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Holidays in the neighborhood

JacksPark 1931 few years before teenaged Harry Mark Petrakis packed picnic basket lunched with lovely girl beside lagounder shadow venerable

Jackson Park in 1931, a few years before a teenaged Harry Mark Petrakis packed a picnic basket and lunched with a lovely girl beside the lagoon under the shadow of the venerable Museum of Science and Industry.

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Updated: December 30, 2013 7:39PM

At the antiquated age I am now, the arrival of the new year spirals me back to a multitude of holiday seasons I have experienced in my nine decades. There were the celebrations of my childhood cloistered in an old city apartment with my priest-father, mother and five siblings. There were the Christmases for two years when I was bedridden with illness. On one of those holidays, I was given the gift of a magical train, a gleaming black engine, coal car, and passenger cars with tiny cardboard figures in the windows. I played with that train all year long, sending it careening around its circular track, fashioning mythical journeys that carried me far from the prison of my bed.

Many years later, after I’d married Diana, there were the festive Christmases when our sons were children as well as the sorrowful holidays after one of our parents had died. I choose now to write of the holiday seasons of my adolescence.

My family lived in the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn, on a street named Eberhart, a few blocks south of Washington Park. Our street held a row of brick two-flat and three-flat buildings divided by narrow gangways where the earth was forever damp because it never felt the warmth or light of the sun. The two-flats and a few bungalows on our street had stone steps and stone porches, which during the more temperate seasons was where we gathered and talked.

Some buildings had basement apartments. The one in our building was the haven of our janitor, Herman Lueber, a widower who had lost his wife in childbirth.

Lueber had a circle of cronies, and during the Christmas holidays they gathered nightly to drink and sing. I recall passing the basement apartment with its singing and shouting chorus of inebriated voices.

There were a few other Greek families on our street, but most of our neighbors were Jewish refugees who had fled from Poland and Germany in the 1930s. Their sons and daughters became my circle of friends.

Next door to us lived the Salants. The father was a butcher, a man with a somber countenance and a merciless eye. Remembering the slabs of meat hanging in his freezer, I was careful never to anger him. His son, Marvin, who would later become a physician, was my closest friend. He had four sisters, but I only remember Selma because she praised my voice. One luminous afternoon in a basement alcove, I sang a tune for her while a group of critics howled outside in a chorus of derision.

Across the street from our building lived a family named Corenson, the son Irwin among our friends. Unlike the sons of many of the short immigrant parents, at 16 Irwin stood several inches over six feet. Another friend, Danny Nimer, was shorter but bright and quick-tongued.

Further along our block was the apartment of the Asher family that included a son, Harold, and two dark-haired daughters named Bernice and Florence. In an earlier essay, I described them as “twin beauties that graced our block with a basaltic elegance.” I see no reason to change that glowing appellation now.

In temperate seasons, when I ventured onto the street, it was always with the hope of finding the Asher girls on their porch. Their presence drew a flock of boys ravenous as hawks. At 16 or 17, I had one or two dates with Florence, but I could never compete with her array of suitors and soon dropped out.

I also had a few dates with another lovely girl living on our block named Jerri Gertz who had a smile as warm as a caress. We packed a picnic basket and lunched beside the lagoon in Jackson Park under the shadow of the venerable Museum of Science and Industry. I might once have kissed Jerri, but my longing to kiss her may have ornamented that memory.

My first awareness of Judaism as a religion came when I observed that my Jewish friends did not celebrate Christmas. There was no singing of carols or Christmas tree lights sparkling from any of their windows. In the beginning I thought them deprived.

I was invited once into Marvin’s house during their family observance of Hanukah, where I witnessed the lighting of the Menorah. In a resplendent silver candleholder, candles were set in a straight line, their flames fueled by cups of oil. I remember being awed by the solemn piety of the ceremony.

I argued once with Marvin about whether Christianity or Judaism was the oldest religion. I stoutly championed our faith until my father informed me that Christianity dated from about 33 AD, while the tribe of Judah dated from about 1300 BC. Chagrined, I reported that to Marvin who, I was grateful, did not gloat.

I also went several times to Marvin’s afternoon Hebrew class and listened to the somber, bearded and shawl-bedecked Rabbi speak of God’s Commandments given to Moses who led his people out of slavery in Egypt to return to Israel.

Our faiths were different, yet there was never any hint of prejudice between us that I can remember. Raised in America, we carried no baggage from the countries our parents had left.

While our Christian and Jewish families did not socialize, all were civil and respectful with one another. The only period of close association came during the Christmas holidays, when our mothers met to barter the clothing we had outgrown. Since there were three girls in my family, and four daughters in the Salant family, their dresses were freely exchanged between my mother and Mrs. Salant.

Trading in boy’s clothing also took place, which provided me my first lesson in retribution. One winter, Marvin had somehow acquired a ghastly green and yellow woolen overcoat, clearly constructed by a tailor with a grievance against mankind. I am ashamed to confess that I joined others that winter in mocking and deriding Marvin in his ugly coat.

By the following year, Marvin, who had a bigger build than I, had outgrown the coat and his mother and my mother made a trade in which I inherited the coat. That winter, exhibiting an awesome generosity, Marvin did not join the others who mocked my attire.

Through the decades that have passed since that time, I have lost track of these friends of my adolescence. Many would be dead now or old men and old women my age. Genial Irwin Corenson, one of the last to visit, visited us at our rented home one winter in California, carrying a bouquet of flowers. Dan Nimer still lives in a suburb of Chicago, and we exchange letters from time to time. The children of Florence Asher contacted me many years ago about a special birthday for their mother that I unfortunately was not able to attend.

Yet, when memory draws me back into my greening years, I remember the convivial group that linked our block. In the deep frost of winter as I left our apartment, passing the then silent basement of Herman Lueber, I’d walk along Eberhart passing the snow-mantled stone steps of the Asher sister’s porch. I’d long then for spring when the girls would bring their beauty into the sun. I’d pause to visit with them, and others would join until the porch and steps held a dozen of us, laughing, talking and making plans for our lives.

Strange as we grow older, our bodies declining and the world outside receding, how sharply etched the past becomes. Perhaps that is part of the cycle of life. Near the end we return to the nurturing memories of our beginnings.

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