The Magical Animal


We bought Charlie almost fifteen years ago. We hadn’t intended to buy a bird. It was supposed to be a zoo visit. Debby found out about this cool place in Tribeca, The Urban Bird. All the baby birds for sale were just out there, standing on perches, sleeping in little cozy nests. No cages. Just young parrots – all kinds, sizes, and colors. Green ones from South and Central America; white ones from Australia; blue and scarlet ones from Indonesia; and Charlie, a grey one with a red tail from Central Africa. Charlie was featherless at the time and living above the store in the nursery. But I am getting ahead of my story.

All the birds in the store were babies, with one exception. One old bird was living in a cage, hanging high from the ceiling, in the back of the store, commanding a view of all who entered. I opened the door and Eli, our son, age ten, and I walked in. Debby lingered by the cash register reading a New Yorker article about this “only in New York” place.

The old bird spotted us. He was old and bitter. The two guys that had owned him had abandoned him when they split up. He saw us and yelled out “I’ve got a yeast infection.”  ”What?”, said Eli, looking up first at the bird and then at me. Before I could answer the bird added a “fuck you.” Instantly Eli responded, “Dad, can we get a bird like that one?” And so we did.

Parrots bond with one mate for life. Since we were part of the flock it would be one of us and with Eli at camp, it would be me or Debby. The issue was settled when Charlie, sitting on my index finger, bent down and bit me. “You son- of- a- bitch,” I exclaimed and reflexively dropped the poor bird. He never forgot it. And he bonded with Debby. He even tries to feed her, so that she will lay a good egg.  Even though she rebuffs his attempts, he still loves her.  And when he is mad he still says ” you son-of-a-bitch” in my voice.

Along with Charlie we had an outsized grey cat named Moe. Charlie was smarter than Moe and used to mess with him. “Come here Moe,’ he would command, in my tone of voice. Moe would wander over. And Charlie would wait until he got over to his cage and say “You grey son-of-a-bitch.”

When Eli would practice guitar in the living room where Charlie lives in his cage he frequently would meet with Charlie’s free associations. Once a day Charlie unburdens himself with every phrase he knows, going on and on until it could make you crazy or you leave the room. That’s how he learned how to say “I’m gonna kick your ass.” Eli would yell that at him, hoping he would shut up, but to no avail.

On the morning of 9/ll I was supposed to meet my friend John Pellaton for breakfast at Windows on the World, atop of Tower Two at the World Trade Center. We were to meet at 8:00 o’clock. The first plane hit the building at 8:40. But John had a meeting and called just before to cancel. So we were still at home at the time the crash shook our apartment. When it shook it again for the second time we thought we were being bombed. With the big cat and Charlie we weren’t very portable, so we stayed put the first night. Everyone in our building left, except for us, Moe, Charlie, and a blind bass player on the 6th floor. The FBI rousted us the next morning. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers

RADICALS, RABBIS, AND PEACEMAKERS: Conversations With Jewish Critics of Israel, by Seth Farber, Common Courage Press,  252  Pages, $l9.95.  207-525-0900.

Reviewed by Michael Steven Smith

My grandparents came to America from Hungary in 1912. My family who stayed there and the Hungarian Jewish population were mostly killed by the facists in the bitter winter of l944, some 800,000. Twenty thousand alone died of the cold and disease, huddled in the great unheated synagogue, the largest in the world, on Dohany Street in Budapest. I was in Budapest with my wife and sister and friends this past October vacationing and visiting my cousins. As it happened it was during Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday and new year. We are not religious, nor are my Hungarian relatives, but we asked them to take us  to that synagogue  for Yom Kippur services. It was quite stirring to be there amongst the remnant of that ancient Jewish community that had been in Budapest going back to the times of the Romans.

My Hungarian cousin Anti is still alive and vigorous at age 96. He was not picked up in l944 with the others but rather in l94l, because he was a communist. So was his wife Manci. They managed to place their two year old son Vili with a sympathetic Christian woman before being arrested and put in separate labor camps. Anti soon escaped and fought in the forests with the Partisans. He is figure mentioned by his country’s historians. Manci lived. In l945 with the Russian liberation they returned to Budapest to fetch their son. Vili answered the door. “I am your mother,” said Manci. “No you are not,” answered Vili. “My mother was beautiful.” She was ninety pounds and bald. So they started anew.

The history of the Zionists in Hungary is a sordid one, even before they established their exclusivist colonial settler state in Palestine. My cousins, who were not important people, were amongst the several thousand Hungarian Jews who survived the fire. A pact was signed by Dr. Rudolph Kastner of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee and Nazi exterminator Adolph Eichmann in l944 allowing 600 prominent Jews to leave in exchange for Zionist silence on the fate of the remainder. Malchiel Greenwald, a Hungarian survivor, exposed the deal and was sued by the Israeli government, whose leaders at the time had actually drawn up the terms of the pact. Greenwald won. The Israeli court concluded, “The sacrifice of the majority of Hungarian Jews, in order to rescue the prominent ones (and send them to colonize Palestine – MSS) was the basic element in the agreement between Kastner and the Nazis….In addition to its Extermination Department and Looting Department, the Nazi S.S. opened a Rescue Department headed by Kastner.” ( Judgment given on June 22, 1955, Protocol of Criminal Case 124/53 in District Court, Jerusalem.)

