At the age of sixteen through, an unusual circumstance, I ceased wearing a cap outdoors. A large 5-alarm fire destroyed most, if not all, of the Coney Island Boardwalk. My mother and brother decided to go and view the damage and Morris objected to my wearing a cap stating: “Mendy looks like a jerk.” I, of course, agreed with him and, after my mother gave her consent, went bare headed for the first time in my life. My sexual aggression that followed was a direct result of this incident. There is a Talmudic saying: “a sin leads to another sin,” perhaps, this happened to me. At any rate my attitude towards girls changed radically after doffing my headpiece.
My next infatuation, was with a young lady not quite fifteen named Esther who lived in a large, beautiful home on President St. about ½ mile from my home. For about one year, I, and some of my friends would visit her on many Friday and Saturday nights and an occasional Sunday afternoon. She had a “finished basement” equipped with a ping-pong table and other assorted games. Her parents were very lovely people who seemed to like me and enjoyed hosting my friends and me; her mother always had sweets and sodas for us.
On the occasions when I alone would visit Esther and her parents retired for the night, we would engage in “heavy” petting. Thus, at the age of 16, I was introduced to an activity that I found extremely enjoyable. Esther was a young lady possessed with class, a sense of humor, quite pretty and intelligent. When I graduated from high school, not yet reaching my seventeenth birthday, I took Esther as my escort to the senior prom. Her father drove us to the Havana Madrid nightclub where the prom was held and then called for us.
Very soon after the prom, I felt terrible that I wished to end our relationship, which was due to two factors. Firstly, I was too young to get involved with a girl and, secondly, Esther was not quite five feet tall and I always wanted a tall girl friend. I remember her crying when I broke the news to her, but she soon got over it. Her father died soon after at a young age and I called to console her in her grief. Many years later during World War II, while home on leave, I and my wife Hilda, whom you haven’t met yet, met her and her baby son on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
We both recognized each other and she told us that she was happily married and that her husband was a scientist working for the government and therefore not in the Service.
In 1934, age 16, I heard about a religious group that was forming called the “Anshe Zedek Boys” because they met for religious services and social activities at Cong. Anshe Zedek which was located on Park Place, 2 blocks from my home. This group was led by young men among who were, Morris Gershbaum, Joe Kaminetsky, and Phil Tatz. Morris was a successful lawyer; who with his wife Blanche were killed by a motorist while sitting on a bench on Eastern Parkway, supposedly, the culprit lost control of his car. Joe founded and led Torah Umesorah for many years prior to his making aliyah (going up) to Israel with his wife Selma. Phil became a rabbi and immediately thereafter made aliyah.
We used the Bais Medrish (study hall) of Anshe Zedek for Sabbath and holiday services. After a year of our group’s formation, we had to make a choice of either joining the Young Israel movement or Hapoel Hamizrachi; the latter consisted of young religious Zionists as opposed to the Mizrachi organization, which was the home of older religious lovers of Zion. After a vote was taken, we ceased being the AZBO and became the Hapoel Hamizrachi of Park Place. We joined several existing branches throughout the metropolitan area; namely, Brownsville, Boro Park, Lower East Side, Williamsburg and the Bronx. Also, we now admitted young religious girls, which certainly increased our social life. For some reason, perhaps it was due to the compatibility of our members, Park Place and Boro Park held many joint social and athletic activities.
In my freshman year, I actually did homework for the first time in my life, never having any at YTV. As a result my grades were quite high, achieving 90 and above in all my subjects.
For the balance of my stay at Boys, I attended the main building at Marcy and Putnam Aves. Being a beautiful architectural edifice with an extremely tall tower, it was declared a landmark many years later after it no longer was used as a school. It was approximately 2 miles from my home. Instead of using public transportation, I would walk 4 blocks to Atlantic Ave. and always get a “hitch” from a passing motorist who would usually engage me in conversation. I was dropped off at New York Ave. and walked 8 blocks to Putnam Ave, New York becoming Marcy at Fulton St.
