The Move to Peekskill

The eulogist spoke:

They moved to Peekskill when “Azraelkeh” was a young boy where he grew up poor with his younger brother Paul.  Began kindergarten in Peekskill speaking only Yiddish, played sports, mastered English, graduated from Peekskill High in 1941.   At least one member of Irv’s class went on to serve as Mayor of Peekskill.

Irv was a member, as was Paul, of Boy Scout Troop 33 of the First Hebrew Congregation and they marched together in Peekskill parades under a banner representing the First Hebrew Congregation.    

These last two facts, the little mayor of Peekskill and the marching Hebrew Congregation Boy Scouts, are from my uncle.  First time I heard either one was at the grave.  

My Uncle Paul was my only uncle, my father’s younger brother.  My mother was an only child, so Uncle Paul was it for uncles for my sister and me.  My father only told one childhood story about him and his brother.  I have come to think this relative parsimony about tales from the past may be a generational thing.  At least this was generally true in my family, except for Eli, who was extremely generous with stories.   I have to say, in defense of their policy of general silence about the past, that it seems many of the stories would have been painful ones.

The story my father told about his little brother was the time they were alone at home and my father took the raw chopped meat that was waiting to be cooked for dinner and stuffed his helpless little brother’s mouth full of it.   Irv laughed, as at a fond memory, and told my sister and me the little story on more than one occasion.  It gave us a better idea of why our slight, delicate uncle always seemed to flinch around his much bigger older brother.  Uncle Paul would usually laugh a kind of inhaled, scraping laugh as he flinched, it sounded like a tin shovel encountering fine gravel.

The devil, one notices, is usually in the details.  The worst is sometimes betrayed by a single word.  If you’re not attentive, you can stumble right past the portal into the devilry, are left wondering what that infernal smell is.  The opposite is also true, a single word can make a great difference for the better.  It all depends on the word, of course.

The word I want to emphasize here is “poor”.  A single syllable that states the grim fact plainly and goes right by, having made its simple, terrible case.  

They moved to Peekskill when “Azraelkeh” was a young boy where he grew up poor with his younger brother Paul.

The reason they moved to Peekskill is so that Uncle Aren could look after his sister’s little family.  The three of them were in great distress down in the slums of New York City.  Azraelkeh, (the fond diminutive for Azrael) was an infant, already being subjected to great cruelty by Chava, his mother.  His father, Eliyahu, already poor, had lost his job wrestling herring barrels into Lower East Side shops and was unemployed.  There was no choice really as far as trying to deal with the misery of Aren’s sister’s situation.

“Where he grew up poor” carries a wallop, even as it is just a glancing blow in that sentence.  It is not hard to imagine how much misery there was for a young immigrant family in the slums of New York City in 1924.  Poverty today is the same horror for the poor, a timeless sentence, only probably even more violent today than back then.  It is not hard to picture the many terrors of that desperate, lawless section of town in 1924, 1925.

My father once mentioned a cousin of his, a young, handsome man, he said, who had taken his own life down in the misery of the Lower East Side of the 1920s.   America was the land of opportunity, home of The American Dream, but not everybody got to live the dream.  “I guess he suffered from what today would be called ‘Depression’,” said my father when he told me about that despairing young cousin.  

There is no telling how Aren wound up settling in Peekskill, a once thriving small town on the Hudson River fifty miles north of New York City.   When Aren arrived in New York City in 1904 he learned to vulcanize rubber.  This was at the dawn of the automobile, and his new skill was in increasing demand.  He worked in automobile-related fields for the rest of his life.  By 1925 he owned and operated a garage and service station in Peekskill.  He got wind of his little sister’s desperation and sent his rough son Eli down in the truck to pack up the little family and drive them up to Peekskill.    

Eli’s mother had died shortly after he was born.   Aren was unable to care for the baby, he had to work.  He felt he had no choice but to give the baby up for adoption.  His dead wife’s mother and sisters would not hear of it.   They took the baby Eli and raised him.  They had a farm in the Bronx.  The four women doted on little Eli.  

“When I was four, five years old, I ruled that place.  Whenever I said something, it was done.  I spoke and those women jumped.  My word was law!” he told a friend of mine in his rough voice.   She laughed, which caused Eli’s smile to become electric.  His hand on her knee, he leaned forward and whispered “which was very, very bad…”  

The little king did not take kindly to being disrespected by a teacher in High School, or by anybody else for that matter.   Weeks from graduation, with a large boil under the collar of his shirt, he told Mr. Pimsler, a Jewish teacher, a guy he generally liked, that he had to go out to his post in the hall.  The principal of DeWitt Clinton had enlisted his borderline juvenile delinquent students as the hall monitors, the Dotie Squad.  They kept order and got a feeling of pride and participation in a school that otherwise held limited interest for them.

“Pimsler told me ‘sit the hell down, Gleiberman, I’ll tell you when you can go,’ and I went to the door, told him I was sorry, but I was on the Dotie Squad and I couldn’t be late to my post.  He tried to stand in front of me, stop me, and I pushed past him and had my hand on the door knob when he grabbed me by the neck and busted that boil.  I saw red!  My fist flew out and I decked him, he went down.  I hated to do it, I had nothing against Pimsler, it was just a reaction.  Anyway, it was a few weeks before graduation, and I just walked out of the school and never went back.”

For some reason Eli didn’t get the unreservedly warm reception he was expecting when he shortly thereafter moved up to Peekskill to live with his father, his father’s second wife, Tamarka, and their children, his half-sister, the brilliant and beautiful Nehama, and half-brother, the brilliant and soon to be fabulously wealthy Dave.  He was also, according to him, unceremoniously welcomed to Peekskill by the brothers whose father owned the hardware store.  

“They stood in front of me on the sidewalk and said ‘hey, you’re that kyke Aren’s boy, aren’t you, the little Jew bastard from New York City?’ and I said to the one with the big mouth ‘that’s right’ and I decked him.  He went right down and the other two got out of the way.  ‘Nice to meet you, boys,’ I said.  They didn’t say much to me after that.  There were a lot of Klansmen in Peekskill back then.  If you took any shit from them, it would be very bad for you.”

Eli took Aren’s truck and drove the long way down to New York City to pick up his beloved Aunt Chava and her family.  In those days it was an arduous trip from New York City to Peekskill.  As children my sister and I were taken to Peekskill a couple of times, when my father visited the graves of his parents.  

It seemed to us hours away, the trip was grueling, with an aspect of time travel.  We both had the strong sense we were not traveling back to a time when ice cream was plentiful and everybody played happily until it got dark out every night.  I was shocked when we drove to my father’s funeral, on modern highways, that the trip only took about forty minutes.  

In 1925 or 1926, it was not a short trip.  There was a ferry that took passengers up the Hudson River and made a stop at Peekskill.  That trip by water was probably as fast as driving the narrow, winding roads back then, in the automobiles of the day.  There was also a train that could take you to Peekskill, probably in three or four hours.   But the little family on the Lower East Side needed to pack up everything, what little they owned, and put it on Aren’s truck for the move.  Eli reports they had very little by way of possessions.  I picture the four of them driving pressed together in the cab of the truck, my infant father on his father’s lap.

In a short time Paul would be born in Peekskill.  The boys would learn English, march as Jewish Boy Scouts through the streets of their hostile little town, play ball, graduate High School and, as soon as they could, leave Peekskill forever.   A few other things also happened in those years, and I will detail some of them in the next installment.

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