Hard Questions

I’ve been feeling unsettled and I think it’s connected to a book I just finished reading, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. It is a novel about a Palestinian family that spans generations, beginning in 1948 through the present day. The author is a Palestinian woman, who according to her bio has lived in a number of different countries, including Kuwait, Jordan and the United States. The book provoked a lot of thought about identity, a subject I am endlessly interested in.

fullsizeoutput_b61

The family at the center of the story moves around the Middle East quite a bit – they had homes in Nablus, Kuwait City, Amman and Beirut. They also spent time in Paris and Boston. Their moves are most often the result of war, but sometimes it is in pursuit of opportunity or a different life. Some of the issues they face resonated with me. Many of the characters struggle to understand their identity. Is it tied to the land from which they are exiled? Is it their religion? Is it about language, food, and culture? And, if it is about all of these things, then what does it mean when you live in a country that speaks a different language, eats different foods, practices religion in a different way or not at all? How do you navigate the different values and customs, preserving your own but adapting to the society you live in?

These questions, these tensions, are very much at the heart of the Jewish-American experience. I was surprised to find that the themes that the book explores were so familiar. I find it ironic that there is so much commonality when the situation in the Middle East might lead us to believe that there is little common ground.

I have to admit that the book made for uncomfortable reading at times. The story begins with a Palestinian family in Jaffa being displaced from their beloved home on the Mediterranean by the 1948 war – the war for Israeli independence. The story takes as a given that the displacement was wrong, no context is offered. I understand why this is the case, both from the perspective of these characters and in the interest of telling the story. It is actually instructive to understand that this is the perspective. The “need” to establish Israel as a safe haven for Jews is not part of this narrative. I suspect this is true not just for this novel, but that it represents a widely held view.

In the book, as more is revealed, we learn that the family wasn’t just displaced, but was subjected to barbarous acts. Though it isn’t stated explicitly, it is clear that sexual violence was perpetrated by Israeli soldiers. This is a very painful chapter. I don’t doubt that Israeli soldiers, in 1948 and in subsequent actions, did horrible things. I don’t believe the author included this episode to be provocative, it must be rooted in real events. Every army since the beginning of time has been guilty of those crimes. That is not an excuse. No doubt when you have been the victim of such treatment your view of the ‘invaders’ is shaped by that forever. Whether instances of these crimes were more or less common in that war is not known to me. The question becomes, what do we do with that? History is full of pain and degradation being inflicted on oppressed peoples. How do we acknowledge that and, yet, move on?

There are parallels between the Jewish and Palestinian experience. Jews have been subjected to violence, cruelty and unspeakable acts of brutality. We have been exiled many times throughout history. Each year, at the Passover Seder, we tell the story of our enslavement and exodus from Egypt. I have always found great meaning in this ritual, reminding ourselves of our history and to not take freedom for granted. In our family, my in-laws are Holocaust survivors (I have written a number of blog posts about their experience), we tell their stories to the generations that follow. I believe it is essential that we do so. Anti-Semitism surely isn’t dead and we must be vigilant. There may be another side to it, though. In telling and retelling the story, do we keep the wounds fresh? Having heard these stories, do we approach the world defensively, ready to be attacked?

While reading this book, I thought about the story being told to generations of Palestinians. What is the message and what are the implications for relationships, with Jews, with Israelis, with the rest of the world?

In education, there is discussion about creating trauma-sensitive classrooms, in recognition that many students come to school bearing the burdens of traumatic life experiences. I wonder if there is a broader issue: how do we, as a society, deal with traumatized cultures (if there is such a thing)?

In Salt Houses, there are no Jews or Israelis who interact in any positive ways with the protagonists. I wondered if this reflected the fact that most Palestinians would not have occasion to have a positive interaction with a Jewish or Israeli person, or if this was just the particular story of these particular characters. If it is the experience of most Palestinians, then it is a sad commentary. The only interactions depicted in the book are those between the characters and Israeli soldiers and then an incident at airport security in Tel Aviv post 9/11. Suffice it to say, neither the soldiers nor the airport security officers come off well. It left me wondering if there are more ordinary opportunities for exchanges, not fraught because of the power imbalance or the pervasive fear of terrorism.

I purposely chose to read this novel to push myself out of my comfort zone. Authors from other cultures, who write stories informed by their experience, have much to tell us. It is easier to read those stories when the oppressors are generationally very distant or culturally unrelated to me. Salt Houses presented more of a challenge. This book is certainly not the full story. I can’t read one book by a Palestinian woman and think I have the full picture any more than I can read one by an African-American man and think I understand their broad and varied experiences. But, my understanding has been expanded. It was unsettling, but I believe it is worth the discomfort inherent in thinking about hard questions.

