The End of Poker Night

Mindy Greenstein looks back on the gambling that was a big part of life with her Holocaust refugee parents.

Mindy Greenstein | Longreads | March 2019 | 17 minutes (4,228 words)

Poker Night was sacred in my family, even though the game couldn’t start until Motzei Shabbos — the departing of the sacred Sabbath. Arguments were as likely to break out in Yiddish — my first language — as English. Most players were Holocaust refugees residing in Brooklyn like my parents. The rest were American-born Jews, that is, the ones who “didn’t know from true suffering.” A group to which I belonged, as Ma often reminded me during my surly adolescent years. Most of the refugees were observant Orthodox Jews, like Dad. The rest were more likely to be irreligious, like Ma.

I was 6 years old in 1969, the year of my earliest poker memory. Shabbos had just ended and I had a plan. Ma had recently bought me a quilted light pink robe dotted with small dark pink and fuchsia flowers that I loved more than anything in the world. She’d taught me to loop the dark pink quilted belt asymmetrically on the left side of my waist, like the movie stars did, she said. I felt like Cinderella in that robe, or, more specifically, Leslie Anne Warren’s Cinderella from the movie. Maybe prettier, even. So entrancing that my parents and their poker buddies would forget to deal the first card.

***

Dad watched the clock until it hit the official time of sundown, the end of Shabbos, as calculated by the Rabbis. He lit the braided havdalah candle, while performing the blessing separating the spiritual sacredness of the Sabbath from the profane worldliness of the week ahead. I was usually the only attendee. Dad and I were observant; Ma and my younger brother weren’t interested in irritating rules. My father told me that during their engagement, Ma had promised she’d become observant once she was a married woman. She said that was “boolsheett.”

Most players were Holocaust refugees residing in Brooklyn like my parents. The rest were American-born Jews, that is, the ones who ‘didn’t know from true suffering.’

After this small ceremony, out of nowhere, the big round folding poker table with the soft green felt pad appeared on the brown living room carpet, over the spot where I usually staged my Barbie beauty pageants. Slatted wood folding chairs were fished out of mysterious closets. Soon, the guests would invade my territory after their own havdalahs, bringing their unpleasant assortment of pipe, cigar, and cigarette smoke along with a cacophony of Yiddish, English, or, more rarely, the languages of their countries of origin.

About an hour after Shabbos officially ended, I could hear the doorbell from my pink room in the back of our two-family house.

“I’ll get it!” I screamed as I ran through the hallway sporting the robe of many flowers with the belt tied just so. My brother’s blue room was right next to the living room, which abutted the small entry foyer. I didn’t want him to beat me to the front door. The poker table was visible from the entrance. I needed to beguile them before the green felt tabletop did.

The first person to arrive was Bernie Nussbaum, whose gray felt fedora hat was tipped forward, holding in place his black velvet yarmulke, which was perfectly positioned to cover the remainder of his bald spot in the back. Ma called him The Putz behind his back. She loved to tell the story of the time he couldn’t remember where he’d parked his car after a game. He walked around our neighborhood in concentric circles for four hours before locating it.

“Hi, Bernie!” I chirped.

He brushed past my adorableness and took a seat at the poker table. Pulling his jacket off without looking up, he said, “Oh, yes, hello.”

Same with Louie, Srul, and Morty — straight to the table. That night, as on many but not all others, Ma was the only woman.

I watched as everyone started his routine. Draping jackets around the backs of chairs, pulling coins from pockets and emptying wallets or envelopes stuffed with small bills, requesting Coca Colas from whichever parent wasn’t putting my little brother to bed. This night, it was Ma.

I did the only thing I could think of to gain their attention: I began to twirl. Around and around and around and around. Look how well I could spin around, so many times! Without even throwing up!

No one said anything. Except Ma.

“Mindaleh, why don’t you go watch television? Maybe I Love Lucy is on.”

I deflated. Plus, I Love Lucy wasn’t even on on Saturday nights! Time for Plan B. I’d show everyone how I learned to shuffle the deck from the short side, like they did. That would really impress them. I approached the table, reaching for one of the decks with a blue and white mesh diamond pattern on the back.

“I just want to — “

“Go watch TV.”

