Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of Teaneck resident Joseph Rotenberg’s forthcoming book, “Timeless Travels: Tales of Mystery, Intrigue, Humor and Enchantment” Please see ad on page 38.
We all recognize this air travel experience: You settle down in your seat, one of three or more in your row, and either you ignore the passengers seated next to you no matter the length of the flight or engage them from the start only to discover, regrettably, that they won’t stop talking as you fly from continent to continent. At that point, you’ll yearn for that passenger who will promptly fall asleep and not awaken till your plane touches down. As the following story illustrates, it probably pays to occasionally check out the person sitting next to you early in the flight, for you may discover that he or she is well worth talking to.
As the cab drove him to the airport back in mid-June1968, Jake Rabinowitz thought randomly for a moment about his upcoming trip to Israel. He had completed a tumultuous freshman year at Columbia College, a rather shortened school year at that, what with student riots and takeovers of college buildings, campus closures and police interventions. As exciting as it may have been, Jake, essentially a conservative soul, looked forward to a change of scenery and his second visit to Israel, this time a stay of eight weeks, with two weeks in Tel Aviv and then six more in Jerusalem, with some time in between working as a volunteer on Kibbutz Sa’ad near Gaza. His good friend and classmate Bernie would be meeting Jake in Tel Aviv upon his arrival.
Jake stopped his musings as soon as the driver pulled up to the departure gate for Olympic Airways. This venerable airline founded in 1957 by Aristotle Onassis, the famed Greek tycoon, was considered the flag carrier airline of Greece, and was a favorite of New York travel agents who sought cheap group flight rates for their clients. Its headquarters in Athens made it a natural choice for those travelling to the Middle East, including Israel. The backbone of its fleet was the workhorse Boeing 707, the best of this era. It would be half a decade before the jumbo jets would replace the 707. The smaller, narrow-bodied 707 jets meant fewer passengers on each flight and, what was more important, much smaller fuel capacity. Jake faced a flight that would leave New York, arrive in Rome eight hours later, take off for Athens three hours away, and then take off again for a final landing in Lod three hours later; quite a journey for any traveler, but par for the course at the time.
Jake checked into his flight without a hitch; the pre-hijack era security checks non-existent.
His reservation called for kosher meals and an aisle seat on his outward leg. His stay at the boarding gate was brief, and soon he joined the queue of passengers waiting to climb the outside boarding ramp that led to the narrow entrance into the body of the plane. The interior of the plane was split down the middle with three seats on the left and right of the aisle respectively. A curtain separated the small first class from the main cabin. Jake found his seat on the aisle in the 20th row, 20C to be exact. A middle-aged woman, neatly dressed, already occupied the window seat, but the seat next to Jake was empty. Jake located his seat belt, even though it wasn’t nearly time for takeoff. He adjusted his seat back to a comfortable position, checking that he didn’t make contact with the occupant in 21C behind him, an impossibility as it turned out. (I should remind you that Jake was traveling in 1968, a time that considered itself cutting edge, avant-garde and ahead of its time in every respect, suppositions that seem quaint or ludicrous today when you consider Jake’s 14-hour trip would be made without personal devices, phones, pads, computers, entertainment consoles and other of the myriad necessities of current air travel.
After five minutes passed, a 60ish gentleman with thinning hair and a pleasant smile worked his way through the aisle until he stood next to Jake. He was dressed quite elegantly, Jake thought. The man easily lifted his carry-on into the storage bin above Jake, leaning briefly on Jake in order to secure it above. The man was close enough for Jake to smell a fragrant aftershave. Jake responded to a nod from the man and rose to let him climb into 20B and arrange some folios he was carrying. Jake then sat down again next to the man and closed his eyes briefly.
Jake had risen early that morning to finish packing and left for the late afternoon flight at 3:00pm; he’d been on the go for nine straight hours and all he was looking forward to was a pleasant, uneventful voyage. The first leg of the trip, JFK to Rome, passed without incident. Soon after taking off from Rome, however, a steward came down the aisle and stopped at Jake’s seat:
“You’re getting the kosher meal,” he stated, waiting until Jake released the tray secured to the seatback in front of him to place the meal down.
