Living in America: The Jewish Experience


From Harvey Sklar, Thomas Jefferson High School, Class of 1955:

Jewish Athletes...and my Dad!

Harvey Sklar with his parents Julia and Joe
Brooklyn, New York


I was out at a Naval computer test session and the discussion turned to outstanding athletes of specific ethnic backgrounds. I was certainly anxious to want to talk up the contributions made by Jewish athletes. While thinking about the contributions we have made to sports, my mind simultaneously traveled to a possible family sport secret, and unfortunately there is no one in my family, alive, to verify its existence.

When I was born my father was forty-six and his early life events were never really given to me in detail. It seems as if I would always have to piece things together or place my own emphasis on certain events. My father was an extreme lover of boxing. He would often take me to various boxing arenas and I would share in his passion. When boxing finally made it to television, we would watch these events with my brothers, and my father would always try to explain the techniques of the sport.

My father had this Jewish friend in Staten Island, who was once a boxer, and, at that time, a boxing manager, who managed the late Willie Pep. We would often visit this friend and conversation would occasionally turn to those old boxing days, but never about specific boxing events. Now I know Jewish boxers were involved in the sport just prior to World War I, which would put my father in his twenties. I know in his fifties he was one hell of a physical specimen, he was relentless and I can only fantasize his potential boxing prowess. He never mentioned it, and I have no hard evidence, and unfortunately no one in my family to verify my fantasy. But I am still going to place him, if only in my own mind, among those great Jewish athletes. It is amazing as I get older, the higher his life time achievements' plateau gets. A definite hard act to follow!!

The Scary Landlady

The start of this story would not be complete without a brief description of my apartment building/tenement at 568 Vermont Street in Brooklyn.  It was a six-family house with three floors and we lived on the top floor.  There were approximately eight stairs to a landing with six landings to get to our apartment.  The building was quite old, run down, dark hallways with just two windows facing an alley.  Oddly enough all the tenants were single old ladies, and since my father worked on construction jobs in upstate New York I was the maintenance man of the building.  We moved into this building when I was six years old, and just in time for my start at kindergarten.

The second introduction to this story would also not be complete without a brief description of the landlady.  She was quite old, little, with a bit of a body angle, a screamer (some Yiddish and some bad boy English phrases).  Here is the worst part, she had that nasty look that would scare the "bjombas" out of you.

How nasty was this old lady witch?  Well I distinctly remember one of my birthday parties that included six very good friends.  We all walked extremely quietly past her middle apartment when she just flew out the door.  I am not sure if she used any of her special powers, but she had us blocked.  She especially freaked out at the presence of my one black friend, and it was only after my mother's intervention that the birthday celebration continued.

Well it was a few years later, when I came home from school that my mother informed me of the landlady's death.  I think I sang and danced the Hooray the Landlady is dead song, and would have celebrated all day if not for my mother stopping me, and enforcing the no disrespect clause.

Excuse me for this much detail, but the landlady story's beginning is at this point, and I might add this is where I hold my grand kids total attention!

It was a few months after her death.  I was about nine years old and we were experiencing a severe summer night electrical storm.  All the lights in the building went out, and my mother asked me to replace the fuse in the cellar.  She gave me a candle and matches and I went down to this dark and dirty old cellar, using the 6 stair entrance at the ground floor hall.  I remember opening the cellar door, lighting the candle and using an old dirty chair to replace the fuse in the ceiling.  I think I could do all this again blindfolded, because I really knew that cellar.  Anyway, It all worked.  Lights came on.  I blew out the candle, put the chair back and opened the cellar door.  That cellar door opening, to this day produces enough nightmares to keep a psychiatrist in session for at least two hours, because there she was.  The LOOK and all, the landlady with all her special powers staring me down!

At this point, I am not sure what I did with candle and matches, but I do know I high hurdled her.  I might even have left a sneaker print on her forehead.  I am not sure of that, but I do know I did some record climbing up those six flights of stairs; two or three stairs at a time.  I finally got to my apartment door, and continued hyperventilating with not much understandable English out of my mouth.  I don't know how long it was before I could reasonably explain to my mother that I had just sneakered a nasty dead old ghost witch.

Now here is the kicker!  My mother, after much consolation, said that was not the old and evil landlady, but her twin sister.  Twin sister!!!  Well they don't make them any "twinier".  She didn't finish getting the word twin out before I chimed in with, “How long will she be staying in this house?”  Fortunately, she was nice and left the next week.  However, it was the last time I hit that cellar.

