The Great DiMaggio and the King of Judah

By Haber, Leo | Midstream, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Great DiMaggio and the King of Judah


Haber, Leo, Midstream


I was just a kid during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but growing up in a sea of impoverished Jews and other immigrant minorities on the Lower East Side of Manhattan meant that I was not terribly aware of this national calamity or even of any personal deprivation. After all, everybody we knew was the same. Most of us kids played stickball on the street or in a vacant lot between tenement houses oblivious of the tension and suffering that undoubtedly prevailed all around us. We kids had to chip in to buy a "spaldeen" (a rubber ball made by the Spalding Company) for us to use in the game, and we did know that some kids couldn't come up with the pennies for their share. It didn't bother us. We let them play all the same.

I should have said that "all of us boys" chipped in because the neighborhood girls didn't play stickball. But every now and then, we lent them an old spaldeen to use in their games of jacks or that other game that required bounce-the-ball during which time the gift doing the bouncing recited some rhymes about herself keeping up with the rhythm of the bounce. This girls' game seemed pretty silly to us boys. One truth united us all. We were all equally poor. So what?

The tension in my parents' apartment came from far away. My Ma and Pa often spoke of Hider, after which my father would always add in Hebrew, "Yimach shimoi v'zichroi" (May his name and memory be erased). This really meant that Hider was a very bad man and persecuted the Jews including my uncles, aunts, and cousins in Europe. But all that was very far away, mad since we hoped and prayed that God would punish Hider and save my relatives and all the Jews just like he saved Mordechai and Queen Esther and all the Jewish people in Persia from the evil Haman, I fully expected that my cousins would soon come to America to play stickball with me and my friends. It said so in the Torah, although not much later when I was a little older, I learned that the story of the miracle in Persia was not actually in the Torah but in another sacred book of the Jewish Bible called Megillas Esther that we read in shul on the holiday of Purim every year.

I also learned soon enough that we were Ashkenazim from Europe, though I was born in New York, and that my father pronounced Hebrew and Yiddish with a Galitsyaner pronunciation that was common among Jews in Galitsia, a province in southeastern Poland. My parents were born there in 1895 when the whole area was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian empire. After World War I, when my parents immigrated to America, Poland regained its independence and ruled in Galitsya. But after World War II, after the Holocaust that destroyed Jewish life in central and eastern Europe, Galitsya was awarded to Ukraine. My father spoke all the languages of the area--German, Polish, and Ukrainian--in addition, naturally, to Yiddish, my first mother tongue in America, soon to be superseded by the Lower East Side's street version of English.

The only major public events I was fully conscious of besides Hider's harangues against the Jews in those childhood days were the daily scores of major-league baseball games reported in the newspapers from April to October. (We didn't as yet own a radio or even a telephone.) Like the well-known contemporary author, Jerome Charyn, whom I met malay years later, and who recently published Joe DiMaggio: the Long Vigil a brilliant meditation on the great Yankee even though Charyrn grew up a New York Giant fan, I too as a kid followed the Giants religiously. I too chose not to support the powerful Yankees, but to cast my lot with the perennial World-Series victims of the Yankees--the great but luckless New York Giants. In later years when I could meditate and philosophize like Charyn, I decided that my lifelong admiration of the underdog was the appropriate stance for a Jew.

I maintained that allegiance even in my adulthood. In 1957, the New York Giants abandoned New York along with the Brooklyn Dodgers, to resettle in "greener pastures" in California. …

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