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Their friendship began 95 years ago, and it’s still going strong

As teens, Allan Bikofsky and Joe Steinberg belonged to a sports and social club called the Comets. (From left) Ralph Jacobson, Steinberg, Charlie Baker, and Bikofsky.
As teens, Allan Bikofsky and Joe Steinberg belonged to a sports and social club called the Comets. (From left) Ralph Jacobson, Steinberg, Charlie Baker, and Bikofsky.Barbara J. Bikofsky

Allan Bikofsky and Joe Steinberg met in kindergarten at the Morrison School in Roxbury 95 years ago.

On Jan. 8, Bikofsky turned 100; he’ll be followed by Steinberg on Feb. 28. Their friendship has endured World II and the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, and the tumult of the Donald Trump presidency. Not even the COVID-19 pandemic has kept them from staying in touch.

“Well, we enjoy one another’s company,” Steinberg said. “We wanted to know what we each were doing. There was a bond there – it’s hard to describe. It’s almost as if I had another brother.”

Physical disabilities have prevented the pair from seeing each other in person since 2017. Steinberg lives at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale with his second wife, Florence. Bikofsky lives at NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham.

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Even as people of all ages struggle with isolation and loneliness during the pandemic, the friends have chatted at least weekly by phone, e-mail, and occasional video calls. Hebrew SeniorLife, which owns both facilities where they live, arranged a Zoom interview with a Globe reporter.

Talking about the past as if it were yesterday, they recalled Babe Ruth playing his final days; a gruesome murder at the Bikofsky family’s South End bakery; seeing Franklin D. Roosevelt waving from an open-air limo on Blue Hill Avenue as he campaigned for president. They remembered a young congressional candidate, John F. Kennedy, licking an ice cream in Back Bay.

The boys were raised in the Blue Hill Avenue neighborhood, then the hub of the Boston Jewish community. They were born three years after the 1918 influenza pandemic. “My grandmother told me about the virus,” said Steinberg, who at 99 overcame COVID-19 last spring. “She would see hearses go by every day.”

Steinberg’s earliest memory of kindergarten is of mothers passing around heavy sweet cream. “Everybody was churning it until it became butter. We had that with saltine crackers,” he said. “It’s indelibly printed on my mind – and don’t ask me what I had for supper last night.”

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Physical disabilities have prevented the pair from seeing each other in person since 2017. On one of their last visits, Allan Bikofsky (left) and Joe Steinberg.
Physical disabilities have prevented the pair from seeing each other in person since 2017. On one of their last visits, Allan Bikofsky (left) and Joe Steinberg. Barbara J. Bikofsky

Bikofsky and Steinberg’s friendship was forged at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, where both belonged to a sports and social club called the Comets. “Allan played first base,” said Steinberg, who was in the outfield. “We didn’t have baseball bags. They were big rocks. It’s a wonder we didn’t kill ourselves running to first base.”

Bikofsky made his mark at the plate. “I can still remember hitting a home run,” he said, “a line drive between the first baseman and the bag. I think that ball is still rolling.”

As members of the Knot Hole Gang, they each paid 25 cents for a season pass to the bleachers at Braves Field, where Boston University’s Nickerson Field now stands. “My mother used to give me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and 10 cents” for streetcar fare, Steinberg said. “Nobody knew about the Red Sox. It was all about the Braves.”

They saw Babe Ruth as he closed out his career with the Braves in spring 1935. “I think his top salary was $75,000 or $80,000 for the whole year,” Steinberg said. “My father made $40 a week” as a clothes salesman.

Their sharpest memory of The Babe is of his mitt. “It was so small that it looked like a regular winter glove today,” Steinberg said.

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Bikofsky chimed in, “Hey Joe, I still have a baseball glove from when I was a little kid” – and he held it up for the Zoom camera.

The boys also played tackle football, but without helmets or pads. “I had my nose broken,” said Steinberg. “That was the end of football for me.” They laughed about how crazy they had been. “I played football like a meshuggener,” said Bikofsky.

They did wear gloves, though, for boxing matches. The “ring” was in Bikofsky’s home. “We had about 10 guys in my living room,” he said. “We were lucky not to tear up the rug.”

Bikofsky’s Bakery, a fixture on Harrison Street, became the subject of front-page news in December 1933 when Ethel Zuckerman, an 18-year-old sales clerk, was found behind the counter stabbed with a bread knife.
Bikofsky’s Bakery, a fixture on Harrison Street, became the subject of front-page news in December 1933 when Ethel Zuckerman, an 18-year-old sales clerk, was found behind the counter stabbed with a bread knife.Boston Globe Archive

Bikofsky’s home was a popular gathering spot, in part because of the pastries from the family bakery. Started by his grandfather, Bikofsky’s Bakery became a fixture on Harrison Street and the subject of front-page news one rainswept night in December 1933. Ethel Zuckerman, an 18-year-old sales clerk, was found behind the counter stabbed with a bread knife. Bikofsky recalled the police trying to reach his dad, Max, but his parents were at the movies.

A year later, a 54-year-old man confessed to slaying the sales clerk, after she rejected his advances. “I wanted her and didn’t want anyone else to marry her,” he told police, according to the Globe.

Bikofsky did not carry on the family business, but not because he feared homicidal customers. “My father used to go to work at 3 in the morning. He didn’t want that kind of life for me,” he said.

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Among the bakery’s customers were members of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi group. When they discovered that Max was Jewish, they stopped doing business with him.

Bikofsky and Steinberg graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School in 1938; three years later the United States entered World War II. Steinberg served stateside in the Coast Guard, while Bikofsky fought in Europe with an Army infantry unit. They recalled several friends who did not come back from the war.

“They didn’t have an opportunity like Allan and myself to live a normal life, to have a family, have grandchildren, and in my case, great-grandchildren,” Steinberg said.

After the war, though they were living towns instead of blocks apart, the two became closer. “Over the years it became more meaningful to have a good friend,” Steinberg said. “Somehow or another we attached to one another.”

Steinberg, who worked most of his career as an auditor for the state, bought a two-family house in Hyde Park for $14,900 in 1950. He said he recently saw in the Globe that the same property sold for $574,000.

Bikofsky, who sold cutlery and other kitchen supplies for a wholesale company, moved out to Newton and then Needham. Steinberg later lived in Stoughton and Brookline.

The friends kept in touch by phone or weekend get-togethers at their homes, keeping each other abreast about their jobs and families. “We would share the news and be genuinely happy for one another,” Steinberg said.

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Their wives became friends, too. “I remember Allan’s wife dearly, and he remembers mine,” Steinberg said. “Absolutely,” Allan said.

Steinberg’s first wife, Frances, died 28 years ago, and Bikofsky lost his wife, Irene, in 2016. “Thank God Joe was there to talk to him and keep him entertained,” said Bikofsky’s daughter, Barbara (BJ) Cataldo of Needham, a former superintendent of Cohasset schools. Steinberg conducted the funeral service, leading the mourning prayers he had learned in Hebrew classes more than 80 years before.

Friendship, the men agree, is among the ingredients for a long life, but what is their advice to others for sustaining one?

“A very simple answer: Make sure you call them or Skype or do what we’re doing,” Steinberg said. “Don’t wait for them. Start it.”

Sure enough, as we signed off, Steinberg said: “I’ll be calling you soon, Allan.”

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.

Allan Bikofsky (top) shows Joe Steinberg his old baseball mitt during a Zoom call. Reporter Steve Maas is on the right.
Allan Bikofsky (top) shows Joe Steinberg his old baseball mitt during a Zoom call. Reporter Steve Maas is on the right.Barbara J. Bikofsky