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Confessions Of A Bookworm
By Fred Skolnik
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I came of age in the Fifties. Until that time, in the first ten years of my life, I did not have a real persona, a public face. I was best known in the family. Amongst friends I was someone to play with. No one solicited my opinions, I did not take charge of anything. I was a ward, moved from place to place by my elders like a box of fragile houseware. I was fed to surfeit and the house stood still when I coughed. (Canetti, by the way, expressed this condition very well in Crowds and Power: "Those most beset by commands are children. It is a miracle that they do not collapse under the burden of commands laid upon them by their parents and teachers. That they in turn, and in an equally cruel form, should give identical commands to their children is as natural as mastication or speech.")
Until I was three, I am told, I spoke only Yiddish. My grandmother, Sheine Beile, would make the two-hour trip from Brighton Beach to the Bronx nearly every day to help my mother out. Aside from the small vocabulary she had developed to encourage me to eat - "soup," "chicken," "dessert" - she spoke not a word of English. At five or six I was speaking English with a rabbinical accent, saying "Sahturday" for Saturday and being laughed at by my friends. I got some of this from my mother too, who called a salad a "solid" and was always praising the scholastic achievements of a certain Howard in our building whom she referred to, appropriately enough, as "Harvard." My grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Kancepolsky, spoke a laborious broken English that seemed to have come out of a phrasebook. Occasionally he tried to make small talk with me. The Kennedys, he told me in later years, were having trouble in their marriage because the president couldn't fulfill his obligations as a husband as a result of his back problems. This was the gossip he had picked up at the boarding house for Yiddish speakers where he stayed when he was in Washington. My grandfather raised funds for the Ponevezh yeshiva and was on the road most of the time. It was said that he had been to every state but he might just as well have been traveling through China without an interpreter for all he knew about the country. He had virtually no contact with anyone or anything outside the Orthodox Yiddish-speaking community. In retrospect I find his lack of even the most elementary curiosity about the country he lived in for 35 years almost incredible. And here I was, American-born, a fount of information whom he might have milked dry: who was this Jack Kerouac everyone was talking about? what exactly did Elvis Presley do? what did young Americans think, feel, dream? But no, nothing of the sort. This lack of curiosity had nothing to do with his character. It was endemic to Orthodoxy, which considered everything outside it valueless.
Every year we spent the Passover week at my grandparents' home. As in our own apartment the kitchen was off the foyer just two steps from the front door, and my mother would already have her coat off and her sleeves rolled up before we rang the bell, making a sharp left directly into the kitchen and getting right to work without breaking stride. The smell of boiled fish that greeted us when we came through the door was almost unbearable. My grandparents' apartment was larger than ours and could accommodate not only my family but by mother's sister's family as well. The sister was Tzipke, or Sophie, two years younger than my mother, and admired by my mother as glamorous, "outgoing," hard-driving, successful, a pacesetter, which she may have been in the particular, almost Singerlike world she inhabited and through whom my timid mother may have lived vicariously. She was a Zionist too, active in Betar, had met Begin, and made an impression everywhere she went. They were better off than we - the husband was a furrier - had a larger apartment in the Bronx and a car. They had one son, two years younger than I, to whom I was fairly close. At 14, after a summer visit, he had stowed away on a Zim liner bound for Israel, wanting to live there permanently. He had been taken off the ship in Italy and flown back to the States. All this was apparently considered highly admirable in the family, if admittedly crazy.