The Wedding

The Silberfarbs arrival in Cuba was greeted with a warm welcome, a furnished apartment and opportunities to work. David’s arrival in the United States, while supported by his uncle and aunt, wasn’t quite as warm. And, it started with a much more trying trip across the Atlantic, than the Silberfarb’s plane flight.

David, and 548 other displaced persons, left Bremerhaven, Germany on the Marine Flasher on January 7, 1949. The Marine Flasher was an American ship that was built to carry troops during the war in the Pacific. In 1946, it was refitted to ferry emigres across the Atlantic. It made many such trips until it went out of service in September of 1949. The American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), a Jewish charity which was involved in organizing and funding these trips, made efforts to comfort the traumatized passengers, many of whom were concentration camp survivors, or like David, battered by the relentless effort to endure the war. The AJDC provided kosher food to those who required it, they had novels in Yiddish available, and religious services were conducted on board. But, they could not control the weather.

David’s journey was a particularly challenging one. The North Atlantic was stormy in January and the seas were rough. In fact, the arrival of the ship was delayed by heavy gales. According to a newspaper article at the time, the Marine Flasher had to slow down to withstand the storms. David recalls that even the sailors were sick. David didn’t think he’d survive the waves crashing over the sides and his intense sea sickness. He was never so happy to set foot on land as when he disembarked on the pier of Boston Harbor on January 17th.

His cousin, Benny, Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose’s son, met him at the harbor and drove him to Brooklyn. David had never seen buildings so big or a city so densely populated as New York. In Europe, the tallest building he had seen was two stories! He moved into a room in a house in Brooklyn and he began work for his uncle at First National Pickle Products.

He put on overalls every day, took the subway to Kent Avenue and moved pickle barrels at the warehouse in Williamsburg. David didn’t feel good about dressing like a laborer and hoped for a time in the future when his work would be more professional. In the meanwhile, Uncle Willie took him to the Lower East Side to get a suit. David took pride in his appearance and looked forward to the weekends when he would don his suit to go to synagogue and socialize with fellow ‘greeners.’ Greenhorn was a term used to describe the newcomers. While it may have been meant as a pejorative when used by other Americans, when David and his community used it, they were acknowledging their shared experience.

David went to dances and sought out the company of the few survivors from his hometown. It had been customary, dating back to earlier waves of Jewish immigrants, to create organizations of ‘landsleit,’ people from the same shtetls in Eastern Europe. There was an Iwie Society that met at least annually and David became active in it.

Though David met single women during his first months in New York, his mind and heart were still with Paula. In order to ensure that Paula still had his attention, Aunt Bushe insisted that Paula send a photograph of herself to her boyfriend in New York. She took Paula to a photographer’s studio. Whether the picture did the trick or not, he continued to correspond with her, and they planned his visit.

fullsizeoutput_716
Though this isn’t the photo that was taken at the studio, it is from the same time. Paula in 1948 in Cuba.

But before David could visit, Uncle Nachum flew up to New York to talk to him. Since Paula’s father had been tragically murdered, Nachum took it upon himself to look out for his niece’s best interests. He went to the pickle factory and talked to David there. David felt self-conscious in his overalls, knowing Nachum was a successful business man. Paula’s uncle asked David about his future. David explained that he aspired to move up to management and he looked forward to the day when he could discard his overalls, but this was his job now and he worked hard for his uncle. Nachum asked, “Do you love Paula?” David, without embarrassment, replied unequivocally, “Yes.” Though Nachum may not have been impressed with David’s current station in life, he saw something in David’s resolve that gave him confidence. He gave his blessing so that David could visit Paula and then he returned to Cuba.

David flew to Cuba in November of 1949, 10 months after his arrival in Boston.

Uncle Nachum and Aunt Bushe were particularly welcoming to David when he arrived in Havana. He was invited to stay in the guest room of their home. David felt very comfortable there. Lea, Paula’s mother, also treated David warmly as they renewed their relationship which was first established in Ranshofen. It became increasingly clear to David that he wanted to make a family with Paula, and fortunately, she agreed. At the end of the three-week visit, they decided that he would come back to Cuba the following September and they would marry.

David flew back to New York and shared the good news with his aunts and uncles. He asked Uncle Willie and Aunt Rose to come to Cuba for the wedding. He continued to work hard and save his pennies.

