Maury Z. Levy

Posts Tagged ‘northeast philadelphia’

My Life as a Jew: A Trilogy (in Three Parts)

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm


By Maury Z. Levy

The first time I almost died was March 23rd, 1959, the day I put on tefillin. I came of age in an old white house on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, where boys were bar mitzvahed and girls were frowned upon.

“My god,” said the rabbi,” with a look on his face as if the Red Sea had just closed back up. “You can’t put on tefillin that tight. You’ll cut off the blood supply to your brain.” It wouldn’t be the last time someone would tell me that.

I was mortified. All the other boys looked at me with disdain. This is what happens, they thought, when you grow up on the gentile side of the Boulevard. My face was red, but my arm was as white as my yarmulke.

Each Sunday, for the two months prior to our right of passage, we would meet in the back of the sanctuary, sitting on folding bridge chairs, at shaky aluminum tables, eating bagels that were rubbery and cream cheese that was watery, learning the faith of our fathers.

It was the first time in my young life that I had eaten lox outside the home. In our house, lox was a delicacy, purchased only when company came, eaten only at times of celebration or sympathy. I knew full well that, if I could live through the rigors of tefillin club, we would soon be serving celebration lox, as I would become the first boy in my immediate family to become a man.

The rabbi didn’t seem to share my epicurean joy. “No, no,” he said, “holding my head in his hands. “You’re not supposed to wear it like a baseball cap. The tefillin must always be positioned in the spot that begins at your hairline, above your forehead. Now move it down below that pompadour.”

I was worried and confused. Would the rabbi notice that I had gotten some Wildroot cream oil on the back of my box?

“And your arm is all wrong,” the rabbi said, “the lowest point for tefillin begins where your biceps muscle starts to bulge. The tefillin must never pass below this point!”

Oy, how was I ever going to read from the torah if I couldn’t get some simple straps straight?

“This tefillin is too big for you,” the rabbi said, “that’s part of your problem. Where did you get tefillin so big?”

For what seemed like an hour and a half, I sat in silence. My grandfather had given me these tefillin. They had been his. He was so proud to see me have them. He said a special blessing over the blue velvet bag before he handed it to me. My grandfather was an Orthodox man. These tefillin meant the world to him.

“Who is picking you up today?” the rabbi demanded.

“My father is, rabbi,” I said with a whimper.

“You tell your father I want to see him,” the rabbi said.” With that, he walked away.

I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t eat another bite of bagel. What if the rabbi made an example of me? What if he told my father that I couldn’t be bar mitzvahed because I couldn’t put on tefillin right? I looked at the big clock on the bema wall. My father would be here in less than ten minutes. I had to do something quickly.

With the courage of the damned, I got up from my bridge chair and walked to the front of the shull. I had to find the rabbi. He had to give me a break. As I approached the bema, I smelled something strange. It smelled like my Aunt Anna when she was nervous. It smelled like smoke. And so it was. When I got to the back of the bema, there was the rabbi, dragging on a Lucky Strike.

Quickly, my jaw dropped. You weren’t allowed to smoke in shull.

“What are you doing here?” the rabbi said, as he tried to cuff the butt in his hand. I couldn’t speak. The words just didn’t come. I had caught the rabbi committing a sin. What would Moses do?    Read the rest of this entry »

And On the Seventh Day, When the Lord Rested, Man Made The Northeast

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980) on September 10, 2009 at 8:21 pm

By Maury Z. Levy

ALL THAT I REMEMBER about entering heaven is that it was raining like hell. They let me ride up in the truck with the moving men. It was like those great cowboy movies I used to see all the time at the Jackson theater, which we lived next to, three stories up on top of the drugstore where we shared an apartment with a family of rats.

Now we were the pioneers. The moving truck was our stagecoach, sloshing through the streets that weren’t paved yet into the wilderness of the new frontier of Northeast Philadelphia, a place where the homesteads were so big that you didn’t have to go to a park to see grass, you had it all around you, over nine thousand bucks worth of grass and bricks and status. That was a big deal back in 1949. For my parents, it was almost their life’s savings for the down payment after almost 20 years of stuffing dollar bills in the cookie jar. Now they were capitalists, blowing their whole wad. They followed the moving van up to the promised land in a Yellow Cab.

“This will be good for the grass,” my father said, looking out through the thunder and rain like a new farmer surveying his first crop. My mother, who had never seen rain like this in South Philadelphia, was a little more sus­picious that this was a warning, the wrath of God telling us to stay off His turf.

