Unlike today's vista of decrepit buildings, dilapidated housing and rusting
junked cars, the South Bronx in 1950 was the home of a large and thriving
community, one that was predominantly Jewish. Today a mere remnant of this
once- vibrant community survives, but in the 1950's the Bronx offered
synagogues, mikvas, kosher bakeries, and kosher butchers - all the comforts
one would expect from an observant Orthodox Jewish community.
The baby boom of the post-war years happily resulted in many new young
parents. As a matter of course, the South Bronx had its own baby equipment
store. Sickser's was located on the corner of Westchester and Fox, and
specialized in "everything for the baby," as its slogan ran. The inventory
began with cribs, baby carriages, playpens, high chairs, "changing tables",
and toys. It went way beyond these to everything a baby could want or need.
Mr. Sickser, assisted by his son-in-law Lou Kirshner, ran a profitable
business out of the needs of the rapidly-expanding child population. The
language of the store was primarily Yiddish, but Sickser's was a place where
not only Jewish families but also many non-Jewish ones could acquire the
necessary paraphernalia for their newly-arrived bundles of joy.
Business was particularly busy one spring day, so much so that Mr. Sickser
and his son-in-law could not handle the unexpected throng of customers.
Desperate for help, Mr. Sickser ran out of the store and stopped the first
youth he spotted on the street.
"Young man," he panted, "how would you like to make a little extra money? I
need some help in the store. You want to work a little?"
The tall, lanky African-American boy flashed a toothy smile back. "Yes, sir,
I'd like some work."
"Well then, let's get started." The boy followed his new employer into the
Mr. Sickser was immediately impressed with the boy's good manners and
demeanor. As the days went by and he came again and again to lend his help,
Mr. Sickser and Lou both became increasingly impressed with the youth's
diligence, punctuality and readiness to learn. Eventually Mr. Sickser made
him a regular employee at the store. It was gratifying to find an employee
with an almost soldier-like willingness to perform even the most menial of
tasks, and to perform them well.
From the age of thirteen until his sophomore year in college, the young man
put in from twelve to fifteen hours a week, at 50 to 75 cents an hour.
Mostly, he performed general labor: assembling merchandise, unloading trucks
and preparing items for shipments. He seemed, in his quiet way, to
appreciate not only the steady employment but the friendly atmosphere Mr.
Sickser's store offered. Mr. Sickser and Lou learned in time about their
helper's Jamaican origins, and he in turn picked up a good deal of Yiddish.
In time young Colin was able to converse fairly well with his employers, and
more importantly, with a number of the Jewish customers whose English was
At the age of seventeen, the young man, while still working part-time at
Sickser's, began his first semester at City College of New York. He fit in
just fine with his, for the most part Jewish, classmates -- hardly
surprising, considering that he already knew their ways and their language.
But the heavy studying in the engineering and later geology courses he chose
proved quite challenging. Colin would later recall that Sickser's offered
the one stable point in his life those days.
In 1993, in his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - two
years after he guided the American victory over Iraq in the Gulf War --
Colin Powell visited the Holy Land. Upon meeting Israel's Prime Minister
Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem, he greeted the Israeli with the words "Men kent
reden Yiddish" (We can speak Yiddish). As Shamir, stunned, tried to pull
himself together, the current Secretary of State-designate continued
chatting in his second-favorite language. He had never forgotten his early
days in the Bronx.
Zev Roth is an author living in Israel. The above is excerpted from his
book "The Monsey-Kiryat Sefer Express: True Tales from Two Cities" (Targum
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