My mother, in her early thirties, then her mid-thirties, and then her late thirties, never seemed to get older, as she never seemed to have been young. And my father, with his hair already gray when he came back from Spain, was 10 years older than my mother when he married her in 1939, at the age of 35. And my grandparents were naturally slow and heavy. Not too many people came out of Europe in those years with joie de vivre, or light on their feet. It was left to my cousin and myself to inject a note of levity into these gatherings, which we occasionally did by having contests to see who could hold his breath longer. Tzipke's husband, Mikhl, timed us. In our death throes, we would start flopping around like the later Kramer of Seinfeld fame, but even my grandfather looked on indulgently. The truth is, I looked forward to Passover. It was a nice break from school, I enjoyed the seder food, and I liked the Boardwalk. The seder food, especially the charoses and maror, was the culinary high point of the year for me. The first piece of matza, after a year of abstinence, was as sweet as - well ... And the Boardwalk, the salt air, the pavilions with their banners flapping in the breeze, the racing cars (or were they kiddie cars?) on a small track buffeted by big rubber tires, the batting range at Coney Island with the smashed station windows of the El in the outfield ... On this Boardwalk one enjoyed one's postprandial shpatsir ("stroll"), for the sea air was a mechayeh ("pleasure"), and perhaps had a little shmues ("chat") as well. In effect, my grandparents and my mother's sister with her husband and son were a kind of extended core family for me. My mother's half-brother, whom I seldom saw, had a farm near Buffalo. Eventually I would marry his daughter.
My father had six brothers and sisters but we did not have a great deal of contact with them. Two were in Miami Beach: Sylvia, married to Oscar, who rented out efficiencies, and Leo, married to Fanny, who owned a supermarket. Out on the West Coast we had a Sol Skolnik, who called himself Frank Carlson and showed up on the front page of the New York Post one day in the early Fifties after being arrested as a Communist. The other three lived in the Bronx: Paul, a widower raising two children by himself; Lilly, married to Herman, who smoked cigars; Esther, married to Hymie, with whom Bubby Skolnik, my other grandmother, stayed until she died. These produced various cousins whom I generally saw only on special occasions.
So life unfolded in those years, in a world of house painters, German supers, seltzer men, white Christmases and April showers, a world that in retrospect seems innocent but was not so innocent after all. Great fortunes were being made by hard men, and people were dying in the gutters and in lonely rooms. It is not the innocence of the times that we remember but our own.
As I grew up, and to this day, I thought of what preceded the year of my birth as belonging to History. This was the great dividing line. To my mind, there was no real difference between the year 1939 and the year 1909; both belonged to the remote past, to a time that was not mine, beyond living memory. This is not to say that I remember a great deal of my early years, though some things do stand out in my mind. I remember ration books and hearing an air raid siren. I remember the death of Roosevelt announced on the radio. I think our radio was an Emerson, perched on a shelf in the kitchen. My mother cried and I somehow grasped the momentousness of the occasion. There was a veteran of World War II in our building, without arms and legs. He walked on stumps, beside his very pretty wife, and was a very cheerful type. It must have been in 1946 or 1947. Afterwards they were gone. No one would think to tell me where they went, nor would I have thought to ask. The woman might have been living in our building all through the war, waiting for her husband to return.
I attended P.S. 22 through the second grade and then was transferred to P.S. 70, I suppose after a zoning change. I remember the enormous schoolyard at P.S. 22, across the street from the main building. I remember a boy called Alfred the Great and a black boy called Moses. They were the kings of the schoolyard. They had the aura. I do not remember the schoolyard as a constant factor in my life, but retain only a kind of snapshot of it on a particular day, crowded and noisy. Before I was enrolled in P.S. 22, at the age of five or six, my grandfather somehow persuaded my parents to try a talmud torah school. This was a school with a yard as big as a living room for dozens of boys and bare wooden tables for the soup we got for lunch in tin cups. It was a Dickensian setting and I would never forget the one or two days I lasted there.
