Photo by Wally Gobetz
In 1971, when I was 11 years old, my world was turned upside down when my parents decided to send me to a Jewish Day School on the Lower East Side.
From grades 1 to 5, I’d gone to the Downtown Community School, or DCS as it was called, on East 11th Street. It was a small, racially integrated school of about 200 students that had opened in 1944. Today, I guess it would be called progressive. There were field trips to a newspaper printing plant and Fink’s bread factory, and visits to city museums. Folklore was a big part of the curriculum. Pete Seeger, who at one point had been a music teacher at the school, would sometimes visit and sing and play his banjo. Learning the traditional dances of different ethnic groups took up a lot of time. On special occasions an American Indian named Chief Red Thunder Cloud would show up in full regalia, including feathered headdress, buckskin, bells, and moccasins, and dance, sing and chant in his native Catawba language. Many years after his death, it was revealed that Chief Red Thunder Cloud wasn’t an Indian at all, but was actually an African-American named Cromwell West who spent much of his life as an imposter. Whatever language he was singing, it probably wasn’t Catawba. But he had us and our teachers convinced.
Although the school charged a modest tuition, most of the DCS families didn’t have much money. The kids’ parents were artists, musicians, teachers and social workers. By the time I was a student there, the tumult of the late 60s was in the air. Our fifth grade music teacher had our class singing songs from the musical Hair. My best friend at school was a high-spirited kid named Pavel. His dad, the jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, had played with Coltrane and was already renowned for being in the forefront of the avante garde Afrocentric 60s jazz scene. The Shepp family lived in a Bowery walkup, and one of my earliest memories is sleeping over at their apartment and hearing the solitary saxophone of Pavel’s dad wailing and yelping for hours on end. Sometimes he’d practice in a small, dark room illuminated by a red light bulb. The saxophone’s squeaks and moans would wake us in the morning.
Along with a group of friends, I spent all my free time at the P.S. 63 schoolyard on East 3rd Street between Avenue A and 1st Avenue playing football, stickball, and basketball. Pavel and I had both attended 63 in kindergarten before our parents had moved us to the gentle cocoon of DCS. The neighborhood was getting rougher, and we’d often get smacked around and bullied by bigger kids. Not having older brothers, both of us were inviting targets for teenagers. We learned not to bring our own spaldeen or basketball to the schoolyard because when we did it would be immediately stolen. When on my tenth birthday, Pavel decided for our little gang that we were not going to surrender the playing field to a bunch of older kids who had told us to get lost, we all received a serious beating. Nevertheless, over the years, we had a lot of fun playing ball, and the knowledge that DCS was a tender and safe place balanced the exhilarating and sometimes terrifying moments we had in the schoolyard.
But at the end of my 5th grade year, my father informed me I would be attending a new school in the fall. In spite of its enlightened ideas about learning, it seemed that DCS was deficient in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. Or so I was told. My father also said he could no longer bear listening to the songs from Hair which had been belted out by a collection of 5th graders at successive school recitals.
I was told that starting in 6th grade I would be attending the East Side Hebrew Institute which was located on East 8th Street on the northeast corner of Avenue B. It seemed peculiar to me because my mother wasn’t Jewish. Perhaps my father, who had grown up in a Yiddish speaking household, felt guilty about having completely abandoned his faith and was seeking to make amends through his oldest son. The neighborhood public schools were awful, so it may have been that he saw an Orthodox yeshiva on Avenue B as the only decent option if we wanted to stay in the neighborhood. My mother, as was the case with most family decisions, deferred to his judgment.
My father met with Rabbi Raiskin, who ran the school, and he gave his blessing to the arrangement. That summer I began being tutored by the Rabbi, getting a crash course in learning to read and write Hebrew. My future classmates had all been receiving three hours of daily Hebrew instruction for several years, so I had some catching up to do. It was like learning a secret code and, Rabbi Raiskin, a balding and overweight man with a twinkle in his eyes, was an excellent teacher. He had charisma and an easy self-confidence.
While DCS was northwest of my apartment, located on a sedate block across from the street from the cemetery of St. Marks Church, ESHI was east of my home. The two schools’ were less than a half a mile apart but, in the distance of a few city blocks, the changes were enormous.
