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A big family means more of everything

Jay Neugeboren
May 14, 2024

My cousin Bernie celebrated his 102nd birthday on Feb. 9, 2024. By then, his son Saul had moved him into a senior residential facility, because, a half-year after his 100th birthday, he fell and broke two pelvic bones and could no longer get around on his own. Before his fall, Bernie had been living in Greenwich, Connecticut, across from a park that overlooked Long Island Sound, had been taking daily walks in the park, attending services every Saturday morning at Temple Sholom (where he also served, part time, as cantor), and playing golf with Saul on weekends.

In April 1943, when I was 5 years old and Bernie was flying P-51 Mustang single-pilot fighter planes against the Japanese in New Guinea, I was sent to live with Bernie’s parents, my father’s sister Esther and her husband, Sol, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. On the day my father brought me to their apartment, my mother, nine months pregnant, had started having contractions and had checked in at Brooklyn’s Bushwick Hospital. I stayed with Bernie’s parents for a week, and at night I slept in the bed that had been Bernie’s before he enlisted in the Army.

I spent most of my days that week at my aunt and uncle’s small kitchen table, where I drew picture after picture of airplanes, aircraft carriers, tanks, machine guns, flame throwers, and of American, German, and Japanese soldiers, and copied out pictures from two of my favorite comic strips—“Scorchy Smith” and “Smilin’ Jack,” both of which were about brave American pilots fighting our enemies in Europe and Asia. My father showed up for dinner every evening, and on April 17 he arrived with a letter to me from my mother in which she wrote that I now had a baby brother named Robert Gary who “for the rest of my life,” was going to be my “best friend.”

Bernie spent two years in New Guinea where, as a member of the 56th Spider Squadron, he shot down 10 Japanese Zeros. Before the war, he’d gone to Erasmus Hall High School, where he was first violinist in the school orchestra. He also composed melodies for Hebrew prayers (and prepared for his bar mitzvah) with Richard Tucker, his synagogue’s cantor, who would later become a renowned tenor with the Metropolitan Opera. Bernie received a full scholarship to Juilliard, where he studied violin with Frank Kneisel, a former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and during his three years at Juilliard, he performed with the Kneisel String Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic, and at Carnegie Hall. He left Juilliard in 1942 to train for the Army Air Force at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, and was sent to New Guinea.When he came home from the war in 1945, he tried to take up the violin again but discovered that his fingers “just wouldn’t work” the way he wanted them to, “probably,” he said, “from pulling on the Mustang’s machine gun trigger a thousand times a day for two years.”

My father was next to the youngest of nine children, my mother third from the youngest of eight (two of the eight children, both boys, died in Europe before my grandparents immigrated to the United States), so that when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the years before, during, and after World War II, I had 35 first cousins, all of whom, with the exception of two cousins who lived in the Bronx (“Is that part of the United States?” my father would ask), lived within walking distance. Throughout my childhood, most Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays were spent visiting or being visited by one or another set of aunts, uncles, and cousins, or at large family gatherings to celebrate births, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, engagements, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, a family’s move to a new apartment, or a homecoming from a hospital or from the Army.

I lived at home for three of my four years of college, but after I graduated, like most of my cousins, I moved away from Brooklyn. In the first dozen years after college, I lived in Indiana, California, New Jersey, on Long Island, and in the south of France. Beginning in the fall of 1971, I lived for three decades in the Amherst-Northampton area of Massachusetts, and during these years I saw my cousin Bernie perhaps a half-dozen times, usually at a wedding or a funeral.

Then, in 2004, he called because he’d just read an article I’d written for The New York Times about my having had lifesaving quintuple bypass surgery at Yale New Haven Hospital, and he was calling to tell me that he too had had lifesaving open heart surgery at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and was wondering who my surgeon had been. When I said that my surgeon had been Dr. Sabet Hashem, Bernie said that Dr. Hashem had been his surgeon too, and after we sang Dr. Hashem’s praises, and talked about our good fortune in still being alive, we segued into a conversation that’s been ongoing ever since.

