Father's Business by Victor Walter - Claire Curtis Violins

Father's Business

by Victor Walter
Originally published in the New England Review, Spring/Summer 1991. Used with permission.

My father stayed over twenty years at a business address in lower Manhatten. 79 Nassau Street. He was a craftsman who made fine jewelry but sublet an office and workshop from a Gypsy violin maker. Tamás Poszar, the Gypsy, was a slim, little man with slanting eyes in a brown old face illuminated by enormous white eyebrows and a white mustache. He had teeth missing in front, and a great bush of white hair stood on top of his head. TOMosh we called him.

"Jews and Gypsies have a lot in common." my father used to say. In our long Sunday walks together when I was a boy, he told me about his friend, Tamás. They got along fine except for one thing. My father, at the end of the day, put gems and precious metals in the safe and locked the door of his shop, but the old Gipsy left the front door of their suite unlocked. It was the only thing they quarreled about.

"We've never been robbed," Tamás observed.

"Why take the risk?" my father insisted.

"You'd never understand," Tamás replied.

To reach my father's place, it was necessary to pass through the luthier's work space. I loved to touch things in the Gypsy's shop, inhale the scent of wood and glue, loved to hear the woosh woosh wiff wiff of Tamás planing a board, and the sound of him trying Gypsy tunes on new instruments. I keep that big sunlit room inside me, see boards of maple and spruce leaning against the wall, the bandsaw in the middle, a lathe, grinders, whetstones, and racks full of chisels, knives, and gouges. I see bows hanging on the wall, about a dozen violins waiting in different racks, three or four violas, a cello or two resting in the corner, shelves holding planes of different sizes, jars, pots of glue, jugs of varnish, his workbench by the large front window, a cloth string dangling assorted bridges of violins, violas and cellos looped across another window. I see Tamás seated on a stool in the middle of the room with a maple violin back clasped between his knees and a small plane in his hands, shaving down the lines of a new instrument.

I loved to watch him carve. He entered the wood with precision and respect, but with sensuous strokes. When he worked on a project that excited him, he wore a white woolen cap and a white leather apron, following the example, he said, of his spiritual master, Stradivari.

My father kept his door open as he worked, humming fragments of La Bohème or Don Giovanni. I sat on the floor, watching him seated at the wooden bench with slippers on his feet, his bald head inclined over the work, peering through a lens strapped to his forehead, stroking the gold before his eyes with the flame of a gas torch.

He was apprenticed to a jeweler in Russia as a boy, but ran away to Kharkov with a traveling ballet troupe. His first job in America he danced the kazatsky in Coney Island. Until an injury to his foot in a railroad accident made him resume the jewelry trade, he worked as a ballet dancer. He considered himself a freak of destiny who took up jewelry for pedestrian reasons.

Tamás referred to himself as a freak of nature: a sedentary Gypsy. My father enjoyed having him next door, not only because the violin maker was a sensitive, eloquent man, but because my father had a passion for music.

Tamás grew up in Pest (before the unification of Buda and Pest), where his father, Sacki Poszar, owned an establishment called The Music Shop on Kiraly Street near the Opera House in Theresatown. Sacki learned the luthier's craft in Vienna, and sold instruments as well as sheet music and books. I explored the neighborhood when I visited Budapest last summer, found that Kiraly Street has another name. The old houses were demolished to make Franz Liszt Square; the National Academy of Music stands on the site of Poszar's music shop.

When my father met him in 1918, Tamás had been in America fifty years. His wife was dead from tuberculosis, his children grown and scattered, and he lived alone on a little street in Brooklyn called Vineyard Place. The garden in back was full of vines bearing tiny shriveled grapes that would curl your tongue. He moved from Little Hungary in the Lower East Side to Brooklyn because he needed a regular supply of grapes. He gathered them in tubs, mashed out the juice, and fermented the mess. Tamás cherished the brew not for its wine but for the stems and skins which contained silica and potash, ingredients of potions that wrought magical changes in wood.

We would linger at this bench. One day, Tamás leaned over, roughing out the belly of a violin with a gouge, and said, "This is holy work." My father nodded, and they talked about religion.

"The word Hebrew," my father observed, "comes from an Aramaic term that means donkey merchant. Our Patriarchs were nomadic traders, traveling by donkey long before the era of camels. They were like Gypsy peddlers."

