"Blowin' in the Wind"
a novel by Joel Samberg
[Read the first chapter underneath the first set of photos below]
[Read the first chapter underneath the first set of photos below]
Some Amazon reviews:
Wonderful coming of age story!
This is the story of Daniel growing up in the 1960s with all of the history and happenings of the times as a backdrop. It begins with the American dream of a happy family and Daniel as a young musical prodigy. He take seriously his role models and their expectations of him. As he grows, there are socio-political-economic strains which lead to cracks in this happy family unit. Daniel loses his sense of purpose or destiny along his journey to becoming a man. The novel is narrated by his older sister Lori, who reports incidents without judgement and cares deeply for Daniel. While the story is universally relate-able, those of us who grew up in the '60s are reminded of that place and time and perhaps will revisit how they shaped who we became.
The torments and triumphs of coming of age
Daniel Hillman's journey from a 10-year-old to a young adult takes place in the 60s and 70s, yet the journey was no different then than it is today. Before reading the book I'd always say how it was so much simpler then without the pulls of technology, but Samberg reminds me that while today's distractions may be different, the torments and triumphs are just the same, making this book relevant to readers of all ages. The book is a wonderful remembrance of the laughter, heartaches, disappointments and joys that happen along the road to finding ourselves.______________________
Nine-year-old Daniel Hillman is a musical prodigy on Long Island. (Just don’t ever let his mother hear you say that!) Daniel knows he’ll be the first preteen in history to write, arrange and perform his own hit album, even though there are plenty of other things he’d like to do with his life. He knows his older brother Steven will become the first teenager to circumnavigate the globe, even though Steven never has very good grades on his report card. And he knows that his sister Lori will make history one day, even though she cries every day in school and is an emotional wreck. He just knows.
But what Daniel does not know is that life can get in the way. Parents. Fallen heroes. Broken dreams. Vietnam. Jealousy. Anger. Desire. Fate.
“Blowin' in the Wind,” narrated by his sister Lori (who has a fascinating journey of her own), follows Daniel and his family through the remarkable 1960s, from the assassination of President Kennedy, to the Vietnam War, to the moon landing and beyond. From the opening scene, when Daniel is asked to perform at his brother’s bar mitzvah (a request he believes is preordained), to one of the last scenes, as he scours Greenwich Village looking for drugs to give to Bob Dylan (in a desperate last attempt to make sense of old expectations), Daniel’s journey is filled with the kind of mysterious chapters for which the decade was known.
As time moves on, the Hillman family moves on, too, some to a place from which they can never return, others to new realizations about who they are and what they’re supposed to do. If Daniel’s journey proves anything at all, it’s that life can be as hard as having your insides kicked out by circumstances beyond your control, or as easy as making a wish on a cluster of dandelion seeds that floats by on a breeze.
Order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Black Rose Writing, Target and other online booksellers.
Order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Black Rose Writing, Target and other online booksellers.
Some more Amazon reviews:
A thoroughly good read
I had not read this author before, but as life is choices, I made a very good one. In this page-turner Joel Samberg has offered several lessons about growing up, among them that life is complicated, every person is different from every other, one cannot truly appreciate others until they have walked a considerable distance in their shoes, life is a journey of change, and nothing is guaranteed.
Gibbs Williams, PhD
WELL WORTH YOUR TIME AND MONEY
This novel was a trip-and-a-half. With shades of Proust and Joyce, this 1960s suburban saga is a story of chance, luck and coincidence, and the ever-hovering role each of these things play in creating who we are. It’s definitely worth spending some time with Daniel Hillman, his sister Lori, and all the people who make “Blowin’’ in the Wind” a special literary journey.
One more Amazon review:
A great story of how life is rarely how we expect it to turn out for us.
"Blowin' in the Wind" brought me back to some of my roots and family memories. It was well-written and an enjoyable read. I enjoyed the characters and remembering how true it is that life has a different destiny in mind than what we think we think we may be destined for.
Chapter One, from "Blowin' in the Wind"
How did an eighteen-year-old boy who never before had a girlfriend learn to kiss that way? Maybe it’s from all the television shows that Daniel watched when he was little and all the books he’s read over the last few years. I wonder if it can be traced to the boost of confidence and serenity he seems to have absorbed since he moved to my house in New Jersey from our childhood home on Long Island more than a year ago. Is it genetic? Could it merely be that Daniel comes from a family whose members are bestowed with a healthy dose of passion that explodes when the time is right? (If that’s the case, as his sister it’s nice to know that I’ll have much to look forward to as time goes on. From my lips to God’s ears.)
I suppose, though, that the real answer might be deceptively simple: Daniel could just be very much in love with Marissa, the girl I saw him kissing as I glanced through my living room window last week. Marissa is a pretty redhead who walks home from school with him most days. That particular day she was carrying a tambourine that she wasn’t supposed to have taken out of the band room. Perhaps I should have been embarrassed to watch the two of them on the front lawn; after all, it was one hell of a kiss. But I wasn’t embarrassed at all. I was happy for Daniel. It had been a rough few years. To me, the kiss meant that he is at peace. He deserves to be.
After the kiss, he took Marissa’s tambourine away from her and gently tapped it against her butt.
“Hey, Mr. Tambourine man!” Marissa complained. “Why’d you do that?”
I’m sure she used those words because she knew it was a line from a famous Bob Dylan song. Daniel undoubtedly had told her everything he knew about the famous songwriter and folksinger. After all, music used to be the focus of his life.
“Why’d I do that? Because if Mr. Paisley sees that you took the tambourine out of the band room,” Daniel explained, “he’ll give you detention. I’m just looking out for you. That’s all.”
“I took it out of the band room because you distracted me, Daniel,” Marissa insisted. “I forgot I was holding it when I left the school.”
“How did I distract you?”
“Are you serious? You don’t remember yelling up to me from the courtyard when I was in the band room, next to the window?”
“Of course you remember. You yelled, ‘Hey Marissa, hurry up! I want to take you home and make mad passionate love to you before I do my homework!’ I mean, come on, Daniel, nobody does that in front of a million people.”
“Well,” Daniel smiled, “the times, they are a-changing.”
At that point, Marissa went home. Daniel came into the house to read a book at the kitchen table. I sat there, too, doing my own work. I glanced up to look at him. I needed a break anyway; I had just finished rereading a long essay called The Mystery of Jewish Mysticism, which is
part of my preparation for the most important exam of my life. It was written by one of my instructors, Rabbi Joseph Kaufman, which made it all the more imperative for me to absorb it cover to cover.
I closed the essay booklet. Daniel looked up at me.
“Why are you staring at me?” he asked.
I apologized and quickly looked down. The word mysticism on the cover of the booklet caught my eye. Suddenly I wondered if that’s what life is all about—a little bit of mystery, regardless of what you try to do or how fate decides to intervene. Is that what ultimately led me to New Jersey in the first place? Is that why Daniel ended up here not long
Daniel glanced up again, and I could swear he was wondering the same thing—or at least something similar. His glance turned into a stare. I summoned all my courage and stared back.
“What?” he asked, even though I hadn’t said a word.
“Nothing,” I responded.
I smiled at him.
“It’s just that you look so absorbed in that novel. I can see the wheels turning in your head while you’re reading. Like you’re writing one of your own in your head at the same time. It’s interesting,” I said.
“Intriguing. In a nice way, I mean. It’s your new reality, and I like it.”
“Intriguing? My new reality? Holy crap, Lori, you’re talking like one of those doped-up psycho-hippy freaks that you probably humped at Woodstock after you danced topless during an acid trip.”
It was a shock to hear him use those words to paint such a scene with me at its core (a completely inaccurate scene, I might add)—but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
“Well, Daniel, you have to admit that things are miles from the way
they used to be. Light years.”
I suppose that Daniel didn’t quite know what to say, which is why he didn’t say anything. I continued to stare. To avoid a protracted and potentially embarrassing silence, Daniel decided to turn it into a joke by pretending to be a television narrator with a comically deep and earnest
“Nine years ago,” he announced, “Daniel Hillman was a nine-year-old musical prodigy on Long Island. But the assertive and ambitious Daniel of 1963 is almost nothing like the mellow and contemplative eighteen-year-old of 1972. And by the way, ladies and gentlemen, don’t ever ever ever use the word ‘prodigy’ in front of his mother, the one and only Beverly Hillman. You’ll live to regret it!”
