A New York Beacon for Greek Jews

Ralph Gardner visits Kehila Kedosha Janina, a synagogue on the Lower East Side

The second floor women’s gallery at Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street, the last remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a New York City landmark.

The second floor women’s gallery at Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street, the last remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a New York City landmark. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 27, 2016 8:22 p.m. ET

Not only was I unfamiliar with Kehila Kedosha Janina on Broome Street, the last remaining Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and a New York City landmark, but I’d never heard the term Romaniote Judaism.

It’s a community of Greek Jews more than 2,000 years old. They came to the U.S. starting in the early 1900s; the synagogue on the Lower East Side opened in 1927.
All of this was explained to me by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, who is director of the synagogue’s museum.

Ms. Ikonomopoulos hosts a combination Greek kosher lunch and synagogue tour as well as annual trips to Greece.

“Eighty-seven percent of Greek Jews perished during the Holocaust,” she explained.
Kehila Kedosha Janina has a mailing list of 3,000 households in the U.S. and 500 abroad, Ms. Ikonomopoulos said as she unlocked the synagogue, which is open to the public on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and by appointment. “Most have at least one connection to this community.”

The building’s beige brick facade is decorated with the Ten Commandments and stained-glass windows surmounted by the Star of David. The museum was carved out of the second-floor women’s gallery—men and women sit apart from each other in Orthodox congregations.

Services, in Hebrew, are held every Shabbat and on all major Jewish holidays, Ms. Ikonomopoulos explained.

Synagogue museum director Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos
Synagogue museum director Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The congregation is named after the town of Ioannina (Janina) in Greece. According to legend, Jews swam ashore there in the year 70, escaping from a Roman slave ship.

Geographically isolated, the community developed traditions and remained Greek speaking even after the post-1492 influx of Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition.

Ms. Ikonomopoulos said it’s impossible to say how many belong to the congregation because there isn’t paid membership. However, there are enough members to hold services and everyone is welcome. “We have become the center for Romaniote Judaism in the world,” she added.

Text from one of only three Romaniote Torahs in the world
Text from one of only three Romaniote Torahs in the world PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The synagogue, which was renovated with the support of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the city’s architecturally significant buildings, was dedicated in 1927 by Rabbi David de Sola Pool. Rabbi Pool was the esteemed leader of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue on Central Park West and the oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S.

The synagogue is long and narrow; the bema, the podium used for Torah reading during services, is in the center of the sanctuary. However, the Torah Arc, the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept, is at the north end of the building. It includes a Torah written in Romaniote script.

“There are only three in the world,” Ms. Ikonomopoulos said as she carefully unrolled the parchment scroll. “It’s in the traditional Romaniote style of writing,” with elongation marks. “Elongations tell when to pause.”

The profits from the tours to Greece are used to help Greek Jews, especially those communities devastated by the Holocaust. “We also give a generous contribution to the Jewish community of Ioannina,” which has few members remaining, she said.

While there’s something slightly melancholy about the synagogue and its artifacts—including one member’s 1890 wedding gown and the names of its 1927 board of directors etched in marble over the door—it’s moving that the community survives at all.

And Ms. Ikonomopoulos said Kehila Kedosha Janina’s attractive blue T-shirts sell very well.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Bill Cunningham Leaves a Social Void

The late photographer’s presence at an event told you it was worth attending

Photographer Bill Cunningham shooting the Rodarte show during the fall 2014 Fashion Week.
Photographer Bill Cunningham shooting the Rodarte show during the fall 2014 Fashion Week.                                    PHOTO: BEN GABBE/GETTY IMAGES

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 26, 2016 8:48 p.m. ET

As lovely as the Battery Conservancy gala on June 15 was—perfect weather, the SeaGlass Carousel taking guests for rides, the lawn of the newly restored Battery Oval resplendent—something was missing.

Bill Cunningham, the New York Times fashion photographer who annually dropped by to shoot the event, was absent. Mr. Cunningham died on Saturday after being hospitalized for a stroke.

His presence at a party, no matter how brief—arriving on his bicycle in his trademark blue smock jacket, shooting socialites and others (how he got all their names straight for captions I’ll never know) and then being on his way to the next event—was reassurance that your fundraiser rated, that among all the places you could be, or the things you could be doing in New York City on any given night, you were engaged in a spectacle of some importance.

There aren’t many New Yorkers whose loss resonates after they’re gone. But Bill Cunningham certainly will be among them.

You once knew an event was worth attending if Andy Warhol showed up. New York was a little more magical when it was possible to pass Jackie Onassis walking along Madison Avenue, or her son riding his bike through Tribeca. Or Brooke Astor alighting from a car in an impeccable suit and excellent jewelry to dispense philanthropy.

 
Mr. Cunningham bicycling to work in 2010.

Mr. Cunningham bicycling to work in 2010. PHOTO: MARK LENNIHAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Bill Cunningham was part of that pantheon, and not just because he documented the lives of the rich and famous. He had become as recognizable as those he photographed. His talent was daily seeing the city through fresh eyes, finding beauty in both expected and unexpected places.

