My first day in Torah Vadaath will always remain in my memory. My mother escorted me into the office of Rabbi Feivel Mendelowitz, the Hebrew principal. He wore a black hat and suit and had a large salt and pepper beard. I was immediately attracted favorably to his kind and gracious demeanor. Sitting directly opposite him and with Mama at my side, I was given an oral examination by the Rabbi in chumish (bible) to determine in which grade I should be placed. After examining me, he caressed my cheek to allay either my fear or apprehension and with this act gave me the confidence to start a new phase in my life.
Mama then inquired about the matter of tuition and the Rabbi told her the monthly amount depended on her ability to pay. She then asked if four dollars a month was adequate and he replied in the affirmative. He also told her that if she could not afford to pay for the hot lunches, I would be fed gratis. The Pragers being a very proud family, she declined his magnanimous offer and purchased a lunch box which contained a thermos bottle. Miners and other laborers would carry their lunch in these boxes. Every day she would enclose a sandwich, two fruits and fill the thermos with hot coffee. Evidently, serving coffee to an eight year old does not injure his health nor impede his growth as is universally believed. I was placed in the third grade class whose rebbi was Mr. Greenberg, a fairly tough man who took no prisoners. After my Bialystoker melamed (Hebrew teacher), he was not easy to digest. We learned chumish and a bit of Rashi in this grade.
Living about a mile and a half from school, necessitated my traveling by trolley car. Each morning at 8 I would walk to the corner at Tompkins Avenue and take the trolley to the corner of Division Ave. and Wilson St. I would then walk about 25 yards to the school. We were released in the evening at 7 and I would arrive home about 8 when I would eat my supper alone because the entire family had eaten by then.
Since we had such a long day, we were not assigned any homework. After supper around 8:30, I went down to the street to play with my friends, none of whom attended Yeshiva. Just imagine parents today allowing children of eight playing in the street at night unguarded and unprotected.
The games we played were varied and very unique. They were as follows:
- “Johnny on the pony”- two teams were chosen; each consisting of five kids. The team that played the pony had one kid (usually the weakest) stand against a building wall. The other four would get into a bending position placing their heads between the legs of the kid in front of them. It would, therefore, appear as a human bridge. The competing team would stand across the street on the sidewalk and each of the five, in turn, would run across the gutter and leap as far as they could on this bridge. The aim was to get all five landed on the others without falling off. Once all five were settled on their opponents, they would yell: “Johnny on the pony 1 2 3, Johnny on the pony 1 2 3, Johnny on the pony 1 2 3 all off.” Then the other team would take over and repeat the same procedure.
- “Church on fire”- this game was a type of initiation of new kids on the block. Having been born on the block, I never had to be indoctrinated. The kid was placed against a wall blindfolded and on cue, would yell “church on fire” where upon, five or six kids would run at him with their penises out and would extinguish the supposed fire. I always wanted to know how the initiate explained his being soaking wet to his mother.
- “The Knight and his Horse”- this was another initiation. One kid would play the role of the horse and another would take the part of the knight. The initiate would act as the servant to the knight who would help his master get on the horse. The knight had previously stepped into fresh and wet horse manure, which was always available. The knight would command his servant to extend his arm with the palm of his hand up so that the knight could step on his hand and be able to get on the horse. Of course, the poor kid then ended up with a full hand of fresh horse manure.
The other games we played were “chase the white horse”, “ring-a-leave-e-o”, and jumping over 50 gallon milk cans. Around 10 PM, mothers appeared in the various windows calling their sons to come up to bed. Many a night, I was the last member of the family to go to sleep. It is incredible that this was happening to a child of eight.
