As a young kid, there was nothing I enjoyed more than listening to stories. My mother told me about being a child of the Depression and the only Jewish family in a tiny southwestern Pennsylvania coal-mining town. My father told tales of growing up in a provincial Cuban town in a home with chickens, a goat, a white horse and a cast of characters that rivaled the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Our rabbi introduced me to the “Wise Men of Chelm,” old Yiddish stories I loved and wanted to hear again and again.
All these stories magically transported me to different times and places, but also informed me of my heritage. This is where we came from. This is what it was like.
One of this blog’s contributors, Mike Wolstein, urged me to look up a professional storyteller, Syd Lieberman, who was from Albany Park. I started listening to Syd’s stories online. Right away, I felt the old magic: this is where we came from. This is what it was like.
Syd is an internationally acclaimed storyteller. And he is from Albany Park, and before that, Humboldt Park. He’s been a teacher, an author, an award-winning storyteller. I’m honored to interview Syd for this blog.
Note: A sad update to this blogpost was the news that Syd Lieberman passed away on May 12, 2015. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to conduct this interview with him in 2012.
Frances: Where did you grow up? What public schools did you attend?
Syd: When I was born, my parents lived near Division and Campbell. We moved to Leland and Spaulding in Albany Park. I went to Hibbard Elementary School and Roosevelt High School.
Frances: When did you start drawing on your experiences in Albany Park for your stories?
Syd: Immediately. Albany Park was a great place to grow up. It was really a neighborhood. Ninety percent of the people were Jewish. There were Jewish delis, bakeries, synagogues. But it wasn’t just religion we had in common. It was the culture. That added a lot to the experience of Albany Park.
Frances: What would you say were the boundaries of Albany Park at that time?
Syd: Montrose to Foster, River Park to Pulaski.
Frances: Where did you hang out?
Syd: Maury’s Red Hots (3544 W. Lawrence) was our central spot, and we went there as often as we could. First, it was located on a side street, Monticello, and later he moved to Lawrence.
Maury was a nice guy, so positive about Albany Park. He knew everyone, could tell you what everyone was doing. He was a philosopher.
On Friday nights we went to the Terminal (3315 W. Lawrence). It seemed like 5,000 teenagers were there. We drove the adults crazy. There was a section in the front, on the left-hand side, reserved for necking. After seeing a movie, we’d go to Purity Restaurant for kishkes and Cherry cokes.
We’d also meet at the Albany Park Library. In fact, I met my wife there.
Frances: Were you in a club?
Syd: I was a Condor. I got my jacket at Ned Singer’s Sports. We held our meetings at Max Strauss JCC.
Frances: I was going to nursery school at the Max Strauss J during 1960-61, the same years your club was meeting there.
You played on a championship football team for Roosevelt High School. Was it an all-Jewish team?
Syd: We had nine Jews on offense. We were all about 5 foot, 6 inches tall. A Polish guy played end and a big German was the quarterback. I was on the varsity team for three years. In my sophmore year, we played in the division championship and lost. In my junior year, we tied. We won the city championship 14-13 against Englewood in my senior year, 1961. That was Roosevelt’s first championship.
“Roosevelt, champion of the North-West section Blue Division, is led by half-back Syd Lieberman, who is averaging 7 yards per carry. . . . Lieberman won his division scoring championship with 55 points in five games.” — Chicago Tribune, November, 17, 1961
I tell the story in “The Englewood Game,” on my AKA Syd Lieberman CD. I felt as if we were playing for the neighborhood, the school, my buddies, my family and the coach. Coach Klein had gone to Roosevelt, and that made our championship extra special. The week before the game we had a pep rally at school. After the rally, the principal let us out of the building so we could dance a conga line around the outside of the school.
Frances: What are some of your stories that draw on your Albany Park experiences?
Syd: Some of these stories didn’t take place in Albany Park, but are related; “I’m Sean Connery,” “The Old Man,” “A Harvard Man,” and “The Englewood Game.”
Do yourself a favor and go listen to Syd. He’s generously shared all his recordings on his website and in other formats.
References: “Roosevelt and Englewood to Battle Today.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963): C3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988). Nov 17 1961. Web. 20 Feb. 2012 .
Photo of Purity Restaurant from the blog Hello There Cutie.
Photo of Max Strauss JCC from The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, by Irving Cutler.
Read more Albany Park Memories