Back when automobiles had swooping tail fins with lots of shiny chrome, and model designs changed dramatically every year, Velvul arrived as the son of proud (slightly-to-moderately-Jewish) parents Tookie and Razel. They had waited five years after marriage to have their first child. Everyone in the family verbalized concerns as to why the seemingly-happy couple had not yet produced the child expected from them. Some said Razel was unable to conceive, others said Razel was unwilling to conceive, and the rest knew Tookie too frugal to have to pay for all the unjustified costs involved. He continually uttered the phrase “saving for a rainy day” even though Noah’s Flood would not have been stormy enough for Tookie to open that purse.
According to some strange ritual that no one else had heard of, the rabbi of the local synagogue kept the baby boy hostage for a few days until his parents could come up with five silver dollars as ransom (and Tookie hated to part with those valuable coins). At least that’s what they told Velvul later. It could have been their feeble attempts to avoid talking about his bris ceremony. No one at the home of Tookie and Razel ever discussed matters of a sexual nature.
At the time of Velvul’s birth, his parents lived in an apartment complex with a community pool in its center. One spring weekend, the building held a pool party, which many of the tenants attended. As Tookie and Razel chatted with their neighbors, neither realized Velvul had disappeared. When they reunited, they looked at each other with a question on their faces. “Where’s Velvul?” “I thought you had him.” “No, you had him.”
Just then, a woman cried out, “There’s a baby at the bottom of the pool!”
Tookie couldn’t swim, and Razel raised her hands to her head crying, “I’ve just had my hair done.” They both rushed to the edge of the pool, but neither jumped in. One of the sinewy men from the building took the plunge and rescued poor, little Velvul before it was too late. The handsome, muscular fellow in his early 20s even performed rescue breathing to resuscitate the baby boy. Fortunately for everyone, he had recently taken lifeguard training for his upcoming summer at the shore. Once back in his mother’s arms, the baby smiled at his savior neighbor while Tookie glared at Razel for losing track of their son. Velvul had undergone a variety of baptismal activities that afternoon. If anything horrible had happened to the baby, the family (especially the grandparents) would have gotten very upset. Tookie and Razel had only recently completed their obligation to procreate.
The older members of the family fawned over Velvul; he was their favorite. All his cousins hated Velvul because of this. Velvul never realized how popular he had become with his elders. He always gave everyone big hugs and smiles. That’s all they wanted. And, in return, they gave him food and coins and dollar bills and gifts and rides in their big cars.
Automobiles fascinated Velvul. His family would stand him on the corner, point at a passing car and he would tell them the year, make and model as the cooing onlookers praised him (whether he was correct or not). Big cars seemed to fascinate Jews.
Identifying as a Jew seemed to be a problem for Velvul from a very early age. His first introduction to a synagogue came the day of an older cousin’s Bar Mitzvah. Razel held Velvul’s hand as they entered the cavernous room, the service already under way. No one ever arrived on-time with Razel because she always needed to do “one more thing.” In a hushed tone, she said, “See that man up there? He’s the Rabbi.” Velvul grinned and shouted, “A rabbit? A rabbit? What’s a rabbit doing in church?” Razel yanked her son from the synagogue, and many years passed before she made another attempt at engaging Velvul in his inherited religion.
His truly favorite parent was his father’s mother, Yeti (she adopted the nickname long before the word became commonly used to represent the Abominable Snowman or his cohorts). She adored him and he relished her. Visits to Grandma Yeti’s usually involved going downtown on the big train to the big toy store followed by lunch at the big restaurant. A meal of Hamburger Steak and a dessert of chocolate-frosted chocolate cupcakes covered in multi-colored sugar sprinkles meant the world to little Velvul. He knew his grandmother loved and cared for him very much because she kept saying, “Eat, Velvul, eat! You’re so skinny. When you walk in the street you’re going to slip down the sewer and we’ll never see you again.” Not wanting to be separated from his favorite relative, he ate and ate all the love his grandmother prepared for him, cleaning the plate (including seconds) every time.
Next to feeding her favorite grandchild, Yeti also enjoyed reading the newspaper to him. They sat together on her faux Chippendale in the dim parlor (the drapes never seemed to open) next to a reading lamp. Crime stories and horrible celebrity vehicular deaths regularly filled her daily news reports. She could barely read English (Yiddish being her first language), but Velvul never knew his beloved grandma made up many of the details.
The most dreaded part of any visit was when Yeti would look at him and say, “You are so delicious, I’m going to eat you right up!” She would then remove her false teeth and gum his arm voraciously. Velvul put up with this because without Grandma, there would be no big train, no big toy store, and no big restaurant.
Yeti’s husband, Sol, appeared from time to time arbitrarily. His high-backed lounger stood empty in the corner because no one else was allowed to sit it his special chair. She said he was a cab driver, but everyone knew he spent most of his time drinking and playing pool with the Black people. Playing pool and drinking beer with Black people had not yet become politically savvy. Grampa Sol was a man unintentionally ahead of his time.
Politics seemed to come naturally to Velvul. One day Razel took a walk with her toddler. “Where are we going mommy?” She smiled with pride, “I’m going to vote for president.” “President?” Velvul retorted, “Vote for Lincoln; he was a good one!” Genetics had provided him a rather curious and creative mind.
[Beret Sheet is a pun on the Hebrew word בראשית, (B’reisheet), “In the beginning.”]
Up next: Early Days (how does a Jewish family interact, you ask?)