FOREST HILLS HIGH SCHOOL

FOREST HILLS HIGH SCHOOL

So I wear my belt on the side and have since 1952 ( except for the two years in the Army when I wore my uniform). I played second base on our softball team in Junior High at a time when everyone wore garrison belts- those wide belts with big buckles. On bending down for a ground ball, the buckle stuck me painfully in my belly button and I let the ball go through my legs. From that moment on, my buckle was placed on my side. It still engenders quizzical looks from all sorts of people, from Governors to kids in our scholarship programs, as it did from my first sergeant in Germany when we were on the town.

If you can imagine, my graduation to Forest Hills High school was cause for me to feel quite unusual. At least at Stephen Halsey Junior High there were smaller and younger kids. In Forest Hills, there appeared to be none. The students there were mostly all older, even the ninth graders and certainly much bigger than me. I am not sure if I made a decision to change my behavior, or if it came to me normally. As I have said, my mouth has been an advantage to me throughout my life. My sotto voce comments in high school seemed to be appreciated by my classmates. I was even at the forefront of trying to drive my teachers out of their minds. I only succeeded with one of them.

Our homeroom teacher in my first year, was also the home economics instructor. We had homeroom in her lab- filled with clothing dummies, material, sewing machines and suchlike. In a flash of brilliance, I came up with the idea of dressing up one of the dummies in a dress with a hat and other froo froo things and placed it on the teacher’s desk prior to her arrival. When she
( I wish I could remember her name) came into the room, she started to scream at the figure on her desk. After a moment or two, she realized that it was a fake. She then turned her screaming at the class and actually frightened some of the students. It was not long after that our teacher kind of disappeared, not to be seen in the halls of Forest Hills High School again.

Classes at Forest Hills appealed to the bulk of the kids, middle and upper middle class, going on to great colleges, with aspirations to become doctors, lawyers, scientists, and engineers. Mostly, that was for the boys. The girls were pre- women’s lib and conformed to the time honored jobs for girls- nurses, teachers, technicians of all sorts, models and many housewives. Out of the 1,000 students we certainly had a number of boys who wanted to enter the theater, dance, set design and commercial art and girls who wanted to be physical education majors and models. However, the majority of my classmates conformed to the lay of the land.

Were there odd kids at Forest Hills? There certainly were. A few years my junior were Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Jerry Springer, Eugene Oravitz ( Michael Landon), Marty Ingels among others. They were preceded by Bob Keeshan ( Captain Kangaroo) and Burt Bacharach
( of music fame). We even had a budding mass murderer, a couple of comedians, and some shady financial whizzes. I guess some were involved in drugs even then, but no one seemed to know, at least in my circle of friends.

Everyone went to the corner of Continental Avenue and Queens Boulevard on Friday and Saturday nights to stand around and smoke and look cool for the girls. Yup, I had a D.A.( duck’s ass) and smoked Kool cigarettes ( started when I was thirteen). How wonderful to be that age- smoke, have a D.A. and roll up your t-shirt to show off your nonexistent muscles. Sometimes, the standing around even got you a girl to go to the movies with. Amazing what some popcorn could get you.

If it wasn’t the Midway Theatre or the Continental Theater on a Saturday night, then it was off to crash a wedding or bar mitzvah at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. My buddy, Rudy and I would dress up in our only suits and trundle up the stairs with all of the other guests. We sometimes pretended to be part of the group, but mostly people never asked us who we were. We kind of sidled up to the goodie tables and gorged ourselves on anything that we could find. There was always punch to wash things down.

If there were some girls there, we would ask them to dance ( I was great with the cha cha) and asked the girls all kinds of questions about themselves. They never seemed to be interested in us, nor asked us who we were and what part of the family we were from.

