A Hard Life In Kosovo For The Baby Boy Named Amerika

A Hard Life In Kosovo For The Baby Boy Named Amerika

By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED July 23, 2000

FERIZAJ, Yugoslavia — He arrived in the world to great fanfare, delivered from war and named for his new country.

Fourteen months later, Baby Amerikan is back home, in this heavily policed farming village about 20 miles south of Pristina. His father is out of work. His mother is seven months pregnant. And there is no more space in the four-room house that the toddling Kosovar shares with 14 relatives.

“Things here are not very good. Not very good at all,” said his mother, Lebibe Karaliju, 22, balancing the child on her hip as a dozen family members gathered barefoot in the den and told the story of Kosovo’s most heralded refugee. “We don’t have work here. We don’t have a home.”

When the first flight of ethnic Albanians landed at New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base in May 1999, Lebibe Karaliju was already in labor. She’d told doctors in the Macedonian refugee camp that she was seven months pregnant. She was really nine.

“I was terrified that I was going to deliver in the streets,” she said.

The next day she gave birth. Lebibe and Naim Karaliju, 28, called their first born Amerikan, an Albanian spelling, in honor of the land that lifted them from their war-ravaged home.

President Clinton welcomed the tiny U.S. citizen in a letter that spoke of the “bright opportunities” ahead. Strangers sent gifts. Scores of cameras and reporters chronicled his release from the hospital. The picture of the infant clutching a red, white and blue flag ran on front pages across the country, a symbol of America’s largesse, and a promise for a better life.

The dream didn’t last long for Baby Amerikan’s family.

Shortly after moving to Dallas, where a cousin promised to help settle the Karalijus and 25 other relatives, Naim gave an interview to the New York Post in August, complaining that their social services agency wasn’t taking care of them. Agency officials countered that in addition to free rent and food money, the family had income from Naim’s construction job, his mother’s hotel housekeeping work, and government assistance checks for his father.

Still, officials from United Parcel Service dropped by their apartment the next day, offering jobs for both Naim and his cousin. Naim quit his construction job and worked the night shift at UPS for several months in Texas.

But the seed money from the refugee agency was running out. Naim’s 64-year-old mother, Xheurie, didn’t have the energy to continue working as a maid. They knew no English, felt homesick, and worried that they would be evicted from their apartment.

Xheurie Karaliju had left three daughters behind, including one who was pregnant and hiding in the mountains. “I needed to see how they were,” she said.

Bits of news started coming back from Kosovo. The Serbs had fled the village. Naim’s house had survived. Americans had taken over the region, setting up a giant military base nearby. They’d even built a Burger King.

So the five Karalijus chose to leave their air-conditioned, two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a kitchen full of appliances, and flew home.

Naim’s house was still standing, but that was all.

“It was completely destroyed,” said Lebibe. Serbs had ransacked the interior, then moved a tank into the first floor to hide it from NATO bombers.

Xheurie found her three daughters were safe and her daughter had delivered a healthy girl. But her husband’s brother and his wife were so not lucky.

Xheurie’s husband told this part, the 68-year-old patriarch in a navy beret and trim mustache, wearing a dusty sports coat and vest.

“When we saw them burning houses and shooting, we just left,” said Vehbi Karaliju. “Unfortunately my brother did not. He wanted to wait for his daughter who lived nearby.

Karaliju, speaking through an interpreter, recounted what people told him happened next.

“They came in this part of the town. Soldiers started shooting and burning houses. My brother lived two doors down from my house. So they kicked them out. They directed them to go to Macedonia. They just pulled them out of the convoy of people and just shot them. Serb police did that.”

Vehbi Karaliju rolled another cigarette, pinching stringy yellow tobacco leaves with his sun-burnished fingers. Above him hung a picture from Texas; in it, he is smiling, under a 10-gallon hat.

Widespread terror came relatively late to Ferizaj, according to a report on the village by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Until the bombing began March 24, 1999, ethnic Albanians, who accounted for more than 80 percent of the community of 57,000 people, filled the streets in daytime. But after dark, only Serb bars remained open. Brutal police interrogations and bloody reprisals occurred, the report stated, but in isolation.

