1986 was the year of disasters. That year the Challenger exploded killing its entire crew including a young teacher named Sharon Christa Corrigan. It was also the year of the worst nuclear disaster ever in Chernobyl and the year the first women in the U.S. died from AIDS. To me and my family, 1986 was the year my father disappeared into thin air and the nightmare, otherwise known as our life, began.
I was looking forward to turning ten and with good reason. Every year my mother made sure I had the nicest and most exciting party in town. With her trademark energy and enthusiasm, and her teacher skills, my mother knew how to throw a party. There were some years where we’d hire entertainment, and other years where she was the entertainment, but every year my friends knew that my parties would be a hit.
We lived in a very orthodox area of Far Rockaway on a quiet block in a very charming brick colonial home. My house, although officially in Far Rockaway, practically bordered Lawrence, a neighboring community considered very wealthy, also populated with Jews but of the more modern orthodox variety. Our block was quiet and very few cars drove by, allowing us to play on the streets with little fear. We had quite a large corner property in comparison to the other homes and our backyard became a place where all the neighborhood kids would gather, even when we were not there. My father bought us a metal swing set which we spent hours and hours playing on, hanging, swinging, climbing and falling. During the winter we built forts and huge snowmen, and the neighborhood kids would never leave. We loved making angels in the snow and having snow ball fights.
An added attraction, which kept the children coming, was our pet monkey Udi who my father purchased for us on one of his business trips.
My memory of the day he brought Udi home (named after Judah the Maccabe, since we got him for Hanukkah), is as clear as if it happened yesterday. My father came home from one of his frequent trips and we, as always, ran to him to see what gifts he had for us. He always brought home gifts from his travels, usually a doll or game or souvenir trinket. This time he walked in with a cage covered in a towel. We jumped around him begging to know what animal was producing that birdlike sound. He told us to get “Ema” and so we raced up the stairs and dragged my mother out of the shower to see what Abba had brought home. Like a child herself, my mother wrapped a towel around her and we ran downstairs together in anticipation. When he unveiled the cage and this small, squirrel like animal with big sad eyes stared back at us, we were not even sure what it was. “What’s that?” I asked, my eyes open wide.
”It’s a monkey, silly!” My Father replied with a big grin.
”Yisrael!” My mother said with a small nervous smile. “We can’t have a monkey…”
”Sure we can.” He said.
”That’s a monkey!” My sister and I said in unison jumping up and down in excitement.
“It’s so cute!…Oh please can we keep it Ima!” We begged. It didn’t take much begging and though I am certain my parents further discussed it between themselves, the decision seemed to have been made. And so we became known as the family with the pet monkey.
We loved that monkey. Udi became the third child in our family, the brother we didn’t have. Shortly after the day he entered our lives, my father decided to build him a proper cage. Together with his contractor friend Gabbi, he built a large cage with a smart system for waste disposal. For some reason, as clever as they are, squirrel monkeys cannot be toilet trained, so my father built a drawer on the bottom of the cage that he filled with cat litter and every time the monkey “went” it would fall into that drawer where we’d scoop it up with a cat scooper. Of course the monkey would often “go” when he was playing outside the cage in the large den which became known as the “monkey room.” The den had quite nice and expensive furniture including a very long wood conference-like table with 12 heavy velvet brown chairs. The room also had a large 54” Sony Television and book shelves. The room looked like it was made of glass since there were windows instead of walls looking out into our big backyard. Each window had a shade that was usually open and the pulls were used by the monkey as vines as he swung from shade to shade. It was a great space for a monkey, although the jungle or zoo is probably the only place a monkey really belongs.
Udi would “go” all over our velvet chairs. Perched on our arm or shoulder, he’d “go” on us too. Looking back, I still cannot understand how my father, a man obsessed with perfection and cleanliness, allowed this stinky, messy monkey to live with us. The distinct smell of the monkey lingered in the room and house, even though we did our best to bathe him daily and clean the cage and room thoroughly. I can just conclude that he loved that monkey very much.
Udi had a leash and we’d often take him for walks. We loved seeing the reactions of our neighbors and friends. I became extremely popular in school, as all my classmates wanted to come over to play with my new pet. Perhaps out of loneliness, Udi became extremely attached to one of his soft ball toys, so much so that he didn’t allow anyone to touch it. It made a jingling sound when shaken and my sister and I got such a kick out of taking it away from him and seeing him react. We once put his ball in the mouth of a stuffed alligator my grandfather brought back from South Africa, just to see how far he’d go to save it. After freaking out a bit Udi bravely attacked the alligator, grabbing the ball and running away to safety. We would recreate that scenario many times, using other scary looking toys to attack his friend. Udi always came through and saved the day. One day I threw the ball at him and amazingly he caught it. I thought it must have been a fluke so I did it again and again. Each time Udi would catch it, unhappy that I kept taking it away from him. Eventually this discovery led to a real life monkey-in-the- middle game where my sister and I would play catch with his toy and he’d stand pathetically in the middle, flaying his arms wildly and screeching, trying to get it back.
