Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Pressing My Luck: Get Back

March 20th, 2013

Here is another excerpt from my soon-to-be published book Pressing My Luck.

Fifty years before I ever heard of Quick Pick tickets or instant jackpots, I was born in Camden, N.J., the first child of Gershon and Leah Press.
I arrived at 8:42 p.m. on June 2, 1951. There is nothing remarkable about a 6 pounds, 14 ounce baby girl, except that my very existence was a kind of miracle.

My mother had survived Auschwitz, my father, Dachau. They met after both of them came separately to America. They married in 1948. They had defied the odds and now had the never-easy job of raising a child. The next chapter describes a detailed account of their lives.

They rarely spoke of the Holocaust and chose not to burden my sister Barbara, born two-and-a-half years later, and me with the past. They reserved speaking Yiddish, their native language, for private times, of which there were few. At the time, it all seemed so normal. Yet we instinctively understood the precious legacy of survivor children. My parents’ priority was to bring up two assimilated girls in a free land and make a living the American way, yet never forgetting their Jewish heritage. It wasn’t easy.

My dad worked in the grocery store of his Aunt Rose and Uncle Morris Dworkin, who sponsored his immigration to the United States after the war. Aunt Rose was my father’s mother’s sister.My dad was a gentle, even-tempered soul. He always helped people. When he was in a position to do so, he would extend store credit to deserving customers. He would keep each family’s tally on little pieces of white paper. He created an idiosyncratic way of filing these slips, storing them alphabetically on a series of six nails hammered into the wall in the store’s backroom. At the end of each week, customers would come in and pay their tab. I remember him best in his white apron. He had a heavy accent. In addition, until the day he died, he had a full head of brown hair without a speck of gray. I inherited that trait from him. To this day, I have yet to see my first gray hair.

On only a grocer’s salary, we could barely afford our first home, a tiny two-bedroom one-bath brick row house at 1494 Kenwood Avenue in Camden’s Parkside section of town. They paid $8,000 for the house, which was on a typical city block. There was a small grocery store — not ours — on the corner, and a nearby synagogue.

It was a five-block walk to school. We knew many of our neighbors. Two blocks away lived our older cousins, Andrea, who we called Andy, and Mark Dworkin. Andrea grew up to find fame as a writer and feminist. However, as kids, it was Mark we sought out. We spent countless hours entertained by his bottle cap and baseball card collections. In the summer, we would also play in the Dworkins’ inflatable swimming pool while our mothers would talk. I remember Andrea playing the piano, always reading, and talking with the adults. Later in life, we became close.

We always had enough to eat. My mother was a master at transforming hamburger into a variety of different dishes. She was also obsessed with eggs and thought giving us an egg a day would safeguard our health. Her original invention was to wait until she thought we weren’t looking and quietly stir a raw egg into our Bosco Chocolate Syrup flavored milk. We weren’t fooled, but dutifully drank the concoction to make her happy.

It was understood that I would wear hand-me-down clothes from cousins, and when I outgrew them, the cycle would continue with my younger sister. Afterwards, my mother would ship the clothes to our relatives in Israel for another rotation. We lived without air conditioning. The walls in our house were so thin that we were able to play knocking games from our respective bathtubs with our next-door neighbors, Keiran and Trevor Lynch.

My parents could not afford to buy a small black and white television set until 1956, and they purchased their first car, a green Ford Fairlane, in 1961, the year I turned 10. I had no expensive toys but will never forget Susan Serock’s fancy dollhouse in her backyard across the street. Yet, tea parties at the dollhouse were far from my favorite pastime. There were no Barbies on my Hanukkah list. I preferred toys made of rocks, wood or rope for outdoor games like stickball, hopscotch and double-Dutch jump rope or playing in groups of kids that formed spontaneously. We’d play in an alley behind our house. I was generally accompanied by Barbara, a brown-eyed, brown-haired cutie, who I had to drag with me pretty much everywhere. We shared a room and I still remember our matching plaid quilts. I never thought about whether we were rich or poor until Linda Hill, the only African-American girl on our block enlightened me. “Look at the houses on the television and then look at ours,” she said.

The early years were good years, despite money woes. Our neighbor, Jim Serchia, became quite popular for his weekly nickel-and-dime giveaways. He was the original Alex Trebek of Kenwood Avenue, always asking the kids on the block questions about current affairs and rewarding us for right answers. We still keep in touch with “Uncle” Jim; in recent years he has become a close friend to my mother. It was typical of the ’50s that we knew all our neighbors and rarely locked our doors. The only theft I was aware of was when someone stole my bicycle. It was later found up in the branches of an old oak tree. This was the extent of crime on Kenwood Avenue.

We were able to walk without fear each morning to Parkside School. Students were required to go home for lunch. While the other girls went home, I had to eat in the luncheonette section of the local five-and-ten cent store where my mother worked as a sales clerk. She was the only mother I knew who worked outside the home. The little money she made helped to make ends meet. My mother later arranged for Barb and me to eat at my classmate Ina Sirisky’s house. I still keep in touch with her and other friends from the old neighborhood.

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RKlein says:

Enjoyed the excerpt!

Donna Ostroff says:

From one Camden, NJ girl to another (now living in Palm Springs, CA (via L.A.)…looking forward to seeing you on Katie Couric today.
I’m from East Camden – Randolph Street. My father was a kosher butcher on Marlton Pike…Ostroff’s Kosher Meats. Went to Camden High for one year – the year of the Marthin Luther King riot….but graduated from Woodrow Wilson. Congratulations on your continued success!!

spress says:

Hi Donna,
I’m just reviewing my blog and website and am sorry I missed your comment from a couple of years ago. It’s always nice to hear from a fellow Camden girl. I remember your father’s store. I went to Camden High in 1966 for one year and then Cherry Hill High. Did you know the Hermans or the Elkans? I think they lived on Randolph St. or close by.

Rabbi David E. Herman says:

I too grew up in Camden and have great memories of your parents at Beth El where my father of blessed memory, Louis J. Herman was the Cantor.I remember your parents as a beautiful, soft spoken couple.
You were great on the show! My 95 year old mom would love to speak with your mom if it is possible. I wish you and yours continued mazel, health and nachas!!!

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