Morris Levy: Growing Up in the Bronx

This excerpt contains material that I was originally hoping to include in my book, Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy.  It gives a fuller picture of his early years growing up in the Bronx.

Morris Levy’s life and work was shaped by where he was born and the times in which he lived.  The son of Jewish immigrants, Levy was raised on the streets of the Bronx, where he learned many lessons in what it took to survive in an often hostile world.

The late 19th– early 20th centuries were marked by a huge emigration of Europeans to America, particularly Eastern European Jews, Italians, Irish, and others seeking religious freedom and better living conditions than they could find at home.  Most found the promised land to be a vast improvement over where they once lived; modern conveniences such as electric light and indoor plumbing—virtually unknown in many parts of rural Europe—were common in the American cities where many immigrants settled.  And even though many first settled in tenements that featured rather minimal space and poor sanitary conditions, upward mobility was offered through the boom in housing, the growth of urban transportation, and the availability of jobs.

Above and beyond the economic advantages, coming to America also gave these immigrants a chance to remake themselves.  Many had lived in the shadows of persecution in their home countries; they were limited in where they lived, what jobs they could take; their political power was next to nil and their educational opportunities poor.  In America, there was at least the possibility of changing these dynamics.  The process often involved trading in common European names for new American ones; giving up regional dialects and languages for American English; adapting new jobs and learning new skills; even changing clothing and eating habits, although food was perhaps the one area where immigrants clung most strongly to their old ways.

They were also introduced to a new culture, including music.  American popular music was in its first great heyday during this period, offering new musical styles and new opportunities for those who could perform or compose music—as well as the promoters, producers, critics, hangers-on, and would-be performers who became nearly as important as the real creators to American musical life.  For those determined and talented enough, performing, composing, and eventually publishing music could lead to a life of economic prosperity.  Lower East Side born Israel Baline was one of the most gifted and determined; born at the dawn of the 20th century, he transformed himself into Irving Berlin, becoming one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the music business for decades.

For these new immigrants, the basic unit of survival was the family.  It was a given that as each child came of age—usually by the time they were into their second decade—they would go to work.   The first immigrants scraped by so they could send money home to bring the next group of relatives over.  Once everyone was in America—often living in close proximity—it was assumed that they would look out financially for each other.  As most ethnic groups stuck together in the same neighborhoods—sometimes by choice, but more often due to economic necessity and unwritten rules of segregation—the neighbors became extended family members.  Traditional village values of helping out those in need were carried forward into the new “villages” of the innercities.   Neighboring children and schoolmates formed natural alliances, protecting each other from bullies, playing improvised games together, and helping each other succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of low-paying jobs once they were forced to go to work.  What many outsiders saw as “gangs” were nothing more than groups formed for self-protection.

While the first generation of immigrants were happy enough to find work in a sweat shop, the next generation was determined to climb higher up in American life.  This led to further self- transformations.  While there were many limitations caused by poverty, lack of education, and ethnic identity, there was the ability for those committed to succeed to pull themselves up.  At the same time, being from the underclass, they saw the hypocrisy and limitations of upper-class society and had little respect for the rules and regulations that were designed to keep them down.

Morris Levy’s life and work reflects this scrappy immigrant attitude, in both its most positive and negative connotations.  Through his life, he valued personal commitments over legally binding contracts or other traditional business transactions.  He remained close with those he first encountered in his neighborhood and then in his early days working in clubs.  He was happy to loan money to those he viewed were in need; but expected an unquestioning loyalty in return, just as he remained loyal to those who boosted him out of poverty.  Crossing Levy was not in your best interest; although some of his legendary toughness was probably a means of self-promotion as well as protection in the tough entertainment business, Levy was willing to use whatever means necessary to protect his self-interests.  And his charity always had a darker undertone because he always extracted a return for every favor.

The story of the Levy family mirrored that of thousands of other Eastern European Jews who fled oppression at home to find a new way of life in the “promised land” of America.  The migration of Jewish people from Eastern Europe to New York City followed a predictable path, often beginning in Eastern Europe (which had the largest Jewish community in the world in the mid- to late-19th century) to the Lower East Side (where tenement housing and a large Yiddish-speaking community made for an ideal landing place).  A similar migration occurred once Jews could afford to escape their initial less-than-desirable living conditions in New York City.  This movement also paralleled the growth of mass transit, particularly the subway lines that opened up new areas of New York to development.  Workers could now work in any part of the city but live in a less crowded newer development thanks to the availability of quick, inexpensive transportation.

By the turn of the century, many Jews had moved out of the slums of the Lower East Side to fancier neighborhoods like Harlem (which from about the 1890s-1920s was home to the largest Jewish community in New York City), the Bronx (which became a major center of Jewish life in the ‘30s), or Brooklyn.  Some skipped an intermediate step, particularly during the ‘20s when the economy was good; others slipped back down the ladder when things went bad (such as during the Depression years).  And of course within these districts there were better and poorer areas. In the Bronx, middle-class Jews lived in the West Bronx often near the famous Grand Concourse, the Park Avenue of the Bronx; lower-class Jews were crowded into less-desirable tenements in the eastern and southern sections of the borough.  And these neighborhoods had their own hierarchies, with the most Eastern part of the East Bronx considered to be the lowest of the low.