He seemed as smitten by hipsters and hip-hop artists as he as with the 1%.

I’ve sometimes thought about which is New York’s indispensable corner, the place where the city’s energy comes together. My conclusion was 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. I’m not sure whether it was also Mr. Cunningham’s favorite corner to shoot because he agreed. Or that I equate the city’s magic with that corner because Mr. Cunningham shot there. Chicken and egg. After a number of years the two became almost inseparable.

The part of “Bill Cunningham New York,” the wonderful 2010 documentary about his career that most remains with me, occurred when he received the French Legion of Honor. An ascetic who lived for many years above Carnegie Hall in a studio filled with file cabinets of his negatives, he takes the time out from shooting his own induction ceremony to shyly accept the award.

His voice breaking, he explains: “He who seeks beauty will find it.”That became understandable on one of the rare occasions when we spoke, since I didn’t find him the most easily approachable person. You quickly came to appreciate that the greatest favor you could do him wasn’t to distract him while he was working, to stay out of his way.

In my 20s, I was on a plane returning from Europe when I spotted a beautiful young woman several rows ahead of me. We made eye contact and I spent the rest of the journey trying, and failing, to get up the nerve to talk to her.

A few weeks later I was looking through the New York Times and saw her snapshot in Mr. Cunningham’s column, “On the Street.” Naively assuming the photographer got his subjects’ contact information, the next time I saw him I asked whether he might have hers.

He didn’t quite bite my head off. But he informed me that he’d have absolutely no idea who she was. He takes tons of pictures, then reviews them for fashion themes or patterns—color, style, cut, etc. The individual wearing the clothes, no matter how smitten I might have been, was secondary to him.

No doubt the Times will find someone else to shoot its society photos. It is also possible that readers coming along in the future unfamiliar with Mr. Cunningham’s work won’t know the difference.

But the photographer’s images weren’t simply shot. While I hate to use that overworked word, they were “curated.” They came with decades of institutional memory, the institutions being the world of fashion and New York City.

Part of his legacy may be that while life is ephemeral and while celebrities and socialites, even the most magnificent of them, come and go, they’re all making their individual contribution to something that Mr. Cunningham understood better than most: the passing parade and one of its capital cities.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Robert Morgenthau: Lawyer, Farmer and Keeper of Family Lore

Ralph Gardner Jr. gets a history lesson in a visit with the former Manhattan district attorney

Robert Morgenthau signs a well-wisher's book at Fishkill Farms.
Robert Morgenthau signs a well-wisher’s book at Fishkill Farms. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 21, 2016 6:03 a.m. ET
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Over lunch a few weeks back, Robert Morgenthau, the former Manhattan district attorney, was asked when he leaves the city for weekend visits to his Hudson Valley farm.

“Friday afternoon,” he said.

“And when do you return?”

“Sunday night.”

At 96 years old, you’d think he might allow himself to linger a little longer.

Strawberries for sale at the farm. ENLARGE
Strawberries for sale at the farm. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I’m too busy,” he explained.
Mr. Morgenthau’s wife, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lucinda Franks, recalled: “When he retired from being DA,” and went to work for the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, “I said ‘You’re going to come home at 2 or 3 at the latest.’ He started wandering in at 6:30 every night. I said, ‘You broke your promise to me.’ He said, ‘I’m coming home a half-hour earlier than I did as DA.’”

Mr. Morgenthau’s country home, Fishkill Farms, about an hour and 20 minutes north of the city, isn’t exactly a country idyll, either.

“The cars back up all the way to 84,” his son Josh told me when I visited the farm on Saturday, “Founder’s Day.” He was referring to Interstate 84 and the traffic waiting to access the 270-acre farm, where 150 acres are in cultivation and 80 varieties of apple and a whole lot of other fruits and vegetables are grown. “That’s almost a mile and half.”

On peak autumn weekends as many as 6,000 people visit the farm.

It was founded on June 18, 1914 by Henry Morgenthau Jr., Robert Morgenthau’s father and President Franklin Roosevelt’s treasury secretary. These days the third generation manages the farm, incorporating the latest sustainable techniques. “Even though he’s secretary of the treasury,” Josh Morgenthau, 32 years old, said of his grandfather, “he’s first and foremost a farmer. There was a sense of nobility in farming and food production that the Founding Fathers had and that my grandfather had.”

As does Josh’s father. “He not only runs it,” Ms. Franks said of her husband and the farm, “he makes up for the shortfall.”

On Saturday afternoon, Robert Morgenthau’s primary role was as the farm’s éminence grise, as his son describes him, greeting visitors and accepting praise as he sat on a porch in sandals and wide-brimmed khaki hat, across from the hamburger stand, the bustling farm store and a majestic stand of pines he planted as a child. The family poodle, “Ivan the Terrible,” served as protection while Mr. Morgenthau’s actual driver and bodyguard, David Garcia, dropped by with his family.

“Because he was DA and received a lot of death threats, he’s entitled a bodyguard and driver,” Ms. Franks explained.

Mr. Morgenthau needed a couple of canes to traverse the uneven terrain between the porch and the farm store, but his mind remains as sharp as ever. “He’ll go around the store and talk to people and say, ‘You know, that Honeycrisp is the best,’” his son said.

