Musing of a Contemporary Pathologist

How NOT to learn about grand opera and other tales …

1939 was quite a year in the history of the world.

World War II began when Germany attacked Poland. The Spanish Civil War ended as Franco conquered Madrid. Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt urging him to build an atomic bomb. Regular television broadcasts began. The first air-conditioned automobile was sold by Packard and the entirely independent Hewlett-Packard company was founded. The first assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler failed by eight minutes. Ayatollah Khomeini was born, as was Lee Harvey Oswald.

It was the most celebrated year in motion picture history, with Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Love Affair and Of Mice and Men all filling the screen and all nominated for the Academy Award.

1939 was also an important year for me: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, the United States of America.

All four of my grandparents were immigrants from what was then Russia, all of them coming to the United States approximately a decade before the 1917 revolution. The world did not yet know of Lenin and there was a Soviet Union. My father was the 7th of 8 siblings and the first born in American. My mother had two brothers, one older and one younger, all born in Brooklyn.

Until I was eight years old we lived with my mother’s parents in the same apartment in which she had grown up, in the Park Slope/Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, at 88 16th Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues.

Ours was the area that could well have been the place where Brooklyn was named, derived from the original Dutch name: Breukelen. Beyond that association the precise link is unclear. Was the name taken directly from the town of Bruekelen in Utrecht, Holland? The neighborhood high school, which my mother and her siblings attended, was New Utrecht – a school from which many entertainment figures graduated including two of The Three Stooges, Michael Kidd the choreographer, David Geffen the movie mogul, Buddy Hackett the brilliant comedian, Abe Burrows the renowned playwright, and so many others. Or did Brooklyn get its name from the literal translation of breukelen – broken land – since it is so hilly in that region just above New York Harbor? My street was definitely on a very steep slant. When we played stickball we had to face upward or any hit ball uncaught would roll almost four streets to the water.

The name Podberesky, my mother’s maiden name, had been abandoned before I was born and shortened to Podber. My grandfather, Louis Podberesky, came to the United States in 1904 from the village of Vishnev (or Vishnyeva), which was then in Poland and is now a part of Belarus (there is another Vishnev in Ukraine), somewhere between Minsk and Vilna. Vilna, once a renowned and illustrious center of Jewish learning and culture, had a great university. I have been told that close to Vilna is the once-named Podbrezhna River, possibly the basis for the family name. In 1907, approximately the time my grandfather left, Vishnev had a population of 2650, of whom 1863 were Jews. Now there are no Jews there, most exterminated by the Germans in World War II. Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, was born in Vishnev in 1923 and left in 1934.

All four of my grandparents were a part of that great wave of eastern European immigration that incredibly changed New York and America, and, in reality, the entire world. That exodus to the new world allowed for the free growth and expression of voices that would otherwise have been forever muffled in some muddy schtetl (shtetl is the Yiddish name for small towns with large Jewish populations in Central and Eastern Europe before the holocaust; Vishnev is an example). Would I exist had they not emigrated? Of course not. My father’s parents came from far away, in the area of St. Petersburg, Russia. Even if I had been born the person I am today I would most likely have perished in Treblinka or Auschwitz or some other of Nazi Germany’s hellholes had my grandparents not emigrated.

Louis, my grandfather, was a graduate of the University of Vilna. His father was somewhat prosperous, being responsible for the management of one of the Tsar’s game reserves. When Louis was conscripted into the Russian cavalry my grandfather’s mother, my great grandmother Bubby—who lived to be ninety-five, dying when I was about five–had his uniforms custom sewn. She also purchased a new pair of leather cavalry boots for him. This was to no avail since he was totally unsuited for anything but music and literature and history, most likely genetically incapable of living in a world of warfare. Louis soon deserted and made his way to the New World.

