The sixties and seventies sent us to the streets frequently.
Beginning for me in the late 1960s, the cause of the Soviet Jews became mine. Slowly at first, but by the time of the first march on Fifth Avenue, fully mine. I was a marshal at the first march; hoping that there would be no violence from the anti-semites.
It was a time when west siders who were traveling to the Soviet Union filled their suitcases with Levi jeans and books. These were two very hot commodities in the Soviet bloc.
We sent messages of support to the prisoners in the gulag and to ordinary citizens trapped behind the iron curtain in an anti-semitic, anti-Israel country.
We raised money to take in refugees and help support immigration to the Holy Land.
I was volunteering with the youth group at Rodeph Sholom. We marched and we had educational programs. It was an exciting time (in a sort of negative way). The eventual successes made it all worth while (and turned much of it positive.)
There were also Israel marches I attended in those days, with and without my youth group. Living in the City of New York made attendance easy and the importance of the State had been impressed upon us in religious school and at home.
Being Jewish on the West Side was, in fact, fairly easy. Yes, there were epithets and pushing and shoving but for the most part we lived separately and at peace.
I look back at these days of marching, which for the most part came after my peace marching college days and I see myself trying to do the right thing and trying to encourage young Jews down the right paths.
My youth group days at B’nai Jeshurun included Israel parades and the teaching by United Synagogue Youth group leaders intended to instill a love of Israel in me and my cohort.
It was also the time of the JDL or Jewish Defense League. Led by Meir Kahane, this was a tough group founded I believed to protect Jews who were being victimized in New York City. As time passed, it, like Kahane, became more political.
My one contact with Kahane was unfortunate. There was an attempt to block an intersection, at a march, by lying in the street. As the police reached the group to move them along, picking up some bodily, out of a building across the avenue came their leader. It was a display that distressed me greatly.
I never went to Israel or Russia as a teen; we could not afford such trips or even the programs offered with reduced costs. I would go to Israel in my twenties and again in my thirties and to Russia as well, at fifty.
I will say this for sure, neither was like the West Side I grew up in.
The first funeral in my memory is that of my pediatrician, that white haired man who came calling when I was sick, who had a fluroscope in his office, who was a neighborhood doc setting the pattern for my expectations throughout my life. We didn’t go to the cemetery. I don’t recall my first such trip.
The family cemetery is Rodeph Sholom’s Union Fields. The plot number is 1001 purchased in 1910 to bury my father’s mother who died in childbirth. I’ve been there to bury my father and bury my mother. I’ve visited numerous times and learned how little I know about much of the family.
There is one place left. It’s for me, next to my parents.
Dad died when I was not quite 21, mom, more than twenty years later. I know I went to other funerals, at least one in the same cemetery. I’m not sure where my graveyard sensitivity comes from but I do have one.
When I worked in Kings Park, I was employed at a state hospital with a long history. Opened in 1885 as an extension of the Brooklyn Asylum, the Kings Park State Hospital was big, spread over 100s of acres, became a working farm and had it’s own railroad spur. It also had cemeteries.
In my time, the ‘90s, a rumor persisted that there were three cemeteries and that one had been disturbed/destroyed with the digging for the high school handball court. This only made sense because the high school was built directly across the main road from the hospital. (It had probably always been the main road.)
The large cemetery, a very sad place, was on a hill in the middle of town. The reckoning was that it held five thousand unmarked graves of hospital patients who died and were unclaimed by family. The fenced in field was marked at the end far from the entrance by a large white cross. I was told that this end was where the Catholics were buried.
There were straight rows of depressions in the earth on either side of the path up the middle; a path made with power plant ash.
The next section, not actually marked contained the Protestants and the area nearest the front gate was for Jews. The cemetery was closed in 1969, as full.
When I was the public affairs and community education director at Kings Park I was often given unusual things to manage. Regarding the cemeteries this included overseeing the visit of a woman who wanted to visit the grave of her mother who had been hospitalized and passed away there. Of course, her passing dated back to the large cemetery of unmarked graves with no specific grave identifiable. She had brought her daughter who carried a plant. I led them to the general area in which the grounds department had estimated she would have been buried.
The daughter, looking for her grandmother, walked out among the depressions, stopped and placed the plant down and stood silently for a moment while her mother and I watched. When she rejoined us we asked how she knew that was grandma’s grave? She answered, “I know.”