Tamás nodded and said there were close relations between Gypsies and Jews in biblical times. Sticking the gouge into a cake of soap, he pulled up a stool to sit facing my father. I sat on a box, elbows on my knees, chin propped on my open palms.

"It all started," Tamás said, "because God was envious of Gypsy violin makers. Maybe that sounds funny to you, because God the Creator made heaven and earth and all the creatures and people, and we think he can do anything he wants. But he never works with his hands -- only with his mind and his heart. Even in the early days when he walked in the Garden of Eden he never created with his hands. Throughout the ages, observing all the evil in the world and hearing the prayers of suffering people made him very sad, but he noticed Gypsy luthiers are the happiest people in the world. They create with their hands as well as with their minds and their hearts."

I slipped off the box and sat on the floor, like I was daydreaming, playing, but I hung onto every word. I picked curly shavings off the floor, ran them through my fingers, held them under my nose.

"God wanted to experience the joy of creating something with his hands. But, he said, I'm too old to take up a trade. So he sent his son, apprenticing him to the best craftsman he could find. The Jews had no violin makers in those days -- they bought all their fiddles from the Gypsies. So God apprenticed him to a cabinetmaker named Joseph. God told his son, "As soon as you master tools and learn the secrets of wood, find a nice little shop and set up a business of your own. You do the work, and I'll provide the capital."

"But Jesus got sidetracked by religion. After all, his father was interested in that sort of thing, and that's what preoccupied the disciples, who were all religious men. They kept him so busy talking about religion, he never told them the reason he appeared on earth in the first place. Or if he did, they suppressed the information."

I rolled over onto my belly, getting woodchips all over my clothes, propped my chin on my hands, kept my eyes on Tamás watched his mouth under the mustache, saw his tongue move in the craters of missing teeth.

"When Jesus was twelve years old, Joseph told him, 'You have learned all the skills of a master craftsman. There is nothing more for me to teach you, for your skill is greater than mine.' "

"The family went to Jerusalem, as they did every year, for the Passover festival, but Jesus slipped away and combed the city, looking for a shop to set himself up in business. He paused in front of a Gypsy luthier's place, and the owner invited him in. The shop smelled of spruce and glue and maple shavings, and Jesus glanced at the fiddles hanging from the racks and the tools strewn around the benches. The Gypsy liked him and was happy to learn his young visitor was a craftsman. Soon Jesus was sitting at a bench, chisel in hand, carving a scroll, asking all kinds of questions about violin making. They talked all day and agreed to set up a partnership as soon as the Gypsy found a new shop that would be just right for both of them. Then a customer came in to pick up a violin he had left for repair. "

"He said something about the holy season and the Passover tradition, and Jesus engaged him in conversation. The customer was fascinated. 'I wish my friends could hear you,' he said, and invited Jesus to come with him to the temple and explain his ideas. "

"That's where he was when the family found him, surrounded by learned men, engaged in profound discourse about religious matters. Joseph and Mary demanded, 'Where have you been? We have searched all over for you.' "

"The Bible says he replied, 'Didn't you know that I must be about my father's business?'"

"What he had in mind, of course, was the shop. But he never saw the Gypsy again because he got swept up by a religious movement. The Gypsy waited and looked around for a new shop. He moved to the next town, thinking he might find Jesus there, and find a better location to set up in business. And since that time, Gypsy luthiers wander all over the world searching for the right shop and waiting for their partner to return. Religious people talk about the Second Coming, but they don't know what that really means. When Jesus returns, he's not interested in being a king or in making the end of the world. He wants to find a Gypsy violin maker to be his partner and he wants to learn the trade from him. He wants to put on an apron, sit at a bench, and work with his hands."

I interrupted him, "Tamás"

"What, dear boy?"

"That's why you never lock the door of your shop."

He smiled. "You understand," he said.

I love this story. I was given a copy of it shortly after I began violinmaking school. In 2003, I wrote to the author care of the publisher for permission to quote it on my website. I didn't hear anything for quite awhile. Finally, I received a reply from his widow, who graciously consented to my quoting the story, so long as I added the following:

"The author of the story died on May 16, 2003. He has written two novels, The Voice of Manush and The Craftsmen. Book orders may be sent to Lyric Press, P.O. Box 470493, Brookline Village, MA 02447."