YOUR BROTHER-IN-LAW THE BUDDHIST: Phyllis Rudolph's Story

(by Cassia Herman)

Phyllis Platzman was born in Brooklyn, New York, at a time when the side streets were not much more than dirt paths.  Her mother, a baker’s daughter, came to America from Warsaw when she was sixteen. She never learned to read, either in Polish or English, but she could tell you what was on sale at Macy’s. Phyllis inherited her mother’s knack for numbers, and went to school to develop that natural talent into a solid trade.

Her father, a rabbi’s son, was brought into New York from Austria when he was three or four. He worked for EverReady, and invented both the flashlight battery and the process of bronzing baby shoes (which sparked an insanely popular trend).

The off-the-grid influence of her father’s technical creativity surely colored Phyllis’s consciousness, just as her mother’s mind for prices and accurate accounting shaped her birthright acuity for business. As a young girl, Phyllis didn’t need paved roads to ride her brother’s hand-me-down bicycle from Prospect Park to Coney Island. She could pave her own. Her wonderful odd meld of paint-by-the-numbers practical off-beat creative vision was just a few years away from a talk over lunch with Albert Rudolph that would touch many lives, if not save some.

 Albert, Rachel, Arthur and David Rudolph

Albert, Rachel, Arthur and David Rudolph

Rudi’s father left his wife, Rachel Rudolph, to raise their three small boys alone. The youngest was Arthur, who got lost in the world despite deep religious convictions. The middle child was Albert, who became Swami Rudrananda. The oldest was David, who went to work early to help his mother, and to make sure the younger two could go to college.

“Rachel was a good woman,” Phyllis remembers. “She worked two jobs a day for years to put food on the table for those boys. She was domineering, she was very strong, and she worked very hard to raise her children. People were afraid of her. And people respected her. David adored her.”

Television was brand new on the horizon, and a young David Rudolph made a remarkably innovative choice. Instead of completing high school, he went to a vocational school where he learned to repair televisions. He and a partner started their own TV repair business in Crown Heights, the heart of Brooklyn.

Both partners were skilled in the mechanics of this new device, but David was the one who was also good with people. He made house calls to fix TV sets. That’s how it was done in those days. TV repair work took him all over New York—Yonkers, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Staten Island. Their business did very well.

David loved art and prowled museums. He had this in common with his brother, Albert, with whom he was very close. David dated many young women, why not, but nothing serious, who has time? He was busy working, reading, and immersing himself as much as possible in the art and music of New York City. Albert was the closest and most important relationship David had. Who else could possibly be as vibrant, intelligent, clear-sighted, inspiring—and, basically, as much fun?

Phyllis graduated from high school in 1949. She got training in state-of-the-art business computations machines, called comptrometers, and headed into Manhattan to work. She finally found a good job auditing the books for a textile company on Seventh Avenue, the heart of New York’s garment district.

The perks of that job were nice, too. “My boss owned Yonkers Raceway, which was the best horse racing in the city. I got box seats. I like gambling. We loved going to Vegas to play blackjack in the 50’s and 60’s. Rudi came to Vegas with us once or twice. We took vacations with Rudi. We went up to the Catskills together, and drove down to Miami Beach. He was always a lot of fun in the car.”

In 1955, Phyllis was 24 and David was 32.  “My aunt was a friend of David’s mother,” Phyllis explains.  The Brooklyn back-fence matchmaking deal went something like this:

Rachel Rudolph: “My son, David, goes out with a million girls, nothing clicks.”

Phyllis’s Aunt: “I got a niece, good looking girl, very bright.”

Rachel Rudolph: “All right, good. So, what are we waiting for?”

“We met on a blind date in January of 1955,” Phyllis says. “He picked me up in his car and we drove into the city. We went to the Village Vanguard. Stan Kenton, the great jazz musician, was playing that night. We clicked right away. After that, we saw each other at least twice a week. My aunt was thrilled. She loved David’s hair. On Valentine’s Day, I got my engagement ring. We were married on June 5, 1955."

 Rudi and Rachel at David and Phyllis' wedding ceremony

Rudi and Rachel at David and Phyllis' wedding ceremony

Albert Rudolph was 26 years old when his brother David was married to Phyllis. As luck would have it, or synchronicity, depending on how you like to look at these things, Albert also happened to work in a textile company on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. Phyllis met him early in 1955, shortly after she started dating David. “Rudi and I hit it off right away,” Phyllis says. “We became fast friends. No matter how he grew and changed, he was always the same to me. We always got along.”

They had lunch together all through 1955 and into 1956, as long as they both had jobs with companies on Seventh Ave. “I worked near Macy’s. We used to go for lunch at Soloway’s at 34th St. and Seventh Avenue. Jewish food, not Kosher. It was good. That’s where we went to eat and talk.”

After work, they took the subway home together to Brooklyn. Phyllis doesn’t remember what she and Rudi talked about on their subway rides home. But when you ask her about it, you can tell she remembers how it felt to be with him. You hear in her voice, and perceive in her face, the pure happiness of having been truly “seen” by someone who knew how to see anyone, everyone, always. Plus, you get a clear sense of how much fun it could be to spend time with Rudi, at least for her.

But Phyllis does remember the whole conversation of one lunch in particular.  “I talked Rudi into opening his first antique art store in Greenwich Village.”

Lunch on 7th Ave., sometime in 1955 or 1956.

Albert/Rudi: “I saw this cute little store—right next to the Village Vanguard.”

