On a hot summer morning around 5, Mendel arrived at the home of Beresh and Ruchel Prager. The date was July 18, 1918 and on this day all Jews throughout the world were in sackcloth, mourning the destruction of the Holy Temples. Whenever I would cry as a child, and it was quite often, the neighbors would say: “tisha b’av (the ninth day of Av in the Hebrew calendar) is crying again.” However, since it is alleged that the Messiah was or will be born on tisha b’av, who knows?
Based on all the genealogical sources that I searched, the family name “Prager” was originally established for those who inhabited the city of Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. Because of the usual anti-Semitism, the Jews fled to England and to Germany. In the eighteenth century, Poland had a king who looked favorably on the immigration of Jews to his land, partially due to the Jews’ expertise in finance. Consequently, the Pragers emigrated from England and Germany to Poland along with their co-religionists.
My father, Beresh, was born in 1878 in Yadow, Poland to Mendel and Chana Prager. He came from a family of seven children, five boys and two girls; he being the third oldest. In order of seniority they were Yisruel, Moshe, Beresh, Binyumin (Byumcha), Nissan (Niska), Maryim (Mary) and Chaya Sura.
I was named after my grandfather, Mendel, who was named after the Kotzker Rebba, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Mendel’s father, my great-grandfather Zalman, was a schochet (a Jewish ritual slaughterer of cattle and fowl) and the bal-tefila (non-professional cantor) for the Rebbe. In fact, the offspring of Zalman were and are cantors or baale-tefila. I was called Mendy at home and by my friends until the age of around thirteen when my friends started to call me Maxie, which changed to Mac later in life. Many years later, I realized that my real Hebrew name was Menachem and that Mendel was the Jewish equivalent. Traditionally, boys born on tisha b’av are named Menachem, though I don’t think that was the case with me. My mother Ruchel was born in Ostrawa-Macziwesk in 1878 to Avraham Moshe and Sura Walberg. There was one son Shmuel and four daughters: Chaya, Rivka, Ruchel and Toba.
Unfortunately, Avraham died in his late thirties as a result of a heart attack leaving Sura a young widow with five children to support. She managed to do this by owning a store selling cotton thread and wool skeins. In fact, it’s quite possible that my mother never knew her father, given that she never spoke a word about him all the years of her life. She constantly thought about her mother, sending and receiving mail and shipping food and other staples to her and her sister Toba who never left Poland. It seems her brother Shmuel was relatively well off and didn’t need my mother’s help, as he was in the construction business. During the depression, he went bankrupt, which evidently caused his early demise. He, too, never came to America. By the way, according to my mother, his best friend was the Amshenover Rebbe.
The health conditions in Europe in the nineteenth century, not being particularly favorable, caused my father to be a young orphan as well. During the epidemic of cholera, his mother fell victim to this dreaded disease and, having small children to rear, Mendel remarried a single woman who was adored by my father.
Prior to World War I, Poland was occupied by Russia and young Polish youths were drafted to serve in the Russian Army. Each family was required to contribute one son to the Czar. Why Beresh was the unlucky one, I never did ascertain nor did I ever inquire. The possible reason could have been the fact that Sruel was not in good health, Moshe was lame since childhood, and Byumche and Niska were too young. Be that as it may, my father had nothing but fine memories of his stint in the Russian Army. It seems the Pragers are military men at heart. I remember his telling me about his girlfriend Chasha who befriended him while he was in the army and who he liked quite a bit. Why he never married her, I really don’t know. He loved going to her house whenever she invited him.
After a whirlwind courtship of a few weeks, my parents decided to get married at the ripe old age of 25. Although my mother could have been considered a lush (she loved liquor, wine and especially beer), she did not meet my father at a bar. Like most of the marriages of the time, theirs was a result of an introduction by a mutual friend or relative. In 1904, a year later, Beresh decided to flee from Russia to escape being again drafted to serve in the Russian Army because of the Russo-Japanese war. Immigration to the U.S. in that year reached record heights. The most popular port of embarkation was Hamburg, Germany. Naturally, he sailed in the steerage class debarking on Ellis Island. Like most immigrants, he settled on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Where he lived until he brought my mother to the US in 1906, I have no knowledge.
