Maury Z. Levy

Posts Tagged ‘oxford circle’

The Magic Bus: All Aboard The Oxford Circle Shuttle

In Philadelphia Magazine (1970-1980), Uncategorized on June 14, 2012 at 11:44 am

By Maury Z. Levy

IT WAS RAINING NOW. It was Monday morning and the thick gray air was chilly and damp and it was raining now. The skies had been holding it in for a week and now they had 
burst open to soak the streets and break the promise of 
an early summer. People walked along quickly under black umbrellas with their collars up and their faces down and 
automobiles with snow tires still on made a whirring sound as they moved up Susquehanna Avenue, heading 
for the Mansion and the Park, never stopping.

For a week, it had been summer again. For a week, the 
kids with bandanas around their heads roamed the streets in shirtsleeves, while men stood together on corners and 
drank the contents of brown paper bags and women in 
housedresses pushed strollers up and down 17th Street looking for bargains.

For a week, the desperation of North Philadelphia was no longer quiet. For one great week of Indian spring North Philadelphia was alive and ticking with anticipation of the warmth ahead and some memories of some heat behind.

But the Monday morning rain put things back to normal. It was trash day and the beginning of another week.

The flat-red pushcart of the 15th Street Junk Shop 
made its way up French Street toward 17th. The man behind it was old and black and he was wearing a dark 
plastic raincoat with the hood up over his head and the drawstring knotted around his chin so that all that could 
be seen were the slits of eyes that stalked the curbside cans for salvage.

He pushed his way between the cars parked on one  side of the narrow street of ancient brownstones. It was the side of the street with the signs that read “NO PARKING 
MONDAY 7 AM TO 7 PM-PARK OTHER SIDE.” It was 7:20 
a.m. and French Street was asleep.

Bucking traffic, he turned right on 17th and pushed past 
the cozy old James L. Claghorn Elementary School. The rain made the gray 84-year-old building wetgray.

Claghorn takes up less than a third of the block. It is 
surrounded by a big black iron fence that comes to within a few feet of the tiny building. Pressing against one side 
of the fence—in what is supposed to be a schoolyard—is a black iron pole that holds a slightly bent basketball 
backboard. There isn’t even enough room in the yard for a half-court game and even less room to hang the blame, because back in 1884 outdoor sports were not exactly national pastimes.

Claghorn sticks out—an ancient school in a procession of old stores. The building was supposed to be torn down 
back in 1944, when it had reached its 60th birthday, but 
that was a war year and people had more important 
things to do than break up little old schools. Somehow it 
never got back on the demolition list and so for the past 
24 years Claghorn has been living on borrowed time.

Across the street from Claghorn is a luncheonette, the 
hub of what little activity there is at 7:30 on a Monday 
morning. There is a bus stop on the corner there and a 
handful of people were huddled in the doorway of the 
luncheonette to avoid the downpour and wait for their 
bus.

It was 7:40 now and the bus hadn’t come yet and the 
doorway was filled to capacity. As they craned their necks 
to watch for the bus, none of the people in the doorway 
seemed to take notice of the scattering of kids who 
made their way down 17th Street toward Claghorn, 
soggy brown lunch bags firmly in hand. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

ON SUNDAY, THE RABBI LIT UP

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 »

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