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When a Knish is More Than Just a Knish
by Martin Stolzenberg
It was the early 1960s, and my friends and I were in our late twenties and early thirties. Most of us were climbing out of the lower-middle-income existence of our parents, starting to live out the American Dream. We were college-educated, newly minted accountants, attorneys, stockbrokers, teachers, doctors, dentists and businessmen.
Left behind, but not forgotten, was the place of our formative years — Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. We had been anxious to move on to better things, but there was something sweet about this place that drew us back. On wintry Sunday afternoons we returned from Manhattan, New Jersey and Long Island with girlfriends, wives and children, there to watch us play basketball in a league at the Jewish Community House, a forerunner of the JCC movement. The women scarcely watched the games, chatting with their friends and keeping an eye on the kids, a captive audience in this cramped basement gym.
On one such afternoon, before I was to play in a game, I made a mental note to stop off afterward and go upstairs to the banquet hall of the “J.” My Pop, a lifelong waiter, was working there at a senior citizens reception.
During the game, I was in a huddle during a timeout with a group of seven or eight sweaty, puffing, out-of-shape players. We were trying to figure out how to survive the afternoon, maybe even win the game. I looked up at the hundred or so spectators huddled in clusters in the stands, not paying much attention to what was happening on the court, as usual.
Suddenly, the spectators and the players were all paying attention to something unusual. Right in the middle of the timeout, there was a formally dressed man walking across the empty, shiny floor. Pop walked deliberately and purposefully, resplendent in black tuxedo pants, a short white jacket and a bow tie. He had two cloth white napkins — one draped over his arm, the other in the form of a little sack with something bulging inside. He paused to look around, then headed directly toward me. It seemed as if he was approaching in slow motion, ever closer.
After what seemed an eternity, Pop finally entered right into the huddle of players and held out the little napkin sack, smiling broadly.
He said to me, “Martela, I had a break from the affair upstairs. I brought you some of those cocktail knishes that you like so much.”
I was mortified by his timing, his little waiter’s uniform and his Eastern European accent.
“Not now, Pop,” I managed to croak as the horn went off to resume the game.
“Take them, they are your favorite,” he said.
My voice rose. “Pop go, just please go,” I said. “I will see you later.”
He turned, looking crestfallen. Holding the little sack, he slowly trudged back across the floor.
As for my friends and teammates, one said, “What are you, crazy? You should have taken the knishes. We would have loved them.”
Over the years, I have told this story to family and friends. I thought it was an amusing anecdote. In later years, I came to realize its significance.
What I never said was, I am sorry, Pop. You were trying to please me. I am ashamed for being embarrassed when I should have been proud. I climbed up on your back. You were as loving a father as a son could want; you live on in my thoughts. I miss you.