My sister Chana (Anne) was born in 1909. She was named after my father’s mother. My parents’ first business venture was in partnership with Rivka and Elya, my mother’s sister and her husband. They opened a restaurant to serve immigrants whose wives were still in Europe. The women were the chefs and the men were the waiters. Naturally, no money changed hands on the Sabbath; as a result, many patrons forgot to pay on Sunday for their Sabbath meals. Consequently, this venture went down the tubes. Two years later, my sister Chayka (Ida then Irene) was born.
What my father’s occupation was subsequent to his ill-fated introduction to the business world, I can only guess. It must have been tailoring, because that’s the only vocation he was ever engaged in. Later on, I will relate his other ventures which all ended in failure. I considered him to be the “revolving-door entrepreneur.” My mother put him in business through one door and he escaped through the other.
Evidently, whatever my father was working at increased his income because he was able to leave the lower East Side and move to a rural area called Brownsville. Seeing trees, smelling flowers and walking on grass gave my parents the feeling of being farmers after living in the crowded tenements of Manhattan. In this blissful atmosphere, Maishe (Morris and later Murry) their first son was born on August 20, 1913. These years were not very eventful since nothing that occurred then comes to my mind.
After 2 or 3 years in Brownsville, the Pragers moved to 96 Hopkins Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where I was born. Incidentally, until the time I got married and read my birth certificate, I “celebrated” my birthday on July 23, which was the the date told to me by my mother. In those years, we had no 100-year Hebrew-English calendars. The tenement – nobody called it “apartment house” – we lived in consisted of five stories; on the street level were two stores separated in the center by stairs called a “stoop”. The stairs had about 10 steps leading to a vestibule called “the hall” and also to the first floor of apartments; thus, we had 4 floors of apartments. Can you imagine a mother today schlepping up a carriage with a child 5 flights a few times a day?
Our apartment was on the third floor and consisted of a kitchen, living room and 3 bedrooms. We had no heat or electricity. There was a large stove-oven in the kitchen, which was utilized for creating heat and for cooking purposes. Every tenant had his own storage space in the cellar and when he purchased coal, it was delivered to the basement and my father would go down to the cellar with a bucket to fetch some coal. Every religious Jew would have a Shabbos (Sabbath) goy to start up the oven early Saturday morning. I still remember vividly how this Italian youth of around 16 years of age looked; he always wore high-topped boots. After a few years, around 1925, steam heat and electricity were installed in those apartments whose occupants consented to a $2.00 monthly increase in rent for each improvement; consequently, we had a $4.00 raise in rent.
Each floor had four apartments. As you came up the stairs, we were on the left. To the right of us lived the Bodners. This was a second marriage for both of them, their spouses both having died. Mr. Bodner, a waiter in a restaurant on Graham Ave. not far from the house, had a child named Solly who was the champion punch ball player of the neighborhood; he could hit three sewers. Each city block had four sewers spaced 25 yards from each other; thus, he was able to hit the ball around 75 yards, no small feat. In punch ball you do not use a stick, or a bat, you only use your fist. Every Sunday morning, the Jews of our block would play the Italians of the next block for money.
Mrs. Bodner’s sons were Maxie and Archie and they had one son together, Yonkie. Directly across the hall from us were the Kaplans who had a daughter my age named Sylvia. She was a pretty butterball who created in me the ambition to pursue medicine. I will not dwell on this subject any longer for fear it may embarrass certain members of my immediate family (I am not referring to my wife). To the left of the Kaplans lived the Rosenfelds who had one son, Yankel. Chaim Rosenfeld was a foreman in a men’s shirt factory located in Troy, N.Y. and came home only weekends. On one Saturday night, Chaim had a bad respiratory cold in his chest and they called my mother to schtell bankes (apply cups to his back). My mother was an expert in this art and everyone called upon her to lend a banke. She would prepare a pan of hot water, place a dozen cups in it, ignite a pencil whose tip was covered with absorbent cotton, insert the pencil into each cup producing a vacuum and then place each cup on the back of the patient. After a period of an hour, the cups would be removed and rubbing alcohol would be applied to the entire area previously occupied by cups.
