A few weeks ago I went to the symphony. It was quite an incredible show: a solo performance by a German violinist named Christian Tetzlaff, who performed 6 Bach sonatas (5 of them from memory) over the course of 2 hours. This is Christian:
Going to the symphony is a very different experience for me than going to a rock concert. At a rock concert, if it’s a band I love I lose myself in the music, sing along, dance, cheer, and become completely immersed in the moment. I immediately go home and listen to the band’s CDs or watch their Youtube videos, and become obsessed with them for a week or so because I’m in denial that the show is over. At the symphony, on the other hand, I often get so mesmerized by the music that I almost cease to hear it. My mind wanders to a different place and the music acts as my guide. With rare exception, I can’t remember the music after the show is over—I can’t hum the tune unless it’s something recognizable to the point of being cliché (like the time I saw MTT conduct Beethoven’s Seventh), but I remember the journey on which it took me.
I saw Christian Tetzlaff with a beautiful young woman. I’ve found that it’s best to go to the symphony with a beautiful young woman, especially one who is likely to wear something sexy yet classy. Besides, I’m nearly 33 years old, and I don’t have that many years left when I can still bring beautiful young women to the symphony without seeming creepy (like the man in front of me who looked to be 20 years my senior, with a woman who was likely 10 years my junior). My date was wearing a gorgeous little black dress. Let’s be clear here–there are little black dresses and there are little black dresses. She was wearing the latter. Her brown jacket lay draped across her shoulders for the entire evening—the dress was sleeveless and she was covering her tattoos. Her tattoos are simple and elegant and it was a shame to keep them hidden, but on the other side of her was an elderly growling man with angry, twitching eyebrows, and we both knew that he would be offended by the side of her young, lithe, bare shoulders even without the ink, so it was better for my date to play her hand conservatively.
When the music started, I slid my hand up her leg and took her hand in mine. She had tiny hands, and as the playing got more intense and I became more immersed in my journey, I practically crushed her hand in mine and she yanked it away. Shortly after Christian Tetzlaff took his bow after the first half, she asked me what I was thinking about during the concert that had caused me to grip her hand so tightly. I tried to look into her eyes but I was still coming back from my mental stroll and it was difficult to focus on anything in the real world. Eventually I stammered out the answer: “My grandfather.”
My grandfather passed away 6 years ago. For the first six months or so after he died, I thought of him every single day. That was back when I was in law school, when I was always looking for a reason to not focus on what I was supposed to be doing. Gradually, my life got busier and my grief waned, and eventually I got to the point where I was only thinking of him on the weekends, then every other week or once a month. Now I only think of my grandfather every now and then, maybe once every other month when I ride my bike up to Forest Hills where he used to live, or when we have a large family gathering for a Jewish holiday in which he would have played a patriarchal role had he been alive. 2014 would have been my grandfather’s 99th year on Earth, and although I don’t think about him all that much these days, when I think about my grandfather, boy do I think about him.
And now I’m going to tell you about what I was thinking during the symphony. This is not an obituary about my grandfather—the J Weekly already wrote a nice one about him so that need not be done again. I’m also not going to re-post any of the three eulogies I wrote about him when he died—if you’re a close friend or family member, you’ve probably already read or heard at least one or two of those. No, for this post I’m going to tell a story, because if there’s one characteristic I inherited from my grandfather, it’s a love for spinning a good yarn. Towards the end of his life, my grandfather began writing his memoirs. He published two volumes, covering mainly his experiences in World War II and 50+ years of practicing medicine. There was, however, at least one story that did not make it into those books. I think my grandfather would be happy to know that his grandson, who is not nearly as good a writer as he, is at least attempting to do this tale a modicum of justice.
Since I know you’re going to ask, I’ll just come out and say it: I’m going to take a few liberties with my grandfather’s story. This is okay—my grandfather himself was a master of adding exciting and fascinating elements to otherwise mundane occurrences. We once ran the numbers and determined that approximately 85% of my grandfather’s stories were bullshit. He made exaggeration into an art—indeed, this is a trait shared by the majority of extremely interesting people whom you meet.
Just as the symphony had two halves, this story has two parts. The first part was narrated to me by my grandfather about a year before he died. I was staying with my parents in Marin for a few weeks in between returning home from Japan and starting law school, and I had a friend who needed a ride from San Francisco to Marin so I decided to drive into the city, pick her up, and bring her back over the bridge. Since I was in the city and I knew my grandfather was getting old, I decided to have dinner with him, and my friend came along. My friend, incidentally, was a beautiful young woman, and my grandfather was chatting with her in a flirtatious-yet-adorable manner, as was his wont in his older years. I think there’s some rule under which from the ages of 35ish to 75ish you’re creepy if you flirt with beautiful young women, but after you reach a certain age it becomes endearing.
