Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Used To Be Home Pt. 8


"Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away...."

People here often ask me where I'm from in The States; and I tell them that we made aliyah from Teaneck, N.J., but I'm from The Bronx, or, if I'm in a more expansive mood, from New York -- meaning NYC. So the opening words of Alfred Kazin's autobiographical memoir, "A Walker in the City" have a certain resonance for me, articulating a simple statement of fact: that you can move some of us thousands of miles and more years than we would like to reckon from our old neighborhoods, but you can never entirely blot out that childhood piece of us. What was the hold, the glue that bound the acclaimed critic Alfred Kazin and that still binds me and others like me to the neighborhoods in which we grew up? It probably has to do in part with the years and the miles we spent as young, impressionable pedestrians, playing in the streets, walking everywhere, until at an early age we had come to memorize the name and contents of the small stores in which our families shopped under the shadow of the elevated train tracks, every apartment building in a six block radius and the names of the streets on which they were located, when the ice cream trucks would arrive on a summer afternoon, and down what alleyway would you be likely to find a broom handle which you could "borrow" for a game of stick-ball -- the essential things and places a kid in The Bronx needed to know.

Lest any of you think that my sense of nostalgia is excessive or at least unshared by others, let me prove you wrong. I happen to have, for anyone to inspect, a poster, now framed, which I received in 1982 at a neighborhood reunion. A number of people who had grown up with me had gotten together and contacted everyone they were in touch with, so that on this special Sunday in May, hundreds of former Bronxites and their families returned to "The Parkway" for an afternoon of memories. The poster is filled with the names of local avenues (Rochambeau), roads (Gun Hill), places (Knox), and streets (even 208 St.), stores that members of my family patronized, Hi-Jinx Sporting Goods, Sheff's Bakery, Sam's Pool Hall, Schweller's Delicatessen, and others that somehow escaped my attention, like Yetta's Corset Shop and Cal-Tuv Caterers, along with local schools and movie theaters, plus songs and musicians that had their moment of fame in the early 1950's.

Now no one who was on "The Parkway" that particular day still lived in the neighborhood; even our parents -- most of them -- had moved away. Another example of demography trumping nostalgia. We had all outgrown the confines of this neighborhood, and soon we, like the aforementioned exile from Brownsville, would find themselves walking in other parts of the city. For me, that meant trading in the egg creams from Bond's candy store and later the incredible honeydew ices from Jack Ashwal's chocolate shop on Jerome Avenue for the aroma of smoked fish and other delicacies wafting out of Zabar's on Broadway. It meant more years of walking new streets and new venues until they became as familiar and as comfortable as the ones I had known in The Bronx.

I've often wondered if children who grow up in The 'Burbs have that sense of connection, those unerasable memories of a place that we city kids used to have. Can you get to know a town with the same sense of intimacy when you're constantly being ferried around from here to there in the back of someone's car, when there's no schoolyard to play in or any place special to hang out? Is there any sense of magic in the signposts along Route 4? Part of my lack of connection with any of the towns we lived in New Jersey was that you neither walked very far nor was there any sense that anybody else would be either. OK, you might have to walk to and from the bus or train which would take you to your job in New York -- where you would walk. And those of us who don't drive on Shabbat got to walk to shul and friends' homes for lunch. Otherwise, the streets were empty, except for those coming and going from their cars.

In addition, in towns like Teaneck, virtually no one we knew had grown up there, and so everyone's childhood memories were from elsewhere. (Actually, Passaic was an exception, but that was more of a small city. We came to know a number of old-timers who had grown up in the old downtown section. They had plenty of memories of the streets filled with Yidden on Rosh Hashana.)

So my fond memories of Teaneck had nothing to do with the town per se, but our relative comfort with our shul, the availability of goods and services, and, most important, the many wonderful friends we still have there -- too many for us to have seen in the few days we spent there as the last stop on our journey back to what used to be home.

In an earlier article, I wrote about my interest in seeing a mission statement prominently displayed in the lobby of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD. I had no such hope for the document that we lovingly created in New Jersey, if for no other reason than CBA was missing its lobby the Shabbat when we were there. Shiputsim!!!!! Millions of dollars to expand the premises, the culmination of a multi-year effort that had been started when we were still there, leaving most of the edifice temporarily unrecognizable, except for the main sanctuary where davening could still take place.

A number of our friends (generally the middle-aged and older crowd who had nothing vested in this extravaganza) were asking my opinion about the large amount of money that was being spent on the project. Knowing we were leaving the community, I hadn't gotten involved in the original discussion. Now that we were no longer there, it wasn't my money, and it wasn't my business. My original dismay, which I had voiced privately, was the utopian fallacy that underlay the project from its conception, the "if you build it, they will come" approach. My take on Jewish demographics in America has always been, "If you build it, we will abandon it," as witnessed by the dozens of opulent synagogues and temples in The Bronx, The Lower East Side, and Newark -- let alone the rest of the planet -- that are now boarded up or used by other religions. If you decide to fix up your shul because you need more space now, to make it look a little nicer now, or be a little more comfortable now, and you have the money to do it, fine. Just don't expect that by having emptied your collective wallets, you will have increased the level of kedusha in the community or solved its potential demographic problems, that you will have assured a Jewish presence fifty years or even twenty years down the road. It would be like expecting that your wayward teenager's grades will improve because you've bought him a new computer desk. If only life were that simple.