The big burial ground was succeeded by a cemetery on the hospital property, opposite the ash dump. These graves were marked with small numbered concrete blocks made in the hospital shop. Each had a number and a religious symbol denoting the religion of the patient there interred.
Before my time at the hospital the Jewish chaplain arranged for the Jews to be disinterred and moved to a Jewish cemetery. They had rested in a low lying corner down and to the left when you entered the gate. When I explored the cemetery the concrete blocks with the Star of David were broken and scattered in this corner.
The on-campus cemetery was infrequently used right up to the closure of the hospital. Before I left, the then Catholic chaplain asked me to accompany him to a burial there. I had never attended hospital funeral before this. the deceased had only one possible family attendee and I was being asked by someone I respected. As it turns out, He wanted me there for a specific reason. He pointed to the pickup truck with tools and suggested I keep an obvious eye on the boxes in it. You see, the hospital laboratory had recently been cleaned out and the boxes contained the specimen jars of a previous time: brains, limbs, fetus’, etc. The grounds department wanted to bury them with the deceased. This was not to be permitted and my presence was to block such activity along with the chaplain. Needless to say, the patient was buried alone as we stayed until the grave had been filled in.
These cemeteries hold the memory of one of the most important things I did in my professional life.
In the gateway of each of the two there sits a stone marking the ground as a cemetery. These were placed at my request, with my inscription, at the hospital’s expense, in the presence of my children, to mark these places in perpetuity.
I return when I can to see if the cemeteries are being maintained. At each visit chills and sadness run through my body, along, I admit, with pride for remembering them.
Comments are always welcome Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com
Like any self-respecting adolescent I went through my teenage years on 83rd Street making sure I was not my father. At the time, the sentiment meant that I was not a writer, could not be a writer, did not want to be a writer. After all, Dad made his living as a writer (25 years with ABC after the Blue Network and so much more.) But this was untrue for me, even then.
The earliest writing I can recall was my report on the U-2 in sixth grade. It was lengthy and quite complete. I later wrote typical adolescent love poetry. There was the Jewish poetry period and the college columnist period. There was the report writing for work and the essay writing in Newsday and the Op-Ed pieces in Newsday and The New York Times. Some of this was paid. Some of this was about things that happened on West 83rdStreet. Later, it was policy writing, a guide to doing the work honestly and a booklet on health care compliance for a national accrediting body.
I was, in fact, prolific. Just like my Dad.
The one effort I have not yet found concrete evidence of was the column that appeared in the CCNY House Plan Association newspaper. It was called, I believe, just “Thoughts”. One day I hope to be able to find this work in the Morris Raphael Cohen Library at City College. I do remember helping to put the paper to bed at the printers but I have no real recollection of my contribution to content.
For years my family turned to me to write letters of complaint to government and business. And I was often called upon to consult about resumes and cover letters; even outside the family. I seem to have written for a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons.
In the Jewish period I wrote this acrostic:
Taught and cherished for centuries.
Overrun but not destroyed.
Reborn with every generation,
Against all manner of hatred
Have you survived and will you continue.
In the adolescent period, I wrote this:
always be aware
be aware of others
be aware of how they act
be aware of how you act…….
And of course, love. Here’s a piece of one:
What do you mean?
What is it that you symbolize?
Why do you stand out from amongst the rest?
You are a light, bright and shining,
A beacon, pointing the way,
A neon sign, flashing a message,
A reminder that life is to be lived.
You are yesterday and tomorrow,
But and most of all,
You Are Today.
I remember for whom I wrote that. Maybe this is why she wasn’t interested?
I don’t know from where I got the interest or the skill but it started with my first job in 1972. In a back room in the office on 61st Street and Broadway there was a teletype machine. No one else in the research division at the New York State Narcotic Addiction Control Commission knew how to use it.
For whatever reason I began to explore what it was connected to and what one could do with it. I had never seen one outside of a Western Union office. I taught myself Basic computer programming. This was a primitive language but I figured out first how to do a 2×2 chi-square and after that a chi-square for tables of any size.
At the time, I was the youngest member of the staff. I learned not only the programming but learned that the teletype was in fact connected to a computer in Detroit.
No one in the New York office had a clue.
My interest grew and I learned that there were additional computer languages that I could learn and use. First came Fortran, an algebraic language that was much more sophisticated than the basic language. I used IBM programmed learning books, I remember they were green, and was once again successful at self-teaching.
