Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Angels on Division Street

Barbara Kapner Offenberg and Greg Lopatka have never met. But it’s no surprise their paths have failed to cross. After all, Barbara was a dark-haired Jewish girl attending Hibbard elementary and Roosevelt high schools on Chicago’s North Side, while Greg -- a tow-headed lad at the time -- spent the same years at St. Mark’s grammar and Holy Trinity high schools in my old Humboldt Park neighborhood. But today, I’m introducing them to each other, and to you, and exposing them for what they’ve grown up to be: Angels. My angels on Division Street.

Perhaps it’s this Thanksgiving week that has cooked up the idea of gratitude. But I want to be sure, before this outstandingly fun journey of authorship goes any further, that I acknowledge my many angels. While Barbara and Greg are in today’s spotlight, they actually represent the hundreds (my count, give or take 10%) of friends, relatives, bloggers, authors, journalists, producers, bookstore owners, book club hosts, and others who deserve angel designation for generously boosting "The Division Street Princess."

When I decided to declare Barbara and Greg my Division Street angels, I was pretty sure Greg wouldn’t protest because spiritual beings are frequently mentioned in the Scriptures. But what about Jews, like Barbara and me? What did our sages have to say about these heavenly creatures? So I Googled and learned that angels play a prominent role in Jewish tradition, too; and both religions consider angels to be God’s messenger and our guardian.

Now that I’m comfortable our theme is kosher (sort of), I’ll explain why I elevated Barbara and Greg to their roles. Also, I’m posting photos that are identified at the end of this essay.

Barbara and I attended Roosevelt High together in the 1950s, but at the time, we knew each other only as classmates, not buddies. She was involved in dozens of extra-curricular activities, while my resume is sort of skinny, so there were few opportunities to interact during those four years.

But thanks to our recent 50-year high school reunion – and the zeal of another one of my angels, Beverly Fischmann Steinberg – Barbara learned about my memoir and immediately booked me to appear before her sisterhood at Congregation B'Nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview.

As we say in Yiddish, Barbara is a Gantseh Macher (big shot) at BJBE. She served as Sisterhood Interfaith Chairman, Religion and Education Vice President, Program and Human Services Vice President, and is now on the Temple Personnel and Interfaith Committees. In her career, she’s been at the right-hand of rabbis at Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation, Niles Township Jewish Congregation; and true to her interfaith leanings, is currently in the same seat at Wilmette Lutheran Church.

The event at BJBE, which took place Nov. 8, was a grand success with more than 75 (my body count, plus or minus 10%) sisterhood members attending, including several spouses. I read a chapter of my book, and the crowd followed up with memories of their own old neighborhood days. On top of that, my angel Barbara sold a stack of my books, won me an honorarium, treated me to dinner; and here’s the guardian part: snagged her husband, John, to accompany her while they drove me back to my Independence Park home about 15 miles away. (Skittish about driving at night beyond Chicago’s city limits, I had taken a cab to Barbara’s house and was prepared to do the reverse. But you know these angels…)

While Barbara’s adoption of me shouldn’t be too surprising considering our common Jewish background, Greg Lopatka’s embracement has been a continuing wonder. Back in the spring of this year, after reading a newspaper article about my book (Chicago Sun-Times, April 10, 2006), Greg sent me fan e-mail. And then, being the messenger he has proved to be, mailed a glowing review to nearly 100 of his friends from St. Marks, Holy Trinity, and other places where he picks up chums.

And as a Chicago Public School employee for nearly 40 years, a volunteer at the Morton Arboretum where he helps Naperville kids and parents make atmospheric observations and report them to the GLOBE Program Data Base, Greg has built a mighty potent e-mail list. Now, all of his correspondents not only learn about his celestial teachings, but also are regularly updated on my book events.

Perhaps my astonishment at Greg’s interest in my book displays a bit of naiveté – or dare I admit it: small mindedness – on my part. I had always assumed that the primary fans of my memoir would be Jews my same age. Now I’m happy (nay, ecstatic) to report that Catholics like Greg, plus those of other ethnic and racial groups, and of various ages, are finding themes in my book that resonate in their own lives. Yea!

