White Hats, Black Hats
© 2014, Gadi Bossin
P.O. Box 20
Kiryat Bialik, Israel
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
This book is an updated version of a narrative I wrote over 20 years ago. I have rewritten it for my now grown children: Roni, Rinat (and my son-in-law, Yoni) and Keren.
It’s also for Lia, my granddaughter, who will be celebrating her fifth birthday within a month.
WHITE HATS, BLACK HATS: PART ONE
During those first years in Toronto when we lived in the house at 37 Montrose Avenue, I was lost in a profound sense. That was especially true after Auntie Ruby and Uncle Shimmy and Barry and Gail moved out of the house and to a bungalow in the suburbs.
Nevertheless, at the same time I was very much at home in my immediate surroundings and at age five I began to explore farther and farther afield.
Little by little over the next two-and-half-years—when we moved to the suburbs, too—I extended my knowledge of the neighborhood and its streets to include an area encompassed by College Street to the north, Ossington Avenue to the west, Dundas Street and Bellwoods Park directly opposite Montrose Avenue to the south, and Bathurst Street to the east.
I knew my way through the alleyways that ran parallel to and between the north‑south streets and was familiar with all the shortcuts through backyards and over fences of houses without dogs that barked and nipped at you or cranky old people who yelled and screamed at you.
I knew all the neighborhood candy and toy stores and delicatessens and their proprietors. I knew all of the children and most of the families and what houses they lived in on Montrose.
And I also knew the routes of the milkman and the iceman and the coalman.
The milkman would sometimes let me come along for a ride in his wagon and I got to snap the reins and call out “giddy‑yup” to his horse.
The iceman would give me icicles to lick from ice splinters that cracked off of the big blocks of ice he delivered to the houses.
And the coalman—you could get sooty just from watching him work—slid coal through the sidewalk-level window into our coalbin in the cellar.
I made friends with the elderly Chinese gentleman who lived next door at number 39.
He spent hours puttering about in his garden, bringing beautiful brightly colored flowers out of the small patch of urban soil that was his front yard.
Mrs. Zilberfarb, our bespectacled, white-haired, grandmotherly neighbor from number 35, was also very friendly and kind to me.
When her grandson Joey would come to visit her, he would knock on our door.
“Geddy, can you come out and play?”
He always said this very same sentence with the same exact words as if he’d rehearsed them. And then he and I would play together. He was my age.
Many years later, my Auntie Sarah told me that Bubbeh Shayndel and Mr. Zilberfarb were in love when they were teenagers back in the Old Country.
His parents wouldn’t allow him to marry her. They said she didn’t have yiches—her family wasn’t connected—her pedigree wasn’t worthy of their son marrying her.
But in Toronto, Canada, in the 1920’s, those two young love-struck teenagers, grown up and each married to someone else and each the parent of a brood of youngters, were neighbors on Montrose Avenue. It makes me smile to contemplate my grandmother as a romantic.
Old Mr. Steinberg, who lived a few doors up the street, was a hunchback. He walked all bent over, supported by a cane.
As short as I was, he would have to look sideways and a little up when he spoke to me. I was always intimidated by his twisted appearance and yellow‑toothed smile, but he had a perpetual twinkle in his eye and that drew me to him.
Years later my father looked up from reading the obituaries and said, “Old Mr. Steinberg from Montrose Avenue died yesterday.” I felt sorrow and loss and wondered how his son Erwin must be feeling that day.
I also made friends with Jerry and Louie and Henry and Sunny.
Sunny was my first secret love in the second grade.
I only had one enemy: that was Herman.
Raviv, I know I’ve told you about Herman before, but I’ll recount the story again a bit later for posterity’s sake, so you won’t forget.
Jerry was a little Jewish boy with blondish‑red hair, a pink complexion, a winning, squinty‑eyed smile, and a perpetually scratchy‑hoarse voice.
He was about a year younger than I was and liked to tag along with me and Louie.