He was asking my friend about herself, and it eventually came out that she was a violist. “Is that so? You know, I grew up with Yehudi Menuhin. In fact, he was a childhood friend of mine. Our mothers were very close.” My friend was quite interested—“really? I love Yehudi Menuhin.” I just smiled and nodded, pretending to know how Yehudi Menuhin was. My grandfather explained.
Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York to Belarussian immigrants, and his family moved to San Francisco when he was still an infant. Like all Eastern European Jewish immigrants, upon arriving to a new city they immediately found the local synagogue and became prominent members of the Jewish community. Yehudi’s mother, Marutha, took a liking to my great-grandmother, and the two quickly developed what my grandfather described as a “tenuous friendship,” mainly because Marutha was a nut-job. Not to say that my great-grandmother wasn’t a little crazy herself—when my grandfather was a toddler, she dressed him up in little girls’ dresses to confuse the Ashmedai, the Jewish demon who kidnaps little boys. Yehudi was two years younger than my grandfather and when my grandfather outgrew his dresses, my great-grandmother gave them to Marutha, who used them to dress up Yehudi when he was old enough to be a potential kidnapping victim.
Yes, that’s right. My grandfather and world-reknowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin wore the same little girls’ dresses when they were toddlers.
When my grandfather was a little older, he became friends with young Yehudi. Actually, that’s not quite true. His mother insisted that he play with young Yehudi, because Yehudi’s mom was worried about Yehudi not having any friends. This was ironic, because Yehudi’s mom did everything in her power to make sure that Yehudi would never become a normally-socialized young boy.
My grandfather was already not thrilled about having to hang out with a boy two years his younger. Really—when you’re nine years old, is there any bigger pain in the ass than a seven year-old? But Yehudi was even less fun than other younger boys, because when one had a play date with the prodigal son of Marutha Menuhin, his options were limited. Yehudi was strictly prohibited by his mother from doing anything that would befoul his immaculate, violin-playing hands. Yes, Yehudi was a seven year-old boy who was not allowed to get his hands dirty. That meant no playing in mud, dirt, sand, or grass. That meant no throwing balls or playing sports, no fighting, no cartwheels. I suppose that today, many 7 year-old boys just play video games all day and possibly (and pathetically) keep their hands clean, but in the year 1923 this was not an option (and Marutha Menuhin probably would not have been a fan of video games had they existed).
When my grandfather did actually find an activity to do with Yehudi Menuhin (perhaps playing jacks…no wait, that wouldn’t work…perhaps playing Snakes and Ladders), Yehudi was required to keep his hands engaged on a practice fingering board, constantly repeating the hand positions for various different classical sonatas, overtures, and fugues. My grandfather would be in the street playing with his stick and hoop, like this:
Yehudi, meanwhile, would be sitting on the sidewalk, playing “air violin” while humming to himself. I bet my grandfather would get some pretty nasty wedgies if the older boys found out he was friends with that weirdo Yehudi Menuhin.
There was one day that Yehudi was visiting my grandfather’s house for tea and my grandfather convinced Yehudi to put down his fingering board and come kick a ball around for a while in the back yard (my grandfather was a soccer player. He would eventually play on Stanford’s varsity squad, which won three games in the four years my grandfather played for them). Suddenly, out of nowhere, Marutha Menuhin, who was in the parlor with my great-grandmother, appeared in the yard, yelled “YEHUDI! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” followed by a string of Eastern European cursewords, snatched Yehudi’s fingerboard with one hand and his ear with the other and yanked him all the way home, not letting go of his ear for three blocks while poor Yehudi squealed in agony.
Yehudi Menuhin would go on to do incredible things.
There was this:
And then there was this:
To Marutha Menuhin, I’m sure the ends justified the means. It makes me wonder how many brilliant musicians, dancers, athletes, and other performers would not have achieved greatness had it not been for overbearing, borderline-psychotic parenting and a lack of a true childhood experience.
What is written above is all I learned from my grandfather about Yehudi Menuhin. Although it’s not much, thinking about my grandfather and Yehudi, and in particular my grandfather shouting “YEHUDI!!!” to imitate Marutha’s voice, kept me occupied over the course of the first half of the symphony. During intermission, I bought my date (the beautiful young woman in the little black dress—you haven’t forgotten, have you?) an $11 glass of shitty red wine and we discussed how the Warriors would improve in the 2014-2015 season. Or rather, she discussed and I smiled and nodded, pretending to know about basketball.