The pavements weren’t laid yet, so my father, knee deep in the big muddy, had to carry me on his shoulders all the way up to the door. I never saw him move so fast.

The rains left us in a sea of madness for days. My mother was sure that our whole block was going to float down Robbins Avenue into the Delaware. When the sun finally came out, it took almost a week to dry things up. There was a new development just starting up across the Boulevard, my mother said. Maybe God had taken the rain there.

It was at the end of this week of innocence and light that my mother called to me from downstairs to go look out the front bedroom window to see what the workmen were doing. I just could not understand what I was seeing, these two men with what looked like a big roll of carpet starting at the corner and laying this two-foot-wide strip of green next to the curb all the way down the block.

“What are they doing?” I asked.

“They’re putting in the grass,” my mother said. “It’s already planted on the roll. All they have to do is lay it in place. It’s something new. I think they call it pre­fabricated.”

It was the first time it hit me, fool that I was, thinking grass was something that grew in the ground. There, in the yellow haze of a land I did not understand, I saw two men in work clothes putting Mother Nature on the run, rolling out the green carpet up to the plastic gates of a mass-produced heaven. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized this was what Northeast Philadelphia was all about.

BUT THEN THINGS HAVE CHANGED a lot in 21 years. The grass is growing by itself now, and the roses bloom every year, and that twig we planted in the backyard way back when has grown into a monster of a spreading apple tree. A couple weeks ago, a gang of punks from around the corner jumped the fence and nearly bared the tree of its fruit. My father went out to yell at them and they pelted him with apples. The ones that missed him splattered all over the garage.   Read the rest of this entry »

Here’s Looking at You

In SJ Magazine on September 1, 2009 at 4:26 pm

mauryWe always had supper at six. And we called it supper. Dinner was something you went out to. When the money was good, when my father worked seven days a week instead of just six, we would go to the Horn & Hardart.

“You get anything you want,” my father would tell me. My eyes would open like a lightning bug in a jar. I would order steak, Salisbury steak with thick brown gravy, and peas and mashed potatoes. If I had enough room, and my father had enough money left, I would finish with rice pudding. The Horn & Hardart rice pudding was creamy and rich, with raisins as plump as tapioca balls.

When we got home, my father would do what all fathers did after a good meal. He would sit in his club chair, put his feet up on the ottoman, and unbutton his pants. Now this was living. Often, as all fathers did, he would call to my mother, “Rosie, get me a Schlitz.” My father was always a Schlitz man. Sure, when company came, he’d lay in a six-pack of Miller High Life. But the Schlitz went so much better with his El Producto Blunts.

I did most of my growing up in a time and a neighborhood where men drank. Not some sissy cocktail like martinis. A working man had a two-choice drink list. You had a shot or you had a beer. Sometimes both.

I grew up in a neighborhood that had a taproom on almost every corner. We never called them bars. They were places where you could get a cold one from the tap and a more than generous fill of a shot glass. They were places where men went to forget and women went in the back door.

This time of year, as we played in the street until you couldn’t see the wire for wireball, we would watch our fathers come home. Many arrived in time for dinner. Then there were the men who came late. Billy Flanagan’s father never made it home in time. As the darkness crept, we would see him stumbling down the street, the brim of his hat pulled down over his eyes. His nose – red and bright and bulbous – would light the night.

Drinking wasn’t the answer, but it sure helped with the questions. As I grew up, I drank in moderation. Beer at the beginning. Then I worked my way to wine. Boone’s Farm Apple wine, now there was good drinking. There’s a study that just came out. I don’t know if you saw it. It says that, compared to their grandparents, young people in New Jersey today start drinking alcohol at an earlier age and are about ten times more likely to have used illegal drugs.

The survey says that 43 percent of 13- and 14-year olds now drink in some form. And 61 percent of young people have used illegal drugs. It would be easy to blame this all on advertising. All those beer commercials with people having the times of their lives.

The thing of it is, kids do what kids see. They don’t need messages from commercials. If they see their parents or grandparents drinking, that’s message enough. If they hear old war stories about how a little pot never hurt anyone, how could you blame them for experimenting? This isn’t about Madison Avenue. This is about Carlton Avenue and King’s Highway. This is about what happens at your dinner table. This is about making sure there is a family dinner table. As a parent, you have a pretty simple choice. You can act as a role model. Or you can answer the phone when the cops call.

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