LAUREL MONTANE

I  got off the phone with Laurel Montane. We talked about our current lives and problems and how we knew each other. She did not remember me at all and I have a vivid image of her in my mind. I had just moved to Forest Hills on December 31, 1949. After the Christmas holidays, I was entered into Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School. It was a completely new thing for this eleven year old. I had just gotten out of hospital with polio. My mother had married this guy Charlie, whom I did not know and I was now in a public school with both boys and girls together in one place, even in the same room.
I had no idea about buying or eating lunch. I used to go home for lunch from Rabbi Jacob Joseph. My first view of the cafeteria was one of wonderment. I could get a tray, get food and then go and sit somewhere. That was a problem. Some of these people had come through elementary school with each other. Here I was coming in the middle of year, with nothing to recommend me. Laurel was sitting on one side of the cafeteria with her friends. She saw my confusion and came over to me and asked me to sit with her. She and her friends made me as comfortable as I could be in this new set of surroundings. Having dinner with her a year later with  my children and grandchildren in the Fat Tuna Restaurant in Bethany Beach did nothing to remind her of these happenings.
Something that means so much to one person is often meaningless to others. I have had that happen to me a number of times in my life. When teaching in a junior high school outside Philadelphia, I made a casual remark to a then 12 year old girl. 35 years later this woman reminded me of what I said and explained why she felt that way. I would never have conceived that when I asked her, “Janice, don’t you have a sense of humor,” that she would be saddened because her parents were just then divorcing.

Once past Laurel ( pronounced in the French manner) I found my way into the swing of junior high. The school was mostly populated by upper middle class Jewish kids and working class non-jews and ethnics and some working class Jews ( me). Forest Hills was nothing like the tenement living that had been my home since 1943. There were trees everywhere and Flushing Meadow Lakes ( site of the 1939 and later the 1964 World’s Fair), bright shiny movie theaters, non- jewish restaurants and even a nightclub called the Boulevard. It was all brand new and awash in unfamiliar colors and sounds. There were no more Hester St. peddlers and hallway smells of gefilte fish and chicken soup. This is what I later realized was the whitebread part of our culture.

As I had no experience with girls other than in Willard Parker Hospital when I had polio earlier in 1949. The whole sitting next to girls in class was a new experience. My own experiences with that gender was with my Grandmother, my mother and my older sister. These young ladies were nothing like them. Most of them wore white blouses with large skirts. A few wore sweaters which accentuated a part of the body that I had never really noticed before. The view was too fascinating to deny. There were two girls in my class who stood out from the rest. One was the diminutive Claire Greenberg and the other, and more buxom still was Simona Kupferman.

My experience with girls was so limited that I had no idea how to deal with them. They were constantly sending notes back and forth and writing things in something called a “slam book.” All of this was quietly going on while lessons were being taught, tests were given, experiments were performed and erasers were cleaned. There seemed to be no end the steady stream of communications ( a precursor of texting). There was even a paper flower that you could make that would open and close on differing words and offer some hint about who liked whom. Somehow I figured that none of the petals had my name on it. I was an unknowing eleven year old in a class with older women and older men. I was mostly two years younger than anyone in my class. My only chance for popularity came from my mouth.

I tell you that I have always been a wise guy (in the traditional sense). My ability to engage in “doing the dozens” formed a great part of my early life. I was quite good at it. It has kind of disappeared from white middle class society to be picked up by African American kids all across the country and was a precursor of Rap. In it’s infancy, please pardon the filth but it began with “ Eat Shit, the next said “Hop on the Spoon,” the other says, I can’t, your mother is in the way and so on. I can remember the final line as being “Pick your teeth.” That is what I was good at and it stood me in good stead with the boys in my classes and with some of the more mature girls.

MUSIC

MUSIC
As my wife kids me when she says that, “ Smells are a part of my life.” She is referring to my alleged keen sense of the olfactory. I am told that your memory of smells lasts well into senility. That comforts me. Carol also knows that music has been and continues to be the one constant in my life that has meaning to me on a daily basis. I still turn on the radio ( now satellite) and listen to the songs of my era- late 40’s and the first 10 years of Rock and Roll. As a 70 year old driving a big van, it must seem odd to passerbys that this old fellow is still singing There Goes My Baby at the top of his lungs and register.

It is not an accident that I still sing. My grandmother taught me all kinds of Yiddish songs- some pretty ribald as I learned later on. My mother sang well into her 80’s and my sister Renee sang on the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour. She still can sing in her late 70’s and does not find it unusual that I enter her home singing some sort of old tune that she can sing to. Our two children are also musical. Our son and daughter both sang in a show choir and did some travelling with the group.

