Never forget your hometown and those who dwelled in it. They helped color the backdrop of your youth and build you into the person you are today. “Who” you have become is a result of everything that ‘ran’ past you as you were coming of age. Of course your mother and father and closest relatives were responsible for giving you most of your values; however, that doesn’t diminish the other outside elements that you absorbed growing up. We all ‘glean’ some of our values from the subtleties that others leave behind. Rabbi Jonathan Panitz, the son of Rabbi David and Esther Panitz, has been writing to us for over a year. Often, when Jonathan responds to our “Who Am I?” contest or to the photos we post on “Photo Friday”, he tells us that this or that person “had been a frequent guest at our dinner table”. Of course he is referring to when he and his brothers, Michael and Raphael, were growing up on Linden Rd. in Paterson where his father served as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel. We finally asked him to share his adventures of being an eavesdropper at this very special dinner table of conversation, opinions and fun. Many years ago he promised his dad, Rabbi Panitz, never to reveal ALL that he heard; nonetheless, he is leaving the door ajar and letting us peek in. He is keeping it purely anecdotal. At this time we are happy to present this month’s guest newsletter author, Rabbi Jonathan Panitz, whose theme is: GUESS WHO CAME TO DINNER AT THE PANITZ’S?
Coming home from classes on any given day, a note on the fridge door indicated- “jacket and tie for dinner”. This was the signal that someone or someones important were coming to dinner. I was the one who needed to heed this because my younger brothers were exempt.
It did not surprise me in the least because my dad would even put on a three piece suit to cut the grass!
And so the list of invitees was always to remain a secret just like the banter around the table when it was only family seated for dinner. I was sworn to secrecy with no announced punitive measures if I did not comply. But I instinctively knew that breaking the rule would be less than beneficial to my dad.
And so the lists of attendees were kept very neatly tucked away inside my brain. I am sure that many of them have since passed on but can’t really know where all the skeletons lie and so I dare not open “Pandora ’s box.”
But I can tell you this. There was a method to my dad’s madness. So the attendees were categorized by profession, or lack thereof.
We had the night of doctors and the night of politicians. We had the night of minority groups and the night of fools. We had the night of teachers and the night of rabbis. We had the night of newspaper editors and the night of anti-semites. We had the night of couples about to break up and the night of couples who had been together for 30 years and were contemplating a break-up. I am sure that the list could go on and on. I am also very sure that this was not a random list.
I can distinctly recall sitting at the table with a Paterson elected official, who blatantly told us that the state of Israel was usurping Palestinian land and should find another country in which to settle. That was a very delicate event. Needless to say the meal finished early. That was back around 1961.
On another occasion I remember a visitor who could have only been about 5’4” who told my Dad that anything he wished to publish in the Paterson Evening News would have to be vetted by himself. I jumped in and changed the subject to talk about the Yankees and the wonderful bat of Roger Maris.
When it was “Doctors’ Night,” the discussion invariably descended into medical jargon. This was clearly a pre-HIPPA period with lots of information about who was bipolar and who was suffering from the “C”. From orthopedic specialists to podiatric wannabes- don’t forget at this time podiatrists were still arguing for full recognition-the discussion was lively and often heated. The wives of these professionals would sit in rapt attention and make believe that they were enjoying themselves. I walked into the kitchen with a short and lively lady who said, “So Jonathan why are you at this table?” I replied by telling her that I had no choice. She laughed and said neither did she.
A special night was reserved for those in the business world. So a car salesman, a manufacturer, a clothing magnate, a baker, a butcher, but alas no candlestick maker, would all gather round the table. Discussion was abject boredom. How much bread can be sold before Shabbat? How many cars need to be moved to turn a dime? People are eating less and less kosher food! The latest fashion is not selling in Paterson. And on and on and on.
“Teachers’ Night” was really a blast. I could get into the discussion and actually feel as if I were making a dent in the conversation. Teachers ran the gamut from dried up little old ladies to hippie types. Making things even more enticing was the fact that these people were destined to become my teachers.
Then there was the “Paul Anka-Connie Francis Night.” How I don’t know, but my dad managed to get both of these teenage idols to eat in my home. Paul Anka, I think was managed by someone my Dad knew and Connie Francis was a local. I never did learn the how and the why of it. But it was one of the most memorable meals and I can recall wishing it would never end.
Then there were the sports people. Elston Howard, who was a hero for me and who brought me a properly signed bat, came to dinner. My dad was a baseball fanatic. Howard spoke at the Temple Emanuel men’s club and made a special appearance at our table.
Then there were the women whom I would bring home from various places. They never quite felt comfortable sitting at my parent’s dining table. I can understand why too. The ones who weren’t Jewish were an infliction I brought upon my parents for being so closed-minded and the ones who were, were scared off by conversations that always descended into erudite nonsense.
And then there were the young lovers. They rushed headlong into all sorts of things, no pun intended, and came to sit around our table so that their respective parents could show them what it might be like to sit “in family”. Talk about being uncomfortable!
Poets and militants, rebels and conformists, convicted criminals and lawyers all found their way to our house. I found this varied group to be the most interesting. The discussions that ensued were ungrounded and lively. Never mind that the food grew cold, the dessert was never addressed, and the mandatory “grace after meals” never recited. It was from these people that my dad garnered a healthy respect for people totally different and distinct from ourselves. Of course the after action report- so to speak- was an admonishment from my Dad never to be like them.
I also remember with distinct clarity the different clergy people who came to dinner. Catholic priests and Black Baptist preachers would rub elbows and exchange niceties.
There were also the gadget people. My dad was the original gadget person. He had the first mini-tape recorder on the block, the first color TV, the first dual track tape machine and so on.
Perhaps the bane of our existence were specific synagogue board members who absolutely had to know what was going on in the house at 7 Linden Road. I remember the day when a fluorescent light ballast exploded and caused a fire in the master bedroom. The firemen came but so did the house chairman to check it out. My dad played the perfect gentleman and invited them to dine at the table, on Shabbat no less, when only words of pleasantry could be exchanged. I truly often wondered how my mom sustained all of this with absolute aplomb!
And so you see I have remained true to the promise I made to my dad back in 1959. I have mentioned only two living persons and one beloved ballplayer. The others I am sure you can guess. They have faded into history but their memories are forever emblazoned in my mind. Perhaps one day if and when we meet I might share with you some more specifics but don’t think I can put it in print.
Hope you all have a wonderful Pesach. Maybe we will meet at the celebration in May.
R/Jonathan A. Panitz
Thank you Jonathan for not forgetting Paterson. Happy Passover.
Dorothy Douma Greene, President