Louis Podber and me in front of 324 Church Avenue, Brooklyn, 1939

Louis Podber and me in front of 324 Church Avenue, Brooklyn, 1939

When I was a child my grandparents owned what was called a “candy store;” a small neighborhood shop that sold newspapers, cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco, magazines and comic books, ice cream, sodas, toys, and, of course, candy. Grandpa ran the store with as much affinity for business as he had for military strategy. In the early years Grandma, Fannie Levine before she married, was the business person who made all the major decisions. She traveled to all the toy showrooms, bargained with all of the cigarette and candy distributors, managed the inventory and paid the bills.

Fannie came to the United States a few years after my grandfather from approximately the same part of the world, traveling by herself, an unaccompanied sixteen year old. She lived by herself, a single woman from a foreign land, for almost ten years before she married my grandfather. There is a photograph of her taken just after her marriage.

Fannie Podber, a few months after her marriage

Fannie Podber, a few months after her marriage

The woman in that photograph is tall and slender, and strikingly beautiful. Her dark, sharply defined features and her long black dress are regal. Her eyes look directly out, thoughtful and knowing. There is no clue in that picture of the steel, the energy, the passion, the ambition that was in her. I have, as have many, been shaped and molded to varying degrees by the influences of all four of my grandparents, but hers was without doubt the sharpest, strongest, most defining chisel to work on me. All through her life she worked, in a time when women, even many poor women, did not do so. Unfortunately, although she spoiled me greatly, she was also very hard on my mother.

16th Street was decidedly not paved with gold. She never learned to fluently read and write in English, and business dealings were managed by the strength of her intelligence and commitment. She was articulate and intelligent and wise. She had a heavy accent. I don’t remember the years when she was actually in the store very much, since she stayed home to care for me during my infant, toddler and early childhood years while my mother worked. When they first had the store, however, she was there from dawn to past dusk. The business did not thrive or survive for too long after she died in 1948.

The candy store was at 324 Church Avenue. Church Avenue was the site of the first church built in Brooklyn – the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church which still stands, almost three hundred and fifty years after its founding, at the corner of Church Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, about a mile from the candy store. The present building dates from 1793. The candy store was in a residential neighborhood and was the very first newspaper store commuters passed to get from the many large Ocean Parkway apartment buildings to the McDonald Avenue entrance to the subway that would carry them to Manhattan.

In those years New York had more newspapers than could fit on the newspaper stand that jutted five feet from the front of the store. There was the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, the Mirror, the Journal-American, the Post, and the Brooklyn Eagle, all competing for space. But there was also PM, the Jewish Daily Forward, Staats-Zeitung, and a number of other foreign language very low circulation newspapers. There were even, at least before the terrible McCarthy years, a few copies of the notorious Daily Worker, the paper of the communist party.

Dominating them all was the newspaper with the largest circulation, the Daily News. The News stack of newspapers was four or five times as high as most of the others and about twice as high as the Daily Mirror, the major competitor.

One of the first jobs I had at the store was rolling the very low circulation newspapers, such as the Forward, and sticking them into the racks of the vertical portion of the news-stand. When I was older and stronger I dragged the high circulation newspapers, thrown to the street from delivery trucks in twine-fastened bundles, to the stand where I would cut the cords and pile the papers neatly in individual stacks. The News, the towering stack, was always closest to the window, the Mirror was next, and the slope of the stacks tapered as they came closer to the street.

After World War II a new luncheonette was going to open across the street, two or three times larger than our little candy store, and it became known that they would be selling, in addition to food, candy, cigarettes, newspapers. My grandmother understood well the potential impact of this modern, roomy, chrome and enameled establishment providing almost all that we provided, plus scrambled eggs and coffee. Our customers came for newspapers, but they also bought cigarettes and magazines and candy and chewing gum, and she worried about the potential economic threat to our existence once that new establishment opened.

Fannie Podber, 1947

Fannie Podber, 1947

One chilly and drizzly day – in her later years, she was an obese, diabetic, gray-haired tired woman who had not had an easy life and never became prosperous – she left Louis to tend the store and walked four blocks down Church Avenue to McDonald Avenue, where she took the subway to Manhattan to the Daily News building. There she sat the entire day and into the early evening until the publisher, Walter Annenberg, finally came out of his office. Annenberg, a man who walked with presidents and kings, was         responsible for one of the most influential newspapers in the world. Fanny Levine, who had traveled all by herself from that Russian shtetl to New York City, in the company of hundreds of other immigrants, without any money and without a waiting home or job or security, somehow managed to convince Annenberg to make a commitment: the new luncheonette on Church Avenue and East Third Street would not sell the Daily News so that the small candy store on the other side of the avenue did not lose the business that was vital for its survival.

