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Note: I've been posting diaries, one per week, to offer some distraction from the usual political shout-fests. I have political views, of course, but I can't often organize them into coherent posts. What I have to share with the community are recipes and meshugenah stories. Today's diary falls into that last camp.

When my uncle died, the house on Atlantic Boulevard stood vacant save for decades-old furniture, piles of trinkets (in Yiddish, tchotchkes), and garbage of one form or another. My parents wanted to know if there was anything I wanted, so I told them: one thing, only one thing. I wanted my grandfather's talent agency publicity photo from his time as a failed actor.


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Papa with my sis.

I liked Papa better than any of my other grandparents. He had a way with kids, knew how to talk to them better than my other grandparents. We had/have similar personalities, too. We're both dreamers and bullshit artists. We're both forever imagining riches around the corner. For Papa, it was the breakout acting career, or the properties in Hesperia and Ontario, or (I discovered today, talking to my mother) investments in Long Beach oil. For me, it's the breakout novel, the movie deal, or (when I'm feeling glum about the writing) a stroke of luck with the lottery.

We don't know much about his early years. Papa's father died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. He lived with his brothers and sister in Lodz, Poland, where his family worked a dairy farm. One by one, the children left and came to America, breaking their mother's heart.

The rest is conjecture. One thing about Papa, you never could filter the truth from the fable. In one of his favorite stories, two days before his ship pulled in to Ellis Island, he woke up with one leg shorter than the other. This, you may know, would have barred him from entrance to the States. When he told the story, he would delve at great length into the depths of his grief -- and he did this to set up the punchline: the next day, he woke up with both legs the same length. As much as he had wallowed in misery a moment earlier, now he rose to stratospheric heights detailing his elation, his relief. Yes, Papa understood that drama requires high stakes and sharp contrasts.

For a while, he worked as a hand on ships that steamed around Tierra Del Fuego. He was a kid at the time, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, and in another of his favorite stories, he made spare money posing nude for a shipboard photographer. He must have visited California during his travels, because he decided early on he would relocate to the West as soon as he could.

But for many years, he lived and worked in Boston. He acted in the local Yiddish Theater -- a big deal in those days, something that could bring local and regional fame. But Hollywood loomed as the big prize. I wonder: is that why he wanted to go West, or did the 19th century land-of-opportunity meme thrive even in the 1920s?

He met my grandmother in Boston and they married for God only knows what reason (apparently, even from their early years together, they fought daily). They came to California soon afterward, where Papa worked the late shift in a West Side Jewish bakery. The man made the best rye bread and mandelbrot (Jewish biscotti, harder than granite). He became active in the local theater scene and even performed at the Pasadena Playhouse before my grandmother nixed his hobby. Jealousy, my mother thinks.

You can know the facts of a person's life and yet have little or no insight into a person's feelings, his soul. Papa was a fine baker but he didn't love baking. He loved gardening . . . and acting. How much did he love acting? Look at his publicity photo:

The caption reads, A very fine European Actor -- Speaks all Foreign Languages -- Has slight accent. And, yes, in the lower lefthand corner, he's wearing a Nazi uniform. That's how much he wanted to be an actor.

This was the 1960s. World War II movies still made big box office, so what's "A very fine European Actor" who "Has slight accent" to do? Play a Nazi, that's what. No matter that Nazis were (and, of course, still are) anathema to any Jew. No matter that many if not all of his relatives left behind in Poland were now dead, thanks to the Nazis. If wearing a Nazi uniform would cinch his career, he'd put on a swastika and look like one tough bastard.

Lest you think this was the twisted pleasure of an antisemitic talent agent, the opposite side of the publicity photo reads, "Murry Weintraub Agency," with the phone number, OL 2-3892. Weintraub. Yeah, sure, Jews can be antisemitic (ever see The Man in the Glass Booth?) but I sense cunning, practicality, and above all, a yearning to succeed so intense that nothing else mattered.

His acting career never blossomed, his investments never flourished. He lived out his retirement in the house on Atlantic happily tending his garden -- happy, that is, when he wasn't fighting with my uncle or my grandmother. He refused to take his blood pressure medication, saying he felt just fine without it, thank you; and, predictably, he succumbed to multi-infarct dementia. He died while I was in medical school, alone in a nursing home with no memories, no stories. What a hellish way to go.

I miss him very much.

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Originally posted to Balls and Walnuts on Sat Mar 15, 2008 at 10:52 AM PDT.

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