Paula and her family planned the wedding. The date was set, September 3, 1950, at Havana’s main synagogue. At the last minute, Uncle Willie told David that they would not be going. He told him that it was too hard on Aunt Rose to travel. David was profoundly disappointed and hurt. Though he was excited about his marriage, he was deeply sad that he had no family to stand up for him, that he would walk down the aisle alone. It is traditional at Jewish weddings for both the bride and the groom to be accompanied by their respective parents when they walk down the aisle. David missed his father desperately.

When David got to Havana, he shared his disappointment with Uncle Nachum. Nachum offered to accompany him, with Bushe, to the chupah (wedding canopy), and they did. Paula was accompanied by her mother and brother. David also wanted to acknowledge his parents at the ceremony. He asked the cantor to recite El Maleh Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead. The cantor objected, saying that it wasn’t appropriate to chant that prayer at a simcha (a celebration). David insisted. He explained that it would make him feel better, it would help him to feel his parents’ presence at this milestone in his life. After quite a bit of back and forth, David prevailed. The cantor sang the prayer in memory of Berl and Rochel. David felt that his parents were blessing this momentous occasion.

 

 

Paula’s Journey Begins

Note: Much of the information for this post comes from Paula Bakst’s Shoah testimony. On August 17, 1995, Paula, David, their children and grandchildren (myself included), went to the Pines Hotel in the Catskills to be interviewed and taped as part of Steven Spielberg’s project, following the making of Schindler’s List. Paula and David were interviewed separately. Although Paula’s dementia has made it impossible to ask her questions now, we are fortunate to have her story recorded.

Paula’s journey to Ranshofen was quite different than David’s, but harrowing nonetheless.

fullsizeoutput_6b6
The red dot is Serniki (Sernyky), Ukraine, very close to the Belarus border. Paula’s home town was (and still is) too small to merit a label.

Paula Silberfarb was born on February 15, 1931 in Serniki, Poland, a small town in the northwest corner of what today is the Ukraine. It was a landscape of forests, meadows, marshes and rivers. The Stubla River ran along the side of the town and provided her father’s livelihood. It was a primitive town: there was no electricity or running water in their homes, no cars or trucks, the roads weren’t paved. They didn’t have a movie theater and only one family had a radio (and Paula never heard it). They lived an insulated life.

Serniki was made up of Jews and Gentiles, and though they lived peaceably before the war, they didn’t mingle, and they lived clustered on different streets. They spoke different languages: Jews spoke Yiddish, the Gentiles spoke a combination of Polish/Ukranian and Russian, though they were able to communicate with each other. They didn’t socialize, though they did have business connections. The cultural and religious separation became important in the crucible of the war.

Paula was the middle child, with an older brother, Bernie, and a younger sister, Sofia. Though middle children are often attention seeking, Paula was not. She was shy and obedient. If Mother gave her a chore, she did it. If she was told not to do something, she didn’t. She left the troublemaking and risk taking to her older and younger siblings.

Paula described herself as coming from a nice, loving home. Their house was made up of three rooms: one large bedroom, where they all slept – her parents (Samuel and Lea) in one bed, Paula and Sofia in another, and Bernie in his own; they had a separate living room and kitchen. They also had a large apartment next door –  one room divided by a curtain – that they rented out. A beautiful flower garden adorned the front and side of the house; a vegetable garden in the back. Further behind the house, they had a field where they grew potatoes and wheat. They hired someone to help with that field. They brought the grain to the mill. Lea baked her own bread on a daily basis.

Paula felt cared for by her mother and father. Her mother, Lea, was the primary caregiver, she provided guidance and nourishment, in all senses, to her children. Her father, Samuel, was a boat builder. The boats were made of wood and powered by oars. Farmers used the boats to get their produce to bigger markets across the Stubla River. Samuel purchased parcels of forested land from farmers, logged it and brought the lumber to Serniki to build the boats. When a boat was completed, the children would gather to watch it launch. It was an event. The business took a great deal of Samuel’s time, he wasn’t home much. When he was home, Paula fondly recalls him sitting on the side of the bed she shared with Sofia, before they went to sleep, telling them stories. He told tales based on Jules Verne’s books. Samuel was a learned man, he had gone to university in Kiev. He was in partnership with his father, Gershon, in the boat business. (Gary is named in memory of Paula’s paternal grandfather, Gershon).

Gershon lived in his own home, bigger than Paula’s family home, near the market in town. He shared the house with one of his sisters; his wife, Paula’s grandmother, died when Paula was two. Paula described Gershon as having an aristocratic bearing, with a square little beard. She characterized her family as middle class, while her paternal grandfather may have been wealthier. Other family members, aunts, uncles, cousins, both maternal and paternal, were scattered throughout Serniki. The various locations of their homes became relevant when the Nazis invaded.

