Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays


This is chapter four of my ongoing autobiography project, all about my early school years. Check back in each Friday for more installments from my life’s work! 

When you are 5½-years-old, how do you know what suffering is? Looking back, if not actual suffering, my days in Williamsburg were at least lacking in joy. As such, I had few memories of those early years when school became the centerpiece of my outer world and, for the most part, the memories I do have are shaded grey, if not darker.

My first school experience, P.S. 16, was a four-block walk from my family’s third floor walk-up apartment in an aged brick building situated on the busily traveled Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. My sister, Bernice, four years my elder, also attended P.S. 16. Every morning, hand in hand, she would mother me safely to school. Before entering the building, students lined up according to their class in the paved-over grim schoolyard. I don’t have many memories from that time, but somehow the memory of that schoolyard stuck. I suspect it was because the physical and emotional boundary of family ended (with my sister letting go of my hand) and the alien outer-world began.

A surprisingly similar dislocation occurred when I was 25. My wife of three years and I left New York City headed for Chicago, where I was to begin my internal medicine internship at Michael Reiss Hospital. As the bus left the Port Authority terminal on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, it faced west into a deepening reddish sunset before descending into the Lincoln Tunnel on its way to New Jersey. I was suddenly beset with melancholia in that moment, a great sense of loneliness. I am leaving my mother, I couldn’t stop thinking. I sobbed profusely, uncontrollably. Perplexed, as well she should have been, my wife requested a reason. “Why are you crying, what’s wrong?!” I was too ashamed to answer her. I said nothing.

The schoolyard was like that for me. Burned into my psyche, a great emotional brand that I’ve never been able to forget. But try as I might I am unable to conjure up any further images from the two years I attended P S. 16, for 1st and 2nd grade. Was it simply that nothing of note was happening? I don’t feel that I am repressing traumatic events, but rather that there just were no events worth remembering!

At the same time, my summer sojourns at Lake Hopatcong left multitudes of joyous impressions in my memory bank. I am beginning to realize that I only hold onto memories if they are truly happy or truly traumatic.

I do remember that my school day did not end after being discharged from P.S. 16. Following my public school classes, I attended Hebrew school, or Heder, five days a week. The Heder was also within walking distance from my home. In fact, the area of Williamsburg I lived in was a hotbed of Jewish ghetto activity. All forms of institutions of Jewish learning and prayer were within walking distance. It remains mostly the same today along Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn.

I distinctly remember the Heder’s classroom. It was located in one of those half-sunken basements. Windows lined what was designated the rear of the room. Through them could be seen the lower half of the torsos of passersby as they meandered up and down the street outside the Heder. Creatures such as dogs, cats and even rats were at eye level, in full view.

The Heder, which consisted of just the one room, was filled with three rows of ten wooden chairs, each with attached arms that served as desks. Purposefully, the chairs faced away from the windowed “rear” wall to avoid distractions and towards the room’s front wall, which was covered with a blackboard almost in its entirety. I remember the Heder’s youngish male teacher pacing back and forth in front of that giant blackboard. His duty was to teach us to speak Hebrew, the language of the newly-to-be-established State of Israel. A few words stuck but, once again, my school experience was a dud.

Yeshiva Torah Vodaath

It was one dreary afternoon when my parents dragged me, without warning, kicking and screaming, to enroll in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. That was when, as a third grader, I finally started to have vivid school memories. Bad ones. Who convinced my loving parents to enroll me in the devil’s pit? I would sincerely like to know. No doubt it would be too late to rebuke them for the calamity they caused me, however limited in duration the experience was, because the guilty parties are dead after all these years. Neither my mother nor father earned a high school diploma. Neither were they self-taught scholars. They were ignorant as to the ways of education and how to assess schooling. A strict Jewish education, mated with public school curriculum, the Yeshiva Model played well to my parents’ guilt, and their need to provide their male child with a better Jewish-oriented education than they’d had. It is somewhat of a paradox that non-practicing Jews would seek out for their son a parochial Jewish education. Well, there’s one correction that needs to be made. My mother did practice a modified form of Kosher. We used two sets of dishes, pots, pans, and silverware in the home: one set for meat (fleishik) and one for milk (milkhik), so that never the twain shall meet. However, Kosher law was suspended when we went out to eat at a local Chinese restaurant. In order not to “offend” our hosts, we ate, with gusto, fried pork ribs.

