Each Year At this Time by Ralph Gilbert
EACH YEAR AT THIS TIME
Each spring, ever since his own wife died, Saul would come over to our house for Passover.
He sat next to me. I sat at the head of the table across from Paula, my own
dear wife of over fifty years. We had become his local family. He always was in good
humor with a sage comment and a slightly off-color joke, well, maybe more than slightly
off-color. My wife loved him and so did we all. We loved his spirit. Our whole family, my
two sons, their families and our cousins briefly interrupted their laughing conversations
with Saul, however, when the steaming chicken soup was passed around. No one
wanted to take any chances.
“Who asked for matzo balls?”
After the meal and the prayers, the kids squealed when the search for the
aficomin began. Who would win the prize?
“Am I hot or cold, Uncle Saul?”
Saul’s own daughters, both doctors, having experienced their stern mother’s
exacting standards for the Passover meal had just folded.
“It’s way too complicated, we’re busy and besides we’re not too sure about God,
On the other hand, they were delighted to have Paula take care of it. Paula did
all the cooking. I tried to help, of course, as we all did in our fashion with the serving
and the clean up. But later, as we got older, I suggested that we hire someone to help.
Paula was reluctant at first but then she relented. She made sure to thank the young
woman profusely and see to it that that she left not only with a little bit of everything but
The night before we set the table. We located Paula’s specially embroidered
tablecloth, which had been cleaned of last year’s wine stains and carefully stored
away. She used her best silver, shimmering blue wine glasses and her grandmother’s
candlesticks from Poland, all polished and gleaming. Her final pleasure was to arrange
the yellow and purple flowers from her garden in tiny, antique, cobalt blue vases, which
caught the late afternoon sunlight. I led the service from the old Manischewitz Wine
complimentary prayer books. We all said the blessings together with our sons, their
wives and my four granddaughters and our guests and of course with Saul. We sang
the songs, drank the wine and ate the soup, gefilte fish, roast chicken and szimmitz. We
once again celebrated our collective, historic redemption, and were tasked to always
respect the stranger since we, ourselves had been slaves in Egypt. A nice story.
Saul’s own genesis was unclear, but if you pressed him hard enough, his eyes
would twinkle and he would laugh, then he would admit that you were right; he wasn’t
from around here, not really. Notwithstanding his Boston accent, he hadn’t been born in
Roxbury either, not even in America, not at all.
“Rumania, I was born in Rumania, may the name of the town be forgotten,” he
would say. “My father brought me here away from the troubles when I was little,” Saul
told me one day at Barry’s Deli in Newton as we both forked up our schmaltz laden
chopped liver, fried onions and hard-boiled eggs.
“My father was an old timer, a Cantor over there, but here he had to learn
something new, here in America. He sold shmatahs, door-to-door. You know what
“Shmatahs, sure, yeah, old clothes, rags. I know my father was in the garment
“Here’s to our fathers,” I said raising my glass of Dr. Brown’s Cream soda. “They
showed us how to survive and prosper… and to our mothers who taught us to eat
“I’ll have a diet Celray, Sonia,” he asked the waitress as she passed.
“Sure, Saul, right away.”
“Saul,” I said. “What’s with the diet drink? Why not get the real thing? Why feel
intimidated by the politically correct niceties of eating healthy foods? The Hell with them!
Look at the crap we’re eating right now: high sodium pickles, full fat deli sandwiches,
the works. So why worry about one high fructose drink?”
He was short and bone thin. I had originally suggested the deli. He reluctantly
agreed after a slight pause. He usually ate salads and fat-free everything, he liked to
stay in shape. He still competed in Master’s ski events and he once ran track, many
years ago, on the high school team in Roxbury with George Berkowitz who later
became someone very big in seafood.
“Is it good,” he asked, “for my heart, that is, if after eating all this stuff at lunch
with you, if tonight, my ankles swell up?”
“Circulation problems, right Saul? Congestive heart failure, no? Do you have
that, Saul? Not good. You’re kidding, no? On second thought go ahead and get the diet
soda,” I said a little more concerned for his health then I was willing to admit.