Paula’s life was made up of family and friends and observance of Jewish rituals. There was one Orthodox synagogue in town. Samuel went Friday nights, and the whole family went Saturday morning to shul. The men sat downstairs, the women upstairs, looking down at the men through small windows. Though some men in Serniki were bearded, Samuel was clean shaven. He was a modern man. After services, family and friends would come by the house, similar to the routine in David’s town. Samuel played chess while the children ran around outside.

Paula recalls playing with her friends, who were all Jewish. They played hopscotch and a game with sticks that involved tossing them to see who could throw one further. She also particularly liked walking barefoot in the mud and puddles. Paula had fond memories of one neighbor friend, Chaya. One time Paula stopped by her house and Chaya’s mother was making pancakes. She offered Paula one, and she readily accepted. Paula was served the pancake on a fine piece of china, not an everyday dish. It made her feel special and was the kind of thing Paula noticed and appreciated, even as a youngster and even 60 years after the fact.

Though she remembers being frightened of the Russians, Paula was eight when they invaded, her day-to-day life went on largely unchanged. She wasn’t very aware of how it impacted her father’s business. The one major change in her life was school. In addition to attending cheder, to learn Hebrew and Torah, Paula went to public school. The public school had been run by Poles and Paula had already completed first grade when the Russians came. Though Paula’s father had taught his children the Russian alphabet and to read, the authorities made everyone repeat their grade, so she had to begin again. Paula resented it. She completed second grade in the Russian school. It was during her third year at the school that life as she knew it completely changed.

In early summer of 1941, a father and son arrived in Serniki, on the run. They told the story of their town which was to the west; of being marched to stand at the edge of a ditch and then the  Germans shot them in the back causing everyone to fall into the ditch. The father and son fell in just as the shooting started and were not wounded. They lay, feigning death, amongst the bodies until nightfall when the Germans had left. They climbed out over the corpses and ran

The Jews of Serniki didn’t believe the story. They thought it was a plea for attention, for sympathy and for help. Paula’s mother, Lea, though, believed it. Lea said, “It is too terrible for a human mind to make up. A normal human wouldn’t make up such a thing.” This was the first Paula had heard about the atrocities – she thought it was possible that the adults had heard things before, but as a child she was shielded from it.

It was a good thing Lea believed it – that belief made a difference.

 

[Next week: Paula’s journey continues]

 

Neighborhoods and Change

When I was in graduate school I lived on 80thand Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. It was 1980. It was my first exposure to gentrification. I hadn’t heard the term before, but it was taking place before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working class people were displaced by wealthier folks. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered and boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I wondered where the displaced people went, but I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer, I could walk comfortably on more blocks. Though the ice cream from the new Haagen Dazs shop may have been expensive, it sure was delicious.

fullsizeoutput_445
The Upper West Side today.  Photo credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Time

Some lamented the changes, either because of the injustice to those of lesser means or because of the loss of authenticity (everything new, shiny and expensive was phony) or both. I certainly understood the former. The gap between the haves and the havenots was growing steadily, it was and is unfair. But, longing for the days when New York City was gritty and dirty, was bizarre to me. I didn’t enjoy being afraid. I was unsettled by the strung-out junkies hanging out on the stoops of those brownstones. That era, the 70s and 80s, when the city nearly went bankrupt, and the lack of support showed in crumbling buildings and overflowing garbage, is not romantic to me. (The website Gothamist ran a series of side-by-side photos of Central Park, showing the condition of the park back in the day. Take a look.)

More recently I had reason to think about the changes in the last decades in New York City when Leah and I did the Five Boro Bike Tour (which I wrote about here). We cycled through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the 70s and 80s, I wouldn’t have considered visiting either area, much less ride a bicycle through them. We rode past art galleries and craft beer breweries. Much like the gentrification of the Upper West Side, these areas in Brooklyn were now home to a wealthier professional class.

I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods and how complicated it all is, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. I did a bit of research, including reading a book, The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration and Ethnic Politics in a Global City (2012), edited by Judith DeSena and Timothy Shortell. The book is comprised of 16 scholarly essays, including one entitled, Revising Canarsie. (Note: I believe that the title was meant to be Revisiting Canarsie, not revising, because the premise of the piece was to take a look at the neighborhood and compare it to an earlier examination by Jonathan Rieder, entitled Canarsie: Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism(1985), a book I also read and found very insightful.)

