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Shirley Temple and Me

February 13, 2014
by Florence Breiger shirley-temple-american-child-star-of-the-1930s-seen-here-with-a-shirley-temple-dollMany years ago, almost too long to remember, when I was a little girl, my parents, my baby brother, and I lived in a tiny apartment on Rice Street in Chicago. When I say tiny, I mean the apartment consisted of one large room with a big picture window and a sunny alcove at one end large enough to hold a double bed where my mother and father slept. At night the sofa which stood in front of the window was my bed. My baby brother slept in a crib. The apartment had a small kitchen just big enough to hold a small wooden table and chairs as well as a small stove and an ice box. The kitchen door opened to a small back porch where a few steps led down to a cement back yard. On sunny days, my brother’s play pen was put out in the yard and I rode my tricycle around and around while my mother hung diapers and other laundry on a clothesline that bordered one end of the yard. It is only now in retrospect that I realize how small and cramped we lived. As a child it seemed exactly big enough. About a block and a half away was the newsstand at the corner of Chicago and Central Avenues, where my father spent long hours selling newspapers. He worked from very early morning to early evening Monday through Friday, from early morning Saturday to 2 a.m. Sunday, and from early Sunday to 2 p.m. (his “day off”). My mother relieved him at times during the day so that he had a chance to eat and use the bathroom in the drugstore across the street. In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, you’ll see later in my narrative that all of these details are important. Tears happyI was born in 1931 when Shirley Temple was 3 years old. We were both blonde, blue-eyed, and precocious, though in much different ways. She was a curly-haired, dimpled movie star who could sing and tap dance and whom mothers all over America hoped their little girls would someday emulate. I was a little Jewish girl with short hair as straight as a board, who could neither sing nor dance but could, at the age of 3, much to the delight of my parents, recite some poetry in Russian and sing “My Greeneh Cousineh” (“My Greenhorn Cousin”) in Yiddish. To this day I can recall the opening lines of the Russian poem, “Prokoisnitsah martishkah, Kasahlope meshkah” (“The Mischievous Monkey, the Clumsy Bear”). Selling newspapers was a business with a very narrow profit margin. For example, the Sun Times, which sold for two cents, yielded a half penny for the seller. In spite of working long grueling hours, after accounting for theft and paying graft to the drivers and the police, my folks were just about making ends meet. Shirley-Temple-Coat-HatThey were ardent believers in the labor union movement, having both spent some years in the garment industry, as so many eastern European immigrant Jews did in the early part of the 20th century. From there it was an easy step to affiliate with the Communist Party, whose platform espoused a fair shake for the workers of the world. Both sets of my grandparents and my uncles regarded my parents’ politics with dismay. My mother sang “Arise Ye Prisoners of Starvation” while she washed diapers and “Union Maid” as she mopped the floor. My folks read the Frayhayt and identified with the aims of the CP long after they left in 1927, just before they married. To sum up, my parents were idealistic lefties who just barely made a living under very difficult circumstances. Across from the newsstand stood Mendlesohn’s drugstore. The owner, Mr. Mendlesohn, a Jewish pharmacist, was very kind to my folks. He allowed my father to use the bathroom located in the back of the store and showed kindnesses way beyond ordinary expectations. When I was 5, I had only a vague idea of what it meant to be Jewish. My father had decided that when I was old enough to understand that I could chose to identify religiously or not. In the meantime, my grandmothers kept us involved in the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays, and we were always included in the big family celebration of Passover. That year I was enrolled in kindergarten. In December, along with my Christian classmates, I was taught Christmas carols. (In those days separation of church and state was an irrelevant concept when it came to actual practice.) shrleytemple1In December, Mr. Mendlesohn put a Shirley Temple doll for sale in the window of the drugstore. She was beautiful, with golden curls, an adorable dimpled smile, perfect skin, a perky dress, and little white socks and shoes. She was altogether the most desirable doll in the world. My classmates were speculating endlessly about what they hoped Santa would bring them for Christmas. I wasn’t quite sure about what this all meant, but I was pretty sure Santa was not going to show up at my house. After I was put to bed one Sunday night, I heard voices coming from the kitchen. My parents and my paternal grandmother were speaking in adamant, hushed voices. I could not make every word, but I did hear my grandmother spitting out words likem meshugener kopstin (crazy poor man), narishkayt (foolishness), and ayngaspart (stubborn). My father’s responses were always made in hushed respectful tones. You can probably guess the rest of the story. When I woke up a few mornings later, that beautiful Shirley Temple doll was on the chair beside me. She was even more perfect than I had imagined. I never knew what negotiations had taken place between my dad and Mr. Mendlesohn. I only knew that a little bit of magic had touched my life. I cherished my Shirley Temple doll for years. She went with me on the many moves my family made during my childhood. I took her with me when I married, although she was a little worse for wear and spent years packed away with a few other remnants of my childhood. When we moved to California she moved with us finally ending up along with some other donations to The Salvation Army. So now my Shirley Temple doll lives only in my memory. This story is absolutely true, though the facts may not be exactly as I remember. What is absolutely true is that my father, for all his fervently held political beliefs and his disdain for the trappings of a bourgeois society, had intuited and most importantly acted on the most basic human impulse: a desire to make his little girl happy. Sometimes that is the most important truth of all. Florence Breiger grew up in Chicago and went on to attend the University of Chicago. She moved to Stockton, California in 1956 with her late husband, and taught in Stockton public schools and San Joaquin Delta College for more than twenty-five years. Her son, Marek, is a frequent contributor to Jewish Currents.