My first memory of P.S. 70 is the book bazaar I attended in the third grade. That I thought to attend it is evidence that I was already reading, though I have no idea what. I remember a book called Uncle Remus Stories in the house, and that might have been there previously, and it may be that I had already obtained some Tarzan books. The book I bought at the book bazaar was a hardcover copy of Tom Sawyer for ten cents. I remember the feeling of possessing it, a feeling no different from the one I experienced as an adult when buying a book. The P.S. 70 schoolyard was smaller than the one at P.S. 22. We played softball there mainly and it was almost possible to hit the ball over the high left field fence. We played a game called throwball inside, and even had an intramural league. It was played like baseball with four bases and a volley ball on half a basketball court. You threw the ball instead of hitting it, were thrown out if the ball was returned to the catcher at the plate before you reached base, unless it was caught on the fly. If you threw the ball into the basket on the back wall, it was a home run.
In the Alley we played mainly punchball and stickball, but we also played handball against the wall of the Young Israel Synagogue, sometimes during services on Saturday morning, which brought out the shamash to chase us away, and of course we played Ringalievio and Johnny-on-the Pony and Cans Up and Land with pocket knives on a patch of ground behind the synagogue and sometimes just hung out there and I remember certain quiet Sunday afternoons in the spring when there were just two or three of us and the shadows began to fall late in the afternoon and there was a feeling of such tranquility in the still, hot air, of a day winding down, of something magical really, that it became for me one of those still points in memory to which great complexes of feeling adhere.
I also collected stamps, hoarded marbles and baseball cards, and even built model planes. The stamps and model planes qualified as genuine hobbies. I bought the model plane kits at a "hobby shop" on Jerome Avenue on the other side of the Concourse, and the stamps from various dealers, as far away as the Crotona Park area, a long bus ride, as I was seriously collecting U.S. commemoratives. The marbles and baseball cards, on the other hand, were the currency of street commerce. We pitched and flipped and traded cards and played marbles in the gutter. "Hit the marble and win five!" the hawkers shouted, setting up their stalls at the curb. For everything there was a season. The marble season was relatively brief - I think the spring. I kept my marbles in a cigar box and it got pretty full, so after a while I didn't have to buy any. The feeling was like having money in the bank or a horde of gold coins. However, I would always continue buying baseball cards, as there were some you had to have to complete the set and they were as difficult to find as the Holy Grail.
The punchball and the stickball, and other games like box ball and curb ball, were of course variations of baseball. The romance of sports is one of the great unifying themes of American life. Though we can be certain that we are basically alike in our inner lives, and see evidence of this in all of literature going back to the Greek tragedies, our innermost thoughts, not to mention our fantasies, are so private that it is impossible for us to imagine that they are shared by anyone else. We know the ambiance of our own minds, what it feels like to be ourselves, but cannot imagine what it feels like to be someone else. Sports allow us to enter other people's minds for a few rare moments, for the fantasies generated by sports are universal and so it can be said for a certainty that every other boy in the land has dreamed of hitting a game-winning bases-loaded home run in the bottom half of the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. That something so specific should be imagined by millions of people in precisely the same way is at the same time an affirmation of our shared condition and nothing less than a miracle. And so it must be with so many of our secret fantasies, and thus we are able to get an inkling of what goes on in other people's heads.
I must have become a baseball fan on a day-to-day basis in 1949, because I clearly remember listening to the Saturday or Sunday game against the Red Sox when the Yankees won the pennant on the last day of the season. We heard that over a portable radio and someone, maybe Tommy Henrich, got a big hit as we passed the candy store walking toward 170th Street and I remember the lift it gave me. I was a Yankee fan from the beginning. My father was a Dodger fan because they had Jackie Robinson playing for them and that fitted in with his social agenda. I remember that 1949 Red Sox team, man for man one of the greatest that ever played, right down to the starting lineup, which I can recite like the alphabet: Dom DiMaggio CF, Johnny Pesky 3B, Ted Williams LF, Vern Stephens SS, Bobby Doerr 2B, Al Zarilla RF, Billy Goodman 1B, Birdie Tebbetts C and Mel Parnell and Ellis Kinder leading the pitching staff. Each year a different team made a run at the Yankees. In 1950 it was Detroit with Vic Wertz, Johnny Groth and Hoot Evers in the outfield and George Kell at third base. In 1951 it was the White Sox with Whitey Ford always seeming to beat Billy Pierce 3-2 or 2-1 in the opening game of a three-game series. I think we got our television in 1949, as I remember going downstairs to a neighbor to watch Joe DiMaggio when he returned from his long injury because at first, until a roof antenna was installed, we could only get Channel 5 (the DuMont Television Network), so all I got to see in the first months was Captain Video and professional wrestling, which I watched with my father, who thought it was legitimate. Later there was Howdy Doody, of course, and the baseball games.