In my senior year, the city was hit by a heavy snowstorm that closed down all public transportation. Unawares that all schools were closed, I walked the 2 miles to school trudging through at least a foot of snow and severe freezing wind. When I arrived at school with frostbitten ears and frozen hands and feet, I found that the only open room was the auditorium occupied by a few idiots like me. What I wish to emphasize was my great love of school.
In my time, Boys High had the scholastic reputation that Stuyvesant High and the Bronx High School of Science has today. Not every elementary school graduate who registered was admitted, and even worse, those who were admitted had to maintain a high average to remain. A student, at the end of his sophomore year, was eligible to be admitted to Arista Society, the high school equivalent to Phi-Beta-Kappa. One had to achieve very high grades and engage in extra-curricular activities. I made Arista throughout my stay at Boys. In my junior year, I made the soccer team as a member of the bench, not being on the first team. The coach was Harry Mabel who coached Morris before me. For my being on the team I received a minor B, a letter that I wore on my sweater. In addition, I was the asst. manager of the baseball team.
I progressed in my senior year to making the first team in soccer playing right back. My favorite playing sport was football, which I played in the gutter. We either played association, which did not include tackling or regular touch- football, lining up as in tackling football. However since scholastic football games were played as now on Saturdays, I would not violate my religious principles; consequently, I chose soccer. Coach Mabel, knowing that I was a Sabbath observer, would permit me to leave practice on Fridays in time to arrive home before candle lighting.
Once, when we were playing Manual Training High on a Friday afternoon on a field in Ridgewood after the first half, he said: “Prager, go home,” even though we were losing 1-0, so that I would not be mechalel shabbos (violating the Sabbath); that was one game that I will always remember. Towards the end of the first half, I tried to block a kick on goal by Manual’s best player; unfortunately, I was no more than 5 feet from the kicker and the hard frozen ball hit me squarely in the face. Saving a goal, I could not feel my face for 2 days; it was that numb. Incidentally, I arrived home after candle lighting due to the long distance I had to travel. My parents did not scold me nor did they reprimand me.
We had an excellent team that was scheduled to play for the Brooklyn PSAL championship against Jefferson High on a Saturday at Hawthorne Field in Crown Heights. Even though the field was within walking distance from my home, nevertheless, it created a dilemma for me. Under no circumstances would my parents allow me to play on the Sabbath. I devised a plan, which would permit me to play without their knowledge. At the AZBO, we conducted our own Sabbath and Holiday services; thus, they would be under the impression that I was going to schul to pray. I dressed in my usual Sabbath clothes, left the house at the usual time of 9 a.m. and walked with my friend Itchka to the field.
Each player had to carry his uniform to every game; thus, I asked one my teammates to bring my uniform to the field. The game was played with excellent defense by both teams and ended with Jefferson winning 1-0. Being a defensive back made me feel good that the result was a lack of offense by our team. In fact, I made the Brooklyn All-Scholastic second team as right back. I showered, got dressed and arrived home in time to eat the Sabbath meal and sing Zmiros (Sabbath songs).
In my senior year, I advanced to Manager of the baseball team. Believe it or not, one of my many duties was the creation of the schedule for the season. It seems that Coach Otto Schonberg did not care to be bothered by this task and delegated me to do this; therefore, I spent much time on the phone with either managers or members of the athletic departments of the other schools to devise schedules. Other duties included buying and keeping track of all the equipment, keeping score of the games and hitting fly balls to the outfielders with a fungo bat.
I enjoyed attending all the football games, which were held at Boys High Field in Crown Heights. The soccer, football and baseball teams practiced daily at this field; this required our traveling via Tompkins trolley from the school to the field. Those who participated in these sports had their school schedules so created that the last daily session was left open so that we could go to practice.
Not wanting or able to pay the admission on Saturdays to attend the football games, I decided to join the Field squad in my junior year and was promoted to head this squad in my senior year. The squad maintained order in seating and resembled our present day security personnel.