Tenement Features (568 Vermont Street) the Roof

On a recent Saturday morning my grand-boy's breakfast included a description of the tenement building I lived in. I would say my apartment building at 568 Vermont Street had the necessary characteristics to be classified as a tenement. Six small, four-room apartments all part of a group of identical attached row of buildings. My teeny-tiny bedroom was so small that it required bunk beds. It included a silly closet, and "the window." This window's partial exotic view was the alley and adjacent apartment. The window was also used as the clothes hanging window, including shared ropes to the other top floor apartment.

I remember one major surprise event; my mother getting a portable washing machine, that rolled to the sink, and include one scary dangerous ringer. This meant that the window now became a much used major focal point, and for all seasons. I must say that the only great thing about my bedroom was the fact that my older brother (Jeff - Class of '45) had the bottom bunk.

Now when one describes tenement features, I think, they should start with those endless flights of stairs. We had six flights of stairs, since we lived on the top floor. I told those grand-boys of those constant races with my ten year older brother. He was fast, he ran track, obviously bigger and didn't always play fair. But, as all Hollywood sports coaches put it, there is always that one time you win!

Of course, there was also the scary cellar, dark hallways, and shaky fire escape. But no tenement description would be complete without the inclusion of the tenement's one bright spot....the roof. Was it also your building's bright spot. It was mine, and it had great memories for me.

Have you ever noticed how many family photos there are of people on a roof. I have one of my mother-in-law, with a 1920's bathing suit, on the roof, and one of myself completely decked out in full Bar Mitzvah costume. I think it was sent out with thank you notes. The photo shows me with one of those thirteen year old stupid stares with the roof door as a backdrop. There were many hot summer nights where my brother and I would sleep on that hot tar roof. It was never complete unless he included one of those cowboy "under the stars" stories.

Excuse me for this detailed tenement description but I needed it to confirm, if only to myself, that this tough tenement life, although hard, can still be both a source of love and excitement, and also one great motivator. I enjoyed every minute I lived there, but I also knew I wanted more, to exit and experience what that time frame's media called "the new suburbia!!!!!"

What conditions we lived in, and yet didn't those same restrictive tenement surroundings also produce one hell of a talented and productive generation?

The Sweet Taste of Victory

The end of World War 2 brought all kinds of happiness to us all, but for an 8 year old, without ever having sweets, it meant having the ultimate taste experience. I remember an older friend of mine telling me to trust him, and just get a dime. That meant having my mother knot the coin in one of her hundreds of hankies, and throw her usual perfect strike to me from the 3rd floor window.

My friend and I then walked a bunch of blocks to a queue of about 100 kids. Again this number gets longer as the years go by. When I finally got to the opened store window, I handed the dime, and received this odd shape of colorful paper that read Fleers double bubble gum. The chewed flavor and smell still lingers in my mind to this day. It was like floating on a cloud with harps and angels! It was instant love, and blowing the gum bubbles were just an added bonus.

Gum was now an instant addiction. I even remember getting baseball cards just for wanting the enclosed packet of gum. This same friend also introduced me to California fruit gum only to be found on the IRT Pennsylvania subway platform. This forced us to go under the turnstile just to get that gum. Not really criminal since we never took the train just purchased the gum! Fortunately, no criminal arrest, and my only addiction. I never smoked!!

Black/White Baseball Cards--where are you?

I remember my first introduction to the wonderful world of the baseball card. It was a packet of some black and white baseball cards with possibly the best bubble gum on the market. I can still see that thin pink powdered layer that was always worth a lick. I wonder how much that would lessen the EBay value of the card. Oh, and the smell! I can still close my eyes and feel that smell. Why it never made it as a deodorant is way beyond my marketing imaginations.

For me, the baseball card was initially a street game object as opposed to being of a collectible value. There were really 2 games that I can recollect; the closest to the line or wall game, and the heads/tail flip. I once saw a block champ flip at least 50 (number increases as I get older) solid heads or tails. Now if there was just one mismatch the loser lost all. I stayed away from that game, but I did fairly master closest to the line. I developed a real skill for that game and when the smoke cleared (end of my childhood games), I had vaulted away 3 complete mint sets of those highly memorable black and whites.

I also know that, as was the case with most immigrant Jewish mothers, all the "vaulted away" disappeared when I permanently left that tired little Vermont Street bedroom. Can anyone remember the "hardest card," the one card that completed the set? I know I paid top card for the George "snuffy" Stirnweiss card.

I Remember Stick-Ball

Brooklyn's PS182 school yard was like an oasis in the middle of our tight tenement living.  One could get a punch ball or stick ball game at any time. I lived directly across the street.  Fall out of bed and I could be on third base.

