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David Berger


The year was 1965. I was 16 years old. The Dodgers and Giants had long ago abandoned us and moved west. Mickey Mantle’s career was pretty much over. The Knicks were starting to turn their fortunes around and create one of the greatest basketball teams of all time. On Friday nights Bob, Chip, and I would take the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station and then walk up to 50th Street to Madison Square Garden where we could purchase the cheapest seats in the stratosphere and then hope that the ushers wouldn’t notice when we moved forward once the game started. The Knicks were still losing. Willis Reed was their new forward. It would be three years before he would move to center and anchor the five-man team that would teach us that there is no I in team.

My interest in sports was gradually fading. Music had taken over my life. It was more than the fact that I saw myself as a musician-in-training. I had an unquenchable thirst for musical knowledge. I wanted to know how music was put together—how to make those sounds, how to tell a story. Most of all, jazz captured my imagination. I needed to hear it all. But I was 16 years old and had a very limited income from delivering Newsday six afternoons a week. The paper sold for 5 cents. I would collect 30 cents from each house at the end of every week, of which I paid 22 cents to my manager. That left me with 8 cents plus whatever tips I got. Most people tipped 5 or 10 cents. Two of my customers tipped me a very generous quarter. Suffice it to say, I worked very hard for that money through heat spells, cold winters, rain, snow, sleet, and even a hailstorm. 

And so on Friday nights my two buddies and I would take the train into the city and worship at one of the great temples of sports, the old Madison Square Garden. This was the same Madison Square Garden where my aunt took me to the rodeo when I was 4 and our housekeeper Marie took me to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus a year later. When I was 12, my dad took my friend Jeffrey and me to my first basketball game there. We walked into the great lobby and I found my almost-5-foot self standing right next to Wilt Chamberlain—all 7’1” of him. I didn’t even come up to his waist. All I could think of in that moment was the Biblical story of my namesake and Goliath. This game of basketball was truly the game of giants.

So, on these magical Friday nights on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, my buddies and I would always plan to arrive an hour before game time. This left us just enough time to go across the street to Sam Goody and rummage through their dollar jazz record bins. Although I coveted every Blue Note LP, they cost $2.49. I could buy 2½ cutouts for that price. I can’t say that I listen to many of those records now, but I loved them back then, and I learned a lot from them.

Amidst all this, my beloved Aunt Elsie told me that she bought tickets for the hottest show on Broadway. I was to take the train to Penn Station, meet her there (she worked a block away), have dinner at Lino’s and then walk with her to the theater. (She taught me that when a gentleman walks with a lady, he always walks on the street side.) She was really excited. I was always up for seeing a show but didn’t really know what to expect. It was called Fiddler on the Roof and starred Zero Mostel. My parents had seen Zero in Rhinoceros a few years before and raved about how he was such a great actor, that by the end of the show, he actually looked like a rhinoceros.

OK, I thought. I’ll check it out. What really excited my aunt was that the story was about a Jewish family in Ukraine set around the turn of the 20th century. This was the world her parents came from. They died when she was 11 and 12 and left her to figure out her life idolizing Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra and the great big bands of the Swing Era. She was not a religious person. She was Jewish, yes, but she was an American first. I loved that she could translate Yiddish expressions for me, but it pretty much ended there for her. Somehow this show would be healing for her.

Me, I couldn’t identify with European Jewry. I knew that aside from a few dozen relatives that my grandfather helped escape Hitler, the rest of our extended family died in the camps. But that was my mother’s family from Bavaria. My father’s (and his sister’s—my aunt’s) family was from Ukraine and Georgia. As far as we knew, my grandparents and great-grandfather didn’t keep in contact with the relatives they left behind. Most likely they were all murdered en masse as the Nazis came through.