The book, The World in Brooklyn, in general, makes the case that gentrification is a bad thing for the poor, immigrant communities. It paints a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While I believe there is truth in that picture, I think it oversimplifies things. The books presents the ‘gentry’ as one, monolithic thing – as if it is a homogenous group of rich, white people. The book doesn’t take into account that when demographics are changing, it is a two-way street. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that make true integration across economic classes (not just racial differences) impossible to achieve.

I may be particularly sensitive to this issue of integrating across economic classes because of an experience I had when we moved into our suburban neighborhood, which was a new development (new, developing neighborhood). As may be the case in many suburban neighborhoods, there was a range of economic circumstances. There were those who were barely able to make ends meet to live there, and there were those for whom it was very comfortable, and, of course, families in between. Though Gary and I were in the more comfortable range, we thought of ourselves as more modest people since we had grown up in middle class families. Leah, our daughter became friends with a girl down the block and they often played at the friend’s house. We became friendly with the parents and made numerous overtures to invite them over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments that were made, I came to believe that the mom made certain assumptions about us. Since Gary was (and is) a doctor, we were Jewish, we were from downstate originally, the mom, in particular, was not comfortable socializing with us. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something else at work. As Gary and I became more comfortable economically, I became more aware of how that can create awkwardness, even when trying to be sensitive. It is something that is difficult to talk about. We never did get beyond neighborly friendliness and eventually they moved. The experience, and others like it, made me more aware of economic factors that can create social barriers.

My experience growing up in Canarsie offers another perspective on neighborhood relationships in the midst of change. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification, it would appear to be just the opposite. I have written before about my experience in 1972 with the boycott of schools because of the plan to bus black students from East New York into predominantly white Canarsie schools (here). There was some white flight in response, but the neighborhood remained fairly stable for a number of years (my parents left in 1989 when they retired from teaching). In 1990 Canarsie was less than 20% black; in 2000 it was 60% black (and I use ‘black’ because many of the new residents were immigrants from the Caribbean who may or may not have identified as African-American). By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. Though the racial composition changed, the fact was that the economic status remained stable. The new residents weren’t poor and they weren’t uneducated.

fullsizeoutput_442
Typical block in Canarsie – Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

The Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians were looking for years before. According to a New York Times article:

‘A house to the Caribbean man is something very important,” Samuel E. Palmer was saying. ”He has to have a house, as opposed to an apartment. Whatever happens, the house comes first, so you can have a family and your friends can meet there. So, when I came here, the desire also was to achieve this house, this houseness.”

Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family. They were loyal to Brooklyn; they had no interest in Queens or Long Island. As Mr. Palmer put it, if you move, you have to build all over again: friends, neighbors, all that.

Canarsie is teeming with new and newly revitalized civic associations these days, many of them headed by newcomers like Mr. Brazela and Mr. Duncan, lobbying and agitating for improved street lighting, road repairs, better drainage.”

THE CENSUS — A Region of Enclaves: Canarsie, Brooklyn; ‘For Sale’ Signs Greet Newcomers – NYT, June 18, 2001

The essay on Canarsie in the book that I cited above, supported this anecdotal account with  research-based findings. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 when there were three bias incidents (against black families/businesses), including the fire-bombing of a real estate agency that was court ordered to show homes in Canarsie to blacks and Hispanic buyers. The neighborhood became homogenous again – now it is over 90% black.

In reading and thinking about the issues raised by changing neighborhoods, I think there are some commonalities. Problems seem to start with assumptions made based on stereotypes or ignorance or both. And, there aren’t mechanisms to get beyond those assumptions. We have no language to talk to each other about these issues. One of the essays in the World in Brooklyn analogizes different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who might play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. There is some learning about each other as groups coexist, but not true integration. Of course, there are exceptions, some individuals have successfully broken down barriers, but it doesn’t seem to translate to whole communities. The question is, how do we integrate across race, economic status, religion? What have we learned from our past experiences that can help us? How can we do better?

A Surprising Friendship

I wonder sometimes how much of what I remember is real. This is especially true of my friendship with Susan.

 

fullsizeoutput_280
Me, in front of my house, at the time I became friends with Susan

I didn’t have many friends on my block. Somehow East 91st Street had an inordinate number of bullies and I was a target of their ridicule. Here are just a few examples: I was riding my bike when a couple of kids chased me thrusting a stick at my spokes hoping to knock me off, I was spat on as I walked home from synagogue on Rosh Hashana and my cat was mistreated (I wrote about that here). This was all at the hands of the Italian kids who lived at one end of our block. My brothers were occasionally called into service to scare them off. I knew enough not to generalize, after all, each of my brother’s best friends were Italian. But given all that I experienced, my friendship with Susan, who was also Italian but lived at the other end of the street, came as a surprise.