I was lost at sea in the Yeshiva and felt helpless to express this feeling to anyone at the school or to my parents. My math class was tackling long division and having come into class in the middle of the school year, from a hapless public school, I had no idea what long division was about. Day after day, I sat in class bewildered, uncomprehending and silent, feeling oh so lost.

Worse yet was Hebrew class. How vivid was my memory of the teacher, a man in his fifties or sixties with puffy, reddish cheeks and bulging, incriminating eyes that were magnified by Coke bottle-thick eyeglass lenses. His thickly accented, barely understandable voice was laced with anger. Miss a translation of a Hebrew word and he would shout, “Dumm kopf!” Miss two words and he would command, “Put out your hand,” in order for him to deliver a ruler whack across the knuckles. I had learned little Hebrew at the Heder and was incapable of keeping up with my Yeshiva Hebrew class. Day after day I lived in terror of my teacher, my tormentor, suffering frequent painful knuckle blows and feeling hopeless. My parents remained distant, unable to comprehend what was happening to me. They didn’t ask and I didn’t know how to tell.

What I did learn at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath was to gamble and steal. On our lunch break, the students organized a marble game that included betting. One student positioned himself in the gutter, his back against the curb (traffic was blocked off on our street during school hours), legs spread, facing the other side of the street. He would place a marble between his legs. From across the street, a second student would launch marbles aimed at his. All misses were kept by the gutter student, but a hit would pay off in either marbles or money. The local candy store sold marbles for ten cents a dozen. A hit usually paid ten cents, so one hit in twelve shots and the shooter broke even. Some shooters got either very good or very lucky, and some students ended up paying off large sums of money, enough to wipe out their lunch change. In time, this led to a crack down on Yeshiva gambling, which included dire threats or expulsion, mothers being called and, worst of all, a total lockdown of Yeshiva gambling—the highlight of most students’ days.

As for theft, the plot went like this: the local vendor of potato knishes would roll his wagon—a two-wheeled push-cart with a heated container mounted on it—onto the Yeshiva block at lunch time. Knishes were a fried dough skin loaded with spicy baked potato and salted on the outside. Delicious. The fastest student would pretend to buy a knish, but once he had it in hand, he would run off without paying. The over-challenged, heavy-set vendor would then give chase, huffing and puffing, between shouts of “thief, thief!” Like vultures, the rest of us descended upon the unguarded knish wagon. I think I stole a knish once, but mostly I remember feeling sorry for the knish seller. Somehow none of us got in trouble for our prank. We should have.

On my way home from Yeshiva I would make sure to take a route that went past my maternal grandparents’ candy store on the corner of Division avenue and Roebling. “Come, sit down, Schmul,” Grandma Rose would say, hugging me gently and pointing to the high top chairs that adorned the store’s soda fountain. Schmul was my Hebrew name. Grandpa Joe (or J.B.), with his Bhudda-like belly and silent mannerisms, would load up my chocolate éclair. They had a large, slow-moving orange feline named Rusty who guarded the store. When the mood struck him, he’d jump on my lap and purr for caresses. “What did you learn today?” J.B. would inquire daily, not expecting any particular answer. Since I hadn’t learned much and he expected little in the way of an answer, I didn’t need to suffer a lie. “Oh, we played punch ball at lunch break and I got a single,” I’d say. Or, “The Rabbi said we should take a Pushkah home [a Jewish charity box with a slot to deposit coins] and go about our block asking for donations to help the Yeshiva.” Grandma Rose, slender, with sharp attractive features, was the straight woman, strong and contained. J.B. was the whimsical one, uncritical and divine—like the Buddha he so physically resembled. Their candy store was heaven on earth for me, a love sanctuary with eclairs.

Grandpa Joe and Grandma Rose in their candy store in Brooklyn

Somewhere in my reflective years, around age 60, I finally got around to reading the text included in my Great Uncle Lionel Reiss’ book, A World at Twilight. The book was Lionel’s vehicle to present his paintings and sketches of Eastern European Jewry before the Holocaust. The text was written by Milton Hindus and contained a chapter entitled, “The Heder,” from which I quote, “At the Heder, the elementary Hebrew school of the Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust, studies began very early (age 3 or 4). The discipline was rigorous and punitive, and the hours spent were inordinately long (nine, ten, or more). The poverty of the Melamedim (elementary teachers), the condition of their homes, in which they had to carry out their instructions under the scrutiny of their wives, and the lack of esteem in which they were held— all contributed to the development of the worst sides of their character.”