As for Greg, I believe my book’s draw for him has been nostalgia for our Humboldt Park neighborhood and “the good old days.” In his e-mails to me, he includes photos and descriptions of landmarks, streetscapes, products, pastimes, and other memorabilia. You can take trips down memory lane, too, by clicking on his website.

Can you understand why I feel so fortunate this Thanksgiving week? Absent a large publishing house behind me, and the publicity budget that might have provided, my book has managed to cut across religious boundaries, soar beyond city limits, and travel throughout the U.S. and as far flung as Taiwan. Something heavenly must be at work here. Hooray for my angels, and for any you are blessed to have.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo Captions:
1. Emma Thompson, as pictured in “Angels in America,” the breath-taking HBO film directed by Mike Nichols.
2. Greg on a pony that traveled the old neighborhoods with its photographer-owner to capture treasures like this one.
3. Barbara in her Roosevelt High days, plus a list of all of her activities.
4. Greg at age 14 watching his 12.5-inch Sonora TV.
5. A little blurry, but who could resist this photo of Barbara as a Roosevelt High drum majorette?
6. Beverly Fischmann Steinberg, my angel who was responsible for alerting the entire 1956 class of Roosevelt High School about my book. She also arranged my first book club appearance.
7. Barbara, in the light shaded multi-colored jacket, is seated on the right in this photo taken during the Sisterhood meeting. To her left is another Roosevelt High alumna, Beverly Mann Hollander.
8. Harvey Kupfer at BJBE relating his own old neighborhood memories. To his left is his wife, Elaine. Seated behind Harvey is Frances, and behind her, Lois.
9. St. Mark’s guys all grown up. From left to right: Phil, Greg, Paul, Father Rochford, Gerry, Father Charley, Ray (another Division Street angel), Ken, Ron, Jim, and Jerry.
10. Greg at his Morton Arboretum volunteer gig.
11. My newest angel: Dan Maxime. He is the Tuley high school (class of 1951) historian-archivist. Dan sent news of my book to his group’s several-hundred mailing list. Here he’s pictured with some of his collection of political memorabilia.
12. Charlotte Levy and her husband Marv at the first gig she arranged for me: the Good Timers social club. She has also included me in the upcoming Judaic Culture Day, Nov. 26. Contact Charlotte at Char0223@aol.com for more information.


Therapy Doc said...

great post, Elaine.

The thing Jews need to remember about angels is they generally have one and only one task to do in life and it gets pretty boring.
job done, it's back to heaven.

check out the Skokie Public Library, too, for speaking engagements, it's awesome. (oh, and I loved Angels in America. wasn't that amazing?)


Anonymous said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Elaine! Good news - this is NOT a rejection letter - quite the opposite :)

I find, the older I get, the more that Jews and we Catholics have in common. Those of us of a certain age, Jews and Catholics alike, were all very heavily influenced by our religions - and our parents' translation of those religious beliefs. I think truly enlightened people (yes, of course, I include ME) enjoy comparing and contrasting our religious experiences because those differences become "interesting" facets of one's personality, not foundations for arguments. And isn't it always fun to discover, "hey, we did that, too!"
Isn't that why our ancestors came to America - to celebrate differences and create a new, interesting mix?
Regarding circumcision: a lot of Catholics circumcise as well - it was presented to us as a health issue. And to the person who sarcastically suggested circumcising men's ears: one would assume that has already happened, hmmm? :)
P.S. Enjoyed the Queen of the Oddballs book, too. I'm not gay, but the author and I are similar in age. If I had been living near her, I would have hung out with her, so that when we finished stalking Carol King, we could then stalk Paul Revere and the Raiders :)

Enjoying the blog - thanks, Elaine!


Elizabeth Crane said...

Wonderful. It's true, your book does cut across lines, says the shiksa from Division Street.
Ditto on Angels in America. Whoo. Gotta see that again.

Ray Holloway said...

Wow! I made the blog... A first time for everything, I guess. I feel so honored and being called another "angel" dealt my ego a much needed jolt. Thank you very much. As I told you earlier, I had a lot of Jewish friends from Humboldt Park and still see some of them to this day. That neighborhood was really a melting pot and I cherish all that I learned by growing up there. Your book hit the nail on the head in many ways and brought back many good memories. Thank you again. Ray Holloway