Steps on Oakland Street

Howard Snyder, a cast member in the musical “The Stoop”, visits his chilhood neighborhood in the Northeast. (Maria Pouchnikova)

Howard Snyder, a son of Oxford Circle, returned to his old neighborhood on Oakland Street a few weeks ago for a short trip down memory lane.

He stepped out of his car and immediately recognized the red brick rowhome in the mostly Jewish enclave where he and his sister, Nancy, grew up in the 1950s and ’60s.

“We lived in the house on the right,” he said. “The Rosens lived on the left.”

A neighbor on the other side, whose name now escapes him, was a tailor with a shop in the basement.

Snyder, 56, lives in Nashville now, but has moved back to Philadelphia for four months to play the part of Shlomo the Peddler in the musical A Stoop on Orchard Street. The production is being staged at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Center City through Dec. 30.

The play tells the story of the struggles Eastern European Jews faced as they landed in New York City’s Lower East Side, and the dreams they had that propelled them to better lives.

“We’re the have nots,” they sing. “We’ve got optimistic thoughts.”

The severe overcrowding of Orchard Street circa 1910 is a far cry from the tidy homes with small front lawns on Oakland Street. We’re talking front steps, not stoops, and garages around back. But the culture and religion of the early immigrants were transported across time and place.

• • •

Snyder’s parents, Robert and Lillian, were the first owners of house number 7145, a two-story structure with three bedrooms and a gray slate roof. They were part of the migration of Jews with young families who moved from South, West and North Philadelphia to the Northeast. Howard’s father was born in South Philly, and his mom grew up in Strawberry Mansion. Both were first-generation Americans.

His father worked at the old Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, Montgomery County. He went to Drexel at night, earned a degree in electrical engineering and eventually became chief project engineer for the center’s human centrifuge project. Robert Snyder helped America’s first seven Mercury astronauts, including Alan Shepard, get used to high G-forces.

For Howard Snyder, growing up on Oakland Street meant crabapple fights and playing wireball and flicking bottlecaps for hours on end with other kids. It was riding bikes in summer and sleds in winter.

For this interview, he was invited to walk down the sidewalks of his boyhood home for a day of rediscovery. As he walked and talked, his eyes lit up when he saw something from the past that was still there.

Solis-Cohen Elementary School — now much larger — was at the end of his street. A block farther was Tyson Avenue, where an aunt and uncle lived. His maternal grandmother was just a few blocks away on Kindred Street. These close relatives living nearby played an even larger role in his life after his mother became ill and died of lung cancer when he was just 7.

Snyder recalled the happy times of eating waffles and ice cream from the old Tyson Grille at the corner of Bustleton and Tyson, and going with his father to buy lox and bagels from a deli, a few blocks farther south on Bustleton. Both shops are gone now, a ribs and wings joint where the grille once operated and the deli given way to either an Indian or Asian restaurant.

• • •

Walking a few blocks south down Bustleton brought him to his old synagogue, Beth Emeth or “House of Truth,” where he attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah.

“Boy, does it look smaller,” he said, as he peered through the glass front door. “This place seemed so huge to me.”

The Conservative synagogue is closed now, and a sign indicates that the building with multi-colored glass windows is up for sale. It’s an outward sign of how the neighborhood has changed, as Jews have left Oxford Circle and Hispanics, blacks and Asians moved in.

Leaving the synagogue, Snyder walked a few blocks more to Max Myers Playground, where the wooden bleachers looked like they dated to the days when he let loose here. A whimsical metal sculpture of a giraffe, neck bent to the ground, another leftover from the old days, greeted him, too.

As he reflected later on the walk, Snyder said what he had experienced were “little islands of intense connection amid the many things that have changed.”

His world is so much bigger now. An excellent student at Northeast High, he was accepted into a six-year premed/medical school program at the University of Michigan. He became a doctor specializing in internal medicine, and much later on moved to Nashville to specialize further in nephrology, or illnesses associated with the kidneys, and finally in clinical pharmacology.

He gave up practicing medicine about 10 years ago after the pain from a herniated disc made it impossible for him to bend to perform procedures.