Indeed, this being Founder’s Day, Mr. Morgenthau launched into recollections of helping his own father host FDR at the farm during World War II. “I used to make mint juleps for him,” the former district attorney remembered. “He brought Churchill here on June 20, 1942. Just before Tobruk fell. We have the videos of that.”

Behind Mr. Morgenthau, his dad’s home movies played. They included FDR campaigning for governor of New York along the Erie Canal, the king and queen of England’s historic 1939 visit to Roosevelt’s home in nearby Hyde Park, and that meeting between FDR, Churchill and Henry Morgenthau at Fishkill Farms.

It included Robert Morgenthau, then 22 years old, and in his naval dress whites, serving the not especially enthusiastic British prime minister a mint julep. Apparently, Churchill rejected the cocktail in favor of straight whiskey.

There was also an exhibition set up outdoors that included correspondence, filled with private jokes between FDR and Henry Morgenthau Jr., who were close friends. “Most of these documents have never been seen before,” Mr. Morgenthau said.

An American history lesson might have seemed slightly incongruous in the context of day tourists in sneakers and shorts heading to the pick-your-own strawberry patch. But the historical significance of the farm, and Robert Morgenthau’s own resume, seemed lost on few.

A steady stream of visitors approached the porch to shake the great man’s hand, ask to have their picture taken with him or have him autograph a book, and to thank him for his service. “I’m from Texas,” one man told him. “You’re one of my heroes.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

When Hitler Got Hustled

Walter Shapiro’s new memoir on his con-man great uncle’s finest swindle

Freeman Bernstein’s mug shot in the pages of ‘Hustling Hitler.’
Freeman Bernstein’s mug shot in the pages of ‘Hustling Hitler.’ PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 19, 2016 8:21 p.m. ET

Many believe they have a family memoir inside them begging to be published; to show the world that while every family is unique, some are more unique than others, theirs in particular.

Walter Shapiro harbored no such conceits. “I thought my family was boring,” he said. “Why do we have to be a Jewish family living in the suburbs? Where’s the dramatic tension in that?”

Alas, the Shapiros weren’t as boring as he suspected. If nothing else, they were redeemed by Mr. Shapiro’s great uncle Freeman Bernstein, the subject of Mr. Shapiro’s new book, “Hustling Hitler” (Blue Rider Press).

Mr. Bernstein was a vaudeville manager and more than occasional con man who apparently didn’t try very hard to hide his tracks.

Oh, and he also swindled Hitler.

The book’s cover
The book’s cover PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.
That part of the story Mr. Shapiro, a political columnist for Roll Call and a fellow at the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, sort of knew about.

His father had told him about his uncle because of the Hitler connection—how many people can be said to have fooled Führer?—but also for a more practical reason: Salem Shapiro missed out on his share of the family jewels because Freeman Bernstein, who fashioned himself the “Jade King” and trafficked in stones, not all of them precious, had given sapphires to Salem’s older siblings—three boys and two girls.

Unfortunately, he’d run out by the time he reached his young nephew. “I must have heard that story 50 times,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Indeed, the book’s opening scene involves a visit Mr. Bernstein paid Mae West in Hollywood in 1937. The two enjoyed an acquaintance dating back to 1903, when Mr. Bernstein, at the time a vaudeville booking agent working out of an office on Broadway just south of what was shortly to become Times Square, hired the 10-year-old to perform in some of his theaters.

However, their friendship didn’t extend as far as Ms. West, who knew a thing or two about diamonds, entirely trusting the swindler when he visited her in Hollywood with a bag of baubles. “The actress, who had written and starred in ‘Diamond Lil,’ knew her way around paste,” slang for fake jewels, “as well as pasties,” Mr. Shapiro writes in the Runyonesque prose appropriate to his subject and to the newspapers of that era, for whom Freeman Bernstein equaled good copy.

Author Walter Shapiro
Author Walter Shapiro         PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.
Whipping out her scale, Ms. West purchased the best rubies and sapphires but returned the diamonds, assuring Mr. Bernstein that if their quality was as good as he claimed, “Then you should have no trouble selling them.”

The idea for “Hustling Hitler” was born at Barney Greengrass, the Upper West Side restaurant and sturgeon specialist, where Mr. Shapiro took a French cousin, in town to do some genealogical research, to lunch.

“We’d run out of things to talk about,” Mr. Shapiro recalled last week as he dug into his standard order—sturgeon, scrambled eggs, and onions. “He said, ‘The only interesting thing I heard was about an uncle who cheated Hitler.’ I’d heard that, too.”

Curiosity compelled Mr. Shapiro to do a Google search. He was astonished by the hundreds of newspaper clippings he discovered that documented Mr. Bernstein’s colorful career, as well as his 1937 arrest—the Los Angeles cops cuffed him as he was leaving Ms. West’s apartment the night of the jewelry sale—for selling Hitler rusted auto bodies and tin cans when he’d promised the Führer 35 tons of scarce Canadian nickel for his munitions.