One good thing, though: while you're tallying up the millions of dollars a project of this magnitude would cost, friendship is still priceless -- especially the kind that lingers over a Shabbat meal. For the price of a few chickens and a bottle of decent wine, you can share all the camaraderie you would ever want. Talk about getting your money's worth! We, at any rate, certainly did. For weeks and weeks, I had been looking forward to a Friday night dinner with one set of dear friends and a Shabbat lunch with others. Equally anticipated with the promise of spending two hours between the early Shabbat morning minyan and lunchtime with the guys I had been learning Gemarrah with and ever so s-l-o-w-l-y going over the material -- all the while having some sort of kiddush, a little shnappes, plenty of crackers to dip in the hummus and babaganoush (this blew me away: while you can find containers of grilled eggplant blended with mayonnaise, you will never find anything called babaganoush in The Land) and, it goes without saying, some coffee. There are plenty of opportunities for Learning here in The Land, but that combination of informality and intellectual rigor is something I miss and will always cherish.

Shabbat was soon over; it always is. There were more people to see in a whirlwind of hello's and good-bye's, and others we couldn't squeeze in -- even though we spent most of Sunday continuing our rounds. Then it was Monday. Time for our return back to Eretz Israel. Except that Barbara would have to stay behind for another week, there being too much unfinished business to take care of for her mother. Well, I'm a big boy, and I can travel by myself. The time heading back alone to what is now my home gave me a bunch of time to reflect upon my journey back to where we used to live.

Before our journey began, I wondered how it would be being back in The States. Would it seems as if I had never left; or would I feel like a stranger in a strange land? The Sunday before we left Silver Spring, we took the Washington Metro down to the Nation's Capital, and headed over to the National Gallery. I am very fond of the new wing, an example of what you can do when you have a lot of taxpayers' dollars to finance your project. Of course, if we were at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem or the Tel Aviv Museum, lunch would not have been a problem. But in Washington D.C., sitting in the spacious cafeteria, with water cascading down behind a glass wall for ambiance, I got myself a cup of coffee and we furtively took out the sandwiches we had brought along. The last time we had been there, ten or fifteen years ago,as I reminded Barbara, they had a large exhibit of Paul Gauguin's painting. What did they have this time? Paul Gauguin's paintings. Wasn't I just here? Also on display were an exhibit of Venetian paintings by Canaletto and others, plus a lot of 20th century art. The last exhibit we saw was a collection of exquisitely boring photographs by one Lewis Baltz, the banality of which seems to be the point. Anyway, standing near the exit of the gallery -- which I was heading towards as expeditiously as I could without going into full gallop mode -- were two Afro-American security guards. Having missed the initial drift of their conversation, I overheard them discussing, for reasons I will never fathom, Donald Duck's nephews, Hughie and Louie. A few minutes later as I passed between them, I remarked, "Excuse me. It's Hughie, Dewey, and Louie." That stopped them short, and they thanked me for my erudition.

I know by reputation people who, the minute they touch the ground at Ben-Gurion Airport and get their new identify papers, take it literally and assume a new identity,which means dismissing or forgetting a lot of what they used to know and like in their pre-Aliyah persona. You'd have to give me a frontal lobotomy. Otherwise, I'm still the same kid from The Bronx who knows that the theme music for the radio show "Mr. Keane, Tracer of Lost Persons" was "Someday I'll find you," and who for a number of years was the backup catcher to Roy Campanella on the Brooklyn Dodgers (Bruce Edwards). A head full of useless information that nobody here in The Land cares two toots about -- and few do elsewhere.

"...........From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men's room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness."

Let's return for a moment to that somewhat magical day in May 1982 and those hundred of former residents of The Neighborhood assembled on The Parkway -- few if any of whom had arrived by the 'D' train to 205th St. or the IRT #4 to the Moshulu Parkway station. There would be virtual unanimity that "those" were some of the best times we ever had. However, if you went around with an offer to come back to The Neighborhood, to rent an apartment on Steuben Ave. two buildings away from J.H.S. 80, you would not have found a taker anywhere in the crowd . You may not like it, the whole thing might make you angry, but you have to move on. You may have the warmest memories of your past, but you have to move on. You may always wonder what if, but you have to move on. For better or worse, you have to move on; the trick is to make it for better -- as much as you can.

When we made aliyah, we sent most of our belongings on a lift. As much as we were able, we took with us on the plane -- even an aged cat. What didn't count as part of our baggage were our memories. Those just came along for the ride, even if we hadn't planned to pack them. The only things we consciously left behind were our regrets. We happily jettisoned those. To this day, I don't miss a single one.