My father had three aunts. One married a bootlegger and lived a life of luxury. Her two sisters lived together in Coney Island. As far as I know, they never worked. My father gave them some money as did their sister and niece. We visited them once a year in their apartment, which looked and smelled like the Old Country. When my grandparents died, my aunt lived with her aunts for two or three years. She hated it. They never spoke to her. She was this wild American kid they didn’t understand. Who was this Benny Goodman? 

And so, that night in 1965 we went to see this new show, Fiddler on the Roof. My mother couldn’t believe that my aunt was able to get tickets. She told my mom that she got them from a scalper. That was legal in those days. They were called ticket agents. My mom was appalled that my aunt paid $50 a piece for the tickets. Average ticket prices back then were $9. In today’s money, that would be $400 per ticket. Crazy, right? Like Hamilton.

We were seated in the orchestra center, about six rows back at most. The first thing I noticed was the orchestra in the pit. Now I was excited. The lights came down and they played the overture. The audience was immediately transported into the world of the imagination. And then the curtain came up, and there were all these Jews in their traditional clothes with yarmulkes and tzitzis dancing and singing about tradition.

Although this wasn’t my world, I understood that it was the world my father’s family came from, and so I had some kind of connection to it, as remote as it was. For my aunt, the experience must have been cathartic, as if her parents had come back to life after being dead for 30 years.

I recently read about the creation of the show and how at first the creators didn’t know what the show was really about. Yes, there is a Jewish family in Ukraine facing poverty and anti-Semitism and dealing with change (interfaith marriage and relocation to America). How could they not see that this was about the chaos of the breakdown of tradition? Once director Jerome Robbins pointed that out, the opening number was replaced with Tradition, and a great show was on its way.

But Jerome Robbins grew up like me, an assimilated American Jew. He didn’t know this world. Enter Zero Mostel. Zero, although born in Brooklyn, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household with European parents. He knew this world and brought authenticity  not only to his role, but to the entire production. He was the soul of the show. Watching him on stage was riveting. He filled the theater. He was larger than life. He was Tevye. I tried to watch the movie version with Topol, but it lacked Zero’s soul. Norman Jewison elected  not to cast Zero because he felt he couldn’t control Zero. Zero improvised. He made the other actors uncomfortable. He made the band laugh. He brought chaos. But that is the point.

Fiddler on the Roof is about tradition attempting to control chaos, and ultimately admitting that chaos is inevitable. When my fellow American Jews go to temple and recite prayers in Hebrew that are thousands of years old, they are clinging to a tradition that was created to hold back the chaos of a changing world. I suppose they take comfort that God will somehow protect them from the oncoming chaos if they say the magic words and pledge allegiance to their invisible ruler. Obviously, it doesn’t work on a case-by-case basis, as the six million Jewish Holocaust victims will attest. But facts have nothing to do with faith.

All this thinking about chaos and tradition got me to think about the yin and yang of control and chaos. How much chaos do we invite into our lives? Everyone determines their own level either consciously or subconsciously. Compared to many people I know, I’ve led, and continue to live, a fairly chaotic life—professionally, financially and personally. For most people, this would be unacceptable, but for me it’s not only exciting, but also necessary. It’s what makes me feel alive and creative. But this is my version of chaos. It’s nothing like the chaos of living in Iraq or being homeless.

I’ve found that I’m most comfortable in a love relationship where my mate brings the chaos into the relationship, and I am put in the role of keeping it all together. This sounds a bit crazy, but for me this was exciting and felt like love. In relationships with stable women, I would instinctively stir things up—not a comfortable role for me.

I’ve seen many such relationships amongst my friends and family. The genders can be reversed, but there is the yin and yang struggle. When both parties are chaos agents, the ensuing relationship will be highly volatile. Perhaps one or the other will feel the need to save the marriage. The odds are slim that they will be fulfilled switching to this role. Similarly, when both parties are homesteaders, this can lead to boredom (lives of quiet desperation), or perhaps one will start acting out.