I went to yeshiva on Monday thru Thursday from 9 in the morning to 7 at night; on Friday and eruv yom-tov (the day preceding a Jewish holiday), from 9 to 12 noon; on Sunday I went from 9 to 6:30. Since I had to travel by trolley, I left the house each morning at 8 and returned at 8 in the evening. It was a ritual every Sunday that I receive 15 cents for lunch to buy a hot pastrami sandwich. My parents and siblings would either go visiting or indulge themselves in other pleasures, so I was placated with delicatessen food that I enjoyed. Every shabbos my mother would reward my brother and me for reading the sedra (biblical portion of the week) called “maver sedra”. The incentive was a hot pastrami sandwich for each of us purchased on the corner delicatessen dispensing Bronfman meat products. My yeshiva cautioned us not to buy other meat processors products i.e., Isaac Gelles or Hebrew National. Several years later, Bronfman was indicted for selling horse meat, so much for “hashgocha” (supervision).
During the summer, there were no secular classes; however, in the month of July, Hebrew classes were held from 9 to 1:30 in the afternoon. The attendance was not mandatory since the more affluent students went to camp or to resorts with their parents; those less fortunate like me were in school. The yeshiva was closed during the month of August and I spent it doing many things. Sometimes, I would go to my Tante Beilaand Uncle Byumcha for a few days. They had 2 sons Mendel (Max) and Yaakov (Jack) who were grown so they enjoyed having a young child in their home. Besides, they loved me and the feeling was mutual; Tante Beila lived in the Bronx at 2117 Daly Avenue.
Also, there were summers that I would spend with Tante Chaya Sura, my father’s youngest sister, and her husband Leon Hahn; he was considered the wealthiest in the family. He owned a luggage store and, evidently did quite well. They lived on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn in an expensive building with a doorman.
Having no children of their own, they adored me. She, however, was an invalid for many years due to the negligence of a surgeon in Unity Hospital on St. Johns Place in Brooklyn. He, or his associates, neglected to remove a surgical instrument from her stomach. After a long and protracted lawsuit, they received a tidy sum from the settlement. She always convalesced in our home as she had a great deal of confidence in my mother.
Also, during August, my parents and I would visit my father’s cousin Chasha, and her husband Jake Wollman; they lived in Jersey City. I can just picture the ritual of each and every trip. My father and I would purchase 2 sticks of peppermint chewing gum and my mother would buy hard sucking candy in the candy store which was in the adjacent tenement.
Then we walked to the next street, Flushing Ave., where we took the trolley to Park Row in Manhattan going over the Brooklyn Bridge. After leaving the trolley, whose fare was 5 cents, we walked several blocks to Cortland St. where we took the Hudson Tubes, now known as PATH. While riding the train, I still recall all of the passengers, as well as us, chewing a mile a minute and reading the advertisements along the ceiling of the car. I would always marvel at the engineering skill of constructing a tunnel underneath the Hudson River. The thought of a break in the tunnel and a water flood always came to my mind. Upon arriving in Jersey City, we would be met by Jake who would drive us in his open Studebaker to his home. Very few people owned cars in 1926; Jake was a self-employed glazier.
Chasha was always smiling and Jake was a handsome man, both being very genial hosts. After a delicious meal, the adults would retire for tea and cake while I would peruse the pictorial history of World War l. I found this book fascinating and I would flip the pages for hours and never get tired, nor bored at looking at the same pictures year after year. Of course, Mama would reciprocate and invite them to our house; where the menu would always be the same. My mother, not being a gourmet cook, would on special occasions prepare dishes that were her specialty; namely, rolled cabbage with either meat or rice as an appetizer and fried veal cutlets (weiner schneitzel) as the main dish.
Every summer the three of us would go on Sundays to the vald (the woods) in Bronx Park where the entire Prager family who resided in the Bronx would gather for a picnic, which included hot cooked food and a day of song. Many of the male Pragers were professional singers and the women would join in as well. In those days, Palestine and Zionism was not as popular among Jews as Israel today. Except for the Jewish National Fund pishkas (collection boxes), which were distributed to the students of all Talmud Torahs, Yeshivas, and secular Yiddish schools i:e: Workman’s Circle, very little attention was paid to the kibbutzim in Palestine. Once a year I would walk in the streets with my JNF box stopping people and solicit money for our co-religionists in the Middle East. Therefore, unlike our singing Hebrew and Israeli songs as we do today, the songs we sang were only in Yiddish.
