The South Bronx, in 1950 was the home of a large and thriving
community, predominantly Jewish. In the 1950s the Bronx offered
synagogues, mikvas, kosher bakeries, and kosher butchers -- all the comforts one would expect
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.
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, assisted 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 not only Jewish families but also many non-Jewish ones
could acquire the necessary 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 would you like to make a little extra money? I need some
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 the age of thirteen until his sophomore year in college, this
young man put in from twelve to fifteen hours a week, at 50 to 75 cents
an hour. Mostly, he performed general labor: assembling merchandise,
unloading trucks and 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 a number of the Jewish customers
whose English was not fluent. At the age of seventeen, the young man,
while still working part-time at Sickser's, began his first semester
at City College of New York. He fit in just fine with his, for the
most part Jewish classmates, hardly surprising, considering that he
already knew their ways and their language.
But the heavy studying in the engineering and, later, geology courses
he chose proved quite challenging.The young man would later recall
that Sickser's offered the one stable point in his life those days.
In 1993, in his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
, two years after he guided the American victory over Iraq in the
Gulf War, General Colin Powell visited the Holy Land . Upon meeting
Israel 's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem , he greeted the
Israeli with the word
"Men kent reden Yiddish" (We can speak Yiddish).
As Shamir, stunned, tried to pull himself together, the current
Secretary Of State continued chatting in his second-favorite language.
Colin Powell never forgot his early days working at Sickser's