I picked up my dull knife and desperately began to saw through my huge corn
beef and tongue on rye with Russian dressing and coleslaw. I cut it into small pieces.
Perhaps I’d eat only half now and bring the rest home. As it turned out I ate it all, but
“Damn knife’s dull,” I said.
“Our knives were sharp in the Army, during the war,” Saul said.
“The Army, Saul. Were you in the war? You’re kidding, right? How the hell old
Just then a breathless, pretty young woman came over to our table.
“Saul Gold, I’ve been looking for you.”
She was introduced to me as someone from the Mayor’s office, his executive
assistant. What followed was an intense three-minute directive from her about the
upcoming Mayor’s Interfaith Newton Committee meeting. Saul was a member of the
committee and a Democratic State Delegate. I got an extended opportunity to admire
her youthful body she leaned over our table and excitedly talked to Saul. She was
delightful in every way. She concluded her remarks with a stunningly warm smile then
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
I tried to answer something intelligent and witty but my mouth was stuffed with
corned beef and cole slaw, so I only managed:
I watched her walk away and sit at her table. I worried that she might have
caught me starring at her. I felt elderly and vaguely unclean.
“I’m trying to get Wasserman-Schultz to talk to us at our Massachusetts
Democratic Committee about gun control,” Saul continued.
“She’s from Florida? The Congresswoman and the D.N.C. Chair? I’ve seen her
on TV. Nice. You’re trying to do that? No kidding. Saul, you are a hell of a guy, no really.
He laughed and started in on his raisin noodle kugel with sour cream and
“So tell me, Saul. The war, huh? I remember it, but I was a kid then. You
were there? So what did you do? Did you quote something from the Talmud to your
“I was at U. Mass. when the war broke out, in the in the R.O.T.C., cavalry.”
“The cavalry, that’s the armored division, right? You drove around in those big
trucks schlepping heavy guns around, right?”
“No, horses, we sat on horses.”
“Horses? Saul, just how the hell old are you, anyway?”
“We also had to straighten out the horses if they had any digestive problems.” He
“Please, don’t go into it,” I pleaded.
“I won’t describe, in detail with you right now, concerning what we had to do with
which end of the horse, when they had a problem, since I notice you’re still working on
your chopped liver. My explanation would most likely destroy your appetite now and for
“Thank you, Saul. You’re a prince.” I put my fork down and picked up a pickled
tomato and took a big juicy bite. It was sharply salty and sour and crunchy.
“Deli, is God’s gift to the Jewish people,” I said with my mouth dripping.
“I thought that the Torah was our gift.”
“Well, the Torah also, sure. So tell me Saul, what could a little, boney guy like
you possibly do of any use in the war?”
“I was in Army Intelligence. I volunteered.”
“Army Intelligence? Now Saul that, I know is bullshit. I was in the Army also. I
remember, Saul, there is no such thing as Army intelligence. That’s a, what-do-you-call-
it, an oxymoron, right?”
“Before the invasion…”
“You mean, the invasion in 1944?”
“That’s the one. We were parachuted into France behind enemy lines.”
I looked at him. “Come on, Saul, you were parachuted in a parachute into
France…. You? Why? To what end?”
“We were to advise the underground of the coming invasion and begin to set up
a system of governance within the local French population.”
“What, you know about governance? You speak French?”
“I learned. They taught me, in the Army, in school. French is a lot easier than
“Really? Let me get this straight then. The French population was suffering under
the insanely brutal Nazi occupation. They were desperately waiting for the allies to put
up a fierce fight, to wipe away the son-of-a-bitch Nazi bastards, then one night, a short
Jewish man drops out of the sky, not to fight, but to talk, to practice his French on them
and to organize their local government? I bet they were delighted to see you, Saul.”
“Sonia, dear. I’ll have my tea now.”
“Sure, Saul. Right away. How about some dessert?”
“Sure. We’ll share, Saul,” I said. “That way we won’t seem like such pigs.”
