A Jewish Bronx Tale

I received this over e-mail from David Wekstein:


The¬† South Bronx in 1950 was the home of a large and thriving community, predominantly Jewish. In the 1950s the¬† Bronx offered synagogues, mikvas, kosher bakeries, and kosher butchers — all the comforts one would expect from an observant Orthodox Jewish community.

The baby boom of the postwar years happily resulted in many new young parents. As a matter of course, the¬† South Bronx had its own baby equipment store, Sickser’s.

Sickser’s was located on the corner of¬† Westchester and Fox, and specialized in “everything for the baby” as its slogan ran.

The inventory began with cribs, baby carriages, playpens, high chairs, changing tables, and toys. It went way beyond these to everything a baby could want or need. Mr. Sickser, assisted by his son-in-law Lou Kirshner, ran a profitable business out of the needs of the rapidly expanding child population.

The language of the store was primarily Yiddish, but Sickser’s was a place where not only Jewish families but also many non-Jewish ones could acquire the necessary for their newly arrived bundles of joy.¬† Business was particularly busy one spring day, so much so that Mr. Sickser and his son-in-law could not handle the unexpected throng of customers.¬† Desperate for help, Mr. Sickser ran out of the store and stopped the first youth he spotted on the street. “Young man,” he panted, “how would you like to make a little extra money? I need some help in the store. You want to work a little?”

The tall, lanky black boy flashed a toothy smile back. “Yes, sir, I’d like some work.” “Well then, let’s get started.”

The boy followed his new employer into the store. Mr. Sickser was immediately impressed with the boy’s good manners and demeanor.

As the days went by and he came again and again to lend his help, Mr.Sickser and Lou both became increasingly impressed with the youth’s diligence, punctuality, and readiness to learn. Eventually Mr. Sickser made him a regular employee at the store. It was gratifying to find an employee with an almost soldier-like willingness to perform even the most menial of tasks, and to perform them well.

From the age of thirteen until his sophomore year in college, this young man put in from twelve to fifteen hours a week, at 50 to 75 cents an hour.¬† Mostly, he performed general labor: assembling merchandise, unloading trucks and preparing items for shipments. He seemed, in his quiet way, to appreciate not only the steady employment but also the friendly atmosphere Mr.Sickser’s store offered.

Mr. Sickser and Lou learned in time about their helper’s Jamaican origins, and he in turn picked up a good deal of Yiddish.

In time the young man was able to converse fairly well with his employers, and more importantly, with a number of the Jewish customers whose English was not fluent. At the age of seventeen, the young man, while still working part-time at Sickser’s, began his first semester at City College of¬† New York . He fit in just fine with his, for the most part Jewish classmates, hardly surprising, considering that he already knew their ways and their language.

But the heavy studying in the engineering and, later, geology courses he chose proved quite challenging. The young man would later recall that Sickser’s offered the one stable point in his life those days.

In 1993, in his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two years after he guided the American victory over¬† Iraq in the Gulf War, General Colin Powell visited the¬† Holy Land. Upon meeting¬† Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in¬† Jerusalem, he greeted the Israeli with the word
“Men kent reden Yiddish” (We can speak Yiddish).

As Shamir, stunned, tried to pull himself together, the current Secretary Of State continued chatting in his second-favorite language. Colin Powell never forgot his early days working at Sickser’s.


The Yiddish-Speaking Parrot

Meyer, a lonely widower, was walking home along Delancy Street in New York City one day, wishing something wonderful would happen in his life, when he passed a pet store and heard a squawky voice shouting
out: “Squawwwwk…vus macht du?… Yeah, du … outside, standing like
a putzel…eh?”

Meyer rubbed his eyes and ears. He couldn’t believe it. The proprietor sprang out of the door and grabbed Meyer by the sleeve. “Come in here, fella, and check out this parrot.” Meyer stood in front of an African
Grey parrot that cocked his little head and said: “Vus? Kenst reddin Yiddish?” Meyer turned excitedly to the store owner. “He speaks Yiddish?” “Vuh den? Chinese maybe?”

In a matter of moments, Meyer had placed five hundred dollars down on the counter and carried the parrot in his cage away with him. All night he talked with the parrot. In Yiddish. He told the parrot about his
father’s adventures coming to America. About how beautiful his mother was when she was a young bride. About his family. About his years of working in the garment center. About Florida. The parrot listened and commented. They shared some walnuts. The parrot told him of living in the pet store, how he hated the
weekends. They both went to sleep.

Next morning, Meyer began to put on his tfillin, all the while saying his prayers. The parrot demanded to know
what he was doing, and when Meyer explained, the parrot wanted some too. Meyer went out and had a miniature set of tfillin hand-made for the parrot. The parrot wanted to learn to daven and learned every prayer. He wanted to learn to read Hebrew, so Meyer spent weeks and months, sitting and teaching the
parrot, teaching him Torah. In time, Meyer came to love and count on the parrot as a friend and a Jew. He had been saved.

One morning, on Rosh Hashanah, Meyer rose and got dressed and was about to leave for the Shul when
the parrot demanded to go with him. Meyer explained that Shul was not a place for a bird but the parrot made a terrific argument and was carried to Shul on Meyer’s shoulder. Needless to say, they made quite a spectacle, and Meyer was questioned by everyone, including the Rabbi and Cantor. They refused to
allow a bird into the building on the High Holy Days but Meyer convinced them to let him in this one time, swearing that the parrot could daven. Wagers were made with Meyer. Thousands of dollars were bet (odds were even given) that the parrot could NOT daven, could NOT speak Yiddish or Hebrew, etc. All eyes
were on the African Grey during services.

The parrot perched on Meyer’s shoulder as one prayer and song were chanted. Meyer heard not a peep from
the bird. He began to become annoyed, slapping at his shoulder and mumbling under his breath, “Daven!” …… Nothing. “Daven … parrot, you can daven, so daven … come on, everybody’s looking at you!” …… Nothing.

After Rosh Hashanah services were concluded, Meyer found that he owed his Shul buddies and the Rabbi over four thousand dollars. He marched home, pissed off, saying nothing. Finally, several blocks from the Temple,
the bird began to sing an old Yiddish song and was happy as a lark. Meyer stopped and looked at him. “You miserable bird, you cost me over four thousand dollars. Why? After I made your tfillin and taught you the morning prayers, and taught you to read Hebrew and the Torah. And after you begged me to bring
you to Shul on Rosh Hashanah. Why? Why did you do this to me?” “Don’t be a schmuck,” the parrot replied. “Think of the odds on Yom Kippur.”


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