Well, for unknown reasons, heaven and that schoolyard came to an end every weekend.  The twenty foot fence surrounding the school yard, (maybe it was a ten foot since everything gets larger in a small boys memory), was always padlocked for the weekend.  Maybe it was a religious thing.  Who knows!

However, this did not end the ballgame!  It just made you resourceful. There would always be a handful of skilled fence climbers who would be the first team for the games.  Younger kids would just watch from the outside. That was definitely a limited activity.

Sadness prevailed until our hero came to the scene.  He was a teenager and he lived on the corner in a detached two-family house, which meant he had some wealth.  Well, enough wealth that he had "hardware tools."  One of those tools was a wire-cutter.  I think he might have been my first introduction to a hardware tool.  We all loved that wire-cutter kid, because the police could not keep up with his fence cutting.  They would come and the next day we were in. Guerilla warfare, at its best!

This same kid was soon part of our stick ball game preparation.  We had one kid on the block, who was responsible for getting the broom for stick ball.

Another kid (I think his father was a diamond cutter), would rub the broomstick on the side of a curb (about a thousand times), to remove the broom bristles. Well the wire cutter kid also had a saw, and did that make life easier at PS182.

The Return of the Wire-Cutter Kid

Midway through the summer, the wire-cutter kid made another appearance. Remember he had a one family corner house, and a driveway with a garage. Definitely wealth and nobility!  Anyway his pitch was why not build a clubhouse, and we could house it in his driveway.  As far as building it, well he had the tools and the expertise.  It all sounded too wonderful and we all instantly gave up stick ball, punch ball, and any kind of visit to PS182's schoolyard.  Total acceptance!  It was now full steam ahead on the construction of a club house. There were about a dozen of us very eager to work on this housing project.  None of us had ever handled any kind of tool but, for a nine year old, this was all too exciting.
Now for building supplies, It was decided by the wire cutter kid that we should go five blocks to Bressner's TV appliance store on New Lots Avenue, and get the necessary wood crates.  TV was hot then, and there was an abundance of appliances packed in wood crates.  The wire-cutter kid had the wagons so
transportation was not a problem.  After a brief sales pitch to Bressner's, I am one hell of a salesman, we got the wood.  I can't describe the excitement in starting this project
We would all get up at dawn, rush to that driveway, and start building; go out and collect more wood and continue building.  It is amazing that none of us were ever injured.  We just kept talking about how much fun it would be to have a club.  Naming the club was a huge problem since there were three groups of baseball fans (Dodgers, Giants and myself, a Yankee) so naming the club after a baseball team was not going to happen.
When the club house was finally completed the only thing missing was champagne.  I might add that this beautiful most wonderful house was completed just at the end of August, just hours before the first day of
school.  My mind was definitely not on school.
Not all stories have a happy ending.  This one was the saddest for all of us.  It is hard for me to mention that the club house completion also coincided with the first days of the Jewish holiday, Succos, whatever that is. Anyway, the house was gone with a brief comment on how we were helping some very religious people.  We never talked to the wire-cutter kid again. I think this was a definite case of child abuse.

The Depression and Chicago Racers

Just the mere mention of an economic downturn jump-starts my memory banks into those dark ages of the thirties. How dramatic that time span must have been for our previous generation. I guess my family, in 1937, was feeling some relief, but the results of its economic impact certainly showed up in my early childhood. I am sure that the advent of World War II helped ease the economic pain, but those depression scars were still there. I think one of those scars will be forever chiseled in my memory bank that holds that associated ugly word "DEPRESSION".

I was given as a "hand-me-down" a pair of mint Chicago Racers (very fast wheel bearing roller skates). I can almost see the ceremony when purchased by the who owned them, and how they took care of them. I am sure the leather Stan Musial baseball glove and these skates were my only possessions on the shelf of my 2'x 2' x 6' bedroom closet!

I loved those skates! They definitely kept me in high honors in block speed skating tournaments. Well one hot summer afternoon, I made the BIG mistake of leaving the Chicago Racers at the front door of 568 Vermont Street while I went upstairs to get some water. I went up those gigantic 6 flights of steps, got my water, and returned for more skating. Why I didn't carry them up with me haunts me to this day.

They were gone! Stolen! My older brother read me the song of the DEPRESSION and again threw in the lineage of those wonderful skates. Well thank you so much for listening to me, but it still remains one of those ugly scars!