It wasn’t long before we moved to Number Two World Trade Center, the 67th floor. Now, instead of walking to work reading the NY Times, I hopped on the number one train and rode down to the Cortlandt Street station directly under the towers. From the lobby I had to take the express elevator to 44 and then change for a local. There was a cafeteria set up on that floor but it never served food. We sometimes used it as work space.
My interest in programming and the expansion of the research division gave me access to learning tools for COBOL (the Common Business Oriented Language) and access to the statistical package for the social sciences known as SPSS.
I was still the youngest, even though we had expanded, and I was the only one who knew SPSS. It became one of my jobs to teach all this to other staff. Meanwhile, I went to a conference and met the woman U.S. naval commander who invented COBOL and soon expanded my abilities with SPSS to use it in my work on my master’s thesis.
Machines in the office on 67 included a counter sorter, a key punch and a verifier, eventually followed by a reader that communicated with the Sperry Univac mainframe in Albany. The counter sorter literally counted and sorted IBM punch cards filled with data that were made on the key punch machine and confirmed on the verifier. We thought we were quite sophisticated.
I was permitted to come in early, usually around 7:00 to punch and verify cards with my robbery data and to use SPSS to analyze the data for my Master’s thesis developed for my degree at John Jay. The subject, dry to many, was the impact on the crime of robbery of the location of a police station house (the 20th precinct which moved from one end of the precinct to the other).
As my career progressed so did my use of computers but more and more so for documents and presentations.
Early on, and at different times, I owned an Apple II, a Commodore 64 and an Apple IIc. Today I use two screens on my MacBook and run an Apple Mini as my desktop. Not long ago I operated in the Windows world.
I am often left in the dust by today’s technology but that’s what kids and grandkids are here to fix.
The Ho Sai Gai was the place where I learned to eat Chinese food. Run by Henry and frequented for its bar, its food and camaraderie by my father, the restaurant was dimly lit with comfortable booths in addition to tables.
I learned to eat Chinese food at Henry’s but didn’t learn chop sticks until many, many years later. I say learned to eat the food not because it was the first place I ate Chinese (it was) but because for many years I refused to try the food. Thank goodness Henry was a kind soul and always had lamb chops he broiled for me.
The restaurant was located on the North side of West 80th Street just East of Broadway which made it very accessible to the residents of apartment 9E at 222 West 83rd.
We ate Chinese frequently. Dad always had shrimp in black bean sauce. After several years, it became my dish too. That sauce is still on my Chinese menu (just more likely to be a vegetable in black bean sauce).
Beside the booths there were tables of various sizes. The biggest table was a large round one right in front of the kitchen doors. You could often find it in use by the kitchen and wait staff at their meal time.
Back there, you could also find a wood phone booth with the traditional pay phone. In the front of the restaurant was a sizable wooden bar with old fashioned stools without backs. One of the bars frequented by dad.
The Ho Sai Guy was directly across from the Food City supermarket, our shopping spot until our Schrafft’s closed and was replaced, later, with a Red Apple supermarket which is now Barnes & Noble. I knew everybody in Food City just as I would later, as a homeowner on Long Island, know everyone in my local Foodtown. I guess they trained me well on 80th Street. I think it may have been the place I learned to respect working people no matter what their trade or profession.
Another hangout was the Hungarian Rendezvous on Broadway between 82nd and 83rd. Unlike the Chinese restaurant this was a small place owned and operated under the watchful gaze of Tom. Here, I learned to eat cucumber salad (delicious) and various dishes. Dad drank here too.
Downtown, there was The Headquarters Restaurant, an establishment founded and run by two veterans, the pictures of whom adorned the walls. The bartender was Johnny. I was not allowed to sit at the bar (too young under the law). but dad sat and drank here too. When I got my draft card dad took me to Headquarters and sat me on a stool. Johnny looked at me and asked for proof of age. I proudly whipped out the little card.
Headquarters had a balcony seating area above the main floor. I don’t recall ever eating up there but I do recall the night that someone eating up there popped a contact lens that landed in mom’s food. It was mostly funny.
My other favorite, also downtown, was a restaurant called The Three Crowns. It was a smorgasbord with a big round, multi-layered turntable at the back. You walked up to the turntable and watched the food going around until you saw something you wanted and took it back to your seat. Items were replaced as the giant platters turned through the kitchen. I loved going there for dinner. Dad drank there too.
