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The Yiddish Gangster’s Daughter

Joan Lipinsky Cochran

To my family,

Michael, Eric and Ryan




I’m the type of woman people trust. Or so friends tell me. It’s probably because I have such an open face. Brown eyes set a few centimeters too far apart. Broad cheekbones that taper to a square jaw. Curly brown hair that flops over my forehead.

It’s what people politely call an interesting face.

Strangers in coffee shops ask me to watch their computers when they go to the bathroom. Mothers in grocery stores catch my eye and smile conspiratorially when their kids throw tantrums.

When I was a child, everyone’s assumptions about my trustworthiness embarrassed me. Teachers appointed me class monitor, figuring I’d never lie about my friends’ misbehavior. Neighbors asked me to babysit, confident I’d have their children in bed by eight.

By sixteen, though, I caught on to what I could pull off with an open face. I became the wise guy friends sent inside liquor stores, knowing no clerk would challenge me. When my resident advisor found marijuana in my dorm room my freshman year, I had no trouble convincing her a boy I’d just met abandoned it on my desk.

But my trustworthy appearance is not the problem.

My trusting nature is.

It’s taken me fifty years to find that out.

It’s a typical Sunday in August and my husband and I have driven to Miami to pick up my father for brunch. As we pull up to his building at the Schmuel Bernstein Jewish Home for the Aged, we spot the old man. In point of fact, it’s impossible to miss him. He looks like a giant leprechaun in Kelly green Bermudas and an equally green polo shirt. My dad’s a big man at six feet three inches and his shorts ride well above his knees. Daniel and I exchange amused glances. Then my husband rolls down his window.

“Tootsie. Over here,” he yells, waving my father to the car. Everyone, including his grandchildren, calls the old man Tootsie. It’s the nickname he acquired when an older cousin—another Sydney—insisted he was the original.

This particular Sydney a.k.a. Tootsie stands in the portico of a five-story apartment building, arms crossed and foot tapping in a less-than-subtle demonstration of impatience. He lives in one of eight identical brick buildings on the campus of what the Schmuel Bernstein’s promotional brochure describes as an independent living facility—and Tootsie calls the old folks’ home. It was built fifty years ago in the former hub of Jewish Miami, now a tough neighborhood comprised of car dealerships, Haitian restaurants, and a kosher delicatessen run by Nicaraguans. Every now and then, the locals spice things up with a drive-by shooting.

Though in a gritty section of town, the Schmuel Bernstein’s ten-acre campus remains a Shangri-La for Miami’s elderly Jews. This is due, in no small part, to the generosity of successful Israelites who want a spot to be waiting for them when infirmity strikes. On the kosher side of the ten-foot metal fence that surrounds its grounds are chrome and glass state-of-the-art medical facilities, a nursing home, independent living buildings, and paved trails wide enough to accommodate dual wheel chairs.

Virtually every building, garden path, and meeting room on campus is adorned with a brass plaque that identifies its wealthy benefactor. I tell Daniel on the drive over it won’t be long before little brass testaments to donors show up inside bathroom stalls. One day, you’ll be able to do your business while honoring the memory of Saul Berkowitz or Miriam Wolensky.

My father bought his apartment in the Fannie Sadowitz Residence a year ago and loves to kvetch about the old people. But he likes it here. There’s a dining room, so he doesn’t have to cook, and a couple of his cronies have moved in. Their poker games are rumored to be vicious.

Spotting Daniel, Tootsie ambles over and climbs in back before leaning over to kiss my cheek. “Head to Zimmerman’s Deli.” Then, remembering his manners, “If that’s okay with everyone.”

Daniel and I mutter our agreement, then I shift into first. Today marks three months since we began driving to Miami, an hour south of our home in Boca Raton, to take Tootsie out for Sunday brunch or dinner. It’s a ritual we launched after my father and I made up. We argued after my mother’s funeral two years ago when I said I’d never forgive him for cheating on her. But after my children left for college, I realized how much I missed being around family and reconnected with the old man. So far it’s worked out.

“What’s the matter? Too cheap to use the air-conditioning?” Tootsie says, reaching over the seat and adjusting the fan. The day is turning into a scorcher. It’s only ten and heat radiates off the causeway, forming shimmering pools of light above the tarmac. We park in the lot behind Zimmerman’s Deli and enter through the back door, passing empty orange and blue crates that line the narrow hallway. The early crowd’s gone and it’ll be a while before the tennis players trickle in so we’re seated right away.

Zimmerman’s is one of Miami Beach’s oldest delis and looks it. Its dozen or so red and gray Formica tabletops are scratched and dented, and the grout between the floor’s white tiles is moldy brown. Even the waitresses, with their cheap cotton aprons and tired eyes, seem worn-out. But it doesn’t matter. Miami Beach’s Jews are loyal. Zimmerman’s draws a steady Sunday morning crowd. It’s the place to be seen. I grew up thirty minutes south of here, in Coral Gables, and am glad I don’t need to worry about familiar faces. I’ve done nothing with my hair and wear the gym shorts I threw on to walk this morning.

“Lox and bagels,” I tell the waitress, echoing my father’s order. Daniel, who asked for an egg white omelet, raises an eyebrow and I respond with an abashed grin. I forgot we’d had a discussion the night before about eating healthier. But the lox here

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