A Tomato Grows in Brooklyn
It’s August 2019. I’m sitting in the kitchen of my third floor Brooklyn apartment staring at the streetlamp. The sun is about to setand the light will turn on any second now. I’m sure of it. There’s something magical about watching the day fade away in the city. “Nature” may be far off, but time passes just the same, no matter where you live. The phone rings. Pulling myself out of my philosophical reverie, I answer. It’s my father. He has a story. I know because the first thing he says is: “Oh do I have a story for you.”The thing is…when my father has a story, he has to tell you every last detail. There’s no other way about it. I lean back against my chair and try not to slouch. It’s going to be a while.
“So, I was sitting at the barbershop getting my hair cut. You know Joe the barber on Coney, the one I always go to? Yeah, so I was there. I was sitting in the chair when this Italian guy comes rushing in. He seems distraught. Like really distraught. Apparently, his father, Jeff Lombardi,died. Okay. The nervousness makes sense. Joeaccepts the news gravely and says to me, ‘Do you know who just passed away?’I tell him “No.” I mean why would I know someone by the name of Jeff Lombardi? Nobody ever knows anybody in Brooklyn. It’s just a part of city life. So, Joe says, ‘He lives a few blocks away from here. He’s the landscaper.’That’s when I realize that I do know Jeff Lombardi. I know him because he lives one block away from me. I never knew his name, but I used to see him working on his front yard. I could see over the bushes because I’m tall. I even used to stop to compliment him. So I tell Joe that I actually do know JeffLombardi. Amazing. Of all the Italians in Brooklyn, I happen to know this one.
After my haircut, I went about my day as usual. Went to work and everything. But when I was walking home in the late afternoon, I walked by Jeff Lombardi’s house. And I said to myself, ‘I should go in. I should tell them what a nice man and good landscaper their husband/father/brother was. I’ll go in.’
So I knocked on the front door and somebody answered it. They told me to come around the side. I did. A religious Jewish man going to the Italian version of a shiva. I figured it couldn’tbe too different. I mean, when you get down to the basics, we all go through the same things. And really, it wasn’t particularly different. There was food everywhere. Salads, pastas and cakes on every possible surface. Smelled absolutely delicious. Looked a million times more appetizing than the kosher Italian places we go to. It’s a shame that we can’t taste it.
Back to my story. So I’m standing there and I ask the people around me if there’s any way that I can speak to the widow. They’re so excited that I’m there and go running to find her. She comes out and looks at me questioningly. She doesn’t know me, so I say, ‘You don’t know me, but I live a blockover, and I pass your house all the time. I alwayssaw your husband working inthe front yard, andI just wanted to stop in to tell you thatyour husband was a hard worker who took great pride in his landscaping work. He was really good at it too. I would always stop to compliment him. I’m going to miss seeing him in your yard.’
At this point Mrs. Lombardi is smiling through tears and, in what I suspect is her typical generous demeanor, she invites me to join them for dinner. So, of course, I say, ‘I can’t stay but thank you so much for the invite.’ I didn’t want to bring up the kosher thing. Why highlight a difference when it isn’t necessary? Everything is about time and place. You have to know when to say something and when not to say something. Anyhow, Mrs. Lombardi nods and walks over to the counter where somebody, I don’t know who, maybe a son, is making a salad. She grabs a whole tomato and says, ‘I want you to have this tomato. It’s one of the last tomatoes Jeff grew.’ I took the tomato and was touched by her gesture. The lady didn’t even know me, andyet she wanted me to enjoy from the fruits of her husband’s garden.”
Thinking that my Dad has reached the end of his story, I say, “Wow Ta, that’s a great story.” But he’s not finished.
He starts again, “Wait. You’re interrupting me. I’m not finished yet. This happened yesterday. Today, I decided that I didn’t want to eat Jeff’s last tomato, or at least one of his last tomatoes, all by myself. So I took a plastic knife and a plastic plate and the tomato and drove over to Joe’s place. When I walked in, he looked at me and said, ‘Hey, didn’t I just see you yesterday?’ So I tell him the story and say, ‘I came to share Jeff’s last tomato with you.’ Joe laughs and says, ‘I’ve got my own.’ He runs to the back and returns with his lunch bag. He takes out a whole tomato and says, ‘I grew this tomato by myself.’Have you ever met an Italian who didn’t like tomatoes?”
I chime in now, “Ta, I’m sure there is at least one Italian or Italian-Americansomewhere in Brooklyn who doesn’t liketomatoes.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I was generalizing. Still, it must be pretty hard to be an Italian or an Italian-American who doesn’t like tomatoes. Joe loves his own tomatoes so much that he didn’t even want to taste a bite ofJeffLombardi’s.”
“So you ate it by yourself?”
“No, I went to pick up my packages from Stein’s office and shared the tomato with my friend, Dr. Stein.”
“How was it?”
“It was fantastic. Freshest tomato I’ve had in a while.”
“Cool story Ta. Really. This is a good one! These types of things only ever happen to you, but I think it’s because you bother to care.”
His voice takes on the proud tone that I use when I’m teaching my students, the one that says,“Get ready for a teachable moment here.” And he says, “I think so too. The most amazing part is that this week’s Torah portion is all about the first fruits that Jews used to bring to the Temple. You know I never think about all of the effort that goes into growing fruits and vegetables. I just head over to the supermarket and take the produce for granted. This weekend I’m going to have a new appreciation for the Torah reading. Think about it! Do you ever wonder about the process that takes place before you buy your fruits and vegetables?”
The story ends there. Or does it? When people get a story like this one, they want to share it.You might have picked up on that from reading my short piece here. But guess who else got mileage out of it? Yup, you got it! A pulpit rabbi. That weekend, my father’s good friend, Rabbi Bien, a rabbi up in Westchester told his congregation this story. Of course, he also connected it to the weekly reading. Essentially, one kind act spiraled into a well-received speech and a mechanism for inspiration. But I figure that this story is too good to be reserved just for one Jewish congregation up in Westchester. If anything, people in Brooklyn should know about what’s happening in their very own backyard. So here I am sharing it with you. It goes to show you thatBrooklyn is a borough full of some of the most wonderful homegrown