THE JUNKMAN WITH CLASS AND AMBIENCE
His name was Hillel, but for close to 60 years, I knew him as Harry. As teens, we worked together in a factory that manufactured leather jackets and later we worked together next door in another factory that mixed chemical abrasives. We both came from the same stetl, the Yiddish community colonized by our immigrant parents, who, processed through Ellis Island and Castle Garden in the early part of the century, settled in one of New Jersey's most highly integrated ghetto neighborhoods of Jews, blacks and various other Eastern European immigrants. This was the ghetto clustered around a vehicular artery called St. George Avenue, the old Lincoln Highway, at that point where St. George Avenue is the boundary that runs between the City of Linden and the Borough of Roselle.
Harry knew every Yiddish joke anyone ever told. With a deep and melodic baritone voice, always singing and joking and always full of fun, Harry was the first to turn everything into a laugh. Part of me considered Harry another one of the world's great characters, even though, as the years passed, another part of me considered him to have turned into a corny old Jew who, bedecked in the talis (prayer shawl) and tefelin (phylacteries) of Judaic ritual, faced the East to dahven (pray) every morning upon arising. Whether one of the world's great characters or a corny old Jew, he remained one of my best friends, right until the very end.
"I'm not perfect," he used to say, "but I'm almost perfect."
To me, Harry always represented my generation's personification of Yiddishkeit, something which soon evaporated from my own psyche in the years following my Bar Mitzvah, which, at the age of 13, marks a Jewish kid's passage into manhood. Whereas I eventually abandoned Judaism, Harry embraced his religion all the more until he wasn't just Harry any more, but turned into a hazzen, a holy singer who chants the Hebrew liturgy at weddings, bar-mitzvahs, funerals and synagogue prayer services. To others, he was no longer Harry. He was Cantor Hillel J. Sadowitz, who, for the past 32 years was cantor, choir director and teacher at Temple Israel in Union, N.J. In his obituaries, he was also honored as a temple builder, a Hadassah honoree, a tzadik (saintly man) of charity and Union Township's "Citizen of the Year" in 1991. But to me, he was always just plain Harry, one of my oldest and best friends.
Maybe you remember me telling you about him back in January of 1996, when my Column Five contained a version of a story I wrote that was published in the Newark Star-Ledger of August 17, 1995. The story told of how, while I was riding home with Harry through the 11 p.m. remoteness of West Orange's Watchung Reservation, he collapsed behind the wheel of his car at the intersection of Cherry Lane and Pleasant Valley Way. That is right in the middle of the Watchung Reservation and a desolate crossroads at that time of night. In a panic, I ran into the street to look for a passing patrol car to flag down or any driver who might have a mobile phone. Out of nowhere, a car pulled up behind me and the driver got out, saying he was an off-duty Newark cop and asking if he could be of help.
With Harry's head back and his mouth wide open, Harry looked to me as if he already had croaked. But the cop felt Harry's pulse, found he still had one and, with the help of Harry's breathing machine, kept Harry alive until a passing driver who had a car phone summoned an ambulance.
See, I didn't know what to do. Harry had pulled over to the side of the road
to hook himself up to a breathing machine, except he had collapsed and the bit
of the machine had fallen out of his mouth. All anyone had to do was to close
Harry's mouth back on the bit of the machine to keep him breathing. But, like I
say, I was too panicked. The only thing I could think to do was to call a cop.
In my mind, I was screaming out prayers for one. Except, I was looking for a cop
in a patrol car with a two-way radio. This cop was in his own car, but he turned
out to be just the kind of dedicated cop I was praying for, a gung-ho rookie,
only a month out of Newark's police academy, the kind of cop who wanted to be a
hero, which is exactly what he became to me and to Harry.
PATROLMAN JOHN G. FORMISANO
At the time, I was too flustered to get his name. It wasn't until after the Star-Ledger printed the story that I learned he was 26-year-old Patrolman John G. Formisano, who had wanted to be a cop since he was three, when he insisted that his mother dress him up as one. After the story appeared in the Star-Ledger and I learned of Patrolman Formisano's identity, Harry immediately asked me to arrange to take Patrolman Formisano out to dinner so Harry could thank him. I tried to set up a date, but when the time came for the three of us to get together, Harry was in the Jersey City Medical Center. He had collapsed behind the wheel again.