“So Saul, what happened?” I said looking at the huge slab of hot, moist,
cinnamon-apple and cranberry crumb cake with a non-dairy whipped cream topping and
two large spoons coming our way along with two hot teas with lemon.
“After the invasion we set up our headquarters just outside the small French
town. The shooting war was over for us, or so we mistakenly thought. We began to do
what we were trained to do.”
“Which was what, to get the French to stop begging for cigarettes and chocolate?
“We started getting them to form a local government.”
“No head shaving of the girls who went with the Nazis?”
“No, we looked for those girls, but…”
“To talk to them, right?”
“Yes, actually but by now we were well supplied and starting to relax. Our
French charges were beginning to feel more confidence and optimism with their new
government. The invasion was going well and the French had all the bread and cheese
that the Americans could provide.”
“That’s nice. They appreciated what we were sending?”
“Not really, they complained that our American cheese was poor and our bread
tasteless. What we had not found out was that our part of the shooting war was not
“Mystery, huh? So what happened? Don’t tell me you saw action.”
“The islands of Jersey and Guernsey, the Channel Islands…”
“In the English Channel? So, what about them?”
“They were loaded with German troops. The Allies chose to by-pass them and
push on during the invasion. The German soldiers were isolated and beginning to get
restive. They were running out of supplies.”
“Beer and sauerkraut?”
“I guess, and they couldn’t be re-supplied. They were cut off.”
“So, one night, they decided to attack.”
“To come ashore to look for food.”
“To hold up a patisserie? What?”
“Something like that, but they brought their weapons and bullets and their sharp
“So what Saul, you welcomed them then politely asked them to return to their
“Not really, we had to fight, but first we had to find the damn key to our weapons,
but Jerry Schwartzberg, our Captain who was in charge was in town at the movies.”
“They were silent movies with sub-titles, all provided by the Americans. Anyway
we just busted the lock, armed our guys and fought like hell until the Germans left.”
“Yeah, we let them get away with a few chickens and some turnips.”
“No chopped herring?”
“It was all a long time ago. The Germans all finally surrendered. Soon the war
“No kidding, you dropped down in a parachute? I’m glad we won the war.”
“Now, you’re coming to us for Passover, right?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he answered.
Our check came. I picked it up. We shook hands. He waved to Sonia.
“See ya, Saul,” I said. I gave him a hug, I don’t know why.
We both got into our cars and went our separate ways.
Later that week I got a call. Saul was in the hospital. He had fallen and hit his
head on the sidewalk outside of J.C. Licks in Newton Center. He had a black eye and
a possible concussion, but what he really had happened was that he dropped his ice
cream due to a heart attack. He recovered briefly in the hospital but the next attack took
him away, for good. His daughters, had a ‘do not resuscitate’ note in his file. They had
watched their mother die a painful death a few years earlier and didn’t want Saul to
We sat Shiva for him at my house. It was my wife’s idea to host the event since
he had so many dear friends in Newton. His family and everyone came, even the
Mayor. A spectacular arrangement of flowers arrived to honor Saul from the then United
States Senator Kerry and his wife Teresa.
During Passover, my nephew from Oregon took Saul’s chair at the table next to
me. It seemed odd and definitely wrong. I missed not being to kibbitz with Saul. Later
I remembered him, in past days, in the middle of the room, with everyone standing
around, anticipating his words and listening to his stories once again. By then they knew
all his stories word for word but they still got themselves ready to howl. They couldn’t
wait to listen to him once again.
“Now Saul,” I would have asked with a wink, if he were here today, “tell us again
please, tell us about your horse. When he had an intestinal problem, Saul, now just
what exactly did you have to do to relieve that horse of his distress?
In the end, to continue Saul’s civil good works alive, my wife took over his once a
week, volunteer teaching responsibilities at the Ohrenberger School in Roxbury: helping
the little kids catch up, providing them with remedial reading skills. Its all going very well,
she loves the kids and they love her, but sometimes they forget and their little faces pop
“Please, Miss Paula, when’s Mr. Saul coming back?”