Brooklyn, New York June 19, 2014
Today marks the official 100th year this world has been blessed and made a much better place. On June 19th 1914, the same year WW I began with a gun shot to a Duke, The Tramp first appeared on the screen and The Panama Canal officially opened….Ralph Zalta was born to Moussa and Leila Zalta on 44 Essex Street in New York’s Lower East Side. When he was less than a year old he became deathly ill which caused the very superstitious Jewish immigrants from Syria to change his name to “Sam.”
He was six years old when commercial radio began to fill the air with sounds of music, stories and news. The government made it illegal to have a drink and uh oh, women were granted the right to vote. Which of course, led to the Great Depression. (OK maybe it didn’t “lead” to it).
When he was 9 years old the Charleston was all the rage in dancing, F. Scott Fitzgerald published “This Side of Paradise , Sam’s friend in later life J. Edgar Hoover became the head of the FBI and Winnie the Pooh was born.
Around the age of 8 through 11 my father worked the streets of Broadway and Times Square selling Newspapers, ties and whatever else he was given. He met Gehrig, Ruth and Al Jolson on those streets. As a newspaper boy on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway he would bellow, “Read all about it” regarding Fatty Arbuckle and King Tut.
He was Bar-Mitzva age when Al Jolson sang “Blue Skies” marking the first words ever spoken or sung in a movie and Babe Ruth became the Man – this one year after Harry Houdini disappeared forever but continued to return over and over again in spirit. Charles Lindberg flew across the Atlantic Ocean alone and made it. (I still wonder what he did if he had to go to the bathroom). The twenties also marked the invention of bubble gum, Mickey Mouse and a little thing called, “Penicillin.”
At the age of 14 “Sliced bread” was invented…so you could say that he was the best thing since before sliced bread was invented. The early 30’s brought the opening of the Empire State Building, the closing of the jail cell for Al Capone and the splitting of an Atom. At the same time Europe was still dealing with the after effects of World War I with Fascism and Nazism placing a noose on humanity and freedom.
It was legal to drink again and two years later Alcoholics Anonymous opened. Bonnie and Clyde, The Dust Bowl and the cheeseburger polluted our lives with the Winds of War once again beginning to destroy the fabrics of humanity.
A concentration camp was built. Jesse Owens showed up Hitler and the Hindenburg went down in New Jersey. Aliens invaded New Jersey or did they? Douglas Corrigan went the wrong way and saw that New York looked exactly like Dublin.
Superman, the Volkswagen Beetle (Built in Labor Camps by enslaved Jews) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (No relation to the Zalta’s) became a film. The glass was broken and people were killed – the War began.
Searching for answers Einstein told FDR about building a bomb while Dorothy and her friends went searching for the Wizard. Six million Jews were erased from the world – but their spirit would never leave us. Pearl Harbor, Leningrad, D-Day, Germans surrender and cower in suicide, United Nations (United in ineptness?) is founded, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
During all this time my father served his country in ways that only he could and he did it with honor. We have no idea what it was but we know whatever it was he definitely made a difference.
War was over, Bikini’s were introduced which must have led to Dr. Spock publishing his book on Baby and Child care. Jews were denied entrance by the British and then they founded the State of Israel so no one could ever tell them what to do again.
In the 1950’s while the country was turning into neat units of 2 and 2. Eisenhower was President and Elvis was the King. My father traded handkerchiefs for movie passes with Elvis before he was King. Joe McCarthy pointed fingers and destroyed the lives of thousands with accusations of espionage and unpatriotic acts. Hugh Hefner brought us Playboy and Walt Disney brought us Disneyland.
Rosa parks said no and changed the world for the better. The TV remote control was introduced and McDonald’s became a corporation – Velcro was introduced.
My father wandering through the States with stores in Memphis, Tampa, Virginia and Texas had a dream and then a call that his father was dying. In his dream his father told him to go to Mexico and he would find a girl. Still childless at 40 he shaved the beard of mourning and began the drive to Mexico City.
One look, a long ride for lunch and a band of Mariachi’s and she said yes. Dr. Seuss and the Hulu Hoops came around and the Peace Symbol was created. Vietnam began as a small “Police action” and the Sound of Music filled the theater on Broadway.
In Virginia Beach on a hot August day in 1958 the sound of a baby crying brought happiness, joy and a sense of redemption. In Corpus Christie on Labor Day 1960 – a brother was born. Followed by another brother in Mexico City in 1961. Wandering the states trying to find a place to call home the Zalta’s found a spot in Troy, New York. When the next baby came out screaming there was something noticeably different about…her. Three boys and now, aah, the girl.
The early 60’s brought about – Psycho, Birth Control Pills, Civil Rights sit ins for being treated as inferior all because of the color of skin. We cannot fathom that mentality, thankfully these days – although there are still haters out there.
The Berlin wall was built, JFK said there would be a Man on the Moon before the end of the decade and the Freedom Riders rode the buses.
Marilyn had enough, they sent a woman into space and then Oswald fired some shots that killed a father and broke the hearts of women all around the world. The Beatles came to New York and changed the world. The Civil Rights Act was passed, GI Joe was born and Ali became the greatest.
The fall of 1965 the lights went out at around 530 in the afternoon – a power surge which was redirected and overwhelming. In August, 9 months later – 8 years to the day when Rachel and Sam had their first child – a surge of lunacy was born.Me! Living in Brooklyn within the Jewish community Rachel craved – Sam and Rachel with their 5 children began to finally settle down.
Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the crew of the Enterprise began to go where no man had gone before, Kwanzaa became a holiday, George Thomas Seaver became a Met, a concert was played in Woodstock and a man set foot on the moon. The Met’s were a Miracle and Bob Dylan released “Blonde on Blonde.” Elvis was in Las Vegas wearing a tight black leather suit, The Beatles broke up but at least Paul had wings. Berlin again in 72 – Palestinians kill Israeli athletes.
Sam opens a supermarket and then goes to work for a retail store. He then gets a job as a Real Estate officer for the City of New York. My father has at times held down 3 jobs at once. Leaving the house at 7 or so and coming home at around 10pm. He always left and came home with a smile. Some time in 1973, he was trying to collect the months rent when he was hit and pushed down the stairs by a thug trying to mug him. He was knocked unconscious and sustained a sprained neck and other injuries. Nothing serious, thank God.
On October 6, 1973 – the Met’s were playing the opening game of the National League Championship against the Reds. It was Yom Kippur and we were all in or around Ahi Ezer synagogue on Ocean Parkway. I was 7 years old so the specifics are lost to me only the embellishment stains of memories remain. As I was running around the front porch of the synagogue I saw one of my cousins running up the stairs saying, “Israel was attacked.” I didn’t understand what he meant but it sounded very scary. Especially when I saw people leaving the shul. I don’t remember much about that day only my father’s reaction. “Israel will be alright, God is always watching over us and everything is in His hands. Don’t worry.” Looking back now and seeing all the devastation perpetuated by man and nature yet still having the confidence in God…I understand just why ‘losing hope’ was never in my vocabulary. With the power of God within and around you – what can go wrong?
Israel ended up driving the Syrian forces to Damascus, Jordan to Amman and Egypt to Cairo. The Met’s beat the Reds but lost in the World Series to the Oakland A’s. My father started working with his brother Nat in a travel agency on Avenue U.
1974 was the year the President of the United States said he was not a crook, then resigned regardless of that fact. Gerald Ford took over and told New York it could, to quote the NY Daily News, “Drop Dead.”
Around late 1975 the travel agency moved from Avenue U to Kings Highway between East 2nd and East 3rd Streets. At first called “Emet Tours” then changed to “Zalta Travel.” For some reason I cannot remember it was changed to “Kingsbay Travel” and then finally “Whiz Travel.” Whiz Travel still stands there today.
On July 4th 1976 – the country celebrated 200 years of independence. We were by Korvettes on Bay Parkway watching the ships from the different countries when I saw my father parking our 1966 Chevrolet Impala. “Israel went to Entebbe and freed the prisoners and brought them all back to Israel. They are all safe!” He was jubilant and we all celebrated with all the people who were around us that day.
Later that summer a lunatic began killing young couples who were on dates. His first kill was on July 26, 1976. It hit home when Stacy Moskowitz the beautiful blonde daughter of the owners of a Diner on east 3rd and kings highway was shot and later died. That was July 31 1977 – a year after his first murder and he was caught soon after.