Don’t get me wrong, mom was no slouch about drinks with dinner. She was typically not on a seat at the bar but always with a gin and tonic at our table.
Comments are also welcome at Ken@leavingwest83rdstreet.com
I said last year that there were many more Stuyvesant stories to tell. Growing up in that old building over the course of three years would of course provide much fodder for a writer, and it did. The Stuyvesant experience left me proud to have been there, but not always proud of my younger self.
The trip from the upper West Side, as you may recall, required three trains; the IRT #1, the BMT and the Canarsie line. The latter two have different designations now. The change at Times Square was always daunting and rushed and the steps for the last change at Union Square were steep but the most fun. On pretty days we walked the last lap. This trip could take 30 minutes or an hour. Some things don’t change much.
Cutting classes was not a regular thing for me in high school but when I did in my junior and senior years I went to Julian’s, the pool hall upstairs on fourteenth street. I saw it as dingier than Guys and Dolls on 79th Street and Broadway (also upstairs) and a bit more seedy. Perhaps the weekday daytime crowd downtown was different from the late afternoon evening crowd I knew so well.
I never got caught cutting class (I could not pass up the opportunity to be alliterative). Teachers probably didn’t regret my absence.
The other times I could be found outside the building during class hours were in the last semester of my senior year when I was gym class secretary. Dismissal for me would have been 12:40 but given my attendance taking duties it was actually 12:10. And off I went. It was too early to go back to 222 so I hung at Danny’s luncheonette or out front or went to Julian’s.
These were little things. So was the time I decided one semester to be the first to wear shorts. My homeroom teacher Miss R. was petite and pretty and busty and eyed by most of the boys. She taught English, although Russian by birth. I zinged her only this one time that I recall when I stood up in homeroom and started to take off my pants. Her eyes got very large and her face very red until she realized that I was wearing cutoffs to announce the arrival of spring.
She took it much better than the shop teacher. Early in the spring several of us showed up for woodworking wearing shorts. We loved the lack of a dress code. But this was not welcomed in shop. “If you show up in my shop wearing shorts again, I will shave yours legs with a dull plane blade” he shouted. Needless to say, shorts never reappeared there.
Stuyvesant also gave me photography skills. Our amazing teacher, with one hand, taught us darkroom technique after classes on such things as composition. He showed us things about cameras using his 4”x5” Graflex. You know what that is if you’ve ever watched an older film with any kind of photojournalist; the big camera with the big flash.
Stuyvesant followed me far beyond 83rd Street. I’ve stayed a member of the Almuni Association and my oldest friend and I went there together and remain friends almost sixty years later. Believe it or not, my physics teacher appeared in my Temple life almost fifty years after I sat in his class. He was very young when he came to Stuyvesant and I don’t think any of us realized that a new teacher, young at that, must have somehow been special to have landed at our school.
Everybody, even the youngest teachers used Delaney Cards. If you don’t know what those are, look it up. Invented by Edward C. Delaney, they were the way seating charts and class attendance were supposed to be managed.
The building was old when we went there. It was built with entrances on both 15th and 16th Streets between Second and First Avenues. It was shaped like the letter “H”. One of the interesting facets of the building was the track which was above the gymnasium.
Located where it was, there was no field for sports. Football was played at Randall’s Island Stadium. I would later learn that the very old records of the NY Asylum had been placed in storage in the lower level of the stadium.
Randall’s Island was connected to Ward’s Island by a small bridge, Ward’s held the institutions for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. Although the latter is gone, the psychiatric hospital where I later worked still stands.
(The bridge and one of the institutions was seen in the 1950’s policewoman show “DECOY”. The islands also featured the FDNY fire academy and a NYC Sanitation facility.)
Stuyvesant boys have gone on to things: lots of PhDs, a few Nobel laureates, cabinet positions and so much more. Me, I did my part, serving in State service for almost 25 years and in human services work for over 15 more.
Writing LeavingWest83rd has been a journey of its own. This being the 83rd post, I thought that I should make note of that fact and the number itself. I have asked around among my readers for suggestions for this post and have had several: photo essay on the block; comparison of yesterday with today, structurally; stories about some of the more colorful characters of the block; a reprise of one or more earlier posts; and what it all means to me. It has been difficult to choose but before that I want to again acknowledge my editor Alyse Marion Black. Alyse has helped immeasurably to bring LeavingWest83rdStreet to life. Her grammatical corrections and reorganizational suggestions have contributed to every post, making what I hope has been an enjoyable journey for you as she has made it for me.
