In protest, Rabbi Avi Weiss quits Rabbinical Council of America


Rabbi Avi Weiss is quitting the Rabbinical Council of America to protest its failure to admit as members rabbis whose sole ordination is from the rabbinical school he founded.

The RCA, the main association of modern Orthodox rabbis in America, has yet to grant membership to rabbis who have been ordained only from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Weiss established the rabbinical seminary in 2000 as an alternative to Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Chovevei Torah, which is located at Weiss’ synagogue, ordains a handful of rabbis each year and is now led by Rabbi Asher Lopatin.

After Chovevei Torah graduates failed to gain membership to the RCA, Weiss co-founded an alternative rabbinic group, the.

“As an act of protest I have not paid my dues to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and have now allowed my membership to lapse,” Weiss wrote in an email message on Monday. “I have chosen to leave the RCA foremost because of its attitude towards Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the rabbinical school I founded years ago.

“If YCT rabbis – with YCT semikha only – cannot join the RCA, neither can I be part of this rabbinical group,” Weiss wrote.

The RCA did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Weiss has been a frequent critic of the RCA, most recently for centralizing control of Orthodox conversions in America.

Shortly after Weiss made his announcement, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of the Ohev Shalom synagogue in Washington and a former assistant rabbi to Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, announced that he, too, was quitting the RCA.

Broadcast newsman Murray Fromson looks back at storied career


As a young child growing up in the Bronx, N.Y., Murray Fromson admired Edward R. Murrow’s reports from London during World War II.

“I was enamored of him,” Fromson said. “I’d go to sleep with a pencil under my pillow, pretending it was a microphone.”

Not only did Fromson eventually meet and befriend his idol, but Fromson, too, went on to become a respected newsman. During his 35 years in broadcasting, Fromson covered events ranging from the Vietnam War to President Richard Nixon’s summits with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. After leaving the news media, Fromson continued to influence future journalists as a professor and director at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

On a recent April morning, Fromson, 85, sat in his Brentwood living room with Dodi, his wife of 54 years. Papers, periodicals and books covered many surfaces, and the walls were decorated with carvings, tapestries and other artwork acquired during the years he was a correspondent in Southeast Asia. The couple were anticipating their annual trip to Israel for the International Board of Governors’ meeting at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Dodi served on the Board of the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU), which raises funds and awareness of the university in the United States.

The couple sponsors the Murray Fromson Media Mission, now in its 10th year, which brings American journalists to the university to learn firsthand about its innovative research. This reporter was one of nine participants on the most recent mission, which focused on medical advances.

“Dodi and Murray Fromson are part of a core of visionary leaders who have worked hard to raise the profile of Ben-Gurion University and draw people to its extraordinary role in the building of the State of Israel,” said Doron Krakow, executive vice president of  AABGU. “Their support of AABGU’s annual media mission, which bears Murray’s name, has helped promote the university’s extraordinary contributions to an array of fields of scientific research that have literally put us on the radar of millions of American readers and consumers of news.”

 One might say that repression of Soviet Jews brought about the Fromson Media Mission. The Fromsons lived in Moscow from 1972 to 1974 while Murray served as bureau chief and foreign correspondent for CBS News. Although they considered themselves “secular Reform” Jews, the Fromsons identified strongly with their Judaism and befriended many Soviet Jews. 

“We tried to visit them, support them and encourage them,” Dodi said. Knowing that they were under surveillance, she invented coded terms to arrange meeting places and times. She recalled using Magic Slates, the children’s toy with a stylus that writes on a plastic sheet, and can be erased by lifting the sheet. 

Murray also faced challenges on a professional level. He was accompanied by a “friendly” KGB agent and had to overcome Soviet bureaucracy to file his stories. Film for one report, for example, took two months to reach CBS headquarters — it was routed via Mongolia. 

The Fromsons’ children, Lisa and Derek, were elementary school-aged during their years in Moscow. Lisa, in particular, was struck by the repression under which Soviet Jews lived. Refuseniks, those denied permission to emigrate to Israel, were subject to such harassment as being prevented from getting jobs and being interrogated by the KGB. Most knew little about their heritage, yet it played a major role in their lives. 