I stopped reaching and did as I was told, lowering my gaze so Ma couldn’t see the sadness in my eyes. She hated when I made the ungebluzen face. If she’d made that face to her mother, hub-bub-boy, she would have gotten smacked but good!

I didn’t understand that she couldn’t relate to a twirling girl in a pink robe; there had been no frilly robes when she was my age. Only tattered clothes that barely protected her from the cold, wet dirt of the forest floor as she hid from gun-wielding Romanian Fascists and Nazis hunting down her family. Or that our modest house was a palace compared to Dad’s freezing hut in Siberia. I didn’t yet understand that they were Holocaust survivors. That term was sacred, reserved for men and women with numbers tattooed into their forearms, like the Auschwitz survivors who lived three houses down from us.

I understood only that I was invisible, as I retreated to the back of the house. I closed the door, and quickly turned on my thirteen-inch black-and-white TV. I could still catch some of My Three Sons.

***

I always had trouble sleeping, but poker nights were the worst. From my bed, I could hear coins clanking on the table, words like see, call, and hold, and short fights, usually in Yiddish. The stench of cigarettes and, sometimes, cigars or pipes.

I could feel my parents’ increasing annoyance at my inability to fall asleep, especially Ma’s. The routine that developed satisfied no one.

I waited as long as I could before I sheepishly entered the living room. Once there, I waited again, quietly, until they noticed me. I bided my time noticing them.

The fog of smoke was dense, a cloudy Cone of Silence, like the kind the spies sat inside on Get Smart when sharing super-duper top secret information. I wondered what my brother, who was two years younger, heard and smelled from the blue bedroom on the other side of the living room wall. But I never asked. We didn’t speak of personal matters. He went to bed already angry that I got to stay up later, proof that I was the favored child, rather than just the older one with the later bedtime. It often felt like every man for himself in the Greenstein home.


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I counted the butts of Ma’s Winstons in the ashtray on her side of the table. Hers were the ones with the red lipstick smudges that looked like bloody lip prints. Approximately one third of the butts. (I took great pride in learning Math from poker night.)

Finally, one of the other players groaned, der kindt ist du. The kid’s here.

Dad waited for Ma to respond while she waited for him in a parental game of chicken. This was one of the few contests of will that Dad was more likely to win, at least in front of the players. After all, she was Di Muhtter. The Mother.

Ma bit her nails as she escorted me down the L-shaped hallway leading to the pink room.

“You should keep your door closed,” she said, less a suggestion than an accusation that it was my own fault I couldn’t sleep.

“I can’t. I’m afraid.”

“What’s to be afraid?”

I had no words for the fears that strangled me in the night like a python coiled around my soul. A phantom intruder breaking in through the kitchen grabbing a steak knife in case someone woke up. The way the streetlights reflected off the mirror on my dresser, like a glint in a monster’s eye.

Ma closed the door. “Well, I’m with you now. Gay schluffen.” Go to sleep.

I laid my head on the pillow, keeping an eye trained on her as if afraid she’d escape.

She parked herself far away on the corner at the foot of my pink quilted bed, placing one palm down on the top of the mattress next to her. Bouncing up and down, she rocked the whole bed like a giant cradle. In between bounces, she helpfully added, “Nu, go to sleep already.”

If I took too long to fall asleep, Dad took her spot. He whispered, “gay schluffen, gay schluffen,” in a sorrowful tone. Perhaps, he, like me, regretted that he preferred sitting at the poker table.

At some point, I drifted off, and, as usual, woke up Sunday morning to a living room littered with Styrofoam coffee cups, mountains of cigarette butts and ashes erupting out of their ashtrays. The only colors in the brown and beige room were the green of the table’s felt and the lipstick-tinged Winstons. Some mornings, the chairs were still out, and I could sense the ghost of the game that had been played the night before. My mother had sat in this chair, my father in that, Bernie Nussbaum on one side of him, the new guy with the red beard and funny smell on the other.

Ma slept into the afternoon, but Dad and I had to get up early. He had to drive me to Sunday school (as if the 8:30 – 5:30 weekday schedule wasn’t enough Yeshiva learning). Ma never learned to drive. The very idea gave her palpitations. Years later, the first time I drove her in a car, she looked at me as if I had superpowers. Her own flesh and blood, behind the steering wheel!