I followed sports avidly. I pasted hockey rosters into a scrapbook, listened to New York Yankee football games on the radio, and started to play out a 154-game schedule in a dice baseball game I had devised, even scoring the games. Of all the sports events of the Fifties the most memorable without any doubt was the Baltimore Colt come-from-behind win against the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game with Johnny Unitas leading the Colts downfield in what I think were the two greatest offensive drives ever put together back to back. I listened to the game on the radio and still remember Alan Ameche's 22-yard run down to the Giants' 20-yard line, that famous trap play, in the sudden-death overtime.
We played basketball too, but it was only when I was eleven or twelve that I started to become a player, with a good set shot and one-hand Cousy-style push shot, lots of speed but no great moves. It was in this crossing over to the pre-teen years that we began to come into our own, achieved real personalities, reputations as ballplayers or streetfighters, or even for being smart. We daydreamed about girls in an innocent kind of way. We appreciated pretty teachers.
It was in the sixth grade that Mr. Rich, our teacher, would read Don Quixote to us every Friday afternoon. I will not say that I was enthralled, but I enjoyed the hour. My greatest intellectual triumph that year was to understand how a fraction could be divided by a whole number. This had drawn a blank from the rest of the class. Mr. Rich was pleased, and said, "That's right." We also had Library once a week, where we would read to ourselves for an hour and could take books home. I read the novels of Sir Walter Scott and many more that I can't remember of that classic Romantic genre. I must have started to read the novels of Jules Verne and James Fenimore Cooper there too, for why else would I have bicycled all the way to Highbridge a year later, when I was in junior high school, to take them out of the library. I observe myself now standing at those bookshelves the way Anatole France observed himself in Le Livre de mon ami, but I feel no real affection or connection. I suppose this is because that little friend is not outside of me but rather a part of me, dwelling within, so that I am able to recapture the precise emotion experienced by my childhood self, drawing it out of memory like an essence and discarding the rest.
In those years we spent the summers in what was called a bungalow colony. Ours was in the Catskill Mountains, somewhere south of Kingston and north of Peekskill. I think Ellenville was the closest town, so it must have been around 70 miles out of New York A Mr. Tillman would come by from Harlem with a station wagon and a helper to take us up just days after school was out, and appear again just after Labor Day to take us back. I always wanted to know precisely where the city ended and the country began and waited to see some clear demarcation, but there wasn't any. The buildings just thinned out and finally vanished from sight.
The place we went to year after year was called the Lee-Ra Bungalow Colony. My mother told me that Malke Lee, who ran the place with her husband, Archie Rappaport, the handyman, was a well-known Yiddish poet. This didn't make a great impression on me, for I knew her as a no-nonsense type, but many year's later I came across her name, and yes she was a poet. The bungalows had a piney smell, one bedroom and a porch. A big pasture served as a baseball field, and after a long trek through the adjoining woods you came to the Creek, where we often swam. The men were in the city all week, and came back for the weekends. The women wore shorts and "halters" and all seemed to have varicose veins.
I think we continued going there until I was thirteen or fourteen and it was there that I had my first girl friends, two that I remember, either in the same summer or in two successive summers. We kissed. When I was fifteen we went to another bungalow colony and there was another girl and we went a little beyond kissing. After that I worked at Grossinger's for a couple of summers and had further adventures along these lines.