After the NATO campaign began, Serb army, police, paramilitaries and armed civilians looted and burned Albanian-owned houses, and began forcing Albanians onto buses and trains bound for the Macedonian border, OSCE reported. The violence reached its peak in early April after NATO bombs hit the army barracks, killing 12 Yugoslav soldiers. Officers rolled through town, shooting, beating and evicting.

Today, the town has a frontier feel, with squat U.S. Humvees rolling through dusty streets, children hawking cartons of cigarettes. The sidewalks bustle with young men and women outside stores that sell Levis jeans, Nike sportswear and Nokia cell phones. There is much rebuilding.

But all of this seemed as out of reach for Lebibe and Naim Karaliju as the Dallas kitchen she still dreams about.

“Can I go back to America again?” Lebibe asked.

She asked whether she could obtain a U.S. passport for her son, because it will make travel easier for him should trouble return. She asked whether someone could take her husband – who before the war had farmed his land and harvested firewood – to see officials with KFOR, the NATO mission in Kosovo. The best jobs, she said, are with foreigners.

“I thought life would be better if I came back,” said Naim, a tall and gaunt man. “I thought at least I’d have a job in the community. If I thought I would [be without] a job for this long, I would never have come back. I thought, Americans are here. Better job opportunities. And I’ll be home.”

Maybe, he said, the fuss about his son’s birth in the United States caused him to become too optimistic. “I was totally imagining things: I would find a job. Be able to provide for my family. I’d rebuild my house.

“I didn’t rebuild anything. I haven’t worked at anything since I got here. Pretty disappointing.”

And there are added worries about his son. “It’s very sad when you cannot feed him properly. I feel bad.”

South Philly’s Illustrated Man makes his start in motion pictures

South Philly’s Illustrated Man makes his start in motion pictures


By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED July 29, 1998

Joe Tartaglia, the Illustrated Man of the Italian Market, is late – 15, 20, 25 minutes – so we’re sitting with his dad in the family stand at Ninth and Ellsworth, watching two chickens peck romaine under a table of $5 straight-to-video bargains, when in saunters the man, apologizing.

“I was delayed,” Tartaglia says.

He’s been working the street, talking up his movie. It’s his first film, a short feature about the market, and its Philadelphia premiere is Saturday. In May, it was voted audience favorite at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival. Tartaglia had submitted it for the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, as well, but he missed the deadline.

The film is called Punctuality.

“I’m always late,” he says, barking a cloud of smoke from a Kool. “That really is the inspiration. ”

He is a beefy guy in a sleeveless black T-shirt and shorts with a silver hoop piercing his left eyebrow and a good 28 tattoos. He’s Old World meets Gen X in one beautiful package. His inkings started with a caveman, who soon acquired a cavewoman to drag across Tartaglia ‘s left shin. Then they multiplied.

“It’s the only money I ever spent that I can show for,” he says.

There’s a scorpion, a dragon, Jesus, a Raphael cupid, St. Sebastian – the patron saint of his grandfather’s hometown in Sicily.

“I did it for my father to make him happy.”

“I’m so happy,” his father, also named Joe Tartaglia , says straight-faced.

And well he should be. When his younger son, Frankie, was 11, he won a national young comedians contest that got him on HBO. And now, his older boy has made his mark – a ripe, R-rated cinematic slice of the street brimming with bookmaking, loan-sharking, shakedowns, lovemaking and spaghetti.

“I wanted to give people a story about South Philly,” says the movie mogul, age 28 – give or take a couple of years. “South Philly people are one type of person. Then there’s the rest of the world. I’m not saying everyone from South Philly is like these characters. But they exist. ”

We go walking, up the street where a Tartaglia has sold food or wares since the Illustrated Man’s great-grandfather peddled parsley from a bushel basket around 1912. It’s an occasion to staple a movie poster on the few feet of South Philadelphia real estate that he’s somehow missed.

A van stops outside Pat’s Steaks and two big men hail Tartaglia . It’s King Arthur, the DJ who’s been promoting Tartaglia ‘s film on WNJC-AM. They chat a while. No one in the cars behind them cares to honk. Then it’s Joe One-Arm, a.k.a. Pony Joe, stopping his truck in the middle of busy Ninth Street to shoot the breeze.

