Monthly Archives: May 2019

Finding My Voice

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Passover story, Moses, despite his initial protests to G-D that he was “slow in tongue,” confronted the Pharaoh with the admonition “Let my people go!” After years of slavery, the Jewish people finally had found someone who spoke  out. I myself am finding my own voice.

I had an inauspicious beginning. When I was two years old, my mother had gall bladder surgery, necessitating a week’s hospital stay and no lifting—including her toddler—for several weeks. I stopped talking.  My mother told me again and again that that she could still feel me holding on to her apron strings as if my life depended upon it. 

By the end of kindergarten, I not only got my voice back but also some courage. When a classmate backed out of reciting a poem at the graduation ceremony that was to be held in only three days, I volunteered to take her place. Like Moses, I was “slow of tongue.” I can’t find the poem—something about being big and small and growing up—but I remember clearly stumbling over the last few lines and having to sit down in embarrassment.

I grew up a noisy household, with talkative parents and three chatty siblings. To this day, my sister-in-law tells us, “You get the four Cohens in a room and you can count on at least six conversations.” (Larry says it’s closer to ten) So by high school, I was not afraid of raising my hand and talking up in my classes.

 In my second attempt at public speaking, Mrs. Clute’s speech class in eleventh grade, I gave an impassioned speech against  the new leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who was promoting a more violent path for the Civil Rights organization.  “It is people like Storky Carmichael who give….” My speech was cut off by the hysterical laughter of my classmates. They didn’t let me ever forget my mispronunciation of Stokely’s name until I graduated. My tendency towards malapropisms—inherited from my mother who will be remembered for calling “organisms” “orgasms”—have kept me leery of unscripted public speaking my whole life.

Despite my early tainted history, I did find my voice as a teacher, gaining confidence in my ability to share knowledge with my English students.I gave presentations at several state and national teacher’s conferences, and spoke at a state-wide Hadassah luncheon in Albany, New York.

When I began writing for publication  in the 1990s and, more regularly for The Jewish World in 2013, I felt that found my true voice. Writing about growing up in a small Upstate New York town, getting married, raising a family, balancing a career and private life in the Capital Region of New York, and easing into a wonderful retirement became topics of gentle pieces—ones that people have compared my writing to  “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” And more recently, I have been the grateful voice of others through sharing the stories of Holocaust and cancer survivors, Jewish POW’s, a Renaissance man, and other menschen.

The recent political climate, however, has brought me back to the Passover story and Moses’ reluctant ascent into leadership of the Hebrews as they obtained their freedom and began their forty-year sojourn in the desert. Moses spoke out against social injustice. Can I do the same? And can I do it in a way as to not offend those whose political views are different from my own? 

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, “ an article I wrote in 2016, I shared my decision that I would not lose friends and relatives over politics. I am proud to say that it is a promise I have maintained. But there are times that I cannot remain silent in the face of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, and any form of hatred.

I could not remain silent after the Tree of Life massacre when I received one of those blanket emails sent to numerous recipients warning us that Jews must support Trump. With my husband Larry’s help, I wrote a response to the email that I subsequently sent for publication in the October 31, 2018, Orlando Sentinel. “Any American president who refuses to denounce Neo-Nazis, spouts rhetoric that incites hatred and violence, and defends attending a rally while Jews lie dead on a synagogue floor—‘we cannot let our schedule or our lives change.”  — is a disgrace to (alas) the six million and eleven Jews s a disgrace to the over six million and eleven Jews who died due to anti-Semitism.”

I could not remain silent when I was told by an idiot that he felt little sympathy for the federal workers impacted by the government shutdown as most of them “just sit of their duffs and do nothing all day.” I gave him a dressing down that included references to my own family members who were suffering from the impact of not getting a paycheck for a unneeded work stoppage that stretched out for thirty-five days. 

I could not remain silent when, after Representative Iihan Omar’s controversial comments regarding Israel, Democrats in the end released a spineless resolution. Phone calls and emails requesting money to support the Democratic Party are answered with my statement, “Not until the Democrats have the backbone to truly call out anti-Semitism. “

I could not remain silent when the president tweeted out disparaging remarks about John McCain and Barbara Bush (May their memories be a blessing). Even more disconcerting to me was that Congressional leaders , including McCain’s supposedly best friend Lindsay Graham, refused to call the president out for his inexcusable poor behavior. “It is just plain wrong,” I wrote in an email to Senator Graham. 

And finally, I cannot remain silent when well-meaning friends forward to me offensive emails. One was headed by the note, “Interesting video.” Attached was YouTube video originally published in 2009. As summarized by Snopes.com,  regarded as a highly reliable fact-checking source, that warned that Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities and begin reproducing again.” Snopes regarded the information as “mostly false;”  I regarded it as pure Islamophobia.