The IRT Subway to 42nd Street

It must be the distance of less than fifty yards, half a football field, from the IRT New Lots elevated line to my bedroom window that influenced my early subway ridership. I am almost sure that I was only seven years old when I first solo ventured on the subway, traveling with my next door neighbor and friend. It produced one remarkable adventure, a nine and a seven year old going from our local Pennsylvania avenue stop to the city.

Destination Manhattan's 42nd street with a sampling of all those great movie theaters, and all day to do it. You couldn't just do one movie theater and you couldn't just have one hot dog with a frothy root beer (remember that mug!!). The only way to do it!! Thinking back, I just can't imagine how a pair of Jewish mothers would let us do something like that. I guess we were lucky on both accounts. Got the mom's permission and made it back home and not to the back of a milk carton.

The subway cars were so clean and those old straw seats just added to your comfort level. Do you remember going to the lead car and pretending to be the motorman, using that big wheel. You and the big wheel negotiating that big curve at, I think, just before the Saratoga avenue stop. Just those free imaginative fun times without long lines at an amusement park. Bring back homemade imagination!!

Note: I still remember the movies we about that.

Mom's Knishes

Almost every afternoon, on my return visit from JHS 149, I would stop by this little old lady, selling Mom's knishes. She had this enclosed, metal wheeled cart with coal or wood burning to keep those knishes hot. The metal and cart looked like it might have survived World War II urban warfare. The knish was more than outstanding, and the little old woman was very nice which made it all the more memorable.

I thought of this type knish a lot, and never found it beyond those JHS days. How could anything so good disappear so quickly. I could see it now in a Super Bowl commercial! Beat up silver metal cart, with broken down wheels, smoke coming out of the sides, rapper music in the background and an NFL quarterback throwing the oval knish.

In 1976 Eleanor and I went to Moscow. We disappeared from the tour, and wound up on some side street. There was a little cafe and they were selling those same oval knishes. Now here is my "Google type" quest. There are a few Russian programmers in my group, and I mentioned my Moscow adventure. They know about oval knishes existing in this area, and so this weekend I am off to this Philadelphia Russian cafe. I am hoping!! Mom don't let me down.

Tour de Coney Island

It is amazing how many great adventures were planed and executed from that Biltmore corner. No social director! No organization! No committee decisions! Just spontaneous events!

There were six of us maybe more, again the number increases as I get older, who simply debated an all day bike trek to Coney Island. No AAA to map us out, and with early morning adventure riding on our handle bars, the trip was on!! With a quick vote, the decision was made we would go through the city streets. What an assortment of bikes! Not one in good condition. The pride of East New York!!

I will never forget that ride. With an early in the morning start, it would be late in the afternoon when we hit our Coney destination. I don't know how many people we asked for directions. This forced us to have a very fast Nathans hot dog lunch. The return route was an easy decision no more city streets. It was home on the Belt.

Midway back on the belt Tommy Costa's bike tire flew off. To make things easier we just took the other tire off, and from then on it was taking turns riding his bike on its rims. You can not imagine how many times I wanted to hop on one of those horses riding so close to that Belt's bicycle path. You know to this day when I hit that section of the Belt I cringe thinking of that bumpy ride.

It was late when we got back, and there was my older brother, with the look, telling me I missed supper, and not believing me when I told him we went to Coney Island. Our team got the yellow jersey!!

A Day at the Regents

The other day I was demonstrating the use of the fountain pen to my grandchildren. They have never seen one, and I have quite a collection. I always loved the feel and stroke of the fountain pen, thinking, at times, that it would actually lend a certain flare to my usually ordinary penmanship. Wouldn't you know that the completion of this pen and ink demonstration actually triggered off another one of my Jeff flashbacks:

It was one late spring day and I had to handle multiple Regent test appointments. Fortunately, and I mean fortunately, this memorable flashback occurred during the last Regents of the day. There are times, when I close my eyes, I can almost visualize the total operation of these flash point events, including, in this case the placement of my seat by the window, placement of my test paper, and, of course, the placement of a notorious bottle of ink (Parker blue black -- was there any other!).

I had trouble reading a question on a bad copy of a Biology regents exam, and I called the proctor (a very old, I believe, Biology teacher) for help. She leaned over, tipped the ink bottle, and destroyed two hours of carefully thought out answers. I thought she would die on me, definitely hyper-ventilating. We both cleaned up the mess, and she apologetically or should I say frantically gave me additional hours to finish the exam. I think I took an additional two hours. It certainly had the makings of a Guinness record!!!!!

I'm sure it was my last usage of a pen and ink for a regents exam.

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