“He’s in the movie,” Tartaglia says, jerking his thumb as some kid named Anthony walks by. “Him, too,” he says, passing another teen.

“She’s in the movie,” he says, outside his father’s place again, only there is no one there, except the two loose chickens. It turns out he’s talking about the female, Snowball. She’s in the movie.

Now we’re at his headquarters, the storefront at Ninth and Annin with the giant Sicilian armada flag and his grandfather’s bocce trophies, a few Tony Bennett and Dean Martin records, and stills of Brando from The Godfather, De Niro from Taxi Driver and Jackie Gleason from The Hustler.

This is Dronehead Productions, named for a phrase his Uncle Tar used to describe a human meatball. Seated on a giant couch is Tartaglia ‘s cousin Salvatore D’Angelo, a restaurateur, and Lou Manzotti, a variety store owner. They’re in the movie.

Manzotti is in mid-conversation, even though he’s just starting. “So the New York screening is over and we’re heading for dinner when this guy comes up to me from Warner Bros. To make a long story short, he goes, `Are you Lou Manzotti? I’m doing a film with Paul Newman and James Woods. ‘ He said, `I love your acting. Have you ever had acting lessons?’

“I said, `No, but my mother did. ‘ ”

Tartaglia used no professional talent to make his lively, rough-hewn 55-minute debut about an art student’s introduction to the local mob. Tartaglia , who never took a film course during his time at Community College of Philadelphia, put an ad in a local paper for actors. “I knew everyone who called,” he says. He gave the cast an idea of what he was looking for out of the script that he wrote with a friend of his brother’s. He encouraged improvisation.

Ron Jacobs, a neighborhood kid who moved to Atlantic City and then Las Vegas, fronted the cash, which is heading toward $100,000. Tartaglia , who supports his wife and two children by working at both his father and mother’s stores on Ninth Street, put up about $5,000 himself, including the $200 to rent the AMC Olde City at 11 a.m. Saturday for his hometown debut.

And he’s nearly got the 400 seats filled, which would help bring some return on his labors, except that he’s been giving away all the $10 tickets.

“I don’t care,” Tartaglia says as he pokes into Iannelli’s bakery, laying a VIP pass on the kid behind the counter. “It’s like a dream.”




By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED Dec 07, 2003

We didn’t know about Rosa Lewinsohn when we decided to have our sons’ double bar mitzvah in our once-bombed Berlin apartment. We didn’t know about any of the old ghosts, not by name.

I had often wondered who was living in our building when it was hit. Sometimes at night, when the place was quiet and everyone tucked in, I would stand in the living room, with its mismatched pine floors and missing stucco, and try to imagine what had happened.

My landlord blamed the British, though perhaps he was just being polite. In early 1945 the British and the Americans were taking turns pounding the German capital – 84 air raids in the first three months alone. When he renovated the place after buying it a few years ago, he found he couldn’t get rid of the small, dark stains in the wood, no matter how much he sanded them. Phosphorus, he said. Firebombs.

I liked to picture that Nazis were living there when retribution thundered through the roof of Droysenstrasse 5 and into our top-floor apartment. More likely, it was ordinary Berliners. There were lots of them. Maybe they were the sort who looked down on Hitler. Maybe they hid Jews.

Maybe they did nothing.

What we did know, after three years of living in Berlin, was that our apartment, with its high ceilings and soiled past, had come to feel like home. And so it felt right to cap our stay with a coming-of-age ceremony, a benediction in a haunted space.

Berlin was where we faced our own demons, where, for the first time, I became truly aware of myself as a Jew.

Our first Hanukkah, one of the boys had worried about lighting the candles in the kitchen because everyone would know. So, together, facing our neighbors across the courtyard, we placed the menorah on the windowsill, and talked about how it had been a couple of generations since the Holocaust, and how the Germans were condemned to live with their horrific past.

When, 20 years ago, my wife-to-be invited me to visit her sister in Kaiserslautern, in hilly southwestern Germany, she sweetened the offer by saying we could borrow her sister’s Mercedes.

I couldn’t imagine it.

Growing up, my family never owned German cars or appliances.

Germany was the last place I wanted to see.