Only one of us has really sung professionally- me. While I was in yeshiva, I was approached by a gentleman named Oscar Julius. To this day I have no idea how he knew who I was or how to find me. Someone at the school must have told him that I could sing. Mr. Julius had a professional choir that sang at weddings, bar mitzvahs and at high holy day services in Reformed temples. So, for some time when I was about 9 years old, I sat among a group of older men and sang Hebrew songs and once in a while, “Oh Promise Me,” at weddings. At one point, I followed the bride down the aisle singing that song.

I was taken to each of these venues by my sister. There was no other person to do it. I thank her to this day for her kindness. I got paid $60 for my efforts every three months or so and gave all of my money to my mother. I am not sure why all of this ended. Perhaps it was too much to drag me around to all of these places, sometimes as far away as New Jersey. Since we did not have a car, it took a long while to get to anywhere.

Sometime after my stint with the choir, my next door neighbors, the Hahns, informed me that there was a part for me in a Yiddish play that was being produced. Mrs. Hahn was the typical stage mother, working father, son who was musically talented and daughter who eventually became an actress in England. Son Herbie could not speak Yiddish, so the part was impossible for him.

The play was written and directed my Herman Yablakoff. He had been part of the Yiddish Theater Circuit and was preparing to take a troupe of players to all of the Displaced Persons Camps in Europe. I auditioned for him and became part of the troupe. At the first rehearsal, I sang one of his most famous songs, a tear jerker called Papirossen ( cigartettes). “ Please buy my cigarettes, dry and not wet from the rain, please buy from me. . . My father lost his hands in the war, my mother soon died from the problems, by beautiful sister fell ill and died in my arms, etc. As in so many Jewish plays, Traggegies (tragedies) were the most popular. The most popular of the plays were those translations of Shakespeare’s tragedies- Othello, MacBeth, Julius Caesar. “Now those were great Traggegies,” said my grandmother. I guess this was all part of the Jewish culture and theatre history.

The fly in the ointment of my budding Yiddish Theatre career was grandma. She had no idea that this play would take me away from home. Our first stop was going to be in Montreal to try out the play. She would hear nothing of it. And like my sister going to Brandeis a number of years later, we should not go away from home. Her fierce and stolid position of these sorts never stimulated a response from any of us. We were beholden to grandma for our very existence and we would never buck her. So, my singing of Yiddish songs was restricted to my home and my grandma’s smiles as I sang Romania, Romania.

My career in music was halted during the next 12 years and sprang full born into a chance for a rock and roll career in 1959. Some acquaintances of my mother heard me sing at the luncheonette that she worked at 35th and 7th avenue in New York City. I had been hired there as a runner to take orders up to workers in the garment industry in the many buildings that surrounded us. The owners of the luncheonette were somehow involved in the music business as a sideline. I was said to be a vocal carbon copy of Gene Pitney. I practiced “Every Little Breath I Take,” on a daily basis. My career ended with an attempt at a record which went nowhere. I have never regretted that I did not continue that career. My life, so far, has been much more interesting.

THE LIBRARY CARD AND MARY POPPINS

GAMES AND THE LIBRARY

Great times in my youth were punctuated by playing games and going to the library. Renee took me to the library before my 5th birthday and conned the librarian into giving me a library card. From them on I was able to take out four books at a time. My favorites were the Mary Poppins stories. My imagination soared on high as Mary flew into homes via her umbrella. Her feats fascinated me to the point that I thought she was a real person. There was something about her that was so different from my own surroundings that I was somehow transported into a world populated with superheroes and strange lands and animals.

The characters in these books and others were so different from my Yeshiva Yiddish readings and less adult than some of the other adult type literature in the English part of my day. I guess Mary Poppins lived in a non-Jewish world that I knew nothing of. She was British, mannerly and born to serve the upper classes. This amazed me. She also did everything with a flair, whimsy, and a kind of bossiness that did not seem to offend most people. She could accomplish magical things with ease. She was even better than Green Lantern, Hawkman or Captain Marvel. She had powers, but she was not outlandish or spectacular. She was so very different and captivating.