From there, he drove to the home decorating store he co-owned with my non-gambling Uncle Heshie. He’d work on drapes and slipcovers, a nice matching bedspread, maybe. Dad did the cutting and measuring, Heshie the sewing. My father referred to the store as his therapy, once he learned the word “therapy.”

***

One morning when I was 11, I woke up not to the ghost of the game, but the game itself. The clanking coins, the smoke. The raspy Yinglish voices took on a weary tone as they continued to deal, raise, and fold. I scarfed down some cereal in the kitchen before Dad excused himself to take me to Sunday school and head out to the store.

When my classmate’s mother dropped me home after school at noon, they were still playing.

I made a beeline for my room and turned on the TV. There were no decent shows on Sundays, but, with any luck, I could find an old movie, preferably one that Ma had recommended. She’d discovered Hollywood movies in her refugee camp after the war. She loved almost all movies, though her favorite was Gilda with Rita Hayworth. The two exceptions were war films or anything having to do with the Holocaust. “Like I didn’t have enough already?”

Neither Ma nor Dad took responsibility. If Dad brought up her gambling, she spit back, ‘You gamble too! What, I’m not allowed to have a hobby?’

When Dad got back from the store at 5:00 PM: still playing. At first, he looked incredulous. Then disgusted. Then he took off his jacket and cap, adjusted his yarmulke, and rejoined the table.

***

My younger brother understood much earlier than I that we weren’t getting enough attention. One summer night, when he was 8 and I was 10, he took matters into his own hands.

Unbeknownst to my father, my brother hid in the backseat of his champagne Chevy just before he drove off to his Thursday poker game on Long Island, or, as Dad pronounced it, Lung Islendt. Ma and I spent a couple of hours stalking the neighborhood screaming my brother’s name and getting no response. When Dad parked outside the Lung Islendt house, my brother’s head popped out of the darkness in the back seat. “Hi, Daddy!” he giggled.

The next day, I overheard my mother talking on the phone with a friend. She described what happened after my father dragged him home. I’d stayed out as long as I could. I didn’t want to hear the aftermath. My father had gotten right back into the Chevy and driven back into the night, leaving punishment in Ma’s hands.

“So, he was hiding under the bed, the little nudnik, and he said, ‘Don’t hit me, don’t hit me.’

‘No, Tataleh [Little Father],’ I told him, ‘just come out.’

‘You sure you won’t hit me?’

‘No, Tataleh. Just come out. It’s okay.’ Like that I told him.”

So, he came out. And, bup, I hit him!”

I didn’t know what it was like to be spanked; I was the wash-and-wear kid, the low-maintenance one. I never asked my brother why he’d done what he did, or which hurt worst, the spanking, Ma’s betrayal, or the futility of his gesture. I’d missed That Girl and Bewitched because of that idiot.

Besides, Ma used to describe getting much worse beatings from her own mother — sometimes with wooden sticks. I’d seen Ma’s parents only in black and white photos. My grandfather was tall and gaunt. My grandmother was tiny but fierce, her face punctuated by a thick line of dark lipstick that covered only the middle third of her lips. Fierce enough both to get her family through the Holocaust intact and to, “beat the sheett out of us.” Ma had a permanent scar on her left arm, from the time my grandmother realized too late that there was a nail in the wooden stick she was beating her with. According to Ma, her mother begged her forgiveness after these episodes.

‘I’m a bad mother, a terrible mother,’ my grandmother cried, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’

‘No, Mommy, no,’ Ma answered, “You’re a good mother. I forgive you.”

***

Poker Night ended abruptly some time during my adolescence. That was the year Con Edison and Bell Telephone started playing particularly fast and loose with our utility services. A day here and there with no electricity, a morning with no outgoing phone service and a threat to cut incoming services the next day as well. Ma ran down to their offices with a check, so the outages didn’t last long.

I thought it was cool not to have service. None of my nice middle-class Yeshiva friends had such things happen to them. They would grow up to be soft, I thought, not tough like me.

Neither Ma nor Dad took responsibility. If Dad brought up her gambling, she spit back, “You gamble too! What, I’m not allowed to have a hobby?”

But that one was no contest, as far as I was concerned. What I saw was a man who still worked six days a week, kept a roof over our heads, took his kids to school every morning, and waved the bankbooks in the air asking where all the money had gone since the day before, while Ma screamed that she could do what she wanted.