But when the opportunity arose to move there in 2000 for a posting as a foreign correspondent, I leaped. As we readied to go, my wife, by now mother of two boys named Rubin, found herself in the travel section of a Borders bookstore, frozen before a photograph of a Berlin synagogue guarded by armed police. This, I tried to assure her, was a good thing. This was progress.

My first day, I met neo-Nazis. I was riding by train to Hellersdorf, a grim suburb in the east where hundreds of skinheads were rallying. My translator and assistant, Claudia Himmelreich, brought water and clean towels in case the police used tear gas. She brought her blond 5-year-old, Martin, for protection. No one, she reasoned, would pay much attention to a family.

Scores of antiriot officers piled into the train, riding with us until the next-to-last stop. Inexplicably, when they got off, equal numbers of skinheads got on.

As I patted Martin on the head, asking how his Easter had been, we faced a carful of pale, sullen teens in white-laced Doc Marten boots and LONSDALE T-shirts (worn under an oxford shirt, the letters NSD show – the only legal way in Germany to advertise the initials of the old Nazi party).

Scores of them packed the train – standing, sitting, steeling themselves for a confrontation with the waiting antifascist protesters.

It took a few minutes to realize I was as good as invisible. I wondered if they had ever seen a Jew before.

The neo-Nazis didn’t trouble me in Germany as much as the trees did. We’d be driving on the autobahn and pass dense, dark stands of pine and birch, and my imagination would supply the dogs, the long army coats, the machine guns. In 1941, when my Russian grandfather was raising a family in America, the Jews of his old shtetl town, Vilkomir, were taken into the woods and shot.

Gradually, these night fears of mine disappeared, their places taken by a grudging admiration for a difficult people who deal with reality. I had been told that the famous German smugness would melt away in the presence of a Jew. They’d become tongue-tied, tortured.

What I found, instead, were people who were relieved I was there, and not making much of it, as if they were being given another chance. I felt like an ambassador – not particularly religious, but sharply conscious of what I was and who I came from and how it was important to be Jewish in Germany because I could, and so I had to, and so did our boys, if they wanted.

We had one slight problem in our quest to have them bar mitzvahed: The boys weren’t Jewish – at least not in the eyes of the German Jewish community.

While the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in the United States see the boys as Jews, German Jewry does not. The central organization believes a mother’s religion determines a child’s. My wife, who was raised Presbyterian, had observed Jewish traditions but hadn’t converted.

So in Berlin we were twice-a-year Jews, marking the major holidays with friends at home. The neighborhood synagogue required men and women to sit separately, which my wife found unacceptable. The one temple that permitted men and women to sit together conducted its services in German and Hebrew, which was good for the mystery but not for the meaning.

We found our solution in Walter Rothschild, a round, bearded, British-born Reform rabbi with a quick mind and a weakness for bad puns. He liked the challenge of preparing two boys who hadn’t studied Hebrew in three years, and who had only 10 weeks to prepare.

Before the service, my wife made a choice: We would stand together as a family, as Jews. We traveled to Wuppertal, a western German city, where she and our sons sat in a synagogue with bulletproof windows and talked with a panel of rabbis about being Jewish. The day ended with Mimi and the twins plunging naked, one at a time, into ritual baths. “Jesus!” my son Gordon cried as he hit the frigid water. “Hmm. Can’t help you,” replied Rabbi Rothschild, our sponsor.

Germany was officially three Jews the richer.

On a bright Monday morning in June, our scarred living room was transformed into a family synagogue, folding chairs facing a table on which the rabbi unfurled an ancient scroll. Our dog sat at our feet and barked at the doorbell. Only as the ceremony began did I realize that behind the Torah, instead of the traditional ark, was a large poster of the sleeping Groucho Marx, cigar in hand – our guardian angel.

From the Book of Numbers, the boys read their portions in Hebrew, then in English. Nicholas described how the Jews, fleeing enslavement in Egypt, bathed themselves in the ashes of a red heifer, hoping to purify themselves. Gordon told how the Jews found their faith tested when Moses’ sister, Miriam, died and their water, coincidentally, disappeared.

