My father, Velvel Pasternak, is a storyteller. For as long as I can remember, when he wasn’t compiling Jewish music books, he was regaling rapt listeners with stories — about his recording sessions of Hasidic music in the 1960s, his adventures on the Jewish lecture circuit, and his experiences as a music teacher. Even if he was speaking about something as prosaic as his recent drive from Long Island to Manhattan, if my father told it, it was an event. It was an experience. It was expertly timed. And it was very, very funny.
Four weeks ago, my father was almost silenced. A sudden cardiac arrest left him with no pulse for eight minutes (!) while he was being resuscitated. As soon as we heard, my two sisters and I caught the first plane from Israel to New York to join our two brothers at his bedside. We did not know if we were flying to say goodbye, if we would find him already gone, or if we were going to be arriving at the start of a long recuperation. By the grace of God, it was the latter.
Miraculously, two days after he had coded, my father was able to speak. He asked for my mother and his tallit and tefillin. It was then that we knew that he was still himself, and began to hope that maybe everything would be okay.
In the days that followed, my father endured a great deal of pain and discomfort, while his five children mastered the arts of sleeping in hospital chairs, patient advocacy, pursuing hospital staff, and understanding a vast array of bewildering new medical terms and test results.
After three harrowing weeks, my father was transferred to a rehabilitation facility, where he is recuperating today. And we no longer take a single minute for granted.
I can think of no better way of celebrating the fact that this great man with the big heart and the strong voice is still with us than by sharing one of his stories in his own voice, in the hope that he will soon be regaling his children, grandchildren, and all who know him with similar tales.
The following story is a family favorite. It explains why we have a photograph of my brothers Mayer and Gedalia modeling a black Hasidic hat and long black coat that Gene Wilder would later wear in the movie “The Frisco Kid.” And it is being told here just as my father wrote it, in his own words and his inimitable style.
May the joy that this story brings to its readers add to my beloved father Ze’ev Ben Chana’s merit for a full and speedy recovery.
“Ninety Cents for the Boxes”
By Velvel Pasternak
On my return home from California at the end of August, in 1979, I found a message on my telephone answering machine from Rabbi Stephen Robbins. When I returned his call, he informed me that he had been hired as a religion consultant for a Hollywood film tentatively titled No Knife. The central figure in the movie was a young Hasidic rabbi sent by his small Polish community to a synagogue pulpit in San Francisco. The studio’s wardrobe department had assigned Rabbi Robbins the task of obtaining the Hasidic garb needed for the film. He scoured the Fairfax section of Los Angeles, which abounded with stores catering to the needs of its large Jewish population. He discovered, however, that Hasidic clothing was not available in Los Angeles and could be obtained only in the New York City metropolitan area. Because I worked closely with Hasidim, Rabbi Robbins knew that I could be helpful in providing the studio’s needs.
The following day, the studio wardrobe manager called and gave me the particulars; two Hasidic hats, in the style worn in Poland, a capote (frock coat), and an overcoat. Price, he informed me, was no object. Once the samples were received, the costume designers would duplicate as many items of clothing as needed. He asked that I notify him as soon as the clothing was in my possession. Once notified, the studio would send a messenger service to pick up the articles from my home.
At the time, the central shopping area for Hasidic clothing was in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. On a Monday morning, two weeks before the beginning of the High Holidays, without thinking carefully, I dressed in a Pierre Cardin brown checked suit, and a wide brimmed brown hat complete with colorful feather, and drove to Brooklyn. It was the height of the pre-holiday shopping season, and, as I entered the narrow Selko Hat Store, I saw the proprietress assisting eight Hasidim, who were busily engaged in trying on hats. Although all the hats were black, I noticed several different styles. These hats, known as biber bitlech among the Hasidim, were imported from Czechoslovakia.
The manner in which I was dressed seemed to indicate to the proprietress and the Hasidim that I had wandered in to the store by mistake and would probably leave if ignored. After several minutes, noticing that I was still standing in the rear, she called out, “For what I can do for you mister.”
I approached her at the counter and in my very best English said:
“I am interested in purchasing Polish type biber hats. Could you please tell me what is the cost of each?”
She looked at me quizzically and replied, “Forty-seven dollars each.” I am sure that she thought the price would turn me off.
“I would like to see a Polish style biber hat in size seven and also in size seven and a quarter” (the studio had asked for a second hat needed for the understudy).
Again she gave me a strange look but went up a ladder and brought down two boxes. By this time, I had caught the attention of the Hasidim. With large grins, they left an open path to the mirror, and placing myself squarely in front of it, I removed one of the hats from its box.
Aside from the ludicrous picture I must have created by trying on a biber hat while wearing a Pierre Cardin brown checked suit, neither hat was my size. There I was in front of the mirror with a small, black biber hat sitting uncomfortably on my head. After placing the second hat on my head, I returned to the counter and said, “I will take them both.”
The proprietress looked stunned. I took out 94 dollars, placed them on the counter, and requested that the hats be boxed as well. As she tied the boxes, her curiosity could no longer be contained.
“Mister,” she said, “for why you need such hats?”
In my very best English, I responded, “Oh, they are needed for a Hollywood movie.”
I could almost read her thoughts at that moment. She had only charged me the list price for the hats. For Hollywood, she could have tacked on a few dollars extra. What would it matter? I knew after she handed me the boxes that she was not yet quite finished. As my hand reached the door handle, I heard her small voice, “Mister, 90 cents for the boxes.”
I turned back, handed her a dollar bill and told her to keep the change. I was sure that Hollywood could absorb the tip.
Several blocks down from the hat store, I found Broadway Clothing, an establishment which featured New York’s largest collection of Hasidic clothing. I told the proprietor not to ask for an explanation, but simply to sell me a capote and an overcoat in the sizes I needed. This was accomplished quite quickly, and, for the sum of 600 dollars, I returned to Long Island with two biber hats, an elegant capote, and a well-made overcoat. I contacted the wardrobe department and within four hours, a messenger service arrived at my door. Two hours later, the clothing was on a plane to California. Two days later, I found a check in my mailbox for the cost of the clothing plus a respectable addition for my services rendered.
While the film was being shot, I had the opportunity to answer several questions about Hasidim that others could not answer. I responded to such queries as, “Mr. Pasternak, is it proper for a Hasid to wear a shtreimel while traveling across the Rockies on a horse?” In addition, I gave Hollywood two pieces of unsolicited advice. It was not realistic, I informed the studio, that a Hasidic rabbi, or any Orthodox rabbi for that matter, would dance with his future bride in public. I also advised them that in keeping with the subject of the film, the music score should, at the very least, have some elements of Hasidic or Eastern European Jewish motifs. Both of my suggestions were ignored. In the final scene, the rabbi danced with his bride-to-be, and the music was in lush Hollywood style.
Before the release, the movie was renamed The Frisco Kid, and there was the star, Gene Wilder, in the Hasidic clothing that I had purchased in Brooklyn.
This story was originally published as “Ninety Cents for the Boxes” in Behind the Music: Stories, Anecdotes, Articles & Reflections by Velvel Pasternak, and has been reprinted with permission. You can reach Velvel Pasternak to let him know that you enjoyed this story or to wish him well at firstname.lastname@example.org.