By Alex Berger
A Jewish proverb states that “good men need no recommendation.” I beg to differ. My brother, Larry, 11 years my senior, deserves all the recommendation I can give. He is presently a patient in an assisted living home. My relationship with him deserves to be told.
I am the secondâˆ’youngest in a family of eight children. Larry is the secondâˆ’oldest. He was special — personable, handsome, charming and possessing an orator’s voice and a sense of humor. If that were not enough, he was a great dancer. My mother had to shoo away the girls who waited in droves at our door to see him. I often wished I was as charismatic.
Larry was also smart. In every school he attended, he was the brightest and achieved the highest grades. His clear, bold handwriting was the students’ model. Larry had been elected to many student offices and won many scholastic awards. I often wished I was as intelligent.
I remember our upstairs neighbor Walter Matthau — yes, the same who achieved Hollywood fame — challenged Larry, who was on his way to a date, to a game of word definitions. To prepare, Walter had spent a week memorizing the dictionary. Larry needed only a few minutes to defeat Walter, who made it to his date on time.
Larry was also athletic. His firm handshake made grown men wince. And he never shied away from a fight. Despite bloody noses and scratches, he usually won. It soon got around that nobody would mess with Larry. I often wished I was as fearless.
On any given day, Larry was always upbeat and humorous. His clever jokes left everyone smiling. In good and bad times, he sought to make the other person laugh and succeeded. I often wished I was as funny.
Larry graduated high school with honors at 16. Regrettably, because of our family’s financial straits during the Great Depression, Larry had to seek employment to help alleviate the financial burden. He was not able to take advantage of the many college scholarships he was offered.
My brother worked many diverse occupations: watchmaker, steel worker, post office clerk, private detective, salesman, etc., but never settled into one line of work. He needed to explore and conquer his everâˆ’expanding horizons. At 17, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and spent a year in Nevada planting trees. Larry married twice, widowed twice and had three sons.
Although confined to a wheelchair, he is still as jovial and highâˆ’spirited as he was in his younger years. Larry likes to read my column, especially those about our life on the Lower East Side, and add his two cents. Despite major difficulties and health problems throughout his life, he never asked anyone for anything.
Larry was the one who taught me how to ride a bicycle, shave, romance girls, appreciate reading and writing and become a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He also cured my desire to smoke when he caught me with a cigarette when I was 14. Instead of chastising me, he suggested I try a real man’s smoke: an “Italian Stinker.” After a few puffs, I was off cigarettes forever.
On one visit, I handed him a pad and pencil and asked him to write about what accomplishment in his life he was most proud of. He had to complete my assignment by the next time I visited.
I expected him to write about his grit, reaching the heights of academia, his athletic prowess or girls, but surprisingly, Larry chose to write about the following:
“My neighborhood ‘Recreation Rooms and Settlement’ was quite unique. It was a place for learning, socializing, playing, dancing, etc. and was our school after school. The first job I ever had was there as a disc jockey playing music on Dance Night.
“The director, Miss Gutwillig, often invited many notables to visit the settlement. When I was 9, I was chosen to meet the wife of Averell Harriman, the former governor of New York. Mrs. Harriman greeted me with a smile. I must have impressed her because she hugged me, and then handed me a crisp $5 bill. I ran home with the money held tightly in my fist and gave it all to my mother.”
Larry, your six younger siblings thank you for being their big brother. And I thank you for being you. Stay well.
Contact Alex Berger at email@example.com.