THE CHEESEBOX

The sky walks into late afternoon with its shadows and threats. School has just disgorged its boy children onto the pale Henry Street. Most of boys, carrying their briefcases, hustle off into the trails leading to their homes. They are not interested in the small cluster of boys sitting on the curb waiting to begin their games and their gambling.

There are not boys above 6th grade. That was the way it worked at Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva. When 5:30 came the rapid movement of small humanity intensified as it hit the streets. The small group waiting for the last of the students look up to find no one else there.

The group is made up of the haves and the have nots. The haves had accumulated bags of marbles, while the have nots were ready to gamble for those high stakes. The game was simple. A white chalk line was drawn about 5 feet from the curve. Those who were the gamblers rolled their marbles toward the curb and attempted to hit a marble placed there by the have nots. This was not a one for one trade. If you hit the marble, you then got five or even ten marbles, depending on what the have nots called out. The difficulty of the shot\ was determined by the cracks in the street. The more cracks leading up to the stationary marble the more it was worth.

The greatest of the curb sitters had a special item that attracted the more serious gamblers. For those who have never seen a cheesebox, go onto ebay and look it up. There they are for bid and sale. They are approximately 9 inches by 2.75 inches. Since youngsters at that time did not have access to power tools, they carved three holes in the wooden face of the box with a serrated knife, or pocket knife.

The holes were of three different sizes. For each size there was a suitable reward. The prizes were 10, 15 and 25 marbles if you could roll it in. It was rare for anyone to get it in any of the holes. I did see a few kids roll it in and win, but not very many. However, the lure of the cheesebox brought out kid’s character. There was either winning or losing. You could tell at that point who the compulsive gamblers would be in the future.

The games lasted only till dark in the winter. Although there were those intrepid players who used the streetlamps to guide their marbles. I cannot remember how long, in terms of years, the marble crowd was around. However, I do know that they were replaced by the card flippers.

I CAN’T BREATHE

I was the first human relations coordinator in the U.S. I got that job when I worked in Bristol Township Schools. I had been the English department chairman in one of the junior high schools when all kinds of racial problems began. Somehow, the principal thought it would be a good idea to free me and two other teachers to work with the students. I started an intergroup council and went on from there.

In the spring of 1969 a federal grant allowed me to work independently as the human relations coordinator. I was assigned to work mostly in the secondary schools, but actually worked mostly in the community. I spent many hours in the afternoon and the evening working with students in their communities, parents, community leaders and some legislators.

Somehow, I don’t remember why it was that I had not fear of anything happening to me. I was simply too stupid and involved in my job to take notice of what was happening. One evening there was a meeting of community leaders, both black and white at the township building. I was there representing the schools. For some reason, the administrators thought that it was my job alone to face all of these folks.

At this meeting, people asked me what was going on in the schools. I was forthright with my remarks and even mentioned some of the kids who were causing trouble. At the mention of one of the student’s names, a very large man ( the student’s father and local big wig), rushed over to where I was sitting and placed both of his hands around my neck and began squeezing. I croaked out that I could not breathe. It took three or four men to pull him off me. It was the first clue that I was an idiot and should not have been that open about what was going on.

I was not aware of all of the happenings in the community. I had some idea that dope was being sold and that was part of the problem. The dope sellers (mostly heroin) were happy to have things in chaos in the schools. I guess I was someone who was interfering with their business. One evening, I was in one of the African American communities speaking with some friends. I was standing under a stop sign, when two shots rang out right above my head. I don’t think I have ever been so scared. That was lesson number two.

Things had gotten so bad at the schools, that we knew that we had to do some drastic things. The central office administrators decided that they would have to face those who were causing the problems face to face. The superintendent called a meeting one evening. He invited four groups of people- the tri-state NAACP, the National Socialist White People’s Party, the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers. He believed that confronting these people and then asking for their help in calming things down would be the beginning of a solution.

The meeting was set for a weekday evening. Unfortunately, it was an evening with Carol was taking a class at Temple University. I was then responsible for my 1 ½ year old son. I figured, since I was not in charge of the meeting, I could bring him along. The meeting was set for seven. I arrived a little before seven with Marc on my shoulder. The invitees dribbled in a few at a time. By seven thirty, the place was filled with about 200 people. It was a scary looking crowd. Since I was not in charge, I had no idea if there had been a call made to the police to hang around.

By about 7:40 the crowd was growing restless. These were not people who generally hung out with each other. I was shocked to see that there was not one school administrator there. I was in a panic. What should I do? My best thought was to run to my car and drive away. That was lesson number three. I did not do that. I guess I never learn. I got up to the podium with Marc on my shoulder and began to speak. I told them of what was going on in school and how it was spilling out in the community.

