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A Shtetl in the Bronx

The former attorney general of New York recalls his formative years in Pelham Parkway

Robert Abrams
April 29, 2021
Courtesy of Robert Abrams
The author’s parents in their luncheonette—‘the store’—in 1951Courtesy of Robert Abrams
Courtesy of Robert Abrams
The author’s parents in their luncheonette—‘the store’—in 1951Courtesy of Robert Abrams

I was born in the Bronx in a place that doesn’t exist anymore, the Bryant Sanitarium, on the Fourth of July in 1938.

My parents, Dotty and Ben Abrams, were polar opposites in appearance and demeanor. My father, who was much shorter than my mother, was shy, soft-spoken, and gentle. He had reddish blond hair and a light complexion. My mother was an outgoing woman with a strong voice and dark hair. She was feisty, salty, and direct. They met on a blind date and were married six weeks later. My parents were the most loyal and giving people I have ever encountered. My sister, Marlene Kitrosser, who is ten years younger than I am, agrees. There was nothing that Dotty and Ben Abrams wouldn’t do for their children.

When I was a year old, we moved from the South Bronx to a neighborhood in the northeast Bronx called Pelham Parkway. That’s where my memories begin.

The southern side of Pelham Parkway was a working-class neighborhood, a densely populated enclave, three blocks wide, nine blocks long, with perhaps 20–25,000 people packed together living in six-story apartment buildings, with some private homes on its edge. The south side bordered on the Bronx Zoo and the north side on the Bronx Botanical Garden.

My family was a significant part of my life from an early age. Coming from Pinsk in Belorussia on my father’s side and Vitebsk, in the same region, on my mother’s side, they all ended up together in the Bronx. My father’s sister Aunt Rose and her husband Uncle Nat lived in our building, one floor above us. My Grandma Ida, my father’s mother, lived a few blocks away, in the same apartment as his other sister, Aunt Faye, and her husband Uncle Sol. Grandma Kaplan, my mother’s mother, also lived in the neighborhood, a block and a half away. She spoke only Yiddish and visited us almost daily to watch television and babysit my sister and me. Three other aunts and uncles and their families lived nearby in other parts of the Bronx. We got together often and there was no shortage of lively conversations about the family, politics, and the state of the world. There was always lots of singing of Yiddish and American songs played by my father on the piano. He played by ear—you’d name the song and he would play it for you.

My father’s parents worked originally in the garment trade making boys’ knee pants and caps in their crowded tenement apartment on the Lower East Side. I remember stories that my father and my grandmother would tell about selling clothing in the 1920s from a pushcart to Jewish and Italian immigrants, speaking Yiddish to their Jewish customers and Italian with their Italian customers. My father told me how his parents sympathized with those working in garment factories and their need for union organizing to improve working conditions. Years later my father’s parents opened a luncheonette and my father dropped out of high school before graduation to help them in their new store.

By today’s standards, Pelham Parkway was unique. It was like a transplanted shtetl, a small town or village where Jews had lived in Eastern Europe, except in this case, we lived there by preference, not proscription. Like the traditional shtetl, this modern-day version was a self-contained community. On the Jewish holidays, there would be hardly more than a dozen kids in the local public school, which normally accommodated at least a thousand.

My parents, like most people in the neighborhood, were the children of immigrants who had come to America for a better life. In Russia, their parents and grandparents had been subjected to discrimination by the czars who kept the peasantry down in general and the Jewish community in particular. Jews were prohibited from living in certain areas and from pursuing many occupations. Life could be disrupted at any given moment by a bloody pogrom. My grandparents had heard in general terms about the United States; in Yiddish they called it the goldena medina—the golden land.

Like most people living in Pelham Parkway, my family was culturally but not religiously Jewish. However, I attended the Roosevelt Synagogue Hebrew School on Wallace Avenue and was bar mitzvahed at age thirteen, delivering my speech in Yiddish. I still remember parts of it.

We rarely needed to go outside the neighborhood since it had everything we required for our daily lives: grocery stores, kosher butchers, delicatessens, fruit and vegetable stores, bakeries, hardware stores, pharmacies, shoe stores, and clothing stores. There were two banks, two movie theaters, a post office, two bus stops, an elevated subway station, six doctors whose offices also were their homes, and three synagogues plus a shtiebel (a small Ultra-Orthodox Jewish prayer house.) Around the corner from where we lived was Moishe’s supermarket where we did our shopping. Moishe’s had sawdust on the floor. I remember a pickle barrel near the door, with a handwritten sign: “Two pickles for a nickel.”

Everyone in the neighborhood knew each other and often in the heat of summer, neighbors sat outside their buildings on the sidewalk in beach chairs, scrutinizing those who walked past. What’s he wearing? Is he with a girl? Which one is she? My mom and dad called those people “the jury.”

The men and the small number of women who worked had mostly working-class jobs, either in the garment district in Manhattan or as salesmen, storekeepers, furriers, postal workers, librarians, teachers, and accountants. My father worked in a luncheonette in Manhattan with his brothers. People weren’t destitute but life was a struggle. They worked hard to make a living.