I doubt I ever laughed so loud and for so long as I did after Daniel’s impromptu performance. My laughter made him laugh.
“Well, it’s true, Daniel,” I continued. “It really is. I mean, just nine years. And not just any nine years, but nine years when it never felt like it would be really nice outside. Like it was always in between fall and winter.”
“Jesus, Lori!” Daniel said. “Between fall and winter? When did you become Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Do you mind if I use that phrase somewhere?”
“Be my guest.”
“You changed a lot in those nine years, too, you know,” he said. “I can tell just by the weird way you’re talking.”
He was absolutely right. Daniel wasn’t the only Hillman who had a transformation. Some people would say my own was truly remarkable. I’m not prepared to make that determination on my own. Not yet, anyway. (Modesty forbids it.) Since Daniel already invoked 1963, I’ll use that year as an example of how things have changed. Back then I was an intelligent, trim, fairly attractive teenage girl with green eyes and brunette hair who should have been running around from one Sweet Sixteen party to the next, giggling, yapping up a storm, and being completely delusional with my giggling, yapping, delusional friends. Instead, I never wanted to leave the house, cried in school almost every day, and was always ready to expect the worst. By contrast, today I have my own house, my own life, a great circle of friends, and might possibly make history. (Well there goes the modesty!)
“Yes. I’ve changed,” I acknowledged to Daniel. “Maybe we should talk about it a little more.”
“Oh my God,” he exclaimed loudly. “Now all of a sudden you’re the female Sigmund Freud?”
“Blame it on my years of therapy, Daniel. It’s just interesting, that’s all. I mean, the way things changed for you between then and now...” I looked off to the side. “Was it all your own doing? Did it happen by chance? Was there some divine intervention? Was it all those things?” I
looked back at my brother. “That’s what I like to believe—that it was all those things combined. Maybe that’s the mystery. But whatever it is, I admire you for it.”
“Admire me? Why?”
“Because God gave us free will, and you chose to end up who you are.”
“Holy Moses and Jesus friggin’ Christ, Lori! Are you listening to yourself?”
“I know, I know,” I admitted. “I speak in sermons now.”
“Damned right you do.”
Perhaps I did speak in sermons. But I also spoke the truth, which only a visit to the past will prove. I think a good place to start would be the day of my other brother’s bar mitzvah, which was also in 1963. For Steven, Saturday, November fifth of that year was a glorified thirteenth
birthday party, but for Daniel it was another mile marker on what we all regarded as his preordained road to success as a professional musician. He knew he’d be asked to sing and play at the reception. The entire family knew it.
So, as Rabbi Joseph Kaufman might like to hear me say:
‘In the beginning…’ . . . . .
There are several before-they-were-famous cameos that appear in "Blowin' in the Wind," such as Billy Joel, Jim Henson, Hillary Rodham, and Karen Carpenter. Other guest stars include Theodore Bikel, Cousin Bruce Morrow, and of course, Bob Dylan.
There are several before-they-were-famous cameos that appear in "Blowin' in the Wind," such as Billy Joel, Jim Henson, Hillary Rodham, and Karen Carpenter. Other guest stars include Theodore Bikel, Cousin Bruce Morrow, and of course, Bob Dylan.
[continued from above]
First of all, please forgive me for starting out with an anecdote of such inelegance. Childhood does provide many inelegant memories, and I suppose it’s up to each of us to decide which ones to share and which ones to keep hidden. I think this one should be shared. It was an important part of an important day, and both Daniel and I remember the incident as if it happened yesterday.
On the back lawn of our home, Steven took a break from a game of one-on-one touch football with Daniel so that he could urinate into the snow next to the huge weeping willow tree. He made two big yellow circles, one inside the other.
“A little pee for big ol’ tree,” Steven said as he zipped his pants.
“But—but...” Daniel sputtered. He was concerned about what he thought might be an act of sacrilege on Steven’s part; after all, it was the day of his bar mitzvah, and Daniel wondered if there would be any dire consequences.
“But nothing,” Steven responded to his little brother—with complete confidence. “Someone told me there’s fertilizer in pee. Bet you didn’t know that. Mom loves that damn tree, and my pee will help it grow big and strong. And now, since I’ve already peed, I won’t have to schlep any snow through the house just to go to the bathroom, which would drive Mom and Grandma nuts. See? Everyone’s happy!”
“But what if God gets mad?” asked Daniel. “It’s your bar mitzvah today, and Mom told you not to pee outside anymore.”
“God won’t get mad,” Steven assured him. “I bet if God came down to play, he’d have a peeing contest just to see who could make the biggest circle. I bet God’s a lot of fun.”
Daniel decided to agree with him.
“Me too!” he smiled. “I bet you can name more places on Earth than he can.”
“And I bet you can play more instruments than him,” Steven replied. “Except the harp. You don’t play the harp yet, but God does. Someone’s gotta teach all those fat naked angels how to play.” Steven inflated his stomach and puffed out his cheeks to impersonate a fat
Thanks to Steven’s silliness, Daniel felt giddy enough to make up a song from the top of his head called “Yellow Circles in the Snow,” and he sang the impromptu thing out loud. Steven and Daniel laughed for a long time. Daniel felt good about that; when you’re nine years old, thirteen is an entirely different generation—yet there they were, my two brothers, Steven and Daniel, in a kind of youthful, impertinent partnership despite their age difference. Steven said “Yellow Circles in the Snow” could win an award one day.
Daniel looked up to him, literally and figuratively; he was four years younger and a foot and a half shorter. But they shared the same kind of passion and conviction about life. Daniel loved to listen to the stories Steven told of the places he would go one day and the things he would do. Daniel soaked it up. Sometimes he even wrote songs based on Steven’s wild ideas and crazy commentaries, though most of the time he just kept it all in the back of his head for use later on, although exactly for what purpose, he didn’t know at the time.
Steven’s passion and conviction could be traced to a single goal: to become a famous explorer by the time he graduated high school. A world adventurer. Although officially a teenager by only three weeks, and not to be deemed a man in the eyes of God for another hour, Steven had already driven a motorboat around the Great South Bay, ridden his bicycle from the north shore to the south shore of Long Island, and studied enough books to fly a single-engine airplane. As he liked to say, he thrived on speed and uphill climbs. More than one relative remarked that Steven would kiss the North Pole long before he ever kissed a girl. The agreement between Steven and our parents was that if he could raise and maintain his grades in school, he could take flying lessons when he turned seventeen. He was counting the days.
The walls of Steven’s bedroom were covered with maps of the United States and all the countries of the world, and all the maps were dotted with pushpins to show all the places he planned to visit by air, land or sea. He could tell you how many miles away each place was from Westbrook Hills, and approximately how long it would take to get there, depending on the mode of transportation. A few years ago, our mother took down all the maps so that his room could be painted, but our father had to buy a can of spackle first because of all the holes made by all the pushpins. Dad went through half a can of spackle and was not too pleased. “Flying lessons?” he yelled in frustration at the time.
“Forget it, pal. My entire income is being spent on spackle because of these damn pushpins. I never want to see another pushpin as long as I live.” Mom told him that if pushpins were the extent of his troubles, he should just calm down. “If you had to choose between cancer and pushpin holes,” she said, “which would you choose?” Dad finished spackling and painting in complete silence.
As for my younger brother’s passion and conviction, everyone, not the least of whom was Daniel himself, believed that it was his destiny to become a successful musician by the time his own bar mitzvah rolled around; he was convinced he’d be the first boy in history to write, arrange, sing, and play his own songs on a bestselling 33⅓-rpm album. Certainly this aspiration came from the proficiency he had discovered early on, a proficiency that gave him the comfort to sit behind a piano and play for anyone, anywhere, anytime, or stand with a guitar strapped around his neck and strum with the confidence usually attributed to people much older. It was that same proficiency and confidence that allowed him to sing without a note of embarrassment, unlike many of his classmates (and me), who blanched at the thought of having to croon in public.
Daniel’s bar mitzvah was still four years away. He had plenty of time to reach his goal.
