From the mid-1960s to the early 1970’s, I spent my formative years growing up in a small Long Island suburb called West Hempstead, NY. Back then there was only one Orthodox synagogue in town – the Young Israel of West Hempstead – and there were 50 or so Orthodox families in the community when our family moved there.
It has been about 50 years since my family moved out of the community and relocated to Teaneck, NJ. However, I still have warm and wonderful memories of the years I spent growing up there. Some of my parents’ closest friends continued to be the people they met in West Hempstead, even after they moved away. And I also keep in touch with a couple of individuals from those days.
I have been back to West Hempstead a handful of times since then, but I never really got a chance to carefully observe all the many changes that the community has experienced in the last five decades. So when our dear friends, Joe and Linda Koegel, recently invited us to join them at their home in West Hempstead for a Shabbat, we jumped at the opportunity. Not only would it be a chance for us to reconnect with our close friends, but I thought it would also be a chance to revisit the days of my youth.
The first big change I noticed is the enormous growth of the Orthodox community. There are now more than 1,500 observant families living in West Hempstead, a far cry from the handful of frum folks who were in town when I was a kid. There are no less than eight Orthodox shuls serving the community (including a very active and interesting Chabad synagogue), a kosher pizza shop, two kosher bagel stores, a kosher Chinese restaurant, a kosher grocery store/butcher shop, and a Judaica store.
Driving down the main drag, Hempstead Avenue, there are some obvious signs of the demographic shifts towards Orthodoxy. Pompei, an Italian restaurant that had been a fixture in the community for decades, is no longer there — it has been replaced by a synagogue, Bais Torah u’Tefilah. Reisterer’s, a German bakery which was always rumored to have been run by former Nazis, is now certified kosher. And the Reform synagogue, which had been a thriving congregation while I lived in the community, was purchased by HANC, the local Orthodox day school – and the school will soon be building a brand-new building on the property.
That’s not to say that there weren’t a few landmarks that were immediately recognizable. The local Carvel ice cream store is still in the same location, with a retro sign in front of the store that looks like it’s right out of the 1960s (it was our destination after every Sunday softball game). West Hempstead High School is still in its same location on Nassau Boulevard, and hasn’t changed much in 50 years. The Hempstead Gardens Long Island Railroad train stop is still where it was when I was a youngster – a convenient way in 1969 to go to the city from West Hempstead and watch the New York Knicks play at Madison Square Garden, right above Penn Station. And Hall’s Pond (where I broke my arm playing hockey) still glistened, just like I remembered it looking 50 years ago.
However, many of the landmarks that I remembered are unfortunately now gone. Green’s Candy Store on Hempstead Avenue, where I purchased oodles of baseball wax packs and other assorted candies with my allowance money, is no longer there. The Royal Lanes bowling alley, where for less than five bucks one could bowl a few games and pay for shoes, has disappeared. Hills Supermarket, where my mom did her shopping, is long gone. So is Dairy Barn, where we purchased our milk in glass bottles, returning the empties in exchange for newly filled ones. Hahn’s Drugstore, a family-owned business where my family purchased all our drugs and medications, has vanished, a victim of the large pharmacy companies like CVS and Rite-Aid monopolizing the drugstore business. And Abraham and Strauss and S. Klein department stores – major landmarks in the area five decades ago – have been replaced by Home Depot and Auto Zone.
The neighborhoods around the shuls themselves are for the most part still recognizable. The houses around Colony Street, Plymouth Street, and School Street are still mostly old-style Tudor homes, and the homes around the Dogwood section of town are still mainly ranch houses. But like many communities such as Teaneck and the Five Towns, many of the Orthodox families have built massive extensions to the original properties. Even with the rise in interest rates, there were an enormous number of dumpsters in front of homes that were being remodeled.
Visiting West Hempstead once again allowed me to reminisce a bit about some of the wonderful memories of my youth: playing ball on Redmont Road, the epicenter of our existence, where we actually painted an official size home plate in the middle of the street … Echo Park, before the pool was built, when there were two softball fields for our Sunday games …the Young Israel youth minyan, where we all learned how to be a ba’al tefilla and lein from the Torah … walking home from Friday night onegs, where we might occasionally had to deal with antisemitic comments from cars passing us by … Shabbat afternoon tennis ball football in the HANC front parking lot, before the school built its extension … and proudly taking off our baseball caps and revealing our kipot in public after the Six Day War, when it became much more cool to identify as a Jew.
Thomas Wolfe said that you can’t go home again, and for the most part he is correct. But last weekend, at least for 24 hours, I was able to relive a portion of my youth, in the town where I grew up. And what a trip it was!