Letter to Philip Roth

by Martin Mandel


Anyhow, Phil, you don't know me and I don't know you, although, perhaps, in some generic sense we do know each other. Couple of weeks ago, my old Hillside school mate Sid Galanty from Conklin Ave. in Hillside (currently in Pacific Palisades, CA) called me and asked if I had read Philip Roth's latest book, "The Plot Against America". Of course, I hadn't; the last and only thing I ever read by Roth was Portnoy's Complaint when it first was published and I loved it, although, too many years have gone by and I can't remember anything about the story. So, I went to Border's Book Store and skimmed through a copy and when I saw the places and things to which the story referred, I bought it and got hooked on it by page 2 where references are made to the Weequahic section, Summit Ave. and Hillside.

My name is Marty Mandel. I was born on November 9, 1932 , the night Franklin Delano Roosevelt was first elected president of the United States of America. So, you can see that FDR was my childhood and lifelong idol . He was my hero. He pulled my country through the Second World War and did good things for the Jews and all Americans. When I was born, my family lived on Stecher St., off Chancellor Ave. on the border of Irvington. (A couple of years, ago, I returned to Hillside and Newark for the first time in about 40 years and took my wife, Anna, to see where I lived, but, as you know, there is just air above the freeway there, now.) Then we moved to Hobson St. across from Chancellor Ave. School where I attended kindergarten. In your story, you ran up Goldsmith Ave., then over on Hobson St., which had a row of 4-family houses, to reach Chancellor Ave. Well, you ran past my house which was the third one from the corner of Chancellor.

As I'm reading your book, I'm getting pulled deeper and deeper into the plot; this could have easily been me, instead of you, telling the story. Your references to different places and things in Newark I know all about; I was there. At age 6 years, my family bought a house on Dorer Ave. (off Liberty Ave.) in Hillside where I lived till about 1952. My buddies, Barry Torine, Marvin Engle, Sid and a bunch of others from Hillside(especially, Conklin and Williamson Ave) spent much time on Chancellor Ave. playground, Weequahic Park(our big favorite), walking and bikeriding all over the place. Yes, we ate French creames from AnnaMae's chocolates, can't begin to tell you how many hot dogs from Sid's with mustard, sauerkraut and hot relish and potato dogs from Mrs. Cohen's on Hawthorne Ave. I worked one summer delivering orders for Tabatchnik's on Maple Ave. in Hillside.

I'm telling you all this because you told me all this in your story and I identified with almost everything you did and said. For days, I kept thinking of the plot against the Jews and, although, I knew it was fiction, was it really? I was constantly thinking of you and your situation and couldn't separate reality from fiction. Your references to real things were astonishing to me. You mentioned that your phone number was WAvery-3-4269 (sorry for the error), well, mine was WA-3-4489. Why do I remember that from 55 years, ago?

About Longie Zwillman: my father was a milkman and owned his own business called "Square Deal Dairy" for about 20 to 30 years in Hillside and, mainly, Newark. I used to work with him delivering milk 6 days a week (before going to school every morning) and had some interesting experiences with him. One morning, we're driving slowly up a hill (I think it was Nye ave) crossing, I think, Clinton Place when a limousine comes down the street and runs into my father's milk truck causing much damage. Anyhow, I recall being in court with my father about the accident and he lost the case. He remarked that he had no chance because the driver was a henchman of Longie Zwillman. Of course, you knew about him. One other recollection: My father (Max Mandel) told me that when he grew up in the Bronzeville section of Brooklyn that he was in the same crowd with Louie Lepke of "Murder, Inc."; that's all I know of that subject.

Anyhow, Phil, now you know why I feel we may know each other, generically. One last thing and this one is a beauty. I'm looking at the picture of you on the inside back cover of the book, and I must tell you, we resemble each other; we have very similar facial characteristics. I've included a recent photo of myself for comparison. Strange, isn't it? We possibly could be mishpulchah, who knows?

In any event, I had to write to you to get this off my chest. Your book has had a profound effect on me and I want to thank you for writing it. I won't say that I enjoyed the story; it was too harsh for that. I was engrossed and involved in it.


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