Little more mustard on the rye.

Phyllis: “And? What about it?”

Rudi: “I could take all my art out of storage at my mother’s. I could put it there.”

 Phyllis and Rudi

Phyllis and Rudi

Phyllis: “You found a little store to sell your Asian art?”

Pause over sauerkraut.

Rudi: “My mother would kill me if I quit my job.”

Phyllis: “Whose money is it, yours or your mother’s?”

Thoughtful bite of pastrami.

Rudi: “You really think this is a good idea?”

Phyllis: “You want this. Do it. Go start your art store.”

And he did.

“The very next day, Rudi leased his first store,” Phyllis says. “Later, he moved to the bigger store. And you should have seen the celebrities who came into that place. From the art world, the theater world, they came into that store from everywhere.

Rudi moved to the Village. David and I went over to his apartment on Sundays, for bagels and lox, you know. There were always lots of people there, and you just wouldn’t believe who they were….”

Phyllis was a direct part of the beginning of Rudi’s art business, as a support and close consultant. She was a friend and adviser he enjoyed, depended on, and listened to. She was also there later, when Rudi decided to purchase property in Big Indian in 1969.

“He had seen it alone, but didn’t want to buy it until we’d all had a look and told him what we thought,” Phyllis says. “Rachel, David, and I went up there to see it. Rudi knew how to drive, but he hated it. So, we drove him to Big Indian, and looked at the property for sale. We said okay, then he went ahead and bought it.”

Your Brother-in-Law the Buddhist called.

For the most part, Arthur drifted unanchored through life. He did, though, head west and became an Episcopal minister. “The three Rudolph brothers were all honorable men,” Phyllis says. “They all had different religions. They all respected each other.”

Here’s how Rachel used to sum it up for Phyllis:

“I have three sons. They have three different religions—Episcopal, Buddhist, and Jewish. I respect them all. In California, I go to church with Arthur. With Rudi, I meditate. With you and David, I eat.”

Phyllis says this: “With me, religion is whatever you want. People’s religious choices never made any difference to me. I thought Rudi’s spiritual life was fine. My parents didn’t get it. But they liked Rudi. Everyone did. If the phone rang and it’s him, they’d shrug and say, ‘Your Brother-in-Law the Buddhist called.’

 Phyllis in front of Rudi's new store

Phyllis in front of Rudi's new store

“Rudi came over to my parents’ house all the time. He loved my mother’s cooking, and she loved fixing food for him. I cooked him all his favorites—fresh tomato soup, chicken soup with matzoh balls, roast beef. We had a good time, all of us together, we really did. Rudi got along with everyone. It’s the way he was.”

Arthur was a frail child, with a fragile mind/body system. “He was off in another world,” says Phyllis. Rachel poured into this youngest son most of her maternal time and energy, which there was not enough of to begin with. That was hard for the two older boys, and they felt some resentment. But the situation brought them in very close to each other. That closeness lasted for the duration of both their lives.

Neither Phyllis nor David ever sat in meditation with Rudi. “He never invited us to class, and we never pushed,” Phyllis recalls. “Now, Rachel went to meditate in his class with him—invited or not.”

David never sat in Rudi’s meditation class. But he read books on Buddhism, as well as books on Asian art. From a parallel world, he learned as much as possible about Rudi’s work in both art and spiritual energy, and made it a shared passion.

“Look, come work for me,” Rudi said to David one day. “Stop traveling to bad neighborhoods. I need you to do the books, manage the numbers.”

So, Rudi talked David into giving up his TV repair business, and had him come work at the store—which, by then, was the second, bigger one at 14th Street and 7th Ave. David dove into Rudi’s art store. “He loved it,” Phyllis tells us. “He was always reading books about art. He went to museums and art auctions. The two of them lived that business together.”

 Rudi and his mother Rae

Rudi and his mother Rae

Rachel started working for Rudi, too. To hear this story from Phyllis, it sounds like these may have been the best years of Rachel’s life. Rudi gave that gift to his mother. It seems to have been a wonderful gift.

“Rachel ran the whole store,” Phyllis says. “She was a sales woman. David knew the art. He knew the history of each piece. Rachel made up stories about the art. She’d say something like, ‘This piece was handed down by Jesus Christ.’ And you’d better believe she sounded like she knew what she was talking about.”

After Rudi passed away in 1973, David and Rachel continued to run the art store. When Rachel passed in 1975, David still kept the business going for some years beyond that, before he sold it.  He still went to art auctions, he enjoyed them, but there was no need for him to travel to Asia as Rudi had done—or even to worry really at all about having stock to sell. Rudi had left enough inventory in the basement to last for years. Rudi’s family backed him on creating that magnificent antique Asian art store. He was good to each of them, in all possible ways. And he saw that they would be well taken care of long after he was physically gone.

When The Movement Center community moved to Portland in 1993, Phyllis and David came for several visits and eventually decided to relocate themselves.  They purchased a house nearby and hosted many memorable community events, including summer cookouts and an annual Superbowl party.  Their hospitality was legendary. 

But David’s health began to decline.  He went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a complicated heart bypass surgery.  Swami Prakashananda accompanied the Rudolphs, and it was during those stressful months that Phyllis finally asked for instruction in meditation.  Her spiritual practice took root. 

It was only natural, then, that when David passed away, in the summer of 2006, Phyllis moved into the ashram.  Her apartment looks out over Rudi’s shrine and the graves of Rachel and David. This is her home, she says, and The Movement Center is her family.