My school day never really ended with classes. They ended with long sessions in the street playing marbles, or rather gambling with marbles. You placed a marble near the curb of a street and offered 5 marbles to anyone who could role his marble and hit yours. If you were a real entrepreneur you carved a few holes in a wooden cheese box and offered 25 marbles to anyone who could role them in. With the proper set up, you could win hundreds of marbles, or lose hundreds of marbles. If you really were a champion, you could win puries ( marbles with no blemishes and perfectly clear), which were worth 5 and sometimes 10 marbles.
To this day, I am sure that neither my mother, grandmother and sister knew that I spent extra time after school winning and losing marbles.
I would sometime come home an hour later than I should with some cockamamie
( decalcomania) story of how I had lost my coat, learned of the person who took it, went to their house and recovered my coat. They took it in so sweetly and never punished me. If I needed more marbles, I would take some of my pennies from God and use them to create a stash for myself. I guess over the long haul, I broke even. Somehow, the use of the pennies did not offend God, nor did I repay him/her until very much later in life.
Someone in my family, probably sister Renee thought that I needed some more organization in my life. Somewhere about age 7 or 8 I was escorted to a community center to meet with something called the Cub Scouts. Since it was not a Jewish organization, I was really not familiar with it. I had not heard about it in school or at home. I ventured forth into the room to be greeted by a young man of about 20 or so and a group of kids about my age or older, none of whom I had ever met. They were doing something with glossy leather strips and were making a lanyard ( a word I was not familiar with). The 20 year old sat me down with the other boys and gave me the materials to make this lanyard. I was not very good at it, especially since I had received no instructions.

Many of the other boys completed their tasks and showed them to the 20 year old. I was never told his name. They put their lanyards around their necks and wore them proudly. I was unable to get more than a few of the first stitches done when panic overtook me. I was never going to finish this task. That is the way it went for the next few weeks. How did I know that I was about two years younger than any of the other boys. What they did was not interesting at all. These things with making fire by rubbing two stones together seemed irrelevant to me- how about some Diamond matches. Outdoor things where there were no balls to play with, or organized games seemed not to be kid friendly. I was really out of my element.

In a room down the hallway a group of girls, called Brownies sat in a circle doing all kinds of girl things. They seemed to be having a great time talking about movies that they had seen, singing songs, some of which I knew, and generally not paying attention to the outside world. They were my kind of people. The boys were serious about their projects, made even more so by the 20 year old. The girls seemed to be an entity by themselves not paying any attention to their leader, whoever that was.
The girls were much more interesting, maybe because of my age, or the lack of girls in my all boys school. They were really different. Even their vocabulary spoke of a different set of interests. I was drawn to them. One evening, I stopped by their room and watched them for a while. One of the girls, probably about 10 years old as I think about it, saw me and invited me in. I looked around skeptically and walked through the door. They were doing some sort of project that involved putting things together in order. I cannot remember if it was wooden sticks, or making marionettes, or playing a game. I was invited to participate and participate I did. I made no attempt to go to the Cub Scouts and spent the rest of the evening with the girls. It was the last time that I went to these meetings. I am not sure what happened. I have a feeling that someone peached on me and I was asked not to return.

Funny thing is, that was not the last time that I chose to be with girls. I was raised by women- my grandmother, mother and older sister and women things were familiar to me. Fortunately, my wife of 46 years has gotten me out of some of my bizarre habits of snapping the elastic on bras when she goes into the lingerie fitting room, for that is what I did when I went shopping with my mom and sister. In junior high school, when we had social dancing, I was always the first boy to go over and ask a girl to dance, while my confreres cowered on the other side of the gym. When I got older and in charge, female staff members would always tell me that I had a soft approach to women. Maybe so, I credit my family for all of that.