As Daniel explained to me much later on, he gladly accepted what he felt was his destiny at the time because he enjoyed all the comedy, drama and emotion that he knew were part of the troubadour lifestyle. Our Grandpa Jesse—our father’s father—had been a professional musician when he was younger, and his stories of the road were always so compelling. (Grandpa Jesse was a colorful storyteller.) Daniel daydreamed constantly about the captivating chronicles that he would live out in his role as a professional musician. But there was something more to it than that: the stories told within each song that he performed, and the tales behind the creation of each composition, were often even more intriguing to him than the process of actually performing them. Daniel didn’t quite know what to make of that perception at the time. So he just put it in the back of his mind and continued to study his instruments and practice his composing and performing with all the seriousness of a professional-in-waiting. Besides, it all came so easily to him.
Heredity undoubtedly played a big part. Like Grandpa Jesse, Dad was also very musical. He sang well and was a skilled trombonist. Daniel had shown a flair for music since he was a toddler. He played a toy piano and a Hohner harmonica with remarkable precision while still in diapers. By the age of five, he could already play sophisticated compositions on the upright piano in our living room, as well as the guitar and xylophone. The music teacher at our elementary school, Mr. Hammel, gave him private saxophone lessons starting in third grade when he discovered how well Daniel played after just one lesson. (Students usually started lessons in fourth grade, but the school band desperately needed a saxophone player, so Mr. Hammel, who had heard rumors about Daniel’s skill, bent the rules.)
By the age of eight, Daniel had already composed more than a dozen songs and taught himself how to write musical arrangements. He also found harmonizing an almost intuitive sport. Most people in the family assumed that his professional goal was not merely self-selected, but divinely inspired. I particularly enjoyed hearing that.
Music took up much of Daniel’s time. He played wherever he could. People took enormous pleasure listening to him perform. They called him special, delightful, remarkable, and a prodigy. Those were the times when Mom would pull him aside to warn him that being special, delightful, and remarkable was fine as long as he also realized that things can change, that things can happen, and that he should always be ready to accept an alternate plan, if necessary. What’s more, Mom despised the word prodigy. She said that being deemed a prodigy was often more a “useless nuisance” than anything else.
That morning—the morning of Steven’s bar mitzvah—neither Steven nor Daniel wore winter coats while outside playing. Steven had on a new blue suit. Daniel’s suit was brown. If Mom or Grandma Rose (Mom’s mom) had looked out the kitchen window at the time, they would have shouted out to the boys loud enough for half the neighborhood to hear. Although the temperature was mild that morning, Mom and Grandma were of one mind when it came to the belief that multiple layers of clothing were required from September through April, regardless of the actual weather outside. Steven always said that if a single freak snowflake fell on the lawn in the middle of summer, Mom and Grandma would race to the basement to dig out a dozen pairs of thermal underwear, some vinyl coats, hats with earmuffs, plenty of woolen scarves, leather gloves, rubber boots, and a few cartons of Goodman’s Chicken Soup.
While Steven and Daniel played in the backyard, the rest of the family was busy inside getting ready to leave for temple. I watched my brothers for a while through the kitchen window. They could easily have spotted me there since I wore a blouse and dress combination that was far more colorful than anything I had ever worn before. (Mom insisted and overruled my many objections.) Had they spotted me, the boys would have seen the worry on my face, for I was concerned about the reaction Mom and Grandma Rose would have once they realized that Steven and Daniel were in the backyard without coats. Then again, to be honest, I worried about almost everything. I didn’t want to hear Mom yelling about ‘those two dodo degenerates’ outside, which is something she might actually have said. (She loved a good turn of phrase.) Certainly she regarded them neither as dodos nor degenerates. Nor did they look the part. They were both adorable. Steven, with his slim frame and long legs, had the air of an athlete, and his dark, wavy, well-mannered hair gave him a look both of roguishness and refinement at the same time. His appearance was a bit of a contrast to Daniel’s, whose arms, legs and torso, thanks to his age, still were not properly proportioned. The freckles across the bridge of his nose made him look even younger than his nine years, and his sandy hair always had a few strands that stuck up in the back. Daniel was cute, but Steven was handsome—though if anyone mentioned to him that he was handsome, he’d have walked away in disgust and threatened to not come back until the conversation turned to something far more important, like cockpits and horsepower.
“Maybe we should put on our coats,” Daniel said to Steven as if he had read my mind. “I don’t want Mom to yell and then see Lori cry.”
Had I been outside with the boys, you can pretty much bet I would have bundled myself up from head to toe. I was different from them. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Unlike my brothers, I seemed to lack any specific passion at all. Nothing drove me to plan for the future, and I certainly had no intention to be ‘the first’ anything. I was frightened of growing up. It was almost as if I believed that if I stayed a child eternally, nothing bad would ever happen to me or to anyone else in the family. Everything was good the way it was; why risk it by growing up? I wanted everyone to be happy, yet could find very little joy for myself. I wanted very much to be loved, yet spurned attention. Even something silly like a birthday party made me uneasy. Two months earlier, Mom insisted I should have a Sweet Sixteen party. I begged her not to plan one. Steven would have asked for a hot-air balloon ride in the Catskill Mountains with a few of his friends. Daniel would have thrown a concert for the neighborhood. All I wanted was a simple dinner at a small restaurant with just the family—which is exactly what we ended up doing.
“Lori will be fine,” Steven said to Daniel. “Mom and Grandma are too busy screaming at mirrors to worry about us. Lori knows it. So stop worrying.”
They continued to throw snowballs at the utility pole in the corner of the yard. (They were hardly snowballs, for there was hardly any snow; they were more like snow marbles.) We were supposed to be at Temple Beth Shalom at ten o’clock. It was nine-forty.
I sat down at the kitchen table. Dad called out to me from the bathroom, where he was putting on his tie.
“Sweetheart,” he shouted through the wall, “can you find the boys for me? They have to do a few things before we leave, and if we don’t leave now, Steven won’t have his bar mitzvah, and if he doesn’t have his bar mitzvah, he won’t become a man, which is okay with me, but I don’t think it would be okay with him. Vishtayst?”
“They’re in the backyard,” I called back. “I’ll get them.”
Steven and Daniel walked in just as I opened the back door. They stomped their feet on the mat to get rid of any betraying evidence of snow on their shiny black shoes.
“You look pretty, Lori,” Daniel said.
“Yeah, you sorta do,” echoed Steven. “You look like that fake Marc Chagall painting in the hallway. Very colorful.”
“Thanks, I think.” I smiled at Steven. “How do you feel?”
“About what?” Steven asked.
“About your bar mitzvah.”
“Oh, you mean that thing that starts in about nineteen minutes?”
“That’s why I asked. Are you nervous that we might be a little late?”
“Nervous? Who do you think I am—you?”
He instantly regretted it and touched my shoulder.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean that. Besides, I’d bet a million bucks that when you grow up, you’ll become a cruise director who can get a thousand people to Italy on time. Mom and Dad can’t even get seven people to a temple that’s a mile away.”
But Steven smiled when he said it because he knew there was really no question that we would get to the temple on time. Ours were competent parents who had always planned carefully and tried never to be frivolous with their actions or deeds. They had a good and loving marriage and made everything work out for the best.
Which episodes does Daniel share with the author? For one, bumping into a celebrity in the park who invites to meet with him later. For another, sending a screenplay to MGM at a very young age. And also handing a tape of original songs to famous motor-mouthed disc jockey Cousin Brucie!
[continued from above]
Dad was a skilled trombonist who played in an Army band during the waning years of World War II. But didn’t pursue music as a career. He had little faith in the profession’s ability to provide a good living, despite how much he loved his trombone, and how good a player he was. Although he had scant interest in electrical engineering, he had made sure to study it in the service and was convinced by his instructors that employment at a public utility was the way to go. After his discharge from the army, he bought a house on Pearl Drive in Westbrook Hills, a New York City suburb several miles east of Brooklyn, and got a job as an assistant supervisor at LILCO, the Long Island Lighting Company. By 1954 he was a supervisor, and in 1961, on his thirty-ninth birthday, he was named Director of Operations for the Western Region. Mom was proud of him. She always said that his decision not to pursue music was a smart one. She was convinced that too many musicians suffered the type of professional and financial heartache and frustration that skilled
engineers seemed somehow better able to avoid. She was glad he didn’t feel the need to become a professional trombonist just because his father, who played trumpet in several bands and knocked around for years as a songwriter and occasional singer, told him he should.