Lisa chose to explore her Judaism by attending college in Israel at Ben-Gurion. Eventually, she changed her name to Aliza and made aliyah in tribute to a refusenik family. She subsequently worked at the university, as a liaison to the Board of Governors and as the university president’s assistant for international affairs. 

Through their daughter’s affiliation, the Fromsons grew attached to the institution.

“BGU is very contagious,” Dodi said. In the early days, “there was no culture except what the students created themselves. … It bred an incredible feeling. … We caught the bug, and we just can’t get rid of it.”

 

M

urray Fromson’s first byline appeared in his school newspaper. His family had moved to Los Angeles from the Bronx when he was 11, and he wrote about watching his classmates of Japanese descent being pulled out of class and taken away during World War II. 

He served as a copy boy and stringer at the Los Angeles Times, wrote for the Los Angeles Mirror and reported for Stars and Stripes during the Korean War. Subsequently, he joined the Associated Press, serving first in the U.S. and then in Southeast Asia.

In 1960, Fromson decided to move into the burgeoning new broadcast news industry. After a short stint with NBC, he landed at CBS, where he remained for the remainder of his broadcasting career. For much of the next 15 years, Fromson was based in Southeast Asia, where he covered the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, among other events. In the U.S., he covered such major events as the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race and the civil rights movement in the South. 

It’s hard to encapsulate so many years of activity, and Fromson shares that his memory for details has gotten hazy. Nevertheless, he has anecdotes galore about events and personalities. Among the notable figures he’s met are John F. Kennedy (“He charmed everybody. We [journalists] fell all over him.”), the Dalai Lama (“He was soft-spoken. Polite. Friendly.”) and Richard Nixon (“He was cold as a fish.”).

Certain stories stand out as particularly memorable. One involved the airlift of 243 Vietnamese orphans as part of Operation Babylift in 1975. These children, mostly biracial offspring of servicemen and local women, were to be flown to the United States and adopted by waiting families. The Air Force cargo plane, which Fromson said he later learned was “put together with chewing gum and bailing wire,” crashed landed after the cargo door broke off during flight. About half of those on board were killed.

Describing the devastation as he reported from the scene, Fromson said, “What can one say, except, ‘When will the misery in this country ever stop?’ ” 

Another incident that made a lifelong impact on Fromson occurred during the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He stood about 10 yards away from John Lewis when Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was beaten violently.

At the second march two days later, Fromson was summoned to speak with Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader, who knew about Fromson’s stint in Vietnam, inquired about the treatment of Black servicemen by their white peers. 

“I told him, ‘War is hell and we don’t think about things like that. Blacks defend whites and whites defend Blacks. There was no racism,’ ” Fromson said. “He was rather surprised. And then of course, he ended up delivering this incredible sermon coming out against the war.”

But things were different in the service than they were in the American South. “I saw this hatred, this racism all along,” Fromson recalled. “There was this terrible sheriff, Jimmy Clark, who instigated a lot of the violence against the marchers.” After a civil rights volunteer from Detroit was murdered, “Clark told [a group of reporters], ‘The n—–s did it.’ We just got sick. It was a terrible time.”

Fromson shared a more lighthearted memory involving then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. At the time, Fromson was covering Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Richard Nixon’s running mate, during the 1960 presidential campaign. At a hotel in Fort Worth, Texas, Fromson stepped into an elevator and found himself face to face with LBJ.

As he tells the story, Fromson adopted Johnson’s Texan accent. “He said to me, ‘Whatcha doin’ here?’ I said, ‘Well, sir, I’m covering Nixon.’ ‘Coverin’ Nixon? You should be coverin’ me!’ ” 

Johnson invited Fromson to visit his ranch, along with reporters from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. As they headed back from a rally in Fredericksburg, Texas, it began to pour. The group needed to switch to a vehicle more suitable for navigating the wet terrain. 

