Growing Up Jewish

An Interview with David B. Black (Yardley, PA)

(interviewed by Rick Black)

Port Chester, NY was a small town, especially the Jewish community.

We went to shul on Lake Street, then on Willett Avenue, and in the Jewish Center. In fact, my father was a founding member of the shul on Willett Avenue – Congregation Knesseth Israel at 249 Willett Avenue. A lot of the Orthodox Jews lived between Travis Avenue and Townsend Street but that was a different group, a religious group, and we had nothing to do with them.

Of course, I went to Hebrew school. The rabbi’s name was Winkler. He was the head and he had a son our age who was part of our gang. At Hebrew school, we were not the greatest kids but I remember the one pleasure that we had was when we left Hebrew school, we would go to the Lifesavers building on Main Street, which was a block away, and there they had three big lifesavers in front of the building – peppermint, wintergreen and I don’t know what the other one was, it might have been orange. We used to play king of the hill and we would run up on the hill and try to hold it, and the other kids would grab our coats and rip our buttons off, and my mother would always wonder how I lost all my buttons – but I never told her.

The other thing at the Lifesavers building was on Saturday morning when the football season was in vogue, they would have a fella from our high school team, Baker – who was the star fullback – giving out samples of lifesavers to all of the automobiles that were passing by. Most of them were on their way to the Yale game and, as they would pass the Lifesavers building, he would drop the lifesavers in their car, and we used to chase after the extra samples that fell in the street.

I was bar mitzvahed in a very small shul – the one on Lake Street. We didn’t make much of it. It was just a small bar mitzvah for our family. I davaned Saturday morning for the service, Shacharis and Musaf, and when they took the Torah out of the ark, I had to sing the “Shema” and my voice broke, and a kid from Hebrew school said, “You alright?”

My father was so proud that I’d be able to davan now. My folks gave me a party for all my friends, all the boys, at my house on Washington Street. We had them over and had a lot of fun. I got a lot of fountain pens. I must have gotten six fountain pens and three didn’t work. I remember the best one that I had was Waterman’s, and that was my favorite.

And, of course, I used to caddie and my mother bought me a set of golf clubs when I was bar mitzvah. I used to make a dollar a round plus a twenty five cent tip, and that allowed you to play on Monday at the course. I played golf at the public courses.

* * *

Before the Jewish Center was built, we would play basketball in barns around town. It was hot but we didn’t care. Even though I was thin, I wouldn’t let that stop me from playing a lot of ball. I went to Hebrew school after my regular classes and then I would spend a lot of time at the Jewish Center, playing basketball and working out.

While at the Center, I played a lot of billiards, I learned how to play pool, I played a lot of ping pong and, later on in life, I was doubles champion for Westchester County in ping pong with Irving Walt as my partner. I was taught boxing and hitting the punching bag. I was pretty good at the punching bag. I had a lot of friends and we played a lot and spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center.

We used to have a good time in the gym. In fact, the fella who had the candy machine in the hall never collected any money because all the guys used to bang the machine against the wall and the candy used to come out. We didn’t feel that was stealing. We felt that he didn’t know his business! We used to have a lot of fun. Many days I would bask in the sun on the roof.

We had a basketball team that was not so hot – but it was pretty good. I was a forward. Our coach used to get the games for us in Stamford and Greenwich and White Plains and New Rochelle and Mamaroneck and Mount Vernon. One day we traveled to Staten Island – we got beat so bad. We used to play in Yonkers – they had a very good team. And some of our boys were on the town team that played for the county championship in White Plains. We lost in the last ten seconds – one of our guards threw the ball to one of the other Yonkers players in error and he made a basket and we lost by one point. We had some good times.

While in junior high school, four friends and myself started a club called the Maccabeans, and we were a very active club. We would run beautiful dances. We would decorate the gym with balloons and confetti and hire a band and the whole town would come and pay tribute to the dance that we would put on. We would take the money that we raised and we would donate it to the Jewish Center for some cause – it might be a new standing radio, it might go for someone to go to camp who couldn’t afford it – but it was a good deed for everyone.

We had about 35 or 40 members after we got started and it was the most popular club in the Jewish Center. We were guided by a young lady who was Ethel Goldman and she saw to it that we ran the club in a constitutional way. I was the president of the club for maybe five sessions. They wouldn’t hear of having another president. They liked the way I conducted the meetings.

The dues were ten cents a week for everybody. If they were behind one month, we looked into the fact to find out whether they had the money or didn’t have the money. And if they didn’t have the money, we used to let them stay in anyway. One of my friends, Joel, though, had a friend who was gentile, and said he would like to put him up for membership in the club. It was a question of letting him in or not, and we took a vote, and voted against it. You had to be of the Jewish faith and connected to the Center to get in – that’s what we figured.

One time our club decided to put on a Broadway musical at the Jewish Center and they hired a director to put on “Loose Change” – that was the name of the musical – and I was one of the chorus. I lost 10 pounds by dancing in this show. It was a very good show; it sold out for three nights. But when we came to the dress rehearsal and the production manager was up front and the curtain went up and he raised his arms to start like a conductor, everybody froze. We didn’t get off the first kick.

So, he said, “I don’t understand you. It’s a good thing that we’re having this rehearsal because if this happened tomorrow night, we would be in dire trouble.”

So they put the curtain back and they started again – and this time it was okay. We were very successful with the play; it was a humdinger.

* * *

My Dad knew we had the club and he used to sell a lot of pants in his store, and when he had to have the pants fixed, he would give the pants to be repaired to a special tailor, and one of the tailors was a Russian. He had his wife and children come over to this country when I was about twelve. And my father said, “You know, this young man has no friends here. Why don’t you introduce him to your friends and get him started?”

So, this fella’s name was Max Bregoff and I met him. He was a tough Russian. I introduced him to a lot of my friends who were members of the club and we made him a member of the club, too. We called him the mad Russian. He used to get very angry. He’d spit at them. He was a tough hombre but he found the American way and he was able to live a good life and enjoy himself. He spent a lot of time at the Jewish Center. Yes, he did find the American way and he became a friend.

After I graduated high school, I still played basketball for the Jewish Center. And then we had a very good ball team that used to play before crowds of two, three, four thousand people. We played other teams within the town – the Don Boscoes, the Holy Name Society, the Catholic organizations, the Y.M.C.A. It used to go on for weeks.

One time we took our team to play against Don Bosco, the Italians, and heard ’em say, “Let’s get the Jews.” But I never really had any trouble with anti-Semitism in Port Chester. We played a lot of teams and used to raise a lot of money for the Jewish Center.

David B. Black, 94, is my father. He was the men’s wear merchandise manager for Alexander’s Department Stores for over thirty years until his retirement in 1978. Over the past two years my brother interviewed Dad weekly to gather material for a family memoir, from which this is an excerpt.

Rick Black, my brother, is a prize-winning poet and former journalist who creates hand-crafted books at Turtle Light Press in Highland Park, NJ. You can see his work at http://www.turtlelightpress.com/abouttlp.shtml

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2 Comments

Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity

2 responses to “Growing Up Jewish

  1. Keith Plapinger

    Very enjoyable reading. I can “hear” David’s voice, even though I’ve never heard these particular stories. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Pingback: Here in HP, a Highland Park, New Jersey blog » Loss of a Parent

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