Soul Surfer

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Fate hangs by a tender thread

I was chatting with my friend Isak Lindenauer this afternoon. He had posted a wonderful picture of the original Van Erp studio in Leeuwarden, Holland on his most excellent website.

Isak is a person I have immense respect for, on many levels. Incredibly bright fellow. A great poet, a literary talent I have little or no facility in.

A man who loves the material he is selling and who actually furthered the scholarship of his corner of the decorative arts, publishing a monograph early in his career.

I was a sign painter for a time, and apprenticed to an old master who taught me the old way of doing things, endless repetition and practice, interrupted by periodic bouts with the speed bag. Les was ninety four when I started working with him and he had once been a boxer. I developed a love affair with letters and type, not to mention a decent jab.

I told Isak that I really fancied the type on this sign or font in the photograph, which seemed very much influenced by Vienna and the secessionists. He mentioned the Belgian artist Henry Van de Velde. I brought up the outstanding nouveau and deco architecture found in Hungary.

The teens must have been a glorious time to have been in Europe, at least in a decorative sense. The pre-raphaelites, mixed their ethos with the orientalists which bloomed into the glorious art nouveau movement. It was fully a flower. the prevailing patrician motifs swept into the dustbin for new and fresh.

In England, Morris, Ruskin and Ashbee, dreading the coming factorization and industrialization of form and design, championed the arts and crafts movement and the creative work of the individual artist and small guild versus mass production. The movement borrowed from a variety of influences, 14th century dutch farmhouse, ecclesiastical, shaker among others, and tended to favor form and shape over embellishment, along with attention to fine detail and generally immaculate construction.

When Art Nouveau and arts and crafts eventually moved from England and France to Germany and Austria, the curved and sinewy lines straightened out and the right angle and grid became more predominate. Companies like WMF, Osiris and Orivit hired wonderful and creative designers and eventually gave birth to the secessionist movement and the Wiener Werkstatte and Jugendstil.

Lamp - Freidrich Adler circa 1901
Artists like Friedrich Adler, Kolomon Moser, Josef Hoffman, Behrens, Dagobert Pesce and Joseph Maria Olbrich were on the front lines of this new modernism, which clearly broke with the design elements of the past.

Adler was my personal favorite. He could do anything, he worked as an artist, architect, fabric and paper designer, ceramist, metal artist and woodworker. His favorite design line was so severe it was shocking. And delightful. Like raw bones and muscle.

Unfortunately when he was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 he was deemed too old and quickly exterminated.

In time Nouveau gave way to deco when the earlier style got a bit too heavy and needed to be a little lighter on its feet. Moderne helped the people break out of their great and literal depression.

Anyway, now I really have digressed. But Isak brought up Belgium and how glorious it must have been and I thought about my family history and my grandfather Israel's personal story and my family connection to that place. Without Belgium I might not be alive. The dutch and flemish were much more hospitable at that point to our tribe than practically anyone else in Europe.

Some of you know about this stuff and many I am sure don't care about it but this is one that I am going to repeat.

My grandparents grew up in a very difficult time. My grandfather Israel was born in Sierpc, Poland in 1899. His father Moishe Sommer was a veterinarian who moved to America two years later but returned after the San Francisco earthquake.

He had a rich cousin in the city, Sam, who supposedly bankrolled 20th Century Fox, but he wanted nothing to do with his poor European kin. Sam lived on California Street in San Francisco, had a hair products company. Felt embarrassed by their country cousins.

Moishe could not bring my great grandmother into this country with him because she had become addicted to morphine after a long hospitalization, a common occurrence back then. I believe that he worked on the kosher chicken farms in Petaluma before the earthquake sent him fleeing back to Poland.

My grandfather spent a portion of his young life smuggling morphine for his mother. When World War I broke out he was conscripted into the Russian army. Poland was betwixt and between sovereignty, the Germans and the Russians back then but at this point the Russians had control.

A conscription at that time for a jew was a mandatory twenty year term, the most common conclusion was death. One day my grandfather, who was incredibly tough until his dying day, had the misfortune to endure a severe horse whipping by a Cossack officer. He reached for a bayonet and plunged it into the Cossacks chest, killing him instantly. A manhunt ensued but he fled across Germany and ended up in Antwerp. Without Belgium I might not have ever been alive.

Siemens telegraph - Brussels 1897
My grandfather enrolled in the Siemens Electrical Institute in Antwerp. The Belge d‘ElectricitĂ© Siemens-Schuckert SA opened in Belgium in 1903. My grandfather graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering.

Israel Sommer, later Kaitz, spoke at least seven or eight languages fluently; Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German, English, French, Hebrew, Ladino and Spanish.

He was brilliant, although tough as nails. He moved to Palestine in the mid 1920's with my grandmother Pessa and helped design and construct the nascent nation's first electrical grid and system. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Histadrut, the workers trade union.

I was an excellent chess player at one time. In his early eighties he beat me at the chess table like a drum. In any case he eventually got tired of Israel, or should I say Palestine, the oppressive religious aspects mostly, my male forebears a long line of non believers. He moved to this country with my thirteen year old father and eleven year old aunt in 1939, initially staying with some relatives in Detroit.

My late mother says that he killed a man in Israel. She called him the murderer. She made all sorts of crazy talk. I do not know if that was true, he certainly had the temper to do it. I know that when I started researching the family history in the late eighties, my aunt got very distraught, said some things were better off buried in time.