“Johnson gets in the cab, straddles the gear shift, and pulls me in on his lap! I sat in the lap of a future president of the United States!”

Fromson turned serious as he offered an assessment of Johnson. “He was an important figure in American history: He supported the Voting Rights Act and civil liberties. I know Vietnam tortured him. He didn’t know what to do about that.”

“I have this bitterness about Vietnam,” Fromson said. “Fifty-six thousand Americans were killed in Vietnam. Why? … Because of fear of communist China. We have to remember our history. It’s an obligation of citizenship.” 

His concern extends not just to citizens, whom he said aren’t paying attention to important issues, but to the state of broadcast news as well. “It had the potential to be the most important vehicle by which the American people could be informed. And now it’s only about the most sensational thing.”

Fromson’s reach extended beyond reporting the news to helping to preserve the rights of reporters. In 1969, the Nixon administration threatened to subpoena journalists to try to force them to name confidential sources considered anti-war activists. Fromson and his colleague, Tony Lukas from The New York Times, proposed organizing journalists to defend their First Amendment rights. The two reached out to colleagues, and in March 1970, more than 30 reporters gathered and established the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Still in existence today, this organization provides free legal assistance to journalists and advocates for freedom of access to government information.

Fromson joined the faculty of USC in 1982, and served as director of the School of Journalism from 1994 to 1999. He founded the university’s Center for International Journalism, a program which brought working journalists, predominantly from Latin America, to earn master’s degrees. Fromson so profoundly inspired his students from Mexico that they subsequently campaigned for and achieved a Freedom of Information Act in that country.
He considers this one of his proudest accomplishments.

Describing his role model, Murrow, Murray Fromson said, “He was a wonderful human being. He set a standard.”

At his USC retirement celebration in 2006, similar sentiments were shared about Fromson. One former student recalled, “He was always demanding we push ourselves just a little bit further, that we think a little more critically, that we probe those unobvious aspects of an issue, a story or a trend.”

 

——-

Correction: The article and a photo caption was corrected to reflect that the Fromsons have not served on the board ot BGU, but are longtime supporters. Dodi Fromson has served on the board of AABGU.

Detroit ‘hero’ Hank Greenberg’s Jewishness


The big question in Detroit in the fall of 1934 had nothing to do with the troubled state of the world. Rather, the fans of the Detroit Tigers wanted to know whether their star first baseman, Hank Greenberg, was going to play on the Jewish High Holy Days. After all, the Tigers were in first place and they were contesting the New York Yankees for the pennant.

“The three Detroit dailies issued extra editions with updates every half hour,” John Rosengren writes in “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” (New American Library: $26.95), a spirited and insightful biography of the first Jewish ballplayer to achieve iconic status. “ ‘Hank is headed for the synagogue;’ ‘Hank is headed for the ballpark.’ … Detroit baseball fans grumbled: ‘Rosh Hashanah comes every year, but the Tigers haven’t won the pennant since 1909.’”

Sometimes the narrative in Rosengren’s biography reads like a Jewish joke. One local rabbi ruled that the Talmud allowed Greenberg to play, but another rabbi read the same texts and came to a different conclusion.  Ultimately, he was forced to decide for himself.  “He stood, undressed and slowly put on his uniform,” Rosengren reminds us. When he hit a ball out of the park, the grateful fans shouted: “Happy New Year!”

Hank’s parents back in New York, Sarah and David Greenberg, were observant Jews from Romania. They expected their son — whom they variously called Hyman, Hymie or Hy, although “Henry” appeared on his birth certificate  — to put family, school and religion before sports. Of course, they wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer. But Rosengren points out that Hank’s Jewish background was actually an advantage when he was looking for a way to break into pro ball.

New York’s team owners recognized that a significant fraction of their fans were Jewish, and they were actively recruiting Jewish players. “A home run hitter with a Jewish name in New York would be worth a million dollars,” John McGraw, the storied manager of the Giants, told the New York Tribune.  The Yankees courted Greenberg, but he ultimately accepted an offer of $9,000 from the Tigers and won his father’s blessing: “I thought baseball was a game,” said Pop. “But it’s a business — apparently a very good business. Take the money.” By the fall of 1934, he was playing first base for Detroit.