Every student had a daily study period in his schedule, where he either did his homework, studied or slept; this period was held in the auditorium. Again order was required to be maintained, keeping noise and loud talking to a minimum; I was a member of the Study squad for 3 years. Being a good math student, I was on the math team for 2 years.
Towards the end of my senior year, an assembly was held in the auditorium where the entire student body was assembled to reward the school athletes with major and minor letters. Having received a minor the previous year, I was now called up to the stage and given the much- honored Block B for my achievement in soccer and a bronze medal for being the manager of the baseball team. When I showed Mama the letter, she asked me what I am supposed to do with it. I told her what it represented and that it was usually sewn on a sweater. Never did I expect her reply in Yiddish: “Mendel, let’s go tonight and buy a sweater.” You must realize that we are now in the midst of a severe depression and therefore I did not ask her to make such an unimportant expenditure. I realized later on in life that, although she never complimented any of her children, she was proud of their achievements without being demonstrative or sentimental. At the store, I selected a light gray color so that the red & black letter would be more conspicuous.
The class “year book” included pages dedicated to an Athletic Hall of Fame and a Scholastic Hall of Fame. The former consisted of 16 athletes who excelled on the various teams, performed in extra-curricular activities and, in most cases, were members of the Arista denoting high grades. The latter consisted of the top 16 scholastically in the class and who also engaged in various school activities. It was my good fortune to be selected to the former. I always looked back at this period of my life as being one of the happiest.
My lunch hour at Boys was always enjoyable. Mama would give me one or two sandwiches and I would buy a slice of pineapple cheesecake and milk daily. Lunch was held in the lunchroom on the top floor of the building and I would eat together with the football players, I always preferred football to any other sport.
In order to graduate in 3 ½ years, I took home study courses during 2 summers. I did very well in elementary and advanced biology, elementary and advanced algebra and Spanish; receiving good grades in my other subjects. I selected German as my other language because, speaking Yiddish, I was sure it would be a snap. Lo and behold, my lowest regents grade was in this subject, namely 78. I did not do too well in geometry either. On my English regents the essay part was a choice of several topics, one being a recent sporting event. Jimmy Braddock, a longshoreman, fought Jack Sharkey, the heavyweight champ and, despite great odds against him, he took the title. The essay counted 40 % and believe it or not, I was given the entire 40 %. My English teacher told me that I had the highest English regents grade in the entire school, that being 90%. Not being very proficient in poetry, I lost the 10% in that category.
In June 1935, I graduated from Boys High after 3 ½ years, a month shy of reaching the age of 17. I opted to major in accounting, which was my second choice, medicine being my first. The depression, which was still raging, and my family’s financial situation necessitated my change of profession. In fact, had I not been the youngest child in my family, I would never have been able to attend college during the day. My siblings were all employed and therefore their support at home enabled me to accomplish this. I will always be grateful to them for allowing me to complete college in 3 ½ years instead of 7 years by going at night.
Speaking of my siblings, I would like at this point to relate how they earned their living. Previously, I wrote about Anne’s and Irene’s occupations, both working for the same employer all their lives. Irene would receive her salary semi-monthly and would give me 50 cents for spending money when I was a teenager. After a while she increased my “stipend” to one dollar. At the present time, this handout would seem meager however, at the time, it was quite generous.
At the age of eighteen when Morris (now called Murry) graduated from high school, he immediately went to work. His first job was in a factory that produced moth repellants. I can still remember the unpleasant odor that permeated his clothing when he returned home nightly. After a year or two, he went to work for Arthur Beer & Co., a converter of textiles. Murry had a gift for art and his ambition was to be a commercial artist and go to Pratt Institute. By singing so many years and earning quite a substantial amount, you would think that my parents would pay for his tuition. I was as disappointed in my parents’ handling of this situation as was Murry; he certainly deserved better treatment.