I entered the seventh grade, after my twelfth birthday, full of beans. This was in Wade Junior High School, or P.S. 117. We tormented the girls in our class with their new breasts with our homeroom teacher's blackboard pointer or felt them up in the coat closet. We tied the sissy boys to the schoolyard fence by their neckties. Assigned to write "A Friendly Letter," we wrote threatening Mafioso-style notes to our English teacher, Mrs. Drabkin, whom I liked to put my arm around and give a little squeeze occasionally, saying, I remember, "Hi, Drabs, how's life with the other half today." and I remember her reply too: "Why so jocose, Mr. Skolnik." Those were heady times and I was a handful.
Those were the times of the street gangs too. The one in our neighborhood was called the Napoli Boys, or more precisely, the Napoli Boy Juniors, there also being a Napoli Boy Seniors. As the Napoli Boy Juniors were in their late teens, I only hung out with them occasionally and was never a member. Their main rivals were the Highbridge Dukes and they were "affiliated" with the Harlem Red Wings, whatever that meant. We read in the Post one day, or perhaps the Daily News or Mirror, that a few of the Red Wings had driven down Columbus or Amsterdam Avenue in a red convertible and machinegunned four members of the Harlem Lords. We took pride in this singular achievement. I do remember various gang tensions and one particular gangwar in Claremont Park which I just missed getting caught up in, having left with some friends just as the rival gang was entering the park and seeing them moving up the incline from a distance. The gangs in our part of the Bronx also included the Brownie Boys, the Fordham Baldies, the Concourse Dukes and the Little Lords. I was thought of as "tough," even a "rock," though actually I had very few fights in junior high school, my reputation and hardass talk exempting me from too many confrontations. Once I remember walking up to someone in the street next to our schoolyard during our lunch break and punching him in the face. I think I said something witty like, "I hear you're looking for me." There must have been bad blood between us. Then I proceeded to kick his ass, as the saying went. Our school was on a hill. We started at the top of the hill and finished up at the bottom, with him in retreat all the time. At one point he pulled off his garrison belt with the big buckle but one of my friends got it away from him and I moved in for the kill. I think a teacher finally broke up the fight and I received one of my many suspensions.
I also dressed the part. Each year my mother would take me shopping for clothes for the school year, usually on Fordham Road. I remember distinctly the following items in my wardrobe:
1 pr. Electric Blue pants
1 pr. Powder Blue pants
1 pr. Rust pants<
1 pr. Charcoal Gray pants (all pegged and saddle-stitched in the style of the day)
1 shirt, pink
1 shirt, black
1 vest, pink and black
1 motorcycle jacket, black
1 garrison belt
How I maneuvered my mother into financing such outlandish outfits I can't imagine. One day I found my black shirt hanging in the closet with a huge hole cut out of the back. This was my father's handiwork, an extension of his shopwork, it would seem. I think what troubled him was more the connection with Fascism than with juvenile delinquency. At any rate, my teachers threatened to send me to one of the notorious "600" schools, which would have been another feather in my cap. In those days, in the street, for a year or two at least, during a certain phase, I rarely spoke a sentence without using the word "f**k," applying the adjective indiscriminately to nearly all people and places. Yet somehow, almost miraculously, I caught myself up at a certain point and recognized how imbecilic and unlike myself I sounded and was able to refashion my manner of speaking. This somewhat complex childhood persona that I was developing - streetfighter, ballplayer, intellectual, ill at ease in certain social situations, overly aggressive or exuberant in others - made me a prime candidate for the psychoanalyst's couch, to which my mother consigned me at a certain point in my teen years. There wasn't much I wished to tell him but it must have inspired my first serious vocational interest, for I remember telling a girl that when I grew up I wanted to be one, or at least a psychologist. Previously I had thought along the lines of becoming a major league baseball player. I suppose I imagined that I understood something about what went on in people's heads.
