My next educational change molded me tremendously in what I would consider some very significant segments of my future life. These are: my love for religion, education, sports and respect for self-discipline. Being enrolled at the age of eight in what was one of two elementary yeshivas in the country was a high-water mark of my life. These two yeshivas were Yaakov Yossef on the lower East Side and Torah Vadaath which was founded five years previously in 1921 and was located at 206 Wilson Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. I, living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, attended the latter. The only other yeshiva existing at that time was Rabenu Yitzchak Elchonen, a high school.
The building was a three-story red brick structure bordered by Division Ave. on its right and Lee Ave. on its left. You entered into a moderate sized vestibule leading into a fairly large synagogue used for prayer and study. There were stairs on each side of the hall leading to the second story which housed the administrative and principals’ offices. Also, there were a number of classrooms on this floor. The third floor consisted of classrooms only. You will notice that no mention was made of a gymnasium, pool nor laboratories.
On the left side of the building was a narrow alley, which served as our schoolyard where we played soccer every day at recess at 10:30 and during the lunch hour. We had a one-hour break between 3 and 4 p.m. when we began our secular studies, which lasted till 7 p.m. with no break. During the one- hour afternoon recess we played in the street punch ball and association football (no tackling). On many days we’d play the latter against our secular teachers; this was later on when we were seventh or eighth graders.
At the age of eight, my mother decided to have at least one of her sons attend a yeshiva. Since my brother was five years older than I and Torah Vadaath did not exist when he was a child of school-starting age, he was enrolled in a Talmud Torah instead. The reader will notice that little mention is made of my father to this point and for good reason. Mama was the dominant member of the household making all decisions, pushing her children to excel in school and buying their clothes.
Maishe and I would get a new suit every Passover as we outgrew last year’s very quickly. A ritual would be performed each and every time a suit was purchased for me. My mother would take my father along as the “maven” since he was in the men’s clothing business and, supposedly, was an expert in suit material and workmanship. The three of us walked to Graham Avenue where all men and women’s clothing stores were located.
The store salesmen would stand outside the stores and, as the potential customers would walk by, describe the immense bargains to be garnered. On one such occasion, when I was about seven, I was walking a bit slower than my parents and a little behind them; lo and behold, a salesman grabs me by the hand and yanks me into his store and literally holds me hostage to force my parents to find me. After several minutes, they noticed my disappearance and began a frantic search for me in each and every men’s store. This incident reminds me of the days of vaudeville when a stage hand would use a large hook to yank a bad performer off the stage.
Evidently this modus operandi was successful because my parents returned and were looking at suits. Papa had already been instructed by Mama, the boss, to reject any and every suit that was shown by deprecating either the material or the workmanship; and, sometimes, both. In those days, bargaining was the order of the day and both seller and buyer knew that the opening buy and sell price was never the true value of the merchandise; each knew in advance the approximate final amount that would end the sale.
After trying on many suits, I was told by Mama “Mendy, let’s go.” She already selected the suit that I would end up wearing but this was a shopping maneuver to reduce the price. Little did Mama realize that the salesman had far greater experience in this cat and mouse sport. He knew exactly her plan of attack since almost every customer used the same tactic. He knew that we would all depart; and later on we would return. After walking in the street for a few minutes, Mama would ask Papa: “Is he following us?” No sooner did the words come out of her mouth when our salesman would beckon us to return offering a lower price, which he had in mind all the time. This was the common and accepted method of handling (negotiating a purchase).
Papa was the sweetest and most placid human being that I have ever known. I had never seen him angry nor raise his voice to his children, nor to anyone. It is true that he showed no outward affection to his wife or to his children; but we all knew how much he loved us. From my earliest days till the day he died, I constantly heard him say: “Children, you don’t know what a mother you have”. He kissed us once a year on Kol Nidrei night prior to going to shul. He hit Maishe and me only once and I’m sure it hurt him more than it hurt us. I was around seven and Maishe twelve when Chana, who was around seventeen and working, decided to give us money to go to the movies. There was only one problem, it was Saturday afternoon. I still remember the movie; it starred Milton Sills in a picture about a prisoner at Sing-Sing prison.
My parents somehow learned of our transgression and were eagerly awaiting our return to greet us with a set of cat-of-nine-tails. We were ushered into the small bedroom and Mama kept yelling at Papa: “schlug ze” (hit them). Poor Papa had no desire to inflict punishment on his children but he had to obey the boss.
His greatest joy was when he was alone in the house and spent his time reading a Jewish newspaper called “Der Tag” (The Day). He would read it avidly from the first page to the last; and when he found an article that would interest my mother, he would read it to her. I must have inherited this habit as I do the same. His expertise lay in politics. He enjoyed reading political stories and news and was a Democrat as many Jews were.
There were five Jewish dailies in New York City; “Der Tag” [“The Day”] (Democrat), “Der Forvitz” [“The Forward”] (Socialist), “DerMorgan Jornal” [“The Morning Journal”] (Republican), “Freiheit” [Freedom] (Communist), and “The Tagablatt” [“The Daily Sheet”] (non-political). The extreme orthodox read “The Tagablatt”; the less extreme read “Der Morgan Jornal”. Most secular and labor- conscious Jews read “The Forvitz” and the rest of our people read “Der Tag”; except for the communists.