Some Jewish wise man once concluded that it wasn’t easy being a Jew, and so it was at our orphanage. It wasn’t so because I was unhappy, but the things I had to remember! Of course, there were the prayers. Ablution prayers, morning prayers, prayers before, during, and after meals, not to mention one after going to the toilet and washing of hands, all had to be memorized and recited, and I did so with gusto. Besides the ever present yarmulke on my head there was also a new garment to be worn at all times; a small, fringed cassock, with little strings at each of its four corners. I believe there were seven of these strings at each corner (difficult to be sure at this remove) and at the end of each of the little strings there was a little knot. Each knot had to be tied in a particular way, and of course there was a story to go with the knots (which I no longer remember). The strings and the cassock, the whole garment had to be worn under our regular clothing, but with the little fringe strings sticking out. Among the boys there was also competitive sidelock growing, which even at the time seemed pointless, as nothing could be done about the speed at which hair grew.
While at the orphanage, we attended public school, which I entered in 2nd grade, although I must have been slightly older than my classmates. We walked to school two by two, and I enjoyed both the walk and the school. The most memorable time was that spent in the courtyard during recess, when we played rather rowdy games involving lots of simulated personal and team combat. Interestingly the teams were not Nazis and Allies, but Cowboys and Indians, and it didn’t really matter on which team you found yourself.
The walk to and from school involved walking through or around Square Ambiorix, an urban park featuring a reflecting pool and an equestrian statue of a mustachioed figure on a great steed, Belgium’s greatest hero, Ambiorix himself. Ambiorix, a Gaul chieftain, had the misfortune of wiping out an entire Roman legion and several cohorts, which annoyed Julius Caesar no end. Caesar then led a punitive expedition, wiping out Ambiorix’s entire tribe, which then disappeared from earth and history, and the hero himself, figuring discretion was the better part of valor, disappeared into the Germanic woods never to be heard from again. The only reason anything at all is known about Ambiorix is that he earns an honorable mention in Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” However, the park named after him was something special.
Winters, the reflecting pool froze completely solid. On the way to school, especially when it snowed, we would stop briefly in the parkand create long ice slides for which no special equipment was needed. We just dropped our books, lined up, and waited for our turn. No adults were present, and none were needed. When my turn came, I took a long run on the snow and slid as far as possible without losing balance. As each of us slid, the slide became longer, and the longer it was, the better. Sadly we had to leave the fun to go to school, but there was the afternoon. That also ended too soon as we were expected back at the orphanage. It didn’t take long to figure out that whenever I was having fun, I had to cut it short to do something that actually needed doing. I don’t think I was the first to have had that thought.