What are you?

Note: One of the reasons I started writing these memoir-stories was to explore different aspects of identity. I have struggled with notions of femininity and masculinity, as well as issues of social justice with respect to race and class for as long as I can remember. Some of the stories I have posted have touched on these topics. The essay that follows is intended to be one of several on race and ethnicity – it is a big topic! And, I have a couple of experiences I want to share. I welcome your contributions to the conversation – please feel free to share your perspective by commenting or sending an email.

“What are you?”

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 60s, it was one of the first things we asked each other. It was a way of sorting ourselves out. I wonder if kids still ask each other that. As adults we tiptoe around those questions.

When we asked, in that place and time, we were usually asking whether the other person was Jewish, Italian-Catholic or Irish-Catholic. There really weren’t that many other possibilities in my neighborhood. I’m embarrassed to say that I was a young adult before I realized that there were many other possibilities – and how small a minority I was part of.

I’m not writing nostalgically of that time – I don’t think those were the good old days. I have been reflecting on why we asked each other that question and what it meant. I think we need to figure out how to talk about our identities in a way that doesn’t stir up suspicion, insinuate judgment or assume superiority. We are, after all, curious about each other.

As kids we were figuring out our identities and where we fit in. In asking the question ‘what are you?’ it felt to me like we were looking for connection, searching for commonality. The question was a shortcut to understanding something about each other and the answer could help seal a bond. And if it didn’t create a bond, it gave a point of reference.

We talk about prejudice being learned and in part I think that is true. Certainly we don’t come into this world thinking that a particular group is cheap or dirty or dangerous. All of that is learned. But, I think there is a hard-wired discomfort or suspicion of those who are different from us and that makes fertile ground for prejudice. We are born into a family or culture that defines what is comfortable and known to us.

I was born into a second-generation Jewish-American family. Actually both of my grandmothers were American born, which would make me third generation, and my grandmothers were high school educated. Both of these facts made my family a bit unusual in my neighborhood. My parents were not only college graduates, but my Dad had one master’s degree in education and another in economics. My mom was going back to school while I was growing up and earned her master’s in reading. Education was a value in and of itself.

We took great pride in being Jewish, though we weren’t religious at all. I recall Nana lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. I have a mental picture of her moving her hands forward and back over the candles as if to invite the flame into her heart, her white hair covered by a white doily. Then she put her hands over her eyes as she completed the prayer silently. That was the extent of our ritual. We didn’t go to synagogue and we enjoyed ham, among other treyf (unkosher) items. Judaism was a culture to me, a sense of humor, and a way of looking at the world. It meant asking questions. It included certain foods at certain times of the year. It didn’t include God.

I was and am ethnically Jewish. My grandparents liberally sprinkled Yiddish in their speech. Shana madela (pretty girl), lay keppe (lay your head down), meshuganah (crazy), and schnorer (a moocher) and many other words were part of our lexicon.

One Yiddish word confused me. I grew up hearing blacks referred to as “schvartzes” by my grandparent’s generation. It wasn’t the equivalent of using the n-word, but it was a pejorative. When I sat at Nana’s kitchen table listening to her conversation with friends and family and the word was used, it sounded wrong to my ears, it was a discordant note. When I was older Aunt Simma shared a story of being told that she couldn’t go to a black classmate’s house to play when she was a child, though she was welcome to invite the girl to her own home.

I never had to face that issue, though I can’t imagine my parents issuing such an edict. There weren’t any black families on my block. There were only one or two black kids in my elementary school classes and neither of them were girls. Even in high school, my life was pretty segregated. My path crossed with black kids in gym and on the basketball team. The relationships didn’t extend beyond the court.

I’m 56 years old and still trying to sort out the different aspects of my identity and what it means for my relationships with family, friends and the larger community. In some ways it has gotten even harder to talk about.


Uncle Mike had a great idea. He would take my brothers and me to visit our cousins at sleep-away camp. Laurie and Ira were going to summer camp in the Catskills, the same camp Uncle Mike had attended when he was a kid. He had great memories of going to Camp Olympus and he was eager to show us the verdant grounds and, of course, see his other niece and nephew.

Uncle Mike visiting with his nieces and nephews about a year before the events described in this story. From the left: Steven, Laurie, me, Mark (being Mark) and Ira in front. Mike’s son and more nieces would arrive a decade later

Early on the morning of August 16, 1969, we piled into his green two-door GTO (which Uncle Mike named “Boss”). Steven was riding shotgun, Mark and I were in the back. Uncle Mike was a big guy, in all dimensions. He was about 6’3” so the driver’s seat was positioned as far back as it would go. Since I had the shortest legs, I sat behind him. I was not yet 10, Uncle Mike was 23, Steven was 14 and Mark was 12.