In 1979 I was graduating Ahi Ezer Elementary and was unsure where I would go to High School. “Don’t worry.” My father said to me. He was right – Sephardic High School took me in and I began a lifelong attachment to the institution.
At this point Whiz Travel had become a successful business which now had my parents, my brothers Maurice and Carlos. Lilly would come in from time to time but mostly wasn’t interested. Marcos was working and on his way to graduating Brooklyn Law School.
My father was the boss at Whiz and he had began to steer the people in our area to Acapulco. He was also a marketing man who would put signs in the window to bring in the clients. There were “Whiz Bags” which were given out one per ticket. There were the Whiz tee-shirts which he had printed and donated to a children’s soccer team in Acapulco. Trust me, I was once confronted by one asking me if I wanted to buy “Chiclets,” I was amazed at the coincidence. I gave the kid a dollar and he danced away from me.
There was a sign my father kept in the window of Whiz. “Peace, what a beautiful sight to see.” He had put that up when Begin and Sadat shook hands. It was all we ever wanted – peace.
The 80’s were the hangover from the 60’s and 70’s. John Lennon was killed, the Pope was shot at, The President was shot and God showed us that men are equal to the task of destruction as the devils themselves. Airliners were blown up or shot down. Korean Airlines, Pan Am over Lockerbie, Iranian Airline and human error in building the ship caused the Challenger to explode as it rose above the earth. AIDS, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, Hole in the Ozone and famine in Ethiopia. Acapulco was the story for vacations throughout the decade – hell, I even honeymooned there.
In the early 80’s my father told my brothers that they should incorporate computers into the business. They were unsure at first but when my mother went to Dallas to learn about the system she came back with a knowledge of the future.
Throughout the 80’s I grew up and I began working at Whiz full time after I graduated high school. Watching my father working from eight in the morning until seven thirty or so at night, he never was too busy to walk in the back and give my mother a quick kiss or make her a cup of coffee. My mother, to him is his life. Always was and always will be. Even at 98 years old and over 50 years of marriage he almost had a fight with the Federal Express man he thought was being too chummy with my mom. Funny? I thought so but he didn’t.
Without my mother in his life – my father would be an amazing man but nothing compared to who is he today. My mother energized him and set him on course. It was my mother who told him in no uncertain terms that they would leave Troy, New York despite the business opportunities that he had there. She told him that the children were losing any sense of religion and she would not stand for it. She wanted them brought up in the Syrian community similar to the one she was brought up in, in Mexico. He sensed it and we all know it – my mother is the strongest person in the world. Although beautiful in features – when she knows what needs to be done ain’t nothing standing in her way. She also taught us to stand up for ourselves, to believe in ourselves and to recognize that there is nothing more important than family.
My father was irritating to me for his friendliness to strangers. People would be walking by and he would stop them and talk them. He would bring them in to talk and then offer them coffee. Then there were the people who came in looking for a handout. One time there was this person dressed in “The Costume” of a Rabbi. When he refused to take my father’s donation of twenty dollars saying it was insignificant and he wanted more. My father told his friend, Sam the Dinette Store owner who was sitting having coffee with him to get him scissors.
“Why do you need scissors?”
“To cut his beard off!” The man ran out of the office before Sam had a chance to even respond.
There were some regulars who would come in asking for money. My father would spend the time to speak to them and then send them to Lou’s Deli next door and pay for their meal. We would get crazy from him – too young to understand that life is all about giving – making the world a better place.
The 1990’s brought freedom to the Syrian Jews – my father always proud of my brother Marcos’ hard work (among others) in making the dream a reality. My father would spend hours, I am not exagerating here, hours speaking to the new arrivals. Setting them up with utility accounts, schooling them on life in “America” and helping them get jobs. He would teach them to dress better and to be more aware of their grooming. They never forget him for the help he gave them. Still when they see him on the street they run to kiss his hand and get a blessing.
A friendly face – always. When I tell him that I am proud of him he would say,
“My father was the best. He would do everything for anyone. Didn’t matter what color or religion he treated each person as if they were his own. He would open the doors for them and give them something to eat or drink. He would wait by the door for a stranger to walk by just so he could make them a little happier.” “
“Dad, that is you, you do the same thing.”