Mr. Bernstein became something of a cause célèbre among the Hollywood Jewish community, the likes of Al Jolson contributing $200 to his defense fund.

After two months in the slammer, the con man was freed and the case dropped when the governor of California refused to extradite him to New York to stand trial.

Perhaps Mr. Shapiro’s only regret about the book is that his father never got to read it and learn the whole, true story about his mythological uncle, who died broke in California in 1942. Salem Shapiro died in 2004.

“Most of those clips I couldn’t have found” when his father was alive and the internet less comprehensive, Mr. Shapiro said. He attributed his initial investigatory success to the fact that Freeman Bernstein was an uncommon name. He might have given up if his uncle’s name had been Sam.

The author grew nostalgic as he discussed an era when New York City could produce a personality as larcenously appealing as his uncle, as well as more than a dozen newspapers to document his foibles and follies.

“It was so much fun,” he said. “I’d go back in a minute if I could bring antibiotics with me.”

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Picking Work That You Love to D

Guitar maker Ric McCurdy is known for both his passion and his commitment

Ric McCurdy in his Tribeca workshop.
Ric McCurdy in his Tribeca workshop. PHOTO: BESS ADLER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 13, 2016 7:13 p.m. ET

Career advice these days runs something like this: Figure out what you love to do, what makes time stand still, and success will follow.

Ric McCurdy takes a slightly more practical approach. “The best advice I got was, ‘Take what you love and make it your hobby.’ Then you’re not going to be broke your whole life.”
However, his chosen work—making custom guitars in a small workshop overlooking Hudson Street in Tribeca—seems equal parts career and calling. “Repairing guitars pays the rent,” he explained, his tools neatly arrayed above the workbench behind him. “Making guitars feeds the soul.”

To survive as a guitar maker in New York City, “you’ve got to have a niche,” Mr. McCurdy said. “My niche is performance jazz guitars.”

His clients include jazz great John Abercrombie and Jimmy Vivino, who leads the house band for the TBS show “Conan,” as well as the Blue Man Group and singer and songwriter Kenny Loggins.

Mr. McCurdy’s initial acquaintance with the instrument came as a musician playing bass in Southern California in the early 1980s. Then one evening, a drunk at one of his gigs emerged from the men’s room shouting, “You’re the musicians—the toilets are overflowing.’”

“I broke like a twig,” Mr. McCurdy confessed and told himself, “I’m never playing music for money again.”

Fortunately, a guitar that he had made and was playing—he has been good with his hands since his father proudly displayed the cars, boats and planes he made as a child to their Connecticut neighbors—attracted the attention of John Hawk.

“He’d made guitars for Keith Richards,” Mr. McCurdy recalled.

Mr. Hawk needed an assistant and offered to pay Mr. McCurdy and teach him everything he knew.

Such generosity distinguishes the artisanal American guitar-making industry, especially the New York scene that Mr. McCurdy has been a part of since he moved into his shop in 1991.

An example is John Monteleone, a Long Island guitar maker whose instruments have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He’ll take an hour out of his day to help me with a technical problem nobody else could help me with,” Mr. McCurdy said. “That’s the whole industry.”

And there’s a small shrine in Mr. McCurdy’s workshop to John D’Angelico, a guitar maker who died in 1964. Mr. McCurdy describes Mr. D’Angelico, who grew up in Little Italy and had a shop on Kenmare Street, as “the Stradivarius of jazz guitars. They sound like God made them. They respond to the slightest touch.”

Mr. McCurdy, 60 years old, compared the process of making a guitar to fitting a client for a custom-made suit. “Some are built like lumberjacks and beat the heck out of it. And some play very lightly. So you make the guitar to match the client.”
Each guitar costs approximately $10,000 and takes 100 hours to make. Some have beautiful inlaid work, such as a guitar with the Chrysler Building carved into its head.

Then there are the ukuleles that Mr. McCurdy made for his children, now 21 and 19. “My wife said, ‘Build the kids a guitar so they have something when you’re gone.’ ” But he considered ukes more fun. “George Harrison always traveled with two in case he met someone who wanted to jam.”

So Mr. McCurdy crafted one for his son, with a skateboard trailing flames, and another for his daughter, an aspiring baker, featuring a cupcake.

What distinguishes the best guitar makers, for Mr. McCurdy, isn’t necessarily a way with wood or planing tools. “It’s not skill. Skill comes with repetition. The thing that makes a guitar maker is drive.”

The drive to make a hollow box ring like a bell. “Every piece of wood is different,” he explained as he “tap-tuned” a guitar in progress, listening for the vibrations. The sound changed depending on whether he tapped in the center or along the edges of the wood. “You can’t just measure and go. If you build them all to the same measurements, they won’t sound good.”

Mr. McCurdy strummed a few chords of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” and Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” on one of his guitars.

