AZA alums here mark 75 years of unbelievable memories, fun

The Jewish neighborhood Irv Goodman lived in when he was a teenager in West Oakland no longer exists.

Also gone: the Sixth Street market where he sold vegetables, the street cars that charged 7 cents a ride and the Jewish center he attended at the corner of 14th and Brush streets.

As Goodman approaches his 82nd birthday in a couple of months, he acknowledges that not much remains from his youth — aside from his vividly fond memories of belonging to AZA from 1935 to 1939.

"Those were some of the best years of my life…the five happiest years of my life," Goodman said last week while sipping a cocktail at his home in Burlingame. "Anyone who has been in AZA will tell you the same thing, that the memories are just unbelievable."

His memories and those of many other past AZA members from the Bay Area will come flooding back tomorrow at a 75th anniversary tribute dinner at the Westin Hotel in Millbrae.

AZA, which stands for Aleph Zadik Aleph, was loosely formed in 1922 as an alternative to high-school fraternities, many of which shunned Jews at that time.

After becoming an official group in 1924, AZA was adopted as the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization in 1925 and has since had more than 350,000 young men pass through its ranks nationally. B'nai B'rith Girls, the BBYO girls component, was added later.

Goodman is one of four men being honored at Saturday's event, which is also serving as a Central Region West fund-raiser. Other honorees are Gary Goldberg of Hillsborough, Stan DeLugach of Oakland and Brian Hafter of Millbrae.

"All four men have given a lot to BBYO over the years, and in different ways," said Sheila Devore, chair of the region's adult advisory committee, a post Goldberg held for 18 years before stepping down recently. In the early '50s, Goldberg was a member of AZA's Sid Sommer chapter, which served Daly City and South San Francisco.

Goodman and his late older brother, Monroe, belonged to AZA's Oakland No. 42 chapter, which he remembered as having about 40 members during the Depression.

"Unfortunately, a lot of them have passed on," said Goodman, a vegetable merchant as a young man who went on to become a record-industry salesman before retiring only three years ago.

Goodman participated in debate, basketball and dramatic productions in AZA. One thing he liked was that he didn't always have to be a leader.

"That's the good thing about AZA or BBYO. You don't have to be a chief to enjoy it; you can be a brave and still have fun," he said. "Basketball, yeah I was on the team, but not good enough to be in the starting five. In the oratorical contests, I was never good enough to get sent to the competitions.

"But there's an old expression: The table is set. All you have to do is sit down and eat. That's AZA. You don't have to be a leader. You can just be one of the boys."

The heyday for BBYO in Northern California was from the 1950s through the early 1970s. In 1970, local membership in AZA and BBG hovered around 1,000.

Nowadays, there are approximately 460 members of BBYO in the Central Region West, which covers Northern California. There are 10 AZA chapters, nine BBG chapters and one coed BBYO chapter in the region.

With 60 boys, the Dr. Seuss AZA chapter in San Jose is the region's largest; Jerusalem Shel Zahav in the South Bay is the area's largest BBG chapter with 40 girls.

"We're looking to expand into Chico and Santa Cruz," said Dana Hoffman, the regional director. "We're looking at Vallejo, too. We're constantly looking for new territories in which to start chapters, as well as looking at strengthening the chapters we already have."

As for what today's participants are involved in, AZA and BBG of 2000 is definitely not your father's (or mother's) BBYO.

BBYO members in the Bay Area are heavily involved in community service work. They are active in a new BBYO initiative called "Mind, Body, Attitude" that helps teens develop self-esteem and healthy behaviors. They are busy establishing and updating Web sites; go to and click on "links" for a list of Bay Area chapters with Web sites.

And that's in addition to sports, dances, conventions, leadership workshops and various social functions.

It's a far cry from a dramatic production Goodman participated in during the 1930s: a minstrel show, in which some of the performers wore black face.

"That was back in '36 or '37," he remembered. "It was popular back then, like Al Jolson or vaudeville. You couldn't put on a show like that today."

From blackface in the '30s to computer interface in the 21st century, AZA has changed a lot in 75 years. But in many ways — friendships, empowerment, leadership and fun — it has stayed the same.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.