The man sitting next to Jake smiled:
“It looks good, but how does it taste?” he joked.
“I’ll let you know as soon as I unwrap it,” Jake replied. “I hope it’s not cold by then!”
Jake continued to unwrap layer after layer of kashrut-protecting material. When he was done he discovered half of the omelet the airline had provided him was steaming hot and the other half, frozen. He couldn’t finish it.
By then the other passengers were deep into their own meals, ordering drinks and coffee. His acquaintance in 20B quickly finished his meal and began to riffle through a magazine he had plucked from the seatback in front of him. With the meal soon a memory, Jake leaned back to try to take a little nap to counter the boredom he was beginning to feel. He couldn’t fall asleep and, unwrapping the earphones provided for each passenger, he sat back and listened to the prepackaged music channels on the entertainment system rigged to his seat: Along with the required pop, rock and Hebrew-language channels, Jake sampled the classical music channel. Soon the soaring strains of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony wafted through his earphones; he closed his eyes and slept.
After about 20 minutes, Jake opened his eyes and, impulsively, decided to speak once again with his neighbor:
“What kind of work do you do? Are you traveling on business or pleasure?”
The man, equally bored, now reading an outdated copy of the Guardian, lowered the paper and smiled at Jake:
“I write music on occasion.”
“Professionally?” Jake inquired.
The man grinned.
“Some might consider me a professional. I’ve been writing music for nearly 50 years actually.”
“May I ask your name?” Jake inquired.
“Sure, it’s Miklos, Miklos Rosza!”
Rosza saw a look on Jake’s face that signified his name meant nothing to him.
“I write on occasion for the movies,” the man continued. “You may have heard of some of the films I’ve scored.”
In the next few minutes the man listed many of the greatest films in the history of cinema. Jake was a regular moviegoer, but what Rosza was describing was beyond anything Jake could have imagined. The films Rosza had written music for read like a who’s who list of the best films ever made! Born into a wealthy Hungarian Jewish family in 1907, Rosza had been a true musical prodigy, trained in Germany, active in France and England and resident in the U.S. from 1940. He had scored classic movies from “The Four Feathers” (1939) and “The Thief of Bagdad” (1940) to his Academy Award-winning turns in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945), “A Double Life” (1947) and “Ben Hur” (1959). All told, Rosza had written the music for nearly 100 films. In addition, he had written classical concert pieces embraced by the finest world-renowned soloists of his time: Jascha Heifitz (violinist), Gregor Piatigorsky and Janos Starker (cellists).
Jake listened with rapt attention as Rosza recounted some of his career achievements. When Rosza paused to order a coffee from a passing steward, Jake had a moment to let his imagination take full hold of him: When Charlton Heston rides off as the mortally wounded El Cid (1961) outside Valencia in Spain battling the Moors, Rosza’s stirring music accompanied him, as it did Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s psychological thriller “Spellbound” and Ray Milland’s classic turn as unreformed alcoholic in “The Lost Weekend.” The chariot race in “Ben Hur,” as well as Edward G. Robinson, insurance investigator, and Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, murderous accomplices, in “Double Indemnity” (1944), are all accompanied in their cinematic turns by Rosza’s haunting musical themes!
Jake realized he was sitting next to arguably one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. As more time passed, Rosza asked Jake about his own background. Rosza was visibly impressed that this young Jewish-American at his side was attending Columbia University, was knowledgeable about film, yet was an observant, yarmulke-clad Jew. It appeared Rosza had not met too many people in his life who had Jake’s diverse makeup and he found it refreshing. Jake, from his viewpoint, considered himself very fortunate to have made Rosza’s acquaintance. For his neighbor was the living embodiment of the best of cinematic musical achievement.
As their conversation soon ended, and their plane made its final approach to its destination, Jake suddenly understood the true significance to be learned from this chance encounter with a musical giant, a lesson that stayed with Jake throughout his future travels: It wasn’t so much the wonderful places one could visit, the exotic locales, famous buildings and vast physical expanses that made travel so important, but the people one might meet on the way. It might truly pay to inquire on occasion just whom one was sitting next to on that long, maybe not-so-boring flight.
By Joseph Rotenberg