For as long as my grandmother was alive that luncheonette never sold the News.

My grandfather was not the force of nature my grandmother was. A man who never complained, never raised his voice, never had a harsh word, he would not have been overly concerned about the likely competition across Church Avenue and certainly would not have confronted, much less convinced, a Walter Annenberg, or even the Daily Planet’s Jimmy Olsen, to do something so special, so out of the ordinary, for him or his little business. A small man, almost completely bald with only a corona of short-cut white hair above his ears, he had an easy smile for everyone. Charming and modest to a fault, he never had a bad word for anyone, never raised his voice in anger, and never complained.

“It sure is hot, isn’t it, Mr. Podber?” asked a customer as he tossed a nickel on the counter for the Journal-American, on a sweltering August day.

“Vo den, it should be cold in August?” Grandpa would reply with a grin, as he served another customer an egg cream.

Another might ask, on a bitter cold and snowy winter day, with the streets deserted and almost no business, “How are you doing today, Mr. Podber?”

“For vat should I complain?”

In the evenings, after dinner, he sat close to the one radio in the apartment we all shared, leaning in to capture every one of Jack Benny’s ripostes or the tumultuous sound after opening Fibber McGee and Molly’s closet, laughing freely and loudly. He was a happy man

He always wore a starched long-sleeved white shirt and a tie. It was only during the last few years of his life that he was willing to wear an open-necked, short-sleeved shirt – still white, still starched – during the summer. On Saturdays, every Saturday, at 2 P.M., the radio in the candy store was tuned to the Texaco-sponsored broadcast of the day’s Metropolitan Opera performance. This took precedence over everything, including business. When customers came in during a specially beautiful aria he would say, “shh, chust vun minute, pliz,” not wanting to be interrupted. More than one customer left rather than wait, but he supposed they would come back and they usually did. Most people stopped and enjoyed the music for the short time until the aria ended. In my preteen years, I was there on Saturdays to help out, not yet completely captivated by Kirsten Flagstad or Richard Tucker or Rïse Stevens or the glorious Tebaldi, I would take care of the counter and the cigarettes and the papers.

One Spring day a customer gave him a single ticket for a Saturday performance at the Met. He could ignore all of the Saturday afternoon customers when the Opera was playing on the radio, but he couldn’t close the store, as much as he might have wanted to do so. I was still too young to be left alone in the store. Consequently, at the age of 12, I had my first opportunity to go to the Met.

How would you introduce someone, especially a young person, an unsophisticated person, an opera-illiterate, to one of the greatest of opera houses and to grand opera? I might select a witty and colorful Mozart opera, or Rossini, or wonderfully romantic and lush and emotional Puccini, dripping with love and feeling. Even Verdi. It would be an opera that was at least a little light or highly melodic, and fast moving, preferably with some humor. And I would make sure that young person had the opportunity to read a synopsis of the libretto, or maybe the libretto itself, before the performance. If I could afford it, I would make sure the seat was just above the orchestra level, with a full view of the stage. I would provide opera glasses. I might even tell that young person about the early history of opera, mentioning Vincenza Galilei, Galileo’s father, as the person credited with creating the modern opera. And, for a first time experience, I would not want the opera to be too long.

My introduction to opera was Wagner’s Parsifal, one of the longest, heaviest, most difficult operas ever written. This is Wagner’s last opera, based on the legend of King Arthur’s Sir Percival and his quest for the holy grail, and is the culmination of Wagner’s great talent. Parsifal runs for about four hours, not counting intermissions. My Parsifal was, of course, many years before the Met installed projected translations of the libretto, one of the last American opera houses to so. I had no understanding of the story, and could not, of course, follow the difficult German language. As a matter of fact, I did not even know what a libretto was or that they were available for purchase. Even I saw others reading the Parsifal libretto, I probably did not have had enough money purchase one. The bulk of Wagner’s magnificent music can hardly be called easy. Parsifal was quite beyond the scope of a 12-year-old who, at that time, was most comfortable with Rossini’s William Tell and Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker.