All the kids in the neighborhood liked Murray Hillman. He was a far less imposing figure than some of the other fathers on the block, yet could still get angry if he had to—like when Steven and two friends hitched scooter rides off the back of an ice cream truck and nearly impaled themselves on a fire hydrant. Dad screamed at Steven, screamed at his friends, and screamed at the poor ice cream man who had let them do it. (That particular ice cream man never returned to Pearl Drive; the rumor was that he gave up his route after the incident and moved to Maine to work on a lobster boat.)
In addition to raising the three of us, Beverly Hillman kept busy with many other pursuits—although they weren’t always the most practical of endeavors. She watched Search for Tomorrow every weekday after lunch and went to Alberto’s Beauty Salon every Saturday morning. But she also volunteered as a writer for the monthly PTA newsletter, attended most of the quarterly meetings of the neighborhood improvement society, and argued stridently about Long Island politics during a weekly mahjong game with friends from the temple.
Mom also forced Dad to dress up in a suit and take her dancing and dining in Manhattan twice a year. “Let me at least pretend,” she’d always grumble at him when he whined about it—although she never explained exactly what it was she needed to pretend.
On one hand, Mom was fiercely protective of her three children, even to the point of telling little white lies to teachers and other mothers if it served her purpose. On the other hand, in the house, she was always brutally honest, which made for bruised feelings every once in a while. She might tell one of us, for instance, that a picture we drew of the United States for a social studies project looked like “a pig about to have a baby,” and that if we didn’t draw it over again, “and make it look like a country instead of a fat pig this time,” we could just forget about dessert for a week. In a way, I suppose, that, too, was a protective measure.
Mom was adamant that the three of us do well in school, for that, she believed, was the best way to be prepared for any eventuality. “It may not open any of the doors you want opened, but it couldn’t hurt, either,” she often said. “There are no guarantees in life” was also a line she repeated from time to time. “Expect the worst, but hope for the best” was yet another.
My grades were always excellent, so Mom had no issues there. Her greatest challenge was to have me go through an entire week at school without crying for one reason or another and asking to be sent home. With Steven, there was a bit more of a problem because his grades were never very good. He did well in geography, though, and his guidance counselor at Westbrook Hills Junior High School insisted that his interest in travel and his enthusiasm for all modes of transportation would take him far one day. So Mom decided not to worry too much. As for Daniel, his grades, like mine, were always good. Mom was also quite aware of how popular he was at school because of the music he played at concerts and special events, though it’s also true that she fussed over it much less than other mothers fussed over their own children who showed various talents. She warned Daniel from time to time to drop any idea he might have had of running away to Manhattan or Hollywood to make his mark before he finished college. “After you have your college diploma and get a good job,” she said to him on more than a handful of occasions, “then you can run away wherever you want.”
* * *
“You look beautiful,” Dad said to me as I stood by the kitchen table staring at the clock on the wall.
“Thank you,” I said. I was embarrassed. “Mom made me wear this.”
“Only because you’re so pretty, and she wants people to notice you, and we both want you to learn how to take compliments!”
“If I’m so pretty, why do I have to wear something so loud to prove it?”
“Lori, Lori, Lori... Always a good rebuttal. Maybe you’ll be a lawyer one day.”
“I don’t want to be a lawyer,” I insisted.
Dad wore a new suit, similar in color to Daniel’s, and he smelled of English Leather. He always seemed a little younger, a little taller, and a little slimmer when he dressed up like that. If not for the belly that had gotten a bit larger lately, and a bald spot at the top of his head that hadn’t been there three years earlier, he would still have looked like the trombone player he was in the army. The three of us—Steven, Daniel and I—loved, respected, and admired our father very much, though Steven always said he wished he had been a little more of an adventurous sort.
I appreciated Dad’s unwavering faith in traditional things and his uncompromised trust in fate—though it also frightened me at times, as if it were deceptive, hiding something, blocking some other potential outcome. I distinctly remember thinking that I was the only girl in America who loved and despised English Leather at the same time. (Daniel swears he heard me say that out loud one day and wrote it down on a scrap piece of paper to keep hidden away.)
“Steven,” Dad called out, “go downstairs and make sure the lights are off down there. Daniel, go see if Ashler’s car is blocking the driveway, and if it is, tell him to get his big fat tuchis outside and move it.”
Henry Ashler was our next-door neighbor, a sixty-year-old widower who was a hundred pounds overweight and never without a cigar in his mouth, sometimes lit, sometimes not. Steven called him Havana Fats. Mr. Ashler had a habit of parking his huge yellow Cadillac so that its rear end, with its pointy fin taillights, partially blocked our driveway, which made it difficult for Dad to pull in and out. Daniel looked through the living room window and saw that the driveway was clear.
Despite living next door to us for fifteen years, Mr. Ashler was not invited to Steven’s bar mitzvah. Months earlier while making out the invitation list, Mom said,
“No one called Havana Fats is going to my son’s bar mitzvah. It’s just not right.”
Daniel ran from the living room back to the kitchen and was intercepted by Grandpa Sol. That was Mom’s father. He put his hands on the sides of Daniel’s face and said,
“Dan’l Boone, is there any schmutz on my punim? I just noshed a bagel. Don’t tell your grandmother. She’ll holler at me.”
Grandpa Sol loved to play with names and enjoyed using as many variations of Daniel, Lori, and Steven as he could come up with. Sometimes I was Lorelei, other times Flora Laura. Dan’l Boone was the one he had selected for Daniel that week.
“No Grandpa,” Daniel reported dutifully, “no schmutz. Your face is as clean as your tuchis.”
“Tank Gut,” Grandpa said—which was ‘Thank God’ with a Yiddish accent, an accent as fake as it was predictable. “Ve go to shul now, yes?”
“No. Mom and Grandma aren’t ready yet. I don’t think they’re happy with their dresses.”
“Oy, vey is mir,” Grandpa whined as he scratched his bald head. “I’ll read maybe the paper then.”
Grandpa Sol put on the Yiddish accent whenever he wanted to be funny, which was all the time. At seventy, Solomon Gersh was as lovable as they come, and we all adored him. He and Grandma Rose were at our house several times a week. They had their own apartment in Middle Village, Queens, but for all intents and purposes, they also had a house in Westbrook Hills, Long Island. I’m sure many people on Pearl Drive thought they lived with us, that everything we ate was prepared by Grandma Rose, and that all of the laughter that came out of the house was traceable to something silly Grandpa Sol had said. And none of those thoughts would have been very far from the truth.
In the kitchen, Grandpa Sol went to the pile of old newspapers that Mom kept in a shopping bag by the basement steps (mostly for him) and grabbed the previous Sunday’s New York Times. Then he sat down by the table to read, just as Steven returned from the basement, and just
as Dad called out from somewhere else in the house to urge Mom and Grandma Rose to please hurry up.
“It’s getting late,” Dad pleaded.
“Two minutes,” Mom hollered from her bedroom.
Meanwhile, Grandpa Sol found something of interest in the newspaper.
“Ah-hah!” he declared loudly. “Here’s one.”
Steven and I went over to him in the kitchen to see what he had found, just as we had done hundreds of times before. Grandpa Sol always read the wedding announcements to see if he could put a bride’s first name together with a groom’s last name to come up with an entirely new name that was funny and whimsical.
“Look here,” he said as he pointed to one corner of the page. “See? Miss Lotta Vukovich from the Bronx, and down here, Mr. Lawrence Paine from Glen Cove. Vishtayst?” Grandpa looked at us to see if we could make the connection on our own. “No? You don’t see?” He waited another moment while we thought about it. “If Lotta Vukovich married Lawrence Paine…”
“She’d be Lotta Paine!” Steven announced proudly. “That’s one of your best ones, Grandpa.”
“Best shmest,” Grandpa Sol said. “I’ll do better yet one day. You’ll see.”
Dad came into the kitchen, grumbling under his breath that he couldn’t find his car keys.
“Murray,” Grandpa said, “your mother-in-law and your wife and their fekakta dresses will make us late for the bar mitzvah. No?”
“What will be, will be,” Dad said, with little patience for his father-in-law at the moment.
“What will be, will be? Now all of a sudden you’re Doris Day?”
Dad went to the closet and found his keys in his coat pocket. Daniel and I went to the living room to wait. Grandma Rose finally came out of my parents’ bedroom and into the living room. She wore a purple sequined dress that was a little too tight.