Both the instrument and the musician sounded excellent. “If you can bring joy to somebody’s life,” he said, “if you can bring pleasure to someone 100 years after my children are gone, what more do you want from life?”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

(for more images:  http://www.wsj.com/articles/picking-work-that-you-love-to-do-1465859624?tesla=y)

 

El Catano Community Garden: Where Gamers Come to Play

The East Harlem space is one of 52 gardens New York Restoration Project acquired in 1999

Domino players work their strategies and keep up the conversation at El Catano Community Garden in East Harlem. The garden is maintained by a nonprofit founded by Bette Midler.ENLARGE
Domino players work their strategies and keep up the conversation at El Catano Community Garden in East Harlem. The garden is maintained by a nonprofit founded by Bette Midler. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 12, 2016 10:02 p.m. ET
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Fame is fleeting. Fortune—and fortunes—come and go. But one thing you can always count on is that socializing with old friends is its own reward.

That seems the guiding ethos at El Catano Community Garden on East 110th Street in East Harlem, where four gentlemen sat around a card table last week under a white canopy and played dominoes.

They included Gilberto Mantilla, who’d moved back to Puerto Rico but was paying his annual visit to the city. “I come every year. Spend some time with my family,” Mr. Mantilla said as he carefully placed a domino on the table.

I’d come to learn the game from experts. Though it quickly became apparent that probably wasn’t going to happen. “You have to have good memory and good math,” neither of which I possess, explained Raul Reyes.

Mr. Reyes was Mr. Mantilla’s partner and sat across the table from him.
But I soon came to appreciate another, and perhaps equally consequential aspect of the game—the ability to conduct a conversation on any subject as you keep track of your opponents’ moves.

The players ranged in age from their mid-60s to late 80s, and seem to have known each other almost as long.

“I came here in 1946,” said Mr. Mantilla who is 80 but seems to be a walking, or rather seated, advertisement for the benefits of dominoes. He doesn’t have any wrinkles and doesn’t look a day over 60. He said he worked for Mr. Sinai Hospital for 30 years.
El Catano Community Garden is maintained by New York Restoration Project, founded by Bette Midler in 1995. The inspiration, at least part of it, behind the nonprofit seems to be the understanding that nature and civilization can coalesce as easily in a space not much larger than a spacious apartment—the garden is 2,523 square feet—as well as it can in any of our more majestic parks.

“Our goal is to build strong communities,” explained Deborah Marton, the group’s executive director. “We facilitate what the community wants to do. They’ll tell us what they want.”
Community gardens are becoming increasingly precious as neighborhoods such as Spanish Harlem feel the pressures of gentrification. In fact, El Catano was one of 52 gardens New York Restoration Project acquired in 1999 when the city planned to auction them for commercial development.

The de facto “mayor” is Jose Reyes, a retired mechanic with the U.S. Postal Service. “I’m here all the time,” he said. “I come here in the morning; sweep the snow in the winter.”

Mr. Reyes was happy with the support New York Restoration Project provides. Though he said a leaf blower would come in handy. If I had any quibbles with the otherwise restful landscape, it was that it lacked a water feature. A burbling fountain in its center would have completed the effect.

“It’s a challenge raising funds,” said Ms. Marton, humoring me only so far. “We have 10 gardens that are completely unrenovated.”

Back at the dominoes table Raul Reyes, Jose’s brother and a dominoes tournament player and judge, was reminiscing about New York City’s mayors. The garden serves as a gathering place for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade and there’s a wall of photographs of politicians who have dropped by.

“John Lindsay,” he said, surprising me if only because he reached that far back.

Mr. Mantilla nodded in agreement. “He was a good mayor.”

“During those years there was the race riots,” Mr. Reyes remembered. “He took it upon himself to hit the streets.”

I did my best to learn dominoes, the players showing superior forbearance at my choppy learning curve. It would be foolish of me to attempt to explain the game. I understood the part where you’re supposed to lay down a rectangular tile that has the same number of dots as the person who went before you.

But any strategy beyond that sailed over my head.
I was more comfortable discussing the pleasures of Puerto Rico with Mr. Mantilla. “I can’t take the winter no more,” he said as he touted his native island’s warm turquoise sea. “There is the water.”

How often does he go swimming, I wondered. “Two or three times a month,” he said, confiding that he’s a better dominoes player than swimmer. “I don’t go deep.”

 

Locating a Cemetery and a Link to the Past

Ralph Gardner Jr. visits the graves of his grandparents in an industrial section of Queens

Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in Queens.

Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in Queens. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 8, 2016 6:03 a.m. ET
Have you ever wondered about the state of the graves of long-dead relatives you haven’t visited in years? That curiosity, and desire to pay my respects compelled me to visit my grandparents in Queens last week after coming across the name of the cemetery where they were buried.

To the best of my knowledge, no family member had seen the gravesite since 1977, when my grandfather Benjamin Gardner died. If my father visited he never told us or took us along. My grandmother Myra, buried beside my grandfather, passed away in 1972.

Our reunion occurred at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery. It’s in an industrial section of Queens, but with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. Though nobody, except a mockingbird and a couple of groundskeepers were present to enjoy it with us on the afternoon of our visit.

While my grandparents’ resting place may have been ignored for years, they remain present in our lives.