When we returned to our seats and Christian Tetzlaff took to the stage again, I went back to thinking about my grandfather. Before I get into the exact nature of part two of my music-inspired mental trip, I’d like to take a moment to discuss an important part of being a heterosexual male in the age of television: the “what kind of man are you” choice. The most famous WKOMAYC came about in the 1960s, when men around the world were suddenly faced with the epic quandary: are you a “Ginger man” or a “Mary-Ann man”?
By the way, I don’t think that is the correct use of the term “litmus test,” but what do you expect from a Google image search? Anyhow, in the 1970s, men were once again forced to make a choice…
and again in the 1980s…
and so on…
Don’t be fooled, though—the WKOMAYC existed even before Gilligan’s Island. Yehudi Menuhin had two younger sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah. Both were brilliant and accomplished pianists before they reached double-digits, to the point that famed French piano instructor Marcel Ciampi noted “Mrs. Menuhin’s womb is a veritable conservatory” (overlooking the fact that it was the nurture just as much as the nature that contributed to the musical successes of the Menuhin children). However, even more than their talent at the keys, the Menuhin sisters were known for their beauty, to the point that the question was regularly asked, “Are you a Hephzibah man or a Yaltah man?”
My grandfather was a Yaltah man—I learned this shortly after his death. When we were sitting shiva for him (a Jewish tradition wherein, after a family member dies, you have a 7-day long somber brunch), I picked up a small leather-bound volume my aunt had put on the coffee table. It was my grandfather’s journal, in which he started writing while in London during World War II when he was 29 years old, and picked up again 50 years later. After eating, I retired to my aunt’s childhood room with my grandfather’s writings—fortunately his penmanship was much better than mine, so I could actually read his words. The first entry was about how my grandfather was smarter than everybody else in the army, and that he was thus without friends and lonely. I used to blame my own loneliness on similar circumstances, but my intelligence pales in comparison to his so my problems must lie somewhere else.
The second entry was entitled “Girls and Music” and was about five of my grandfather’s early romances. The piece takes up 36 pages of his journal, and 20 of those pages are dedicated to one particular woman: Yaltah Menuhin. Yes, not only was my grandfather a “Yaltah man,” he actually fulfilled the fantasy by dating her…kind of.
My grandfather had known Yaltah in her infancy, but reconnected with her years later, when she was 19 and he was 26. Yaltah, recently divorced (married at 18, divorced at 18 ½), was living with her family in Los Gatos, and when my grandfather went to visit Marutha (I struggle to think of why) one weekend, he became reacquainted with, and instantly attracted to, Yaltah. At that point Yehudi and Hephzibah were already world-renowned musicians, and although Yaltah was no slouch at the piano, she was focusing mainly on her poetry, which she wrote in six different languages. Sadly, I cannot find any of her poems online, or even find any references to any of her collections (according to my grandfather’s journal, she was getting a collection of her French poems published while he was courting her, but that collection does not seem to be presently available on Amazon).
Yaltah and my grandfather became friends, and after a number of weekends spent together in San Francisco and Los Gatos, they took a trip together to Santa Cruz. After dancing cheek-to-cheek in a fancy nightclub just off the boardwalk, they retired to their bed and breakfast, where they had gotten separate rooms. As my grandfather lay in bed, unable to sleep, Yaltah came into his room, wearing nothing but a sexy pink nightgown. She crawled into bed with him and began showering him with kisses. My grandfather wrote this about his feelings during the experience: “I for my part was gradually slipping into a state which in the Bible is described as ‘causing a man to forget his Father and Mother.’”
For the record, he did not have sex with her. I’m not exactly sure why he abstained. My uncle once spoke of my grandfather upholding the proud “amorous tradition” of males in my family, and it’s known that after my grandfather got married, he indulged in extra-curricular activities with ladies whom my aunt described as “the loose Jewish women of San Francisco.” This is all to say that refraining from carnal indulgences was not exactly my grandfather’s forte. However, when he was in bed with the goddess-like Yaltah Menuhin, he resisted. From his writing, it appears that he refused her advances in an attempt to demonstrate that he had willpower, so as to assert his dominance.
In the end, his strategy backfired; Yaltah interpreted his actions as rejection, and no longer wished to spend time alone with him. I’m reminded of a recent scene from the show “Louie.” I think the show is starting to go downhill this season, but there was one hilarious moment a couple of weeks ago when Louie’s elderly Eastern European neighbor tells him, “In Hungary, we have a saying: if you didn’t screw the cow, she’s not your cow.”
On top of unceremoniously dumping my grandfather, in an act that may go towards proving the old adage about hell’s lack of a certain kind of fury, Yaltah eloped with a man named Bud Rolfe. Not long before that, my grandfather had introduced Bud (then a friend) to his younger sister (my great-aunt, for those who are getting confused by the genealogy), and the two of them had started dating somewhat seriously. Yaltah snatched Bud away from my great-aunt, and my grandfather was convinced that this was an attempt to further hurt him, as he was quite close with (and protective of) his little sister.
Yaltah Menuhin’s second marriage lasted only slightly longer than her first. My great-aunt met another nice Jewish boy shortly after Bud slighted her, and they were married happily for over 50 years. My grandfather married another poet (or “poetess,” as female poets were called at the time). His wife (my grandmother) may not have been as famous as Yaltah Menuin, but at least you can find her poems easily on the Internet (she’s also, as far as I know, the only person in my immediate family to have a Wikipedia page). Also, I’ve seen photographs of her in her younger years, and she was way hotter than Yaltah Menuhin.
My grandmother published 9 books of poetry and wrote enough poems for one more collection before her dementia took over and left her a shell of a human being. When I visited her in Israel four years ago she read me the following poem, which has never been published before today:
POEMS ARE SERIOUS
How many people no I mean women
young women do you know
no I mean understand which is
different very from just plain
knowing well enough to write
about them even a poem something
serious as that and if you don’t think
poems are serious you’d better
stop reading right now. That’s if
you can because I’ve probably
hooked you like any fish on my
line. Though I didn’t plan to write
about fish. I never plan to write
about anything and certainly not
about fish which are cold and slimy
until they are cooked and I wasn’t
planning to cook one for dinner
tonight. I wasn’t even planning
to cook. If I can’t help it. Which
I probably can’t. Because every
loud mouth around here is
always clamoring to be filled.
And it doesn’t matter with what.
Despite the fact that they were both amazing human beings, my grandfather and grandmother did not have the best marriage. I’m sure they were in love at one point—each was the kind of passionate individual who would never subscribe to a marriage of convenience—but I’ve heard enough stories from my mother and her sisters to know that their love died early on and their divorce after 26 years was not a huge surprise to anybody (except my grandfather, who was completely shocked). My grandmother met an Israeli, fell in love with him, and moved to Jerusalem. My grandfather met a German woman, a Holocaust survivor, married her, and she died not too long thereafter. Then in his 80s he met a beautiful young(er) woman (she was in her 70s!) and although they never married, they were quite the hot item in the San Francisco Jewish seniors scene until his death. She’s Hungarian and still alive, but I don’t think I’ll ask her about the cow-screwing thing.
My aunt told me that the younger Hungarian was the first woman with whom my grandfather had truly been in love, but I wonder if that’s true. In my grandfather’s journal he devoted several pages to listing the reasons why he’s happy that he didn’t end up marrying Yaltah Menuhin. He called her “unworldly” even though she could write poetry in six languages. He said she lacked persistence and was unable to carry her endeavors to completion. My grandfather was also annoyed at her competitive, argumentative approach to their relationship. “There was nothing that irritated her more than to have to admit I was right and she was wrong about something,” he wrote, “and I was very seldom wrong.”
I’ve seen this kind of list before. When I was going through my last hard break-up, a friend instructed me to write down all of the things I disliked about my ex. I wrote about her crappy taste in music, her superficial obsession with expensive bars and restaurants, and her inability to make decisions. On a quick glance, somebody might read the list and think, “wow, you really dodged a bullet there,” but anybody who knew me at all would have taken one look at that list and known that I was on the verge of tears when I wrote it, struggling desperately to come up with a few minor annoyances that I could stretch into reasons to feel happy even though my heart had been shattered.
I knew my grandfather well, and believe me, his petty reasons for why he couldn’t marry Yaltah Menuhin were a thin attempt at convincing himself that he was over her—the 20 pages devoted to her spoke wonders about his true feelings, as did the fact that he prefaced his narrative/diatribe by noting that he could write an entire book about her. When he met my grandmother 3 years after his courtship with Yaltah ended, was he over her? Or was he still fawning over his beautiful poetess and trying to use my grandmother as a replacement? Is that why my grandfather’s marriage with my grandmother ultimately failed? Because she wasn’t Yaltah Menuhin?
My grandfather is one of the smartest human beings I have ever met or likely ever will meet. Did that make finding love more difficult to him? Did his genius breed loneliness when it came to women in the same way it stymied his ability to make friends in the army? Shortly before he died he stated “my regrets are as high as a mountain.” Was his unfortunate affair with Yaltah a regret he carried in his heart for the duration of his life? Believe me, friends, these questions are quite a lot to ponder during the symphony, even while holding hands with a beautiful young woman…