My mother, Estelle (Jewish name: Esther), had a sister, Helen (Jewish name: Hannah). As fraternal twins, not only didn’t they look alike—Aunt Helen looked to me like a female Bob Hope with long hair, while my mother looked like, well, my mother—but they also had opposite personalities. While Mother was earnest, her twin was silly. They even sounded different. Mother had somewhere acquired an upscale accent, whereas Aunt Helen had the cow-like sounds I associated with the Southern New Jersey rural community where they had both grown up.
To be sure, this blog isn’t about either of them. Rather, it focuses on Aunt Helen’s husband, Solomon M. Singer, D.D.S., who rates as one of my two favorite relatives. Uncle Sol, who practiced in his home office in Philadelphia into his mid-80s, was the family dentist. He kept not only the mouths of my immediate family in good shape, but, since Helen and my mother had nine siblings, almost all of whom had kids, he received periodic visits from the rest of the Potashnik clan. And when we were not availing ourselves of his services, he kept busy with local patients who had been happily seeing Dr. Singer, they would tell me, for years.
I like to say that we Jews have either businessperson or scholar (rabbinic) genes. That of course is way too narrow. We also have doctor and lawyer genes. After all, a classic Jewish joke asks, “What is a lawyer? A Jewish boy (sic!) who can’t stand the sight of blood.” Then there are our many actors, stand-up comics, scientists, and writers. But I digress.
Uncle Sol early on thought I would “be somebody” when I grew up, more specifically an entertainer. When he and Aunt Helen visited, I would devise a program, hide behind our big console radio, and perform, doing my little-kid imitations of Bing Crosby, the Ink Spots, and other stars of the day. When we visited the Singers, to be sure, it was mainly for dentistry. Uncle Sol had gotten both the medical and the comic genes. He was genuinely funny. The problem was, he would tell his stories while he was drilling. He literally had a captive audience. But you didn’t dare laugh for fear that he’d drill down to China or even find nearby soft tissue that wasn’t a tooth. No one’s perfect of course. Once after spending time at a conference keynoted by Sen. Fulbright, one of my internationalist heroes, I proudly told Uncle Sol that I’d even chatted the great man up. My uncle was less than impressed. “Why that bastard supports the Palestinians against Israel!” When it came to “our” Holy Land, he was dead serious. Still, Uncle Sol Singer was an unforgettable character, a loving and funny man, and an unforgettable person in my life.