| Family First Serial |

Fallout: Chapter 39

“Can I take Saturday off, Mr. Lefkowitz? I’ll work on Sunday if you want, or extra hours on Monday”


August/September 1964

It’s kind’ve unexpected to discover something really weird about yourself while you’re stacking cans of Bumblebee Tuna and Heinz Baked Beans. But then again, nothing in these past two weeks had been what Marjorie expected.

Who woulda thunk? That after traveling thousands of miles in her search for freedom, Marjorie Burton would wind up opening boxes, stacking shelves, slicing cheese, and sweeping up the detritus of grocery shoppers who came in barefoot and tracked what seemed all of San Francisco’s dust onto the floor?

And even crazier — that she would like it?

But now, most shocking of all... where had those words come from, the words she’d just said to Mr. Samuel “Sammy” Lefkowitz, proprietor of the tiny corner grocery that had become a kind of haven for her?

Mr. Lefkowitz had been going over the schedule for the next few days. “Fridays are busy, Margie, everyone’s getting ready to party. Let’s open at nine. Saturday, all those hippies and dippies and nut jobs are sleeping it off, so you can come late. Be here at noon, should be in plenty of time for the long-haired crowd.”

Thoughts raced through her mind, as swiftly as the grocery’s flashing neon sign, blinking on, off, on, off.

Saturday. Shabbos.

Work. Rest.

The Haight.

The Hotel.

She hardly knew what she was going to say, and yet she said it. “Can I take Saturday off, Mr. Lefkowitz? I’ll work on Sunday if you want, or extra hours on Monday.”

It wasn’t like she hadn’t already worked for Mr. Lefkowitz on Shabbos. Last week, soon after that catastrophic day of panhandling (she shuddered just at the thought of it) Mama Mumu had — once again — come to her rescue. It was all arranged; Marjorie would work for the grocer who, years before, had given Mama Mumu a job and both her and her brother a place to sleep. Marjorie would crash at Chrissie’s place, get a small salary plus a big discount on groceries, enough to live on and even help out her friends a little with the back rent.

She’d almost refused the job when Mama Mumu had led her to the little corner store, pointed to a large open carton, and calmly commanded, “Start stacking.” But the thought of having to join Chrissie on the sidewalk hovered over her like some monstrous flying bird of prey, ready to swoop in for the kill. Within minutes she was bending over and pulling out boxes of cereal. At first, she’d been sullen and silent, but within a few hours of boring, mindless work she felt a strange kind of calm settle upon her. So much had happened, this quiet time gave her the chance to mull over her journey, the good times and the bad. And when things got really dull, she’d sing folk songs to herself.

It also helped that every few minutes Mr. L. would come over with a smile and a nice word. A cheerful and chatty old man — wow, he must have been at least 50! — he brought her steaming cups of instant coffee that he’d prepared in the back of the store, praised the neat way she sliced the cheese, and gossiped about the customers after they’d left with their sour cream or half a pound of tomatoes. And when Saturday had come, she’d worked her usual hours, hardly noticing what day of the week it was.

By the end of that first week of work, life was good again: There was food to eat, and she’d even been able to treat Chrissie and her friends to a night out from the close to 40 bucks she’d earned. They’d sat in a small and smoky dive, drinking espresso, eating chocolate sundaes, and listening to folk rock. Marjorie brought her bongos and joined some of the bands on the small wooden planks that served as a stage.

And that became her life — her two lives — until this Thursday afternoon: eight relaxed, calm hours stocking and restocking and manning the register and figuring out the change by scribbling numbers on a brown paper bag with a stubby pencil kept behind her ear. And, of course, chatting with Mr. Lefkowitz and basking in his generous portions of approval. She would catch a quick nap on a mattress on the floor at Chrissie’s, jump into the frenetic Haight nightlife, and grab a few more hours of early morning sleep before she went back to the grocery. A perfect existence.

And yet, now, here was some deep and disturbing voice within her reminding her of a world left behind. About Shabbos.

“Got a concert with your hippie-dippie friends, Margie? Or want to go kite-flying in Golden Gate Park? Plenty of time, just give me a couple of hours and then you can go enjoy yourself.”

“It’s…” Marjorie took a deep breath. What had she gotten herself into? “It’s not about fun. You see, I’m Jewish.”

Sammy Lefkowitz smiled. “Really? So you’re a landsman?”

“A what?”

“Landsman. That’s Yiddish. What my parents used to call a member of the tribe.”

Interesting. Somehow, Marjorie hadn’t given much thought to Mr. L.’s personal life. So he was Jewish. Did that make it easier for her to say what she was about to tell him, or harder?

“Umm. You see….”

“Out with Marjorie. I don’t bite.”

And so came awkward explanations about her time in the hotel and at the Levines, living with Orthodox Jews. “I’m not really observant, Mr. L., but there was something about the Shabboses I kept with them, something….”


“No, not relaxing. Something,” she laughed, a little shy, a little nervous, “something holy.”

The grocer rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And you want to be a holy Jew?”

“No, I mean yes, I mean….” A sigh.