We were now living at 1675 Lincoln Place off Eastern Parkway. The apartment consisted of 5 rooms- 3 bedrooms, a dining room, and a large kitchen. My sisters shared a small bedroom sleeping in one bed. Murry and I shared an even smaller bedroom, which had space for only one bed and a sewing machine. My parents slept in twin beds in a room just a bit larger than the other bedrooms, this room being off the dining room.
Sleeping with my brother produced several difficulties. Firstly, the bed was neither a queen nor a king size, and neither one of us was a midget nor a child. In order to be able to sleep, we managed by one of us lying in the usual manner by placing his head by the head post while the other would lie with his head touching the foot post. To make matters worse, Murry was a strong and loud snorer.
Fortunately for me, he would retire much later than I since he would go out almost every night with his friends. Since I was fast asleep when he went to bed, his snoring was no problem. However, since he had a very active weekend, he would retire very early on Monday night and thus, I slept very little that night.
My sister Irene loved traveling and evidently could afford going to the finest resorts. At the age of 18, she started to spend her summer vacations in a hotel called the Green Acres in the Adirondacks, not liking the Catskills. She was an excellent athlete playing tennis with Murry, ice-skating and horseback riding. At the age of 20, she went on a cruise to Cuba on the S.S. Morrow Castle, which many years later sunk in theAtlantic. Her best friend was Laura who would be our frequent guest at the Passover Sedorim, other Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving dinners etc.
Speaking of Thanksgiving dinners, I remember an incident, which occurred around this time and confirms my mother’s good heart. We were all sitting at the dinner table when suddenly the door-bell rang. I opened the door and was surprised to see a young man around thirty dressed very shabbily with a patch over one eye. He evidentially went from door to door asking for a “handout”. I told him to wait a moment while I would get some money to give him. Mama, instead of giving him some change, invited him to join us at the table and celebrate Thanksgiving with us.
Why both my sisters never were married is a mystery to me to this day. Anne was always attracted to handsome men who, I surmise in retrospect, were interested in her physical attributes, which were many, rather than in making a commitment. She was pretty, endowed with excellent skin and a voluptuous body. I remember one young man in particular who was mad about her. He was a foreigner who had immigrated to the U.S. a few years prior to meeting Anne. Her objection to him was two-fold; she called him a “mocky”-slang for a foreigner- and he wore light tan shoes. She met Irving many years later and began dating in earnest. It seems Irving was separated from his wife but never divorced. After a year or two of knowing him, she tells my mother that they were married at City Hall and in a Rabbi’s study. None in the family believed her and, I daresay, neither did my mother although nobody confronted her.
Irene was an attractive girl although not as pretty as Anne. It seems the Almighty has a sense of humor because, whereas he over-endowed Anne in the bust area, he created Irene with an unusually flat chest. I remember my poor sister applying coconut oil to her breasts to enlarge them; unfortunately, it didn’t work. In addition, at a very young age Irene contracted acne and, in order to improve her facial skin, she went to a dermatologist who instead of helping the situation made matters worse by producing holes in her skin.
When Irene was about 19 or 20, she met a civil engineer whose name was Bob. They dated for a number of years and it seemed that eventually they would wed. Bob’s hesitation to do so, at least that’s what he told my sister, was that he was living with his elderly, sick mother and couldn’t leave her. Irene had no reason to disbelieve him so she kept going out with him for a number of years. After she saw no results, she decided to break off the relationship and began dating other men.
Several of these dates were very much interested in Irene. Once, a very distinguished gentleman drove up on a date with a chauffeur. She had met him at a United Palestine Appeal executive meeting. Since he was quite a bit older than her, nothing materialized. She was interested later on in a handsome and fine gentleman who wanted to marry her. It got to the point where he gave her an engagement ring and we were all sure that this was it. After a few weeks, she returned the ring and broke the young man’s heart. Very shortly after, Irene was looking for a child’s gift in a toy store and she meets Bob who tells her that he is purchasing a gift for his child.