I don't think he was necessarily the nicest grandpa. My brother and sister lived with him for a time when he eventually moved back to Israel, watched him pull a man out of his car and beat him up in his seventies in a road rage incident. I don't think he cared a whit for his grandchildren. My earliest memories of him, he was sitting in his simple dining chair, wiry strong in a wife beater undershirt, eating green gage plums which he pared with a sharp knife.

He lived in South Pasadena for a while, had a furniture shop, my father proudly said that he was so careful he never made a second cut. Eventually he moved to Culver City. He had a turquoise fifty seven chevy. I never saw it go even fifty miles an hour, he was a notoriously slow driver.

I don't have much from him now, maybe an old broken watch, a passport, a lovely black and white photograph of the hills of Judah he took in the 1930's. Funny but it looks sort of like my work.

I guess purely on an existential basis, without him, there would be no me and for that I am grateful.

He was known as a man with a voracious sexual appetite. His infidelity actually caused my grandmother to take her own life in 1964.

When he was getting a required surgery well into his eighth decade, he inquired of the surgeon what affect the operation would have on his sex life? The doctor said, it shouldn't but what kind of sex life do you have, if I may ask? My beloved father heard it with his own ears, once a day, twice on Sundays...

Luckily he had remarried at this point, to a real saint. He is buried in Givatiyim, in Israel. My grandmother lays in San Diego.

What is the point of my reciting and sharing my family history, especially such sordid history? Good question. I am not sure. I don't have children, nor will I.

My nieces and nephews may one day develop an interest on what brought them to their particular position in space and time and I might be one of the few people left to have ever researched the matter. I have created the tree and have collected all the necessary papers.

And I think it is important to think that whatever problems we all may think we have, they pale in contrast to what my grandparents and maybe your grandparents went through getting to this country when times were truly tough.  Can you imagine your mother an addict, having to become a smuggler, getting whipped by a cossack that you end up killing, having the unfortunate family that stayed in Poland all get exterminated...

How quickly the past is buried, how soon the present is obscured under a fine layer of silt.


isak said...


Aren't you a big blue wonder! Little did I know our reparte would set you off on such a wonderful, written journey. Nor that you would be so effusive in your praise of little ol' me. Thank you! But it was an organic swing and both fortuitous that Belgium entered into our dialogue and that it sparked you so. Small wonder.As you say how fate hangs. Tender the thread and slender indeed. There but for a moment's hesitation walking out the front door is a life changed by great good fortune or imminent tragedy. I never knew Alan Adler's brutal and untimely fate. It was chilling to read. In the context of the larger story, but a momentary line of information. And yet a great artist's life and future was incinerated in a sentence and disappeared like a puff of smoke into thin air.

The reason we are here, what we say to one another, how paths overlap--my faith as a believer of some goodness like Anne Frank felt, tells me there is a higher pattern to all that which is rarely revealed. I can't say why I know that in my flesh, but it is as true as anything I know. And even if I know nothing, which is not far from the truth, then it becomes the one thing I do know beyond knowing. Pascal. In my heart I know it is true. It has its reason which reason cannot know.

You are very kind to have heaped so many fine words on me and my meager accomplishments, especially so publicly. I thank you. In the process you do yourself a big injustice. You are by far the so very brighter fellow, the more well versed and learned, multi-talented with a voracious intellectual appetite to experience so many different aspects of life--the world of art, the natural world with a camera in hand, your flair for the finest foods, Anthony Bourdain would enjoy your company were he still with us, because your gusto is not limited to the dishes on the table but in the process and surroundings and culture which gave rise to them. You have an encyclopedic knowledge of history, music, politics, the finer things in life. You read a ton. You write a bunch. You laugh and enjoy the company of many friends and acquaintances. You are a repository of your family'sand our people's history both of which you carry with much love in your heart and share And beyond all that you have a great love, Leslie, with whom you have had the great good fortune to have sauntered together through the years.

You, my friend, are a powerhouse, to be sure. It surprises me that you have interest in knowing a little old shlemmiel like me. But I am grateful to know you and constantly surprised that we share this wonderful camaraderie.We belong to a mu-tu-al ad-mi-ra-tion society! May our fellowship continue and grow for many years to come. Thanks once again for your very kind words. Now all I ask of you is to send me a translation of the Hebrew benediction? with which you ended the post please. Isak

Blue Heron said...

Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei raba.
B'alma di v'ra chirutei,
v'yamlich malchutei,
b'chayeichon uv'yomeichon
uv'chayei d'chol beit Yisrael,
baagala uviz'man kariv. V'im'ru: Amen.

Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varach
l'alam ul'almei almaya.

Yitbarach v'yishtabach v'yitpaar
v'yitromam v'yitnasei,
v'yit'hadar v'yitaleh v'yit'halal
sh'mei d'kud'sha b'rich hu,
l'eila min kol birchata v'shirata,
tushb'chata v'nechemata,
daamiran b'alma. V'imru: Amen.

Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya,
v'chayim aleinu v'al kol Yisrael.
V'imru: Amen.

Oseh shalom bimromav,
Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,
v'al kol Yisrael. V'imru: Amen.

Exalted and hallowed be God's great name
in the world which God created, according to plan.
May God's majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime
and the life of all Israel -- speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.

Blessed be God's great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded
be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing,
praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,
to which we say Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.
To which we say Amen.

Isak said...

Why am I not surprised? Somehow I knew it would be the Kaddish. Thanks.