In our conversations, we’ll often reminisce about Erasmus Hall High School, where, although I was 17 years younger than Bernie, we’d both had the same principal, Dr. John F. McNeill, and many of the same teachers. Erasmus was a large public high school that had between 5,000 and 6,000 students when we went there, and we both credited much of the richness of our adult lives—especially our love of music and books—to the excellent, wide-ranging education we received at a school where, in addition to French and Spanish, one could study German, Hebrew, and Latin, and take courses in physics and biology with teachers who had doctorates. We’ll reminisce about the great Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1940s and 1950s, and about playing punchball and stickball out in the street. We’ll talk about sports, politics, books, music, and movies, and usually exchange what news we have of cousins, and the children of cousins (and the children of their children), and of where they’re living now. Except for me and Saul, no one else in our family still lives in New York City.

My mother was a registered nurse, and in almost every one of our conversations Bernie will talk about how lovingly she cared for his mother during her long illness and dying, of cancer. And I’ll talk about the week I spent in his home when he was in New Guinea, and how I recall his father making soft-boiled eggs for me in the morning, and carrying each egg to the kitchen table in a spoon he held out in front of him as if it were a candle lighting his way. I’ll talk about his younger brother Danny, who gave me the letters he’d earned for playing on the Erasmus basketball team—E.H.H.S.—that my mother sewed onto a sweatshirt for me when I was 10 or 11 years old. And when I was in college, Bernie’s older sister Beadie (née Beatrice), famed in our family for her brash, flamboyant ways, asked me to dance with her at her son Mark’s bar mitzvah, held me close, and whispered in my ear: “So tell me, Jay, a good-looking young guy like you—are you getting much these days?”

I had 35 first cousins, all of whom, with the exception of two ... lived within walking distance.

As the years go by and we move further from our Brooklyn childhood, Bernie and I find ourselves talking mostly about the cousins we grew up with, and trading stories about them and their lives. And when we do, we often talk about our cousin Joey, who was a navigator flying in B-24s over Germany during World War II. “I loved Joey,” Bernie will say each time I mention Joey. “He was always my favorite. ”He was mine too,” I’ll say.

Joey Leifer, the eldest of our Aunt Lily and Uncle Ben’s three sons—a generous, outgoing guy who bore a striking resemblance to Paul Newman—was an outstanding basketball player at Thomas Jefferson High School, and after the war had a great success as a manufacturer of men’s clothing. His company, Distinctive Sportswear, was the first sportswear company to put images of crocodiles on shirts, and when LaCoste went to court and tried to shut Joey down, claiming he’d infringed on their patented trademark, LaCoste lost. Joey was the first of our cousins to move to a suburb (Larchmont) and own his own home. He was also the first of our cousins to be divorced.

When, during my high school years I had an after-school job at a dry-cleaning store in New York’s garment center, I’d sometimes stop by Joey’s garment center office and showroom where, first thing, no matter the time of day (or my age!), he’d open a desk drawer, take out a bottle of Scotch, and offer me a drink. He’d ask about my parents and my brother, and always seemed interested in me—in what I was doing in and out of school. After we talked for a while, he’d take me to a large factory room where sport shirts were being “finished” and put into boxes, and tell me to look around and pick out any shirts I wanted.

But Joey lost his fortune as quickly as he made it. He went bankrupt, drank heavily, and at one point was given a job as maitre d’ at Grossinger’s, a large borscht-circuit hotel where, according to my father, our family had vacationed and spent Passover when it was a small hotel that served only two or three dozen guests. At some point after he left Grossinger’s, he became a traveling salesman for coin-operated electric “magic fingers” beds. On Aug. 17, 1966, a few days before his 43rd birthday, he was found dead of an apparent heart attack in an upstate New York motel.

The first time I ever saw my father cry was when he received the news of Joey’s death. And while he wept, he chastised himself for never having paid Joey back several thousand dollars Joey had loaned him. “I went bankrupt and I never paid my nephew back,” he kept saying between tears.“I never paid him back, and now he’s gone ... he was my nephew, and I never paid him back, and now he’s gone ...”

Joey took his brother Alvin into his business as a salesman, and when Alvin developed a major gambling problem and couldn’t pay his debts, Joey intervened several times, with cash, to bail him out of life-threatening situations. Neither Bernie nor I knew much about what happened to Alvin after Joey died, though we’d heard that he wound up living, and dying, in Las Vegas.

