Sunnyside Schooling: PS 150
by Alexander Liebowitz and Jonathan Liebowitz
When I think back to Sunnyside, apart from our home on 44th Street between 39th and Skillman Avenues, what I remember most vividly are the schools where I spent eight years of my childhood – Public School 150 and Junior High School 125.
P.S. 150 brings back fond memories. I can still remember most of my teachers: Mrs. Portnoy in the first grade, Mrs. Singman in the fourth grade, who devoted a lot of time teaching us about New York City, Mrs. Malden in the fifth grade, and Mrs. Russek in the sixth grade. I don’t recall my second and third grade teachers very well, but I do remember that because the third grade teacher was frequently out sick, we often had substitutes and gave them the trouble kids notoriously give substitute teachers. The school was noted as a “progressive” school and indeed we were not subjected to lots of memorization but rather enjoyed learning through projects.
Elementary school was also where we made many friends who lasted at least through childhood. Somehow most of them lived on 45th or 46th Streets, not 44th, but my twin brother (Jonathan) and I became close friends with Peter Greenblatt, Danny Levy, Robert Silver, and Gene Turitz. We also wound up spending the summers with Peter and Robert on Sand Lake in Livingston Manor in the Catskills. Bob remarkably was in my class from the first grade through college. We also became particularly close to Phyllis Hamburger and Marilyn Lowy whose families joined our synagogue in Manhattan. Frequently we were all driven by Phyllis’s father to Sunday school at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on West 68th Street, where Jon and I were bar mitzvahed, and where we were all confirmed.
As I remember it, the teachers at 150 were dedicated and cared a lot for the kids. On the other hand, I also remember – although some of this is surely what strikes me looking back – that the atmosphere was very feminine. A lot of emphasis was given to making nice looking covers for reports and not making a sound while lining up after lunch. For all the boys, I think it was not the most welcoming atmosphere. I don’t think it was conscious, but the fact that the teachers and administrators were all women had a definite impact on the school.
Additional remarks by my brother Jon:
In fifth grade, the school decided we twins should be separated, so while I had Mrs. Malden and Mrs. Russek, Alex spent two years with Mrs. Musnik whose educational philosophy favored integrating all our subjects into a common project. (Or at least that’s what I remember; we probably did do some traditional math, spelling, etc.) We spent much of each year working on a play that we wrote ourselves, designed and produced the costumes and scenery for, and in which we acted. In fifth grade, the play centered on myths—I remember Paul Bunyan, but there must have been others—and in sixth grade (1952) with a national election coming up, we produced a presidential contest complete with songs for composite candidates. It was a lot of fun, but sometimes I felt that Alex was more prepared for the rigors of homework in junior high and high school.
Another thing I remember about Mrs. Musnik is that she had some Broadway connections and got one of the supporting actresses - though no Ethel Merman, the star, from the Irving Berlin musical “Call Me Madam” - to sing at one of our assemblies. Glamor comes to Sunnyside!
It was thus a remarkable event when PS 150 got a male principal (Mr. Birnbaum) when we were in the fourth grade if I remember correctly, and around the same time the first male teacher arrived to teach both a class (fourth grade I think) and also teach science to several classes. (Back in those days science was considered a male preserve.) He also started organizing various athletic events, which we boys liked a lot. I can still remember slap ball games in the 150 gym.
After graduation from Columbia University, Cornell and Princeton for grad school in history, Alex taught briefly in Ohio. His 45 year work career was in the Foreign Service, where he concentrated on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. His wife Denise and he have lived in Belgium, and in India, where son David was born. They now reside in Washington, D.C.
After high school, Jonathan studied history at Columbia University, and received his MA and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in French Economic History. He taught history at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, even as an emeritus professor, until Covid-19 shut everything down. He has lived for more than 45 years in small towns north of Boston with my wife, Ruth where, inspired by his father’s Sunnyside Victory Garden, he enjoys growing a few vegetables.