My parents didn’t have extravagances of any kind, but around the time of the emergence of television, in 1950, they bought a ten-inch RCA Victor TV, which had a wooden chassis that cradled a tiny screen. Every Tuesday night just before eight o’clock, our doorbell would ring and people from the building would flock in to our living room to watch the Texaco Star Theater featuring Milton Berle, the most popular show on television at the time. Upwards of fifteen people gathered together around our little TV.

In America, families did special things during the summer and my parents sought to avail themselves of that opportunity as well. For a number of years, they had a summer rental in Rockaway Park adjacent to the boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. They paid $250 for the season. It was a single room with an icebox and we shared a bathroom on the floor with other families. The bonus was the big front porch lined with rockers and the house’s proximity to the beach, just down the block.

One of my vivid early memories is of being at the beach as an adventurous eight-year-old and building a device that we called “the sifter.” I’d get some orange crates and wire mesh to build the body and handles for this device and I’d take it to the beach to sift sand, looking for things that might have fallen out of the pockets of people who were using the beach. People who came from the city would rent a locker at Curly’s Bathhouse on 116th Street, and then they’d go on to the beach. Some men, to avoid the cost of a locker, would have their bathing suit on under their pants and would take their pants off on the beach near their blanket and sometimes coins would fall out of their pockets. When there were no people left on the beach at the end of the day, I would sift the sand to collect whatever money I could find. The sun would be going down, and it would be at the same time when my father would have arrived after a hard day’s work in the city. He would run in to take a swim and he’d come out, put his pants on, and watch me. My father would ask, “Hey, Bob, how are you doing?”

I’d answer, “This is all I found!” And I remember showing him my seventeen cents or whatever it was. I’d already been out there with my sifter for about an hour.

He’d say, “Where have you been doing it?”

“Over here.”

He’d point to a different area. “Well, why don’t you go over there?” I’d sift the sand in that location and lo and behold there’d be a quarter and I’d look up at him, convinced he brought me luck, and say, “Where else should I go?”

“Try over there ...”

Of course, I realized years later that he was dropping the quarters and dimes in the sand for me to find.

Eventually my parents decided to buy a luncheonette of their own, in Pelham Parkway. We called the luncheonette “the store.” It was down the street from our apartment building, right past PS 105, the elementary school I had attended.

My father got to the store at 5:30 a.m. to make the coffee and set up the breads, rolls, and cakes for the early morning customers. The store sold everything from candy, magazines, newspapers, and comic books, to cigars, cigarettes, razor blades, and playing cards. We sold school supplies, toys, greeting cards, ice cream sundaes and frappes, sandwiches, pie, Danish pastry, and bottles of soda. Behind the counter, we made fountain drinks: egg creams, cherry Cokes, ice cream sodas, and malted milks.

My father was the food man, making the sandwiches, grilling the hamburgers, and dishing out eggs in the morning. My mom took care of the sodas, the coffee, and cake and was at the cash register ringing up sales.

Their marriage was truly battle-tested when they worked side-by-side for so many years. They came through with flying colors. Their love for each other was strong and enduring.

My formative years were spent helping my father and mother in the store. My mom would be there most of the day at my dad’s side, and then she’d go home in the late afternoon, and I would come in the early evening to help my dad. On those Saturdays that I would be at the store, I rotated between different tasks—restocking cases of soda from the basement, replenishing the supply of cigars and cigarettes, mopping the floors, painting the stools, and washing windows with a squeegee at the end of a long pole.

In today’s world, people talk about trillions of dollars, but back then every penny counted. A pretzel was two cents and two pretzels sold for three cents. I learned about the value of a dollar and how hard it was to make a living.

Grandma Ida always showed up at the store toward the end of the day to do odd jobs and refill the boxes of candy on the counter. She always wanted to be helpful and productive.

Speaking Yiddish, she and my father discussed politics often. She was progressive, always rooting for the little guy, the ordinary working person. This early political foundation and liberal outlook that passed from my grandmother to my father to me helped shape my own core values and outlook on life.

Grandma Ida did not have an easy life. She came from Russia to the United States when she was a teenager and helped her parents in their business. She never had formal schooling in America and could barely scratch her own signature, but she was nonetheless one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She experienced a lot during her lifetime: happiness and fulfillment, yet also tragedy such as when her husband went to buy a bottle of milk on a wintry night and never returned because he was killed by the drunk driver of an ice truck. Through it all she remained dignified and full of zest for life.

When I was in high school, my mother would give me my father’s dinner to deliver to him each day at 6:00 p.m. He would often eat standing up behind the counter, gobbling down his food—and then together we’d get ready for the factory workers, the 7:30 night shift, to start coming through the door. He’d serve sandwiches to the people who worked at the Delicia Candy factory up the block.