Susan was popular on the block and in my class. She was blonde and blue-eyed, with an up turned nose. She was rail thin. She was everything I was not. She could do a round-off, cartwheels and handstands. I will allow that I was athletic, but in a different way. I felt rooted to the ground by my thick bones and muscular frame. I could run and throw a ball, and my balance was good, so I didn’t feel clumsy, but I was unwilling to hurl myself into space to do any kind of gymnastics move. I didn’t have Susan’s grace or fearlessness, which is why this next part is so surprising.

Susan and I spent long hours teaching ourselves tricks on our bicycles. The street next to her house which abutted the weeds had very little traffic, so we would ride up and back endlessly, perfecting our moves. Starting simply by riding with no hands, ultimately, we were able to stand on our seats in an arabesque, one leg extended behind, our arms outstretched. I felt like I was flying. When we thought we were good enough, we invited our parents to watch our circus act. My mother was aghast. I think back and wonder, did I really do that? It seems so out of character. But, I did.

Susan loved horses and would draw them again and again. I came to share her enthusiasm, learning to draw them and reading horse-themed stories like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. She and I would gallop around her side lawn, her corner house had enough property to be considered a lawn, unlike the postage stamp we shared with our neighbors.

fullsizeoutput_281
I’m probably around 15 years old here, but that is the ‘lawn’ we shared with our neighbors – the bane of my father’s existence.

Susan and I were in the same class at PS 272. In 4th grade there was something called a ‘slam book’ that was all the rage. It was book made up of looseleaf pages fastened together, each page contained a list of favorites. Favorite TV star, favorite football team, but it also ranked the cutest girls in the class, smartest boys, etc. It was a measure of popularity and caused me great anxiety. The book made its way up and down the rows of the class while our teacher, Mrs. Feinberg, faced the chalkboard. For a while this was a daily occurrence. Kids ranked things and wrote comments anonymously. I was always afraid what I’d find when the book arrived at my desk. I think once I made it to fifth cutest in the class. Susan was always in the top three. In choosing to be my friend, I felt anointed, touched by her popularity.

Everything was so different about Susan’s family. Her mother, Maria, reminded me of June Cleaver. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a dress, with an apron, kitten heels and pearls. Her hair styled, lipstick applied. My mom and my Nana wore housedresses and slippers.

I remember one time Susan and I had a plan to practice our bicycle tricks. I rang her doorbell and was invited into the kitchen where her parents were each enjoying a bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever saw beer at my house. I can’t recall a single time. I knew what it was, I saw enough commercials during baseball games, but I didn’t know anyone who drank it. Susan was begging her father to let her have a taste. He relented. She took two quick swigs and we went out to our bicycles. Susan joked that after drinking the beer she wouldn’t feel it if she fell on her head. She giggled. I was shocked.

Susan’s Dad, Tony, was the executive chef at the Carlysle Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The same swanky hotel where Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities stayed when they came to New York. Which raised the question: why did Susan’s family live in Canarsie?  I don’t know the answer to that, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t stay long.

At the end of 4th grade, Susan’s family moved to Wycoff, New Jersey. It might as well have been another country. We did see each other one more time. My parents dropped me off at their suburban house where Susan’s mom served, among other things, sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dressed with basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea tomatoes could taste that good. It was a revelation. At the end of the weekend, they drove me into the city to meet my parents at the Carlyle. We were given a tour of the kitchen. I was too young to appreciate what I was seeing. I know my parents were impressed. That was the last time I remember seeing Susan. We lost touch. She went on with her suburban life, not just drawing horses, but riding them. I went back to Canarsie, read the rest of the Chincoteague stories, and tried to find a place to fit in.

 

 

 

A Brooklyn Sojourn

Imagine my surprise when I opened my email a week and a half ago and found out I was a semifinalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize! I couldn’t believe it. I submitted a piece, Nana’s Table, which you can read here, to a contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Film Arts Festival.

It was Friday night, December 15th, and I was sitting at the island in my kitchen, with Gary, Daniel and Beth. Daniel and Beth had just driven up from New York City to spend the weekend with us. We would be celebrating Hanukkah the next day with more of the family coming to our house. We were chatting easily, I was mindlessly playing Text Twist on my computer, when a new email popped up. I saw the subject line ‘Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize.’ I swallowed hard and opened it immediately. When I saw that it said that I was a semifinalist for the prize, I held up my hand and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but you’re not going to believe this!” I proceeded to read the email to them. They were as excited, or more so, than I was.

