Steps on Oakland Street

Howard Snyder, a cast mem­ber in the mu­sic­al “The Stoop”, vis­its his chil­hood neigh­bor­hood in the North­east. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

Howard Snyder, a son of Ox­ford Circle, re­turned to his old neigh­bor­hood on Oak­land Street a few weeks ago for a short trip down memory lane.

He stepped out of his car and im­me­di­ately re­cog­nized the red brick rowhome in the mostly Jew­ish en­clave where he and his sis­ter, Nancy, grew up in the 1950s and ’60s.

“We lived in the house on the right,” he said. “The Ro­sens lived on the left.”

A neigh­bor on the oth­er side, whose name now es­capes him, was a tail­or with a shop in the base­ment.

Snyder, 56, lives in Nashville now, but has moved back to Phil­adelphia for four months to play the part of Shlomo the Ped­dler in the mu­sic­al A Stoop on Orch­ard Street. The pro­duc­tion is be­ing staged at the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of Amer­ic­an Jew­ish His­tory in Cen­ter City through Dec. 30.

The play tells the story of the struggles East­ern European Jews faced as they landed in New York City’s Lower East Side, and the dreams they had that pro­pelled them to bet­ter lives.

“We’re the have nots,” they sing. “We’ve got op­tim­ist­ic thoughts.”

The severe over­crowding of Orch­ard Street circa 1910 is a far cry from the tidy homes with small front lawns on Oak­land Street. We’re talk­ing front steps, not stoops, and gar­ages around back. But the cul­ture and re­li­gion of the early im­mig­rants were trans­por­ted across time and place.

• • •

Snyder’s par­ents, Robert and Lil­lian, were the first own­ers of house num­ber 7145, a two-story struc­ture with three bed­rooms and a gray slate roof. They were part of the mi­gra­tion of Jews with young fam­il­ies who moved from South, West and North Phil­adelphia to the North­east. Howard’s fath­er was born in South Philly, and his mom grew up in Straw­berry Man­sion. Both were first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­ic­ans.

His fath­er worked at the old Nav­al Air De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter in Johns­ville, Mont­gomery County. He went to Drexel at night, earned a de­gree in elec­tric­al en­gin­eer­ing and even­tu­ally be­came chief pro­ject en­gin­eer for the cen­ter’s hu­man cent­ri­fuge pro­ject. Robert Snyder helped Amer­ica’s first sev­en Mer­cury as­tro­nauts, in­clud­ing Alan Shep­ard, get used to high G-forces.

For Howard Snyder, grow­ing up on Oak­land Street meant cra­bapple fights and play­ing wire­ball and flick­ing bottle­caps for hours on end with oth­er kids. It was rid­ing bikes in sum­mer and sleds in winter.

For this in­ter­view, he was in­vited to walk down the side­walks of his boy­hood home for a day of re­dis­cov­ery. As he walked and talked, his eyes lit up when he saw something from the past that was still there.

Sol­is-Co­hen Ele­ment­ary School — now much lar­ger — was at the end of his street. A block farther was Tyson Av­en­ue, where an aunt and uncle lived. His ma­ter­nal grand­moth­er was just a few blocks away on Kindred Street. These close re­l­at­ives liv­ing nearby played an even lar­ger role in his life after his moth­er be­came ill and died of lung can­cer when he was just 7.

Snyder re­called the happy times of eat­ing waffles and ice cream from the old Tyson Grille at the corner of Bustleton and Tyson, and go­ing with his fath­er to buy lox and ba­gels from a deli, a few blocks farther south on Bustleton. Both shops are gone now, a ribs and wings joint where the grille once op­er­ated and the deli giv­en way to either an In­di­an or Asi­an res­taur­ant.

• • •

Walk­ing a few blocks south down Bustleton brought him to his old syn­agogue, Beth Emeth or “House of Truth,” where he at­ten­ded Hebrew school and be­came a bar mitzvah. 

“Boy, does it look smal­ler,” he said, as he peered through the glass front door. “This place seemed so huge to me.”

The Con­ser­vat­ive syn­agogue is closed now, and a sign in­dic­ates that the build­ing with multi-colored glass win­dows is up for sale. It’s an out­ward sign of how the neigh­bor­hood has changed, as Jews have left Ox­ford Circle and His­pan­ics, blacks and Asi­ans moved in.

Leav­ing the syn­agogue, Snyder walked a few blocks more to Max My­ers Play­ground, where the wooden bleach­ers looked like they dated to the days when he let loose here. A whim­sic­al met­al sculp­ture of a gir­affe, neck bent to the ground, an­oth­er leftover from the old days, greeted him, too.

As he re­flec­ted later on the walk, Snyder said what he had ex­per­i­enced were “little is­lands of in­tense con­nec­tion amid the many things that have changed.”

His world is so much big­ger now. An ex­cel­lent stu­dent at North­east High, he was ac­cep­ted in­to a six-year premed/med­ic­al school pro­gram at the Uni­versity of Michigan. He be­came a doc­tor spe­cial­iz­ing in in­tern­al medi­cine, and much later on moved to Nashville to spe­cial­ize fur­ther in neph­ro­logy, or ill­nesses as­so­ci­ated with the kid­neys, and fi­nally in clin­ic­al phar­ma­co­logy.

He gave up prac­ti­cing medi­cine about 10 years ago after the pain from a her­ni­ated disc made it im­possible for him to bend to per­form pro­ced­ures.