Louie was Italian and my age. He had no accent in English even though he was an immigrant and his mother couldn’t speak English at all.
He was good‑looking with dark brown hair, tousled curls on his forehead and a deep tan complexion with reddish highlights on his upper cheekbones.
He was quick and sturdy and could keep up with me when we went backyard fence climbing.
Louie’s mother was tall and statuesque of figure.
She wore her hair combed back off her face with a part in the middle and two small waves on either side. The hair on top was also combed back and down and tied into a low shoulder length bun.
She was not pretty.
Her teeth were large and too many and some were gold. Her high cheekbones seemed to push her deeply set eyes even deeper into her head, accenting a hollow, skull‑like appearance.
She wore cheap flower‑printed dresses, the same wine‑colored cardigan (unbuttoned) all year round, and black-laced shoes with bobby socks like Shevvy’s.
When she wanted to say something to me, Louie would have to translate. When I addressed her directly, I would say, “Louie’s mother.”
There was a period of time when Henry was my best friend. I think it was when we were between five and six years old.
He lived for a few months with his parents in Mrs. Zilberfarb’s house. They rented an upstairs room like the one my father and Shevvy and I had when Auntie Ruby and Uncle Shimmy and Barry and Gail were still with us.
Henry’s family had “cooking privileges” in that room.
Henry was an only child, spoiled by his overindulgent parents, and he was very stubborn.
His mother and father were concentration camp survivors and Henry had been born in Germany immediately after the war.
He and his parents had arrived in Canada two or three years earlier and were building a future for their family. They didn’t mind the crowded upstairs room. They were looking ahead.
How it is that I knew they were survivors, I’m not sure.
It was a fact that everyone seemed to know. So I knew it, too. It was in the air. People said they were DP’s.
A DP was a Displaced Person. The term “Displaced Person” was at once euphemistic and true. It was true in that they were indeed in a place far removed from where they had planned originally to live out their lives.
It was also euphemistic:
They had been displaced against their will, abused and tortured physically and mentally, by a horrifyingly cruel reign of terror, by the Nazi beast‑monster, for long, brutal years during the European Hitlerian nightmare.
And it was not merely that they had been displaced. But their minds and psyches and their once-upon-a-time-agreed-upon-by-consensus illusions and assumptions and certainties had been displaced by a chaos of disillusions and uncertainties.
Those days when Henry and I were best friends, he and his parents shared one guiding assumption: life would be better in Canada.
And so they lived in a single room with “cooking privileges” and shared the upstairs bathroom with the Zilberfarbs at 35 Montrose.
I was drawn by involuntary reflex to the mystery of Henry’s dark European past.
It was clear to me that what had befallen his parents had befallen him, too.
And it was also clear to me that somehow I was involved in and connected to this past in Europe, that though I knew intuitively that the reason and the logic that arrived at this conclusion were far beyond me, I also intuited that this conclusion was inescapable, indelibly printed on the pages of the preface to my autobiography.
My father had said to me the same thing his father had always said to him: “Schwer zu sein a Yid.” “It’s hard to be a Jew.”
Perhaps Dad had connected what he said about the DP’s and the Holocaust to his pride in Israel when he told me at age three or four that now at last after two thousand years there was a Jewish state, the State of Israel, so we Jews could hold our heads high once more, which I understood from him we couldn’t do before.
All this, this past, this heavy history, this destination Israel, were mine by legacy, by indisputable birthright.
And I accepted it all as axiomatic to my own existence.
I said that Henry was very stubborn. He was at least as stubborn as I was. As playmates and best friends we constantly fought. He had a strong, dominant personality, and so did I.
I was used to my friends agreeing to my playtime suggestions—”I’ll be the policeman. You be the robber.”—and so was he.
Inevitably and very, very frequently, we clashed.
The grownups used to tell us not to worry when we fought at four in the afternoon and swore never to speak to each other again and cried at the prospect.
They would say—and they were always right—that by seven in the evening we’d make up and we’d be out playing together as usual in the morning.