Editor’s note: When I was 6, my mother Miriam invited 12-year-old Simon Kreindler to live with us at the request of his father. The year was 1952 when Simon arrived at our small apartment in Miami Beach, Florida after flying from his home in Barbados While Simon lived with us, my mother helped prepare him for his bar mitzvah to be held in Guatemala where Simon’s grandparents lived. Mother and I went to the celebration in Guatemala City in 1953. The following year, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the legally elected government of that country. Fifty-four years later, Simon, who lives in Toronto with his wife Ruby, got back in touch and we renewed our friendship. Meeting Simon for dinner at Penn State’s Nittany Lion Inn, I finally had the opportunity to approve of his marriage to the lovely and charming Ruby Kreindler, who at that point was a grandmother. Last month, Simon published “More Than Just Words, A Memoir.” What follows is his chapter entitled: Bar Mitzvah.
As alluded to earlier, Joe [Simon’s father] was intent that I would learn about my Jewish heritage and be prepared for my Bar Mitzvah. In September 1952, he brought me to the Miami Beach Jewish Centre where we met Norma Lewin, secretary of the congregational school. Joe explained he was looking for a Jewish family with whom I could live for the academic year and as luck would have it, Norma’s good friend and next-door neighbour, Miriam Solkoff [later to become Miriam Schmerler], was interested. I moved in, with her, enrolled in the local public school, attended congregational classes at the Centre on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons (where, coincidentally, Miriam was my teacher) and Bar Mitzvah classes on Sunday mornings with another teacher.
A Brooklyn native, 27 year-old Miriam and her six year-old son, Joel, lived in a modest bungalow on Alton Road. Miriam ran a tight ship but was a good mother and always treated me well. I soon became a surrogate big brother for freckle-faced Joel who loved to play cowboys and Indians.
Although I missed Sara, Peggy, and Maurice, I saw Joe from time to time when he passed through Miami on his buying trips to New York and Montreal.
Probably the most difficult part of adjusting to life in Florida was witnessing the discrimination by white people against blacks. Buses prominently displayed signs directing blacks to sit in the last three rows; they were forced to use separate bathrooms and water fountains; and were not allowed to eat in the same restaurants as white people or use public beaches. I had not been used to this in Barbados and it made me very uneasy.
When I could put this grim reality out of my mind, there were many new things to see and do. TV was a novelty and I often watched the “Howdy Doody” show with Joel on Miriam’s black-and-white set after school. I enjoyed roaming around in Woolworth’s and Kresge’s 5¢-and-10¢ stores with their huge selection of toys and was fascinated by the escalators in Burdines Department store where Joe sometimes took me shopping when he visited Miami. Supermarkets with their endless varieties of food were also intriguing but I was particularly fond of the corner store near Miriam’s that sold my favourite dessert – miniature cans of fruit cocktail. It was a treat to wander on Lincoln Road (now a pedestrian mall) past store after store with their doors wide open, blowing cold air out in an attempt to lure customers inside. Even as a 12-year-old I was struck by this wastefulness, knowing that electricity in Barbados was so expensive.
On Friday night, Miriam always lit candles and served a traditional Shabbat dinner. On Saturday morning, service at Temple Emanuel, next door to the congregational school, was followed by a lunch of cold chicken sandwiches on challah slathered with mayonnaise. So delicious I can still taste them 60 years later.
Saturday night roller-skating in the park across the street from Miriam’s home was a popular activity for the neighbourhood youngsters and I joined a throng of other kids who skated around and around the four adjoining tennis courts until the music was turned off around 10 PM. Sundays were reserved for swimming at one of the hotel pools on the Beach where Miriam and Norma, a divorced, blond bombshell, rented a cabana. In retrospect, I suspect both were anxious to meet men because neither ever left their deck chairs to venture into the pool. Because Joel could barely swim, I amused myself by jumping off the diving board or searching for loose change that I sometimes found at the bottom of the pool.
Halloween was unknown in Barbados but that fall I was introduced to the holiday by Harris, a neighbourhood peer I had befriended. He dressed up as the Grim Reaper, wearing a sheet over his head and carrying a scythe and I, as Father Time, wearing a sandwich board decorated with clocks front and back. Although the treats were great, I remember feeling a little stupid walking around the neighbourhood in costume.
The academic standards at Dade Junior High, the public school I attended, were so much lower than those at Lodge, I hardly had to study the entire year and while I enjoyed the “vacation” this permitted, being in a co-ed environment was even better, especially since our music teacher allowed us to play spin the bottle in class. Congregational school was an entirely different matter as Miriam took her job seriously and expected me to work hard. In my Bar Mitzvah class I studied my Torah portion and maftir, and rehearsed with the help of an audiotape my instructor had prepared.
I had many wonderful experiences that year: eating at the famous Wolfie’s Delicatessen with Joe when he was in town; visiting the Parrot Jungle; watching Jai Lai and the dog races on TV; and “almost” rubbing shoulders with the famous boxer, Rocky Graziano, who supposedly owned the large house just down the street from Miriam’s. I witnessed the northward expansion of the Collins Avenue hotel strip and the beginning decline of the smaller hotels that now comprise the Art Deco district. By the end of my stay, I had become very fond of Miriam, Joel, and Norma, and knew I would miss them when I returned home.
At the beginning of August 1953, my parents and Maurice [Simon’s brother] met me in Miami and we flew to Guatemala. My Bar Mitzvah took place at the Hebrew Centre in Guatemala City on August 8th. My grandparents and my Uncle Edy and Aunt Lily were there, along with many of their friends. To show their appreciation for all that she had done for me, my parents invited Miriam and Joel to join us, and they came too. A Kiddush lunch followed the morning service and there was a dinner in the evening. I know this not because I remember it but only because I have a copy of the invitation! The only memories I have are of a few of the gifts I received, a camera from my uncle and aunt, a biography of Chaim Weitzman from Miriam, and a blue Parker fountain pen with my name engraved on it.
I learned practically nothing at Dade Jr. High the year I was there and paid dearly for it when I returned to Lodge in September 1953. The headmaster decided I was too far behind to be promoted and kept me back in second form. I was disappointed, but in retrospect it was probably a good thing because had I been promoted, I would have been only 16 when I graduated and probably too immature to start university.
— from More Than Just Words, A Memoir by Simon Kreindler
Copyright © 2013 by Simon Kreindler. All rights reserved.