The email explained that semifinalists were invited to read a portion of their story at an event scheduled for the following Wednesday evening (December 20th), which coincidentally was my father’s birthday. He would have been 85. Maybe it was a sign.

The reading would be held at St. Francis College, in Brooklyn Heights. I did a quick check of my calendar and saw that I had a hair appointment, but that could easily be changed. There was nothing to keep me from going. Dan and Beth said they would come, too. The email asked for an RSVP, so I sent a quick response saying I would attend. With more than 20 people coming for our Hanukkah party the next day, I didn’t have time to give it more thought. I had salads to prepare, potatoes to peel and presents to wrap.

Saturday passed in a blur, busy from the moment I woke up until I went to bed that night. My brother Mark had driven down to New Jersey to pick up my mother so she could attend the party. My in-laws were able to come too – in fact we planned to celebrate my father-in-law’s 95th birthday. Cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews mingled and ate potato latkes. I misjudged the amount of food – usually I have too much. Not this time. After the bowls of tuna and egg salad and the platter of lox were ravaged, I made more, and sent Mark out on an emergency lox run. In my family we don’t need a beer run, we need more lox.

Lying in bed after the party, exhausted, I started to think about the logistics of the next few days. I decided since Mark had schlepped to Jersey and back to get our mother, it was only fair that I should drive her home. In an unfortunate bit of timing, we had promised the use of our New York City apartment to a colleague of Gary’s whose daughter was having surgery in a city hospital on Monday. So, I couldn’t just drive Mom back and stay in the city for the week.

After leaving my mom at her place in Freehold, I had time alone in the car – my first private time since Friday night. I could finally think about the upcoming reading and what it meant to me.  I was surprised at how validating it felt. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think sometimes, in an effort to protect myself from future disappointment, I don’t allow myself to take pleasure in accomplishments. The refrain in my head usually includes messages that devalue whatever it is I did.  In this case, between feeling proud of myself (there I said it!), I thought things like: Probably nobody good entered the contest. Or, I have no chance. And, I hope I don’t embarrass myself. My brain ping-ponged back and forth.

The reading at the college was free and open to the public. I went back and forth in my mind about inviting people to it. Should I post something on Facebook? I looked to see if the Brooklyn Film Festival had it listed as an event that I could share. Finding nothing, I decided I didn’t feel comfortable creating something. I felt like I would be imposing on people. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be disappointed if no one came.

I drove back to Albany. I did my usual things, every so often getting hit with nerves at the thought of appearing in front of a bunch of strangers and sharing my story. Though I presented programs and trained small and large groups during my previous professional life, this was different. This was sharing a piece of myself.

In order to simplify things, Gary and I decided I would stay at a hotel Wednesday night. We didn’t want to ask his colleague to leave our apartment, he was already dealing with a stressful situation with his daughter. I was able to get a good rate at the Marriott near the Brooklyn Bridge and we decided I should think of it as a treat. The hotel was only a few blocks from St. Francis College on Remsen Street, it would be convenient, too.

I took Amtrak down to the city on Wednesday and arrived early in the afternoon. I hopped the A train and found my way to the hotel. Fortunately, they had a room available even though it was before check-in. I made myself comfortable, took a shower and practiced my reading. Although I didn’t put anything on Facebook, I did email Merle and another long-time friend who lived in Manhattan, Steven, to invite them – making it clear that I knew it was short notice and I would understand if they couldn’t make it.

Steven responded that he would be happy to come and he would meet me there. Merle wrote that she would come, as long as she had recovered from the bug she was battling. Happily, she did and she came to the hotel at about 4:00.

I got a text from Aunt Clair that she would come, too. I had a small but mighty rooting section: Dan, Beth, Aunt Clair, Merle and Steven. I knew my mother, Leah and Gary would be sending positive thoughts even though they couldn’t physically be there. I felt very lucky to have so much support.

Merle and I left the hotel and met Aunt Clair at the Burger King down the block. We walked together to St. Francis College. As we were about to go in, Dan and Beth joined us. We found our way to the Maroney Theater on the 7th floor. There were a few people in the theater setting up the podium and microphone. It was a small theater with a performance space at the front and rows of seats upward from there.

We took seats in the middle, not too close to the front, but not too far back either.

More people started to trickle in, including Steven. We all chatted and joked, and I tried to relax while taking it all in.

A young man distributed a sheet of paper that turned out to be the program.

OM9PsGAORzmc7n99EBb6yA

I was slated to be the second reader of ten. I studied the other nine names and titles of their stories. I looked around the room – there was a wide array of ages, races and sexes. I wondered who the writers were.