Detroit, of course, was the home of Henry Ford, whose Dearborn Independent served as an outlet for ugly anti-Semitic propaganda: “American baseball has passed into the hands of the Jews.” Detroit was “a lonely place for Hank Greenberg, the young Jewish transplant from the Bronx.” And yet, amid the alarming news about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s, Greenberg represented “the elusive Hebrew star,” as the American Hebrew wrote, “for whose discovery and acquisition John McGraw…spent fortunes in vain.”

“Hank Greenberg” is an inside-baseball book, and Rosengren expertly analyzes and explains Greenberg’s career on the field.  Like every baseball book, stats play a prominent role. But the author also captures the human drama in Greenberg’s life and career, and, above all, the dire political and cultural background against which the game of baseball was played in the 1930s and 1940s.

“In a dark time, Hank was certainly giving the Jewish community something to cheer, but he was doing something even more significant: In an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent, Greenberg stood as a mighty figure and, in his image as a home-run slugger, a symbol of power,” writes Rosengren. “He changed the way Jews thought about themselves. And the way others thought about them.”

I started watching and playing baseball only after Greenberg’s career had ended, but I learned his name at an early age. Indeed, Hank Greenberg is still revered in Jewish circles.  Yet, as Rosengren points out in rich detail, Greenberg’s sense of Jewish identity had little to do with religious observance and much more to do with showing the world that Jews could achieve greatness in the national sport.

On Yom Kippur in 1959, for example, he told his young children that they would not be attending school on the Jewish holiday.  Rather than taking them to shul, however, he took them to the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan.  “It was several years before I realized,” recalls his son, Steve, “that Yom Kippur was not a day that Jews went to the planetarium.”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Bronx terrorists ‘wanted to commit jihad’ [VIDEO]


The four men who planned to blow up two synagogues in the Bronx “wanted to commit jihad,” the New York Police commissioner said.

James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams and Laguerre Payen also wanted to shoot down military planes, according to reports.

The four men, all of Newburgh 60 miles north of New York, were arrested Wednesday night. Payen is a native of Haiti. All four are Muslims, and three reportedly are recent converts to Islam.

“They stated that they wanted to commit jihad,” Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Thursday morning during a news conference at the Riverdale Jewish Center, one of the targeted synagogues.

“More information about their motives I’m sure will be developed as the case progresses, but right now they stated they wanted to make jihad. They were disturbed about what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that Muslims were being killed,” he said. “They were making statements that Jews were killed in this attack and that would be all right—that sort of thing.”

Kelly said the men, who are scheduled to be arraigned Thursday morning in Federal District Court, were not acting on behalf of any terrorist organizations and described them as “petty criminals” with multiple arrests for minor crimes.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s statement, an informant working with the FBI this month provided the four men with a disabled anti-aircraft missile launcher and disabled explosives. The men on Wednesday planted the fake explosives, which they believed to be real, in cars parked outside the Riverdale Temple, a Reform synagogue, and the Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue.

Last month, according to the statement and to the criminal complaint, the defendants photographed several synagogues and a Jewish community center in the Riverdale section of the Bronx as well as the Air National Guard Base in Newburgh.

Cromitie, who according to the complaint told the informant that his parents once lived in Afghanistan, allegedly expressed an interest in working with the Pakistan-based Islamist terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed.

The first meeting between the informer and Cromitie took place in June 2008 in a mosque in Newburgh.

“While the weapons provided to the defendants by the cooperating witness were fake, the defendants thought they were absolutely real,” acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin said in the statement.  “The defendants planned to strike military planes with surface-to-air guided missiles and to destroy a synagogue and a Jewish community center with C-4 plastic explosives.”

Courtesy CNN.com

‘The First Basket’ depicts journey from Ellis Island to shooting hoops


It’s true that major league baseball has seen a renaissance of Jewish players during the past few years, but the historic American Jewish sport is surely basketball.

