My Hanukkah memories are quite unique, as most of my childhood was spent in a residential school for fatherless boys where organized religion of any kind was banned.
My father died when I was three years old, in 1931. My mother was left with nothing and had three children to raise: me, my brother and our older sister. With the Great Depression raging, she had no choice but to place my brother and myself in Girard College, an orphanage of sorts. It was a boarding school for poor and fatherless boys set up by early American financier, Stephen Girard.
A unique institution, it was funded by an enormous endowment and the bulk of Girard’s estate, who was the richest man in America at the time of his death in 1831. His wealth was on the level of a Bill Gates today. His gift of an endowment to create and run the school was the largest private charitable donation ever made at that time.
One of Girard’s unique rules was the absence of any organized religion on the campus, taken to the point where no ordained ministers or priests were even allowed on the property. There were no organized Hanukkah celebrations nor recognition of any Jewish holidays at the Girard home for fatherless boys. It was simply Christian (neither Protestant nor Catholic) religious services at chapel every morning and twice on Sundays.
The Jewish kids were permitted to attend synagogue on Friday nights if their families took them, but I never attended. My mother, who was struggling on general relief (welfare), took us to services at a local synagogue only once or twice in 10 years, but we never had any kind of celebration at home.
As a kid with nothing, my fondest memories of Hanukkah time at Girard College were the gifts we were given as a school. The kids received one gift toy or game each from the big famous Gimbel Brothers department store because the store was on Girard Estate land at 8th and Market Streets in Philly, and it may have been some sort of trade off. When I was at Girard, there were 1,800 boys there, and if each present was worth $10, that adds up to $18,000 in gifts — a lot in 1930s depression dollars. Because I had so few of my own possessions or toys, this was a major event I looked forward to the whole year.
Additionally, each kid received two suits of clothing each year from Wanamaker’s Department Store at 13th and Market streets — also on Girard property. The suits, each with coat, vest and pants, were of good quality, so maybe those gifts were worth $180,000. This was in the 1930s and early 1940s, when average family income was less than $45 a week. The Great Depression was on.
I have spent a lifetime creating new and better Hanukkah memories for my own children. But I always remember those years at Girard and share similar ones with the more than 22,000 other children who have graduated from the school since its inception.