The program was supposed to begin at 7, but we had arrived early. About five minutes before 7 the same young man who passed out the program asked for our attention. He wanted to take attendance to see if the readers were present. Several were still missing. We went back to chatting and waiting, more people arrived. The theater was getting pretty full.

At 7:10, it was decided that the program should begin regardless. The young man stepped up to the podium and tapped on the microphone. It was working. I was relieved because my voice does not project well and I have difficulty sustaining any volume. He introduced the first piece, but the woman wasn’t there. That meant I was going first.

I took a deep breath and went down the aisle stairs and took my place at the podium. I read Nana’s Table, fumbling only once or twice over words. I couldn’t see the audience very well with the white spotlight on me, but I looked up every so often trying to make contact with my family and friends. The room was very quiet, as I read. It felt like people were listening intently. Toward the end of my reading someone’s cell phone went off, but they silenced it pretty quickly. I didn’t let it distract me.

There was applause when I finished and I returned to my seat. And just like that, it was done. The young man introduced the next writer. Different stories of Brooklyn unfolded. A range of experiences were recounted. A young African-American man described growing up in the projects where gangs dominated, but he found community there, too. A Latina wrote movingly about her mother’s and sister’s struggles in Sunset Park, sadly known as ‘Gunset’ Park at the time. Another shared her story of taking a class at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsburg, the beat poet.  A retired police officer, who like me started writing when he retired at age 55, told his story of deep regret at not helping a childhood friend who grew up with him in Coney Island. Two other stories, like mine, focused on relationships with grandparents. A picture of a borough filled with people of different ethnicities, but similar pains and struggles, was painted.

After all the stories were read, all the authors were invited to the front. We received a nice round of applause and then the emcee announced the winner. The retired cop won the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize for 2017. I can’t lie, I was a little disappointed. But, the whole thing had been an enriching experience. Dan told me several times how proud he was of me. Leah sent texts with the same message. I knew Gary and my mother were eagerly awaiting hearing the result. Their collective pride in my effort was very meaningful to me.

Hearing the other stories, sharing mine, confirmed that I was on the right track, to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law. I was doing what I should be doing.

Everyone with me had enjoyed the evening immensely. Steven said, “Sign me up for your next reading.” I smiled and thought, “I hope there is a next reading.”

It was late by the time it concluded. Dan and Beth, who had work the next morning, gave me hugs and went back to Manhattan, as did Aunt Clair. Steven, Merle and I went out to dinner at an old-style Italian restaurant on Court Street. After enjoying several glasses of chianti, warm Italian bread and a variation on eggplant parmigiana, we parted ways. I went back to the hotel.

I woke early the next morning and took a walk. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn Heights for many years. I found my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which didn’t exist the last time I was in the neighborhood. It was a sunny, brisk morning. I marveled at how beautiful it all was. I counted my blessings as I walked.

 

 

Calling on Canarsiens

IMG_1288

I’m not sure what people from Canarsie call themselves – Canarsiens? Canarsie-ites? Either way, I’m asking for your input.

I started this blog with the hope of painting a picture of my life in Canarsie, Brooklyn in the mid 1960s through early ‘70s. It was a time not unlike today, in some ways. It felt fraught, dangerous even. So much was changing and violence, in the form of urban riots and crime, was lurking. I grew up acutely aware of those crosscurrents.

Others growing up in Canarsie at the same time had different perceptions. I deduce this from conversations I have had with friends and from comments posted on the Internet. This isn’t surprising, of course, one would expect different experiences. But some have described an idyllic childhood in which neighbors looked out for each other and children played together in harmony (mostly). Which made me wonder: was my experience the exception?

I want to explore that question. If you (and please feel free to pass this request on) grew up in Canarsie and graduated from either Canarsie High School or South Shore from about 1973-1977 and would like to share your memories, I would like to interview you. Please send me an email at LBakst.Canarsie@gmail.com and I will follow up.

The three major topics I am interested in exploring are: family life, ethnicity/race relations, and perceptions of safety. I am particularly interested in memories of the boycott of schools in response to the busing plan in Canarsie in 1972-73.

This is not going to be a scientific study by any means, but interviews can yield important perspectives. I am hopeful that I will gain more insight into a broader range of experience and then I can share those insights on my blog, either as part of my stories or separately. I will keep the information anonymous, unless you are willing to speak for attribution.

Aside from satisfying my personal curiosity, I’m hoping it will help paint a more detailed picture of that time and place, which in turn should lead to a better understanding of who we are now. I hope the conversation will be interesting to you, too! I hope to hear from you.