Mama would cook meat and, believe it or not, my father would schlep pots of meat with dishes and utensils and cake and fruit on the subway from Brooklyn to the Bronx. We would go Tante Beila’s house and then go together with them to the vald where the whole clan would gather. The others also brought cooked food and beverages for all. After eating and much beautiful singing, the men separated themselves from the women, I tagging along.
One cousin, Benny Krantz, would hold court; every male in the group would listen eagerly to Benny as though he were a rabbi or teacher. Upon his finishing his few words, laughter would burst forth from each and every one in his audience. When the laughter would die down gradually, Benny would speak again holding the attention of his enthusiastic listeners as never before; loud laughter would commence again. For at least an hour, Benny entertained his cousins; however, I never quite understood why they found his words so funny. As I got older, I was gently told to stay with the other children my age who revealed to me why I was being banned from the adult group. It seems Benny was a raconteur of off-color jokes and it would embarrass my father were I to listen to them.
Whenever we would visit the Bronx or go to a family affair, singing Yiddish songs lifted our spirits and made us forget our poverty; and in some cases, our illnesses. For many years, the Pragers had a family circle, which provided us with another reason to gather together.
Maishe, being 5 years my senior, and now reaching the age of thirteen preferred playing with his friends to joining his parents on trips to cousins. Being extremely handsome, Maishe had all the girls vying for his attention. At the age of twelve, he already had a girl friend named Rachel who was cute with long brown curls and who lived several blocks away on Gerry St. My sisters being seventeen and fifteen certainly felt too old to accompany their parents when visiting family. Chana, the older, was working in a paper box factory as a machine operator. She started working there at the age of twelve, never graduating from elementary school. She was, in current terminology a “drop-out”. The factory was called “Wohlgemuth Paper Box Co.” and was located 2 blocks from the house on Hopkins St. She worked there 43 years until her death at age 55; sustaining a heart attack while working at her machine.
Chayka, my younger sister, being an excellent student, would have been a candidate to pursue a general course in high school. Needing another wage earner in the family, my parents opted to have her attend Alpha Business School, a tuition-paying school, for 2 years where she learned stenographic subjects ie: short-hand and typing. After finishing her course, she was hired by the United Palestine Appeal, the predecessor of the United Jewish Appeal, where she rose rapidly to an executive position. She was employed there till her untimely death at the age of 32.
In order to augment the meager wages of Papa, my mother would take in home work and my sisters, as children, would help her. I always said that if the roles were reversed and my mother the breadwinner, we would have been much richer or less poor.
Maishe’s bar mitzva was a 2- day celebration which was not unusual even in those days. Of course, catering the affair was unheard of, especially in our economic circle. Food preparation commenced at least one week prior to the affair. Tante Rivka, Mama’s sister would move into our house at that time and begin cooking and baking together with my mother. You can just imagine the quantity of food they prepared when you realize that at least 30-40 people were invited for the Shabbos meal, 20-30 for Seudah Shlishis (the third Sabbath meal) and 50-60 Sunday afternoon.
All furniture was removed from various rooms and rented tables and benches were the replacement. Maishe, on Saturday received the Maftir aliya (called up to the Torah) and rendered a most beautiful Haftorah with perfect Ivra (Hebrew) and Trup (cantilation). By coincidence, my brother and I were born in the same week of the Hebrew calendar; thus we both had the same portion of the Torah, Veheschanan and the same Haftorah, Nachamu.
My brother had a beautiful voice and earned quite a bit of money as a member of choirs from the age of nine till he became twenty. He started as an alto and, when his voice changed at the age of around fourteen, he became a soprano. Choirs performing at Orthodox synagogues did not include females for several reasons. The obvious reason was the ban on women mingling with men in the house of prayer. Another less known fact is the principle of kol isha, which translates into “a woman’s voice”. The very Orthodox do not listen to a female singer, lest, they become seduced sexually by her voice. Consequently, males are used to emulate female voices in Orthodox choirs.