Uncle Mike supplied 8 tracks to keep us entertained. I don’t ever remember riding in a car with Uncle Mike without music playing – he loved R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll. The “oldies” on WCBS-FM were the soundtrack for many car rides. That morning we set off from Canarsie listening to the Chambers Brothers on a trip that should have taken about two, maybe two and a half hours each way. It was already a gray and very humid day and perhaps that should’ve been a clue that we should postpone the trip. But, we barely noticed the weather in our excitement.

Things were proceeding uneventfully as we left Brooklyn, skirted Manhattan and headed through the Bronx. Then the traffic got heavy as we drove past Yonkers. We were approaching the Harriman toll when we came to a virtual standstill. Fortunately, Uncle Mike knew another route and we got off and made it to the Red Apple Rest Stop– a cafeteria-style restaurant that didn’t look like much to me, but it was a favorite of Uncle Mike’s.

I think sometimes he and his friends, at the end of an evening in Brooklyn, would take a ride “upstate” to the Red Apple. Anything beyond the Bronx was upstate to us; the Red Apple was about 40 miles outside the city. Apparently, in its heyday, comedians who performed at the hotels in the Catskills would congregate at the Red Apple at the end of their evening, too.

We had some breakfast there and got back in the car, still unaware that this was an inauspicious day to be making the trip. After we left the Red Apple, things got really interesting.

None of us realized that August 16th was in the midst of the Woodstock Music Festival. We were attempting to drive right by it because Camp Olympus was located a few miles from Bethel, the site of the concert. We couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to visit!

Unfortunately we left Canarsie before we saw the headline of the Daily News! While this wasn’t quite the scene we encountered, it was still a mess.

As we proceeded up Route 17 we saw cars parked on the side of the road; people abandoned their cars and made the pilgrimage on foot to Yasgur’s Farm (just like the song lyric described later). We finally understood what was going on – we put the radio on and heard the news. Many of the people had long hair, bell-bottoms, beads, sandals – the costume of the day – they looked pretty dirty, too. It was not a look embraced by either of my uncles, or my brothers. Each time we passed a group, Uncle Mike yelled “Hippie!!” out the window. I’m not sure why, maybe it was his merry, antic tone, but my brothers and I found this hysterical. We laughed every time he did it.

I got the sense that Uncle Mike didn’t much approve of the hippies. And, they looked back at us disinterested. Uncle Mike worked full time and, as far as I knew, didn’t partake of any kind of illegal substances. I don’t believe I ever saw him with a drink in his hand either. The counter-culture was as foreign to him as it was to me.

At a snail’s pace, we made it to the camp hours later than expected. At least I think we made it. I don’t remember much about the visit. Given the circumstances, and the weather (it was raining steadily), we probably made it pretty brief and started back home.

Uncle Mike navigated a very roundabout route toward home that I think took us through Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. The rain was unrelenting. It was nearly impossible to keep the windows from fogging up and now it was dark.

Uncle Mike tried every possible combination of defroster on high, low, cold air, warm air, and windows open, windows closed. It was a battle to see the road. I was given the choice of getting rained on with Uncle Mike’s window open or sweltering in the humidity with his window closed. I wanted a third choice.

The novelty of yelling “Hippie!!” had worn off. We had played all of Uncle Mike’s 8 tracks again and again. There were only so many times we could listen to the Chambers Brothers – even if People Get Ready and In the Midnight Hour were awesome songs. We were wet and hot and hungry and the trip home seemed never-ending. After a long, sweaty, aggravating day, the air in the car wasn’t too pleasant either.

Fortunately, Uncle Mike persevered. He had an uncanny sense of direction despite never having taken this particular route. We were incredibly relieved when we finally recognized the highway heading to the Verrazano Bridge. Even I knew my way home from there.

Needless to say, hours later than expected, we got back to East 91st Street. It wasn’t our most successful outing, but at least we had a story to tell. I could say that I was almost at Woodstock.

Thumbnail Sketches: Uncle Sid

Note: Another impetus for writing this blog is that I have vivid memories of some people who helped shape me. I want to provide a picture of those individuals, people who weren’t necessarily part of my day-to-day life, but had an impact nonetheless.

