Sunday, April 22, 2007


S. Bronx in 1950 was the home of a large/thriving community, mostly Jewish. In the 1950s it offered synagogues, mikvas, kosher bakeries, & butchers-all the comforts one expects from an observant Orthodox Jewish community. The baby boom of the postwar years happily resulted in many new young parents.

As a matter of course, the South Bronx had its own baby equipment store. Sickser's was located on the corner of Westchester and Fox, and specialized in "everything for the baby" as its slogan ran. The inventory began with cribs, baby carriages, playpens, high chairs, changing tables, and toys. It went way beyond these to everything a baby could want or need.

Mr. Sickser, aided by his son-in-law, Lou Kirshner, ran a profitable business out of the needs of the rapidly expanding child population. The language of the store was primarily Yiddish, but Sickser's was a Place where gentiles got what they needed for their newly arrived bundles of joy. Business was particularly busy one spring day, so much so that Mr. Sickser and his son-in-law could not handle the unexpected throng of customers. Desperate for help, Mr. Sickser ran out of the store and stopped the first youth he spotted on the street. "Young man," he panted, "how’d you like to make some extra $? I need help in the store. You want to work a little?"

The tall, lanky black boy flashed a toothy smile back. "Yes, sir, I'd like some work."
"Well then, let's get started."

The boy followed his new employer into the store.
Mr. Sickser was immediately impressed with the boy's good manners and demeanor.

As the Days went by and he came again and again to lend his help, Mr. Sickser and Lou both became increasingly impressed with the youth's diligence, punctuality and readiness to learn. Eventually Mr. Sickser made him a regular employee at the store. It was gratifying to find an employee with an almost soldier-like willingness to perform even the most menial of tasks, and to perform them well. From age 13 until his sophomore year in college the young man put in 12-15 hours a week, at 50-75 cents an hour. Mostly, he performed general labor: assembling merchandise, unloading Trucks & preparing items for shipments. He seemed, in his quiet way, to appreciate not only the steady employment but also the friendly atmosphere Mr. Sickser's store offered.
Mr. Sickser and Lou learned in time about their helper's Jamaican origins, and he in turn picked up a good deal of Yiddish. In time the young man was able to converse fairly well with his employers, and more importantly, with many of the Jewish customers whose English was not fluent.

At 17, the young man, while still working p/t at Sickser's, began his first semester at City College. He fit in just fine with his, for the most part Jewish classmates, hardly surprising, considering he already knew their ways and language. But the heavy studying in the engineering and later geology courses he chose proved quite challenging. The young man later recalled that Sickser's offered the one stable point in his life those days.

In 1993, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-two years after he guided the American victory over Iraq in the Gulf War, Gen. Colin Powell visited the Holy Land. Upon meeting Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem, he greeted the Israeli with the words "Men kent reden Yiddish" (We can speak Yiddish).

As Shamir, stunned tried to pull-himself together, the current Sec’y. of-State continued chatting in his 2nd-favorite language. Powell never forgot his early days working at Sickser's.

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