Herbie, the youngest of the three Leifer brothers, went to NYU, where he played on the tennis team, was editor of the school’s literary magazine, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He was the cousin on my father’s side of the family with whom I was closest, and when I was in my junior year at Columbia, and Herbie was married and living in Greenwich Village, a few doors south of the Waverly Theater, I often visited him there and had dinner with him and his wife, Susan. Herbie had published several stories after graduating from NYU, and—on a Joey Leifer Fellowship—had spent a year in Santa Fe, New Mexico, working on a novel. To “support his habit,” as he put it, he was working as an editor—at Philosophical Library, a company that published the works of European intellectuals (Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Marie Curie, et al)—but, like me, he hoped he’d eventually be able to be a full-time writer.

When, at 19 years old, I completed my first novel, Herbie was one of the two people I showed it to. The other person was Charles Van Doren, who’d been my freshman English instructor at Columbia. I’d become friendly with Charles, and when I finished the novel, I brought it to him. He read it, praised it, and—this following on his quiz show fame—recommended it to several publishers.

Herbie was less enthusiastic than Van Doren. He met me at Columbia one afternoon and we took a long walk during which he said that to have completed a novel at my age was a major achievement, but in his opinion—he was very gentle with me—I should put the novel aside, and revisit it in a year or two, or perhaps—the suggestion he favored—write some short stories.

During the next few years, Herbie and I lost touch, but when, a decade after I’d shown him my first novel, and after completing another seven unpublished books, my novel Big Man was accepted for publication and received some generous reviews, he sent me a congratulatory note, and we met for dinner, where he told me how proud he was of me for the novel, and for my persistence. To my gentle inquiry about how his writing was going, he said that his editorial work didn’t leave him much time for anything else.

Four decades later, in 2007, I received a call from his wife, Susan. Herbie had passed away, she said, and she wanted to get together with me, and introduce me to their son. We met at a small Mexican restaurant on the Upper West Side, near Columbia (Susan and I had known each other when she was a student at Barnard and I was at Columbia), where she explained that the reason Herbie had never responded to my notes, or to copies of my books I’d sent him, was that long before his death he’d become deeply depressed, had moved out of their home, and had spent most of the last few decades in a small apartment that was a filthy, junk-filled, cluttered horror. Because she’d read a book I’d written about my brother Robert, who’d spent most of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals, psych wards, and halfway houses, she trusted I would understand something of what Herbie’s life, and her life caring for him, had been like.

For more than a decade, Bernie’s son Saul had been going to Israel several times a year to work as a volunteer dentist in a program affiliated with Hadassah Hospital that served “underprivileged” Israelis and Palestinians, and when he was there he loved spending time with our cousin Jerrold and Jerrold’s wife, Drorit.

Jerrold was a year younger than I was, and we’d each been given our Hebrew names, Yaakov Mordechai, in memory of our grandfather, Yaakov Mordechai Neugeboren. (Bernie and my brother were each named in memory of our grandmother Bella Gittel, her Hebrew names gender-transformed into “Boruch Gershon.”) All through our teenage years, like many of our cousins, Jerrold and I spent July and August at Camp Winsoki, an upstate New York summer camp that catered to Orthodox Jewish families, and was owned by our cousin Marilyn and her husband, Shelley. At Winsoki I was one of a handful of campers who went to a public school, not to a yeshiva, and my mother was either the camp nurse, or “camp mother,” that person who tended not only to the medical needs of more than a hundred Jewish children, but to their homesickness, bed-wetting, fingernails, toenails, scalps, hair, diets, and loneliness.

Jerrold, the only cousin on my father’s side of the family who was more than 6 feet tall, was starting center on Brooklyn Talmudic Academy’s basketball team. After high school, he went on to graduate from Yeshiva University and Harvard Law School, to complete a master’s degree in international law at NYU, and to teach at NYU for a few years before moving to Israel, where he met and married Drorit, and became an instructor at the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And after serving in several positions at the Ministry of Justice, including a position as director of a legal aid bureau, he was appointed chief judge of the Jerusalem Labor Court.

And after Hamas invaded Israel and slaughtered some 1,200 men, women, and children, Jerrold and I exchanged emails, in each of which he wrote about his children and grandchildren. “Our oldest grandson is a company commander in tanks, in the north,” one email began. “His sister’s husband is mobilized in the infantry. ...” he continued, and detailed the ways each of a half-dozen other children and grandchildren had been mobilized—as tank commanders, officers, paramedics, infantry, paratroopers—and ended with this: “When things quiet down it would be great if you could visit us again here.”

