Forever in Our Hearts

Mr. Katz usually took Howie and me to the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor on Irving Park and Pulaski after we saw the Blackhawks play at the Stadium. We loved Buffalo’s with its delicious homemade ice cream and candies, and its wooden booths surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals. Howie always had a hot fudge sundae, and I usually stuffed myself with two scoops of strawberry ice cream and a couple of chocolate-covered cherries.

Although the Mighty Hawks finished in third place during that 1960-61 season, they were dominant in the playoffs, winning their first Stanley Cup in twenty-three years. Howie Katz was an incredibly enthusiastic Blackhawks fan and his dad must have taken us to at least twenty games that season, including two games of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings. Despite my parents’ protestations, Mr. Katz always paid my way.

Howie was my best friend since the fourth grade of elementary school when we moved into the West Rogers Park neighborhood in 1955. A sweet and kind boy, Howie suffered from cystic fibrosis, a disease that he would eventually die from at the age of twenty. Cystic fibrosis causes mucus to block the airways in the lungs, often leading to bacterial infections. Mucus also clogs the pancreas, frequently leading to abnormal digestion and malnutrition. Even today, with all the advances of modern medicine, fifty-five percent of those born with cystic fibrosis die before the age of eighteen. Howie was extremely thin, and every now and then a kid would make an insensitive comment about his skinny arms and legs.

Following sports was Howie’s passion, especially cheering for his favorite teams, the Cubs and Blackhawks. He could answer almost any trivia question, past or present, about both teams. He had team pennants and posters hanging on the walls of his bedroom. A signed Ernie Banks baseball and a signed Stan Mikita hockey stick also adorned the room.

The cystic fibrosis didn’t seem to slow him down too much until his senior year of high school. He was home a lot, using his ventilators more frequently. Despite missing quite a few school days, Howie was diligent in completing his course work and managed to attend his graduation ceremony in June, 1963.

After graduation, Howie enrolled in several courses at Mayfair Junior College that fall. He truly wanted to be an accountant, and he did complete a year’s worth of courses. Then, in late 1964 and early 1965, his disease was getting worse and he had to be hospitalized several times.  Things took another turn for the worse that spring, and Howie passed away in June, a few weeks after his twentieth birthday.

At the shiva, Mrs. Katz held my hand for nearly an hour, thanking me for being such a good friend to her beloved son. Mr. Katz, who came to the States as a refugee from Nazi Germany, sat quietly and stoically in his grief. Emotionally I still had not processed the reality that my best friend had died.

Howie was buried in West Lawn cemetery, where today he rests beside his parents. Whenever I visit my parents’ graves at West Lawn, I visit Howie’s grave and place a small rock on his tombstone that has the inscription “forever in our hearts” written on it.




Thanks for the Memories, Big Klu

I tried nestling my transistor radio inconspicuously by my ear during Mr. Nee’s algebra class. It was the first game of the World Series, being played today at Comiskey Park, and I didn’t want to miss a single pitch. The only equation of interest to me that day was the final score between my team, the beloved Chicago White Sox, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I had just started my freshman year in high school a few weeks before. My school, Mather, was one of three new glass-paneled high schools opening in Chicago that September of 1959, the others being Prosser and Harlan. Mather, located in a more affluent area of the city than the other two, became perceived as a plum assignment for administrators and teachers. Our principal, Miss Margaret Lynch, just happened to be the sister of Mayor Daley’s former law partner. Patricia Daley, the mayor’s daughter, soon found a job as a teacher at Mather when she left her religious convent.

My first few weeks at Mather made be anxious and uneasy. A majority of my Rogers elementary school classmates went to Sullivan High School. I lived in the new Mather district where most of kids came from Boone, Clinton and Jamieson elementary schools. I felt socially awkward in my new high school setting among so many strangers.

When the algebra class ended, the Sox held a 2-0 lead going into the third inning. My final period was study hall in the cafeteria, where at least a dozen other kids were listening to transistors as well. When Ted Kluszewski, the muscular Sox first baseman, slugged a homer in the third inning, spontaneous cheering erupted in the cafeteria. More cheers followed as the Sox built a 9-0 lead that inning. As the period ended and it was time to leave for home, we listened as Big Klu went deep again, making the score 11-0.