Another forwarded email, a musical video took us on a nostalgic trip down memory lane. “If only I could go back again/ to Mom and Dad and all my friends/I would feel safe with the people I know/From once upon a long time ago.” The stream of pictures that accompanied the Jesse Goldberg song showed slide after slide filled with only white faces. Another friend shared a list of the Shortest Books 2018, including Things I Did to Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize by Barack Obama; My Complete Knowledge of Military Strategy by Nancy Pelosi, and To All the men We Have Loved Before by Ellen de Generes and Rosie O’Donnell. In all three cases, Larry and I have decided that face-to-face discussions with the senders would be the most effective way to fight the implicit—and explicit—hate that is peddled in such material.

Recently, I attended a presentation by given by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization whose mission is to fight bigotry and seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. On the way out, I picked up their brochure, “Ten Ways to Fight Hate”  (https://www.splcenter.org/20170814/ten-ways-fight-hate-community-response-guide).  I thought of our own ten commandments, our Aseret ha-Dibrot, which give guidance on how we each can lead an ethical life. This Passover, let us all resolve to model our behavior after Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher): To speak up, to act, to pressure leaders, to educate ourselves and others, and to do all we can to combat hate in all its forms. 

A Memorial Day Tribute to a Jewish Hero

Albert Gellman Circa 1944

Private Albert Gellman was mad as hell.  It was June 1944, and his United States army unit of the 34th Division had been cut off behind German lines. Two of his buddies had just been killed in the battle, and Gellman knew “someone had to do something.”

This was not exactly the life a Jewish man from Albany had imagined. The son of William and Tilli Gellman, the twenty-six year old private first class had grown up with his parents and two sisters in a house on Washington Avenue that his father, a Russian immigrant, had built in 1923.

After attending Phillip Schuyler High School, Gellman became a partner at the Modern Food Market on New Scotland Avenue. In 1940, he married Marion Rosenthal, and their son Stephen was born in December 1942. Thirteen weeks later, Gellman received his draft orders and reported to basic training with the 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division.

Initially stationed in North Africa, the regiment was soon sent to Italy to participate in the Battle of Anzio, a massive campaign launched in 1944 to capture Rome from the Axis Powers. Gellman and his regiment were given orders to push through the boot of Italy. “My father later told me the conditions were horrific,” his son Steve Gellman recounted. “Rain and snow impeded their path, and they often encountered mountainous terrain where the infantrymen had to climb hand over hand up cliffs.” Gellman, terrified of heights, was not comforted by his commander, whose only advice was as follows: “Don’t scream if you fall because you will expose others.” Many lost their lives falling silently to their death. 

On June 1, 1944, Gellman’s regiment was engaged in an assault against strong enemy forces in the vicinity of Castelleone, Italy. Four US tanks preceding the attack were knocked out of action by enemy anti-tank guns holed up in a group of Italian farmhouses. Gellman and fellow members of his  squad withdrew to a shallow ditch in front of area.

The  Americans shot at the enemy soldiers who were seen inside the buildings. One of the Germans hoisted a white flag of surrender, but the enemy soldiers refused to leave the safety of the farm house. 

The lieutenant asked for volunteers to take the guns out. Gellman had learned Yiddish while growing up. He believed this language skill, along with his very limited knowledge of German, would help. The 26-year-old private first class volunteered with Private Smith, another member of the regiment, to charge a machine gun emplacement guarding the left flank of the farmhouse. 

In his haste to reach the building, Gellman forgot his carbine rifle. That didn’t stop him. Brandishing a .45 revolver and loaded grenades, he ran into the yard yelling  “Komm raus Mit deinen Händen! (Come out with your hands up!)” Four Germans were so  startled that they dropped their weapons and immediately surrendered. While Private Smith was taking those prisoners back to their platoon  Gellman sprinted to the first house and told the solders in Yiddish to surrender.  By the end of the day, with the help of more Yiddish and some strategically lobbed hand grenades, Gellman had almost singlehandedly taken over thirty prisoners and had destroyed some of the German anti-tank guns.

 Using the information Gellman provided,  the army notified US navy destroyers off shore. The ships’ artillery leveled the farmhouse, taking out the remaining guns and any German soldiers who had refused to surrender.

Three days later, Gellman used the same technique to single-handedly capture an additional four German soldier who were holed up in an Italian farmhouse near their abandoned German tank. 