All the children of the floor and sometimes of the other floors would come to watch and be entertained. What especially fascinated the kids were the multi-colors of the spots left by the cups. Unfortunately, Chaim’s body was covered with hair like a bear and my mother struggled to have the cups stick. The darker the spot, the more severe the cold, and louder were the cheers of the children. Incidentally, Mrs. Rosenfeld was the one who called me tisha b’yav whenever I cried.
Very few of the building’s tenants were Orthodox, although all were Jewish. There were four shomer shabbos (Sabbath observant) families, including us. One was Pinchas who sported a beard and achieved notoriety by allegedly groping Mrs. Bodner who was well endowed. The latter related this incident to my mother within earshot of me. Many evenings she would come into our apartment to spend hours with my mother while her husband was working nights at the restaurant. While listening, she had a habit of placing her right hand into her dress and touching her left breast. Being an inquisitive child of perhaps five or six, I was mesmerized by her action. She was fairly pretty with natural blond hair and very zaftig. Her husband prayed every morning; however, on shabbos he went to the first minyon (quorum of 10 Jews) and then went to work. This was not unusual because practically everybody worked on shabbos; there were very few jobs available for Sabbath observers.
Two houses from our building was a Hungarian schul (synagogue) where we all prayed. I imagine that my father went into tailoring because that was one of the few occupations in which you could observe the Sabbath. Both his brothers who were millinery manufacturers worked Saturday but their wives kept shabbos. Also, my father-in-law, Harry Friedfeld, and his sister Helen Fein were the only siblings out of seven who were Sabbath observers. Similarly, in my mother-in-law’s (Sadie Hecht) family, two daughters strayed from being Orthodox. My mother’s five siblings all remained true to the fourth commandment. The above illustrates that even among the most religious Jewish families there were many, who finding it difficult to obtain employment, chose to work on the Sabbath.
All my siblings attended Mark Hopkins Junior High – P.S. 148 – which was located two blocks from our house on Hopkins St. Maishe also attended Hebrew school every afternoon. This school was on Stockton St. four blocks away. The curriculum was so advanced that it was superior to many day schools of today. In addition to chumish, tanach, rashi, mishnayis and gemmora were taught. By coincidence, my very close friend Dave Lupkin attended the same Talmud Torah.
Every tenement building on Hopkins Street placed a wooden bench in front of the house for the convenience of the tenants. Since air conditioning did not exist and I don’t remember electric fans being used, people would escape the heat and humidity in their apartments by sitting on these benches all day and till midnight when they would go upstairs and try to get some sleep. Many nights, I, as well as others, would either sleep on the fire escape or on the roof.
This bench also served as a social meeting place for nursing mothers, who would sit there with their mammary glands exposed without any pretense of cover. Men returning from work in the evening would not even think of stealing a glance at the uncovered breasts since their libido was not aroused. Since, in almost all instances, these mothers were amply endowed, I attribute the lack of sexual arousal to the fact that nursing in public was universally accepted, not as today. Another phenomenon of those days was the prevalent lack of modesty in children; urinating in the gutter when the urge hit them. Going up four or five floors to their apartment was out of the question. Boys would do this till the age of seven or eight; while little girls up to the age of three or four would do the same. Very often, one would see dead horses lying in the street for days with flies all over the carcass, awaiting special trucks to remove them.
At this time in my life, I became cognizant of the laborious preparations for shabbos, and for the holidays. My mother started on Thursday for shabbos, when she did her extensive shopping at the outdoor market, which was 2 blocks from our home. In the evening, she would knead the dough for the challas and for the noodles, which was always added to the chicken soup. She placed the dough under a large comforter so that it would rise. On Friday morning, she would twist the dough into several challas and then paint them with egg yolks, using several feathers tied into a bundle. After, they were ready to be placed in the oven for baking. Of course, being a very pious woman, she would perform one of the most important mitzvas (obligations) assigned exclusively to Jewish women, After removing the dough from the comforter, she would tear off a piece of dough in order to comply with this mitzva. On Friday afternoon, she washed the kitchen floor and covered it with newspapers, which stayed all shabbos. The shabbos candles were the only illumination the entire night.