I boarded Jerry’s jitney bus for the mile and a half ride north on California Avenue to our co-op apartment on Lunt Avenue. I watched the last two uneventful innings on TV, as Gerry Staley in relief of Early Wynn preserved the shutout with a final score of 11-0. I felt euphoric.

That night I tossed and turn as I recapitulated the highlights of the game. My mind raced into the future as I calculated pitching and hitting match-ups for the remaining games. I was hoping for a four game sweep over the Dodgers en route to the first White Sox World Series title in forty-two years.

The next day my euphoria dissipated as the Dodgers edged the Sox in Game Two at Comiskey. The Series moved to LA, where the Dodgers also won Games Three and Four. The Sox did manage to eke out a win in Game Five, and the teams would conclude the Series back in Chicago.

Ever the youthful optimist, I surely thought that the fans would cheer the Sox to two more wins at home for the title. However I was proven wrong. My hopes were dashed early on in Game Six when Duke Snider homered in the third inning off our ace pitcher Early Wynn and the Dodgers went on to win the game 9-3, capturing the World Series. I felt absolutely devastated and emotionally wounded about the loss. The funk seemed to last days, perhaps longer.

But life goes on and, in time, school got better for me at Mather later that freshman year. I gradually became more socially adjusted and actually made several friendships that have lasted me a lifetime. And I waited patiently as a saint for forty-six more years before the Sox finally won the World Series championship in 2005—proving, once again, that time really can heal all wounds.

Rabbi Mendel

CS_coverRabbi Mendel, a man in his mid-forties with unforgettable cerulean blue eyes, opened the small black trunk and took out the three stick puppets. There was the evil Haman wearing a tiny felt three-cornered hat affixed to his head. Brave Mordecai looked august in a diminutive robe made from corduroy. Beautiful Queen Esther looked stunning with orange hair made from knitting yarn topped by a cardboard diadem.

Our Hebrew class Purim party was about to begin. Rabbi Mendel skillfully manipulated the stick puppets as he related to us the Purim story in his heavily Yiddish-inflected English. We all cheered and rattled our groggers in glee when Mordecai knocked down Haman and dragged him across Rabbi Mendel’s desk to the toy gallows to be hanged. Good was once again triumphing over evil in a story told by Jews for over two thousand years.

Rabbi Mendel stared evil straight in the eye just a few years before in Poland. The Nazis spared him from immediate execution because he was a master tailor and they needed him to make uniforms for the German Army. He survived Auschwitz because of his needling skills, but his wife, two daughters and parents were all put to death in the gas chambers there. Underneath his cot in the concentration camp barracks, he hid the Purim stick puppets that he had made for his daughters in better times.

After Auschwitz was liberated, Rabbi Mendel lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany where he taught tailoring at an ORT school. He came to Chicago in 1949, sponsored by a second cousin. He got a job as a tailor in a men’s clothing store on Roosevelt Road, and to make a little extra money, he was hired by Congregation Bnei Ruven to teach Hebrew to young boys twice a week after their public school courses.

Bnei Ruven was an orthodox Lubavitcher shul, and although none of us in our family were observant, this synagogue, at 13th and Kedvale, was the only one left to serve the rapidly dwindling Lawndale Jewish community. My parents wanted me to have a sound foundation in Judaism and the Hebrew language, so I was enrolled in the two-afternoon a week Hebrew school at Bnei Ruven. I had Rabbi Mendel as a teacher, and although he was not officially a rabbi, he had been a former Yeshiva student and was steeped in the knowledge of Torah and Talmud. He was called Rabbi Mendel out of respect.

I enjoyed Rabbi Mendel’s class and learned much from him, but two months after the Purim party, in May, 1955, my family moved to West Rogers Park.  I often thought fondly about Rabbi Mendel and his puppets, especially at Purim time.  As an adult, many years later in 1978, I was attending a book signing of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shosha at the old Barbara’s Bookstore on North Clark, when I glanced at a man of perhaps seventy who looked somewhat familiar. As I approached him, I knew by those cerulean eyes that it was Rabbi Mendel.

He remembered me and after the book signing we went out for a cup of coffee and he told me his life story, inspired by the storytelling of his literary hero Singer, who he had been conversing  animatedly in Yiddish. It seems that Rabbi Mendel had a nice career with one of the major downtown department stores as a tailor. He remarried and had a son and a daughter, both of whom as children delighted each Purim in watching their father perform his stick puppet show.