Miracle in Yonkers
Richard J. Garfunkel
October 10, 2006
It seems that while the rest of the more so-called sophisticated world was daydreaming through life, the old Hudson River City of Yonkers was attempting a breakthrough of communications that Ehrich Weiss aka Harry Houdini would have been proud of, and thrilled at the same time. The Mayor was trying to contact my parents! It was the great Houdini, who not only made a wildly successful career out of escaping from chained crates while submerged in various bodies of water, but also became famous for exposing charlatans who conducted séances. He had offered $10,000, a very large amount of money in the 1920’s to anyone who could contact the departed. (By the way Houdini, who was born in Hungary in 1874 died from peritonitis, which had resulted from a burst appendix. He had a standing offer that he could withstand a blow to the stomach from anyone. After a performance in October 1926, some college kids came backstage to his dressing room and, the subject came up about his ability to withstand a punch. Unfortunately before he was able to brace his stomach, he was hit three times by one of the students. It seems that as a result of those blows his fatal condition ensued!)
Houdini, before his untimely death, on October 31, 1926 (Halloween) had made an arrangement with his beloved wife Bessie, (Beatrice Raymond) about her trying to communicate with him from the grave. His plan was to have his wife engage in an annual Halloween séance to attempt to communicate with him and to have her only informed of their pre-arranged message, which was “Rosabelle, believe…” (Rosabelle was the name of a tune Bessie had sung at Coney Island.) When the séance would invariably fail, this would be his way of exposing the myriad of phony “mediums” or “spiritualists” who preyed on their grieving clientele. Houdini spent his life and his death in the pursuit of these charlatans. For many years until her death in 1943, Bessie would try in vain to communicate with the late Houdini on Halloween, the day of his death.
The Mayor, one Philip Amicone, has been sending out Jewish New Year’s greetings to his “Jewish” constituents. But, invariably many of these letters do not go to only Jews, but to people with Jewish sounding names. It seems that the Mayor also attempts to reach people who are no longer able to communicate. As a result, my parents, who now are unfortunately gone, received a letter wishing them a “Happy New Year!” I was a little offended about that mailing, and I thought it “smacked” of bad taste and a waste of the taxpayer’s money. I contacted Mr. Phil Reisman, of the Journal News, who writes a column in that paper, and you can read his attached words. It seems that Mr. Reisman, who also gets unsolicited best wishes on Jewish holidays, was a kindred “spirit.”
Speaking of “spirits,” I am extending an early Happy Halloween greeting to all of you and yours from Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Tarrytown was the location of the ride of the “Headless Horseman,” who in 1790, as Washington Irving relates, scared one Ichabod Crane. The “Horseman” who was the ghost of a Hessian soldier, who lost his head in battle, wound up chasing the frightened schoolmaster Crane to the Old Dutch Burying Ground in Sleepy Hollow, which is still located up Route 9!
Reisman: Political marketing sometimes misses its mark
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original Publication: October 10, 2006)
It's a nice, warm feeling to be told “Happy New Year.”
I get the greeting twice a year — once on Jan. 1 and once at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
I love it. It's cool, a twofer. It's sort of like doubling your luck, or having your bases covered with the secular and nonsecular. And the beauty of it is, I'm not even Jewish!
On the other hand, I regularly consult with The Journal News' prestigious religion writer, Gary Stern, who is Jewish. (Stern and I mostly talk about football and music, which are religions to some people, especially at Super Bowl halftime when a sort of interfaith communion of beer, chips and salsa is taken at the high-def TV altar.)
I have a Jewish last name, thanks to my father's father, whose Jewish parents left Hungary more than a century ago and were probably so happy to escape whatever it was that compelled them to leave that when they landed in New York they kept going and didn't look back until they wound up in Minnesota. After a few twists in the path of lineage, I was raised a Presbyterian, which is about as far as you can get from being Jewish, unless you're a Southern Baptist.
I don't know this for an absolute fact, but there may actually be fewer Presbyterians in Yonkers than there are Jews. Nevertheless, every October I get a Jewish new year greeting from the mayor's office at Yonkers City Hall — and you bet I'm glad to get it.
The letter from Mayor Phil Amicone begins
“It is my pleasure to extend my best wishes to the Yonkers Jewish Community. During this period of introspection, repentance and awe as the Year 5767 is inaugurated, all of us pray for the well-being of our neighbors, for greater tolerance in our society and for peace in the Middle East.”
Nice sentiments. To paraphrase an old commercial about rye bread, you certainly don't have to be Jewish to buy into that message.
On Friday, The Journal News reported that 4,200 Yonkers households received the Rosh Hashana letter and about 1 percent were mistakenly sent to families who were not Jewish, but had Jewish-sounding last names. City spokesman David Simpson said about a half-dozen people called the mayor's office to ask what was up.
“I think they were a little curious as to why they would get something like that,” Simpson said, adding that none of the callers were angry.
Off and on, I've been getting mail like this for years. Usually, the letters are either invitations to join a synagogue or position statements on Israel. U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey has conscientiously kept me informed about Israel's travails almost since the first day she took office.
Simpson said the city had contacted the Jewish Council of Yonkers about using its mailing list — a pretty cheeky attempt, I think, at breaching the wall between church and state. Anyway, the council refused, which is to its credit.
Instead, the city relied on a demographic information service.
That tactic apparently caused all the mistakes, including the holiday letter that was sent to Milton and Ethel (Peggy) Garfunkel on Palmer Road.
The mistake had nothing to do with religion. The problem was that the Garfunkels were no longer living. Milton died in May 2005 at the age of 101 and Peggy died in June at age 98. Their son, Richard Garfunkel of White Plains, who regularly corresponds with me about political matters, was only slightly amused.
“If this is the way to reach the departed, the mayor of Yonkers should receive the Nobel Prize for communications or physics,” he said. He added, “Unfortunately, they do not vote by absentee ballots.”
Garfunkel said politicians are only pandering and wasting taxpayers' money with this sort of thing. He has a point.
Still, I like being reminded now and again about my Jewish heritage. I'm proud of it. Come to think of it, U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia, a possible Republican candidate for president who recently became acquainted with his nongentile background, ought to be proud of it, too.
The year 5767. We've come a long way, baby.
I only hope the planet makes it that far on the regular calendar.