It makes sense if you think about it: Easy to play on the concrete surfaces that are ubiquitous in urban areas, basketball was the sport most accessible to the sons of the immigrants who had flocked to the United States between 1880 and 1920.

As David Vyorst makes clear in his comprehensive and entertaining documentary, “The First Basket,” those sons took to the game with fervor. Interview after interview with former players and coaches makes clear that basketball, not religious observance, was what mattered to this Americanizing generation.

“My father was busy trying to make a living. My mother was busy taking care of the household. And we were busy in the streets, and in the schoolyard, playing basketball and growing up,” Ralph Kaplowitz says in the film. Kaplowitz lived in the Bronx and later played two years for the New York Knicks.

Kaplowitz wasn’t alone in making a religion out of basketball: The Jewish kids who learned the game in the rough-and-tumble New York City neighborhoods of Brooklyn’s Brownsville and Williamsburg, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, later stocked the top collegiate teams and the early professional ranks.

The trailer

Indeed, the film’s name stems from the fact that in 1946, a Jewish player, Ossie Schectman, scored the first basket in the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to today’s National Basketball Association.

Considering the paucity of Jewish players in today’s NBA (there’s currently one, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jordan Farmar), it’s astonishing to remember that several members of Schechtman’s 1946-1947 Knicks team were Jewish, as were players on other teams. Some still affectionately refer to the game that they and top coaches such as Red Sarachek and Red Auerbach developed — emphasizing teamwork, crisp passing and defense — as “Jew ball.”

This style of play originated earlier in the 20th century, when Jewish players competed on both the amateur and semiprofessional levels. Teams were sponsored by settlement houses that wanted to Americanize immigrants, and by labor unions and Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring branches.

Players on the most famous of these teams, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, or SPHAs, wore Hebrew letters and Stars of David on their uniforms. What’s more, after many SPHAs games, the court was turned into a dance floor where young Jews could socialize and look for husbands and wives. Some of the figures mentioned in “The First Basket” — Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and current NBA Commissioner David Stern, both of whom were interviewed in the film — are well known.

Others are less familiar to casual fans. Barney Sedran, for instance, was an early 20th-century player who, at 5 feet 4 inches, is believed to be the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame. During his heyday in the 1910s and ’20s, Sedran played in as many as three games a day, often for different teams.

The Jewish connection to basketball isn’t entirely rosy. “The First Basket” points out that the roots of the 1950s-era college basketball scandals rest in the Catskills summer resorts. The cooks apparently were the first to fix the games with college players, who were there for summer jobs and a bit of basketball.

In the Catskills, gamblers first made the connections that would eventually rock the college basketball world and lead to the suspensions of several City College of New York players, as well as players from other schools in New York City and around the United States. No longer would such New York City teams as CCNY, New York University and Long Island University dominate college hoops, as they did between 1935 and 1951. In a devastating archival clip that is part of the documentary, Nat Holman, the legendary CCNY coach, admits that he never got over his players’ participation in gambling.

The Catskills gambling story could be a nice segue into some of the pitfalls of Americanization: Do any of the players interviewed for the documentary have regrets about their rebellion against their parents’ religiosity? Did they maintain their Jewishness, and did they pass it on to their children and grandchildren? An exploration of these questions would have added another layer of complexity to the film.

Also, the final section of “The First Basket” feels a bit disjointed. Sure, Holman helped bring the game to Israel, contributing to basketball’s globalization. But the link between Maccabi Tel Aviv’s stirring victory in the 1977 European Cup semifinals against a Soviet team and the acculturation of American Jews through basketball, which is the film’s focus, feels tenuous.

To its credit, however, “The First Basket” is a rare documentary that not only provides context (thanks to interviews with scholars of Jewish history), but also is fun to watch. The film’s story, while covered in such works as Peter Levine’s 1992 book “Ellis Island to Ebbets Field” (Oxford University Press), has not been put on celluloid in such detail.