LeavingWest83rdStreet has been quite a trip down memory lane and more than that it has been a joy to receive comments, make and remake connections, stick with something for almost five years, and just to write.
What is it about West 83rd Street that won’t let go of me? The fact that I grew up there? The buildings? The people? The stores? That part of the West Side?
Or, is this an opportunity to tell parts of my family story, father, mother, sister and maybe my friends too?
The boys of 222 were spread throughout the building, east side and west side, high floors like twelve and low floors like two. Their names included another Kenny, David, Danny, Joel, Larry, Leonard. Have I forgotten anyone? Both Kennys and Danny had older sisters and there were a few younger brothers in the building mix as well.
Few moms worked like mine. Dads had all types of jobs. There was a dentist for sure and at least one lawyer and my dad the writer.
These things certainly had impact on who we were to become. Events, past and present, clearly did too.
We lived in a building alongside of survivors of the horrors of World War II. This was more significant to some than it was to others but we all knew about the atrocities because our parents had lived through the war in one way or another. Some served, some volunteered state side, some served in the civil defense (like my dad.)
I don’t remember the war in Korea, we boys were all too young, but I’m sure it had it’s impact on our parents as did the “red menace”. I know that my father was effected as president of the Radio Writers’ Guild.
And then came the decade of the assassinations. Each of these molded the boys of 222. First the President and then his brother, Malcolm X and Dr. King. While I was already in my middle to late teens during the last three, the murder of JFK was the most profound as we had been taught about the presidency and about this president in school and at home. So young, Catholic and with great ideas and oratory.
The riots of the sixties and the anti-war movement came when several of the guys had left 222 for colleges across the country. I was home for all of it.
What we were taught about communism and the soviet union during those years for upheaval was biased and incomplete and sometimes deliberate misinformation I am sure. American history left out the racism of our government regarding Japanese internment and particularly absent was anything about administration after administration and court after court institutionalizing racism in housing across the country.
In these turbulent times I hope that the boys of 222 and their children and their children’s children have learned a lot and will do their best to clean up the mess.
Going to Stuyvesant High School was an honor I didn’t know I had achieved in 1963. I knew it was a top school along with Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Hunter but I was not sophisticated enough to understand what it meant to be accepted and attend.
I chose Stuyvesant because even at thirteen going on fourteen I knew that girls would be a serious distraction in classes as they already were so in junior high.
I was not alone in going from JHS 44 to Stuyvesant. I’m still good friends, almost sixty years later, with one of the guys.
Stuyvesant did not bring out the best in me in many respects. While I excelled in chemistry and biology, one of my english teachers had the chutzpah to tell my father, a writer, that his son could not write. I did okay in math and physics. I loved photography where I learned darkroom techniques.
I did not hang out after school. Hang time was at Danny’s, right next door on 15th Street, for breakfast in the morning and then outside Danny’s luncheonette until it was time to go in.
I loved chemistry; I took as much as I could. The lab was great place. I even went on to start college as a chemistry major.
I became a sort of mascot for the football team. I was small so I felt safe with the big guys and quickly became a bully. It brought out the worst in me to hang with them. I almost injured a lower classman on the stairs. Lucky for us both he landed on his feet.
We had a pretty poor performing football team but a great cheer, “Retain it, retain it, retain the elliptical spheroid”. Our cheerleaders came from Hunter College High School, our sister school on the East Side in the 60s.. As I recall we would have preferred Julia Richmond, an all girls high school not far from Hunter but not for the intellectually gifted. The football rival was DeWitt Clinton, a team we never beat, but we tried. Clinton was a ruff and tumble typical NYC High School.
The Clinton game was scheduled for November 23rd, 1963. We marched up Second Avenue (that would be against traffic), the morning before, a rally turned “riot”. We were showered with coffee cups from construction sites, and were photographed for the Daily News. The game never happened, as events of that fateful November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas certainly took precedence. Of course, that photo, which I was in (it was staged) also did not happen that Saturday.
The NYC Transit strike of January 1966 made getting to school on East 15th Street close to impossible. The three train trek was unavailable for two weeks. My friend Billy, a football player, drove a mustang, so I walked across central park from West 83rd Street and he picked me up on Fifth Avenue. He was a chick magnet in that car. Didn’t do me any good but the ride to school was important.