And this was the old Met, at Broadway and 39th Street, south of Times Square, that looked as if it had not had a good cleaning and dusting since it first opened in 1883. This was very decidly not the glittering jewel of Lincoln Center with its magnificent Chagall tapestries. My seat was in the top balcony, the “Family Circle,” which was some 80 feet above the orchestra seats and was affectionately referred to as “nose-bleed country.”

Metropolitan Opera 1905

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1905

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2014

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2014

Still, the extraordinary, thrilling, mesmerizing music thundered gloriously upward to where I sat, without the anticipated nose-bleed, transfixed by the wonder of it all. Every note was clear and full in that building renowned for its acoustics, although all I could see was the top of the singers’ heads. As far as I could tell the singers might well have been remarkably gifted ants crawling from stage prompt to stage prompt since everything seemed about that size to me. The sound enveloped me and captured me forever. I can’t tell you who was singing that day. For all I know the cast might have included the greatest Wagnerian singers of that time, or of any time. I might have seen Flagstad or Nillson or Melchior or Björling. I didn’t know one from the other. They all looked the same from the top of the Met.

In spite of the fact that Parsifal may very well be one of the worst ways to introduce someone to grand opera, the magic worked for me. Perhaps I had been primed by Carmen or Aida or La Boheme filling the little store on many a Saturday. Somewhere between then and now I learned, as all opera lovers know, how marvelously opera dramatizes and glorifies all the key dramas of life with spectacle and splendor, and, not least, with some of the most beautiful music ever written. Is there anything more glorious than Un bel di from Butterfly, or Nessum dorma from Turandot, or the Habanera from Carmen, or the bell song from Lakme, or La Forza del Destino, or Aida? Is there anything more magnificent that the music of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey? In some other operas, of course. The bug forever and irrevocably bit me, in a big way, although not necessarily that big a bite in terms of Wagner. I love Puccini operas

Once you give it a try, opera works. At the current Metropolitan Opera house, which opened in 1966, it works magically, captivating the first time viewer with the spectacle of the opening moments as when 21 dazzling crystal chandeliers, resembling starbursts, slowly dim as they majestically ascend from just above the orchestra seats to the top of the hall momentarily leaving the magnificent auditorium in darkness as the opera begins,

During the days my grandmother was the chisel that shaped me, on Saturdays and evenings my grandfather smoothed the edges. Indeed, for most of my life I credited him as being the reason for my great love of music, wondering how to draw the line between inherited and acquired taste. It was only when I was in my fifties, discussing this with my mother, that I learned that a great-uncle, on my father’s side, had been a well-known concert violinist in Russia. As with much of human behavior, the chasm between nature and nurture would remain unbridged.

My father also loved music, especially overtures. The Poet and Peasant by von Suppé was his favorite. I can remember long drives when my father would burst into song accompanying the music coming from the car radio. But, for some reason, the news that a concert violinist was a part of my paternal heritage surprised me greatly. Why hadn’t I heard that before? Perhaps I would have been more motivated to study violin. How many times have I wished that I had been forced to continue those violin lessons that I had started when I was five years old? In the blue-collar neighborhood in which I lived it was no fun carrying a violin case the few blocks to the teacher’s house. Refusing to take lessons any longer was my first act of rebellion, an act I have long regretted.

Playing the violin at age 5

Playing the violin at age 5

When I was almost 60 years old, I thought about violin lessons but was greatly discouraged after being told by three different violinists that I should not waste my time – I was too old for that.

No longer completely convinced, I now wonder if I should at least try to learn to play the violin before more time goes by.

15 Responses to “How NOT to learn about grand opera and other tales …”

  1. Cloyce says:

    Yes you should try! You may even develope a greater appreciation.