Before I began spending summers at Camp Winsoki, I spent summers in Parksville, New York, a small town about a hundred miles north of New York City, where my mother and her four sisters rented a large two-story farmhouse. My father and my uncles worked in New York City Monday to Friday, and came up on weekends. The farmhouse, in which each family had its own one- or two-room living space, was called a kochaleyn, a Yiddish word that meant “to cook alone,” but, with typical Yiddish irony, referred to a place, like ours, where everyone shared a communal kitchen. The house was set back 50 or 60 feet from a winding country road, and we used the grassy, mostly flat area in front of the house for playing ball. There was a shallow stream behind the house, and on the first weekend every summer, we’d all—my aunts, uncles, and cousins—put on our bathing suits and wade out into the stream, and in a few hours, by building upstream and downstream dams from rocks we collected from the bottom of the stream, and from its banks, we’d create a swimming area about 40 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 4 feet deep.

I loved digging up rocks and stones from the stream’s bottom and bringing them to the older cousins and uncles who were constructing the two dams, and I loved the way they’d try to outdo each other by taking the largest rocks they could find, and lifting them high in the air before setting them down on those already in place. I loved the way my uncles, all of them with cigarettes jutting from the corners of their mouths (except for my uncle Nat, a taxi driver, who was forever puffing on a cigar), would razz one another about their diminishing strength, with the youngest among them—my uncle Paul, a weightlifter who would later try out for the United States Olympic weightlifting team—being cheered each time he’d lift an especially huge rock. I loved the moment when, the water rising to a level above our knees—a channel at the far side allowed the stream to flow through our walled-in area—we’d shout “Swim Time! Swim Time!”—and begin racing one another across our newly made pool. I can still see my cousin Gabriel, who would later test out with the highest IQ ever recorded at Erasmus (194!), reach down into the stream, scoop up a fish in his cupped hands, and hold it there for a few seconds before lowering it back into the water and setting it free.

One afternoon I tried to leap over a bunch of benches and chairs we piled high in front of the farmhouse, and tore my knee open on a rusty nail. My mother cleaned out the cut, stitched it closed, and bandaged it, after which, in return for a penny a look, I’d open the bandage and allow my cousins to examine the wound. A year or two later, when our family decamped to another upstate New York kochaleyn, this one on Kenoza Lake, I spent long afternoons in the nearby woods with Judy—a cousin from an aunt’s husband’s family—preparing a magic show we put on for some three dozen relatives to which we charged admission. And in both kochaleyns, on the Saturday night before Labor Day, we had a farewell-to-summer party where we ate, drank, danced, sang songs, and dressed up in extravagant costumes. My uncle Jack, the family dentist, draped in colorful robes, and with a turban on his head, came as a maharajah every year, and would spend these evenings reclining on pillows while puffing away on a long-tubed hookah and blowing smoke rings into the air.

Except for meals, our days were schedule-free. My cousins and I would wake early, eat breakfast in the dining area next to the kitchen, and then run off and play together for the rest of the day, and we’d do so without our parents organizing our activities. We were free of them, and they were free of us. We’d play hide-and-seek and ringalevio, go swimming and fishing, choose up sides and make up games (cowboys-and-Indians, doctor-and-nurse, “Gestapo”), build small houses and lean-tos in which we played “house,” and play ball (punchball, stickball, softball, badminton, volleyball, dodgeball, running bases, touch football). When it rained, or was too hot to be out in the sun, we’d stay in the dining area, where we’d play cards, checkers, chess, and Monopoly, put puzzles together, read books, magazines, and comic books, draw pictures, make up plays we’d sometimes perform for our aunts and uncles, or just hang out and talk with one another while we waited for the rain to stop.

My oldest cousin, Murray, 10 years older than I was—he’d later own a chain of small-town newspapers in the Midwest—taught me how to swim, and was our family’s “official” photographer. His black-and-white photo of me and Robert, the two of us in a small clearing, the grass below us a featherlike white, the woods around us dark and wild—Robert’s 4 months old and I’m holding him on my lap and, my face nearly touching his, I’m gazing at his sunlit face—would become, a half-century later, the frontispiece for a book I wrote about Robert’s lifelong struggle with mental illness.

