This article first appeared on Jewish Futures.
My father grew up in the “real Bronx” – a world very different from the “pseudo-Bronx” of Riverdale where he raised his children. He played stickball on the streets with the Italian kids, who called him Luigi The Jew, and came home regularly with torn pants, skinned knees, and the fear of facing his mother, who would inevitably say to him: “If you’d been the first child, you would’ve been the last!” Then he’d have to suffer shopping for new pants at Barney’s, where he was an “irregular husky,” a size that weighed on his identity. His family was a member at the Young Israel of Parkchester, an Orthodox community composed of the lower-middle class workers of the East Bronx, many of whom were immigrants and did not have any Jewish education or background. (Professor Jeffrey Gurock, who also grew up in that community, writes about this synagogue, and my grandfather, in the introduction to his book “Orthodox Jews in America”). The youth were the hope and the pulse of the congregation. And when children became Bar or Bat Mitzvah age, they became responsible for ensuring the continuity, relevance, and vibrancy of the community.
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