  2. Joel says:

    So many similarities to my own immigrant forebears and my youthful Brooklyn. Thanks for providing a lovely walk down memory lane.

  3. Jane Bergner says:

    My friend Karen Rappaport sent me your recollection about your introduction to The Metropolitan Opera. She knows that I am an opera fan, and in particular, I am very indebted to my friends at The Met who supported me when my husband was ill and died twelve years ago at age 59 of a GBM. I am not exaggerating when I state that the music at The Met got me through a great deal. Like you, Wagner was my introduction to opera, but I lucked-out with 6 hours of Meistersinger at the old Met as well (a beau took me for my birthday in a box when I was in college!). That was in 1963 or 1964, and I had not seen the opera again until this past Thanksgiving when I was privileged to attend a dress rehearsal, this time in a box at the “new Met.” My husband was not as enthusiastic about opera, but he went with me. He would never see an opera twice, reminding me that he had been taken frequently as a child to The Met and had seen Bjorling “live” and didn’t need to see operas more than once after Bjorling! The world is quite small–I learned that you have a friendship with my dear friends Ilene and Jerry Spear. Ilene and I went to college together. Ilene and Jerry were at my wedding, and I have attended their children’s and grandchildren’s Bat Mitzvahs. Their son Alfie was born on October 19, the birthdate of my deceased husband Alfred. My daughter Lauren was born on March 3 which is Jerry’s birthday. And their youngest grandchild Gabriel was born on May 6, 2013, the same date as my youngest grandchild Alex. They were at my daughter Lauren’s wedding in 2011. Thank you for your recollections. Tebaldi was wonderful; I never heard her “live,” but I watch her on the Classic Arts Showcase! Jane Bergner

    • Dear Jane,
      What a lovely note! Thank you. I l very much enjoyed reading your comments and happy to hear of our common friends. Karen, as you might guess, is one of my favorite people. I think we first met about 35+ years ago when she was a resident at Mount Sinai and I was a faculty member. I am always so happy to hear from her and managed to see her again a couple of years ago.
      Best wishes.
      Stephen

    • Jane,
      I have just ‘discovered’ how to find the comments on my blog and am, five months late, reading your wonderful note which I thoroughly enjoyed. I am sorry to say I have not seen Jerry in a long while. I love your opera recollections.
      Warm regards.
      Stephen Geller

  4. Karen says:

    This piece is a beautiful tribute to your grandparents. The reader does not have to be an opera buff to enjoy it.

    My mother told me when I was 17 years old that her mother had come to this country alone at the age of 19 from a shtetl outside of Lvov (then in Poland) to avoid being married off to a 50 year old widower. (My grandmother’s family did not have money for a dowry for her.) With the exception of one niece, who survived WW2 with false papers, the rest of her family was murdered in the Holocaust many years later. At the time my mother told me the story of how her mother came to America, I was trying to decide how far away from home I was willing to go to attend college. Was four hours from home too far? The story stunned me. My mother had always spoken with such disdain for her mother, who died when I was a baby. I had a different view. My mother never spoke harshly of her mother to me again.

    Our grandmothers had such courage!

    Your description of your grandfather as someone “who never complained, never raised his voice, never had a harsh word” describes you, too.

    I hope and suspect your violinist friends are wrong. If you take up the violin again, you would not be trying to become a professional violinist. Your goals would be different from theirs. As someone who now as bilateral cochlear implants, I hope someday soon to start piano lessons. No one plays my husband’s Steinway upright, which apparently is one of the last made by the original Steinway craftsmen. I would like to try. Even if I never learn to play well, I hope piano lessons would help train my ears and teach me to appreciate music, maybe even opera.

    Thank you.