It was Ma who never left the game until she ran out of both money and people willing to lend it to her. Dad at least seemed sad rather than defiant about choosing poker over us. He was the one who’d given her $2000 in cash to buy me a piano at Macy’s when I wanted to learn how to play. Ma picked out a walnut Hardman & Peck upright, putting down $200, starting a secret charge card for the rest, and pocketing the remaining cash. Dad found out when the bills came.

***

Dad’s family was standard issue middle class greeneh (old country) Orthodox who adapted well in the Goldeneh Medineh, The Golden Country, as America was known. His siblings all worked their way up from nothing to own their own small businesses. No drama or comedy ever since the war. During the war: no comedy, only drama. First, they ran east when the Nazis invaded in the west. Then, the Soviets invaded their new town and shipped the family to Siberia. Dad thought they were all doomed. When he got out after the war and found out what happened to the Jews who’d stayed in Poland, he stopped complaining.

“We knew we didn’t have what to talk,” he told me.

Ma’s brothers, on the other hand, were always gambling and losing. She called them The Vagabonds, a term her mother used to use when they pissed her off. Ma was the only one who worked regularly as a seamstress, supporting her family from age 12 with a trade she learned in a refugee camp after the war, though the way she pronounced it — vogg-a-BAUNDS — sounded more playful than angry to my ears. Sometimes, one of the two Vagabonds who’d settled in Brooklyn would suddenly show up at our house, smelling like he hadn’t bathed in a while. He’d hit her up for money, she’d work on Dad until he gave it to her, and the Vagabond would go. Sometimes the other would do the same, minus the smell.

The third vogg-a-BAUND had stayed in Israel, where their family had relocated after making it through the forest and various refugee camps. One day in his early 20s, he was shooting craps when he was supposed to be marrying his fiancé. My grandmother dispatched Ma to find her older brother: “Tell him that if he doesn’t come right now, I’m going to break every bone in his body. Go.”

If I were a betting person, I would have wagered big that a marriage started in this way was doomed. But it lasted 50 years, until his death from heart failure.

***

Dad demanded changes one day when I was in fifth grade. He’d done this before, demanding that they both quit.

“Who’s stopping you?” Ma said, taking a deep drag on a cigarette.

“I only play to win back the money you’re losing!”

“Boolsheett.”

“At least don’t bring games in the house,” he begged.“I can’t help myself if it’s in the house.”

“I’ll play where I want,” she said.

This time, Dad threatened divorce. I don’t remember that year well, only that they screamed at each other a lot and that I cried a lot, and thought my life was over.

They didn’t divorce. Ma caved. Dad took her name off the bank accounts. From then on, she had to ask him for money. When she started forging his name on checks, he hid the checkbook or left it at the store.

What if I’d known that she was kicked out of school at the age of 6 because she was Jewish? Or how she survived the war by hiding in the forests of Ukraine with her family?

That year, I became very religious and an A student. I asked to go to ultra-Orthodox sleepaway camps, and followed every rule — at least the ones I knew out of the 613 mitzvot laid down by the ancient Rabbis. I said the proper brukha (blessing) before eating anything, and stopped wearing pants because they were deemed immodest. I was learning even more rules than Dad knew, and I was excited to share them with him so he wouldn’t break them unknowingly.

One day, when I was 14, I asked him if he was proud of me for being so committed to Judaism.

“Well,” he said, “I guess it’s better than that you should be a drug addict.”

I stopped sharing the rules, ultimately losing interest in them myself.

Ma relentlessly pursued poker substitutes — Off-Track Betting, nightly bingo games where she could also play the numbers, every Las Vegas Nite at a temple or church in Brooklyn. Sometimes, when Ma asked for money, Dad put up a fight before giving in. Other times, not. She once won a trifecta worth $3000. That was the only win I heard about, but I heard about it a lot from Ma, as if it proved that another trifecta was just around the corner.

After a few months, Dad went back to Thursday night games outside the home. “They’re just small games,” he insisted. I believed him because Con Edison wasn’t turning off our electricity anymore. And because I needed to believe somebody.

At the same time, I became Ma’s most lethal opponent. Even though one of the 613 was Honor Thy Father and Mother, I rifled through her purse, looking for proof that she wasn’t where she said she’d been. But she was a tough nut to crack. Like my parent teacher conferences that she claimed to have attended; those nights, her friend Mary picked her up at 7:00 and dropped her off at 11:00 — the same pickup and drop-off times as their regular Bingo nights four or five times a week. Every year was a variant of the same conversation.

