Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Flashback 2007: Dorothy Goldberg is mad at the Bulls

     Jews have a lovely tradition called "yahrzeit"—lighting a candle in memory of lost loved ones on the anniversaries of their deaths. My wife lit one Saturday for her mother, who passed away in 2011. Between that, and the holiday season approaching, I was reminded of this column.

     For Jews, Christmas is a void to be filled with Chinese food.
     So I am at my sister-in-law's on Christmas Eve, digging into the spare ribs—yes, I know—when my mother-in-law addresses me from across the crowded table.
     "Who can I write a letter to?" she says. "I want to write a letter, even though they probably won't care what I write. Who should I tell?"
     Now, Dorothy Goldberg is the refutation of every mother-in-law joke in the world. I've known her for 25 years, and if she has ever uttered an unkind word about me, or about any other member of her family, for that matter, I haven't heard it. She's 82 now, red-haired, feisty and a moral lesson to all those lonely seniors puzzling over their own fractured family relations. Sixty years of common sense, unconditional love, hard work and rectitude, and your children and grandchildren will jostle each other to shovel your walk, change your light bulbs, take you shopping.
     Or, in this instance, air your grievances.
     "Why don't you tell me?" I say, setting down a rib.
     "I'm very upset," she confides. "About Scott Skiles."
     Scott Skiles? Scott Skiles? The name means nothing to me. 
Dorothy in 2010
     "The coach of the Bulls," my sister-in-law adds, helpfully.
     It turns out that my mother-in-law, widowed two years ago, watches all the Bulls games. Or did.
     "I probably won't watch them anymore," Dorothy sighs. "[Skiles] was the Bulls! Who do I write to? Really. It's not his fault because his boys don't throw the ball in, and the other team, well, they throw the ball in, and it goes through the hoop. It's not his fault. He's worked hard. And right before Christmas! I imagine he felt bad."
     She practically scowls, perhaps thinking about Skiles breaking the bad news to his kiddies that Santa won't be bringing any presents this year. My wife interjects that Skiles will be OK.
     "I'm sure he tried," my mother-in-law continues, angry now. "It's the players, they just didn't throw the damn ball in! That's all. I'm sure they practiced, trying to. They throw the ball, and it doesn't go in. They can be two feet away, and it doesn't go in!"
     "Two feet away, and it doesn't go in" sets the table laughing. Conversation stops as the family regards her with something approaching wonder. This is out of character for her. She looks at our smiling faces and is sincerely indignant. "What gets me is none of you feel bad—you don't, do you?"
     I admit I don't.
     "If you put a gun to my head on the way here and asked me who the manager of the Bulls was, I couldn't have told you," I explain.
     "Coach," my wife corrects me. "Coach of the Bulls. The manager is John Paxson."
     "I watched them, and I really enjoyed them, with him sitting there!" says Dorothy. "He was the Bulls! I was really upset. I was shocked."
     I tell her not to worry—the Bulls will be apprised of their folly at the first opportunity. You can't eat at a woman's table for two dozen years, shoveling in the high-quality Kosher chow with both hands while basking in the warmth of unconditional love and not spring to your duty when called upon. After dessert—homemade ice cream and three kinds of home-baked cookies—Dorothy asks when she might expect this in the paper.
    "Wednesday," I say. "Take it to the bank."
                                        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 26, 2007


  1. When asked what Jewish people did on Christmas, My grammar school friend Ben used to joke that Christmas was the day he was allowed to eat pork, but only if it came from a Chinese restaurant. Cultural sensitivity was very different in the 60's.

    1. In "Portnoy's Complaint," the narrator mentions that his family, while almost always keeping kosher, would occasionally indulge in pork at a Chinese restaurant:

      "Suddenly, the pig is no threat--though, to be sure, it comes to us so chopped and shredded, and is then set afloat on our plates in such oceans of soy sauce, as to bear no resemblance at all to a pork chop, or a hambone, or, most disgusting of all, a sausage (ucchh!)"

  2. You can't make this stuff up. Not only amusing but heartwarming as well. I'm reading Little Women now that I'm "un machista en recuperacion" (heard on NPR from an Argentinian Jerry Springer), and I think that Dorothy Goldberg was as close to Momma March as it is possible for a genuine human being to be.


  3. My mother lost her father to cancer when she was fifteen. My father lost his father when my parents were both in their late thirties. So I grew up with yahrzeit candles. They last for 24 hours, so they would burn all night long on the kitchen countertop.

    The flickering candle flames cast long shadows on the ceiling in the hallway, and in my bedroom (for some strange and unexplained reason, we always kept our bedroom doors open). Very much like a Halloween pumpkin. Made me think of ghosts and of death. Scared the hell out of me when I was young.

    I think it was the glass in the yahrzeits themselves. The glass containers were not smooth, so they amplified the flames and the shadows. They were actually wax-filled juice glasses (No...not Jews' glasses...juice). My frugal Russian-born grandmother would clean out the wax and re-use them as drinking glasses. My sister and I knew what they had been. That creeped us out, too.

    The funeral homes in Florida gave me yahrzeit candles (with smooth glass) when my parents died, but I've never burned them. Not because they still creep me out. My parents could leave candles burning because we had a dog. But I have cats.

  4. I think it's interesting that in 2007, you knew neither the Bulls' coach's name, nor that they're called coaches, not managers. Then, I don't know how long after that, you and your family adopted watching the Bulls as a family activity yourselves.

    Nice that you had such a wonderful relationship with your mother-in-law, and that you were in a position to bring more attention to her grievance than a letter ever could have.

    I've never heard of the candle idea, but I like it. And Grizz's comment about his experiences with them was charming.

    1. It was more a slip of the tongue. I'm sure I knew, intellectually, that basketball teams had coaches not managers. But my indifference to sports is not a pose. When I ran into the editor of Michigan Avenue magazine and she asked me if I was interested in profiling Joakim Noah, I told her enthusiastically that indeed I am, having no idea who he was.

  5. 13 years and several coaches later and they still don’t throw the damn ball in.

  6. First a great story about Caren's grandmother and now another one about Neil's sons' grandmother. In each, you could sense their persona.

  7. If anybody cares, Skiles went on to coach in Milwaukee and Orlando. He did all right.



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