doing. I thought you’d be pleased.”

“I’m just surprised,” I said. “This is a members only get-to-gether, and they are not members yet. Go get them and I’ll give them a welcoming speech in one of the rooms and then you can take them to The Concord and buy them a day there.”

Harry left to get the new folks while Myron and I made small talk. Harry came back shaking his head and we followed him to the dining room. The two groups had intermingled and there was no easy way to separate them. I grabbed the microphone and thanked everyone for a great convention, reminded them that checkout was at two and said goodbye for Harry and myself. Our bags were packed because we had planned to leave right after breakfast. We had to be at a Foundation meeting in Greenwich in the morning and wanted to unwind in the City first. Myron stayed behind to gather his troops. He was all creases and smiles.

“Something ain’t kosher,” Harry said. I shrugged and we drove off for New York doing a post mortem on the Convention. There was no doubt that it was an unqualified success and there would be more in the future. Together we decided that every year was too often and every three years were just about right. We learned a lot and decided to add some new topics for discussion and have a panel composed of T.J.s.

We were pleased and eager to give our report to the Foundation, but the opportunity never came. The next morning as soon as we walked into the Foundation board room we knew there was something wrong—we were greeted with silence and looks. We took our seats, and after letting us fidget for a minute or so one of the members slapped a New York Post down on the table in front of us.

                                 JEWS FOR SALE!

Quite a headline—even for the Post. Harry and I looked at each other and both mouthed, “Lansky.” As it turned out the bagel didn’t fall far from the tree. Myron Lansky was a crook, selling these Jewless towns a town Jew, while at the same time charging Jews for the “opportunity” to become a Town Jew. He had pocketed a small fortune and turned up at the Tivoli, Jews in tow, to establish credibility with them. Everything our organization stood for, Myron Lansky destroyed in short order. He had coerced and guilted the Jewless towns into paying exorbitantly to get themselves a Jew, while at the same time charging Jews to put them on a ‘waiting list’—and then extract more money to push them to the top of the pile. To add another insult—his resume was concocted and we had never checked it.

This was all reported by two college girls, journalism students, who were hired to work on the project with Myron. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” their article began, “we were just taking a part-time job on our summer break. When this began to happen it was too good of a story not to write.”

A typical phone conversation from Mr. Lansky would go something like this, the article continued.

           I have a small town in Eastern Nevada, good 
           schools, beautiful lake, great weather, and
           membership in the local country club. They
           faxed down their Town Jew requirements
           and you match in every respect. Unfortunately, 
           two others also meet the criteria and they are
           both ahead of you on the list. We would call this 
           an Aleph(A) opportunity—maybe a double Aleph. 
           Think about it and let me know. I have to make 
           the decision tonight and call them first thing in 
           the morning. How much? No, I’m sorry, I can’t 
           help you there. It wouldn’t be fair to the other 
           two who want this Town so bad their bags are
           packed. Think of it as an investment in your 
           family’s future—only you can decide the value
           of that. Gotta run, my other phone’s ringing.

I was asked to wait outside while the Foundation members spoke with Harry. He came out and walked by me and out the door. Then it was my turn. They told me there was no way that I could stay on as editor and I was handed a severance check. No one offered to shake my hand or said goodbye and that was that. I left and wandered down the street to the Deli. Harry was there and I took a seat in the booth across from him. As I reached for the menu a waitress showed up placing two plates in front of us. “Here you go fellas, acoupla 'Meyer Lanskys.'” She pulled two cans of Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry sodas from her uniform pockets. “Enjoy,” she said.


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