They bought our house upstate in 1948 and their personalities reside in the novels my grandmother read that still occupy our bookshelves. And in the antiques they brought with them when they permanently left New York City, and their apartment at the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Ninth Street, in the early 1960s.
But most of all I think of them whenever I visit our pond. My grandparents wanted one very much but were told by a representative from the local cooperative extension office that the swamp they wanted to dredge would never be more than a few feet deep.

He was wrong.

After my grandfather died, a bulldozer operator we hired to clear some land took one look at the swamp and said, “I’ve dug more than a hundred ponds and I can tell you that you can have a pond there.”

So we now have a beautiful, healthy, spring-fed pond. Some 10- or 15-feet deep in spots.

Whenever I walk out there, and especially when I go swimming there, I think of my grandparents and wish they’d lived to see it.

Now that I knew their graves were within the five boroughs of New York City, it would have been irresponsible not to drop by eventually.

I called a phone number for Linden Hill that I discovered online. A helpful woman found my grandparents’ names in their archives and gave me their row and plot number, and directions how to find it.

I enlisted my wife, Debbie, to join me. I have no doubt they’d have enjoyed my wife’s company—my friendly, fun-loving grandmother in particular.

Also, I can’t help but believe that two people make for a more festive visit, even to a cemetery.

The section of the graveyard where my grandparents were buried had seen better days. But some of its monuments and mausoleums were beautiful.

A charity box at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery.
A charity box at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Besides, it’s almost impossible to find that kind of serenity in clear sight of Midtown anywhere other than a cemetery—the jets on a flight path to La Guardia Airport notwithstanding.

We eventually found my grandparents in the last row, their tombstones against a chain-link fence overgrown with vines that marked the cemetery’s border.

My grandmother’s sister Irene and her parents, Clara and Albert Berman, joined them there.

I’d never met my great-grandfather. He died on April 25, 1941, according to the inscription on his tombstone. Nor, I believe, my great-aunt Irene, even though she died in 1958, after I was born.

I vaguely remember my great-grandmother who passed away in 1961 at the age of 93. She lived in an austere Greenwich Village apartment that depressed me the only time I visited as a child.

“It’s a nice spot,” Debbie said. “I’d rather be back here in the corner.”

 

There wasn’t much to do after I’d read my grandparents’ tombstone. I didn’t try to catch them up—such as by sharing the accomplishments of the great-grandchildren they’d never met, or updating them on improvements to the home they loved so much.

In my optimistic conception of the hereafter the dead have better things to do than hang around a cemetery hoping visitors will show up.

I don’t know whether I’ll return. But there’s some comfort in having their address and knowing they’re just over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

“It was nice to meet your grandparents,” Debbie said.

I believe she was being sincere.

Re-Laying Floors, Restoring Homes

Rebuilding Together NYC helps low-income New Yorkers with repairs and renovations

Rebuilding Together NYC’s director of construction, Terry Scott, leads a team during a renovation.
Rebuilding Together NYC’s director of construction, Terry Scott, leads a team during a renovation. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 6, 2016 6:14 p.m. ET

When superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, residents of the Canarsie section of Brooklyn who didn’t live near the ocean thought they might be spared. They were wrong.

“Most people don’t think of Canarsie when they think of Hurricane Sandy,” said Kimberly George, the executive director of Rebuilding Together NYC, a nonprofit helping low-income New Yorkers rebuild. “They think of the coastal regions.”

Ms. George added, “In each neighborhood the damage was very different. In Canarsie, it wasn’t necessarily ocean water. The sewers backed up.”

Last week Rebuilding Together NYC was working on the basement of a row house on Avenue N that had doubled as a family room until the storm destroyed it.

Were a storm of that destructiveness to strike again, Terry Scott, the group’s director of construction, pointed out, the vinyl floor that he and his crew were installing would be spared.
“The flooring is 100% rot proof,” he said. “If it happens again, God forbid, we could pull the floor out,” dry it off, “and go right back into place.”

But the biggest problem, Ms. George said, was the one-two punch of a natural disaster plus poverty.
“We have a very long waiting list because the need is so great for people who are low income,” she said.

She was referring not just to the 10 Sandy-related projects Rebuilding Together NYC is working on in Canarsie, but the almost 200 projects they completed around the city in 2015.

“These are homes that have been in families for generations,” she explained. “But all these years of making choices over education, and food, and paying the mortgage, certain repairs get ignored. It builds up. And then if you get hit by a natural disaster, the need is huge.”

A wheelchair ramp was installed by Rebuilding Together NYC at the home of Grace and Lloyd Thomas in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn.
A wheelchair ramp was installed by Rebuilding Together NYC at the home of Grace and Lloyd Thomas in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

At the first home I visited, Rebuilding Together NYC’s staff and volunteers were putting up walls and painting, in additional to laying down the vinyl flooring. They also restored the bathroom and laundry room.

The progress briefly slowed after a nest of kittens was discovered in a pile of debris in the backyard.

“Once the volunteers saw that all bets were off,” said Mr. Scott. “They wanted to take a kitten home.”

A few blocks from the Avenue N residence, Rebuilding Together NYC was working on the home of Grace and Lloyd Thomas.