Harry's problem was that he was not only a cantor but he was also a junkman, a disappearing breed in these parts. Even while attending the cantorial and religious schools necessary for him to become a hazzen, Harry was a junkman. He used to claim to be the last junkman with a junkyard in the whole Northeast. At the entrance of the junkyard, he put up a sign that said: "The Junkyard With Class & Ambience."
With a horse and wagon, Harry's immigrant father, David Sadowitz, had founded the junkyard at the corner of St. George Avenue and Lincoln Street in Linden. When Harry's father died in 1969, Harry, although, like me, the baby of the family, continued running David Sadowitz & Sons, Inc., Dealers in Surplus & Industrial Equipment, with the help of his brothers, William and Izzy and their three sisters, Pauline, Molly and Burnice. Finally exhausted after toting around so much junk, the Sadowitz family finally sold out in 1994. Still, it wasn't the heaviness of the junk that did Harry in so much as the industrial chemicals he had to inhale. Harry and his melodic voice developed asthma. He asked me to
Because of his asthma,
Harry had a problem walking and singing
at the same time
try not to make a big thing out of it when I wrote the story, because, after all, it's a problem to have a reputation as a hazzen with asthma.
Harry explained this to me with a story about singing that part of the Yom Kippur service when the Torah has been returned to the Ark of the Covenant and the Mussoff, or the "additional service," is about to begin. He now had to walk from the back door of the temple to the Ark, singing Hineni, the prayer of supplication and humility. This is one of he most sacred rituals of Judaism. It was only about 100 feet but Harry knew he couldn't rush. Because of his asthma, he had to pace himself to keep his singing breaths under control. Besides, he was not only preoccupied with the solemnity of the day, but he was also psyched up worrying about the 14 members of the choir whom he had so painstakingly instructed in the many prior months and also, he said:
"I was worried about this kid!"
Every year, Harry found it more and more difficult to come up with a six or seven year old boy to sing the liturgy with him during Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, Judaism's most sacred events. I, myself, was picked by a hazzen to fill that role when I was six or seven. I even remember some of the words of my solo, although I never knew what they meant: Tsadik adonoi, bachol daro-o-ov. I can't even remember the name of the hazzen who picked me to sing with him. For Harry, such a pure and innocent voice was always the high point of his High Holy Day extravaganza.
"I would stand him on a chair and he and I, we would look into each other's eyes," Harry explained, "and this would be the piece de resistance of the service, when together we would sing the Kvakores, which tells how all humanity must all pass beneath the shepherd's crook of God the Shepherd to be judged."
With the choir still on the bimah, or podium, and the kid still on his mind, Harry stepped out of the side door of the temple to re-enter through a back door, where he found himself greeted by the kid pulling a scene with his father, screaming and hollering like, in Harry's words, a vilde chaya, which is Yiddish for "wild animal."
"When I first found the kid, I knew he was a natural!" Harry explained. "He could really sing! It took a lot of looking but I finally found such a kid. Except, this kid wanted to sing with me like you wanna jump off a roof! He just didn't want to!
"So, I said, 'Sing! People will notice you. You'll get your name in the paper. I'll get your picture taken.' That straightened him out a little. Yeah, he was glad to do that. So, I taught him his part, and the kid could really sing! He could sing good! He sang with me on Rosh Hashonah. A very important part of the service. He had a solo and he sang with me and he sang with the choir. It was a whole thing! A whole Mitziah!"
In other words, the kid was a hit! But now the kid doesn't want to sing any more. Harry is witnessing exactly what he had feared would happen with the kid, who, from the beginning, had filled Harry with anxiety.
"So anyway," Harry explained, "to make a long story short, this is the beginning of the most important part of the service. I go out and I enter through the back door. And my choir is up on the bimah with the solos and everything. I have to go from the bimah of the shul all the way around the back. It's a long walk, especially if you gotta sing. You don't want to start rushing, especially if you got asthma. Plus, I'm worried about my choir plus I'm worried if this kid's gonna sing. I get out in the hallway, I'm getting ready to dahven and I see this kid is screaming at his father:
"'I told you I don't wanna sing with the cantor! I told you I don't wanna sing for the holidays! Why are you making me sing?'