• • •

Over the last five years, he has become more actively involved in theater, a bug that first bit him when he was a med student at Michigan. He went on stage for the first time in a spoof on Grease. The med students called it “Gross” and made good-hearted fun of their professors, Gross Anatomy and other courses they had taken. A year later, he did a turn in another med school spoof, The Sound of Mucous.

Then, off to his residency at the University of Texas in Galveston, where he auditioned for a community theater part in Chicago and landed a role as a stage hand instead.

“I had an absolute blast,” he said.

From there, he moved onto acting and singing roles, and over the last 30 years has made many friends and found a second home in theater.

“I love the whole process,” he said. “Learning the parts, the singing and the dancing.”

In his latest role, as a peddler from the shtetl who sells fruit from his wooden cart on Orchard Street, Snyder says he draws on “a lifetime of memories” of family stories. His mother’s family came from Poland and his father’s from Latvia or Lithuania. Snyder remembers with great fondness the funny stories his dad’s large family used to tell — the siblings taking care of and tormenting one another as they grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in South Philly.

“The language, the stories, the expressions are all familiar,” he said of the words and music of A Stoop on Orchard Street. “There are a lot of Yiddish words, phrases, the texture of the language, the way English is spoken is familiar to me.”

Jay Kholos, who also lives in Nashville, wrote the play after a trip to the Lower East Side’s Tenement Museum, where two family apartments, one Jewish and the other Italian, are open to visitors. Both remain as they appeared at the turn of the century, and are so tiny and dark, that the harshness of immigrant life comes into sharp focus.

At the time, the Lower East Side had one of the densest populations in the world. In 1893, the Jewish ward contained 74,400 people in just 46 blocks, or about 702 people per acre, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. In many of those tenements, there was only cold running water and a shared bathroom down the hall. A window in the front room of the three-bedroom apartment provided the only daylight.

“Suddenly the stories my grandfather used to tell me all came to life,” Kholos wrote in the Stagebill introduction to Stoop. “As a child, I paid respectful attention; as an adult I now finally understand what he was trying to say.”

Kholos workshopped the play in Nashville before taking it to New York City in July 2003, where it had a 16-month run Off Broadway.

• • •

The danger of a romanticized musical story of life on the Lower East Side is that it will gloss over the impossibly hard life these new immigrants lived: The 16-hour days in the sweatshop conditions, the men who abandoned their families, the anti-immigrant feelings and the arbitrary decisions made at Ellis Island. But, luckily, Kholos’ play embraces those truths and at the same time offers an even bigger helping of the dreams these folks carried in their hearts. The result is a play filled with themes that anyone - — Jewish or not — who comes from immigrant roots will recognize.

Jewish humor abounds, too, as when the narrator called The Old Man says, “As I was telling my grandson, Christopher” and then a big pause, “don’t ask.” Or the bubbes, or grandmothers, who rise from the grave, dishing guilt and sharp opinion: “You wore that red dress to my funeral. It makes you look soo fat!”

The music is soulful and engaging as the lyrics shift from poignant to witty. Multiple story lines that overlap keep the suspense building as the characters navigate their way through their bewildering New World.

In real life, some of the residents of the Lower East Side went on to become movie producers, doctors, lawyers, successful businessmen, but they didn’t forget to tell their kids where they came from.

As the narrator says, they “always remembered two things: The day they arrived and the day they left.”

Snyder, who has a quick smile and easy laugh when talking on the street, has little to smile about as the peddler Shlomo. He has a harder time than the others in conjuring up his own dreams. He’s too busy, he says, to go beyond the hope that his “horse don’t drop dead.” But even Shlomo the Peddler is encouraged and finds a way to hitch onto hope, and that hope provides a bridge to a better life.

That scene just happens to be Snyder’s favorite part of Stoop. ••

For more information …

A Stoop on Orchard Street will play at the National Museum of American Jewish History through Dec. 30. Tickets are $49.50. For tickets and more information, call 215–220–2361.

Reach Lillian Swanson at 215–354–3030 or lswanson@bsmphilly.com