NYC ‘olden days’ provide plenty of Jewish humor

It’s a new month in the heat of summer — time for some light, laugh-provoking reading. Let me recommend Lyla Blake Ward’s Broadway, Schrafft’s and Seeded Rye, subtitled Growing Up Slightly Jewish on the Upper West Side.
I myself did not grow up either “slightly” Jewish or in any part of New York City, but still found much to laugh at, and about — sometimes even out loud — in this book of humorous personal reminiscences and evocative illustrations. The first often have more than “slightly” Jewish connotations; the second will make seniors recall their “olden days” while sending puzzled members of younger generations hurrying to those oldsters for explanations.
Example 1: A real history of brunch, taken from the New York Times of almost two decades ago, precedes Lyla’s recollection that as a youngster, she didn’t understand why her family ate only two meals on Sundays while her friends had three. “I liked sleeping late,” she remembers, “but I was the only one in my immediate circle of eight-year-olds who was encouraged to get up whenever she wanted to. Only my mother would say, ‘You need your rest…’ ”
Example(s) 2: Do you recall school desks with ink holes, bolted to the floor? Hand-cranked meat grinders that clamped to the end of a wooden kitchen table? “Uncle Sam’s 3 Coin Register Bank,” a miniature cash register that could accommodate a maximum of $10 — and would open only when that magic number was reached? Their photos are all here, in age-appropriate black and white.
Lyla compares apartment living, usual for New York’s Upper West Side, to “living on a shelf.” But it did provide certain important advantages for young children, such as having indoor playmates just an up-or-down elevator ride away when the weather was too cold or too hot for going outside. Care had to be exercised, however; those were the days of live elevator operators who, after being bothered for transportation too many times, might just refuse to provide it any longer.
Lyla was born in 1928 and shares her natal day with Abraham Lincoln, which gave her special status that at first she didn’t understand: “Why would my brother and sister go to school on their birthdays but stay home on mine? Why would my father go to work on his birthday but stay home on mine? Even — or especially — a five-year-old could connect the dots: the celebration was all because of me. I lost my innocence when I started school, but … Destiny had spoken, and I had an obligation to live up to our potential.”
The author’s potential lay in writing. Her career began with the sale of a quatrain to the old Collier’s magazine, Betrayal at Plymouth, for Thanksgiving 1949: “Greasy gizzards, flying feathers — Oh, the difference it would make — If the Pilgrims had decided — To give thanks with sirloin steak!” Over the next 65 years, many newspapers and other magazines have published her humor, and her first book, entitled How to Succeed at Aging Without Really Dying, made Amazon’s top 100 list in 2011. (More humor born of humor: It also became a hit in Germany, appearing there with a new title that translates to Where Are My Reading Glasses?)
The Blake family was quite secularly Jewish, but retained many old-world Yiddish superstitions and practices. Lyla grew up, as I did, knowing that you must always take salt, sugar, and bread with you when you visit friends or family members in their new homes for the first time, and conversely, that under no circumstances should you have a baby shower or buy baby clothes or furniture before the baby is born. These reminders of the past, and many others, provide just the kind of light reading all of us can use for the present. The laughter it delivers is indeed a special kind of present, one that we deserve to open and enjoy in the heat of summer 2016.

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