The selichot (repentance) prayers commence each year at midnight on the Saturday preceding Rosh Hashana. Starting at the age of four, I was taken by my parents around 10:30-11:00 p.m. every year to hear Maishe in the choir chant selichot and schep nachas – derive pride in their son’s achievement. Very often, he would be singing at a schul far from home which would require taking trains and trolleys and would necessitate our arriving home around 4 a.m. I remember falling asleep during a trip home and my father carrying me.
At the age of fifteen, I was persuaded by Mama to audition for Maishe’s choir so that I too can earn some money and, of course, hand over whatever I received to her as my brother had done for the last nine years. To my surprise, I was accepted as a cross between an alto and baritone. I had a deep voice that resonated throughout the house when I spoke. Maishe always called me “foghorn.”
Rehearsals were held on the Lower East Side on Monday – Thursday evenings for about three hours each session. My brother and I had to travel with two trolleys to get there. These rehearsals normally would last six weeks and would start around the first of August and end one week before Rosh Hashana. After four weeks of rehearsals we were both out of a job; our Cantor Srulewitz lost his position because of the Congregation’s fiscal problems. My brother sang with him for the previous five years at the same synagogue and no problems arose. Mendel joins the choir and suddenly the Cantor and choir are jobless. My brother always kidded me by saying that I must have jinxed the choir when I became a member.
Sunday was a continuation of the celebration; a day filled with simcha (merriment) and much singing of Hebrew and Jewish songs. No Orthodox meal is devoid of a dvar torah– translated as a torah word. After the fourth course, Maishe gave a pschetal or pilpul which is a debate or exegesis among Amoroim and Tannaim, rabbis who lived in the fifth century through the seventh century. The Talmud consists of these debates on halacha– Jewish religious law. Many times the law will be as stated by Rabbi A, another time as stated by Rabbi B, and sometimes by neither rabbi and the Talmud says taku – when the Messiah will come he will decide.
My brother took me to my first football game when I was eight. It was held at Hawthorne Field in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, about 3 miles from our home. The game was played by the Boys High junior varsity and the hero of the game won by Boys was Whitey Schlesinger, whose father owned a wholesale paper bag and twine business on our block. Sid Dworett was the quarterback and Schlesinger was the halfback – running back of today. Of course, Maishe was not too happy about having his younger brother tagging along but Mama interceded on my behalf and, after making me comb my hair, he consented. Never removing the cap from my head, I had no reason to ever comb my hair.
Uncle Simcha, who was the husband of Tante Chaya, my mother’s oldest sister, was the manager of a mikva (a ritual bath house) owned by a congregation on Division Ave. located two blocks from YTV. He and his family lived in New Haven for many years before retiring and moving to Williamsburg. He ran a business there delivering sodas, seltzer and other beverages to private residences. As he was a heavy smoker, his long white beard was spotted with nicotine stains and he constantly had a cigarette odor emanating from his mouth. During the afternoon recess, I would very often walk over to the mikva and visit with him. We had a mutual affection for each other and after asking me what I learned that day, he would hug and kiss me after giving me a penny or two.
Occasionally, I had lunch at their apartment, which was two blocks from the mikva. Tante Chaya, being old and frail, would usually be resting in bed when I arrived and I had to knock on the door for quite a few minutes before she heard me and let me enter. The menu consisted of either an omelet or spinach latkes (croquets), which I enjoy to this day especially the latkes. Both their daughters were rabid Communists and vegetarians and the latkes were left over from the previous night’s supper. Their oldest child was a son named Yukel who was a talmid chochim (Talmudic scholar) with a very pleasant singing voice and employed these talents in becoming a sexton in a prestigious synagogue in Bensonhurst whose spiritual leader for many years was Rabbi Morganstern, a respected figure in the rabbinate. Yukel Bilger, besides his erudition, was personable and gracious and was well liked by the entire family. Whenever we had a death in the family, Yukel delivered the hespid (eulogy) as he was an eloquent speaker as well.