That project involved not just remedying Sandy damage in the basement, but also providing “accessibility modification” for Ms. Thomas, who is confined to a wheelchair. One of the organization’s services is also building features such as wheelchair ramps and mechanized stairs lifts so people can stay in their homes.

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Just those two improvements, Ms. George estimated, will cost the organization $21,500. The basement renovations and exterior concrete repairs were an additional $19,500.

But the renovations will have a great effect on the Thomas family. Grace “is very active in her church,” explained their daughter Colleen Thomas, who was visiting with her son Caleb on his 5th birthday.

“I miss church a lot,” Grace acknowledged.

“She’s been confined for a year,” her daughter said. “They come over and sing and pray. Her church family has been really awesome as well.”

Ms. Thomas sleeps on a cot on their home’s first floor. Once the lift is installed, she’ll be able to spend the night with her husband on the second floor. The couple, who met during high school in their native Trinidad, has been married 46 years.

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t still see a lot of each other. The home’s large flat screen TV is in the living room and Mr. Thomas is a major sports fan.

In fact, Mr. Thomas seemed rather taciturn until the subject of the New York Yankees came up. He launched into conversation, discussing the prospects of various teams and the pros and cons of particular sportscasters on WFAN sports radio.

“He doesn’t call in,” Grace Thomas. “But he has an opinion all the time.”

One of the happy byproducts of Rebuilding Together NYC’s efforts is that she won’t have to watch wall-to-wall sports anymore, unless she wants to.

“I plan to go to church next Thursday because I have the ramp,” she said.

Raising the Beds, With Professional Assistance

Roy Berendsohn of ‘Popular Mechanics’ helps Ralph Gardner Jr. build raised beds and learn to shovel

Roy Berendsohn of ‘Popular Mechanics’ helped Ralph Gardner Jr. build raised beds at his home in the Hudson Valley. ENLARGE
Roy Berendsohn of ‘Popular Mechanics’ helped Ralph Gardner Jr. build raised beds at his home in the Hudson Valley. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 5, 2016 7:42 p.m. ET
1 COMMENTS
While I didn’t flunk shop, I didn’t excel at it either.

In fact, I still marvel that I had any desire to become a writer after the 500-word punishment essays my shop teacher handed out as casually as he did hammer and nails. If anything can turn a person off the essay form, it’s repeatedly having to come up with variations on the theme of “Why I Shouldn’t Talk in Class.”

My skill with carpentry tools was hardly better than it was with a Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil. So when my family recently began to consider a raised-bed garden, I took the liberty of enlisting the help of Roy Berendsohn, “Popular Mechanics” magazine’s “Ask Roy” columnist.

Why raised beds instead of a conventional garden? I’m not sure except that our Hudson Valley property is terrible for growing anything but poison ivy. There’s approximately 2 inches of topsoil. And from there to the center of the earth it’s solid rock.

Per Mr. Berendsohn’s instructions, I purchased wood, nails and a truckload of topsoil before his arrival at our home. All he had to do was show me how to measure, saw and nail together a few boards. Or preferably do so himself why I feigned taking notes.

Roy Berendsohn teaches Ralph Gardner Jr. how to use a circular saw.
Roy Berendsohn teaches Ralph Gardner Jr. how to use a circular saw.
PHOTO: DEBORAH GARDNER

But first I was curious to learn a bit of Mr. Berendsohn’s biography; he’s been at “Popular Mechanics” for 27 years. Specifically, did he excel in shop class as a kid?
Impressively modest, Mr. Berendsohn, 56 years old, denied any special talent recognized at an early age for hammering a nail straight.

“I did not have a mechanical gift,” he insisted. “I’ve learned the hard way with anything I’ve done. I tell people if I can do this, you can do this.”

That was before he met me.

He also had excellent role models. There’s a touching interview in June’s “Things My Father Taught Me” issue of Popular Mechanics where both Mr. Berendsohn and his 91-year-old father Oscar are interviewed.

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Oscar, who fled the Nazis, got an engineering degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering) and started working on spy satellites. His workbench, shown in the story, is a thing of organizational beauty.

Roy also learned a trick or two working construction in western Connecticut as a teenager. He still uses the solid steel Estwing hammer a boss gave him back then.

“It’s the hammer that put me through college,” he said.

I couldn’t help asking about mishaps, as Mr. Berendsohn pulled sawhorses and a circular saw from the back seat of his 2001 Chevy Malibu. My attitude being that the safest home improvement projects are those you hire others to perform.

“When I was 17, I got a finish nail in my right eye,” he explained. “It bounced off concrete. I never do this work without some form of eye protection.”

 

The accident caused no permanent damage. Mr. Berendsohn blinked reflexively at the incoming projectile and trapped it with his eyelid.

Fortunately, there were no mishaps as he sawed the 10-foot planks I’d purchased into 6-foot and 4-foot sections to make the sides for the raised beds.

I took command of the circular saw only briefly, mostly to say I had.

But I also solicited tips about some of the genteel chores I find myself occasionally tempted to accomplish: such as how to hammer a nail into a wall or piece of wood without bending it.

“You put your shoulder over the nail,” he explained as he did just that, nailing two sections of the board together. “Start with a couple of taps and drive it in.”