Each Jewish holiday had its own method of preparation. A few weeks before Passover, Italian vendors would sell grapes enclosed in wooden baskets from push-carts. These grapes were different than the dessert grapes now sold in food stores. My mother would buy quite a few of these baskets, which were emptied into a large receptacle to allow my father to stomp the grapes with his naked feet. Sugar was then added to the crushed grapes and then poured into large glass containers, which were placed on the fire escape to ferment into wine over the winter. Borsht, called russel, was similarly produced by chopping up the beets, adding vinegar and/or another condiment and then pouring it into glass bottles which were also placed on the fire escape.
Prohibition was the law of the land at this time; but this did not deter my parents from being moon-shiners. My father had access to a seller of raw alcohol and he would use a baby carriage to transport the illicit merchandise. Many times, I, being a child of four or five, would accompany him on his illegal trips. My mother then took over the manufacture of whiskey. She would mix the spirits with either huckleberries, blueberries, cherries or other fruits, depending on the liqueur she desired. Again, she would add sugar to allow fermentation and put this on the fire escape.
Every tenant had a small cubicle in the basement of the building, which was used for storage. Several days before Passover, my father and Maishe would bring up all the Passover dishes, pots, pans and utensils. Ridding the house of all semblance of chamatz (unleavened food), by cleaning thoroughly the icebox, gas range and all food closets was a monumental task. Children had a special game exclusively for this holiday. Three holes would be punctured in a small wooden box that had previously held hard cheese. Each hole was of a different diameter. The box would be placed against a wall of a building and each child would roll hazel nuts trying to get the nut into a hole. Getting a nut into the smallest hole would earn the most points; getting them into the other holes would earn less.
Shevuos, a holiday that celebrates the acceptance of the Torah by the Jews, is not difficult to observe nor in its preparation. In fact, the only characteristics that defined this holiday are all enjoyable. Tree leaves and flowers are placed throughout the house, adding beauty and fragrance to the observance. In addition to satisfying the senses of sight and smell, Shevuos wants us to enjoy the sense of taste. For some reason, dairy meals are favored for this holiday, especially cheese. Thus, cheese blintzes, cheese kreplach (pyrogen) and, last but not least, cheesecake.
The holiday of Succoth lasts seven days followed by Shemini Atzeras and Simchas Torah. We celebrate Succoth by constructing huts in which we eat all our meals and the very pious sleep therein as well. Our ancestors, after being liberated from Egypt, spent 40 years in the Sinai Desert living in huts the entire time. Each tenement building built a succah (hut) in the back yard, which usually had room for about 8 persons, all male adults. Women are not obligated to eat in the succah, although today most do. My mother, sisters and I, not yet being thirteen, would carry down the food four stories for my father and brother. She would also light the holiday candles in the succah. This holiday dictates the purchase and use of an esrog (a citron) and a lulav (a bundle of palm leaves). Almost all families purchased one set, which was used by all members; economy being the reason.
One day before Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), an age-old custom is performed. This is called schlugen kapuris. When the Jewish Temple existed, Jews would bring animals to sacrifice in the Temple to ask the Almighty for forgiveness for their sins. Since the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices no longer exist, a live chicken is held over the head of a person and rotated three times simultaneously intoning a prayer asking for forgiveness. I would accompany my mother to the chicken market where she would select several live chickens for the holiday. After schlugen kapuris with all of us, she returned to the market and the schochet would slaughter them.
On one occasion, a chicken decided to relieve itself on my sister’s head. Today, the very pious still use live chickens, while other less pious use money in lieu of chickens. There were women in the market who made their living plucking feathers from the chickens. Also, there were times when my mother would buy live fish and keep them for several days in the bathtub. I was mesmerized watching my mother cut off the head of the fish and the rest of the body kept shaking for several minutes after being decapitated.