The school was in a tough neighborhood. All the students were of
Italian-Catholic extraction except two of us, who were Jewish.
On my second day, as we were walking through the hallway changing classes,
a boy called out, "Hey, Jew bastard!"
At first, I didnt realize the remark was aimed at me. A moment
later, another voice said, "Christ killer! Whatre ya doin here, Jew
This bigotry was something Id never experienced before. I
didnt even know what a Christ killer was. I was confused, and, for some reason that
I couldnt understand, I felt different. Id done something wrong and I
couldnt put my finger on it. It had to be me, but I had no idea what it was or how
to deal with it. I felt ashamed in some way and didnt know why.
There was an exit at each end of the main-floor hallway. On my third day
at the school, I sauntered out of the usual exit that was the shortest way home. I found
myself among seven or eight kids who started calling me names, all relating to my Jewish
heritage and what I personally had done to Christ. Then a fist hit the side of my head and
I was tossed from one to the other. The only thing they didnt do was kick, but by
the time I got home, my nose was bloody, my shirt was bloodstained and torn, and one of my
eyes was pretty swollen. I cleaned myself up and changed my clothes. When my mother came
home, I thought she was going to faint. She called my father at work. The next day, Dad
escorted me to school where we went to the principals office.
folks decided to move closer to Dads work in Greenwich Village, at 136 Waverly
Place. I transferred to a boys public elementary school on Varick Street. Going there, I
found my way through wonderful Bleeker Street. Both sides of the street were loaded from
one end to the other with pushcarts, leaving a single aisle for auto traffic to get
through. Through the shops, Italian delis and bakeries, with their doors open in the
spring, summer, and fall months, wafted the odors of cheeses, sausages, and newly baked
breads until you went almost crazy from the wonderful smells. I walked through it on my
way to and from school.
But it was there,
also, that I got my first taste of bigotry in the form of anti-semitism.
The principal was a nice man who knew I didnt belong there, for both
economic and religious reasons, but there was little he could do about controlling the
behavior of an entire school. Word got around about my father bringing me to school, and
that made the situation worse. Now I was not only a Christ killer, but a sissy as well.
At the end of each school day, I got in the habit of looking down the
hallway, through the glass doors, to see which one was clear and which one had a group of
my "playmates" waiting for me. The insults during class changes kept up. Though
I didnt realize it at the time, this affected my self-esteem. In some way, I
wasnt as good as the other kids, and, more important, I was different. I remember
crying in my room at home, not knowing what Id done wrong or how to fix it.
Its the worst thing that can happen to a child.
Though Ive come to understand it since, I know it has left scars in
me. To this day, I become infuriated at anyone who downgrades someone because of race or
religion. Perhaps it was a good lesson I learned at the right time, but I know what it
must do to children who are different. It affects each of us for all our lives.
After a month or so of feeling intimidated and inferior, I started getting
angry. About two blocks from the school, in the opposite direction from where we lived,
there was a vacant lot between two large buildings. Id noticed that this was the
route my "friendly exercise team" traveled. One afternoon, about half an hour
after Id made a successful escape out of the empty hall doorway, I stationed myself
on the vacant lot just around the corner from the building. Id found a one-by-six
board, about three feet long, lying there and I was holding it poised in both hands.
I waited what seemed like an hour, but couldnt have been more than
ten minutes, peeking around the corner now and then to see if anyone was coming. Sure
enough, along came one of my main tormentors. As he reached the corner of the building, I
stepped out and swung the board as hard as I could, hitting him right in the solar plexus.
He doubled up and went down on his hands and knees gasping for air. I raised the board and
brought it down flat on his back. He collapsed to the sidewalk and rolled over slowly.
Seeing it was me, he crossed his hands over his face to protect himself from what he
thought would be a third blow. When I saw that he was finished, I tossed the board down.
"If you dont stop, Im going to get each of you, one by
one. Understand?" I said.
He was too out of breath and surprised to answer, so I picked the board up
again. He nodded his head a bunch of times and gasped, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah."
I tossed the board down and walked away. When I was about a hundred feet or so past him I
heard him yell out at me, "You wait Jew boy, youll get yours!"
Theres just no teaching some people.
I was left pretty much alone, from the beatings anyway. The catcalls in
the hallways continued. But I paid less and less attention to them. Id made my
What really tore it for me was something that happened one morning in
English class. A really tough kid had been paddled by the teacher with a wooden yardstick
one day for an infraction. He had an older brother, perhaps seventeen or so, a school
dropout who hung around his neighborhood most of the day playing cards and getting into
minor scrapes. The "boy" was big and muscular for his age. He came marching into
the classroom, called to his brother and asked, "Is this the guy?"
My classmate stood up and said, "Yeah, hes the one,"
whereupon the dropout took the yardstick away from the teacher and proceeded to beat the
living daylights out of the poor man.
When the teacher finally fell to the floor, the "boy" spat on
him and said, "Dont ever touch my brother again or Ill come back and
really beat the shit out of you." Then he left.
We sat there in shock. Someone went to see if the man was still alive. He
was helped to his feet and two boys took him to the infirmary. I got up, gathered my books
and went home, where I found my mother just ready to go out. I told her what had happened
and she called my father at work.
Several days later, I transferred back to P.S. 108. It was a twenty-minute
subway ride, but worth every minute, and I could do my homework en route when and
if I did my homework. I wasnt much of a student.
Upon graduation from P.S. 108, which was an elementary school up through
junior high, I enrolled in De Witt Clinton in the Bronx. It was a nice high school, but
the average class size was fifty-five. I was bored to death within a month. It took an
hour each way on the subway, which I usually spent reading the latest detective novel.