“Such gorgeous children,” she said. She put her hands over her heart, then straightened out the thick straps of my dress (even though they didn’t need to be straightened), and finally rubbed her thumbs along each side of Daniel’s nose and under his eyes as if to spread his freckles further onto his cheeks.
“Let’s go, Beverly,” Dad called out from the front hallway one more time.
“Okay, Murray. Please, I’m hurrying. Two minutes.”
“That’s what you said two minutes ago.”
“Just two minutes. I promise”
Under his breath, Dad muttered,
“From your lips to God’s ears.”
Ten minutes later we left for temple.
One major theme of the novel is something with which we've all dealt when we were young: how the hell are we supposed to decide what to be when we grow up. Is it predestined? Preordained? Are we obligated to act on certain skills and interests? Or when it comes right down to it, are all the elements that decide upon a career just blowing in the wind?
[continued from above]
I sat between Dad and Daniel in the front seat of our 1957 Ford Galaxie. Mom, who managed to slip on the last of her accessories—a pearl necklace—just before we turned off Pearl Drive, squeezed into the back seat with Steven, Grandma Rose and Grandpa Sol.
Mom wasn’t happy with the way she looked. She had complained all morning about the thick, black patent leather belt that came as part of her blue dress ensemble. She said it made her look “as fat as a house,” and that without it, she looked even fatter, “like a whole fat neighborhood of fat houses.” That wasn’t true. Although she had lost her hourglass figure, she was still beautiful—but it always took an hour of pleading from others just to get her to grudgingly accept the compliment. “I won the life I won,” she often said, with neither a smile nor a frown. “And the hips.”
On the short ride to temple, Daniel wiggled his fingers as he played an imaginary piano, with the upper keys on his lap and the lower ones on mine. Instinctively I knew that in his head he was rehearsing the theme from the movie Exodus, which I had overheard was on his playlist
for Steven’s bar mitzvah reception after the ceremony.
“What are you doing?” Dad asked, seeing Daniel’s busy hands out of the corner of his eye.
“Practicing,” Daniel said.
“Why? It’s just our family there, not the President of the United States.”
“I still have to practice.”
“You never know,” Steven piped up from the back seat, “maybe President Kennedy heard about my bar mitzvah and is gonna show up to give me a medal.”
“For what, getting a D in American history?” Dad said.
“Ha ha ha,” Steven remarked.
That little burst of quirky chatter reminded me of the time we all sat in the living room, almost three years earlier, during John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. As we all watched it on our little black & white TV set, Grandma Rose said,
“It’s a shame we don’t live in Washington. I bet they would have asked Daniel to play for President Kennedy. Oy, how I’d love to meet him.”
“What—and have him think we’re asking for favors?” Mom sniped. “I’d rather just be invited to the inauguration so that I can shake his hand. That’s all.”
“I’d love to go to Washington,” Steven said. “Did you know that President Kennedy has a bunch of boats? Maybe he’d let me see them. Or drive them! Maybe we could take a trip there one day. To Washington. You think, Mom?”
“First of all, sweetie, his boats aren’t in Washington. And anyway, who has time to take a trip?” she chided. “Dad works, you go to school, I have to take care of the house…”
We never went to Washington.
But we did make it to Temple Beth Shalom—on time. The temple was on Suburban Avenue, on the border of Westbrook Hills and a town called Northwood, and it served families from both communities. It was built in 1954 when two smaller synagogues joined forces to create a bigger and more modern one. Dad was a founding member, which gave the Hillmans a place of distinction among the congregation. One of Daniel’s best friends was Glenn Sheldon, the rabbi’s son. The Sheldons lived down the block from us, at the east end of Pearl Drive. Glenn and his mother Helene attended many of the bar mitzvahs over which Rabbi Sheldon officiated at Temple Beth Shalom, as well as many of the receptions that followed. Steven’s would be no exception.
Our family, like many others, attended temple services only a few times each year. But Mom and Dad believed that Rabbi Sheldon knew in his heart where we stood in ours, in the spiritual sense. We were good Jews, if one were to base that on the fundamental moral principles and family values long attributed to the Jewish people. In my heart of hearts, I had always wanted to go to Hebrew School at Temple Beth Shalom, but worried deeply that as one of the very few girls who would have been enrolled I’d have a spotlight on me that I was ill-prepared to face. As it turned out, though, Mom and Dad never even asked me if I wanted to go.
Steven and Daniel, however, were among the Hebrew school’s most active students. Rabbi Sheldon said that was a reflection of good Jewish nurturing in our home. Steven led many youth group activities on hikes and bicycle rides, and Daniel played the piano and sang at countless
Brotherhood and Sisterhood meetings. We were, in effect, among the Temple Beth Shalom elite, even though we were basically only High Holy Day Jews.
The parking lot was already full by the time we arrived. Dad had to park next to the dumpster at the side of the building, which wasn’t really a parking spot. Ned Early, the temple’s long-time maintenance man, stood by the front door as we approached. He opened it for us,
smiled, and wished us all a hearty mazel tov.
“A colored man knows from mazel tov?” Grandma Rose whispered to me.
“He’s worked here for years,” I explained quietly.
Rabbi Sheldon was in the lobby. He was a very popular leader because of his engaging personality, curly brown hair, and handsome face. It was not unusual to hear Rabbi Sheldon referred to as the Jewish John Kennedy. He was extremely kind and gentle to everyone in our family. For me, he validated the English translation of Beth Shalom: House of Peace. Although I liked being home more than any other place else in the world, I always felt relaxed at Temple Beth Shalom. Rabbi Sheldon spoke to me as if I had been one of his favorite students, even though I had never been a student there at all. By his presence, he somehow made the temple a citadel of trust, comfort, and security, and by his sermons he made us feel that if somehow we got lost in a scary, remote corner of the world, as long we could find a Jewish family, we’d be home.
“Shalom, Hillman clan,” Rabbi Sheldon said cheerfully. His white knit yarmulke practically glimmered on top of his dark brown hair. He put his hands on Steven’s shoulders.
“Those mischievous eyes,” the rabbi said. “They look at us today and say, ‘A man? You think today I am a man? I’ve been a man for the past year and a half, you stupid idiots! Today’s just the day I get all the gelt!’ That’s what you’re thinking, Steven. Am I right?”
There were three or four other families behind us, and they all enjoyed the rabbi’s wit as much as we did.
Rabbi Sheldon moved over to Daniel.
“So, my little chazzan—my little cantor,” he said as he put his hands firmly on Daniel’s shoulders, “soon it will be your turn. Cantor Goldstone is looking forward to beginning your bar mitzvah lessons. And on the day of your bar mitzvah, no one will sing but you, maybe not even Cantor Goldstone himself, because why compete with an angel?”
Finally, the rabbi turned to me and gently took hold of my hands.
“Lovely Lori,” he smiled, “I have no doubt that you will give your parents and grandparents more nachas than they can possibly handle. I can tell simply by talking to you. We’ll just have to wait and see which path you choose. Doctor? Architect? Governor? The possibilities are endless, Lori. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” I said, embarrassed to have to speak with so many people around. Dad gently stepped in front of me, I suppose fearful that my self-consciousness might reveal itself in a discomforting way. I let him. Rabbi Sheldon stepped backward and looked at us all.
“You are a beautiful and handsome family,” he said. “Nice work, Murray. Not that you had anything to do with it.” Rabbi Sheldon winked. Everyone laughed. “You’ll be shepping nachas till the cows come home.”
“From your lips to God’s ears,” Dad said.
“They’re wonderful kinderlach,” Grandma Rose interjected. She pushed her way to the front of the crowd because she, too, wanted to be warmed by the glow of Rabbi Sheldon.
Within a half-hour, the ceremony was underway. Relatives, friends, and congregants occupied every seat in the sanctuary. Steven, up on the bimah—the raised platform at the head of the room from which Rabbi Sheldon and Cantor Goldstone conducted all services—stood
confidently behind one of the two lecterns and chanted a specially-selected portion of the Book of Prophets, which all bar mitzvah boys have to do. Cantor Goldstone stood behind the other lectern, and Rabbi Sheldon waited at the back. Although Steven had had trouble memorizing his portion when he first began his bar mitzvah lessons, he did reasonably well.
Mom and Grandma Rose cried.