Zada was driving us home from Uncle Sid and Aunt Fannie’s apartment. I don’t remember the circumstances: why we had visited (which while not unheard of, wasn’t common either); and, why were we riding with Zada, instead of our parents? Memory is funny that way, snippets of dialogue, vivid images, sometimes in context, sometimes not. I do remember that it was a dark, clear chilly night. We were on the Knapp Street entrance ramp to the Belt Parkway, which had a short sight line. Zada asked my brother Mark, who was sitting in the back seat next to me, to let him know when traffic was clear so he could get on the highway. Mark said okay. Zada thought that Mark meant it was okay to speed up and enter the parkway. Mark meant, ‘okay, I understand your request.’ Horns honked and we swerved, we narrowly missed colliding with another car. This precipitated some back and forth about the misunderstanding. Nana, who was sitting in the front seat, may have suggested that asking an 11 year old to give driving assistance wasn’t the wisest idea. After we averted disaster, everything went back to normal pretty quickly. No big deal as far as Zada was concerned.

Uncle Sid was Zada’s youngest brother, 13 years his junior. He was a kind hearted, bear of a man. His life, from my perspective, couldn’t have been easy. He may have been a little slow, he was certainly lumbering in both speech and movement; it was difficult for him to walk. But he was always cheerful.

His wife, Aunt Fannie, had breast cancer, two occurrences that resulted in two mastectomies. I remember her coming to visit our house after the last of her surgeries. I was nervous about seeing her. I didn’t know what to expect. I was in my bedroom steeling myself to face her. Cancer was not something we spoke about openly. I was afraid, I don’t know if I thought it was contagious or if I was thought she would be physically deformed. At that time cancer was spoken of in hushed tones, perhaps because it was usually a death sentence.

Uncle Sid kept his natural cheerfulness even after his beloved Fannie died of the dreaded disease. He went on to live 15 more years after she died. He remained cheerful even in the face of the fact that his son stole the little money that he had to feed a drug habit. When asked if he wanted to press charges against his son for cleaning out his bank account, Uncle Sid said no, the money was one less thing to worry about. He added, “He isn’t an axe murderer after all.”

It was a poignant example of perspective, one that I think of when I’m losing mine. My heart hurt for Uncle Sid. In his later years, on rare occasion I would go with Uncle Terry to visit – Uncle Terry, a podiatrist, would take care of his feet. Weather permitting, we would find him sitting on a bench outside his apartment building, part of a housing project in Sheepshead Bay. Taking a break from chatting with a neighbor, he would greet us with a gap-toothed smile, pleased as punch to see us, no trace of bitterness about his lot in life.

Side by Side on the LL

Reading was an essential part of my growing up. My parents were both teachers and voracious readers. During the summer we went as a family to the library at least once a week. Wherever we were, Brooklyn, Champaign-Urbana, Worcester, we frequented the library. I remember particularly loving biographies. I believe there was a series specifically for children and I read them all. I was inspired by the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, drawn to stories of heroes who overcame fear and danger to find freedom. Though my life bore no similarity to them, I wanted to be heroic. I wanted to be part of the fight for freedom and justice.

As I think about it now, there were a number of strands that came together to fuel this passion. I was aware that my paternal grandfather had lost his parents and sister in the Holocaust. My grandfather, Leo, came to this country alone when he was 17, in 1921. He had a cousin here, but left his family behind in Austria. I think he immigrated with the assumption that at some point the rest of the family would join him. He married and established a life for himself in New York. During World War II he received a letter written by a priest from his hometown informing him that the Nazis executed his family. This was not spoken of in the family, it was simply too painful for my grandfather.

I was also aware of the larger story of the Holocaust. I don’t know how old I was when I learned about it; it seems to have been part of my entire conscious life. Between that, the protests against the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, I was preoccupied with the injustices in the world. I turned to books to try to find hope and maybe answers.

As I got a little older, I moved beyond those simple biographies. I was in the sixth grade when my oldest brother, who was in high school, was reading Down These Mean Streets, a raw and graphic memoir by Piri Thomas about growing up in Spanish Harlem. I picked it up, I was shocked and fascinated by the sex, drug use and violence and I couldn’t put the book down. It gave a glimpse into a life that was foreign to me. I was acutely aware that I was living in the same city as Piri Thomas, but leading such a different life. I tried to understand how our worlds could coexist.

I knew that Canarsie sat next to a really dangerous neighborhood, East New York. One of the ways to get to the city from Canarsie was to take the LL (now called the L) train. The LL traveled through that neighborhood above ground so you could see the pigeons perched on the fire escapes of the tenements that abutted the subway line. I would watch the subway doors open and look at the people who got on the train from those stations. I wondered how it was for them to live in a neighborhood with so much crime and poverty. Here we were, side by side in one sense, but living in such different worlds.

From the NYC Subway collection circa 1970s. This is how I remember the train looking – in the “good old days.”