I loved to draw, and my cousin Leatrice, nine years older than I was, would sit next to me in the dining area on rainy days while we drew pictures; I recall, too, on several sunny days, watching her stand at an easel and work on an oil painting of a red barn that sat halfway up the hill across the road from our farmhouse, our uncle Paul standing next to her and giving her instructions. Leatrice—my cousins and I nicknamed “The Sergeant” for the no-nonsense way she often took charge of us—would later become a pediatric neurologist, and when I was 18 years old, and my parents and I were visiting her parents on a Sunday afternoon when she was home from medical school, she took me aside to ask, pointedly, how I was feeling. I said I was feeling fine, but that I’d had a nasty cold earlier in the year and still had some swollen glands in my neck that hadn’t gone away. She felt my glands, then told me I was to check in at Columbia’s student health service the next day, and to report back to her afterwards. I went to the student health service the next afternoon, and the doctor who examined me there told me to come in for a biopsy later that week, and to be prepared to stay overnight. The glands on the right side of my neck were surgically removed during the biopsy, and the pathology confirmed what Leatrice had suspected: I was diagnosed with lymphoma (Hodgkin’s disease), received radiation to both sides of my neck, and am still, 66 years later, in remission.

Although I looked up to and loved being with older cousins like Leatrice and Murray, I spent most of my days in Parksville hanging out with my cousins Ronnie and Gabriel, who were each only three years older than I was. Like me, Gabriel, Leatrice’s young brother, was a devoted Brooklyn Dodgers baseball fan, and one evening while we were listening to a Dodgers night game on the radio—a game that came in on the click-clack of Western Union ticker tape the announcer, “Red” Barber, translated into descriptions that made me believe I was actually seeing the game—Gabriel, using a pencil, ruler, and blank piece of paper, showed me how to make a scorecard on which I could record a game’s every moment, batter by batter and inning by inning.

It occurs to me that we came to care for one another—to know one another—in a way that seems unique to a particular time and place in midcentury America.

And Ronnie, who prided himself on knowing all about wrestlers such as Antonino Rocca, Gorgeous George, and Ed “Strangler” Lewis, would regularly astonish us with feats of daring: diving into our shallow swim area and swimming its length underwater, climbing into trees or onto the roof of the farmhouse, then leaping down and shouting “Geronimo!” the way American soldiers did when they parachuted out of planes. And his imagination was as wild as his physical exploits, and on rainy afternoons he’d make up fantastical stories about pirates, spies, commandos, gypsies, interplanetary travel, and medieval warfare, along with a story he’d also tell me serially whenever I had a sleepover with him—a tale that pre-dated J.D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man,” and had as its hero a man with a balloon for a head, which balloon-head kept being punctured by Balloon Man’s enemies so that he had to keep finding ingenious ways to replace his heads with new balloons.

Ronnie would go on to become a high-diving swimming champion in college, and, before he got a doctorate in the physics of snow, and co-authored the U.S. Forest Service’s Avalanche Guide, he worked at the Alta Ranger Station in Utah, where he’d parachute into avalanches to rescue lost, trapped, and injured skiers and hikers. Like my brother, Ronnie would suffer several major psychotic breakdowns and hospitalizations, from which, unlike my brother, he’d recover and, after each episode, return to his family and career.

At night, we’d sometimes roast marshmallows over campfires in front of the farmhouse, or by the stream, or make sassafras tea by cutting up and boiling bark from the roots of sassafras trees, and we’d often, together or in our separate living spaces, listen to radio programs—The Fred Allen Show, Baby Snooks, The Shadow, and The Life of Riley among them, and to programs I listened to with my friends during the school year: Superman, Captain Midnight, Tom Mix, The Lone Ranger, The FBI in Peace and War, and Bulldog Drumond. On Friday evenings we’d gather in our dining area, and after reciting prayers over candles, wine, and bread, we’d all—cousins, aunts, and whichever uncles arrived before sundown—eat a meal together to welcome the Sabbath.

