My earliest recollection is probably from the age of three. I remember being terrified whenever I would notice the street cleaners sweeping the gutters; they were dressed completely in white and, to my mind, they resembled doctors. As a result, as soon as I saw them, I would run up to my apartment crying. Another vivid remembrance was when I was four. It was Chayke’s graduation from Junior High at the age of twelve, which means she finished nine years of schooling at such a young age. She received a medal for excellence in Spanish and another medal in one other subject.
My parents threw a party to celebrate the occasion, inviting relatives, friends, and neighbors. My sister was dressed in white and looked so pretty. We owned a player piano so we enhanced the festivities with nice music, Yiddish and English. I remember being held on my great-uncle’s lap and being hugged and kissed by him. Perhaps, I remember this incident more than some others because even at that age I wasn’t hugged or kissed often, if at all. Uncle Dovid, who was my grandfather Mendel’s brother had a beautiful black beard and, evidently, liked me as I did him. He lived on Gerry St., a few blocks from our home, across the street from Pfizer Chemicals. He died in his late forties from lung cancer, which, I am quite sure, he contracted from his exposure to the multi-colored smoke belching from the chemical plant.
At the age of five, I was enrolled in the kindergarten program in P.S.148. On the very first day of my attendance, pints of milk were distributed to each child. Either because of missing my mother or disliking the teacher, I threw the bottle of milk at the latter and I was either asked to leave or I refused to return. This ended my secular education for one year.
However, when I was sent to learn to read and write Hebrew at the very poor home of a rabbi, I took to it as a fish to water. The rabbi came from Bialystock, Poland and was extremely short and thin and possessed a very straggly beard. His physical stature and face pallor were the result of malnutrition. He and his wife were probably in their sixties based upon their son’s age which, I would venture to say, was in the forties. The rabbi constantly smelled from herring, which didn’t bother me because I love all types of herring and fish to this day. It is quite possible that I will always remember this sweet, loving couple because they honestly loved me and called me Mendele. They could not have loved a grandchild more.
When I turned six, I entered P.S. 55 on Floyd St. where I remained for two years. Unlike today’s society which frowns upon permitting anything resembling religion from being introduced into educational or governmental institutions, Xmas parties were held in each classroom at every school. My mother was the consummate baker of honey cake and I would deliver this delicious morsel as my contribution to the party. Every child was asked to bring some edible to celebrate Xmas. Apropos of this, whenever in future years I would relate to my mother that a teacher or rabbi complimented me, she immediately said: “I will bake him (or her) a honey cake.” In my second year, my teacher was Mrs. Stanley, a middle-aged Irish school-marm who I disliked intensely. She would have the entire class line up near the windows and, with a long pencil, examine every child’s hair for lice. The girls received an extra long look because their amount of hair was much greater than the boys. Every once in a while my mother would wash my sisters’ hair with kerosene.
During these two years, I continued learning with my rabbi the Five Books of Moses (chumish); and the beginning of the Prophets (tanach). He was such a good teacher that, when I was examined by Rabbi Mendelowitz on my entry to Yeshiva Torah Vadaath, I was placed in an advanced class. Spending practically no time in the apartment, other than eating and sleeping, I was constantly in the street playing with my friends. During the day, I was attending school and in the afternoon for about 2 hours I was learning Torah with my Rebbi. Immediately after my lessons, I would play with my friends in the street. During the day we would play ball and other combative games on teams.
One of the games we played was called “iron man”, which had no resemblance to the game itself. Each of us would carry a window-shade pole, which had a metal prong on each end. Territory in the gutter was assigned to each team and the winner was the one who captured the other one’s territory by using the poles as weapons. As luck would have it, an opponent speared my left cheek with the metal part of the pole ripping a considerable amount of skin and flesh and causing excessive bleeding.
Fortunately, on the corner of our block was a drug store owned by “Doc Sills’’ who was as respected as if he were a physician. Upon examining the wound, he felt it advisable to call Beth Moses Hospital, which was on Hart St. about eight blocks away. In those years, persons needing emergency medical care would go to the nearest druggist who would then phone the nearest hospital and an ambulance would be dispatched staffed by a medical intern and a registered nurse.
Immediately upon gazing at the hole in my cheek, the intern tells the druggist that I will require many stitches to close the wound. To this day I am amazed at my statement to the intern which was as follows: “Doctor, if you stitch me, will I have a mark on my face forever?” His reply was in the affirmative. Then, this 7 year old asks him another question: “If you don’t stitch me, will I also have a mark forever?” He again said: “Yes.” So I wisely told him not to give me stitches.
This accident occurred about a half hour prior to supper- time. I was at the drug store over an hour and one would conclude that the parents of a seven-year old would become concerned about the welfare of their child who has not joined the rest of the family at the dinner table. However, Ruchel Prager was not the ordinary mother: she was rough and tough and my father couldn’t be bothered by minor problems. When I arrived at my house, the entire family was in the midst of their meal; a bandage is covering my left cheek, traversing my head and going down my entire right cheek.
