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Family’s Return to The Bronx Nostalgia Tour

The Bronx is like Brooklyn without the hype.

Full Disclosure: I’m a proud “Bronx Boy” myself. Grew up in Tremont neighborhood and its P.S. 70, where my Mom, Harriet Levy, who was one of the most fiercely dedicated elementary school teachers EVER, Wade JHS 117 (Historical Oddity: Lee Harvey Oswald attended and after the JFK assassination, almost every kid carved “LHO sat here” into the then wooden desks) and ultra proud DeWitt Clinton ‘69 grad. My family left The Bronx as part of the massive white flight in 1969 and landed on the Upper West Side.

But this is not about me, it’s about Norman Vogel, another proud Bronx Boy whose family, namely his daughter Pauline and son, Ivan, decided to celebrate his 90th Birthday with a tour of Norman’s Bronx. Norman had regaled his family with Bronx stories for years and it was time for the family to see what he was kvelling about. Norman is still spry and sharp and his family adores him. Who couldn’t? He’s a humble man, thankful for the richness of his life and the warmth of a large and diverse family.

We’ve done similar “This Was Your Life” tours before: typically 80th Birthday celebrations planned by adoring next generations to Brooklyn, but this was our first Bronx version and you know this was going to be MY gig!

Norman grew up on Washington and Bathgates Avenues in the East Bronx. These were once thriving pushcart filled commercial streets similar to images of the Lower East Side. Norman’s father and uncles owned a grocery store where Norman worked and Norman continued in the food business for many years. Those buildings and store were long gone by the time we visited them: replaced with huge warehouses, but his schools PS 42 and William H. Taft High School were still standing and Norman was thrilled to relive his memories. A hardcore Yankee fan (another shared trait), we also had to include a visit to Yankee Stadium. It was a pleasure to share this experience with the entire Vogel family.

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You Dont Have to be Drunk to Enjoy Drunk Shakespeare

… But it helps!

Say you’re visiting NYC, but big-budget Broadway musicals were never your thing (they happen to be MY thing, but people and their interests come in all shapes and sizes!) Sports bars would be fun because of the drinks, the high-octane energy and the shouting, screaming patrons but sports are a bore. And this is New York City, not Green Bay! NYC is the world capital of culture! So what evening activity is there for intrepid travelers to check out? Something fun and funny but not too serious? Something intimate and engaging but not too erudite? And something that only gets better with booze! Well, if you’ve already booked one of our pub crawls, there’s only one thing left to check out – Drunk Shakespeare, the no-holds-barred, hysterical, alcohol-fueled production of one of the Bard’s greatest plays.

The wife and I were lucky enough to score a Lila-sitter and check out a rip-roaring off-Broadway production by “a group of drinkers with a Shakespeare problem.” Imagine an improv group, better than anything you’ve ever seen in college, deciding to mount a bare-bones production of the Play that we Shall Not Name. Then one of the actors downs five successive shots of whiskey. Then mayhem ensues. Some fancy-pants high roller gets crowned King and gets to drink champagne out of a boot.

Drunk Shakespeare King

The setting is a book-paneled library and the bar is a secret nook hidden behind a bookcase wall. Drunk Shakespeare

The performance, although mostly following the script of the Play we Shall Not Name, was littered with pop-culture references, from Adele to the Politicians running for President, to the holiday season and tourists five-abreast on the sidewalks. The show was approximately 40% improv comedy and 60% Shakespearean text, but I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare didn’t write or choreograph the dance moves from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Drunk Shakespeare

In short, it was an extraordinary two hours, that mixed some of our favorite things – strong drinks, smart comedy, engaging history, only-in-NY attitude. Drunk Shakespeare gets two thumbs up and one head in the toilet bowl!

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Happy Hannukah! NYC’s 5 Hottest Menorah Lightings

Great New York comedian and social activist Lenny Bruce (RIP) once quipped, “I don’t care if you’re Catholic, if you’re a New Yorker, you’re Jewish!” And its true – you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy pastrami sandwiches, taking it easy on Shabbat (Saturday) or lighting candles in observance of the holiday season. With that in mind, the Levys would like to run down a list of 5 Hottest Menorah Lightings in New York City – one in each borough.

