The is a continuation of DINNER AT THE NIMOY’S.
Max watched his wife go into the kitchen. ‘Ah,’ he sighed. ‘The love of my life. I was so lucky to have found her. Can you guess where I first met her?’
‘The village where you grew up?’
‘No. You’ll never guess. We first met in South America.’
‘South America!’ Dennis and I spoke in unison.
Max laughed. When Mrs. Nimoy came back into the room carrying the dessert Max asked his wife to tell us where they met.
‘South America’, she said without any hesitation. ‘But we did notice each other on the boat.’
‘Ship, Momma, ship,’ Max corrected her. ‘But we never talked. Just nodded shalom to each other. I didn’t even know she was a girl. Dressed in boy’s clothing. Had a very short haircut, like a boy. I thought she was a shy young man who was very attentive to his bubbe, his grandmother.’
‘And to me, Max was this young man who set up his barber chair at the same place on the main deck at the same time every afternoon.’
‘Not every afternoon,’ Max corrected her, ‘Not on the Sabbath.’
‘No. Not on the Sabbath,’ Mrs. Nimoy agreed. My bubbe thought that made you a very religion boy. And he was always talking and making his customer laugh. That made me like him, even from a distance.’
‘And tell them, your grandmother thought I was cute, didn’t she? Didn’t she?’
“In this case, boys,’ she said, ‘I have to humor him. Yes, Max, my bubbe thought you were cute. And she thought you would make a fine husband for me. Okay? And she wanted to be the shanchanit, matchmaker…’
‘Tradition! Tradition!’ Max sang out.
Mrs Nimoy frowned at him. ‘But she had to wait several years before she really began because we were both too young even by old country standards.’
‘So,’ Max interjected, ‘I guess you could say we were kind of childhood sweethearts. At least Momma was. I was a young man with a trade.’
‘And,’ Mrs. Nimoy smiled, ‘my bubbe convinced Max when we were in Valenzuela to come to Boston instead of New York. She was serious about marrying me off to Max.’
‘Very serious,’ Max said. ‘She kept a close eye on me when we got to Boston.’
‘And weren’t you lucky bubbe did?’ Leonard said.
‘Very lucky,’ Max agreed, holding up his hands. ‘Boys, not only is this woman beautiful, she is also a real baleboste.’
‘A baleboste, boys,’ Mrs. Nimoy explained,’ is a woman who is a great homemaker and cook.’
‘And is in charge of the home,’ Max continued, ‘And nobody better forget that.’
‘You know, there is an article about Leonard and it says that Leonard’s parents were childhood sweethearts. Grew up in the same shetl. Not so. We were born in shetls about 20 miles apart. Now 20 miles in the Ukraine in those days was a distance that was more like a 100 miles here. I never traveled to her village and she never traveled to mine. We didn’t know the other one existed. Until the ship that brought us to South America.
‘We lived in the Pale of Settlement, the western part of Imperial Russia. It was not a good place to live in in best of times. But that is where the Tzars forced Jews to live. Except Jews that had a trade important to the Russians.
‘The Russians had a habit of harvesting Jews. They would march into a village and conscript the young men. Some into the Army for cannon fodder. Some into work camps, especially for the mines in Siberia
‘ And the young women… Enough said about the poor young women.
‘People tried to escape the Pale all the time. Escape over the border to find a better life. Escape networks were set up to help the fugitives.
‘It is said two million Jews from the Pale immigrated to the United States in those years. And Momma and I were among the lucky ones.
‘Momma and her grandmother escaped in a hay wagon. Hid under the hay most of the time. Her family had cut her hair like a boy and dressed her in boy’s clothing. Not that that would make any difference if she was caught. Some of her family had escaped before and had settled in Boston. Others would follow after Dora got there.
