The Young Israel
by Laurie (Beckoff) Wellman
In 1949-50, P.S. 150 was very overcrowded and on a split session (1/2 day program) in certain grades. So, several of the parents in the community, together with Rabbi Chaim Meskin, the rabbi of the Young Israel of Sunnyside (on 45th Street, between Skillman Avenue and 43rd Avenue), established a full-day yeshiva. It covered only first and second grade, after which many of us transferred into PS 150 to continue our education at grade three (although some went on to full-time yeshivas). I was enrolled as a five year old who really should have been in kindergarten instead of first grade, but my parents wanted me in a full-day program. I had a lot of trouble sitting still and keeping quiet, but did manage to do fairly well, learning to read in both English and Hebrew simultaneously. (Sadly, I can no longer read Hebrew, not having kept up with it.)
Our teacher’s name was Mrs. Gettinger; we were instructed to call her “morah,” the Hebrew name for a female teacher. I also remember a principal of sorts named Mr. Tobac. Since I was frequently sent to his office for talking in class, I was fortunate to have him as a private tutor during the many hours that I spent with him. The rabbi’s older daughter, Sharon Meskin, was a classmate of mine, and we both had crushes on a boy in our second grade, Albert Reff.
Interestingly, to this day I bear the scars of a “crime” that I committed during my years as the class clown of the yeshiva. Here is my confession, for the very first time: We were eating lunch at long tables in the cafeteria. They served us a vegetable soup that I found to be repulsive, so I started to break up crackers and put piles of them into my soup in order to amuse my classmates. As lunch came to a close, one of the staff noticed that I had not eaten the soup, and that I was, in fact, playing with it. Since wasting food was a serious offense, I was told that I would have to sit there all afternoon until I had eaten all of the soup. My classmates filed out of the cafeteria, and I was left all alone at the table, wondering how to get myself out of this awful dilemma. I suppose I should be proud of the fact that I applied scientific principles, continued to add crackers to the soup until I turned all of the liquid into a solid mass, and, one ball at a time, I dropped it under the table until my bowl was empty. My “crime” was never discovered, but it is funny how it still haunts me to this very day.
I can still remember the smell of the Young Israel. It had the very distinct aroma of old prayer books and a musty old building, even way back then. The main sanctuary was quite beautiful, with a large section in the front of the room for the men, and a smaller section in the rear, cordoned off by a low curtain for the women. I do not recall women ever being called up to the front to participate in the services. We always attended services on the high holidays (Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur) when I was a very young girl, although most of the time I was out in the playground running around with my friends. Everything was conducted in Hebrew, and I can still hear the sound of the men chanting, the blowing of the shofar, and the singing of the cantor. Along the left-hand wall of the sanctuary, in the back, was the memorial wall, with little brass plaques with the names of the deceased members of the congregation, with tiny light bulbs next to each name.
I am no longer an observant Jew, but the memories of going to the Young Israel with my father, Samuel Beckoff, my two uncles, Daniel Arthur (Archie) Lake and Morton (Morty) Ehrlich, and my beloved grandfather, Joseph Ehrlich (all of whom also lived in Sunnyside) live on as if it were only yesterday. At the close of Yom Kippur, when we all went home to break the fast with the rest of the family, I remember my grandfather taking his glass of Slivovitz (a very powerful Eastern European plum brandy, closely akin to kerosene), and downing it in one slug while gasping and saying, “Fire water”! Ah, those were the good old days.
All of them are gone now, as is the Young Israel of Sunnyside, but I hope that by writing this little piece I can somehow help to keep some of the memories alive. Shalom!
In 1947, Laurie's family moved into a two-family house at 40-30 44th Street on the Gardens side of Skillman Avenue. She attended PS 150, JHS 125 and WC Bryant HS. She had an active career as the English as a second language (ESL) specialist in the NYS Education Department Office of Bilingual Education, and was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the SUNY Albany Graduate School of Education ESL teacher preparation program. Now retired, she lives in Saratoga Springs, NY with her husband.