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Getting Started

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago knowing not a soul in the newspaper business and having little interest in the world beyond that of the nearest ballpark and playground. But I did read sports pages and, on Sunday, the comics. My parents were Jewish immigrants—my father, Isadore, from Lithuania; my mother, Dorothy, from Poland. They arrived at Ellis Island in the years immediately after World War I and somehow found their way to Chicago, where they met and married. I do not think either one, once in America, managed to get through high school—there was always a living to be made and a family to feed. Four children, two sets of twins, came: My sisters, Phyllis and Marcia, were born in 1932, five years before me and my brother, Alan. None of us fully understood what compelled our parents to leave their family and birthplace for the long boat ride to America. It was a conversation we never had, just as we never talked about my parents' lack of formal education.

We were lower-middle-class. My father owned a dry cleaning store at 4507 Indiana Avenue, in the center of what was then, and still is, a black ghetto on Chicago's South Side. It was a 7:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. job, with deliveries often keeping him out for another hour or so. By the time Al and I were barely into our teens, we were expected to work at the store, when asked, on weekends and busy evenings during the week. My brother and I lived in fear of our dad, who had a quick temper and whose idea of a fun Sunday was to rise early, grab the two of us, drive to the store, mop the floor, and then take us to a Russian bathhouse, long gone now, on Chicago's West Side, where we would be sweated and then scrubbed down with rough birch branches. Our pleasure came afterward; there was a small pool to jump into, and fresh herring and root beer for lunch. Daddy was a man of mystery. I learned only six decades after his death that his hometown was Seduva, a farming village with a large community of Jews one hundred or so miles northwest of the capital of Vilnius. In August 1941, Seduva's Jewish population of 664, including 159 children, was marched outside the village and executed, one by one, by a German commando unit aided by Lithuanian collaborators. My father never discussed Nazi Germany or World War II. In his own way, Isadore Hersh was a Holocaust survivor as well as a Holocaust denier.

My father did tell me, however, that he had earned a few precious dollars after landing in America in the early 1920s by playing birdsongs on a violin. It was just a story until, under much duress, my brother and I began taking violin lessons on Sunday afternoons with David Moll, who was then, at the end of the war, a violinist with the Chicago Symphony. Al and I would pathetically scratch around for an hour or so, and then Moll and our father would play duets, on and on. Our father really could play but never did so outside the odd hour or so with Moll. I remember only one other of his pleasures—monthly Saturday night card games with his landsmen, fellow refugees from Seduva who, like him, were small-business men who somehow ended up in Chicago.

My father never figured out America. When Al and I were sophomores in high school, we moved from our bare apartment in what we thought was a largely Jewish community on East Forty- Seventh Street to a new housing development miles away on the far South Side. It had to have been our mother's idea. Our new home was a corner unit in a townhouse complex, replete with some new furniture inside, covered in plastic, and a small patch of grass outside. We hated it, even if it did have two bathrooms, because we were far removed from our friends and the playing fields we knew so well. Within a few days of moving in, I stood with my father as he dutifully, and very quietly—he was always quiet, until his temper flared—watered our lawn. At some point one of our new neighbors came toward us with a big smile. He was as Irish as could be, with a strong brogue. He said his name was McCarthy and welcomed us into the neighborhood. My father shook his hand and asked, very plaintively, "Do you happen to be of the Jewish faith, Mr. McCarthy?" I can still feel the mortification as I stormed into the house in utter shame. My mother must have struggled to adapt to America, too, but she found refuge, happily, I guess, in an obsession with cooking and baking. Food became her essential means of communication. Mom was, to be fair, a marvelous baker of cookies and pastry; I can still taste her apple strudel, even if I cannot remember sharing any private thoughts with her.

Dad smoked three packs of Lucky Strikes a day—I dreaded his constant coughing at night—and was diagnosed with acute lung cancer when I was barely sixteen. That kept me from smoking more than an occasional joint throughout my life. There was an unsuccessful operation, and the disease crawled along for more than a year, eventually metastasizing into brain cancer. I was the designated caretaker because I was less afraid of displeasing him and being whacked, as occasionally happened, by the leather strop he used to sharpen the straight razor with which he shaved every morning. One of my early memories is watching in awe as he sharpened and carefully shaved with the scary razor. My father remained incommunicative but was often inwardly enraged at his fate. And ours. You could sense it. He would pass away, at age forty-nine, in late July 1954, a month after my brother and I graduated from high school.

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