Somewhat like the fictional bar "Cheers", Columbus in the 1950s and '60s was a place where just about everyone knew your name — and what you were up to and often what you were thinking. Small town life — especially along the clay-stained streets of central Georgia — could be very special and, sometimes, challenging and difficult.
At its best, Columbus was a safe, comfortable, caring community. It was the sort of place Hollywood screenwriters try to capture in coming-of-age movies and old folks picture in their minds when they grow melancholy and start their conversations with the bitter-sweet phrase, "I remember when ..."
Columbus was mostly about the good life, a "Beaver Cleaverish" little city — at least on the surface — where the Jewish community was an integral part of the fabric of society. In the '50s and early '60s there were no malls or mega-stores or outlet factories. Downtown was a cluster of aging shops on a dozen or so streets hugging the Chattahoochee River. And going downtown was an exciting adventure. On weekends and holidays the streets were bustling with shoppers and soldiers (Ft. Benning was just to the south), working their way around cars and buses and the occasional trolley car left over from the '40s.
My father owned a pawn shop on First Avenue. It was next to Suran's Furniture Store, which was around the corner from the Novelty Shop on Broadway, owned and operated by the Kravtin family. Next door were a cluster of businesses — Blue Ribbon Shoes, Rainbow's Department Store and "Tots and Teens" — all owned and operated by the Rainbow and Shapiro families.
Nearby, on the same block, was Aaron Funk's United Jewelers, Gus Mendelson's Fox's Pawn Shop and Sol and Harry's, a hugely successful clothing store owned by Sol and Harry Cohn. A block north was Phil Pomerance's Kiddie Shop, Charlie Stein's Huddle Shop, and Victor Kiralfy's woman's store. Turn the corner at 11th Street and walk a block east past Kirven's department store and Federal Bakery and you'd be just across the street from Miller's Delicatessen, home of the best corned beef sandwich (perhaps the only corned beef sandwich) to be found in Georgia south of Leb's in Atlanta.
The city eventually muscled its way eastward, down Wynnton road where shopping strips and malls would later sprout, along with tract houses and subdivisions that offered all the modern conveniences that would come to define the American dream as the country grew and matured. It was here that the Jewish community took root, centered around Shearith Israel Synagogue (Conservative) on Wynnton Road and Temple Israel (Reform) about a mile or so to the North on Wildwood Avenue near Lake Bottom and Columbus High School.
The war and Holocaust and anti-semitism were fading memories but the Jewish community remained closed and insular. We went to school and worked with the rest of the community, but we prayed and partied only with one another. Assimilation was not yet a blip on our cultural radar screen.
So we kept bumping into the same people. We all belonged to either the synagogue or temple (some of us belonged to both); prayed mostly at Friday night services (except during football season when we prayed at Memorial Stadium on Victory Drive) and almost always ended the evening with a "sock hop" at the home of the current AZA Sweetheart — Debbie Lapides, Anita Satlof, Pat Robbins and Nancy Rainbow in the mid-60s.
We danced and swam at the Standard Club (until it was torn down to make way for an apartment complex) or the Harmony Club; belonged to both USY and BBYO; attended the AZA Sweetheart Dance and USY Building Spiritual Bridges Dance each year and traveled to Macon and Augusta, Birmingham and Montgomery for youth conventions where we met other Jewish kids doing pretty much the same sorts of things in their cities that we were doing back in Columbus.
We water skied on the backwaters of the Chattahoochee; saw movies at the Georgia or Bradley Theaters downtown; hung out at Pizza On Call in Dinglewood and each fall attended the Chattahoochee Valley Exposition — the county fair. We graduated high school, went away to college and, many of us, never looked back.
For me, Columbus today is a place that speaks of a different, somewhat gentler time. It remains only in my mind and imagination and magically in black and white photos, filled with the aging ghosts of family and friends. This is the place of my childhood, and although it has been over 40 years since I lived on Briarwood Avenue in a tiny three-bedroom home with my parents and three brothers, Columbus remains my home. In a strange sort of way, it always will be.
FADING MEMORY: Broadway, in downtown Columbus, was a happening place (photo above) in the '50s and '60s, especially on the weekends and soldiers' pay day.