At the height of its Jewish population in the ‘30s, the South Bronx had more than 200 synagogues, ranging from the mighty neo-classical Temple Adath Israel, built in 1928 of white limestone on the Grand Concourse at 169th Street, to store-front shuln where a single rabbi might eke out a living training young boys for their bar mitvahs. The area was home to over 360,000 Jews, and at the time Yiddish was second only to English as the most-spoken language in the borough. Many Jews—including the Levy family–settled in the Bronx moving north from Harlem during the teens and ‘20s when the economy was good; however the coming of the Depression in 1929 led many to lose what little status they had on the social ladder, and forced them to relocated to less expensive (and rougher) neighborhoods in the borough. Most Jews were employed in low-wage jobs with minimal chance of advancement; others opened small store front businesses or hustled up work serving local politicians or other powerbrokers.

Nonetheless, the Bronx of the 1930s represented a true improvement in living conditions compared with the Lower East Side and certainly with the shetls of Eastern Europe. A four-bedroom apartment in a newly built building could be rented for as little as $25.00 a month, and the landlord provided such amenities as a refrigerator and gas stove. In the hit 1927 film The Jazz Singer, the young Al Jolson seeks stardom just so he can move his devoted mother out of the Lower East Side slums to the heavenly Bronx; he tells her, “A lot of green grass grows up there and a whole lot of people you know [live there]. The Ginsbergs, the Goldbergs, the Guttenbergs. A whole lot of Bergs.” (The famous radio show, “The Rise of the Goldbergs” was launched in 1929 by Bronx resident Molly Berg. The family matron became a symbol of Jewish motherhood and culture throughout America.)

Even Leon Trotsky, the Russian socialist, chose the Bronx as his home while living in America in 1917. He marveled at the quality of housing available to even the working class:

We rented an apartment in a worker’s district and furnished it on the installment plan. That apartment, at $18.00 a month, was equipped with all sorts of conveniences that we as Europeans were quite unused to: electric lights, gas cooking range, bath, telephone, automatic-service elevator, even a chute for the garbage.

Eighteen dollars a month sounds like a steal, but the average weekly wage for nonskilled workers was just $18 a week; the first federal minimum wage—just .25 cents an hour—was set by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Although Trotsky lived in the tonier West Bronx, it still showed the kind of lifestyle that could be achieved by the more successful Jews of the era.

The same promise of upward mobility and better working and living conditions drew other immigrant groups to the Bronx, most notably the Irish and the Italians. The Italians also came up from the tough living conditions of the Lower East Side. Unlike the Eastern European Jews, many of whom had a long tradition of scholarship through their religious training and had experience working in urban economies like Warsaw, the Italians tended to come from peasant stock, with little knowledge of urban life.   Many came from South Italy, and brought along with them the tradition of strong familial ties and mutual support—exemplified in its more negative manifestations in the bonds of organization crime.

The Irish established themselves as powerbrokers mainly through their political machines and clubhouses; in the Bronx, the Irish machine founded the Pondiac Club to dole out assistance to the less-fortunate denizens of the borough, including the Jews and Italians. All they asked for in return was a solid block of Democratic voters. Besides providing a meeting place, the administrators of these clubs also served as arbitrators for the inevitable battles among the ethnic groups. As a child in the South Bronx, Henry Schimmel, an immigrant Jew, recalled, “When the chief rabbi of New York died in 1902 and a mob of Irish factory workers started throwing bricks at the Jewish mourners, Mr. Ahearn [a local district leader involved with the Pondiac Club] instructed his men to move in and break their heads.” The club also aided in more benevolent ways, as Schimmel recalled: “When a widow with orphans needed coal in the winter or ice in the summer, Ahearn’s men were there before anyone else.”

The close proximity of these different ethnic cultures led to some uncomfortable mingling. Many of the older Jews feared that their youth were picking up bad habits from the less desirable members of the community. The slums were breeding grounds for an entire array of unsavory types including criminals, drug dealers, and prostitutes.   Jews living in the lower-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn—such as the notorious Brownsville area —and the East and South Bronx were particularly concerned that the younger generation was being lured by the easy money offered by criminal activities. Local candy stores, pool halls, and other informal meeting spots were known places where criminals would meet, and many of them employed younger street kids to perform chores, serve as lookouts, or do other work related to their “businesses.” Many served as unintentional role models; after all, they had achieved a certain status thanks to their access to cash, often dressing better than the harder-working Jewish immigrants. And while the first generation Jews suffered from many petty insults based on their race, lack of social standing, and degrading jobs, the gangsters appeared to be self-sufficient and took no guff from anyone. Lacking a father to serve as a role model or counterbalance, undoubtedly the young Morris Levy was impressed by the criminals he got to know living in the South Bronx.

While mob bosses were often admired for their fancy clothes and high level of living, politicians and powerbrokers were often viewed with contempt. The protection given to the struggling underclass Jews by the Irish political bosses was tied directly to the promise of their votes. The lack of respect for civil authority was underscored by a seething resentment that many developed through their dependence on charity. Levy for one was embarrassed that his family was on relief, even though he grew up in the depths the Depression. “When we got the [welfare] check on the first of the month,” he boasted years later, “I used to mail it back to the state, or the city, or whoever the fuck it was.” (This is highly unlikely, as no family was in a position to turn down aid, particularly the Levys.) Desperate to be self-sufficient, he began shining shoes at the age of 9. Like many others, he found school boring and a waste of time when what he really wanted to be doing was supporting himself and his impoverished mother. By the mid-‘30s, the family was living in a small apartment in a tenement in the West Bronx. Older brother Zacharia was already at work by age 17 as a printer’s apprentice, having apparently dropped out of school after completing the 6th grade; Rachel continued to work as a domestic

 

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