“No – no one was like my father.”
The 90’s ended and then the world changed forever when Osama Bin Laden had planes crash into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. My father, my brother Carlos and I were in the office that morning. My mother was on a plane heading for Mexico. Her plane never took off and she ended up back home hours later. My father was by my house as we watched on TV over and over again.
“Its scary Pop.” I said to him.
“Don’t worry.” Words of wisdom? That’s all he said to me, “Don’t worry.”
I would get frustrated time again.
“Dad what should I do with this or that?” I would ask, hoping for words of wisdom I could understand.
“Just do what you do and don’t worry.”
“Thanks.” I would respond thinking how one dimensional he could be.
The 2000’s – the internet took shape and an infinite amount of worlds were created. The world was getting smaller – the Berlin wall had come down, A Princess died in a car accident and Dolly was cloned. Video calls were taking shape and a small gadget called an “IPOD” was released and suddenly we were able to carry thousands of records in our pocket.I left Whiz and went to start a Low fat Ice cream store with my brother Marcos.
“You should stay here, you have a running business and you have a family.” He told me.
“Dad, with the internet and since 9/11 nothing is growing here. I need to make a change.”
“Don’t worry with that – it will work out.”
“Dad, I am going – I love you.”
When the Ice cream thing didn’t work out as we had hoped I found myself in some dire straits.
“Don’t worry. Everything will work out.”
My brother Marcos helped strengthen our ingrained idea that nothing was more important than family. Time and again.
The late 80’s, 90’s and the 2000’s made my parent Grandparents over and over again. The kids all grew up in the community my parents brought us back to in 1964 or so. All grew up with a sense of family being priority over anything or anyone in the world. They all grew up being best friends and when my brother in law died unexpectedly that closeness was on display more than ever. I will never forget the way each rallied to each other to be there. I will never forget the pride and sadness I felt when watching the love comfort my nieces and nephew during that Simchat Torah. We were all confused, angry and sad – yet the love that was displayed made it all too apparent that what we had was something that would never be lost.
When my father was almost 98 he had a fall. Nothing was broken but he had some sort of infection which kept him in the hospital for a week or two. This was not good and I was scared to admit that he was now old. It sounds kind of stupid and naive to say – but the truth is he wasn’t 98 years old at that time. Maybe physically he had aged but not as a 98 year old. He was strong and walked on his own. He would laugh, read and watch tv. He was interviewed by the Sephardic Heritage Foundation where he spoke about Essex Street while walking with the camera crew. He remembered every detail and always with a twinkle in his eyes. When he left the hospital he was no longer able to walk on his own as he had previously. Age had caught up to him and it wasn’t very forgiving.
When my nephew got engaged and announced the wedding to be on June 19th, 2014 I was secretly worried. He has had some not so great periods when he was not cognizant of his surroundings. When my son Saul got engaged my father smiled and I sang to him the song he would sing to us each time he saw us with a girl. “Once you have found her, never let her go.”
His eyes lit up and he smiled.
The world was in crisis – the Middle East was its usual craziness with war about to explode in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Three kids were stolen from Israel as they hitchhiked, Russia was flexing their muscles and laughing at the United States, people are unemployed or not making enough money because products are more expensive than ever. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are ways to express ourselves for free and text messaging has become the two thousand teens answer to telephone calls and invitations.
My son was scared that my father would not be able to enjoy his birthday. I thought about throwing some words of wisdom, some rationalization about life and some other new age BS. Instead I told him, “Don’t worry, it will all be fine.”
On the day before his Birthday celebration at Whiz he was kind of out of it and was tired. But when the festivities began on June 18th – as if not wanting to let anyone down – he was amazing.
The day of the wedding he was singing his old songs, “About a Quarter to Nine” and “Home on the Range” and was concerned about how his tie looked.
“Don’t worry, pop.”
Last night we celebrated his birthday at the wedding. 100 years of life all in that smile. One smile can change the world – the proof? Look at my father and tell me his smile, his honesty and his integrity has not had a positive impact. His love for his family, especially his beautiful wife, his love for people and his mandate to make this world a better place even if its one by one – is one he never strayed from. He changed and continues to change the world one smile at a time. Happy Birthday, Pop! Many more!