Everyone Came from Somewhere

August 27, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

Bernhard Felsenthal came to these shores six years after failure of the Revolution of 1848 convinced him he would never make the civil service of Bavaria.

He found work teaching Hebrew in Indiana and later became founding rabbi of the first Reform temple in Chicago, in 1861, and of the second, four years later.

For the next two decades, Rabbi Felsenthal urged Jews to participate fully in American life. He preached this in German. He called himself racially a Jew, politically an American and culturally German.

Edward Fischkin's parents knew he had no future in Kiev and supported him as a student in Berlin for 10 years. He realized that Germany would turn him into a fine physician but never let him practice.

So he went to Chicago and became a dermatologist. He married Rabbi Felsenthal's daughter Bertha. They nicknamed their second daughter Teddy, after the president.

Dr. Fischkin loved German culture, was suspected of disloyalty during World War I and died before having to face the rise of Hitler.

Isaac Berger was a salesman who wooed Feiga the farmer's daughter in what is now Lithuania.

Inspired by the pogroms -- official persecution and murder lightly disguised as popular anti-Semitism -- he fled to Chicago and then sent for his family, including the baby Lepke, later called Louis.

Isaac the junk peddler trudged the streets of Chicago buying old pots to resell for scrap, and studied the Talmud. Louis grew up on those streets, spoke Yiddish, failed school, dropped out and got into troubles.

Louis played basketball with the goyim at Hull House. Jane Addams, who ran the place, sent him to Flora J. Cooke, principal of the progressive Francis W. Parker private school.

Miss Cooke said Parker had a place for him. Louis warned he was a bad boy. Miss Cooke said there are no bad boys. Louis gave it a try.

He captained football, was elected student government president and founded the school paper. He was years older than his classmates.

Then Louis went off to the University of Wisconsin to stoke coal and win glory. He played halfback on Wisconsin's undefeated football team of 1912.

The Hull House-Parker School connection found Louis a position as companion to a son in the Potter Palmer family, Chicago's aristocracy. He had to dress for dinner and transfer to the University of Chicago.

Berger is immortalized in the annals of football for a game he did not play. He begged Chicago's Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg to be excused from opposing his old Wisconsin team mates. Stagg assented. The tale is told in Stagg biographies for what it reveals of the coach.

Louis enlisted to fight Germany and save democracy in World War I, serving in the occupation of the Rhine. His honorable discharge as an officer was the only proof of U.S. citizenship he would ever have.

He went back to teach and coach in Chicago schools and earn, finally, his college degree. He met Teddy Fischkin, who was by then an art student at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Theirs was in Jewish terms a mixed marriage: He did not observe Orthodox, she did not practice Reform; his family spoke Yiddish, hers German. To the untrained eye, both were middle-class Chicagoans.

Their second son, I was born in New York and grew up in suburban Great Neck. In middle teens, I played basketball two nights a week with the Police Boys Club. PBC was great for guys who loved the game and couldn't make the jayvees.

The league was organized by a Nassau County cop whose full-time duty it was, to create good will and save us from juvenile delinquency.

So when fellow Americans fulminate against foreign babble, I hear Rabbi Felsenthal. When they resent Algerian and Bangladeshi physicians, I see Dr. Fischkin.

When they apologize for some distant government's mass murders as hereditary ethnic hatred, I suppress vomit and give thanks that Isaac and Feiga got their brood out.

When they rant against liberal do-gooders, I remember Louis' undying gratitude and devotion to the memory of Miss Cooke.

When private schools recruit athletes from city playgrounds and when Dunbar jocks head off to distant universities, I see Louis and cheer them all the way.

When folks snort derision at midnight basketball, I fondly remember playing it a little earlier.

And when they ask if this country can absorb one more hungry Haitian desperate enough to overload a jerry-built boat, I say you bet.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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