Every relationship is different. Everyone has different levels of chaos that they can tolerate or enjoy. When I was a kid I liked being scared at amusement parks. Once at Coney Island when I was 5 years old, I told my aunt that I wanted to go on the parachute jump. My mom would never have allowed me to do something so crazy, but my aunt had gone on that ride when she was a teenager, so she let me do it. Everything was fine going up. When we reached the top and we could see half way to England, we dropped into free fall. I was still OK. And then the parachute opened and the little swing that my 6-year-old friend and I were sharing bounced up and down. We were about 20 stories in the air with nothing but a belt around our waists keeping us from sliding off that little slab of hard rubber. I was cured for life. Every time I’ve gone to Coney Island since, or seen it on TV or in the movies, the terror I felt grabs ahold of me; I know my limits, or at least, I choose them.

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  • Dick Lowenthal on

    Hi David,
    Read all of your posts. They’re wonderful. We were in high school (Teaneck) and would take the bus into NYC, and try to hit one club in the Village and one in mid-town. I vividly remember going to Sam Goody near MSG. I can remember the tall British salesman, who would recommend lps when we would come in. Still have many of them from the late 50’s (1st Chet Baker, Miles, Monk, Dizzy , and Duke). We would take the last bus back to NJ or hitch a ride with some of the musicians who lived in Teaneck. Good times! Keep the posts coming.

  • Paul Ferguson on

    I wonder how “Golden Boy” would have affected you-same year.

  • River Bergstrom on

    A truly great blog post, David! I’ve been reading them for quite awhile, but never comment. We have never met and I have stayed in NYC for periods of time, but have never been able to afford to stick around as much as I would like…Last time was 2004…I did a tour for CAMI that was the 50th Anniversary Tour of the Newport Jazz Festival. I had met George Wein once before, and had him thank me for “keeping the tour together”, which was very generous. But this time was a time to meet, and play with, some of my heroes…and I know how dangerous that can be…Cedar Walton, Peter Washington, Howard Alden, Lewis Nash, Moody, Randy Brecker and James Carter. Rarefied air, indeed! They all encouraged me and told me they loved my playing. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! At the end of that tour I wasn’t feeling well…went home (I should’ve stayed in NY!) and a doctor found that I had a kidney stone in my left kidney that was the size of a hen’s egg. Long recovery…I couldn’t play my horns for 14 months! I may have been in Heaven, but that was truly Hell. Some have told me I should write a book…but to me, my life really seems unremarkable. Just a small-town, country boy who loves that improvised music, those standards, all those charts and arrangements, etc. I met Pharoah Sanders at a jam session when I lived in Oakland, as he also did…he invited me to “come over to the crib” and hang sometime. I did. We never got our horns out…we would just drink tea and talk about life and all the complex situations it seems to bring to us. Wish I could know you better! My condolences for all the relatives that you and your parents lost in the Holocaust. Such pure evil. Please Lord, let that never happen again! I know I won’t receive a reply…just letting you know that this guy out west is caring for his 95 year old mother, and misses the career he left behind. The year was 1965. I was 12. Ha!! Keep going with the chaos of your life…you are making beauty where there sometimes is ugliness. Peace, and Love Always, rb

  • Barbara on

    Great post David. Coincidentally I’ve always loved chaotic challenges. Last seat on the Cyclone at age 5, Parachute Jump at age 13, jumping off a diving board into deep water although I can’t swim, deep sea fishing for shark at age 28, hang gliding off of the Rockies in Colorado at age 40, helmet diving at age 45 although I have extreme fear of being underwater, river rafting at age 68, etc. Crazy fun….but it filled a void that my usual calmness lacked. Marrying Bobby, knowing beforehand that ihe would be difficult to handle! 💕🤪

  • Larr on

    Great post Dave! I enjoyed it immensely… you captured Zero and the need for chaos perfectly…I like to think that I ,too , was an agent of chaos back in school, along with Samler, Licata, Elliott Bernstein and some others! Thanks, LARRY

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