The music of my youth still reverberates


While growing up in Los Angeles, my twin brother, Theo, and I could play outside every day. Both our maternal grandfather and our mother were baseball fans, so we often played catch with each other. We also enjoyed an outdoor Ping-Pong table.

And by the time our younger sister, Betty, came along, we Goodwin kids enjoyed a backyard swing set and then a tetherball pole. Our paternal grandmother taught us to ride bicycles, and our family loved spending a day at the beach.

Nevertheless, as much as we enjoyed these activities, and others at sleepaway camps, by the age of 8 or 9, we Goodwin kids could not be considered athletic.

A far higher priority – for our parents, at least – was going to religious school on Saturday mornings at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. We would ride on a yellow bus for an hour each way, even though classes lasted only two hours. Given that considerable distance, Mom was hardly eager to drive us to and from Hebrew school at a different time, so Theo and I were tutored at home.

Both of us took other kinds of lessons too, perhaps the most enjoyable of which was painting. By the time we were 8 years old, Mom would shlep us to Mrs. Abbey’s backyard studio, where we often portrayed gorgeous arrangements of flowers or fruit.

Although I took years of drawing and painting classes as an adult, I don’t think that I ever exceeded my childhood accomplishments. Indeed, I still much enjoy looking back at many framed examples.

In addition to taking classes in ballroom dancing, Theo and I were expected to learn to play musical instruments. But this also meant that Mom had to drive us back and forth to Mr. Walecki’s music store, which had small studios in the back for private lessons.

Despite my lack of any musical ability, I loved playing flute, which led, eventually, to something far louder: alto saxophone.

For some strange reason, however, Theo was rather talented. After doing well on clarinet, he moved to oboe.

At the luncheon following our Bar Mitzvah, Theo and I, along with a dozen of our Jewish and gentile buddies, performed a concert of popular and classical music.

Music had already become a key ingredient of our religious education. That is, we learned to enjoy organ and choral pieces – even though we could never see any of the performers in our temple’s vast and magnificent sanctuary.

Until Theo and I attended B’nai Mitzvah at Conservative congregations, we never heard or saw a cantor.

But music became an important and fun component of our upbringing for another quite important reason: I doubt that we auditioned, but Theo and I performed for several years in the orchestra that accompanied the religious school’s Purim pageant.

This was not a goofy production performed primarily for laughs. Rather, it was a carefully rehearsed spectacle that was performed on the stage of the religious school’s huge auditorium.

Immediately following classes and a bite to eat, the student musicians practiced on Saturday afternoons. But this inevitably created a transportation problem. So Theo and I, lugging our instruments, rode a public bus down Wilshire Boulevard to our side of town, and then called Mom from a pay phone to come and get us.

One reason that Theo and I loved playing in the Purim orchestra was our admiration for its conductor, Leon Guide, who was a music teacher in public schools and also the leader of his own dance band. His insistence on high standards and his sense of humor surely led to kids having a good time.

Unfortunately, after performing in our final Purim pageant, 60 years ago, Theo and I never again saw Mr. Guide. But, like several of our religious school mentors, we could never forget him. Indeed, a few weeks ago, given my devotion to genealogical research, Theo asked if I could find out more about him.

The eldest child of Russian immigrants, Leon Guide was born in Istanbul in 1921. By the time he turned 2, his family had sailed to America. Their ship arrived in Providence on Nov. 11, 1923.

The Guides soon moved to Chicago, where Leon and his two younger sisters grew up. He studied cello in high school before majoring in music at Northwestern University.

Mr. Guide taught in L.A.’s public schools for approximately 40 years. He also led orchestras at the Westside Jewish Community Center and University Synagogue, which was close to our family’s home.

Mr. Guide was married twice, but never had children of his own.

Having served in the Army during World War II, he is buried in Riverside National Cemetery, east of L.A. His grave is decorated with a Jewish star, but not a clef.

Theo and I fondly remember several of our religious school teachers. Mr. Sherman, for instance, once asked our class, “How would you define Judaism?” His eventual answer: “A way of life.”

In Mrs. Langley’s class, the kids were required to visit and write reports about social-service organizations. Theo studied Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and I learned about the Jewish Federation. Our class also visited an Orthodox congregation to experience a service.

To prepare for Confirmation, all 160 kids had to write a paper on “Who and What is an American Jew?” Needless to say, I procrastinated. Then, without asking any teacher’s permission (but perhaps with Mrs. Abbey’s blessing), I created a poster with portraits of 24 famous Jewish men and women, including musicians.

My teachers were appalled, but the temple’s senior rabbi loved it. Indeed, my poster hung in a hallway for many years.

After a decades-long hiatus, Theo, who lives in Sacramento, California, not only resumed playing clarinet but also took up classical guitar. He happily performs with a few communal orchestras. Theo is also active in a Reform congregation, but, to the best of my knowledge, he no longer performs in a Purim orchestra.

But, as you can see, our childhood musical memories no longer linger; rather, they resound and reverberate!

GEORGE M. GOODWIN, of Providence, is the editor of Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.

Musings, George Goodwin