• • •

Over the last five years, he has be­come more act­ively in­volved in theat­er, a bug that first bit him when he was a med stu­dent at Michigan. He went on stage for the first time in a spoof on Grease. The med stu­dents called it “Gross” and made good-hearted fun of their pro­fess­ors, Gross Ana­tomy and oth­er courses they had taken. A year later, he did a turn in an­oth­er med school spoof, The Sound of Mu­cous.

Then, off to his res­id­ency at the Uni­versity of Texas in Galve­ston, where he au­di­tioned for a com­munity theat­er part in Chica­go and landed a role as a stage hand in­stead.

“I had an ab­so­lute blast,” he said.

From there, he moved onto act­ing and singing roles, and over the last 30 years has made many friends and found a second home in theat­er.

“I love the whole pro­cess,” he said. “Learn­ing the parts, the singing and the dan­cing.”

In his latest role, as a ped­dler from the shtetl who sells fruit from his wooden cart on Orch­ard Street, Snyder says he draws on “a life­time of memor­ies” of fam­ily stor­ies. His moth­er’s fam­ily came from Po­land and his fath­er’s from Latvia or Lithuania. Snyder re­mem­bers with great fond­ness the funny stor­ies his dad’s large fam­ily used to tell —  the sib­lings tak­ing care of and tor­ment­ing one an­oth­er as they grew up in a pre­dom­in­antly Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood in South Philly.

“The lan­guage, the stor­ies, the ex­pres­sions are all fa­mil­i­ar,” he said of the words and mu­sic of A Stoop on Orch­ard Street. “There are a lot of Yid­dish words, phrases, the tex­ture of the lan­guage, the way Eng­lish is spoken is fa­mil­i­ar to me.”

Jay Kho­los, who also lives in Nashville, wrote the play after a trip to the Lower East Side’s Tene­ment Mu­seum, where two fam­ily apart­ments, one Jew­ish and the oth­er Itali­an, are open to vis­it­ors. Both re­main as they ap­peared at the turn of the cen­tury, and are so tiny and dark, that the harsh­ness of im­mig­rant life comes in­to sharp fo­cus.

At the time, the Lower East Side had one of the densest pop­u­la­tions in the world. In 1893, the Jew­ish ward con­tained 74,400 people in just 46 blocks, or about 702 people per acre, ac­cord­ing to the Jew­ish Vir­tu­al Lib­rary. In many of those tene­ments, there was only cold run­ning wa­ter and a shared bath­room down the hall. A win­dow in the front room of the three-bed­room apart­ment provided the only day­light.

“Sud­denly the stor­ies my grand­fath­er used to tell me all came to life,” Kho­los wrote in the Stage­bill in­tro­duc­tion to Stoop. “As a child, I paid re­spect­ful at­ten­tion; as an adult I now fi­nally un­der­stand what he was try­ing to say.”

Kho­los work­shopped the play in Nashville be­fore tak­ing it to New York City in Ju­ly 2003, where it had a 16-month run Off Broad­way.

• • •

The danger of a ro­man­ti­cized mu­sic­al story of life on the Lower East Side is that it will gloss over the im­possibly hard life these new im­mig­rants lived: The 16-hour days in the sweat­shop con­di­tions, the men who aban­doned their fam­il­ies, the anti-im­mig­rant feel­ings and the ar­bit­rary de­cisions made at El­lis Is­land. But, luck­ily, Kho­los’ play em­braces those truths and at the same time of­fers an even big­ger help­ing of the dreams these folks car­ried in their hearts. The res­ult is a play filled with themes that any­one -— Jew­ish or not — who comes from im­mig­rant roots will re­cog­nize.

Jew­ish hu­mor abounds, too, as when the nar­rat­or called The Old Man says, “As I was telling my grand­son, Chris­toph­er” and then a big pause, “don’t ask.” Or the bubbes, or grand­moth­ers, who rise from the grave, dish­ing guilt and sharp opin­ion: “You wore that red dress to my fu­ner­al. It makes you look soo fat!”

The mu­sic is soul­ful and en­ga­ging as the lyr­ics shift from poignant to witty. Mul­tiple story lines that over­lap keep the sus­pense build­ing as the char­ac­ters nav­ig­ate their way through their be­wil­der­ing New World.

In real life, some of the res­id­ents of the Lower East Side went on to be­come movie pro­du­cers, doc­tors, law­yers, suc­cess­ful busi­ness­men, but they didn’t for­get to tell their kids where they came from.

As the nar­rat­or says, they “al­ways re­membered two things: The day they ar­rived and the day they left.”

Snyder, who has a quick smile and easy laugh when talk­ing on the street, has little to smile about as the ped­dler Shlomo. He has a harder time than the oth­ers in con­jur­ing up his own dreams. He’s too busy, he says, to go bey­ond the hope that his “horse don’t drop dead.” But even Shlomo the Ped­dler is en­cour­aged and finds a way to hitch onto hope, and that hope provides a bridge to a bet­ter life.

That scene just hap­pens to be Snyder’s fa­vor­ite part of Stoop. •• 

For more in­form­a­tion …

 A Stoop on Orch­ard Street will play at the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of Amer­ic­an Jew­ish His­tory through Dec. 30. Tick­ets are $49.50. For tick­ets and more in­form­a­tion, call 215-220-2361. 

Reach Lil­lian Swan­son at 215-354-3030 or lswan­

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