‘The two women made it to the rescue liner without any problem, thank goodness. Ships were rented by the Jewish Federation for the purpose of bringing Jews to America. The ships would wait offshore in the Black Sea or Baltic until there was enough Jews on board to set sail. Momma had to wait over a week on board the ship before it left. I got there a day before it sailed. I kid Momma that they waited especially for me.
‘I escaped through the woods. There was an escape route much like the Underground Railroad. You went to a safe place and there you could rest and learn how to get to the next safe place. It was a long journey. And once you made it out of the Pale, crossed the border, you still had to watch out. There were gangs of thugs who captured escaping Jews and brought them back for the reward. Or sold them to slavers.
‘Dora and her grandmother had money sewn in their clothes and paid for their passage to their passage to South America. I didn’t. I made a bargain to work for passage. If I hadn’t worked enough to pay my bill I could have gotten the remaining amount once we reached the Jewish relocation colony in Venezuela and set up a way to pay it off once I got to the US. Since I wasn’t skilled in working as a hand, I talked my way into working as a cook’s helper. Each night I would clean the kitchen and peel vegetables for the next day.
‘Then I would sleep a few hours and set up my barber shop on the main deck, weather permitting. My hair cutting had nothing to do with my working for the ship’s passage. Oh, my barber’s apprenticeship was paying off. I not only paid off my passage between the two jobs, I put some money in my pocket for the next leg of the journey.
‘Like the barber says in the song,“If I were a rich man, Max sang out, “Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.” Max stopped singing and said “If I was rich as a Rockefeller, I would be richer than a Rockefeller because I could always barber on the side. Y ha deedle…’
‘Max,’ Dora stopped her husband’s singing, ‘That joke is not in the song, and it is not about a barber, it is about a tailor who can tailor on the side.’
‘Poetic License, Momma. Poetic License.’
‘To continue,’ Max went on, ‘up until the time I actually met Dora’s and her grandmother, I had planned to go to New York. But once her bubbe told me all about Boston I thought that might be a better place to go.
‘I went to the relocation administrative office and told them I changed my mind. I want to go to Boston instead. They found me a sponsor in Boston and I signed the necessary papers to say I would pay back any money the sponsor would use for my passage and for my getting settled in Boston. I managed to get it done in time to sail on the same liner as Dora and her grandmother.
And got to know them better. Both Dora and I were too young to think seriously about marriage, but the seed was planted in my mind.
‘Once again I set up a barber shop on main deck. “Have scissors will travel, reads the card of the man,” he sang to the tune of Paladin.
‘By the time we got to Boston my passage was paid for and I had money in my pocket to live on. My sponsor set me up with a barber in Mattapan, the Jewish section of Boston at that time. When the time came for me to court Dora in earnest I was in a good position to marry her. I couldn’t wait to ask her to marry me.’
‘And I quickly said yes.’ She smiled at her husband and got up to clear away the dessert dishes. And as she reached for Max’s she touched his hand.
Since the meal started at six, it was still relatively early; but the three of us knew that Mrs. Nimoy would not go to bed until everything was spic and span. And we knew to volunteer to help would be an insult. We decided we better leave, using the excuse of having a big day tomorrow.
We shook hands and said our heart-felt thanks in the hallway. Naturally the two elder Nimoys had to kiss their son and told him to be sure and give their love to his family. And they would see him the next week.
Later in my hotel room I thought back on the night and meeting Leonard’s parents. And I thought of all the framed pictures around the dining room. All the pictures were of their two sons, their weddings, their children. There wasn’t any pictures showing off their celebrity son in his many roles like Spock or Tevye. Oh, I imagine somewhere there were scrapbooks filled with pictures and articles of Leonard; but that was a something not to be confused with their pride in their FAMILY, the most important part of their lives.
I never had the privilege of seeing Dora and Max again. Max died in July of 1987. Dora died the following December. But meeting them that one time under those homily circumstances showed me where their son Leonard got his down-to-earth humanity.
Leonard as Tevye
And that’s a wrap.