It was then I understood the roots of the misery I endured at my Heder and later at the Yeshiva. It is incongruous to me that the “people of the book,” a religion steeped in knowledge and wisdom, could be so poorly treated by their own elementary educational institutions.

I was saved from the Yeshiva by my father’s success in business. We moved to Flushing, Queens, into an attached house—now called a townhouse—with a postage stamp-sized backyard. The street in front of our house, 175th Street, saw only local traffic. A stickball game could be played safely on 175th Street—except for the loss of pink, high-bouncing Spaulding balls hit onto rooftops.

The local public school was two blocks from our house. It was fourth grade time for me. I went from being the loser of the Yeshiva bunch to a minor star. My new public school was my speed and there were girls—which the Yeshiva did not have—and no Gestapo teachers.

I attended Hebrew lessons on a one-on-one basis, three times a week, with a gentle, somewhat dried up, lean old man. He taught me how to translate English words into Hebrew, read portions from the original testament (old to me is derogatory) and tried to explain their meaning. Later, as I approached thirteen, or manhood in Judaism, he instructed me in my HAF Torah, the part of the Torah that I was to read at my Bar Mitzvah. The day of my Bar Mitzvah was the day my formal Hebrew training ended.

By the eighth grade, I had “dated” a few neighborhood girls but was decidedly shy and, at the same time, desirous. At most, I managed a few sterile kisses. Like the rest of the boys, I appreciated viewing Debra Waxman’s bigger-than-believable breasts outlined by the tight sweaters she wore. I also was popular enough to be elected to the ceremonial office of school treasurer. My father helped my campaign for office by having a faked front page of a newspaper printed with a headline that read, “Zuckerman Wins Election” in 3½ inch high bold lettering.

Did I have friends in public school? Yes and no. I didn’t seem attached to anyone, to any group, or to any socializing activity like The Boy Scouts or a school team. Was I a loner then? Well, not exactly. I had associates I hung with who lived on my block: Larry Gotkin and Norman Learner. Both ended up becoming doctors, like me. Norman eventually went to an accelerated class where he was able to do high school in three years. I’ll never understand how he did that. I used to study geometry with him and was endlessly impressed with his lack of insight into what to me was obvious. But Norman was a grind, doggedly working to understand what was in front of him. He saw a challenge and applied himself to it, regardless of talent or competence.

My real best friend, Jeffrey Mackler, was my opposite. Self-confident with the girls and socially extroverted, he plucked at the guitar, played tennis, and beat me regularly at chess, a game he learned from his outgoing Jewish communist “intellectual” furrier father (my father was a dressmaker, was little read, didn’t play chess or any sports, and didn’t like Communists like his brother-in-law, my mother’s sister’s husband, Morris, the sweater manufacturer). I followed, Jeffrey led. We split when we went to different high schools. He went to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, became a teacher and a social leader in the San Francisco Bay area, a leader in an organization described as Trotskyite in leaning, and an environmentalist. We met once at Antioch and never since have been in contact. For many years, I adored both Jeffrey’s father and Morris, while wishing my father had been like them. That ain’t the way it ended up. My father, Max, was honorable, silent, strong, and 100% loyal to family. Bedrock, but you would never hear it from him. He loved, he cried. He was, up to his eyeballs, a human being to all and a joker up to his dying words.

Throughout my public school years, I clung to my ambition to become a doctor. At some point during my eighth grade in public school, I discovered Stuyvesant High School and its reputation for excellence in science and math, the two prerequisite courses for admission to premed college programs. Stuyvesant was a public school, one of a few New York City Schools designated as a Specialty High School. Others included Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech and Music and Art. Stuyvesant was unfortunately, at the time, an all-boys school.

All New York City’s specialty schools were meant for the academic crème de la crème. Entry to Stuyvesant was by far the most egalitarian of qualifications. You needed to be human, male, have completed the eighth grade, be an official resident of New York City, and to have scored high enough on the three-hour entrance exam. I remember taking the exam in a room that was hot and stifling, unsure of my future. But then I got my letter. And I was jubilant to have received my acceptance.

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