Vyorst’s interviews allow for a glimpse into a generation of Jews who shaped basketball – and who are proud of their accomplishments and their toughness. As Jack “Dutch” Garfinkel, who played for the Boston Celtics from 1946 to 1949, remembers with a smile: “I’m the first man who used the look-away pass in basketball. My passes were very tough. I broke a lot of fingers.”

“The First Basket” opens in Los Angeles on November 14. For more information, visit www.thefirstbasket.com.

N.Y. nostalgia with an egg cream chaser


“A lot o’ the tribe are here,” Stewie Stone said. The 68-year-old comic, who got
his start as a Borscht Belt tummler at the Concord Hotel, was one of many landsman stuffed into Beverly Hills High School for a reunion on Saturday night — the 23rd annual New York Day in L.A.

The event, which drew 1,500 transplants who attended New York high schools, also celebrates Hollywood stars from the Big Apple, amid deli food and egg creams.

“We’re not the New Yorkers who hate L.A.,” said Lou Zigman, chair of the New York Alumni Association. “We’re the New Yorkers who love L.A.”

Zigman first organized the happening in 1979 for other alumni of Abraham Lincoln High in Brooklyn. In 1985, the gathering was opened to anyone from the five boroughs (dues: $18 annually) to kibitz with old classmates and sit through more than three hours of a Catskills-quality gala toasting two ex-New Yorkers. Past honorees have included Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Rita Moreno and Mitzi Gaynor (the Chicago native was “adopted” by the group in 2006).

Actors Jack Klugman and Jerry Stiller were the honorees for 2008, and money raised during the gala will go to high school scholarships (New York schools, natch). This year’s event also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers leaving Ebbets Field in Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

“It’s an attempt at a bit of nostalgia,” said Abe Glazer (Haaren High School, ’49) as he shuffled into a courtyard ringed with banners identifying high schools — DeWitt Clinton, Erasmus Hall High, New Dorp — where former bobby-soxers sat with Shofar hot dogs or lined up at a vintage Carvel Ice Cream cart as a sextet of alumni/musicians whomped out big band sounds.

In the packed Beverly Hills High auditorium, a variety show featured alumni entertainers like Gary Marshall, Sammy Shore, Connie Stevens and Monty Hall.

Stone (Erasmus Hall) got laughs with his schtiklach about how Jews had to choose between matzah and white bread. “We chose matzah because there’s more pieces in the box. That’s it. So when Moses said, ‘Let my people go,’ he meant to the toilet. We’re a people constipated for 5,000 years,” he said.

But there wasn’t a dry set of eyeglasses in the house after Ed Ames sang, “Try to Remember.”

Backstage, by an overflowing spread from Junior’s, Freddie Roman and Mal Z. Lawrence (stars of “Catskills on Broadway”) were telling Budd Friedman (founder of The Improv) why they love to perform here.

“We’re still Jewish,” Roman said.

“That’s right, the piece hasn’t grown back,” Lawrence said, talking over Roman in Borschtsy banter.

“We’re very good between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Roman added.

“But I’m not looking forward to the bris,” Lawrence said.

Len Lesser (Uncle Leo on “Seinfeld”) sidled over and put a topper on the appeal of the reunion.

“Like Norm Crosby used to say about New Yorkers in L.A.: ‘What are you hugging and kissing all the time? You knew each other in New York for years you never said a word to each other.'”

A Bronx Tale


“Before I was born, my mother had decided to name me either Laurel or Lydia, names that appealed to her artistic temperament. But then somehow, while under the scrim of anesthesia, she was convinced by my father’s sisters to make me a lackluster Ruth, in honor of their recently deceased mother, Rose. And so my birth certificate read Ruth Leila, a name I was never, ever called by my mother, either of my father’s sisters or anyone else.”

Thus begins “My Life As a List: 207 Things About My (Bronx) Childhood,” Linda Rosenkrantz’s rich confectionery tale of growing up in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. Like a box of candy, this numbered collection of memories and anecdotes is best eaten slowly, the better to digest each morsel.