Several men stared at Helene Sheldon, the rabbi’s beautiful red-haired wife, throughout the entire service. She sat at the side of the sanctuary. One of the white stripes on her tight black and white dress soared like a comet diagonally across her chest, which made her breasts appear as if they had no choice but to get out of its way. Although the men tried desperately to make it seem as if they were merely glancing around to see who was at the temple that morning, everyone knew they were mentally undressing the rabbi’s wife over and over again.
Dad’s parents, Grandma Leah and Grandpa Jesse, were on the other side of the room, chatting with relatives they hadn’t seen in a while. Marty Warshaw, the bombastic president of Temple Beth Shalom, hurried over to tell Grandma and Grandpa to please keep quiet, although he didn’t do it very quietly. “Shhhh, please,” he implored, with one finger up against his nose. “Rabbi Sheldon is about to deliver his invocation.”
“It is a blessing to me to have such a wonderful and devoted congregation,” Rabbi Sheldon began. He had taken Cantor Goldstone’s place on the bimah, but almost immediately took a spot in the center of the two lecterns and then walked to the edge of the platform. That’s where he stood for the invocation. He didn’t need a microphone. His sermons were performances as much as they were discourses.
“Yes, it is a blessing,” he continued. “And it is especially nice since we are in a country where we are not made to feel like outcasts just because we are Jews. As Americans today, we can experience the blessings of peace, tolerance, brotherhood, and humanity. So we must sing the praises of our faith and the praises of our country. These blessings must go on.
“But they don’t come cheap. We must be persistent in earning our blessings. We must dream hard, we must be patient, we must have good hearts, and we have to be easy on ourselves when we stumble or fall. And if we stumble or fall, we must pick ourselves up and move on, even if we don’t know exactly where we’re going. We must follow our hearts, and sometimes our instincts, in order to navigate toward safe, sensible, and peaceful waters, where all dreams can ultimately come true. And we must reach, sometimes high, sometimes far, sometimes even further within ourselves, to find the answers to life’s toughest questions. To find our way.”
Rabbi Sheldon had looked straight at Daniel, who sat next to me in the front row, when he uttered the line about singing the praises of our faith and our country. His eyes met Steven’s, next to him on the bimah, when he described how we must navigate toward safe and sensible waters. And he glanced at me when he said we must look within ourselves to find answers to life’s toughest questions. Rabbi Sheldon spoke directly to each of us individually; how could the Hillman children not believe that we had a page reserved for us in God’s book of special families?
* * *
“And because of me,” Grandpa Jesse explained to Fred and Ed, two of Dad’s colleagues from LILCO, “my friend Benny Sapperstein accidentally killed Houdini.” It was a story our family had heard many times before.
We were at the Huntington Chalet, a catering hall several miles from the temple, for Steven’s bar mitzvah reception. Another bar mitzvah was being celebrated in the hall’s second ballroom, so the entire building was alive with the sounds of music, talkative guests, and busy
silverware. About an hour had passed since we arrived. Hors d’oeuvres and drinks were served while a five-piece band played popular hits of the day and Jewish ceremonial songs. The leader of the band announced that the ritual candle lighting and slicing of the challah bread would begin in twenty minutes, followed by the formal meal.
"Blowin' in the Wind" is dedicated to two of my high school English teachers, Mrs. Roslyn Newman and Mr. Victor Jaccarino, both of whom built in me the confidence to go after my dreams.
[continued from above]
Daniel and I left the ballroom for a few moments to get away from the cigarette smoke and found Grandpa Jesse in the lobby with Fred and Ed. It was nice to see how easily sixty-eight-year-old Jesse Hillman got along with people so much younger. Fred and Ed hung on to his every word. They knew they were in the presence of a master storyteller, a man still young at heart. Grandpa Jesse didn’t even look like an old man; he was taller than Fred and Ed, rail thin, and had better posture than both of them. His hair, while thinning, still had a youthful yellow tint to it and a bit of a curl in the back, which he refused to let the barber cut back. He said it made him look jazzy.
“You see, we were in Canada,” Grandpa continued. “Benny was visiting relatives, and I was working a small club in the Jewish ghetto in Montreal. One day Benny sees a poster about a famous magician who’s playing at a theater near the ghetto, but he can’t remember the fella’s name. But I knew who it was.”
“Are you sure it was Houdini?” Fred asked.
“Who then? He was the only famous magician that played Canada in those days. Everyone knows that. And the poster billed this guy as the strongest man alive. Had to be Houdini. Anyway, Benny liked to go backstage whenever he saw a show, no matter what theatre. I never wanted to. I worked in enough theaters on my own—I was never interested. But Benny?—he loved it and he could get into any dressing room, anywhere, anytime. I called him Slip, not Benny. Slip Sapperstein. He was able to slip in no matter where he was. He was like soap, that guy. So anyway, I says to him that while he’s back there he should see just how strong Houdini really is. So he goes backstage, right up to Houdini, and belts him in the stomach with all his strength. Boom! Just like that. But Houdini isn’t ready for him, see. The next day, Houdini’s dead.”
Fred and Ed remained silent. They stared at Grandpa Jesse in awe.
“How does Slip feel about that now?” Fred asked. “About killing Houdini? Does it bother him?”
“Who knows? He’s been dead twenty years. Slipped through the railing on the roof of his apartment building. Fell eighteen stories. Squished like a Jewish bug, the poor schmuck.”
At that point, Glenn Sheldon, the rabbi’s son, walked out of the ballroom and came over to us. He was sweating; he had been running around grabbing rolls off people’s plates.
“I didn’t even see Lori and Daniel standing there,” Fred grinned as soon as he noticed Glenn stop next to us.
Grandpa Jesse put one arm on Daniel’s shoulder and one on mine.
“So quiet,” echoed Ed, “listening to their grandfather like that.”
“This is my doll face,” Grandpa said as he looked at me. “She’s bad for blood pressure because she’s sweeter than sugar, this one. And this guy,” he said, turning to Daniel, “he’s my little Houdini. He does magic with his fingers—on the piano.”
“And xylophone and saxophone,” Daniel added proudly.
“And he sings and writes songs! Takes after his old grandpa. I gave him his first instrument. A toy piano. Real wood.”
“Murray should have hired him to play at the bar mitzvah instead of that band inside,” Ed said. “Could’ve saved a fortune.”
Grandpa Jesse shrugged. “Bar mitzvahs these days! See that guy over there? He does a puppet show. You think God knows from puppets?” We all looked at the other end of the lobby, where a young puppeteer was emptying the contents of an oversized trunk. On the recommendation of the banquet manager, the parents of the other bar mitzvah boy agreed to have a puppeteer entertain their family’s younger guests, of which they had far more than we did.
“You don’t like puppets?” Fred asked Grandpa Jesse.
“It’s not that,” Grandpa answered. “I don’t think sticking your hand up the tuchis of a sock is what Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph had in mind when they invented bar mitzvahs.”
Fred and Ed weren’t sure what Grandpa meant, but they laughed anyway. Then the three men returned to the ballroom, and so did I. Glenn and Daniel remained in the lobby and walked over to where the puppeteer was setting up his show. He was a tall man with a bushy beard and moustache. He appeared to be very serious about his work.
“When you gonna start?” Glenn demanded of him.
“I’m really not sure,” the man replied gently. “I don’t usually do these kinds of events. I’m just doing it for a little extra money. In fact, this is my first bar mitzvah.”
“I’ve been to a hundred,” Glenn strutted.
“Really? A hundred?” The puppeteer had a skeptical look on his face.
“His father’s a rabbi,” Daniel clarified on Glenn’s behalf.
“Oh. That explains it.”
The man had already set up a cardboard puppet stage. He picked up two puppets, one of which was a fuzzy blue sock with buttons for eyes and the other a stringy mass of rag strips with little white ropes for arms and legs.
“Weren’t you on The Jimmy Dean Show?” Daniel asked.
The puppeteer looked up and smiled broadly. “Yes, I was! My first time on network TV.” He offered his hand to Daniel. “What’s your name?”
“Mine’s Jim.” They shook. “So, you’ve seen me on TV?”
“He sees all those stupid shows,” Glenn said. “He knows every dumb show.”
“No I don’t. Just the ones with music. Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Garry Moore, Andy Williams—”
“Wow!” Jim said. “Why do you watch all those shows?”
“So that I know what it’s like to be on them.”