"And here, I got all these things on my head and I see this kid is screaming, hollering, so I said to this kid, 'What's going on here?'
"He said, 'I don't wanna sing with you! I don't wanna!'
"I said, 'It's Yom Kippur and we're gonna sing right now. We're gonna sing in two more minutes. As soon as I get by the door, we're gonna sing!. Now you're starting up with your father that you don't wanna sing? Tell me before, not now!'
"So he says, 'Well I don't wanna sing!'
"I said, 'Look, I know you like the Yankees or the Mets.' I know he liked one of those teams. I said, 'You sing today, I'll get you a season ticket.'
"The kid says, 'Wouldya? Wouldya?'
"So, I have to get the kid to sing. So even if I told a lie, it would be all right. You know, you're allowed to tell certain lies at certain times. This kid is the star of the show. I can't let him quit. I'll give him whatever he wants. A Lexus! A Cadillac! Whatever he wants, I'll say so! I say, 'Yeah, I'll get it for you.' I had no idea how I could get a season ticket. None! Today, I don't even remember who the team was. So, the kid says, 'Ok!'"
So Harry tells the kid: "'Ok, put on your gown and get over there and get ready!'
"I go back," Harry said, "and I'm ready to start my Hineni, which is like the most important point of the service, the prayer in which the Hazzen talks to God and so forth and I'm singin' what I'm supposed to be singin' but I'm really asking God, 'How the hell am I gonna get this kid these tickets, anyway?' So, I did what I hadda do and the kid did his solo and the show went over big and then Yom Kippur is done and how am I gonna keep my promise to get the season ticket?"
What Harry did was to write a letter to the team, explaining the whole story. "And you know what?" Harry told me, "They sent me a season pass! Two season passes! No money! Free! I gave the passes to the kid. I said, 'Here! Take your father!'"
Corny old Jew Harry had a million stories like that. Harry had a story for everything. For instance, as I kept trying to set up a date so Harry could get to meet and thank Patrolman
puts Harry up
Formisano, winter came and Harry had to go to Florida to buy a condominium. He came back telling me he met a woman in Florida who gave him a place to stay, put him up free and took care of all his expenses.
"I'm a millionairess!" she told Harry. "I won a million dollars in the Maryland Lottery."
Harry accepted her generosity because Harry was a very charming guy. Except it turned out she hadn't won the Maryland Lottery at all.
Harry never did get to meet the cop who, as things turned out, gave Harry another year to his life. I kept trying to set up a date, but the next thing that happened was that Harry started falling asleep behind the wheel and running into accidents. In one of them, he totaled his car. That's when I stopped taking rides with Harry just to keep him company. Then I had my heart attack and underwent open-heart surgery, making me face up to the fact that both Harry and I were getting old. In fact, he was four days my junior. I was still in the hospital when Harry's asthma killed him while he slept in his bed. It was July 11. He had come to visit me in the hospital and we had played a vicious game of Scrabble. I'm still finding it hard getting used to the idea that I'll never see him again. I couldn't even go to Harry's funeral. I was still in a hospital bed.
I'm told that Union's Temple Israel was mobbed as Harry's brother-n-law, Bob Siegel, delivered the eulogy. He had it all typed it out and his wife, Burnice, sent me a copy:
"Hillel, Indeed you were a source of strength, not only to your family, but also to all those who knew you and loved you. . . And when you sang El Mawlae Rachamim, even the heavens wanted to cry, so intense, so sincere and so poignant was your vocal delivery. . .
"Frequently, you would call me to accompany you to some particular destination. You assured me that the visit would not take more than a few minutes. How often those 'few minutes' would turn out to be a few hours? I would then promise myself that I would not accompany you to another place or destination for "a few minutes.' Yet, whenever you called, I would drop everything and run. What was it you had? What kind of magic over me and over us? . . . You had that certain charm which charmed, a magnetism that conveyed a promise. . .
"Now your voice is stilled, and we shall not hear it again, for the angel of death, like a thief in the night, has stolen you away from us, swiftly, quietly, surreptitiously, and things will never be the same." ##
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