SOME TALK OF MOM AND HER LIFE

Mom was really something. I am not sure that I mean it in a complimentary way. She was an original, one of a kind, an individual with no peer. She was also less than truthful, friendless, myopic, laughter filled, having a penchant for wrong choices and a fierce defender of her children and grandchildren. I would say a defender of her family, but that would not be true. She had very little expressed love for her own siblings, mother and father, cousins, nieces and nephews and in-laws. In fact, she made sport of her brother in law, her brother, his wife, their children and many others.
However, if one said just one slightly off center remark about me or my sisters Renee and Sheryl Ann, she would pounce and the perpetrator would really be sorry. She also had very little hold on reality. That was her most endearing quality. How could you defend a point when the person arguing with you did not believe that the world was round or that a building super was a better job than a school superintendent, or that having friends that you rely on was a terrible weakness. Who needs strangers, when you have have your family? That was the world, flat as it was, according to Sonia Bernstein, Rubin, Hillman.

Born around 1910 in Rushnoi ( Ruzhany today since all of the Jews were gotten rid of) on either November 1 or July 1, champion blueberry picker, singer, pianist (sister Ruthie got the lessons, but I played by ear), entrepreneur, waitress and moral hyperbolist, Sonia was an exceptional person. I must clarify all of my words because you might misinterpret my meaning. Exceptional in this case means unusual. Mom did some amazing things in her life that led her to a particularly difficult end, with many bumps and bruises along the way. Despite her miscalculations about her relationships, money, and other things, she still has engendered fierce loyalty in her chidren and grandchildren. It is not a reverence, because Sonia could never inspire that, but recognition that mommy did more for us than she ever did for herself.

She tolerated her own mother and father for us, she married a second time for us, so that we could have a father. She slaved as a waitress for those many years and kept hidden the mistake she made when she became pregnant out of wedlock in 1947 and gave birth to brother Howard in 1948. We did not know about Howard until 1977.

Sonia Bernstein left third grade and went to work at a shirt factory. Grandpa was either a coal broker or a paint mixer by that time. He had saved up $1,500 from 1912 to 1921 to bring his family over to this country from Roshnoi. There was little money for the Bernsteins to spend on frivolous items. Only Ruthie, the youngest, was able to take piano lessons. Ida the eldest was already out working and Morris, a bit younger than mom, was still too young to work.
Those were still days of child labor and piece work. Of course, my mother was the champion of all champion sewers in the factory. She would outwork and outproduce everyone there, so we were told. So add that to the blueberry picking and you had an Olympic athlete living in your house.

She married Murray Rubin when she was twenty ( never got an accurate reading on her age) in 1929 By 1931, Renee was born and mom was pretty much a stay at home mother. Dad never wanted her to work and she did not during their marriage. Murray had graduated from high school and was a reasonably nice looking guy ( as seen in wedding pictures). He tried to get mom to read newspapers and see what was going on. Her retort was, “ If you wanted to marry someone smart, you should have married someone else.”

If this incident is consistent with dad’s behavior, then I can see why mom was never a happy person. One morning ( it could have been a Sunday), mom told Renee to take me down to the pool hall and get dad and bring him home. I can remember the walk and the entrance into the pool hall. It was smoky and dark. I could not see anything beyond the tables, large monstrous things ( at least to a three year old). They had holes at the four corners and two in each of the long sides. There were leather straps attached to these holes in which colored balls descended.
Renee found dad at some far table and told him that mom wanted him home immediately. He said he would be there shortly. I cannot remember anything beyond that. Years later, I would come to understand that mom wanted him home because the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

Our lives changed dramatically when we moved in with grandma and grandpa. It was not our home and grandma ruled supreme. Mom went out to work at the Mayflower Donut Shop on 46th St. and Broadway. She worked there from 1943 to September of 1947. It was probably the happiest days of her life. She made some good tips (we counted the change mostly every day), met some very famous people, went out on the town to all of the great joints and was certain that things were being taken care of by grandma. Her pregnancy in 1947 and 1948 changed her forever. Mom could never tell grandma about her problem. That was not the way it was in 1947. Grandma would have chucked us out on our ears. From that time on, she was never a carefree person again- no trips to the beauty parlor, nor to Macy’s to buy clothes, eat at fancy restaurants for her or for us. It was a new world to face in 1949 and a new child in 1950.