“Very nice,” Jim nodded. “Are you doing anything about it now?”
“I take lessons,” Daniel said, “and I play all the time. I’m gonna be the first person in my family to be on television show, even though my mom says I should wait.”
“Why does she want you to wait?”
“She says that anything can happen and that I shouldn’t act like I know everything’s that’s gonna happen.”
“Well, anything can happen, you know,” the puppeteer smiled. “But that can be a good thing, too. You just never know. Sometimes you have to follow your heart, even if takes you somewhere else.”
“Somewhere else? What do you mean?”
Jim smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Daniel was disappointed; he wanted to hear what the man had to say.
“Come on, Daniel,” Glenn called out impatiently. “Let’s play hockey. I got something we can use for a puck. Let’s go back inside.”
Daniel glanced at the puppeteer.
“It’s okay,” Jim said. “Go play with your friend.”
Back in the ballroom, Glenn and Daniel began to kick a small, round disc across the shiny floor. The six-piece band was in the middle of “It’s My Party.” People danced. Mom and Dad walked around holding hands. Rabbi Sheldon went from table to table to chat with guests.
Steven was with three of his school friends at the dais, making a single liquid concoction out of six or seven multicolored beverages. (I remember thinking to myself, Are we absolutely certain that today this boy is a man?)
Glenn kicked the little black disc in the direction of his parents’ table, and the disc hit Helene Sheldon’s right foot. Mrs. Sheldon stood up and then bent down to retrieve it. As she did, a dozen weary men at nearby tables suddenly perked up.
As soon as Glenn and Daniel reached her table, Mrs. Sheldon turned around and glared at her son. She looked at the little black disk.
“Where did you get this, young man?” she demanded.
“We’re playing. It’s our hockey puck,” Glenn said.
“That wasn’t the question. Where did you get it? Were you just in the lobby?”
Mrs. Sheldon led Glenn out of the ballroom. Daniel followed; I’m sure he was slightly concerned for his friend, but more importantly, he realized that some sort of interesting story might soon unfold for him to store away in his memory. Once in the lobby, Mrs. Sheldon walked over
to the puppeteer. She held out the little object in her hand.
“By any chance,” she said to him, “is this yours?”
Jim took it from her, examined it, rubbed his beard, then bent down in front of his cardboard stage. One of its four little wheels was missing.
“Hmmm…. I wondered why this thing was so wobbly all of a sudden. How in heaven’s name did you get it off?” he said to Glenn, with more curiosity than anger.
“Glenn, what do you say to this man?” his mother demanded.
“Sorry,” Glenn responded, almost under his breath.
As she retraced her steps back to the ballroom, Mrs. Sheldon saw Daniel by the entranceway. She leaned over and cupped his chin in her left hand.
“I don’t know what to do with that boy,” she whispered to him. Then she kissed him on the cheek. “Why can’t he be more like you?”
Mrs. Sheldon smiled and went back to the party with Glenn.
A few minutes later, Steven and his friends stood in the middle of the floor mocking the current dance crazes with comically exaggerated dance moves of their own. The members of the band were willing accomplices to their shenanigans. At one point, a friend of Steven’s
named Billy grabbed a girl and spun her around so hard that she slammed into the dais and fell on the floor. Her long skirt slid all the way up her thighs and exposed her underpants. She turned red with embarrassment. I felt for her with all the sympathy and compassion I possessed; I could only imagine the state of sheer mortification I’d be in had it been me. Probably clinical shock. Mom rushed over to the poor girl to help her up, and then told Steven to make sure that his friends
behaved. At the same time, Dad went over to Billy to ask him to please tone down his behavior.
“I can hardly afford this bar mitzvah,” Dad said to Billy, who was year older than Steven and very self-possessed. “I really don’t want to pay for someone’s hospital bills.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hillman,” Billy said. “It won’t happen again.” Billy shook Dad’s hand and walked away.
I went to sit with Grandma Leah for a while. Daniel came by moments later and sat on my lap. Unlike Grandpa Jesse, who was tall and thin, Grandma Leah was short and stout. Her hair bore the same yellowish tint as Grandpa’s, although I’m fairly certain that hers was not entirely natural. She coughed a lot, the result of her thirty-five-year smoking habit. She had smoked at least three cigarettes at the temple alone, and another two or three at the Huntington Chalet. “It’s just not right,” Mom had whispered to me a half hour earlier when we saw Grandma Leah lighting up for the second time since we had arrived. At the table, she was talking to her cousin Ida from the Bronx, who sat on the other side of her. That’s how her cousin was always referred to in our house: Ida from the Bronx. They were chatting about Nat Hillman, Grandpa Jesse’s younger brother.
“He’s not here, Leah?” Ida asked. “Your brother-in-law Nat’s not coming?”
Grandma Leah shrugged.
“He never says anything one way or the other,” Grandma responded. “Maybe he’ll come later. Who knows?”
I had seen Uncle Nat just a handful of times over the years. He was really Dad’s uncle, of course, not mine, but that’s what we always called him, Uncle Nat. He was only thirteen years older than Dad. When Uncle Nat was sixteen, he left home and wasn’t seen again for several years. It was said that when he was in his twenties and thirties he did ‘something in finance’ and had business all over the world; that’s why he was frequently absent from family functions, or so it was said. I remember Grandpa Jesse telling a story once about how his mother was pregnant with Nat very late in life, and that she kept it a secret until the ninth month. Nat was an unwanted child and apparently knew it. To me, it was and still is an incredibly sad story.
“Shayna punim,” Grandma Leah said to me, effectively changing a subject on which she preferred not to dwell, “you didn’t invite a friend to the bar mitzvah?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t want to.”
“Lori, darling,” interjected Ida from the Bronx, “don’t worry. You’ll be in high school soon, you’ll make plenty of nice friends. No?”
“Ida!” Grandma Leah barked in her gravelly voice. “She’s sixteen years old! She’s in high school already. What’s the matter with you?”
“Oy. Forgive me. I’m such a dope.”
“Daniel,” Grandma said, “you’ll play a few songs later?”
“After dinner,” Daniel explained.
“Leave him alone, Leah,” Ida from the Bronx admonished. “He’s having fun.”
“He wants to play, Ida. My Daniel knows what he wants to do.”
“But it’s not his bar mitzvah.”
“Steven doesn’t mind, and everyone wants to hear. Am I right, Daniel?”
“Are your friends here to see you play?” asked Ida from the Bronx.
“Just one. Glenn Sheldon. The rabbi’s son. My other friends are home. They’ll come to my bar mitzvah.”
“We should all live and be well,” Grandma Leah said.
The bandleader announced that the candle-lighting ceremony was about to begin. The photographer positioned himself in front of the purple velvet-covered table. Daniel and I were called up to light two candles. Steven stood between us as together we used a tall white candle
to light two other shorter ones. We all smiled. (I still have that photograph in my house, prominently displayed on the fireplace mantle.)
Our parents lit two candles, and so did both sets of grandparents. Then Uncle Milt and Aunt Paula—Milt was Mom’s brother—lit a candle. They looked joyful and seemed happy. Dad’s brother, our Uncle Jack, and his wife, Aunt Gloria, were up next. What a stark contrast between the two uncles; while Uncle Milt’s smile was bright and genuine, Uncle Jack seemed totally incapable of forming a smile. (Grandpa Jesse once said about his son Jack that he was born without
Finally, in one big group, all of Steven’s friends lit the last three candles.
Dinner was served. Afterward, Glenn Sheldon once again recruited Daniel to leave the ballroom with him, but this time they went outside to the back of the building. First, they crossed a large brick patio and then they entered the parking lot beyond it, where two valet attendants eyed them suspiciously. It was only five o’clock and already dark outside, although dozens of tall poles with lights on top put the entire parking lot into an artificial daytime. Daniel and Glenn zigzagged
through rows of cars pretending they were cops on motorcycles, and when they came to the Sheldons’ white Plymouth, Glenn pulled something out of his pants pocket, opened the back door and threw it in.
“What was that?” Daniel asked.
“Nothing,” Glenn said.
Glenn moved on, but Daniel glanced inside the car and saw a fuzzy blue sock puppet on the back seat.
Glenn stopped by a silver Cadillac. Its sleek shine under the mechanical glow had stopped him in his tracks.
“I found a Matchbox car yesterday that looks exactly like this,” he stated proudly. “Want to come over tomorrow and see it?”