My social life was never better than when I was Stuyvesant. I have always believed that because I was going to an all boys school I had to work at it. I only remember that there were gatherings with girls from Franklin (a West Side private school) but I’m sure there were other sources.
My academic success was nothing to write home about. I graduated 507th in a class of 715 with an 87 average (or was it 83). Almost anywhere else either average would have ranked much higher than the bottom third. I was given a passing grade in calculus because I was senior. I took it again in college and dropped it there too.
I loved Stuyvesant; I have been a member of the Stuyvesant Alumni Association for as long as I can remember; and that’s the only such association I have joined. I went back to the building on numerous occasions and have visited the new building as an alum. (The escalators were such an improvement over those narrow stairwells.)
Although I have few fond memories, I cherish this “credential” more than any other.
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I’ve been bad about writing with my mother as a focus. I suppose that’s because I don’t think we had much of a relationship until later in her life and by then it was unwell mother and helper son. I may be denying stuff but I’m not so sure. As this week contains both the anniversary of her birth (12/1) and the anniversary of her death (12/5), I thought it was time to write this piece of life at 222.
Mom was one of “the three weird sisters:” Eleanor was the beautiful one, my mom, Edith was the smart one and Lillian was the youngest. Aunt Lil always laughed as she told that. I knew my aunt Lil as a professional success and a leader of a national Jewish organization.
Edith was actually mom’s middle name. Irene was her first name but she switched them. I don’t know if it had anything to do with my father’s mother’s name being Irene.
In the fifties and sixties a working mother was not typical. Mom was the office manager of a very successful dental practice on Madison Avenue. When the senior dentist passed away in 1971, less than a year after my dad, she moved on. She became executive secretary to a vice president at Group Health Incorporated.
I don’t remember doing things alone with Mom while growing up, but I do remember things with the family. Mom lit the shabbat candles and the four of us ate together; whether the table was in the dining room or in the living room depended on the year.
I’m not even sure mom came to school plays and things. I know that dad was at the Mikado in sixth grade at PS9 because he was the director but whether mom attended is unknown.
I remember going to the theater as a family. I remember those parties around the Thanksgiving day parade on Central Park West in her boss’ friend’s apartment.
Liquor always flowed freely at home. I remember living room gatherings where mom drank gin. Dad drank scotch. Mom smoked Kents. Dad smoked Chesterfield Kings.
While dad did not believe in corporal punishment, mom felt differently. I only remember being struck that one time when dad was in California on business in the 60s and she smacked me. You may recall that I went directly to the phone and ratted her out. The only other incident of physical violence that I recall occurred between mother and daughter at the dinner table. It was over in a flash of anger.
I remember clearly in 1970 when Dad was in the hospital my mother and her boss took me out for dinner and taught me how to eat a lobster. We were almost alone that time.
My parents had moved into apartment 9E at 222 in the very early 1940s. It was always home to her. She was confined in the bedroom with TB in 1950 and from then on she always had an air conditioner. It was in fact the only room in the apartment that had one for a very long time!
My parents both used taxi cabs. I don’t remember either saying they rode a bus or the subway. I don’t know how I learned mass transit. Cabs were fine except for the time mom smashed her thumb in the door of one that had just delivered her home.
The engagement ring that Mom wore was the one that my father’s mother had worn. Grandma died in childbirth. It was always known in the family that this ring would go to the woman I chose to marry.
I came home one day in 1978 and said, I’d like the ring now please. She was a bit surprised. The diamond has now passed to the next generation, going to my son’s wife.
When she was discharged from a hospital stay in the early 90s mom insisted on going back to 9E. She really needed to be in structured care but she insisted. Mom always got her way. It didn’t last long, but I learned a lot about how to get Medicaid so that she could move into a nursing home which she then needed. I was married by then and had children, it was the early ’90s. She had lived in apartment 9E for close to 50 years.
Mom died in a nursing home accident. It had been a sad journey for her and one I’ll never forget. I had been gone from 222 for fifteen years when she passed.
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On November 3rd, 1962 I became a Bar Mitzvah. My practice has wavered over the almost 60 years since then. I have often been very active in synagogue communities and sometimes completely inactive. From youth group at B’nai Jeshurun, to youth committee co-chair at Rodeph Sholom, much of my youth and young adulthood was spent affiliated with West Side synagogues. I was, years later, even an officer in my Lynbrook synagogue. This is the story of one of those active periods.
