On Election Day 1928 when Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith for the Presidency of the U.S., was the day of my first move to another location. Although the economic depression did not start till the 1929 stock market crash, the Pragers did not need external influences to keep them financially unendowed. My father, who nobody would consider an astute businessman, showed great acumen in his real estate transactions. Not being a member of the Real Estate Board, nor having a real estate broker license, he realized that if he moved often enough he could obtain two months free rent plus a new paint job. Consequently, we now relocated to 96 Hart Street, nine blocks from 96 Hopkins Street, our former residence.
I was now ten years of age and in the fifth grade at YTV where my Hebrew teacher was Rabbi Slofkin, otherwise known as Slibo. He inflicted corporeal punishment gratuitously. Believe it or not, I was never hit by Slibo although I was a poor student in gemorrah. I don’t know whether it was the method of teaching gemorrah or I not being interested; be as it may, I was at best in the second quartile of the class.
In the secular fifth grade, my teacher was Mr. Smith who was a coward for the reason that I will now relate. Alongside of me in class sat a sixteen year-old young man who recently had come from Europe. He could not have been placed in high school because of his lack of knowledge of the English language. Mr. Smith gave us a quiz and this young man copied every answer that I had on my paper. When our cowardly pedagogue marked the quiz results, he discovered that my paper and the immigrant’s paper were identical. Without questioning me, or the immigrant, he calls me up in front of the class, slaps my face and says nothing. That was the only time in my entire life that an instructor had hit me; suffice it to say, I cannot ever forget it.
Across the street from our home, a rebbe lived in a private house consisting of a basement and two floors. The rebbe’s family lived on the second floor, the schul was on the first floor and the basement was used as a kitchen and laundry room. The family’s name was Gottesman and in addition to the Rabbi and his rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife) were four adult children. Several years ago before we moved to Englewood from Brooklyn, on one of our frequent visits to our son’s home in this city, I met a young man at Cong. Ahavath Torah, the only orthodox synagogue in Englewood at the time, whose name was Gottesman. I inquired if he was a relative of a Rabbi Gottesman who had lived on Hart Street; sure enough he is a grandson.
My introduction to schtiblach (residential homes used as houses of worship and talmudic study) began at the age of ten. I fell in love with the Rabbi and his family and especially the mode of prayer. It was much warmer than the atmosphere at Cong. Ohel Moshe Chevra Tillim, which was located on Tompkins and Willoughby Avenues and where my parents prayed. The rabbi at this congregation was Aaron Burack who was an eloquent speaker and fine gentleman. He married a daughter of Rabbi Inselbuch, a revered member of the clergy. The Buracks had a young son who was three years younger than I who I took to the Yeshiva daily via trolley car.
I refused to daven (pray) with my parents at their schul and I must commend them for not forcing me to be with them. In fact, they joined me for the High Holidays; and my Bar Mitzva was held at the schtibel. Every shabbos afternoon when seuda shlishes) was served, I would bring the gefilte fish (stuffed fish) and challas from the basement and we would eat and sing zmirros (Sabbath songs) in a pitch- dark environment. My love for schtiblach remains to this day, attributing this feeling to Rabbi Gottesman. My both sons evidently inherited my preference.
Many years later when I was a member and president of Kingsway Jewish Center, we would alternate every Saturday between KJC and Cong. Oheb Zedek run by Rabbi Aschkenasy, the Yasse Rebbe; Yas being a city in Romania. On the High Holidays, we would all pray at OhebZedek and alternate on the other holidays. I remember Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt singing at a melave malka (the departure of the Sabbath bride, a meal held on Saturday night) held at Rabbi Gottesman’s schtibel.
Four blocks from our home was Tompkins Park, located on a square block bordered by Marcy, Tompkins, and Lafayette Avenues and Van Buren Street. In the center of the park was a library which I visited every Saturday, and on Jewish holidays. I would take out autobiographical books, written by famous people in the fields of history and medicine, and biographies as well. Despite the fact that I had very little spare time to read, since I attended school from 9-7 daily including Sunday, I devoted Saturdays and Jewish holidays to reading.
Mama was extremely pious, praying three times a day and reading talmudic books written in Yiddish; however, she enjoyed going to the movies in order to relax from her many problems and arduous work. She and I would go almost every Saturday night to the De Kalb Theatre which was located at De Kalb and Tompkins Avenues several blocks from our house. Papa accompanied us once and immediately fell asleep; that being his first and last visit to the movies.
On Fridays, I attended Hebrew classes from nine to twelve; went home for lunch and then went to play ball with my best friend, Norman Cohen who lived on Willoughby Avenue, the next block. His father owned the De Luxe Furniture Co.; so, comparatively speaking, I considered them very affluent.
Mama was always striving to augment the family income, Papa not being a very strong wage earner. My mother’s first business venture at this time was a “commission bakery”- a retail store that sold prepared baked goods-; the second, was a store selling slaughtered chickens; the third was an attempt at a partnership with another man to contract and manufacture men’s trousers, a business that my father was familiar with. Suffice it to say, all lasted for a very short time.
Simcha’s mikva provided additional income for the family. Mama and Rivka worked there every night for several years cutting the nails of the women and preparing them for their monthly immersion into the small pool. My mother would come home by trolley at midnight, wake us from sleep and serve us cheesecake and other delicacies that she would purchase on the way home. I remember her spreading on the kitchen table loads of coins that she would receive as tips.