“Maybe after lunch,” Daniel muttered. “Sometimes, I watch The Bowery Boys on TV with my dad.”
“Yeah. Why? Don’t you ever watch TV with your dad?”
“He’s not home a lot.”
Steven’s friend Billy and another friend named Mike stood by the chain-link fence at the edge of the parking lot, smoking cigarettes. Daniel had assumed (as did I) that neither Steven nor any of his friends smoked. So the sight of the two of them puffing away on cigarettes, especially Billy, who Daniel knew and liked a lot, was a bit jarring for him.
“Don’t worry, kid,” Billy said. Apparently he had recognized the apprehensive look on Daniel’s face. “Steven doesn’t smoke. I swear to God, cross my heart, and hope to die.”
“I know,” Daniel said.
“Hey, Daniel,” Billy continued, “did I hear that you’re gonna play the piano?”
“In a few minutes, I think.”
“Good. Can’t wait. Just don’t be better than me, or I’ll have to kill you.”
Just then, Dad came outside looking for Daniel. It was time for him to perform. So Daniel ran back inside and took his place behind the baby grand piano that was positioned to the side of the band platform. Over the microphone, the bandleader introduced him as “the little brother with a big surprise.” Everyone stopped what they were doing. Daniel knew, having listened to the band earlier, that the rhythm section—the bass player and the drummer—would be able to back him up, even
though they had neither rehearsed nor discussed the songs. He nodded to them; they seemed to have the same confidence.
Daniel began with “Where Is Love?” from the recent Broadway show Oliver, then played the theme from the movie Exodus. Several of the adults in the room had tears in their eyes when he reached the crescendo. That made him happy; it meant that what he did was working the way he had intended. Next, he played the popular ballad, “Roses are Red,” and ended with an up-tempo composition of his own called “Little Star,” which was basically a jazzed-up version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Dad, at his table not far from the band platform, watched Daniel and the musicians on either side of him with an almost wistful look on his face. Mom chatted with her sister-in-law Paula, but glanced Daniel’s way every once in a while to smile. The applause after the final number was loud, and several shouts of “Encore, encore” followed close behind. The only off-key note was Steven’s sudden absence.
When Daniel had first taken the platform, Steven had been sitting at the dais table with his friends. When “Where Is Love?” began, he walked out of the ballroom. I saw him leave and was certain that he merely had to go to the bathroom because of the limitless quantity of soda he drank all day. I’m sure Daniel felt the same. But as it turned out, Steven didn’t return until long after “Little Star” had faded into memory.
If you'd like to continue to follow the journey of Daniel Hillman and his family, please feel free to order "Blowin' in the Wind" (270 pages, hardcover, paperback, or Kindle) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Black Rose Writing, Target or other online booksellers.
His first position after college was as an assistant editor on a video trade magazine. He then moved into marketing communications for several firms as an account executive, public relations manager and employee communications writer. As a journalist his work has appeared in Connecticut Magazine, Pittsburgh Magazine, New Jersey Monthly, Hartford Magazine, Dramatics Magazine and many others.
Joel is the author of four nonfiction books, the latest of which is “Some Kind of Lonely Clown: The Music, Memory & Melancholy Lives of Karen Carpenter.” [Scroll down for the section on "My Other Books."] This followed a report about the singer that he wrote and narrated for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” He has also produced CDs of the work of his late grand-father, Benny Bell, a comedy singer and song-writer about whom he wrote a book in 2008.
His literary blog, “Hey, You Never Know,” includes such articles as “It Was the Most Famous Musical in the World, Though You Probably Never Heard Of It,” “Pointing & Shooting in George Plimpton’s Apartment” and “What If Someone Really Invented a Dream Machine?”
Two of Joel’s short plays have been brought to life on stage, including “Six Tens from a Fifty” in New York City and “The Bittersweet Ballad of Bobby Blu” in Connecticut.
Joel appeared as an on-camera commentator in a Karen Carpenter episode of the anthology series, “Too Young to Die,” and performed dual roles in an unsold reality show pilot for the Bravo network called “Zinging Telegrams.”
“Ever since I was six years old, nearly everything I saw, overheard, learned in school or simply wondered about I turned—in my head at first—into books and plays and movies,” Joel says, addressing his motivation to devote his career to writing. “I don’t know why. That’s just the way it was. Whether or not I’m good at it may be somewhat subjective, but that I want to do it and work hard at it is indisputable. I wrote a screenplay when I was 12 and sent it to MGM. They turned it down, but in their note back to me made me feel as if I had skill and should never give up. Then my ninth grade English teacher accused me of plagiarizing a book report because she said it was too well-written for a 14-year-old. She sent a note home to my parents. I didn’t plagiarize that report. That settled it! From that point on, I’ve never given up.”
Joel and his wife Bonnie have three grown children and five grandchildren.
The back cover of "Blowin' in the Wind"
To request an interview with the author, please contact Joel Samberg at 973-214-6716 or through email at Joel@JoeltheWriter.com.
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"Blowin’ in the Wind" Tackles the Age-Old Question:
What Should I Be When I Grow Up?
New novel by Connecticut author is a suburban saga that takes us through the
turbulent 1960s—with comedy, drama, and music
March 20, 2020, Castroville, TX—Black Rose Writing has published a new novel by journalist, author and communications specialist Joel Samberg called “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The story is about a musical prodigy named Daniel Hillman and his family as they navigate the baffling decade of the Nineteen Sixties, beginning with President Kennedy’s assassination. Daniel struggles with what many in his orbit consider his preordained destiny as a professional musician, while his shy sister Lori—the story’s narrator—discovers a surprising path to her own self-fulfillment.
With several incidents mirroring the author's own childhood on Long Island, and a number of cameos that include Hillary Rodham, Don Rickles, Karen Carpenter and, in the book's most dramatic episode, Bob Dylan, the new novel is expected to attract a wide readership of Baby Boomers who enjoy a sweeping suburban saga.
”In a way,” states the author, “this book has been in the making for more than 50 years—since I was Daniel's age when the story begins. That’s when a classmate insulted me at a school talent contest, an event not unlike the emotional one Daniel experiences in the novel. Then the popular rabbi at my temple was fired for infidelity, as is Daniel’s beloved rabbi in the story. Following that, I received a rejection letter from MGM about a screenplay I wrote when I was 12, not dissimilar to the note that Daniel gets from MGM about his own screenplay—although he doesn’t take the disappointment nearly as well as I did.”
Copies of Blowin’ in the Wind are available at all major booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Contact: Justin Weeks, Sales Team, Black Rose Writing, firstname.lastname@example.org
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My Other Books:
Smack in the Middle:
My Turbulent Time Treating Heroin Addicts at Odyssey House
(coauthored with Gibbs Williams, PhD.)
A compelling narrative of Dr. Williams’ professional baptism by fire at Odyssey House. The first book to tackle the early history and the social-psychological dynamics of a therapeutic community that was at the leading edge of heroin addiction treatment while at the same time at the verge of mutiny and collapse under the weight of despotic leadership.
Black Opal/History Publishing, 2019, 173 pages.
Some Kind of Lonely Clown:
The Music, Memory & Melancholy Lives of Karen Carpenter
Karen Carpenter’s popularity never really waned. She’s almost as popular today as she was during her recording heyday. But not everyone knows that behind the velvety voice was a love-starved romantic, conflicted sister, obedient daughter, unpredictable jester, wannabe mother and emotional wreck. This book is an exploration of Karen’s issues, mystique, and timelessness.
BearManor Media, 2015, 150 pages
Grandpa Had a Long One:
Personal Notes on the Life, Career & Legacy of Benny Bell
Benny Bell—of “Shaving Cream” fame—was one of the funniest, quirkiest and hardest working entertainers ever to come out of the vaudeville and Borscht Belt eras. Although far from a superstar, and never anywhere near rich, Bell is revealed in the book to have had quite a notable career and a life that was immensely rich in humor, drama, music, and unceasing optimism.
BearManor Media, 2009, 238 pages.
Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography
I was privileged to be part of a team of journalists, authors, musicians and entertainment figures assembled by Randy Schmidt to provide a series of in-depth, insightful and opinionated conversations on every Carpenters record ever released. Randy’s book is beautifully presented with more than 200 images, many of which have never before been seen.
Available on Amazon.