Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Jerry Siegel’s life isn’t quite an open book, but he reveals enough of it in You Shoulda Been There to make me wish I had been there — especially in his boyhood world of kosher butchers, Jewish bakeries, busybody neighbors and businesses with signs in Yiddish.
Siegel, 80, an energetic, retired University of Minnesota speech pathologist, is a charming teller of tales from his life and his imagination. Some of the latter are obvious, others may be history embellished, and some I know to be true because they include people I’ve known.
I confess to knowing the author — a mensch — and to having heard some of his stories on Shabbatot when our rabbis take a rest from sermonizing. None of those are in this book, so how many more remain untold?
These are gentle stories, with added pleasure for those whose minds read them in Siegel’s resonant tenor, sometimes hinting of a childhood elsewhere despite a college course intended to liberate his tongue from Brooklyn.
You Shoulda Been There gradually discloses Siegel’s life, the lives of his relatives and neighbors, his first two years with wife Eileen in a still-Jewish north Minneapolis, and the next 40 in south Minneapolis with sabbaticals to Israel and elsewhere. The range includes his mother’s Christmas lights, Uncle Meyer’s pickle barrel and Siegel’s inability to find a parve challa in Santa Barbara, Calif.
These stories, newly reedited, appeared over decades, many in local publications including the American Jewish World. One ran in “Western Cleaners and Launderers” — his delightful tale of a sabbatical at an Israeli hospital, his family of five in a tiny guest apartment with no washer and dryer. Weekly, he and Eileen toted two heavy bags by bus to a laundromat. Who knew that it — and all — closed during Passover?
Siegel loves language, as when he writes about lugging laundry amid ordinary Israelis. “Ugly Americans? Not us. We would be common folk who aired our wash in public.” Or hanging their wash, Israeli-style, from the balcony, the water dripping onto the sand. So did the water from the three balconies above, “but not until first visiting with whatever hung from our lines.”
One needn’t know Siegel to enjoy his stories; many resonate with our experiences, just differing in names, places and details. Our childhood neighborhoods change and their grown-ups disappear, each death stealing a piece of our youthful self-image. Siegel remembers his adults lovingly, though not uncritically. Many resemble people we’ve known.
He recalls the sameness of holidays in his youth, his father sitting in the same place every Yom Kippur, the same relatives and neighbors nearby.
“The discussion after the fast was pretty much the same with minor variations: This year the fast was easy/hard; the cantor was in good/terrible voice; the rabbi’s speech was inspirational/incomprehensible; the synagogue was too hot/cool… On one thing there was agreement: Thank God we made it through another year.”
Or widowed Mrs. Levy, risking her neck on a rickety stool to take down her Passover dishes: “When I can no longer make Passover, I hope I’ll be gone from this earth.” Narrator Siegel observes: “You don’t stop living when you get old. You don’t give up doing the things you have done all your life, or else it’s no life at all.”
Siegel’s skill is in telling just enough to make the point while including the small, authenticating details that give the story life and distinctiveness. (Were I editing, I would have ended a few stories a paragraph or two sooner for dramatic effect.) He avoids needless clawing at our emotions; his stories are like those that fill our lives, their deep imprint unnoticed until something happens to make us recall the world we once took for granted.
Jerry Siegel’s stories remind us of what it means to be human.
You Shoulda Been There is available locally at Elijah’s Cup, Temple of Aaron and Bet Shalom gift shops, or from the author at 5501 N. Village Dr., No. 105, Edina, MN 55439, for $20.50 including tax and shipping.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, 8.17.12)