One time I got on the LL to go to downtown Brooklyn to apply for my learner’s permit. There was only one DMV office to service all of Brooklyn and the DMV was spectacularly inefficient so you had to plan to spend hours there. After I got on the train, I realized I had forgotten my birth certificate. I was too afraid to get off the train at any of the stops until Broadway Junction where I would normally get off to change trains anyway. I wouldn’t turn around at 105th St., New Lots, Livonia, Sutter or Atlantic Avenues. Each time the subway stopped and the doors opened, I looked at the platform and thought, “Should I risk it?” Each time I decided I wouldn’t.

Another time I was riding the LL in mid afternoon when there was an announcement over the PA. Those announcements were usually so garbled and static-y as to be indecipherable, but this one came through quite clearly. “Move away from the windows! There are reports of gunfire. Move away from the windows!” There weren’t very many of us on the train at the time. Most of the people looked incredulous, a few moved to the windows to see! Some ignored the message entirely. I shifted down on the bench so the wall of the subway car was behind my head. Fortunately nothing happened – at least not in the car I was riding in.

It is amazing to me that some of the areas served by the LL have become hot real estate today. Some of the neighborhoods have gentrified, unfortunately I think the poverty has just moved. Still people live side by side, riding the L, the haves and the have-nots. I’m still reading, trying to understand.

A Lesson Learned

Note: I wanted to try something a little different. The following is a kind of hybrid essay – part memoir, part op-ed piece. Please let me know what you think.

A Lesson Learned

The job of creating inclusive schools and communities is not simple. Like kindness, being inclusive is both incredibly easy and incredibly fraught and nearly impossible to legislate.

 Mindy was olive-complected, tall and skinny. She was my best friend. Her almond-shaped brown eyes didn’t line up exactly right – neither did mine. We shared the experience of wearing an eye patch to correct muscle weakness. We were, at least to some degree, neighborhood outcasts.

We were deep into pretending that the narrow strip of dirt and grass between our two houses was a ship. I was the captain; she was the first mate. We were busy battling pirates when Marguerite, Johnny, Susan and Mike showed up. “You stupid, skinny bitch,” they taunted. I was relieved – they weren’t yelling at me. I stood silent.

Back when I wasn’t retired and worked for the New York State School Boards Association, I attended many meetings on school climate and safety. Anthony Bottar, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, opened one such meeting of the Statewide School Safety Task Force with a statement expressing the commitment of the State, in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, to improving safety in schools. He talked about the broader reform initiatives to get New York State students college and career ready. He suggested that part of that effort included tending to students’ emotional health. He asked for suggestions, “What can the Board of Regents do to help?”

I immediately raised my hand. I have been thinking about the issue of school climate for what feels like most of my life. I was involved in it in my own school district, serving on my local board of education when Columbine occurred.   Regent Bottar called on me. “I think it would send a powerful message if the Regents changed the tag line for the reform agenda to college, career and citizen ready. It would signal the importance of those other qualities – emotional intelligence, civic-mindedness, etc.” There was some murmuring and some discussion in the hall. Ultimately the people in the front of the room – the Commissioner of Education at the time, John King, and Regent Bottar – were unwilling to pursue that idea. The suggestion was forgotten. That meeting was early in 2013. It was the beginning of the end of my career in education. 

Not only was I silent while the taunts rained down on Mindy – after a while I joined in. I knew it was wrong. But, it was too tempting; it was exhilarating to be part of the powerful. At least in the moment.  

We didn’t speak for months – then I got my courage up and I apologized. I asked her, “Can we be friends again?”  Fortunately for me, she said we could, but not until I faced her mother’s wrath.

At a pre-arranged time, I rang her doorbell and Mindy answered. She ushered me up the stairs. Their apartment was the mirror image of my grandparent’s place next door. Her mother, who was intimidating under the best of circumstances, was seated at the kitchen table, taking a break from making dinner. I told her I apologized and it would never happen again. She told me, in her sand-papery voice, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bully Mindy and I couldn’t treat her like a second fiddle, or else I’d be in trouble. She nodded toward the pot of boiling water on the stove.  

Maybe I imagined that she gestured to the boiling water – but I’m pretty sure she actually did. In my memory she actually said, “I will boil YOU in that pot if you mistreat her!” Whether she uttered those words or not, I clearly got the message. Almost 50 years later Mindy and I are still friends. I learned my lesson. I had learned my lesson even before her mother’s threat.  

In my mind these stories are connected: my experience at the task force meeting in 2013 and my behavior as a nine-year old. I’m wondering if others see any relationship.