One spring day we rolled his cage out back so he could get fresh air. Since our yard was grand central station for the neighborhood kids, I was showing off in front of my friends by opening the cage and putting my hand inside to pet him. I guess Udi decided to take advantage of that opportunity for freedom and he fled the cage so fast I had no time to stop him. Immediately we grabbed his toy, jingling it so he could hear, and called his name at the top of our lungs. I saw him from a distance climbing the telephone wires, looking conflicted, and by then we were quite a crowd, consisting of my mother, my sister, the neighborhood children and me (my father must have been at work then.) As we followed him throughout the streets the crowd grew larger and larger. Some neighbors brought out bananas to lure him back, others just followed along amused and curious. All of us kept shouting “Udi come back!” as we continued to follow his trail. Suddenly we see him climb through an open window of an old lady who lived around the block from us. My mother quickly knocked on the door and politely informed the woman that our monkey is in one of her bedrooms. With the help of Udi’s little ball friend, we were able to lure him back into the small carrying cage and his adventure was cut short. I’m sure that women still recalls that story.
The longest “escape” story happened the same way. I guess I did not learn my lesson and this time, over a Jewish holiday called Shavuot, Udi once again escaped. This time he got smarter and fled as fast as he could, using the telephone wires poles and trees and eventually getting lost in the forest that has since been torn down and made into the Nassau Expressway. Since we were orthodox Jews and it was a holiday, we were not able to use the phone to report this to the police. One of our less orthodox neighbors placed the call without even telling us, but there seemed little hope that we’d get him back. The next few days were the saddest days I had experienced in my life up until that point. I went to sleep in tears and with a heavy heart. What will he eat? How will he survive? Up until that point, I had never lost anything or anyone that I really cared for. My father assured me that he’d be ok and if he was not found then he’ll get us another monkey. “I don’t want another monkey!” I cried. “I want Udi with the broken fingers!” Udi came to us with two broken fingers. His pinky on his right hand hung and looked as if it would fall off. His middle finger on his left hand could not bend and he always looked like he was giving you the finger. On day three of him being missing, when all hope was lost, our doorbell rang at 6am. It was still the Jewish Holiday, so hearing a doorbell ring was pretty shocking. As orthodox Jews we did not use electricity, talk on telephones or drive cars during holidays. Outside our door stood a cop.
“Are you missing a monkey?” He asked.
“YES!” we answer in excitement. “Have you found him?”
“Please describe him.” The cop says, as if this is a common occurrence and there were other missing monkeys out there. After we were pretty sure it was indeed Udi, he proceeds to tell us that around 6 miles away, at a gas station near Green Acres Mall, an attendant opened his office door and a monkey came flying in. The gas attendant, understandably in shock and frightened, reported it to the cops. Immediately we sent our housekeeper by cab with his cage and ball to pick him up. We prepared a feast for Udi, knowing he was probably starving and dehydrated. When he came home he was half his size and filthy. He seemed genuinely happy to be home again and gulped down his entire bowl of water and food and went to sleep. It was my first taste of a miracle.
My father was a diamond dealer, and a successful one at that. His income enabled us to live in our charming home, elaborately furnished with chandeliers and velvet drapes. Since my father’s parents were Hungarian, his taste was quite ornate and many pieces in our home reflected that from our gold velvet couches in our living room to our plastic covered blue velvet dining room chairs. My mother filled our highly crafted blue velvet backed china cabinet in our dining room with porcelain dolls and knickknacks and our living room armoire with the faux electric fireplace was filled with dolls too. We loved to play with those dolls and spin around the gold spinning chair in our living room. Since our dining room was so “fancy” we never ate there and ended up using the den, even when we had company.