5) The Bell Tower Menorah in the Bronx – the largest Menorah in the Bronx, located in the heart of Riverdale, a lovely, quiet predominately Jewish neighborhood. Sponsored by the Chabad Lubavitch of Riverdale. While up there, check out Liebman’s Deli, as old-school Jewish delicatessen as you’ll find in the borough.

bronx-menorah

4) A more modest Menorah was lit in the Staten Island Mall (hey, SI isn’t all Italian!) by the Chabad Lubavitch of Staten Island. Who says that size matters – its performing the act that counts.

3) Queens is a big place – 178 square miles – so it makes sense that their Menorah celebration was done by car! Presenting – a Car Parade of Menorahs!

2) Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, claiming to be the largest Menorah in the world! Afterwards, head down to Jay and Lloyd’s Deli in Homecrest for matzoh ball soup and a pickle.

1) Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan – claiming to be the largest Menorah (ahem ahem) in the world! Well, what would you expect, letting Brooklyn claim the throne?

manhattan biggest menorah

From NY’s First Family of (Jewish, Christian, Muslim & Agnostic) Tour Guides to You, Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, Festive Kwanzaa, and a wonderful holiday season.

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Return to Brooklyn! Nostalgia Tour

Every so often we are lucky enough to be hired to provide a Nostalgia Tour – a trip down memory lane for old school New Yorkers who have long since moved away. Matt recently got a chance to spend the day with a wonderful family – the Braverman / Blumenthals from San Antonio, who was returning to Brooklyn to celebrate the family matriarch’s Phyllis Braverman’s 80th birthday.

Both Phyllis and her husband – Dr Shelly Braverman grew up in Brooklyn – Shelly grew up in a couple of different apartments on Ocean Parkway in the Flatbush neighborhood (today’s Kensington) and Phyllis grew up near Mill Basin. He went to the legendary Erasmus Hall HS, she went to James Madison. They fell in love while watching movies at the recently restored Loews Kings Theatre on Flatbush Ave, and they got married at he Brooklyn Jewish Center on Eastern Parkway.

Braverman Brooklyn Jewish CEnter

Shelly and Phyllis Braverman with their family outside the Brooklyn Jewish Center

We went to all of these. However, the highlight of the tour, without any doubt, was getting inside both Shelly and Phyllis’ childhood houses! As we were staring up at Shelly’s childhood apartment home, and as Shelly was pointing out his bedroom window, the kinder-than-kind super of the building overheard us, mentioned that he lives in the ground floor apartment with the exact same layout as Shelly’s childhood home, and would we like to come inside and take a look? Would we?!? So we did. A very friendly Russian wife and daughter were more than gracious, even offering a baked savory pie when we toured their home. (We declined.)

Phyllis Braverman

Shelly and Phyllis Braverman getting a tour of her childhood home!

The other, most amazing experience was that once we arrived at Phyllis’ childhood home in Marine Park, we introduced ourselves to the gaggle of Modern Orthodox children playing on her former front porch. Once we explained that Phyllis hadn’t been here in 70+ years, once again, we were ushered inside the house by the gregarious matriarch of the family. Phyllis went room to room, pointing out where her bed was, where they listened to the radio, where her family sat around the table for dinner talking and enjoying the bounties of Brooklyn. The current occupant of the home quipped “So, not much has changed!” Laughter and tears of joy all around.

Braverman on stoop

Look at that happy couple!

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Fabulous Frida and Dia de los Muertos in the Bronx

Pyramid

Last Thursday night, Matt surprised his wife with a late-night date-night at the awe-inspiring New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx (Lucky lady, right?!). Featuring 250 acres of flora and fauna (leaning heavily on the flora, but lest you forget – the Bronx has two of the largest parks in NYC, and therefore is a huge bird flyover spot!) and celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, the NYBG is currently enjoying an unprecedented boomtown with the exhibition Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life.

Fridas

The popularity of Frida Kahlo means that the Botanical Garden has already smashed their all-star exhibit Monet’s Garden of 2012. Riding this popularity, the NYBG is hosting a series of evening adventures in their garden, themed around Frida’s life, her nationality, her politics, her art, and topically enough, the just-passed Mexican celebration Dia de los Muertos.

Jaraba

And for the exhibit’s closing weekend, the NYBG hosted a Dia de los Muertos party. Although Matt and Jenny didn’t make it to that fest, they did attend a Frida Look Alike Contest, listened to some incredible live Mexican folk music accompanied by stilt dancers, and enjoyed the scale version of Kahlo’s legendary garden pyramid, recreated from the original at her Casa Azul home in Mexico City. Said pyramid was designed to display her extensive collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts.

Viva

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