Above: Sidney’s family, ready for the walk to the Shul, 1954
Sidney Gross (1941–2016)
My cousin Lenny was the oldest of us six boys, the first to get Bar Mitzvahed, the first to get married, the first to go into the Army, the first to complete college. In many ways, Lenny was a guinea pig for the rest of us, the first to experience all the social trials and tribulations. His confirmation was no exception. My aunt Essie, Lenny’s mother, had been widowed when she was in her early thirties and left with two boys. There’s no doubt that Essie suffered financial hardship in those days of non-existent pensions and inadequate life insurance. But, of course, Lenny had to have a party as good as that of any of his friends. There was more than a little rivalry in this regard!
To save money, the grandmothers, aunts, and aunts-in-law decided to get together and do the cooking themselves. It didn’t matter that none of them had had any catering experience. If you could cook for four, you could cook for a hundred. Right? As a boy of nine I remember very little about Lenny’s Bar Mitzvah. It occurred in August, one of the muggiest times of the year in New York. I have vague recollections of six or seven women crowded into my aunt’s small kitchen and foyer trying to produce cocktail knishes on an assembly line basis. There was shouting and nobody was too happy. The rugelach ran out at the party. Whatever else went on, the upshot was that all subsequent affairs were catered. Cousin Lenny had made life easier for the rest of us.
Part of the joy of being Bar Mitzvahed was that you got everything new for the occasion—not only the traditional hair cut but a whole new outfit. My Bar Mitzvah was the only time in my life when I bought a coordinated set of clothing in one swoop. The suit was the first I had ever owned and in itself represented an induction into adulthood. My parents, being ever sensible, selected a gray wool which would be serviceable the year through, even though the confirmation was in June. My shirt was white on white, then the height of fashion. It had small diamonds on a field of white broadcloth. The tie, which I was allowed to pick out, was also white, with an immense stylized crown. The shoes I will never forget. They had smooth leather uppers in the oxblood color then fashionable, with yellowish crepe soles which squeaked when I walked on linoleum. A new handkerchief, a gold key chain, and a fresh crew cut. What a sight, and fortunately preserved forever in the pictures which were taken by a photographer retained by my parents.
As if there wasn’t enough excitement on that Saturday morning, we had to deal with what at the time seemed like the eccentricities of the photographer. Every shot was posed and reposed: knotting the tie, brushing the hair, standing in ramrod attention with my equally stiff looking family. Now, of course, the pictures are priceless.
It was just after eight in the morning when we left our apartment for the walk to the Shul. Naturally, there had to be a picture of the family exiting. I was going off to the siege and would return “a man.” At this moment there occurred one of the few events that I remember with crystal clarity from that day. Just as the photographer was about to snap us, the building superintendent, Ralph Graham appeared in a huff. The photographer could not take a picture of us with newspapers strewn on the sidewalk! In a flash, he gathered up the debris and then gave the photographer his blessing. Mr. Graham was, of course, right in what he did. I still have that picture and I see him (although he’s not in the photograph) every time I look at it. In retrospect, I have to give Ralph and his wife credit for being able to manage a six-story apartment building filled with prepubescent boys and girls and their doting parents. The Grahams had a son who became a Lutheran minister. When Steven was assigned to a church in Minnesota he promptly bought himself a bright red Volkswagen beetle. Every time Steven wrote home to his parents, he enclosed a picture of the car. One day we heard that he had totaled the car when he hit a deer on the highway. What kind of wilderness was Minnesota, I wondered, from the vantage point of Brooklyn.*
For a recipe for rugelach, turn to page 2
The Bar Mitzvah essay to be continued…
*all names in this section have been changed
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