Mr. Berendsohn also coached me on proper wheelbarrow shoveling technique.

“Get as close to it as possible,” he explained. “Align the long access with the direction you’re shoveling. You want to avoid shoveling from the side.”

He’d already lost me.

But it turns out I’m pretty good at pushing a wheelbarrow downhill, if not the advanced math Mr. Berendsohn employed to mark off the wood.

However, the most complicated chore yet awaits—figuring how to mount fence posts in solid rock. Whatever we grow in the beds will have to be protected from the woodchucks, which are approximately the size and ravenousness of black bears.

Mr. Berendsohn’s initial suggestions included setting fence posts inside concrete blocks and stapling chicken wire to the wood, or jackhammering.

He’s working on additional solutions.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Where Burgers, ‘Bling’ and Old Elms Align
The charms of Madison Square Park
In the heart of Manhattan's Flatiron District, Madison Square Park’s leafy canopy is its calling card. The 6-plus-acre space attracts 80,000 people on a busy spring or summer day. ENLARGE
In the heart of Manhattan’s Flatiron District, Madison Square Park’s leafy canopy is its calling card. The 6-plus-acre space attracts 80,000 people on a busy spring or summer day. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 1, 2016 8:40 p.m. ET
0 COMMENTS
As New York City keeps developing, especially skyward, the aspects of it that somehow manage to cling to their antiquity seem more precious and impressive than ever.

For example, Madison Square Park. Despite the residential towers rising along its periphery and Shake Shack in its southeast corner, the park somehow retains the charm that Edward Steichen captured in his famous 1904 photograph of the Flatiron Building, rising like an apparition through the branches of the trees.

Indeed, Madison Square Park still has two English Elms that are more than 300 years old—three if you include the remnant near Shake Shack, affectionately known as “stumpy.”

The story that Stephanie Lucas, horticulture director of the Madison Park Conservancy, has heard is that her predecessor, Bill Steyer, so loved the tree he couldn’t bear to have it removed completely.

There’s the possibility, Ms. Lucas said, that the trees came from grafts from Washington Square Park’s “Hangman’s Elm,” the oldest known tree in Manhattan.

Keats Myer is the executive director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy.ENLARGE
Keats Myer is the executive director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy. PHOTO:STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The park’s leafy canopy is its calling card. The 6-plus-acre space attracts 80,000 people on a busy spring or summer day. But you’d never know it.

Unlike Bryant Park and Union Square Park, which seem to welcome the city’s tumult with open arms, Madison Square Park somehow neutralizes it, rendering it harmless.
“Before our job was to bring people into the park because it was an empty space,” said Keats Myer, the Conservancy’s executive director. “Now it is to figure out how to protect the park.”

Ms. Myer was referring to a time before the park’s restoration, completed in 2001, when many of the storefronts surrounding the park were empty and NoMad—the mashup stands for NOrth of MADison Square Park—wasn’t yet a hot neighborhood.

These days, those storefronts are filled with retailers, including the Italian marketplace Eataly, the design house Marimekko and the Lego Store filled with Legos.

Shake Shack also has more than a little to do with the park’s renaissance. The retro burger chain started as a single hot dog cart in the park in 2001. “That went very well,” Ms. Myer said with some understatement.

While the burger stands attracts epic lines—is any burger worth waiting 45-minutes for, no matter how tender and juicy?—it also contributes handsomely to the Conservancy’s coffers.

“They pay us a percentage of the receipts and we use that money to make this place the way it looks,” said David Berliner, the Conservancy’s chairman. “It all goes back into the park.”

Madison Square Park also has a vibrant free contemporary art program called Mad. Sq. Art. At the moment, the lawn features is a huge sculpture by Martin Puryear. At 40 feet high, “Big Bling” is the largest temporary piece the artist has created.

At the sculpture’s summit is a gold-leaf shackle, the “bling,” which is supported by a multitiered structure made of plywood and chain-link fence. And on the afternoon I visited, only moments after its installation, the work was already drawing the attention of the abundant squirrel population.

ENLARGE
Martin Puryear’s 40-foot sculpture, “Big Bling,” will be on view until January 2017. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

ENLARGE
Martin Puryear’s 40-foot sculpture, “Big Bling,” will be on view until January 2017. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Mad. Sq. Art’s director and Martin Friedman Senior Curator, drew my attention to the way the sculpture mimicked the stories on the buildings nearby.

And, of course, also the gold leaf on the Met Life Tower and the New York Life building that overlook the park.

Even though, Ms. Rapaport added “Martin is well known for not ascribing narrative to his work.”

That was a relief. Since I’d initially thought the sculpture was titled “Bug Bling” and was enjoying its similarities to a giant, mantis-like insect. Or maybe a mastadon.

As attention getting as the artwork is, it never threatens the park’s serenity—its reflecting pool, paths, towering trees, seasonal plantings and its wildlife.

 

Falcons migrate through and an American Woodcock makes an annual pilgrimage. And then there are those squirrels.

Pointing to a majestic hole in one of the ancient English elms, Ms. Lucas said: “I’d say there’s about 25 squirrels in that tree.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com