Dressed in a white button down white shirt and tie, a strange uniform for me, I’d walk north up cobblestone-paved Avenue A, starting at 3rd Street, to get to my new school. In a storefront space in my building, I’d pass Club LaWeela whose red-faced men would often already be playing cards out front, even early in the morning. On the other side of the street was Lichtenberg’s Furniture, its dirty windows showcasing sofas wrapped in plastic accompanied by a sign that read “Good Taste Is Timeless.” On the southeast corner of 4th Street there was Klinghoffer’s hardware store whose owner Leon Klinghoffer would years later, while vacationing on the Achilles Lauro cruise ship, be murdered by PLO terrorists and thrown overboard into the Mediterranean. The Klinghoffer space would later become a Key Food. On the next bock, between 4th and 5th, there was a toy store (where I’d once won a raffle for a GI Joe), a kosher butcher and Rothman’s pharmacy. On the west side of the following block were two baby furniture stores and the Italian American Veterans Club. On the northwest corner of 7th and Avenue A was a cheap Ukrainian restaurant called Leshkos where I’d sometimes go for pirogis or blintzes, but never the stuffed cabbage. There were little stores on the side street selling eggs, fruit and vegetables, and there were several butchers shops. Many of the merchants were elderly Jews who had spent their entire lives in the area. Several of them lived in my apartment building. It was a neighborhood.
One block east things weren’t going well. The safest route to school was to stay on Avenue A as long as possible. The streets of Avenue B, which only a few years earlier had seemed as solid and stable as Avenue A, were now marked by boarded up buildings. Open-air heroin street markets had sprung up on several corners. The screams of fire engines were the soundtrack to burning buildings. So it was without question better for a skinny 11-year old boy dressed in a white button-down shirt and tie to walk up Avenue A to get to the East Side Hebrew Institute.
I’d get to 7th Street and then walk east. Tompkins Square Park ran alongside the street. It was a good idea to avoid the park. 7th Street was fine, except for the dog shit that covered the block. It seemed everyone in the neighborhood who owned a dog chose to walk it alongside the park on 7th Street. Unless you paid very close attention, it was hard to avoid stepping in what they left behind. Many days that first year I’d arrive at school and head straight to the bathroom. This humiliating situation could have been avoided if I’d walked up Avenue B. But sometimes having shit on your shoe is better than the alternative.
Every morning the Rabbi would be in front of the school shepherding his children safely inside. The ESHI building had originally been a lodging house for homeless boys—many of them newsies and bootblacks. It was an impressive edifice that featured chimneys, dormers and pyramid cones jutting out from the mansard roof. On the south side of the street was St. Brigid’s Church, which included a Catholic school. The two institutions, standing across the corner from each other, helped stave off much of the decay that had set in on the surrounding blocks.
Our 6th grade class engaged in daily morning prayers and when the school year started, I found myself mumbling incantations that I didn’t understand. Prayer book in hand, I would peek over at classmates for cues on when to genuflect and bob my head back and forth in praise of the almighty. I quickly figured out how to fake it. The cry of Shma Yisrael replaced the Age of Aquarius. Fitting in at my new school took a few months, but I was adaptable. I learned the card games that dominated the lunch hour and mimicked the speech inflections peculiar to working-class Jewish New Yorkers. Declarative statements and observations would not uncommonly end up sounding like a question. Nobody had much money The dad of one kid whom I became friends with was a butcher; the father of another drove a cab; a third was a truck driver for The Daily News; and a fourth had a coat store on Orchard Street. And there were other children whose parents, due to one unfortunate circumstance or another, were out of work.
Meanwhile Downtown Community School had suddenly gone belly-up. And not only had the school closed, but my friends who had gone there had scattered far and wide. Pavel’s dad landed a job at the University of Massachusetts, so he moved up to Amherst. The parents of my friend Wynn joined the Peace Corps, and he headed off to Sierra Leone. A third kid I hung out with had moved to New Jersey, which might as well have been Sierra Leone as far as I was concerned. Another moved to Europe. A lot of people were fleeing New York. And it seemed to me as if almost all traces of the last five years had suddenly vanished.
The teachers at ESHI were a mixed lot. Some were good and several, especially the disinterested Israeli Hebrew teachers, were dreadful. Rabbi Raiskin was the star. When he entered the school’s packed auditorium each morning, all the tumult and noise immediately ceased. An expectant silence, a mixture of fear and adoration, enveloped the room as we awaited his instruction. From time-to-time, he’d visit different classes and teach for an hour or so, and when he did the energy in the room would pick up. He enjoyed parsing the text of whatever we were studying and asking what this or that word might meant in a particular context. He also had all the 6th graders reading the New York Times every day. Not only would he discuss the articles with us, but he’d have us examine the advertisements and discuss their effectiveness. He also taught us the important skill of how to properly fold a newspaper when riding on a crowded subway train.