The rabbi, addressing an audience of Germans and Palestinians, Australians and Dutch, explained everything, and paraphrased Woody Allen: “Being Jewish is a wonderful experience that everyone should have, once. ”

We finished with the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Aramaic prayer for the dead, the several-thousand-year-old words drifting into the courtyard for all to hear.

It was a few weeks after we arrived back in America that we learned whom we had been praying for. Claudia had tracked down the paperwork about our building during the war years.

There may have been Nazis in Droysenstrasse 5 the day it was bombed. We don’t know. But the building held other horrors.

Rosa Lewinsohn had lived there. So had Alfred Gruen and Emmerich Friedmann. They were members of more than a half-dozen Jewish families who had called our building home before the war.

By 1943 there were none.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, but I never considered there would be Jews in that space. I never sensed them in my apartment. It just felt, surprisingly, comfortable.

In 1941, as the Nazis were making good on their plans to cleanse the Reich of Jews, a farmer named Arnold Kunheim bought the building under a law passed to remove property from Jewish hands.

The records suggest that many who lived in our building were able to flee in time.

By Aug. 25, 1942, it was too late for Ludwig Leo Jacobson, 75. He was deported from our building to Theresienstadt, the Czech ghetto for the elderly and the prominent, where he died three months later.

A half-year later, Elsa Kahn, 62, followed her neighbor there. She lasted two months.

And Rosa Lewinsohn ? She was 57 on Jan. 29, 1943, when she was herded onto a 1,000-person transport headed east. They killed her at Auschwitz.

I wish we had known about her and the others. All we have today are their names and a few facts, dutifully recorded by the Nazis. We would have said a prayer for them, stood as their names sounded once again in that sunny apartment with the mismatched wood and stucco, the indelible stains now accompanied by the memories of a family’s new start.




By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer

POSTED: Oct. 28, 1999

On the mornings he could get out of bed, Marvin Friedman liked to drive across the river, seeking the Chester of his boyhood.

Bulldozers had claimed the damp chill of the coal cellar on East 14th Street, where his older brother, Alton, built astonishing radios out of copper wire and Quaker Oats boxes. Closing his eyes, Friedman could still conjure its smell.

Gone was the closet where Mother stored the winter rug every Memorial Day, after sprinkling it with moth balls and swaddling it in newspaper. She’d shake her head when Charlie’s ice cream truck would come by every afternoon at 5:30, right as Captain Midnight signed off the radio.

Who eats ice cream at this hour? she’d ask, pouring cold borscht into tall, thick glasses. “I don’t understand goyim. “

It’s a curious tonic for clinical depression, trying to find peace by wandering a city of ghosts.

But for Friedman, 69, his visits to the place where most of his family lies brought him comforting memories of a life with “warmth, security, no migraines, no Maalox, no mortgages. “

They also brought the West Trenton artist a second career.

In the early ’90s, Friedman emerged from a decades-long funk only to find his illustrations no longer in demand. He had worked for the best – the New Yorker, Playboy, the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, the New York Times. If he wanted to draw the pilot’s view on a transatlantic flight, Boy’s Life sent him to London. Every Gourmet magazine featured three Friedman sketches from restaurants too fancy for his meat-and-potatoes palate. A new art director wanted photographs, not drawings.

Inspiration for the artist’s latest works – his reminiscences of Chester and an idiosyncratic collection of portraits he calls “Sitting Jews,” now on display at North Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom synagogue – came from scribblings Friedman made during that hopeless time.

He’d stay up at night, slipping desperate messages under the door to his sleeping wife and children, pleas such as: “Van Gogh cut off his ear. We’ll make it. If Jasper Johns could do it, I can. Please bear with me. “

They did. His wife, Sonny, saved the notes and they made it into collages made later and shown in Princeton – kaleidoscopic images of family weddings, vanished street signs, scenes from porn flicks and Post-its from the depths.

He soon noticed that people were spending most of their time reading his emotional words. That’s when Friedman started working in pastel watercolors and pencil, each work accompanied by a lengthy, hand-scrawled narrative, complete with misspellings and scratched-over words. The pieces preserve now-shuttered shops and the longings of his adolescence, memories of one uncle who slept in a separate room from his wife, and another whose wooden leg clicked and clomped up the back stairs.