    • Karen,
      How lovely to hear from you – and especially to read your lovely note. I also a wonderful note from your friend Jane Bergner.
      Had my first violin lesson last week – and looking forward to the next. So, go to it. A seasoned Steinway needs someone caressing the keys …
      Best wishes.
      Stephen

    • Karen,
      I have just discovered how to find comments on this blog and I am so glad to read yours and so sorry it took me 5 months to find. There are so many immigrant stories worth telling – I am working on a second novel but have been thinking of writing one loosely based on my grandmother after I finish this one.
      I did repair my mother’s violin and took a few lessons, which I will continue. How are your piano lessons going?
      Best and warmest regards to you and your family.
      Stephen

  5. John Craig says:

    wonderful story. thank you for sharing. I am pleased you would share it with me.

  6. Rose Mary Purrazzella says:

    Lovely history. You can still try the violin. It depends on what you expect. World reknown? Probably not. Your own satisfaction? Go for it.

  7. Suha Mishalani says:

    I love it. Now I want to go to Brooklyn to see where the candy store was! About violin, I disagree with the teachers you had. I think you can definitely learn and enjoy violin at any age. In fact I know an excellent teacher who I think would be a great fit for you. He lives in NY and was born in Russia.

    • Suha,
      How nice to hear from you! Hope you and the family are well and thriving despite the cold winter. I am afraid the candy store is no longer there.
      I had my first violin lesson last week and looking forward to the next.
      Best to you and the family.
      Stephen

    • Suha,
      I have just figured out how to find comments on this page and am very happy to read yours even thought I am five months delayed.
      I have repaired by mother’s violin and did take a few lessons, but then my young teacher went off to do some acting …
      I may take my violin to New York for the summer so please let me know the name of the violinist you know.
      Best and warmest regards to you and the family.

  8. Donald Orlic says:

    Dear Stephen,
    Your story touched me deeply. I often think that the most important verbal or written exchanges between two persons are the personal exchanges. How beautifully you touched on that concept with your revelations. I hope and plan to do the same one day but for now there is one story I must relate to you.

    My introduction to opera came at the age of 23 during my year in the VA Hospital at Butler PA. After my return from Korea I suffered with a year long bout of tuberculosis. Four or five months after entering the hospital I was permitted ambulatory privileges. At that time the hospital librarian, who had taken a liking to me, decided one day to set me up in an adjacent, quiet building with a phonograph and a recording of La Boheme! See may never have seen or listened to Boheme herself but along came poor Mime. Ironic introduction to opera but life changing.

    After my transfer to Fordham University in 1957, I met a young promising student of opera and we hit it off. Anna Marie was a soprano studying in NYC under a full scholarship. We went to many operas at the Old Met where we and other students always stood in line for standing room tickets. Of course we heard many of the great voices of the 1950’s era.

    During the the 1960’s I became absorbed in my graduate studies at NYU (where you and I attended the Biochemistry course offered by Dr. Mylon Kopac) and raising a family of three children. After graduation we spent a year in Paris where I was able to hear several operas at the beautiful Paris Opera House. This was followed by two years in Boston at Harvard in Anatomy at the Medical College. No opera during this period. After returning to NYC in 1969 I began to enjoy opera at Lincoln Center with a bit of sadness for the loss of the Old Met.

    In the mid 1970’s I had a brilliant idea. The children were 12, 10 and 9 years old and I thought they were ready for opera. During each season for three years I bought a pair of seat in the Family Circle. The subscriptions ran for a series of nine performances and each child was to accompany me to three operas. At the start of each season I gave the three of them a complete list of each opera, the cast, the date and the time for the start and the end. No one resisted this plan perhaps because I took them to concerts at MSG including KISS concerts.

    Now hear this!!! Around 5-6 years ago Elizabeth began to smile during a conversation we were having and I asked her why? The answer surprised me. At the start of each season when I handed them the playbill information the three of them sat together to determine which operas to choose. I had no interest in their selection and so they worked out the following plan. One year Peter would have the 1st choice, Elizabeth the 2nd and David the 3rd, and then follow the same order for 4th, 5th and 6th and then 7th, 8th and 9th. How they made their selection is what amuses me. From selection number 1 through selection number 9 each decision was based solely on length of time from start to finish.

    What this says to me is: you can lead a child to opera but you cannot make them like it.

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