Not that everything inside is sweet. The book covers the period from Rosenkrantz’s birth, in 1934, through her entrance into puberty at age 12. It includes such wartime memories as her childhood nightmares of Hitler and SS troops searching her family’s home; the departure of two of her uncles to serve overseas; and the grainy Movietone newsreels that preceded every movie. There is also her vivid description of the polio epidemic and the loss of a classmate to the disease: “When I learned that George Rabinowitz, a rumpled, wavy-black-haired boy in my class (white shirt always pulling out of his pants) who reminded me somewhat of my rumpled, wavy-black-haired father, had died of polio over the summer, I couldn’t believe it. I immediately wrote a poem, beginning with the line, ‘They told me George Rabinowitz was dead and I didn’t understand what they meant by dead.'”

For the most part, though, the slim volume is packed with sunny memories and colorful reflections of a romanticized era. Rosenkrantz’s comments on her family are often hilarious, as in list item No. 19: “All my aunts and great-aunts floated but none of them swam. One day at the beach, I was told to watch my great-aunt Annie (never quite the same after her minor stroke), but I’d left my glasses on the blanket and it wasn’t till she was drifting off to sea that I noticed she was out of sight…halfway back to the Old Country and I had to fetch someone else to swim out and bring her back.”

Rosenkrantz was on a plane, returning to Los Angeles from a trip to New York, when the idea for the book came to her.

“I’m an inveterate list maker. I can’t start the day without one,” the author said over a recent breakfast at the Marmalade Cafe in Calabasas. “It was a good way to do the book without having to write chronologically. It gave me a way to draw out the essence of things.”

Writing the book took the better part of a year (“I was constantly polishing it like I was writing poetry,” she said). Rosenkrantz is best known for her series of baby-name books; her latest, “Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison and Montana,” is set to be released in June. She has also co-authored books with her husband, art expert Christopher Finch. The couple, along with daughter Chloe, 24, live in Woodland Hills.

“I think the two most important things I discovered when I was writing the book was the ultra-Jewishness of my neighborhood and how much I miss being part of an extended family,” Rosenkrantz said. “Those Sundays on Uncle Charlie’s farm, where 30 or 40 people would come, were so wonderful. I don’t have any family where I am now. My daughter never sees her cousins, and I do feel there’s something lacking in our lives because of it.”

The book is brutally honest, detailing troubled marriages and popular racial stereotypes of the day. Rosenkrantz said that she was a little worried about the response of some of her friends from the “old neighborhood.”

“I talked to Margery [Schwartz, her best friend], and she said it was fine, that I was actually very kind to people,” she said.

Will there be a sequel? Rosenkrantz said that it’s already in the works and will cover the years from age 13 to when she went off to college.

“I’m finding it’s a lot more complicated, though,” she said. “Memories from our teen-age years do not come in short spurts, like those from our childhood do. There are more extended situations, more of an adult sensibility.”

The Editor’s Corner


When the invitation to my 50th high school reunion in New York City arrived in the mail earlier this year, I knew I would attend. I just wasn’t sure why. Friends in Los Angeles were amused. I did not seem the type. Was there a special girl I wanted to see after all these years? Old friends? None of the above, I laughed.

Which one is The Jewish Journal’s editor, Gene Lichtenstein? (see bottom of page)

I should have explained that mine had been a special school, the Bronx High School of Science. An exam was required for admission, and only one in six passed. But everything about Bronx Science — classes, teachers, other students, college preparation — suggested it would be our ticket out of the Bronx and into America. This was not without its own sense of anxiety. If we did well, there was a good chance that we would leave behind our friends, our family and our home. And, indeed, after high school, we rarely saw one another again.

We lived, most of us, in the Bronx, first-generation Americans, 90 percent of us Jewish, all males and bound for college. We had been told, and believed somewhat naively, that this was meritocracy at work. Few paused to question the absence of women, or that there were only four blacks in our class, and no Asians or Hispanics.