Working in the store gave me my first view of the larger world beyond Pelham Parkway. Most of the customers came to work from other communities and from backgrounds different from those in my small Jewish enclave. Puerto Ricans, blacks, and Irish were among the men and women who hurriedly ate their soup and sandwiches during their half hour break. When they finished, my dad and I would clean up, close the store, and walk home together, catching up on each other’s lives. We’d often talk about our favorite sports teams—the Yankees and the Knicks.

One day, I remember saying, “Dad, how about us going to a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden?”

I’d found out that with my Columbus High School card, which identified me as a student of the school, I could get tickets at half price.

Dad said, “Isn’t that discount only for students at the school?”

I said, “No, the holder of the card can buy the tickets at the reduced price.”

He wasn’t buying my interpretation, but I really prevailed upon him, giving him total assurances that it would be okay.

On the way over to Madison Square Garden, my dad kept asking, “Are you sure this is not a problem?”

I said, “I’m sure” and that, in fact, I’d checked with some students at school, and they told me that they used the cards with friends all the time.

We got to the box office and I said, “Two tickets, please, with the discount.” I showed my Columbus High School card to the man behind the window. He peered over at my father and said, “What grade are you in, sonny?”

My father’s face turned bright red and, clenching his teeth, he gave me a menacing look, but the ticket agent then said, “Okay, okay. Here are your tickets, enjoy the game.” And we did.

In the years when the family did not go to the Rockaways, on blazing hot days, someone in my family would ask, “Is it time to go to Tar Beach?” Tar Beach was the tar-covered roof of our apartment building. To escape the heat, we’d spend the night up there with a pillow and a blanket (or sometimes even on the fire escape); at least it would be a little cooler there than in the dense, torrid apartment. As time went by, I remember my parents bought an air conditioner and on scorching hot nights my sister, Marlene, and I would sleep on the floor on blankets in my parents’ bedroom where the air conditioner was located.

The parental bonding was strong. After hours of working hard in the store, my mother would devotedly type my high school and college term papers on the family’s Royal portable typewriter. What an ordeal that was. I remember the sound that was made when, because of an error, she’d have to pull the piece of paper out of the typewriter and start anew. (It was obviously before the computer where a single backspace can remedy a mistake.) My mother was also a great knitter. She knitted me long- and short-sleeved cable sweaters, which I loved. On Friday nights she would have her weekly mah-jongg game with four of her friends. I recall to this day the voices of the players calling out:

“Four bam!”

“Three dot!”

“Two crack!”

I can still hear the distinct sound of the tiles when at the end of each hand all the players would put their tiles in the center of the table, turn them over, and mix them up.

I remember trying to be a good big brother to my sister, who at the time was seven years old, by attempting to get her into the Peanut Gallery of the Howdy Doody TV show, but I failed because it was like trying to get into Harvard. I did manage to get her to appear on the set of The Rootie Kazootie program, which was also popular with kids. She was thrilled. I’m proud of my sister, who went on to become a dedicated teacher in the New York City public school system and advanced to the position of assistant principal.

Through it all, my mom and dad always showered my sister and me with unconditional love.

Although my parents were not active in local politics, they had strong views and ideological beliefs. They were left-leaning Roosevelt Democrats, progressive in thought and instinct.

They were appalled at the way blacks were treated in the South, and even in New York City. They didn’t go to rallies or march on picket lines, but in their guts, in their essence, in their conversations, that’s who they were. They felt that all people should be treated fairly and should have an equal opportunity to achieve a better life. Discrimination of any kind was repugnant to them.

On Election Day, my father would cast what he liked to call a “protest vote.” He always discussed his voting decisions with me, and many times he’d take me as a boy into the voting booth with him. He was a Democrat, but he thought that the Democratic Party didn’t go far enough, wasn’t left enough, and so he registered his protest vote on the Liberal Party line, the trade union party. Very often, Democratic candidates ran with Liberal Party support, so his vote on the Liberal Party line was a statement more than anything else. It was evidence of a little bit of rebellion, independence, resentment—that the Democrats were not delivering enough in terms of their promises to really help the people. Sometimes he’d vote for American Labor Party candidates.

I remember it was a big event in the neighborhood when Henry Wallace came to Pelham Parkway in 1948. Wallace was FDR’s vice president from 1941 to 1944 and previously served in Roosevelt’s cabinet as secretary of agriculture and secretary of commerce. He was dropped from the Democratic ticket in 1944 in favor of Harry S. Truman, and in 1948 he was running for president on the Progressive Party ticket, which had a platform that included ending the Cold War, universal health insurance, and ending segregation. My father took me with him to see Wallace speak at the rally. There must have been five thousand people crowded into the intersection.

He also took me to May Day rallies held on the mall on Pelham Parkway attended by a few hundred people. I remember speakers holding large megaphones and talking about how working-class people were not getting their fair share of the benefits of this wealthy and great country.

These early experiences demonstrating the importance of family, enthusiasm for politics, and the respect for hard work, as well as support for the working class, all helped shape my way of seeing the world.

Excerpted from The Luckiest Guy in the World: My Journey in Politics. Robert Abrams, © 2021. Published by Skyhorse Publishing. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Robert Abrams was attorney general of New York from 1979 to 1993.

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