In January, four months after I began going to ESHI, two rookie cops, one black and the other white, were murdered about 500 yards north of the school on Avenue B and 11th Street. They were ambushed, shot several time from behind, by members of a group calling itself the Black Liberation Army. Three years later two other police officers approaching a double-parked car at Avenue B and 5th Street were shot and killed. There was plenty of other mayhem and desperation on the Avenue, but inside the school we were only dimly aware of what was happening outside. And to the extent that we did know about things, whatever was going on was taken as normal. We were kids and this was all we knew. The grown-ups may have seen thing differently. Once, just after school had let out, I overheard two teachers in front of the building talking about how the neighborhood was going “downhill,” and wondering about what would happen to ESHI when Rabbi Raiskin, who had been the school’s principal for over 20 years, retired
Mainly, we were caught up in the day-to-day of school life–glee club, math tests, school plays, Hebrew classes and visits to the 14th Street Y for our gym class. For a kid in junior high living on Avenue A, it was about as gentle a place as one could imagine. Twice that first year at ESHI, on my walk home from school, I walked past dead bodies, just feet sticking out under a white sheet, being watched over by police officers awaiting an ambulance. But inside the building that all seemed a world away.
It wouldn’t be correct to say the street never encroached on school life. Rabbi Raiskin once gave a lengthy disquisition to an auditorium full of children on why we shouldn’t smoke marijuana. As I recall, his argument was that it was illegal and that as citizens of the United States we should abide by its laws. It wasn’t one of his most persuasive lectures. On another occasion, he shocked us by in no uncertain terms telling us to stick up for ourselves if anyone on the red bus, which was the color of the buses that ran up and down Avenue B, called us a dirty Jew. And in the 8th grade, my final year at the school, I recall neighborhood kids, on muggy days when the windows were opened wide, climbing up on the grating covering our first floor classroom windows and screaming insults at us, and some of the tougher kids in the class returning their invective in kind.
October 1, 1972. It is the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah which celebrates the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah and for some reason I am sitting in a back pew of ESHI’s second floor synagogue. Sun is shining in through the arched stained-glass windows, reminding me that I could be outside. Why am I here when I could be playing basketball in the schoolyard with the Velazquez brothers who live in my building and have given me entrée to the court where the high school kids play? What I am doing surrounded by old men when I could be throwing a football with my friends in a street game of two-hand touch where 3rd Avenue meets the Bowery just south of Cooper Union? Why am I trying to follow the recitation of Hebrew prayers, which are being read twice as fast as I can follow them, when instead I could walk over to Washington Square Park with my brother to check out the chess players, drug dealers and musicians? Why am I joining in as these men repeatedly praise God, excessively it seems to me, when I could be lying in my room listening to the radio and contemplating the spectacular beauty of two or three eighth grade girls who have grabbed my attention during the last month. Why am I in this building at all? I guess because Rabbi Raiskin asked me to be here and perhaps because I have some curiosity about what goes on in this building on the weekend.
After what seems to be a very long time, someone takes the Torah out of the ark and parades it around the synagogue. He is followed by the congregants. Everyone is moving now. This is certainly preferable to sitting and listening as the prayers drone on. Around and around they circle the room, and eventually everyone heads downstairs and out onto the street.
A middle-aged man on the corner is holding the Torah in his arms, surrounded by people dancing and singing. Then Rabbi Raiskin sees me and walks up to the man. He takes the Torah from him and hands it me, and points for me to walk south on 8th Street toward Avenue C. Down the block, kids from the neighborhood are setting off loud fireworks. I walk halfway down the block engulfed by a small group, maybe twenty people, of worshippers. I’m halfway down the block and unexpectedly I feel my eyes are wet and that my heart’s pounding wildly. This isn’t some stirring of devotion or a religious awakening. It is something else. Walking down the street, what I suddenly know in my 12-year-old bones is that this school on this block isn’t going to be here much longer. You wake up one morning and what you had is gone, leaving fragments of memory and emotion.
Across the street, there’s a loud explosion. Someone’s setting off an M-80. As the boom reverberates, I see Rabbi Raiskin, a small smile on his lips, making a circular motion with his index finger indicating that I should turn around. Holding the Torah tightly to my chest, I head back towards Avenue B.
Jacob Margolies is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York.