you heard the one about the two Jews who invented copper wire
by fighting over a penny?
Good. Now stop laughing and forget you ever heard it, you schmuck.
When I was
a young Jewess, my father collected pennies. Jars, mugs, urns
from my aunt Carolyn's pottery wheelthey filled the house,
overflowing with tarnished copper coins. On rainy Sundays, my
sisters and I used to make believe that we were the inside of
an automatic teller machine. We'd grab handfuls of pennies and
roll them down a ledge that braced our basement stairway. Sometimes,
the pennies fell through a crack in the wall and landed -- PLINK!
-- in the laundry room below. My father would charge down the
stairs and catch us redhanded in the act of squandering his precious
collection. And that, as they say, was not good.
In our family,
every penny counted. (Or maybe, every penny was counted...oh,
never mind.) My dad was an Israeli immigrant who came here in
1972, right before I was born. He didn't speak a lick of English,
and for most of my life, he worked as a landscaper -- cutting
lawns, moving topsoil, trimming shrubs. He worked the 12 to 14-hour
days alone with one assistant, and brought in around $16,000 to
support our family of five.
dad picked up pennies everywhere he went. He had an eagle's eye,and
would stop his lawnmower if he caught a glint of copper in the
wake of his whirring Toro. The pennies would catch in the mower's
blades, causing damage that was expensive to fix. He learned quickly
that the easiest thing to do was to bend down, scoop up the tiny
avengers and slip them into his pocket. Soon, this three-step
dance became one swift motion, performed without a pause. If a
coin fell in the forest (or more likely, on the sidewalk), my
father heard it, honed in, and pocketed it with the fluid grace
of a danseur.
day, our living room shelf crashed to the floor, and a hailstorm
of copper sprayed like shrapnel, pelting an unsuspecting guest
who was sitting on the couch. The weight of the pennies had exceeded
capacity, alerting my father that it was time to stop, drop and
It took six
$#!&-in' hours for me, my two sisters, my mother and my father
to stack those pennies into endless piles of fifty and roll them
into brown paper sleeves. Oh, how I hated the sight of Lincoln's
craggy profile embossed in dirty copper! Even worse, my father
demanded that we create a separate pile of pennies stamped with
dates before 1952. (You see, those had a DIFFERENT etching on
their backsides -- instead of the Monticello house, they were
marked, simply, "One Cent.") Because they were out of print, my
father deemed them rare collector's pieces, and delivered a withering,
"Sha, you donkey!" when I drily asked if they'd be worth TWO cents
in another hundred years.
vigilant eye of a landscaper who could sniff out currency in the
brush, I began my own three-step motion: Turn, stack, roll. Turn,
our penny fortress amounted to a little over $750. To this day,
I don't know exactly what my father did with the money. I think
he put it in the bank. He also bought a new shelf for our living
room, and treated the family to an ala carte Chinese dinner fit
for kings. But as I fell asleep, the shape of two round discs
burned like fire behind my eyelids. My wrists, which had nimbly
lifted chopsticks two hours before, were swollen and sore.
At that definitive
moment, I decided that in my eight-year-old world, Jews and pennies
would never mix again. And it just made sense. I knew Jewish people
named Goldberg, Rubin, Silverman. But have YOU ever met a Jew
named Copperstein? Okay, so there IS David Copperfield, but look
at how he strayed from the tribe. He married the "grande dame"
of shikses, supermodel Claudia Schiffer. No further elaboration
years later, I recoil at the sight, the sound, the dirty matte
facade of the common penny. At overpriced coffee shops, I drop
my pennies into the "tip" jar, even though the chutzpah of its
very presence offends me. When I clean my room, stray pennies
are unearthed from carpet corners and hurled into the trash. And
because I feel a little guilty throwing away money like that,
I scatter my pennies on the sidewalk nowadays. One person's junk
is another's treasure, after all. As I cast my coins to the wind,
each penny seems to ask with a plaintive plink, "Papa, can you
though he lives 500 miles away, somehow, I think he can.