Family folklore included an understanding that my father wanted to study to be a Rabbi but in his junior year of college at CCNY, 1928-29, he changed direction for financial reasons that were never specifically disclosed. I think that it was the crash of ’29. He went on to the Federal Theatre in the technical side of theatre and then on to his work in documentary film, radio and television.
There was little evidence at 222 of his rabbinic interest when I became “sentient” in the 50’s. I do know that my religious education at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) on 86th Street was important to him, although my sister’s was not.
In 1975 after several years very involved at Rodeph Sholom, primarily but not exclusively with the youth program, I determined that I wanted to become a Rabbi. How much my father’s interest played in this, I do not know. I talked with several Rabbis during the decision making and was only discouraged by one, the admissions director at the seminary who said, “you’ll never get in here”.
The Associate Rabbi studied with me Shabbat afternoons after services while his daughter played around us and his wife made lunch which the four of us enjoyed together in their West Side apartment.
The Senior Rabbi took me out for lunch, ordering a cheeseburger, which I found amusing even back then due to the subject of our conversation not that I expected kosher practice in the Reform setting.
One obstacle to admission was my standardized testing performance. In sixth grade at PS9, we took the IOWAs (the IOWA Test of Basic Skills). While my entire class performed at the 99th percentile, I was at the 93rd.
When it came time to take the SATs, I performed well below my assumed potential. So, when I was faced with taking the GREs for rabbinical school I attached to my application a letter explaining my history of less than stellar performance.
At my admissions interview the second question came from the student on the committee, it went something like this, you wrote us about your GREs and they were in fact pretty good, can you explain that? My answer was simple, by writing that letter I lowered my test stress level, believing that you would consider my explanation when discussing my potential.
Money, of course, was also an issue. After my acceptance, some resources were developed at a farewell celebration thrown by my mother before I left for Israel. The most remarkable part of that event was the appearance of my cousin upon whom I had long had a crush. Let’s just say that most of the party, held in 9E, was spent with her.
It was 1976 and the sailing of the tall ships in the Hudson River was also spent with my cousin. My departure for the year in Israel followed shortly. This was to be the first of five years of rabbinic study. I was to be immersed in the land, history and language of Israel.
I found Israel very difficult. My rabbinic ambition did not survive but a couple of weeks, and I was headed home to New York and unemployment. Living at home with mom for a period, that included furniture building in the 9E living room, was also difficult. Job searching in those days, sans internet, was very different from what it is now but I did land a job at the Vera Institute of Justice which sent me back to the skills and interests I had learned at CCNY and the tools I had developed at the Rockefeller Program (NYS’s drug program of the early 70s).
I was not well received by most at my former congregation. I had failed their dreams for me; an important lesson I did not understand for many years. My friend with whom I had studied on that apartment floor stuck by me throughout the difficult period and Jean (my cousin) and I were married by the Senior Rabbi at Rodeph Sholom on the first night of Chanukah in 1978.
I am often dragged back, kicking and screaming, to that significant life point. My decision to return may have been hasty but the discomfort I felt in Israel is still palpable. Two incidents remain imbedded near the surface, even now more than forty years later.
I was walking down a Jerusalem street and the person in front of me stopped short. His rifle barrel was in my nose. My years as a 20th Precinct auxiliary police officer and my delving into robbery data for my master’s thesis as well as my father’s distaste for firearms all kicked in, leaving me quite shaken.
And then there was the errand I asked a fellow student to run to get coins for the phone, at the post office. He came back empty-handed; there had been a team of sappers (bomb disposal experts) dismantling a car in front of the post office.
These events, coupled with missing home and Jean and my perceived difference from fellow students who were all younger and had never worked, sent me packing. The college’s dean had no interest in turning me around saying, “if you’re not happy, go home.”
When I returned to NY I said that I was determined to be the thorn in the Rabbi’s side, wherever I landed, and I think that I succeeded for much of my life, asking questions, understanding much.
That Jewish upbringing in multiple West Side synagogues helped guide me to leadership as an adult. I served as a synagogue vice-president for four years and resigned in the first year of my presidency. From youth group president to synagogue president, I believe I served reasonably well.
It seems I was destined to not be rabbi or president.