Claim: As a teenager, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell learned to speak Yiddish while working in a Jewish-owned baby equipment store in New York.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2001]
Unlike today’s vista of decrepit buildings, dilapidated housing and rusting junked cars, the South Bronx in 1950 was the home of a large and thriving community, one that was predominantly Jewish. Today a mere remnant of this once-vibrant community survives, but in the 1950’s the Bronx offered synagogues, mikvahs, kosher bakeries, and kosher butchers
The baby boom of the post-war years happily resulted in many new young parents. As a matter of course, the South Bronx had its own baby equipment store. Sickser’s was located on the corner of Westchester and Fox, and specialized in “everything for the baby,” as its slogan ran. The inventory began with cribs, baby carriages, playpens, high chairs, changing tables, and toys.
Mr. Sickser, assisted by his son-in-law Lou Kirshner, ran a profitable business out of the needs of the rapidly-expanding child population. The language of the store was primarily Yiddish, but Sickser’s was a place where not only Jewish families but also many non-Jewish ones could acquire the necessary paraphernalia for their newly-arrived bundles of joy.
Business was particularly busy one spring day, so much so that
“Young man,” he panted, “how would you like to make a little extra money? I need some help in the store. You want to work a little?”
The tall, lanky African-American boy flashed a toothy smile back. “Yes, sir, I’d like some work.”
“Well then, let’s get started.” The boy followed his new employer into the store.
Mr. Sickser was immediately impressed with the boy’s good manners and demeanor. As the days went by and he came again and again to lend his help,
From the age of 13 until his sophomore year in college, the young man put in from
At the age of 17, the young man, while still working part-time at Sickser’s, began his first semester at City College of New York. He fit in just fine with his, for the most part Jewish, classmates
After signing up for an ROTC program and serving two tours of duty in Vietnam, the young man quickly rose to the top ranks of the U.S. military. In 1989, under President George Bush, Colin Powell was sworn in as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In 1993, two years after he guided the American victory over Iraq in the Gulf War, Colin Powell visited the Holy Land. Upon meeting Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem, he greeted the Israeli with the words Men kent reden Yiddish
As Shamir, stunned, tried to pull himself together, Colin Powell
born to Jamaican immigrants living in Harlem in 1937; the family later moved to a largely Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, where Powell picked up some proficiency in Yiddish from his neighbors and through working at Sickser’s baby equipment store in his teenage years. After graduating from City College of New York, Powell entered the military, eventually rising to the rank of
If there is any nit to be picked here, it’s that this piece leaves many readers with an exaggerated impression of Powell’s fluency in Yiddish. Most other sources
Fourteen-year-old Colin Powell slipped off his jacket and went right to work. He kept working at Sickser’s through his teens, earning
A few months after Powell was named the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in
As a boy whose friends and employers at the furniture store were Jewish, Powell picked up a smattering of Yiddish.
In 1995, after an 88-year-old New Jersey man created a fake interview with
A spokesman for Mr. Powell said he hadn’t heard about the spoof but confirmed that
Powell himself was quoted as saying much the same thing during an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in 2001:
When Colin Powell took to the stage at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington last month, he made it clear that he believed he was among friends. He had even been rumoured to be fluent in Yiddish. “Well, yes, I do understand a bissel” (i.e., “a little”), he said to laughter.5
Regardless, even if Powell knows but a few words of Yiddish, it’s one more admirable facet of a man who has led a varied and distinguished life in the service of his country.
Last updated: 5 March 2007