“Your teacher says you’re a very good student.”

“Which teacher?”

“All of them.”

“Name one.”

“I don’t remember from names. But I’m very proud of you.”

What if I’d known that she was kicked out of school at the age of 6 because she was Jewish? Or how she survived the war by hiding in the forests of Ukraine with her family? Or how the Vagabond with the bad smell had once saved her life when she fell down the side of a mountain as they made one of many escapes? I didn’t know because she didn’t tell me the stories until after I’d become a mother myself.

But what if I had known? Would I still blame her for lying about Parent-Teacher Night? Or was there too little room in my heart for anyone’s suffering but my own?

***

My parents’ poker detente came to an end when I left home to go be an intellectual at the University of Chicago. What used to be Poker Night at our house became Poker Days at the club. Any gambling den they could find in the bowels of Brooklyn, run by mid-level mobsters with names like Black Sam (who wasn’t black). When I called home, there was often no answer. When I came home for breaks, their behavior didn’t change.

While Dad often joined Ma at the club, he still made it to the store everyday. Plus, he didn’t have enough stamina to keep up with her. He’d run home to get some sleep while she could keep playing for as many as three days at a time. He gave her an allowance, and let the mobsters know he wouldn’t pay her debts if they loaned her money.

“But they’re mobsters!! Why would they listen to you?” I asked him.

“Mobsters are businessmen, Mamaleh. (Little Mother) They just want their money, and they know they won’t get it, so finished.”

“But they could lend it to her and break her legs if she doesn’t pay them back.”

“Don’t worry. They know not to give her.”

Ma started cooking food to sell the other players for playing money. Her latkes were particularly popular.

I was back at school for my 21st birthday. Ma didn’t call or send a card. I wondered whether she forgot about me or whether she lost all sense of time at the club, or both.

She made up for this oversight by treating it as if it never happened. The next year, she called at seven o’clock in the morning.

“Happy 21st Birthday, Mamaleh!”

“It’s not my 21st birthday, Ma. That was last year.”

“Of course, it’s your birthday!”

“Yes, it’s my birthday, but I’m 22, not 21.”

“What, I don’t know when I gave birth??”

***

A guy in my dorm saw me playing Solitaire in the lobby one afternoon.

“We’re having a game in my room tonight. Wanna join?”

I was a nervous, intense student, not known as a barrel of laughs. Normally, it might have felt nice to be included. I could feel my face grow white.

“No thanks, I don’t play,” I said.

“Come on,” the guy said, “I can tell from the way you shuffle the cards that you play.”

From the short end, like I learned at Poker Night.

“No. I don’t play.”

***.

When I started my doctorate in Clinical Psychology, gambling was no longer just gambling. It was an Impulse-Control Disorder. Hitting a trifecta was an example of a Variable Ratio Reinforcement Learning Schedule, the hardest behavior to extinguish, whether in rats or people. But I couldn’t help but think of what was lost in those descriptions.

Cards beckoning, coins clanking. The desperate look in Ma’s eye when she ran out of people to noodge for money. Dad’s willful self-deceptions every time he sat down to the game table. The way he managed to lose too much but to pull back just before losing it all.

The little girl in the pink robe, loved but ignored, trying to find her place. The little boy tricked and smacked.

I wrote my dissertation on the experience of craving. But the true allure of Poker Night remained a mystery. I knew only that, for all the chaos of my early years, they were a lot less catastrophic than my parents’. Just as I hoped that when I had children of my own one day, their childhoods would be far less fraught than mine.

I’ve never attended another poker night in all the years since I left home. About the only wager I’ve placed was when I bet my toddler son a million billion gajillion dollars he’d forgotten to zip his fly again.

I won.

* * *

Mindy Greenstein is a clinical psychologist, author, and national speaker. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, SELF, and elsewhere. Dr. Greenstein is the author of two books, The House on Crash Corner — an O: The Oprah Magazine “Book to Watch For”— and Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging (co-authored by Jimmie Holland, MD), one of The Wall Street Journal’s “Best Books of the Year on Life After 50.”

 

Editor: Sari Botton