My twin, Allen, and I came to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street on the Lower East Side in November 1943. We were nine years old, fourth graders in what was referred to as the English Department – a usage still common at many yeshivas – and first graders in Limudei Kodesh or the religious studies division.
Our older brother Arthur, who now is critically ill, had been in RJJ since he was four and in kindergarten. He remained in the yeshiva through elementary school and high school and then continued in the Beth Medrash. He was one of the first students to receive semichah (ordination) from RJJ. All told, without interruption he was a student at RJJ for eighteen years, probably some sort of record.
Always devoted to voluntary communal service, Arthur was active in the school’s alumni association from the time he left the yeshiva and served as its president during its most fruitful years. To complete the picture, our sister Ruth, who is a year younger than Arthur, was a student at the Shulamith School during its early years in Boro Park.
This unusual set of family circumstances came about because on Purim in 1938 my father, who was the rabbi of a Manhattan synagogue, died suddenly, leaving my mother with four young children and no financial resources. Three weeks later, the landlord of the apartment building in which she lived sent her an eviction notice.
Desperate, my mother moved to Boro Park and began baking challah in her small apartment. To get back on her feet, she made the painful and courageous decision to have the two youngest, Allen and me, live elsewhere – and elsewhere was a facility that did not provide for children to attend a yeshiva. We were enrolled in public school until we were nine, an experience about which I have exactly zero recollection.
My mother was talented as a baker and in many other ways. In 1931, several years after my parents married and came to the United States, she wrote and published an English-language book of bakery recipes. Her home-based bakery was a success and by November 1943 the family was again united.
It was obviously not easy for us to be in the first-grade class together with boys three or four years younger than we were. Allen and I clung together as if we were still in our mother’s womb and that scarcely changed throughout our school days.
For all of the rough spots, first grade was a success for us, primarily because we had a rebbi who was one of the great educators in the entire Jewish experience. Rabbi Nachman Mandel of blessed memory taught first grade at different yeshivas and girls’ schools for seventy years, including for many years at Los Angeles schools.
To say he was beloved because of the way he loved his students does not sufficiently capture the reality. I was asked to speak at the Los Angeles dinner marking his retirement and I told the following story:
Some years previously, Allen and I were for different reasons in Los Angeles for Shabbos. We davened at the Agudath Israel, and that is where Rabbi Mandel davened. At some point he grabbed hold of each of us, took us out of the shul and kissed us. I said to him, “Rebbi, I have a complaint. The grade you gave me sixty years ago was not good enough.” His response was, “Mir ken das mi-saken zein” – “We can correct it.” That was his philosophy about teaching. No student was beyond help and no student was lost.