A number of each group got up to speak. They were still scary. All of the Black Panthers were wearing shades. I could not tell what they were feeling. I got the impression that I had, at least, a couple of friends in the audience. I knew that if some of these people had kids in school, they might be on my side. The meeting lasted about an hour. I am, to this day, not sure what came out of it. I was just happy that no one was killed or injured. I firmly believe that Marc had a salutary effect on the proceedings. I am certain that the meeting might have gone a different way if he were not there on my shoulder.

Lesson number four. After two years of human relations work, I decide that my life should go in another direction. I was installed as the assistant principal at the high school. I did all of the athletic work and some discipline. In 1973 I got the job as principal of the Kutztown Area Junior High School.

If you ever want to have a nerve wracking and fulfilling job, try being a principal at a junior high school.

There was a tradition in the school that included the selling of magazines. The kids did such a great job in doing it that we had enough dough for dances and auditorium presentations. One such presentation was a gentleman showing us a myriad of snakes and explaining all about them. The kids loved the presentation. After the show was over, I went over the thank the man who did it. He looked at me and said that I looked very familiar to him. We traced our histories and found out that he was a policeman in Bristol Township at one point. I may have even ridden in a car with him once or twice. I asked him if things had calmed down a bit and he told me that they had somewhat.

He also told me that his supervisor had once told the men that if there was a black person found dead or incapacitated, or even arrested, there would be a knife or unregistered gun found on him. This was lesson number five. Don’t be naïve. Things don’t seem to have changed any since those days. I feel bad for the large majority of police, who put their lives on the line every day. They are the ones who are also victims of these horrendous happenings across the country.

IT’S 3:00 A.M. AND I AM UP

As with other elderly men, I do get up a couple of times a night to fulfill my obligations. Last night, I had a déjà vu event. At 3:00 a.m. I was caught up short in my superintendent’s days in Kutztown. If there was any chance of snow the night before, I would get up at about 3 a.m. or so and check the news about the impending weather predictions. If there was no snow on the horizon, I would go back to sleep. If I could see a substantial amount of snow already fallen, or there was a 90% chance of heavy snow, I would make some phone calls to the state police, department of transportation and the bus supervisor.

You do know that you can never satisfy the people 100% of the time. I think that Abraham Lincoln said that, or was that Bret Maverick. I just can’t remember. So, if I determined that there was a good chance of a school delay or a cancellation, I would put on my garments and head out into the wilderness. Just as I was leaving, and I am not sure that he didn’t time it, Jim Gilmartin, Superintendent of the Hamburg School District would call me. I must tell you that the phone was on my wife’s side of the bed and when it rang she would pick it up and berate Jim for calling so early and waking her up. Jim would apologize and ask to speak to me. I would usually tell him that I was on my way out and would call him a bit later. Remember there were no cell phones yet.

I would then go down to the Bieber Bus Company garage and meet with the bus supervisor, a tiny blond headed lady dressed in a parka and snow boots. If the snow were already on the ground, I would call the township supervisors, as well as the borough manager and ask if they were already out clearing the roads. Most times, they all were out, but one.

I have told this story so many times, that I almost believe that I made it up. I did not. I called a township supervisor one early morn and got his wife on the phone. I asked if I could speak with Mr. Ernie Boyer, the township supervisor in charge of the roads. She told me that he was already out clearing the rounds in the township. Since I had already called other people and knew that the roads had not even begun to be cleaned I doubted her veracity. I told her that unless she was sleeping with another man, I could hear snoring in the background. If that was her husband tell him to go out and clear the roads post haste.

I also had some critics within the school community. One such staff member used to complain bitterly that no matter what call I made, I was always wrong. I decided that since he was so interested in whether school would be called off or not, I would involve him in the decision. One snowy morn at about four a.m. I showed up at his house, knocked on the door and after a while, he came to open the door. I asked him if he would like to come with me and help make the decision. Would you believe he slammed the door in my face?

I was always called by the family that lived up on Hawk Mountain. Normally, he was a great guy. However, when the snows came, he became a beast. He always wanted me to take Hawk Mountain into my decisions. Since Hawk Mountain only had one resident, him, I decided that the weather up on the mountain did not signal me or get involved in my decisions. I told him that I could not base my decisions on the weather at the top of a mountain. I believe later on, he understood.

One more for the road. The superintendent of the Boyertown School District was one hell of a nice guy. He and I had a very pleasant relationship. One day, the weather folks were calling for a 95% chance of snow and lots of it. There was no snow on the ground in the morning, but by 10:30 in the morning, the sky had turned green. I alerted all of the schools and the bus company that I would probably call them very soon to dismiss.

