Take a trip back to the 1930’s and 40’s and enjoy the fantastic photos, stories, fun times and unique experiences shared by author Lyla Blake Ward as she helps us remember when times were different, money was not that fluid and kids learned how to play with a piece of chalk (Any color), a bunch of squares and numbers on the sidewalk, marbles and a jump robe just to the sake of having fun. Living on the Upper West Side in Manhattan on Amsterdam Avenue reminds me of the fact that my dad worked in a cleaning store about four blocks from where the author lived. The streets from 72-110th will no longer be foreign to you but will come back to life as the author recreates a time period and a time that was so different from so many yet so much richer. The people that lived there were like family and although they were of many different cultures and nationalities the kids somehow managed to play together, learn the meaning of Jewish traditions and even why the pigeons ate white bread and why some got some extra on a holiday called Tishabov.
Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye: Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side is a compilation of stories, hysterical poems published by Good Housekeeping, essays, pictures and remembrances that will make you smile and wish you could do it all over again. Growing up in a neighborhood that was Jewish she relates that her entire world was not more than 2 or 3 blocks until she was a little older and allowed to go about 4 or 5. Age was the criteria her mother used to decide when things were allowed to happen and when she was even allowed to cross the street with friends or by herself. Growing up in the South Bronx my mother definitely did not let us roam the streets or even play on the benches across from our tiny apartment without a parent or grandparent present. Hopscotch, potsy, marbles, jump rope and jacks were not foreign to me either and although I might not be the greatest a jump rope or double Dutch the fun of competing and trying made it all worthwhile. Kids still play hopscotch if they can find a sidewalk or driveway to create the game board. Her mother seriously reminds me of mine in that she was overbearing, over protective and decided when the seasons started and end which would dictate what Lyla and her siblings were allowed to wear. Wearing wool until the July 4th weekend was over was the norm as you never knew when a cold front would come or a heavy rain.
From being a teenager, to wearing makeup to finding the right dress to wear this book has it all. The history of Furs, the fact that she knows the difference between the different pelts, furs and waiting to be furs, which are my favorite, is truly hilarious and indicative of the times. Everyone wanted to appear to be well to do and although her father was a film director, which she did not want to brag about, she wanted to go off into the world and be independent. Not having to go to Sunday School yet following some of the Jewish traditions like fasting on the high holy day and walking to synagogue with her parents reminds me of my Saturdays with my friends and my grandfather. But, the superstitions have it for you never walk under a ladder, or on cracks on the sidewalk or even eat chocolate for dinner. The many superstitions are not new to me my mother believed the same including you never buy anything for child until it is born. Of course some parents asked if you had a new friend where did they come from and if he/she was Jewish. My parents never really cared as long as they were good students, polite and respectful. The smell of homemade bread, the picture of the boiled egg reminded me of why I don’t eat eggs too often and never boiled ones. I remember Stride Ride and Mother Goose Shoes I learned about from my mother and halvah, which I don’t eat anymore was a great treat for everyone.
Her story about the movies and the matron that watched kids under 16 brought back memories and the one about not allowing anyone to walk over your legs explains why I am only five feet tall. Must be something to that! This books brings back when fun was just plain fun and although Lyla wanted the same furs as her friends it seemed like living her life and finally being able to venture out on her own was all that really mattered. Her first bank account I remember that it was exciting to put your first dollar in your account and see it in the bank book. I love the poem: Owed to a Charge Account reminding me that credit was extended by many businessmen and my parents never let us carry money anywhere we were told to charge it to his account of course within reason. Putting on a good face and learning how to create the right high cheek bones. Having June for a sister to teach her the makeup ropes must have been fun and the next chapter that tells of the wedding Trousseau where was the Blyman when I was growing up? Baleboosteh: Mistress of the House: is hilarious as before Passover all the dishes were not traded for another set as my grandmother did, but washed, cleaned and the shelves scrubbed to make way for them to be put back and used for the holiday. Learning about her mother and listening to her tell about her weight problem and diet reminds me of my mother too. This book is fantastic and whether you grew up in that time period or not there is so much you can learn and the memories are amazing. Some shoe stores believe it or not use the metal shoe measurer today and I always find it fun to get my foot measured. It’s amazing how accurate the salesman usually is. The High Rise building and the elevator operators who would decide how many trips you could have in a day. The love of Schrafft’s and my favorite till this day is Chock Full O’ Nuts Coffee of course I drink only Decaf. The descriptions of the cakes, food and ice cream will make your mouth water and the history of the restaurants and the pictures brings it all to life.
During the week instead of going to school Lyla was privileged to go with her father to the racetrack. Learning the meaning of a 2 dollar bet and then having her father share his winnings with her and her sister and brother was really interesting as they could not come along on her fun excursions. Skipping school was allowed if her parents wanted her to do something else.
The author allows readers inside the sets of the movie studio and describes them in vivid Technicolor followed by her volunteer service to American Women’s Voluntary Services where two days a week she and her best friend collected tin foil and rolled it into balls and recycled and used for military parts and `for parts of airplanes. Helping out at a nursery school and taking a class of three and four year olds to Central Park had to be fun yet challenging. But, the war brought her someone special: her amazing husband whose mother made the match.
Can the past ever be forgotten or remembered in the present as the author in the chapter titled The Closing remembers her school, some friends and the fact that cities are not sentimental although we might be about them. She concludes with a Hebrew School lesson. I was fortunate to go to Hebrew School and was the only member of my family sister and cousins included that graduated. Trying to justify whey she sent two girls from a non-observant Jewish home to a place that focused on Jewish customs would lead to the question as to why they had a Christmas tree. Doing the right thing and sending her daughters to learn about their ancestors answers that question but there is much more that she shares the reaction of her daughters and their reaction to Christmas. The rest you will have to learn when you read this book and learn what her family and she did to celebrate the Festival of Lights and Christmas. She ends with a poem called Gray Matter and photos that are priceless and which are autographed by famous stars and pictures of her with famous actors, theater playbills and much more. Take the trip back in time and join Lyla for her first taste of seeded rye, the fun of playing marbles and creating her own business and just loving growing up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side. A serious must read for everyone young, young adults and adults. Values, friendships, trust, overbearing yet wonderful parents, lessons learned about school, makeup, even the turnabout that her kids had about the two holidays will endear you not only to the story but will make it one that can be used for discussion groups and to reminisce about the good old days.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine