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A Bronx Tale: Childhood Neighbors Celebrate 7 Decades Of Love

Julia and Joel Helfman, shown at their StoryCorps interview in Philadelphia in 2019, met in 1943 and were married six years later.
Julia and Joel Helfman, shown at their StoryCorps interview in Philadelphia in 2019, met in 1943 and were married six years later.

The 1940s were significant for a number of reasons.

America went off to fight in the second World War. Orson Welles released his masterpiece Citizen Kane. A rocket-powered plane flew faster than the speed of sound.

And a great love story was being written.

Joel and Julia Helfman grew up in the West Bronx in New York during the '40s. Joel was 13 when a 12-year-old girl moved in across the street. After an errant ball during a stickball game landed near Julia as she read a book, she retrieved it for Joel.

"And the rest is almost history," Joel says in a StoryCorps conversation with his now-wife of 69 years. As the couple recalled their 1943 meet-cute, they couldn't help but finish each other's sentences.

Julia and Joel Helfman on their wedding day in November 1949.
Julia and Joel Helfman on their wedding day in November 1949.

The two became fast friends but said goodbye after Joel left home for Chicago at age 17. When he returned, Julia was unenthusiastic to see him, as he hadn't kept in touch.

Nonetheless, Joel paid her a visit, and she asked him: "How much do you like me, a little or a lot?"

Joel and Julia Helfman (center) with their five kids around 1972. They now have 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Joel and Julia Helfman (center) with their five kids around 1972. They now have 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

The two admitted they had feelings for each other, and Joel made the next logical step. He proposed marriage.

"We had never even kissed; we had never held hands," Julia says to Joel. "So, you walked me up the five flights of stairs and then you gave me a kiss on the lips, and that was enough for me. I went into the apartment, and I said, 'Papa. I'm going to get married.' "

Her father was reluctant, but Julia was adamant. She knew Joel was the one.

"I said, 'Papa, there's just something about him that makes me feel I can do things. I know we can build a great life together. I just know it, Papa,' " Julia says. "And my father looked at me and he said, 'I have never doubted your judgment. If this is what you want, I support you in it.' And that was that."

The couple wed in November 1949. Julia is now 88, and Joel recently turned 90. "Every day I look at you and I say to myself, 'How was I smart enough to know that this young man would always keep me happy, always make me feel safe, always challenge me?' " Julia says to Joel.

The Helfmans will celebrate their 70th anniversary later this year.

Audio produced forMorning Edition by Aisha Turner and Eleanor Vassili.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.