Every Passover we’d go to a luxury hotel. Some years were spent in Harbor Island Spa, a place that only brings back vague memories of their day camp. One year we traveled to Puerto Rico with our close cousins the Greenfields. I remember falling asleep under the table when the seder kept going past midnight. Other years we would go to Israel and stay at the King David. My father would only tell his parents and have them join us there. He knew that if we told all our Israeli relatives we were there we’d have lots of family obligations. It is that year, I must have been 7, where we took lots of pictures of our trip. There is a picture of him hugging us, a picture of us at the Western Wall, our dresses and hairstyles identical. There is a picture of the four of us, my mother, father, sister and I, standing in front of the Knesset and another family shot on camels. We looked like such a happy, perfect family, and in a sense we were. We could never have known what darkness lay ahead for us on those sunny trips together.
Every summer we would go to Israel for 4-6 weeks. Some of my best childhood memories were those hot summer days spent playing with my ultra-ultra-orthodox cousins. It was very obvious that we came from such different worlds. We were the rich, modern, Americans who came with dozens of stylish and sometimes immodest American clothes. My cousins would laughingly point out the fact that our summer wardrobe exceeded there entire wardrobe of all 4 kids combined. They loved when we’d come and adored their uncle, my father, who made sure to come with at least one or two huge suitcases filled with toys. One year he brought these very real looking baby dolls for all the girls. There was nothing like that in Israel then. The dolls were so realistic that as a joke we’d hang it from our porch just to see the reaction of passersby’s. We especially loved scaring all the little old ladies who would shriek in fear at that frightening sight.
My father would rent an apartment, so as not to impose on his parents or sister, but it would always be within walking distance from them. We didn’t go to camp, and spent our days making plays and songs and just running around with our cousins, Dassi, Bruriyah and Yudit, all around our age. Although they were much stricter then we were in religion, they didn’t even own a TV, we got along quite well.
My mother’s parents and siblings were Israeli too, but most of them moved to Brooklyn during that time. We’d go there once in a while for Sabbath and my sister and I would fight over who gets to sleep next to my aunt Tzippy who was only 18 years old. She was our idol, a fun loving, funny, warm person who we could relate too. I remember always feeling how lucky we were when I’d compare our home and life to that of my grandparents and relatives. There was such a contrast, since they lived in small rentals in Brooklyn, which always looked dark and dingy to me. I was aware, even then, that we were lucky, and was very thankful for what I had. One Purim, we went to my grandparents for the Purim feast. Purim was my favorite Jewish holiday. Aside from the fact that I was born on that day and it was my Hebrew birthday, I loved the custom of dressing up and giving family and friends baskets filled with goodies. My mother would make such a big deal over it, creating the most elaborate baskets. I looked forward to Purim all year. One year I dressed up as a princess. It was my third year as a princess and I still fit into my special white dress. That dress was my most prized possession, white with a full pleaded skirt that twirled around with me. That dress was so precious to me that at age six, when I got really mad at my Mother over something I can’t recall and I decided to run away, it was the only thing I packed. I remember storming out of the house, dragging a big suitcase and waving goodbye to my mother and sister as I made my way out and down my front walk. After a few minutes I turned around and ran back into my mother’s waiting arms in tears, apologizing for running away, but I’ll never forget that I made sure to pack that dress. The year I was a princess for the third time, we were at my grandparents and my uncle Izzy, newly married to my mom’s sister Nitzana, was wasted. In all fairness, there is a tradition to drink on Purim and even get drunk. My uncle did just that. We were all very amused at his hysterical behavior. I had never seen a drunk person before, since my father never participated in that custom. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Uncle Izzy started yelling at my father. He ranted about how he is not a real Jew because he doesn’t learn torah full time and works. He started to admonish him and humiliate him in front of everyone. My aunt Nitzanah was horrified and tried to shut him up, but he just kept going. I felt as if someone slapped me hard across the face and I too turned red with shame. How dare he talk to my father like that? I simply did not understand. And all the while my father, knowing that he was drunk, stayed calm and did not yell back. My mother answered back to Uncle Izzy, as did my grandmother, but my father kept quiet and laughed it off. I heard someone say something about Izzy being jealous of my father since he was accomplished while Izzy was a nobody. That stayed with me and I was certain his hatred stemmed from jealousy. It was my first brush with hate and jealousy, since up until then the world was a very loving, accepting place.
Yes, life in the Greenwald home was very interesting. I felt extremely lucky to have the parents that I had, whom I thought were the most beautiful people on earth. My mother happened to have been very attractive with her slim figure and dark hair. And my father was tall and lithe with the most striking blue eyes none of us inherited. I loved my home and my life that seemed so much more exciting than most of my friends with our travels and exotic pets. Nothing could have prepared us for what was coming. Even my mother, who was aware of the danger my father was in during the months leading up to his disappearance, could not have even fathomed what was about to unfold. Had she been able to, things would have played out very differently.