I got a call from Jim at about 10:45. He asked me if it was snowing. I told him that it had not started yet. He said the same. I told him that I had everyone on alert. He said that he had done the same thing. At about 11:00, I heard that Boyertown was dismissing its students. I called Jim and asked him what had happened. He told me that as soon as he had gotten off the phone with me, it had started to come down in buckets. So, he dismissed. I said thanks and looked outside. There was no snow at all.

Actually, it did not snow in our area at all that day. However, in some neighboring counties, it had. I wondered about Jim and how he had made out. I called him that afternoon and asked him how much snow had fallen in his district. There was a long pause. He said that there was no snow. He heard me gasp and said, “I just didn’t want to look like the only jerk in Berks County.”

ANTI-SEMITISM- WHY?

I am not sure when it started, but anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years. Yup, it did not just start with Christians or nation-states like Germany or Arab countries. It has been around even longer than that. Seems to me it has been around since the first patriarch, Abraham. When his name was Avram, he worked for dad in the idol store. For some unknown reason, he smashed all of the idols, giving rise to the term iconoclast.

His destruction of the idols probably brought about hatred among the locals who saw this as a breach of their religion, which included many gods at that time. Abraham thought that there should be only one god and that was Yahweh, or Adonai, or Elohim. The other patriarchs, Isaac, Jacob and later Joseph continued with the monotheistic view of god.

Somehow, the Egyptians got kind of frightened of the Hebrews. They were multiplying (having started with 12 tribes). The Hebrews were enslaved and made to toil at back breaking work for 400 years. The story of Moses is well chronicled and occurred somewhere between the 16th and 12th century B.C.E.  They were then free to practice their religion, as they traveled forty years in the desert. That generation never got to the land of milk and honey and neither did Moses.

After those times, the Greeks and the Romans took over and participated in destroying the first and second Temple. Somehow, the Hebrews figured out a way to keep their religion going. Yup, Judaism is essentially a religion. When think that there are Chinese Jews, Indian Jews (from India), Swedish Jews, etc. you know that they are not an ethnic group or a race.

We now come to the time of one of the most famous Jews (the word comes from the tribe of Judah and a part of ancient Israel), that being Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus preached exclusively to Jews. His apostles were Jews. His enemies were the establishment, whom he threatened by his new view of Judaism. The stories told in the New Testament conclude with Jesus dying on the cross. Those who mourned him were all Jews. The establishment did not mourn him; neither did the Romans who killed him.

The Catholic Church arose to convert most of Europe to their faith. Their philosophy was to criticize the Jews for killing Christ. It wasn’t until recently that the Catholic Church has reversed its view. As the Dark Ages enveloped Europe, the Jews were pretty much restricted to what they could do to earn their living. They were not allowed to own property in many countries. They were adopted by the church to lend money with interest since it was not permitted by the church for Catholics to do so.

Jews were restricted to ghettoes in many countries and remained there for eons. This made it easier for people like the Cossacks to come in, burn the villages and ghettoes and kill the inhabitants. Many of these slaughters were sanctioned by the state and some by the Church. The Inquisition was one of these church directed campaigns.

When Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg, he did not know that he would unleash a torrent of thoughts about Christianity and relations with Jews. Luther was a person of his time and not a friend to Jews. As the new world opened its doors to non-conformists, Jews accompanied the various settlers on their way to open up the new world. Hatred for Jews continued unabated in Europe until the beginning of the 19th century, when Bonaparte and his civil code made Jews free people to worship as they saw fit.

Pogroms and anti-Semitism continued into the 19th century. In some cases, like the establishment of Germany in 1870, the iron Chancellor Bismarck insisted that petty noblemen of all sorts have their daughters marry wealthy Jewish merchants. One of the strange unintentional consequences was that some of Hitler’s generals (maybe even Rommel) had some Jewish blood.

The result of the Holocaust was the establishment of the Jewish state. If you count all of the resolutions of the General Assembly since its inception, you will see that the overwhelming number is condemnation of Israel for a variety of alleged offenses. The Arab states are the champions of that kind of resolution. The negative parts of anti-Semitism are well chronicled.

So what is the reason for this continued hatred of Jews? Is it philosophical, personal, religious, etc.? A priest of the Catholic Church, responsible for Catholic-Jewish relations once told me that Jews represent humanity. What is done to Jews is a symbol of what is worst in humanity. On the other hand, what is positive in humanity is represented by Jews. It is not a coincidence that Jews have lasted for thousands of years, while most other civilizations have perished. Why is that true?

Is it fear, or a need to hate someone or a group of someones, that propels this hatred? This past year, I was in Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. I was standing next to a cigar store. The proprietor of the store asked me where I was from. I told him that I was from Pennsylvania. He said, “You must have a lot of money.” I did not respond. His next remark startled me, “You are a Jew and you have lots of money.” “Yes,” I told him. “I am a Jew and we are coming to get you.” The look on his face was worth the conversation. Maybe he’ll think over his remark next time.