A customer walked in, looking for sugar for a birthday cake for her eight-year-old son Julio, breaking up the conversation for a few moments. When she’d left, muttering at the scandalous prices nowadays — could you believe, sugar at twenty-two cents a pound — Sammy Lefkowitz sat down on a stool behind the counter and motioned to Marjorie to take a seat on a pile of sturdy boxes containing laundry detergent.

“Marjorie, do you think I’m a good Jew?”

“Yeah, of course. I mean, look how you saved Mama Mumu when she was young. And you helped her bury her brother, Eddie. And,” another sigh, this one edged with laughter, “and how you saved me.”

“My grandparents in Europe, Margie, they observed the Sabbath. Then they came here, and they realized you can be a good Jew without it.”

A deep voice broke in, as a young man walked into the store. “Not everybody believes that, Pop,” the voice said.

Though five days of his precious two-week leave had passed, it still seemed strange to wake up in his own bed. To wake up, not to the blast of a bugle shrieking mercilessly into his dreams, but to the murmurings of a family preparing to start their day, whispering so as not to awaken their hero, back from the battles of basic training. Strange to daven with other Jews, a minyan, slowly, carefully, not casting hurried, urgent glances at the time.

And so very, very strange not to be under the ruthless scrutiny of a sharp-eyed drill instructor searching for a crease in a uniform, a smudge of grease on a rifle. Instead, here, in his Boro Park home, he had Mama’s eyes falling upon him, caressing him, loving and anxious and sparkling all at the same time.

And yet… with all the delights of home, his daily chavrusa with Zeide, throwing around frisbees with Artie (and studiously avoiding any discussion about the escalating war in Vietnam), backyard baseball with the twins and horsey rides with Ruchele… with his mother’s food and his father’s excitement as they exchanged stories about military life… a part of him felt a growing impatience. There was work to be done, lives to be saved, battles to win, a people to liberate: Vietnam was waiting for him.

Today, arriving back from davening and a short and enjoyable chavrusashaft with the shul’s rabbi, where they discussed the many halachic issues that might come up during his overseas posting, he found the entire family preparing for an outing.

“Where to?” he asked, watching his mother stuffing sandwiches, while the twins threw endless bags of potato chips and cookies into a huge picnic basket.

“It’s a surprise,” Ruchele answered, licking peanut butter off her fingers. “No one knows but Dad and Mama.”

“They didn’t tell me either,” Malka said, walking into the kitchen and handing little Yitzchak into Mutty’s hands. With Mutty’s unexpected arrival, she and Yoel and the baby had moved in for a few days, so they could spend more time together. “Dad gave Yoel directions but swore him to secrecy.”

They filled two cars — Dad, Mama, Ruchele, Mutty, and the twins in the Cadillac; Yoel, Malka, little Yitzchak, and Artie in Yoel’s aging Ford. They made a quick stop at the hotel, and Moe jumped in.

“Abe, I know you like surprise parties, but this is ridiculous,” he said, his voice half amused, half annoyed. “Making me take a full day off to go… where?”

Abe grinned. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he said, and the two cars pulled out to their mysterious destination.

The passengers passed the time singing, playing I Spy, Geography, and 20 Questions, schmoozing and — of course — asking for what seemed the millionth time, “Are we there yet?” There were also guesses about where they were headed: The Statue of Liberty, the World’s Fair, Palisades Amusement Park. Annie and Abe kept their mouths firmly shut.

It was at the Red Apple Rest, where they stopped for a bathroom and stretching break, that Annie could finally speak privately to Abe.

“Are you sure that this is a good idea, Abe?”


Firmly quashing her doubts, Annie returned Abie’s smile with a slightly wan one of her own.

The scenery grew greener, the roads curved more. “I know, we’re heading to the Manor House Hotel!” Mutty exclaimed.

“Sorry, Mut, wrong again. It’s closed down.”

“What? Why?”

Annie broke the sad news that the owner had passed away. “None of his children can take over, they all have their own lives and jobs. Last I heard, they’d put up a For Sale sign and were looking for someone to buy it.”

“I don’t envy whoever is fool enough to purchase it,” Abe said. “It’s a mess, and it will need an awful lot of repairs before it’s usable.”

“I’m sorry. Mr. Perlstein was a nice man,” Mutty said, and lapsed into a thoughtful silence.

Wherever they were going, it was clearly in the Catskill Mountains. They actually passed the turnoff to the Manor House, and then drove about 20 minutes further. They waited in the Caddy for a few more minutes, while Yoel’s Ford — which had huffed and puffed up some of the mountains that the luxury car climbed with ease — caught up with them. The two cars then took a small, hardly noticeable left turn and drove three minutes on a winding road. They pulled over before a large, two-story structure that looked like a modernized farmhouse. It had a bright white wooden exterior, a steep roof made of aquamarine gables, and it boasted a stone chimney. The window frames, also aquamarine, gave it a friendly and colorful look, while a covered porch cast a welcoming feel on the building.

“Well, here we are,” Abe announced.

“Nice place,” Artie said, throwing a professional eye on the exterior. “Whose is it?”

“Actually,” Abe said, smiling broadly as everyone piled out of the cars, “that’s why we’re here. To decide if it’s going to be ours.”

To be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 883)

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