Gellman and his regiment saw more action in Northern Italy through the next several months. In the spring of 1945, Gellman was hospitalized with back pain and extreme battle fatigue. It was in the Italian hospital that Gellman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for combat heroism.The award included the following, “Private First Class Gellman’s intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 34th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.” He was also presented with the Italian Military Valor Cross.

Gellman returned to the United States on a hospital ship. After a brief respite in the Army’s reassignment center in Lake Placid, he finished out the war as a military policeman in Albany. 

He was later presented with New York State’s Conspicuous Service Cross, three Bronze  Stars, and numerous other awards. Asked later how he felt about his actions, Gellman downplayed his moniker as a war hero. Gellman said, “I was shaking in my boots,” he later recounted.  “After all, I’m still a civilian at heart.” 

After the war, the Gellmans had two more children, David and Toby. Gellman initially ran an open-air fruit stand on Upper New Scotland Avenue. In 1948, he opened Al’s Market, adjacent to Modern Food Market, which he operated until 1955. Gellman continued to work the wholesale food industry for Service Food Company and Archway Bakery until his retirement in 1980. The family were members of Congregation Ohav Shalom.  He was also a member of  Jewish War Veterans Albany Post 105, the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans and Albany City Lodge of Knights of Pythias. 

His son Steve said that his father rarely talked about the war while he and his siblings were living at home. If he did, Gellman emphasized to his family his role. “I never killed them,” Gellman insisted.  “I just captured them.”

Steve, however,  clearly remembers one incidence in which he saw another side of his father. Just before his bar mitzvah, Steve was walking with his parents to synagogue when a drunk yelled an anti-Semitic epithet at his mother and then kicked Gellman. Steve watched as his father changed from the gentle man he knew to a killing machine. “Dad picked the man up, slammed him against a car, and put him in a headlock.”  The Gellmans did not press charges against the man, but Steve never forgot the expression on his father’s face. “It was like he was back in Italy,” Steve said.

It was not until forty-eight years after the war that Albert Gellman was able to confront his own demons. In 1998, the 76-year-old decorated World War II veteran entered counseling for post traumatic stress disorder.  The memories of horrors of war and the guilt and shame he carried for “leaving my buddies behind” finally surfaced and left him frequently in tears. 

It was after he had been to counseling that he was able to finally talk to his family about what he had endured. He had seen men blown up, had been begged by fellow GI’s in flames to be shot; he had killed German soldiers. These memories haunted him until his death at the age of 83 in 2001.

In 2006, Albany County Executive Mike Breslin and the Honor-A-Veteran Committee commemorated Gellman at a ceremony which included flying a flag in the late soldier’s honor. And the honors may continue. Gellman is currently one of 157 World War II Jewish War Veterans being considered for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. Steve, who served in the US Air Force from 1960 to 1964, is working with the JWV to realize this goal. “With or without the Medal of Honor, I regard my father as a hero, a man who was bigger than life,” said Steve. “He sacrificed so much for this country, his time, his physical and emotional health. He truly represents The Greatest Generation.”

Thanks to Stephen Gellman for providing newspaper articles and other documents that were used to write this article.

First published in (Capital Region New York) Jewish World, May 16, 2019

A Banjo Player with a Jewish Soul

Bud Black was regarded by fellow musicians as a walking encyclopedia.
Bud Black on his beloved banjo!

John “Bud” Black career as a musician began in the 1930s as an 8 year old in bars near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bud’s grandfather Bert loved to drink even more than he loved the Pittsburgh Pirates. So he would tell his wife he was taking his daughter’s “little buddy”  to a game. Instead he took him to local taverns. Bud would play the ukulele that his grandfather had purchased for him.

For the past five years,  people who came to services at Shalom Aleichem in Kissimmee, Florida, were met with an unusual but wonderful treat. They were greeted by a pair of musicians—Bud Black on the guitar (and occasionally the banjo) and Bill Willner on the snare drums. They played mostly songs from the 20s, 30s, and 40’s. Bud and Bill usually packed up their instruments about fifteen minutes before services began, but on occasion they would accompany Rabbi Karen Allen on songs from the Friday night service. 

While still in high school, Bud began playing the guitar professionally and performing on WKPA, Pittsburg’s hillbilly radio station. (Was this the station? It is now listed as a ministry station out of Lynchburg, VA) After graduating, Bud went into the US Air Force, where he worked on computers. After he completed his service, he took a job at RCA working on technology. Bud realized quickly that his first love was music and began working the nightclub circuit around Philadelphia and Atlantic City. 

By the age of ten, with a minimal training from one of his grandfather’s fellow barflies, Bud not only had added the guitar to his repertoire but also helped Bert make some money. Bud had an incredible ability to remember the name, lyrics, and artist of every song he played. As William Miller wrote in a 1997 article, Bert  took him from bar to bar, challenging anyone to name a tune his grandson couldn’t play. When they couldn’t “Stump the Musician”— which was often— Bert passed the hat.