Our teachers understood that we came from poor homes. My rough-hewn class background had been made clear to me by my freshman-year social studies teacher, Mrs. Friedenthal. We were required to wear ties to her class, she informed me, and if we owned one (emphasis on that word “owned”), a jacket as well.

Loftily, she explained that our speech needed improvement, as did our manners, if we wanted acceptance from the wider world out there — non-Jewish, well-mannered and not particularly sympathetic to Jewish outsiders like us. Our grades would be affected (slightly) by dress, speech, manners, she informed us. There was little doubt, she made clear, that our grade-point average and our extracurricular record were now the twin defining points of our life.

Despite Mrs. Friedenthal, my classmates and I made little progress with manners or dress; rather, we discovered the pleasures associated with learning. Our other teachers moved us along in a straighter line. They cared deeply about their subjects and were devoted to teaching…and to learning. And we fell into step right away: five years of science; four years of mathematics, English, history, foreign language. Homework became a serious matter and took more hours than we expected. Reading, writing and studying, these became our priorities.

Still, it was a schoolfriend who took me to see Clifford Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty,” and another who first played Billie Holiday’s records for me. It was my classmates at Science who mattered even more than the faculty. It was to them I turned as we came to share a set of values that differed from those we had brought with us from home.

It was not that we were necessarily happy at Bronx Science. I was not. Mostly, I was sex-starved and struggling with adolescence, two subjects that the school and my teachers treated with what I thought was profound indifference.

On paper alone, the reunion was a success. One hundred three filled out a registration form and signed on; half were accompanied by their wives. When you calculated that at least 24 had died and another 30 had been impossible to locate, the number of acceptances was more than 50 percent.

The reunion was scheduled for an entire weekend in May: an afternoon party, a lengthy four-hour brunch, a visit to Bronx Science itself. A casual glance suggested that most of us had landed somewhere near where we had aimed. Among the 103, there were 13 doctors, eight engineers and/or scientists, 16 attorneys, a handful of writers and theater people, a judge, a rabbi and even a West Point graduate. Not surprisingly, 15 were college professors. We were the American dream come true…even though a fair number had changed Jewish-sounding last names to something, well, more American.

I talked with Marty Zimmerman. He had been our star athlete, probably one of the most popular kids in our class. He had been genial, easy, practical, not particularly intellectual. He was our West Point graduate. But he also had become a computer specialist (a master’s degree from Stanford in computer science while still in the army) who wound up as a deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Army, retiring as a civilian but with the rank of a major general. He was now a highly respected computer consultant. He seemed comfortable in his skin. He asked questions of everyone, leaning forward and listening intently for the answers. He still seemed easy and genial. But thoughtful too. I liked him immensely.

Alfred Schwartz appeared the same, though. He had been quiet, serious, focused — a handsome kid with not much room for irrelevant or wrong choices. He became a lawyer, married a lawyer and retired at 53. For the past seven years, he had been teaching second-graders to read at P.S. 75 through the Gift of Literacy Program of the Jewish Community Center on New York’s Upper West Side. He still seemed serious and focused…and now a bit avuncular, probably still with little time for irrelevant projects.

Mingling with them, and others, I was surprised at how sweet the occasion had become, and also how intimate. The affection we felt for one another was palpable in the room. As boys, we had used humor and irreverence as defenses against that threatening world outside. And, now, almost unconsciously, we fell back upon jokes and banter, as though all the intervening years had suddenly melted away. We strained to recall classes, teachers, defining moments, trying to catch a glimpse of the boys we had once been. It was my 16-year-old self, I realized, for whom I was searching.

Of course, it was illusory. We were now grown men, each with a private and separate past. Nevertheless, chatting, hugging, touching one another, we could not help be wryly amused at how well life had turned out for each of us. Was it part of our affection for one another, that gift of bonding we had unthinkingly passed along at Bronx Science? Was it a reward for years of hard work and focused ambition? Or was it simply that this is what life is all about: growing up, letting go, caring about work, and finding friends and family to love? — Gene Lichtenstein

Gene Lichtenstein is bottom left.


Gene Lichtenstein is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal