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Alte Kaker

By Michael Oren (originally, Alta Kocker)

It's birthday time again and with yet more thoughts about aging. Who are we supposed to be as the elderly? Need we take on new identities? Or very old ones?

Heschel Finegold futzed around his kitchen. He fressed on the leftover tzimmes and put on the kettle for tea. He drank alone at the Formica table, from a glass with a sugar cube wedged in his teeth. He poured over the Forverts. Later, finished with this nosh, he picked up the phone, waited for the tone, and dialed, all the while winding the cord around his finger. That finger shook, divining-rod-like, as the other side rang five whole times, leaving Heschel to sigh, “gevalt.”

He’d nearly hung up when his receiver clicked and transmitted another’s voice, his son’s.


“Dad. How are you today?”

“Oy, you know how it is, an achy shoulder here, a sour kishke there. Being my age is not for the light-hearted, that’s what the mavens say. My knees are creaking and my sinuses feel like they’re stuffed with farfel. In short, faklempt.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Dad. I’m sorry to hear you’re not feeling any better.” He sounded genuinely concerned for his father, though not necessarily for his heath. “Did you take your pills?”

“Pills shmills. I got more pills than your kids got chotchkes. But what good do they do me, I ask you? What good?”

“But you’ve got to take them, Dad. The doctor said.”

“And what does he know? Some macher with a big degree and that zaftig nurse he’s probably shtupping.”

The sigh was now the son’s. “Really, pop, you’ve got to be careful with the things you say. The world is different now.”

“No, boychik, the world is always the same. The young will be young and the old will be, well, just what they should be. Old.”

“But you’re not that old, Dad. And you’re not….you’re not….”

“A spring chicken?”

“No. You’re not Reb Tevye. You’re not Zero Mostel.” What had begun as humoring had become, for the son, frustration, even anger. “You did not come from the Old Country. You were born in Poughkeepsie, New York.”

“And of this I should be ashamed?”

“You grew up in the suburbs, watched Bewitched and the Mickey Mouse Club. Your name was Hank.”

“Markenu, a little rachmones, please.”

“You wore your hair long, smoked weed, and marched on Washington. ‘Right on,’ you praised me when I showed you my Mao button. ‘Power to the people.’


“You called yourself Harry back then, and me you called lovechild.” The young man’s voice went from furious to hurt. “And you divorced my mom.”

“We were shidduched, matched. You know how these things are.”

“You met on the commune, Dad. You lived in a bus.”

Keinehora. Don’t remind me. God forbid.

“And then you got a job on Wall Street. You wore tailored three-piece suits. Your shoes were Gucci. You were making serious bucks.”

Gelt, I call it. Serious gelt.”

“And you became Henry suddenly, and I was suddenly junior.”

“So, nu, what was I supposed to call you?”

“’Forget about philosophy,’ you told me that day on campus. ‘Forget about chess. Real men study banking. And I did, Dad, all because of you. Because of you I live in a great big house with three cars and summer place out on the island. Because of you I have a nip-and-tucked wife who trains five hours a day and kids who think I’m an ATM.”

“Such naches.”

Hot tea sucked through a sugar cube sounded like gurgling on the phone.

“And now this. This….”

“This what?”

“The cockeyed glasses. The pleated trousers you buckle beneath your breast.”

“Anywhere else, they fall down.”

“The borscht. The whitefish. The schmaltz.”

“What am I supposed to eat, chazzerei?”

“Even your phone is antique.”

“I like it. Even when no one’s there, it sings to me.”

“In Yiddish, I suppose.”

“Ah, the mamaloshen.”

The tone rose again, ascending from fury to despair. “But, Dad, you’re not…that.”

A deep breath from the father’s side, almost a groan. “I am, Markenu, a man of my time and at this time in my life, this is the man I should be.”

“An alta kocker? A stale piece of cake?”

“Cake and lokshen kugel.”

“But Dad. Daddy. Can’t you just for once be you—whoever that it is?” The voice in the receiver plummeted suddenly, deepened into a cry. “Can’t you just once call me by my real name?”

A doorbell interrupted their talk. “Who can that be, boychick?”

“Gina and the kids, I forget to tell you. She said they’d stop over on their way home from the club.”

Gottenyu!” The receiver smacked on the Formica table, a chair scraped, and the soles of worn-out Oxfords padded across the linoleum. The bell again rang, twice, in a minor key, and the son listened to the chant of rusty knobs and hinges. As a door swung open and his children burst in.

“Zadie!” They cheered, and Heschel Finegold replied, no doubt with his hands raised to heaven.


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