My father, the night before he died, told me I had no idea what it was like to have been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill, which he claimed to have been. This stunned me. There are many things you could say about my father, some of them not at all complimentary, but it was impossible to say he wasn’t extremely bright. Well-read, with an excellent memory and a quick wit, it didn’t take more than a short chat with him to realize how intelligent he was.
I asked him how he could possibly say he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.
“Hmmmmf, by far!” he huffed, more than seventy years later, still convinced he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill. There were a handful of Jewish families in Peekskill back then, most of them, I imagine, gathered in the tiny First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill, a narrow white structure as austere looking as a Lutheran church. The Jewish kids of Peekskill were a fairly small, random group of kids. Unless fate had strewn an astoundingly improbable group of young Jewish geniuses in Peekskill, I had no idea how he could make this claim. He died a few hours after insisting he’d been, by far, the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill, so I never had a chance to follow up.
“Well, I can’t help you much here, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father. “As you know, I know pretty much what you know about any of this.”
Let us look at what is known, then. By 1929 or 1930 when you started kindergarten, you spoke no English, only Yiddish. Though you were born in New York City, you didn’t understand the most basic English questions put to you by teacher and classmates. Your mother famously went to school and faced the principal, who wanted to know how it was that an American boy came to school knowing no English. She delivered the line that had probably been fed to her, a line immortalized (so to speak) by Eli. “He’ll loin…” she assured the principal, in one of her few English sentences.
“Well, she was right about that,” said the skeleton.
Your vision was 20/400 meaning you could not clearly see your mocking little classmates’ faces, or much of anything else. Not much reading in kindergarten, so no worries there, but classmates’ feet, thrust in your path, would not be easily seen. You were bigger than the other kids, maybe your mother didn’t enroll you when you were first eligible. So, as far as you were treated by your merciless little classmates, you were the Big Dummy.
“I was the Big Dummy,” said the skeleton.
Hold on, there. If you were legally blind, and hampered by not knowing English, how is any of that a reflection on your intelligence, which is obviously far above average?
“I was the dumbest Jewish kid in that school, there is no doubt about that,” said the skeleton.
Here’s what I’m thinking. You emerge from kindergarten with half decent English and you’re put into the dumb class for first grade. Most of the Jewish kids are in the other class, as Jews were famously studious, especially back then when immigrant Jews pushed their first generation American children hard. Maybe there are a couple of Jewish kids with you in the dumb class, but they are gone by the time you are promoted, still blind, to second grade. Now we are in 1931 or 1932. The Depression is in full, depressing swing. Your family, poor before the Depression hit, is now the poorest family in that hard-hit river town.
“That much is all true,” said the skeleton.
Herbert Hoover was still the president, presiding over the shit-show that would doom his presidency. Hoover was no friend of the working man, or the unemployed man either, for that matter, or the children of such men. That’s one reason he lost the Electoral College 472-59 to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, class traitor.
“We can get into FDR some other time. He ran against a Socialist candidate and a Communist candidate, as well as Hoover. They didn’t get any electoral votes, natch, but their movements were forces in society in 1932. FDR saved America for capitalism with his New Deal, but that is not what we’re talking about here.”
I recall you telling me that the eye-glasses I selected, when I was a teenager, wire frames based on John Lennon’s, were just like the glasses you wore, the humiliating badge of being on Relief.
“They made us wear those wire rimmed glasses, the cheapest to produce, I guess, and it was a sign to everyone we passed that we were on the dole,” said the skeleton.
But here’s the question, dad, now unanswerable with anything besides my best guess: what year did you get those Relief glasses? To ask it differently: how old were you before you could finally see?
“Well, obviously, Elie, I can’t tell you that, but, before you pursue this theory, you recall that I always flipped my glasses up on top of my head and held the newspaper close to my face, I didn’t need glasses to see up close. I was near-sighted, like Magoo.”
OK, fine. You also had Lasik surgery toward the end of your life that made your vision basically 20/20.
“Yop,” said the skeleton.
I’m picturing you in first grade, in that class with the other dumbest kids in Peekskill, and the teacher is pointing at the letter A on the board in front of the room. The other kids are all chanting “A”. The teacher is holding up words that start with A, with pictures. Apple, alligator, asshole. You are muttering along with them, but could not possibly see the letters she was teaching you.
“I don’t know, I have no specific memory of this, but it sounds plausible,” said the skeleton.
At the end of Hoover’s term he passed some kind of half-hearted Relief Act, but it was directed toward the states, as far as I can tell, bailing them out of boiling water. I doubt glasses for kids were even a remote consideration in that first bill. FDR, shortly after his inauguration on March 4, 1933 (a month and a few days after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany) passed an Emergency Relief Act that might have covered glasses for poor kids. If so, your first pair of glasses might have been made around your ninth birthday, meaning you were legally blind from kindergarten to, say, fourth grade.
“Your guess is as good as a dead man’s,” said the skeleton.
If your first pair of glasses were made under the Social Security Act, that would have been 1935, when you were eleven.
“The math is right,” said the skeleton.
“I note here, while we’re doing the math, that I was fourteen when the federal minimum wage law was passed. We take Social Security and the shamefully low Minimum Wage for granted. But the same law that mandated a federal minimum wage also created the forty hour week (something else we take for granted) and banned child labor. Meaning, if my vision had been OK, any time before my bar mitzvah I could have legally been forced to work in some factory, for as many hours as required and for whatever slave wage offered, if a job had been available. Ain’t dat some shit?”
Dassum shit, as my father used to say.