Slowly I turned…step by step…inch by inch…closer and closer. And when I got near him I slugged him with all my might! – Abbott and Costello, “Niagara Falls”
“Slowly I Turned” was a popular 1950s vaudeville sketch in which a subliminal trigger word sends a normally easy-going person into a psychotic rage where he attacks the person who uttered the word.
After my Bar Mitzvah, I decided that this Jewish thing was “not my bag.” And for the next 20 years, I had little to do with the weak, pathetic, whiny, obnoxious, ostentatious, nerdy “Irvings” who had been an embarrassment growing up. Jews and I just weren’t compatible. But there were two words I did not run away from—words that often got me in trouble: “Dirty Jew!” Back then, I had an anger management problem.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame: In 1962, at seventeen, I was a pretty good baseball player and was picked to be on the Skokie Pony League All-Star baseball team. In the semi-final game for the suburban championship, we were playing against a gentile team from Morton Grove. As we pulled ahead, a number of Morton Grove players began taunting our team, chanting Get the Jews! and Get the lox and bagel boys! Skokie was known for being Jewish.
I remember how the cheering from our bleachers fell silent—and how the other team’s friends in the stands were clapping and chanting along with their players. We were comfortably ahead. It was late in the game, and I hit a double, stopping on second base. The chants continued. The shortstop pounded his fist into his glove as he chanted along. I took a long lead off second base. My coach yelled for me to get back. The pitcher turned. The shortstop cut behind me. And as I ran back to the bag, I unloaded a punch into the shortstop’s face and kept punching him until several of his teammates pulled me off. I was thrown out of the game, but my fear was that they wouldn’t allow me to play in the championship. I played—and the Skokie “Jew boys” won. Ironically, out of our 25 players, we had maybe three Jews on the team. But I remember one of our team’s non-Jews jokingly warning the others, “Don’t mess with Berger!”
During the championship game there was not even a whisper of Get the Jews! As I played second base, opposing players would walk by me with my swollen cuts and bruises, making sure not to even make eye contact with me. The trophy still sits on a shelf in my study. Today it reminds me less about baseball and more about standing up for who I was.
My mom and dad, out of embarrassment, did not come to the championship game, and gave me the silent treatment as I walked into my room with the trophy. Eventually, Mom came in and said with a smile and a hug, “Jackeleh, you can’t fight the whole world.” Words of wisdom I didn’t always follow.
Home Sweet Home: I loved architecture from the first time I heard the word, and eventually I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture with honors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After graduating, I teamed up with a friend from the architecture school and we started an architecture firm. One of our earliest projects was to renovate a 5700 square-foot co-op on East Lake Shore Drive for a friend of mine named Elliot.
One afternoon, while I was still designing the project, Elliot came to my office, distraught. The co-op board had voted not to allow Elliot and his wife to purchase the unit. Since money was not an issue, Elliot suspected it was because he was Jewish. The co-op unit was his wife’s dream, but Elliot, who reminded me of Woody Allen, was not a fighter. I asked who his attorney was, and Elliot and I met with him. I asked the attorney to draft a letter threatening to sue the co-op board. Elliot was nervous. This was 1977, but I had just heard the echo of Niagara Falls.
When the co-op board received the letter, they were not happy and requested a meeting, where they presented the bizarre rationale that the building was a “small, intimate community” and Elliot and Pat might not “fit in.” The “kindly” board, concerned for Elliot’s welfare, didn’t want to see him invest all his money and then not feel “comfortable.” I assured the president of the co-op that Elliot and his wife were easygoing and could get along with anyone… and we weren’t going anywhere except to court if they chose that road. Anxious to avoid spending co-op funds on lawyers, they reluctantly gave in, and Elliot and his wife and I went to work. Ironically, the building’s original architect was the renowned Benjamin Marshall, who designed the Drake and Blackstone Hotels—a Jew. The building was old and run-down, but the unit was spacious, with 12-foot-high ceilings and a spectacular view overlooking Oak Street Beach and Lake Shore Drive. Elliot had the money, and it was time to take this 1920s building and bring it up to 1977 standards. The fun was about to begin.
The renovation would include new air-conditioning, new plumbing, new historic thermopane windows, tuckpointing in the interior court for steel supports for new air-conditioning compressors, and modernizing the common elevators. The first thing that had to be updated was the building’s electrical service in order to provide the power for their new air-conditioning system. To air-condition 5700 square feet with 12-foot ceilings takes a lot of electricity, and the city would require the new main electrical service to provide the entire property with enough power to eventually upgrade all the units for individual air-conditioning. After getting the permit, I called for an electrical inspection from my friendly building inspector, and he issued a citation for a building code violation for insufficient electrical service. The new service for the building would cost $400,000, to be paid for from a bank loan which, since it was a co-op, each owner had to personally guarantee. But I was just getting started.
My next call was to the plumbing inspector. The main soil pipes and water service were vintage 1920s and not adequate for the six and a half lavish bathrooms I had designed for the six bedrooms. Again, the building was cited for insufficient water service and required to update the plumbing stacks. Another $300,000.
Next, we needed to re-tuckpoint the inner courtyard of the property in order to be able to firmly install a steel substructure to carry the weight of new air-conditioning compressors… Another $250,000. As the costs mounted, and because the building was a co-op and these upgrades were for the common elements of the entire building, each unit owner would have to provide a personal financial statement and sign a personal guarantee at the bank for funding before the president of the co-op would write the check for the work from a common account.
I had become friends with the elevator operator, a nice black fellow, and one morning I decided to wear a suit and ride the front elevator. He confided in me, with a big smile, that the owners were not happy with all the money they had to personally sign for, and that “those f***ing Jews were going to bankrupt them.” Which was music to my ears—and we were only halfway through the renovation! Elliot’s unit was going to be spectacular, and the rest of the unit owners, “kicking and screaming,” were having to help pay for it!
As the months went by, one morning the elevator operator waved me to the side drive and told me with a smile that two of the owners were putting their units up for sale. In the late 1970s, interest rates had begun to rise dramatically and he had overheard that the bank was putting pressure on some of the owners to pay down the note.
One of the units sold quickly to Gerald Gidwitz, and the other to another well-known Jew named Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers. I kept in touch with my elevator friend (who was now just pressing buttons in a brand new automatic elevator), and he told me a few years later that most of the pre- renovation owners were gone. By 1980, interest rates had risen to the high teens and the original owners could no longer afford to live there. I felt really bad that they couldn’t afford to live there anymore. Just kidding. Niagara Falls.
Burned by a Menorah: After working as an architect for a while, I expanded into general contracting and real estate development. In order to raise money for development, developers often had to “syndicate the deals,” giving up a percentage of the ownership to raise equity or seed money through “brokers.” Having known a number of equity syndicator “brokers,” I knew their mentality. Being money-driven and always in a position of either cash-rich or cash-poor, deal brokers were wheeler-dealers. If they thought they had made a deal, there was a good chance they’d go out and celebrate by spending money from their “anticipated” commissions before they actually got the cash, and Christmas, as you might imagine, was a particularly seductive time of year.
One afternoon in early December, I got a call from one of my attorneys, Richard S., who was a bit flummoxed. He had been introduced to a “syndication broker” who needed to raise $2.5 million for an exclusive winery site in California and one of his money people had just pulled out—but that wasn’t the problem. Richard’s problem began in a limo on their way to dinner. Riding north on Dearborn Street, they passed the Daley Plaza. “When the guy saw the Hanukkah menorah, he let loose an anti-Semitic rant that just blew me away!” I asked Richard if the guy knew he was Jewish. The guy apologized a few blocks later, “but it really startled me,” said Richard. Niagara Falls.
I asked Richard how much the guy was looking for. He told me $2.5 million. “Call and tell him one of your clients wants to do the deal.” Richard was confused. I told him to tell the guy it was just the kind of deal I was looking for, but I was out of the country and would like to meet for a drink at the Ritz Carlton to celebrate. I figured his commission would be at least $150,000. He would be happy. It was Christmastime. His credit cards would be burning. I asked Richard to set the meeting for a specific date, and we would meet at about six in the upstairs lobby. Richard was still confused but went along.
On the night we were to meet, I wore a suit, and in the elevator to the lobby I put on my kippah. I don’t normally wear a kippah in public, but this was going to be a special occasion. Upon meeting, we all shook hands and sat down to discuss a few of the deal points. Keep it simple, I told Richard. And after about 20 minutes of conviviality and several rounds of drinks, I said I had one last question. He was smiling. I asked him if he had a problem doing business with a Jew. “No problem at all,” he stuttered, his smile becoming a bit less congenial. I told him that that would have been a deal breaker, and he assured me that he had many Jewish friends. “Good,” I said, “because, you see, I have trouble doing business with anti-Semites and I understand you had some issues with the menorah at Daley Plaza.” Suddenly his hand that held his drink began to shake. He claimed it was a misunderstanding and he had apologized to Richard. Now he was noticeably nervous. I asked him, “Do you know what tonight is?” He shook his head. “Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and I’m going home to light a menorah with my family.” As I got up to leave, “What about our deal?” he shrieked. “There is no deal,” I replied. (The rest is unpublishable.) As I walked out, he begged me to reconsider. I told him to have a nice flight back to California. I hoped he had bought lots of gifts to bring home to his family, and I wished him a Merry Christmas! Niagara Falls.
In the Bible we find the story of a man named Moses who saw an Egyptian beating a Jew. And what did Moses do? Appoint a committee to investigate the root cause of Egyptian anti-Semitism? The Bible says, “And he smote the Egyptian.” Niagara Falls. Slowly I turned… and if anti-Semites didn’t like it, at the very least they would think twice the next time before insulting a Jew.
Happy Hanukkah, 12/11/15 Jack “Yehoshua” Berger * * Back issues are archived at The Times of Israel.com