When my grandfather came up to visit for a weekend, my mother and her sisters would, for the Sabbath, put on their best dresses and, together, prepare an elaborate meal. My grandfather, who was one of 17 children, had met my grandmother in the village of Tarnopol when, conscripted for lengthy service in the czar’s army, he was fleeing from that army. In the village of Burshtyn, where he and my grandmother married and had their first two children (both of whom, boys, died before the age of two), he worked as a baker, and on Friday afternoons in Parksville, my cousins and I would gather in the kitchen, and would applaud when, after laying out three strands of dough, he’d pick them up and, like a magician, with a swift swirling of his hands he’d produce a long braid that would later emerge from the oven as a beautiful golden-brown challah.

As wonderful, in memory, as those summers were, and how proud I was during those summers that I had cousins who were overseas and, as I learned mainly from war movies such as Back to Bataan and Guadalcanal Diary, were fighting to defend us against those individuals and nations determined to conquer the world and exterminate all its Jews—a cousin on my father’s side of the family, Manya Eisner, survived Auschwitz, though no one else on her father’s side of the family, including her eight brothers and sisters, did—shortly after World War II ended, my grandparents separated, and set their children against one another in a smaller war that came to trouble the life of my mother’s family.

Because my mother sometimes let her father stay at our apartment overnight, my grandmother did not speak with my mother for the last eight years of her life, and for most of those years my mother did not speak with or see her eldest sister Ethel, or her brother Izzie. I had little sense of what caused the family ruptures and ongoing battles, though I knew, from overhearing my mother’s conversations with my father and her sisters that they had to do with money, and with two three-story buildings my grandparents owned in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. And I can remember how happy my mother would become whenever she learned that my grandfather, who lived in the Bialystok Home for Jewish Men on the Lower East Side, would be visiting my grandmother, for which occasion, if he stayed the night, he paid her 50 cents. And when, one year, my grandparents agreed to be part of a family reunion at which all my aunts, uncles, and cousins would join together for a Passover Seder at my uncle Izzie’s apartment, my mother became ecstatic, and talked day after day about how wonderful it was going to be for us all to be together again.

Driving to the Seder, my father kept warning my mother not to get her hopes up while my mother kept clapping her hands together like a child, “But they’re getting together again ...!” she kept saying. “They’re getting together again, Dave, and—you’ll see—we’re all going to be together again ...!” But at my uncle Izzie’s apartment, before we even exchanged hugs and kisses and wished one another a happy Passover, my grandmother and grandfather were shouting at each other and at the children they accused of betraying them. I couldn’t understand what they were fighting about because they screamed in Yiddish, but I do recall watching my uncles Izzie and Paul holding them back when, not for the first time, they went at each other physically. And all the way home my mother sobbed away while my father kept saying, “I warned you, Annie ... I warned you. ...”

Beyond the loss of the kind of ongoing family life my mother longed for, there were other losses and disasters. After Ronnie’s mother, Pearl—one of my mother’s three older sisters—gave birth to her second child, she was institutionalized, and I remember visiting her with my parents, and playing with Ronnie on hospital grounds, but being forbidden to approach or talk with my aunt Pearl. Twenty years later I would visit my brother Robert on these same grounds when he was put away after his first psychotic breakdown.

My cousin Madeleine, daughter of my mother’s younger sister Evelyn, was sexually abused by her father, Paul, when she was a young girl; when he was 19 years old, her younger brother, Martin, committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a hospital in Queens. Martin had pleaded with his parents to get him help, but Paul refused, telling Martin that if he started seeing psychiatrists he’d wind up in a mental hospital, the way Robert had.

In the fall of 1959, when my parents were arranging to move from Brooklyn to Queens, they sent Robert to live with Evelyn and Paul and their four children in Queens so that Robert, who was the same age as Madeleine, would not have to change high schools in the middle of the year; the happiest times she and Robert spent while he lived with her family, Madeleine told me, were when she and Robert would hide out in her basement smoking cigarettes and conjuring up ingenious ways to murder their parents.

My uncle Izzie, my mother’s only brother, died suddenly when he was 39 years old, and the oldest of his three children was 6 years old. My cousin Muriel, daughter of one of my father’s older brothers, Manny, died when she was 41, and the oldest of her two children was 5. My cousins Gabriel and Leatrice both died in their early 60s, Leatrice of cancer, and Gabriel in a demented state due in large part to a drug habit enhanced during the decade he was regional systems coordinator for the National Cash Register Company in Singapore. My cousin Charles, one of my uncle Izzie’s three children, brain-injured in a car accident that compromised his ability to care for himself, spent many lost years before being taken in by Brooklyn’s Lubavitcher Chassidic community. My brother Robert spent more than 50 years in and out of mental hospitals, psych wards, and halfway houses. And others—as with the Leifer brothers—suffered the ravages of chronic depression, gambling addiction, and alcoholism.