I also began to write. I wrote highly imaginative stories to amuse my friends, featuring some kind of detective: Roy Ashley Private Eye, making what I thought was a very clever anagram. I also started writing a sex-cum-adventure novel which my mother found and destroyed. What a revelation it must have been for her to discover that I knew what a breast was. I had typed over 80 pages on my Royal De Luxe Portable. I imagine I was still reading Cooper and Verne in the seventh grade but at some point I began reading the English classics. I also read Blackboard Jungle after our homeroom teacher informed us that we belonged there.
In those years I remember specifically reading Dickens (Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield for sure), Vanity Fair, Sterne's Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy, Butler's Way of All Flesh and Erewhon, Pride and Prejudice and the Bronte novels. I remember in the most vivid way reading these novels in our living room, in the rear section, between my chest of toys and my mother's sewing machine table, so there must have been another sitting area there as well. In those years too I read Hardy, Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Meredith, Charles Reade, George Eliot (but not Middlemarch, which I read some years later), maybe Trollope, and Wilde either then or in high school. I also read Les Miserables and The Wandering Jew. I don't remember if I got these books from the Highbridge Library or our school library, nor how I came to them in such a systematic way.
I quieted down somewhat in high school. I hung out in the neighborhood poolroom, played a lot of ball and continued to read. It was in high school that I began to read the classic American novel. My guide was Masterpieces of World Literature in Digest Form, edited by Frank McGill, which I believe I obtained through the Book-of-the-Month Club. I read An American Tragedy, U.S.A. and Studs Lonigan. I read Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, Winesburg, Ohio, Main Street, Native Son, Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, The Yearling, Green Mansions, Tobacco Road and God's Little Acre, Lost Horizon, some Jack London, probably Willa Cather, Saroyan's Human Comedy, maybe The Enormous Room, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Seventeen, and The Bridge of Saint Luis Rey. Of Hemingway I read A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Have and Have Not, Across the River and into the Trees, Death in the Afternoon and the early stories. Of Faulkner I read The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, Requiem for a Nun, Absalom, Absalom, Pylon, The Unvanquished, Mosquitoes, As I Lay Dying and probably a few more. I think I read Fitzgerald only after high school, except for "The Rich Boy," and everything else in The Golden Argosy. I also read Crime and Punishment in those years and Of Human Bondage.
I remember myself reading these books in various places and in various postures: In Dubious Battle in study hall, Pylon at Grossinger's, but most at home. There was a big, airy library in our high school and I remember working my way down the shelves perhaps even alphabetically like the hero of Sartre's Nausea. It was reading these novels that awakened in me the will to write. I can still remember the feeling I had when I read the opening sentences of Sanctuary and Of Mice and Men, so clean and tight and perfect in rhythm that I despaired of ever being able to write so well and yet wanted to with all my being. It was a tribute to my dedication and tenacity that I was also able to get through books that bored me to death, like Absalom, Absalom with its maze of deadening italics. In general I didn't take to Faulkner, and never have. The first writer I tried to imitate was of course Hemingway.
I read very little, if any, contemporary American fiction in high school. I remember seeing someone with On the Road, which I'd heard of, and asking him if it was any good, but I only read it a year or so later. It was only in my freshman year at City College and the years immediately following that I began to read the contemporary American novel intensively as well as discovering modern European literature. But though it was in fact the European novel that formed my literary sensibility it was the classic American novel that inspired me to write. These seeds were planted at an early age but would not bear fruit for another 40 years. In 1963, at the age of 23, I settled in Israel with my wife, starting a new chapter in my life, and here I have remained.
* * * * *
Fred Skolnik is the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal and hailed as a landmark achievement by the Library Journal. Other award-winning projects with which he has been associated include The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (co-editor, 2002) and the 3-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (senior editor, 2001). Now writing full time, he has published dozens of stories in the past few years (in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Words & Images, Literary House Review, Underground Voices, Third Coast, Polluto, etc.). His novel The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 2011) is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its recent history. An excerpt appeared in Issue 155 of The Jewish Magazine (June 2011).
from the December 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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