In point of fact, members of the Zionist movement actively collaborated with Nazism from the beginning. The World Zionist Organization sabotaged world Jewry’s attempt to boycott the Nazi economy in order to be allowed to send money from Germany to Palestine. They fought against liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, for they wanted European Jews to go to Palestine, not America. As Ralph Schoenman, like me, an American Jew of Hungarian descent, wrote  “This obsession with colonizing Palestine and overwhelming the Arabs led the Zionist movement to oppose any rescue of the Jews facing extermination, because the ability to deflect manpower to Palestine would be impeded.(The Hidden History of Zionism, Veritas Press, P. 50)   David Ben Gurion summarized to a meeting of “left” Zionists in 1938 in England: “If I knew that it would be possible to save al the children in Germany by bringing them over to England and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I opt for the second alternative.” (cited in Lenni Brenner, “Zionism in the age of the Dictators,” p.49)

The first time I toured and worked in Israel was over the summer of 1959. I was sixteen years old. Israel was eleven. Anti’s brother Carl and his son managed to survive and get to Israel. The lived in Jaffa, a once Arab village north of Tel Aviv which was ethnically cleansed in l948. I found Read the rest of this entry »

Judge Bruce M. Wright is Dead

NLG friend Judge Bruce M. Wright died at age 86 this past March.  He was a significant figure in the heritage and history of our country not only as a jurist and attorney, but as a humanist intellectual, a poet, and a humorist, as the two volumes of his autobiography reveal ( Black Robes, White Justice, and Black Justice in a White World).

Wright became a New York City judge relatively late in his life, unexpectedly appointed by Mayor John Lindsay in l970.  When Lindsay told him of his appointment, Wright, unbelievingly, replied that he couldn’t accept the judgeship because he did not have the money to pay for it.  He was then 52 years old.  He had been a published poet, a lawyer, a decorated WWII combat veteran, an Army deserter, a manager and advisor to jazz musicians, and an expatriate intellectual in Paris.  He met Gertrude Stein, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin, with whom he got drunk on scotch ending up in a French hospital with a bleeding ulcer.  He worked on a magazine with Leopold Senghor, the future president of Senegal, with whom he remained a life-long friend.  Like many black Americans, Bruce Wright found the City of Light less oppressive, deserting the Army on his way back to America from European combat, making the decision en route when a white officer looked at his medals and then looking straight at him said, “I didn’t know they allowed niggers to fight.”  During the war From the Shaken Tower, a book of his poetry, was published in England and it was at that time also that he began his collaboration with Langston Hughes.

Returning stateside and moving to Harlem, where he lived for six decades, Wright knew Harlem renaissance artists Romaine Bearden, Charles Alson, and Aaron Douglas, whose murals of the African American experience decorate the Harlem library.  Wright was closely associated with the post WWII jazz scene.  The emergence of black nationalism in the northern ghettos in the l950s coincided and interrelated with revolution in black music called Bebop.  The Beboppers were rebels, culturally and personally, if not overtly politically.  They took jazz and stood it on its head, taking traditional “American classical music,” the great gift of black America to the world, and elevated it to new levels of complexity and beauty.  Bruce Wright, a rebel himself, identified and associated with the new music at its birth and was a manager and business advisor to great artists including Max Roach, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Mary Lou Williams, and Sonny Rollins.

Wright’s mother was Irish, one of l3 children, whose ancestors came from Ireland around l825, settling in Newark, New Jersey.  Bruce was raised in Princeton in a loving home with a brother and sister.  His father was black man from Monserrat, a Caribbean island from which he immigrated because “there was nothing to do except haul water to Antigua.”  Wright remembered his mother as “a tall, handsome woman, jolly and a moderate drinker.  she seemed to be at ease with the black neighbors among whom we always lived.  “My father,” he recalled, “was five feet four inches tall, a pefectly reasonable height for a pacifist.  A survivor of WWI, he preached to me from childhood the imagined virtues of imagined peace.”  They were buried in a segregated cemetery, separated on the basis of race.  “My mother and her old sister…are buried in the white section.  My father lies in the same obscurity he knew in life, in the areas reserved for the black dead.”

Wright ran afoul of the New York City police and prosecutors when he refused to rubber stamp routinely high bail requests, which not only denied the accused the right to be free to help prepare their own defense but worked in practise as preventive detention.  When he released an accused cop killer (latter acquitted) the Policemen’s Benevolent Association went ballistic.  The tabloid press dubbed him “Turn ‘em Loose Bruce.”

A demonstration, built with the help of the Guild and Bruce’s friend Guild President Hal Mayerson was called in his defense.  Hundreds gathered to support him in front of the downtown Municipal Building.  When his judgeship was not renewed, he ran for the Civil Court from Harlem and won a ten-year term.  Bruce was extremely popular among lawyers who appeared before him because of his intelligence and courtesy.

Bruce M. Wright was a well known figure in Harlem.  The encomium that he liked best was given him the day a car knocked him off his bicycle, seriously injuring him.  As Wright lay in the street, a passerby looked down at him and said, “Oh shit, its the judge.”

by Michael Steven Smith