Carol Conroy was browsing the poetry section when my parents Sigmund and Frances walked in. They were visiting with me in Atlanta as they did every year on their way from Israel to the States. I introduced Carol to my folks and they sat in the coffee room of The Old New York Book Shop for a few minutes getting to know each other.
Now, I always joked with Pat Conroy, my friend and Carol’s brother, about how much smarter Carol was than he. But when Carol came to the store a week later and dropped 5 poems on my desk, I had proof after reading the first poem called “The Jewish Furrier Tells How to Write Poetry.”
“Cliff’s father was right.
He said: Simple. You just do it.
You hold the animal and pick your knife.
Courage it takes. The rest forget.
But have the coat on the woman’s back,
not in your mind.
For instance the whistle.
You hold it in your throat
and send the air through the mouth’s toy.
Lips can be silver.
Siggy Graubart knows something.
His advice is good.
It is as natural as the swift intake of joy
in Megan’s smile,
the youngest niece,
when she cries daddy across the yard
and runs to kiss the matted fur
of a father’s head, the poet.”
I was stunned that Carol could glean so much from my father in so short a time. It was 1980, and Pat and I decided that our new publishing company (founded in 1978) would grow into poetry. We asked Carol to expand the 5 poems to 10 and we would produce a book of poetry, and a few months later The Jewish Furrier came out in a limited edition of 150 numbered copies in gray boards and tan cloth spine on Hayle hand-made paper bound by hand at the Pamami Press in Douglasville, Georgia by Mike Riley.
I did not know then how significant that little book would become. Carol submitted the work in a contest connected with Harper Lee and won a year’s residence at a University in Virginia and a contract with W. W. Norton for The Beauty Wars, her first regularly published book.
In 1986, when Pat was going to press with The Prince of Tides, he had created “Savannah,” a poet based on his sister Carol, and incorporated a poem from The Jewish Furrier. Two days before going to press, Carol called Pat’s publisher demanding that the poem not be printed. She was unhappy at being portrayed in the book to begin with, and would not tolerate the printing of her poem.
Pat had two days to re-write the poem, and the book was printed with “The Jewish Furrier” as a different poem.
Serendipity. Carol’s not Jewish. Pat’s not Jewish. Carol writes a book of poetry, about my Jewish father, which opens the door to her career as a poet. Pat writes The Prince of Tides, his break-through novel, which incorporates her book, and has a strong Jewish component in the Lowenstein character, portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the film version. Somehow, I found myself in the center of this creativity and expansion into Jewish themes so near to me, and loved it.
I know Jewish doctors and lawyers who are sending their children to state universities and tell me they are ‘great’ schools. I remember the same gentlemen telling me that the public high school their children went to was also ‘great.’ I had a tough time buying this argument and was able to confirm my beliefs when my own daughter decided, after her schooling at a Jewish day school since kindergarten, she wanted a public school experience. My wife and I acquiesced and our daughter entered with enthusiasm and, being the very bright girl she is, soon insisted that she needed a nose piercing. “I need an edge,” she insisted, and we understood. She was in a tough environment and read the signs accurately. Then I thought of the three Jewish lawyers who had or in the past had their kids at the school and said it was ‘great.’ Finally I figured it out. It wasn’t great. It was free.
My daughter wanted this experience because the high school was a magnet school and offered a good dance program. It wasn’t, and she soon outgrew the program spending her hours after school seeking more professional training at the ballet studio she had recently joined.
My wife and I make a modest living, but are on the same page when it comes to education. She was raised in the public school system in several states growing up. I was raised in public school in Manhattan, where many of my teachers were Jews and the product of the ’30s socialist period, committed to education. Although I had a solid education, the teachers weren’t trained as they are today to pick up on learning disabilities. If they had, I might have started writing sooner, and perhaps would have attended a better college. We both wanted more for our own children. Continue reading
My parents left the United States in 1973 to retire in Bat Yam, Israel, the country in which they met and married in 1934, and where my brother Norman was born. My father left Poland in 1925 and went to work for his brothers in Paris and then left to compete in the first Maccabiah games in the breast stroke only to learn that there was no swimming pool. (I learned later that there was indeed a swimming event, so I can only assume that my dad may have not made the cut and may have been too embarrassed.) My mother left her home Bulgaria as a young woman on a group visa and settled in Jerusalem, where she met my father in the fur shop where they both were employed.
One day while browsing in a used bookshop in Tel Aviv after his retirement to Israel, he came upon a book titled During the Russian Administration with the Jews of Stanislawow During the Holocaust by Abraham Liebesman. My father, Sigmund Graubart, no trained scholar, was always interested in history. And he had a keen interest in Stanislawow, Poland (today Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), the city of his birth, because his older sister and her family were killed there. After determining there was only this edition, which was in Hebrew, my father began translating the book into English.
At the same time, Pat Conroy was working on his novel Beach Music and a portion of the book dealt with the Holocaust. He wanted to place his character “Max Rusoff” in a small city and as is usual in Conroy’s fiction, he wanted to write in great detail. Pat loved my parents. He wishes we could have switched our families at birth. I told him that would have impinged on our friendship, as I would have been dead. I couldn’t have survived “The Great Santini.”
Pat began work on Beach Music in 1986 and would take 9 years to publish the novel. My dad finished his translation in 1990 and I published it, distributing it free to anyone who showed interest. Pat read it and was so moved, he used it as the primary reference to describe life during the Holocaust in the novel. He was surprised at how good the translation was. He knew my father only had a high school education. During the Russian Administration had the detail Pat was seeking and he decided to use it to help him draw the picture of “Kronittska.”
In a note to the reader in Beach Music, Conroy gives thanks to Sigmund Graubart, and because of that acknowledgement and because the book was translated into scores of languages, I have received requests for the 49-page booklet from all over the world. There is no charge, and there are still some available.