Along the way, Bud married and had two sons, Scott and John. After his divorce, he had a relationship that resulted in the birth of  third son, Wes. .In 1986, the Delta Queen steamship company hired him as the ship’s “interlocutor,” where he would be able combine his talents as a musician, a comedian, and an entertainer. 

His fellow musicians regarded Bud as a walking music encyclopedia. His favorites were songs from the 1920s and 1930s,  but he also knew songs from “as far back as songs were recorded.”   And when he got bored singing the lyrics the “right way,” he would sing them backwards.  “Chattanooga Choo Choo” became “Agoonattahc, Oohc-Oohc;” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Ym dliw hsiri esor.”

One of his friends remembered, “Bud was full of bull**, an entertainer and wonderful story teller. He took a 15 second story and turned it into an hour. But it was a stroll down memory lane.” 

“Bud had the largest record collection I’ve ever seen,” Howard Paul, a fellow musician on the Delta Queen, posted on Bud’s Facebook page. “He told an endless stream of jokes (clean and blue). For me, Bud was the missing link between vaudeville and nightclub lounge acts.”

Tim Aucoin, a fellow musician, stated on Facebook that he remembers afternoons playing together in the Texas Lounge on the Delta Queen. “Bud would say ‘Who wants to hear some country music? Great, how about a Lithuanian love ballad?’”

In 1989, Bud was performing on the second night of a three day cruise when Wendy Demby, a young woman on vacation from her job in New York City, approached him and expressed her admiration for his show. When she disembarked in New Orleans for the remainder of her week-long trip, Bud sought her out to share a few hours during a break in his job. Those few hours developed into a long distance relationship that resulted in Wendy moving down to The Big Easy. They were married in May 1990.

For the next ten years, Wendy maintained their home in New Orleans while Bud strummed his guitar and banjo up and down the Mississippi. Once a year, Wendy went along for the ride. In 1999, Bud retired from the riverboat but not from music. They moved to St. Cloud, Florida, when Bud took a job at Disney World, playing a various parks including in a roaming band in the Magic Kingdom.

Bud also entertained nursing home residents throughout the Orlando area. His music transported many to healthier, happier days. One time, after singing a song, a woman came up to him in tears. “My husband has dementia,” she said. “ But when you started singing that song, he started singing along. It is the first time he has spoken in years.” 

Wendy was Jewish and Bud was Christian, but they shared a mutual respect and appreciation for each other’s religion. They attended Sunday services at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter in St. Cloud and Friday night services at Congregation Shalom Aleichem.  Initially, Bud played and sang with Norm Salinsky a former president, About five years ago, Bill Willner joined them. When Norm became ill, Bud and Bill began their routine before services. Bud had a collection of yarmulkes displaying  musical notes or Jewish holiday motifs—but his favorite was one embossed with his beloved Pittsburg Pirates’ logo. 

This past December,  Bud and Bill were planning to do some Irish songs for the March 15 service, which fell two days before St. Patrick’s Day. Unfortunately, Bud became ill in January and passed away on March 9, 2019, at the age of 88. 

At the memorial service at the Church of St. Luke and St. Peter, Reverend Longbottom played and sang some of Bud’s favorite songs, including many Irish tunes. The clergyman was joined by David Royer, who played Bud’s guitar. David was one of Bud’s first friends in the Orlando area, a friendship sealed by b’shert—David’s parents had sailed the Delta Queen and had spoken highly of a banjo player named Bud Black. In honor of Bud’s close connections to Judaism  and Congregation Shalom Aleichem, Wendy’s brother,Craig Demby said the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner’s prayer.

Bud’s son John passed away in 2011 from complications of diabetes.  His oldest son Scott, a talented musician in his own right, lives in China and was unable to attend the memorial service. His youngest son Wes, sharing news that his girlfriend Daniela was pregnant with what will be Bud’s first grandchild, were there to say goodbye, along with many other friends and family members.

One of Bud’s favorite songs, “Dusty Old Dust, written by Woody Guthrie in 1940, is a fitting epithet for this talented musician. “So long, it’s been good to know ya/What a long time since I’ve been home/And I’ve gotta be driftin’ along.” Drift gently, Bud!

Sources:

Miller, William. “Buddy Black, The Delta Queen’s Colorful Interlocutor.” Vantage. March/April 1997. Pages 10-11.

Lind, Angus, “Life’s a song from way back for Bud Black.” (New Orleans)  Times Picayune. September 4, 1991. Pages E1,E5.