But lives marked and transformed by madness, depression, cancer, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide, homelessness, and incarceration, and exacerbated by nasty ongoing family feuds and vendettas—might not such lives occur in any large, extended family? And might large, extended families, like mine, also have their share of lives that are, on the whole, more fortunate than not?

When I think back to a time when all of life centered around family, I think, too, of how swiftly things changed. Like professional athletes who move frequently from team to team and city to city, we, and our children, and our children’s children, seem to have all become free agents. When my cousins and I were growing up in Brooklyn in the post-World War II era, the lineup of the Brooklyn Dodgers team was, for the most part, constant, year after year. And the same was true for the rosters of most other professional baseball, basketball, and football teams. Now it’s a rare event when a player finishes a career with the team for which he first played, and many professional athletes, because of free agency—a move I applaud, for it gives players actual agency in dealing with powerful, often greedy team owners—wind up playing for a half-dozen or more teams, in different cities, in the course of their careers.

The majority of my cousins, like free agents, and like the wandering Jews of fact and legend, wound up living far from the city in which we were born and raised, and at great distances from one another. Not unlike most Americans, who on average move once every four to five years, and a dozen times in a lifetime, we moved frequently, and came to dwell for significant periods of time in cities all over the world and throughout the United States: in Maryland, Tennessee, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Utah, New Jersey, France, Singapore, Israel, Turkey, and Canada. And my children, my cousins’ children, and their children, have lived in places where none of my 35 first cousins ever lived: in Illinois, Vermont, Georgia, Virginia, Delaware, China, Denmark, Germany, and Thailand.

But how unusual is this? Strangers in a strange land, most first- and second-generation immigrants live near one another until they have the wherewithal—money, education, skills, connections—that enable them to move from their often mean, impoverished beginnings to places where they become members of middle- and upper-middle-class American communities, and assimilate into regional and national cultures. When they assimilate, they often lose many of the daily, long-term connections to family, place, customs, and traditions that marked the first generation or two of their lives in the United States. Because they lack the means to improve their living conditions, families afflicted with poverty often cannot and do not move great distances, and families bound to each other by religion (Chassidim, Shakers), often prefer not to move in order to retain ongoing connections they deem essential to their beliefs and survival.

But if we’re among those fortunate enough to have, magical word—options—and can choose where to live, not where circumstance compels us to live, we can relocate to places we believe, as politicians promise us, will enable us to gain our share of the American dream. And no matter the distance from aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, the media will ennoble our choices by assuring us that we will belong to new, large, and glamorous families: the New England Patriots family, the Westchester homeowners family, the Kentucky Wildcats basketball family, the AMC family, and so on.

So that when I reflect on the world my cousins and I inhabited—a world where, across decades, we were with one another in our daily, weekly, and monthly lives, and with one another for major life events (births, weddings, deaths), and in a multitude of those ordinary times that made up the very stuff of our lives, it occurs to me that we came to care for one another—to know one another—in a way that seems unique to a particular time and place in midcentury America; and I remind myself, too, that in the Hebrew Bible—a book that, to varying degrees, all my cousins knew—the words “to know” and “to love” are synonymous.

And such thoughts lead not only to an appreciation of what, with the passing of time, has been lost, though what has been lost seems considerable, but to the realization that—because most of my 35 first cousins are now gone?—I find myself thinking about them and missing them more than I did during the many years in which we lived at great distances from one another, and saw one another infrequently; and when I think about them and miss them, I do so with the knowledge that in a finite amount of time none of my cousins will be here to think about and miss me.

Still, while aware that there are probably fewer years ahead than behind, the readiness is, as ever, all, and I find myself anticipating whatever years may lie ahead with an eagerness that surprises me. I look forward to celebrating Bernie’s birthdays and my own, and to the pleasures that come from memory and desire: from memories that seem as palpable as they are infinite.

Jay Neugeboren’s 23rd book, After Camus, was published earlier this year.

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