An agent has helped Friedman secure a book deal from Algonquin Press. The Chester pieces will become the middle of Friedman’s illustrated memoir. It will start with his grandparents’ travels across Russia, Germany and Poland, bound for Ellis Island. The end will be his sickness and the way he worked his way back.

Depression first closed in on Friedman in 1972, while in Los Angeles, sketching Bonanza for NBC.

“When I’d wake up in the morning, it was like someone dropped a Baldwin locomotive on my head. It was difficult to stand. ” He searches for the words. “Ever had a spinal tap? You’re dead. You know you’re alive, but you’re dead. As many times as this happened, it still frightened me. “

Friedman is tall and duckpin-shaped, his gray trousers held up by suspenders that resemble tape measures from his father’s old hardware store. He wears a mandarin-collar shirt, buttoned at the neck. His white whiskers are short. His hair is long on the sides and wispy. The top exists only in memory. His voice is torpid, which makes the streams of profanity with which he embroiders his stories all the more effective.

His worst bouts would last three or four days. “I’d sit on the couch and couldn’t function. I couldn’t read, couldn’t watch TV. ” His four children would eat their dinner at the end of his bed. His son brought in a stereo and put on Richard Pryor records. Friedman fell out of the bed, laughing – the first levity in months. For 15 years he worked in fits and starts as his wife supported the household from her work as a receptionist. Medication and hospitalization helped, he says, but his family’s sticking with him made the biggest difference.

Lately, he’s been capturing in watercolors and words the stories of ordinary people. He calls his Rodeph Shalom show “Sitting Jews” mainly because he has captured the temple’s families on couches in their homes.

“I work in a square, which to me is the most perfect shape there is. If you have standing Jews, the figure is so small in the surroundings. [This way] I can cut them off at the knees. “

His wife would drive him to his subjects’ homes, where he’d turn on the tape recorder and ask questions.

He asked a 7-year-old girl if she was married. He asked the rabbi where he bought his suits, what kind of car his father drove. “Not rabbinical questions,” Friedman says. The rabbi had to ask the curator of the exhibit, the woman who’d seen Friedman’s work at the Cherry Hill JCC, what sort of pieces this guy was doing.

In his text, you can see Friedman comparing his models’ lives with his, trading memories of fathers’ shops and quirky relations. After talking for a few hours, he’d take their pictures, then go home, where his daughter Michele transcribed the tapes.

He did a similar exhibit at a Pittsburgh temple. Next is Hebrew Union College in New York.

“The only way I can make a living,” he says, “is to aim as casually as I can to people who might buy the paintings after the shows. Some do, some don’t.”

He says this in his converted garage amid the sycamores and pines off River Road in West Trenton. He lives with his wife and Misia, a Siamese cat.

Their cottage is filled with artwork – his and his grandchildren’s – pictures of Jack Benny and George Burns, and laminated bits of personal history, such as the announcement of his engagement to Sonya “Sonny” Grayboyes, of 5478 Berks St. She was a graduate of Pepper Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania; he of the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, now the University of the Arts.

He remembers getting into the school on the strength of his copies of Norman Rockwell drawings. He went there for three years; then his father got colon cancer, “and I had to go back to the damned store. ” His father made him promise he’d finish.

Friedman’s done a piece on the Ridley Park hardware store that his father bought at age 50. “He taught me to make keys and to cut glass,” he wrote. “The keys never worked and the glass always broke. He tried to teach me how to put wagons and bicycles together. It took him 10 minutes. It took me three hours and then they were never right. . . . God, what patience he had with me. How I miss that little store. God, how I miss him. “

One more piece is dedicated to Dad: It shows the grille of a Cadillac, the car his father always wanted to ride in.

“I told him when I became a famous artist, I would buy him one,” the text reads. “He was a dreamer, who all of his life wanted to play the piano but was continually demeaned and discouraged by his family. He failed in so many businesses that his sisters told him he should drown himself. “

In 1939, his father bought a green Pontiac, and on Yom Kippur “he was able to buy seats near the front of the synagogue along with his sisters. I think he was finally content. In 1959 a goddamn cancer began a vicious war that decimated him in 9 horrific months. The funeral was on my 21st birthday. The hearse was a Cadillac. “