You would think that seeing a child of that age sporting such a large bandage would elicit shock, alarm and, last but not least, a great deal of concern. However, my mother asked the cause of this accident in a cool, untroubled voice and then told me in Yiddish “kim tzu di tisch iness” translated to “come to the table and eat.” The following morning saw Mendel in school, bandage or no bandage. In fact, I do not remember ever staying home from school except when I had the German measles at age 12. Until I had my tonsillectomy at age 13, I suffered each and every year from tonsillitis, as far back as I can remember, and I would attend school with compresses around my neck. Someone years later gave me the knick name “nails”. After what I went through, I certainly deserved that name.
My mother really deserved that appellation. I must have been around six and my brother eleven when we were frolicking naked after a Friday afternoon bath. Evidently, we were making too much noise, which prevented my mother from completing her eriv shabbos (pre-Sabbath) chores. Believe it or not, she flings a fork that she was holding right at the two of us; and, lo and behold, it sticks in the right buttock of Maishe. My mother, of course, was beside herself and started wailing and showed immense contrition. But, in retrospect, I must say she was one tough lady.
One incident comes to mind, which illustrates her unruffled nature. When annual bouts with tonsillitis became even too much for Mama, she decided it was time to have my diseased tonsils extracted. Since none of my siblings ever underwent surgery, Mama saw no reason to start with me, causing me to suffer until I reached the age of 13. Through the grapevine, she discovered a hospital that would perform a tonsillectomy for $10; this fee covered the surgery and an overnight stay at the hospital. The hospital was Brooklyn Hospital located on De Kalb Avenue in the Fort Greene section.
It seems that Friday was the only day of the week that tonsillectomies were performed or, perhaps the $10 fee was only good on Friday. At any rate, my mother escorted me to the hospital via trolley car on a Friday morning. As we opened the door a nurse greeted us; and my mother left me. I don’t remember whether I was either kissed or hugged. I awoke several times during the night, vomiting quite a bit due to the anesthesia. My nurse was so kind and compassionate that I fell in love with her and had her in my mind for about a week after I left; it illustrates again how much I was longing for affection. The following morning, being Saturday, my sister Anne who was not a Sabbath observer came via taxi to take me home.
Despite her outer veneer, Mama had a very soft side as well. My siblings and I had only one living grandparent; my mother’s mother who was living in Poland. One day, when I was around six or seven, a letter arrived from my mother’s sister informing her of my grandmother’s death. For days, my mother locked herself in one of the bedrooms and I can never forget her sobs and wails. My philanthropic urge was learned watching my mother since I was a little child. She would solicit alms from all her neighbors and friends and then walk up many flights of stairs distributing her collection to poor and sick families. At least once a week, she purchased groceries and produce from her own meager funds and again found needy people to care for.
Having never giving much thought to how babies were created, learning from my friends at seven the truth had no effect on me. My parents did not become suddenly, in my mind, sexual perverts and what they indulged in did not appear dirty or irreligious.
During the hot summer months, my parents and I would go to the beach at Coney Island. This would occur on Sundays, as Papa would be home. We would go to the Municipal Baths, called by most people City Baths since “municipal” was too difficult a word for immigrants. It was located on Surf Avenue at West 8th Street and they would furnish a locker and showers for a charge of 10 cents. Papa would place me on his shoulders and swim in fairly deep water. I still remember the refreshed sun- burned look that was ours after leaving the baths for home.
On weekdays, Mama and I would go to the beach, but since I was too young to go to the baths by myself, we changed into our bathing suits under the boardwalk. Mama never removed her underwear and slipped her suit over her undergarments. I was too young for my mother to be concerned about my nudity.
On one particular day, while we were walking under the boardwalk on our way to the beach, she accidentally hit her forehead against a water pipe and began to bleed profusely. We immediately went to the first aid station where they stopped the bleeding and wrapped her wound with a bandage. One would think that the accident would cause Mama to go home; however, she again showed her toughness by going into the water and acting as though nothing had occurred. She always held on to the ropes separating the various sections of the beach and dunked herself up and down many times. This action gave her the most enjoyment.
I enjoyed going to the movies during the summer when I had no classes. A few blocks from my home was a movie house called the “White House Theatre” which was in a one-story white edifice. What remains in my memory was the method employed by the management to reduce the foul odor created by the heat and humidity in the theatre. Every hour a young man would go through the aisles using a spray gun filled with a deodorant. Talking pictures had not yet been developed; a player piano would create music to enhance the enjoyment of the film. For 5 cents admission, you were able to view a double feature (two full-length films), a serial film which was then called an “episode,” a comedy and the news.