the schmooze


Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe
Syosset, New York

According to the late Sylvia Schildt, there is no Yiddish word meaning "dysfunctional." She described it as "A meshpokhe mit af tsores" or "mit problemen." The name of an old Yiddish soap opera WEVD was "Tsores ba laytn." ("layt" equals people)

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often abuse on the part of individual members occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. The children often grow up with the understanding tht such an arrangement is normal.

Hollywood's most dysfunctional families include the Lohans, Kardashians, and Schwarzeneggers (Arnold and Marie Shriver). Schwarzenegger fathered a child with a member of his household staff over 10 years ago.

While examining the bins of used books at my Lake Worth Publix supermarket, I came across an old book written by radio host, Bernard C. Meltzer (1916-1998). His advice call-in show was named, "What's Your Problem?" and aired from 1967 to the mid-1990s on WEVD-AM in New York.

As a young married couple, my husband and I listened to his advice on topics ranging from financial to personal. Meltzer delivered aphorisms and recited moralizing poetry ("What shall we do with grandma, now that she's old and gray?") He always provided "treyst" (comfort) with his words, "The good people in this world far outnumber the bad."

His quotes:
"A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked."

"We may give without loving, but we cannot love without giving."

What I found particularly interesting was the introduction to the book, where he says that he's "the sum of all the influences on me from the day I was born. I was molded by my parents, by where I was broght up, by how I was brought up, by the kids I grew up with, by where I went to school and college, by war, and by the important people in my life.."

Let's look at his background:

"I was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. We lived in a tenement on the corner of Attorney and Broome streets. We were one block away from Delancey Street, the Broadaway of the Lower East Side. It was a wide street with all sorts of shops and restaurants, and the excitement and bustle of peole on is one of the most treasured of the memories of my boyhood. Delancey Street was a place of ferment, of vigor, or promises of things to come--a symbol of the whole Jewish ghetto that clustered around it. But while spirits were high in the ghetto back there in the early '20s, the standard of living was low.

We lived in a five-story walkup. On each floor there were four apartments--two in the front and two in the back. Between front and back was a toilet--not a bathroom, a toilet--which was used by all four families on the floor. There was not only no bathroom, there was no hot water. So we coud have baths, my mother would bring a big washtub into the kitchen and heat up the water on a coal-fired stove. Later, when my father began to earn more money, we graduated to a gas stove--but not like today's gas stove. The gas was regulated by a coin-operated meter. My mother put a quarter in the meter for a certain amount of gas; then when we used that amount, the gas shut off automatically. Sometimes we would get ready for our bath--and in the winter it got pretty cold-- and the meter would shut off while the water was still only lukewarm, and my mother would go racing around the house searching for another quarter while we all shivered....there were four of us, two boys and two girls--so we each took turns using the same water, the oldest first, then the next oldest, and so on. I was number three.

Before we had gas, my job was to bring up the coal. Families who were pretty well off could stock up with a ton of coal which they stored in bins in the basement (each family had its own bin). But we never had the money, so once a week my mother would call, 'Beryl'--that's my name in Yiddish-- 'we're running out of coal,' and I'd walk down about three blocks, then lug a fifty-pound sack back with me....

The conditions under which we lived never got us down--and looking back, those conditions were pretty rough. In the summer the place was like a furnace; in the winter the only heated room in the flat was the kitchen, and we ate slept, worked, bathed, passed all our days and nights there, all six of us. When spring came around, we moved out of the kitchen. But there were only two other rooms in the flat, a bedroom, which was shared by my father, my mother, my younger sister, and, when I was young, me; and the living room, in which my older sister slept on a couch. My older brother slept in the kitchen all year around....We knew we weren't rich, but we never felt poor. As young kids we didn't even realize we were living in a slum. And, as we got older and learned that other people lived better thn we did, we weren't envious, we weren't resentful. We felt that our status was temporary, something we all had to pass through before we could go on to higher things....Our childhood in the ghetto was a time of dreaming dreams, golden dreams, that we wold make come true as time passed by."

Meltzer's father had come to New York in 1906 from a small village in Poland. They were so poor that he had to leave his mother and older sister and brother behind. He couldn't speak the language and had no education outside of Hebrew school. From early morning until late at night, he drove around town in a horse and wagon peddling seltzer water. It took his father 10 years of working day and night except the sabbath to get enough money together to send for his family.)

From this background, and the fact that Meltzer suffered from dyslexia, he earned a high school diploma from Stuyvesant, an undergraduate degree from CCNY, the City College of New York, a master's degree from Wharton School at the Univ. Pennsylvania, and Ph.D. He later became a professor at Wharton part time, and was appointed to the Planning Commission of the City of Philadelphia.

It's amazing how successful Meltzer became considering his poor background.

Now let's compare the Meltzer's family with the King family in the movie, "The Descendants." (It's a shoe-in for the Golden Globes.(

George Clooney [Matt King] is a middle- aged lawyer and indifferent husband. He and his family reside in Hawaii and he is responsible for millions of dollars worth of "grunteygns" (real estate) on the island of kaua. The property has been passed down to him and various cousins. By selling the land he will make millions and so will everyone in the trust.

His wife suffers severe had trauma and is comatose from a bat race. As he attempts to put his affairs in order, he learns that his wife has been unfaithful; she'd been involved in an affair.

King's family is very dysfunctional. He has two daughters, Alex and Scottie. 10-year- old, Scottie, swears and 17-year-old, Alex, who attends an expensive private boarding school, has an alcohol problem. She also has a relationship with a doffus boyfriend. "Zolst nit visn fun azelkhe tsores." (May you not know of such troubles.)

Matt is not very close with his daughters and refers to himself as the "back-up parent."

As the movie ends, Matt is forced to reexamine his "farbay" (past) and embrace his "tsukunft" (future).

One gets the feeling that he now understands that "Der mentsh iz vos er iz, nit vos er iz geven." (A man is what he is, not what he has been.)


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Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe is the author of
two books:
yiddish for dog and cat loversbook
"Yiddish for Dog & Cat Lovers" and
"Are Yentas, Kibitzers, & Tummlers Weapons of Mass Instruction?  Yiddish
Trivia."  To order a copy, go to her

NU, what are you waiting for?  Order the book!

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