Driving home the other day, I heard an announcement about a possible new TV series to be set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. The plan was for it to focus on the new wave of Russian immigrants who have reclaimed my childhood neighborhood.
A young would-be resident/actress of the beach was being interviewed. In a rather thick accent, she giddily stated her name, the town in Russia in which she was born, and her age, before adding: “Yah, Yah, this is now the new Russian Mafia. A wonderful place to put on the television. Will make for many good stories!”
Luckily, I stopped for a red light, pausing long enough to allow me to identify what I was feeling and figure out whether my instinct was to laugh or to cry. Part of me heard the bizarre humor in what she was saying, but most of all, I think I felt sad. A sadness that speaks of tainted memories, of someone trespassing on precious territory without asking permission. In this case, it was my territory, my permission. And though the memories of the Brighton of my youth are also peopled with Russian immigrants, they were a different breed – the post WWII immigrants whose values and way of life reflected a different time, a different mentality – and not the one to which she was referring.
When I began writing this blog shortly after the publication of my memoir,
FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS, I promised to include chapters from my book, and I have done so a few times. Today, I am choosing to look back, to share with you images, memories and, I suppose, my particular loyalty to the Brighton Beach in which I grew up.
The following pages are from the PROLOGUE to FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness.
“….. On any day — not just during holiday times — Brighton bristled with frenetic energy. Each block along Brighton Beach Avenue (or the “Avenue,” as we all referred to it) had a grocery store, fish market, butcher shop, and fruit and vegetable stand.
Vendors displayed their colorful stock, knowing that the women shoppers would touch, pinch and squeeze before selecting “the best” lettuce, tomato, or melon the second a sales person’s back was turned. “Next time a little gentler, please,” storekeepers would say, turning around, hands on hips. “Someone else, please God, will be eating that after you’ve squeezed it and thrown it down. You wouldn’t want I should let someone to touch what you’ll be eating, would you?” Such words, however, fell on deaf ears. The women smiled and touched, pinched and squeezed anyway.
Chickens — some plucked, others still feathered — hung from hooks inside the kosher poultry markets where each was cut and salted in front of every customer, as kosher tradition dictated.
Aufrichtig’s Appetizing Store lived up to its name with an abundant supply of exotic cheeses, herrings, lox, whitefish and tuna salads. There were also clothing, hardware and appliance stores, a Woolworth’s and a handful of family-run restaurants lining the Avenue from one end at Ocean Parkway where the Tuxedo Movie Theatre gave out free sets of dishware to “lucky winners,” to Brighton 3rd Street with its tiny movie house, the Lakeland Theatre(affectionately referred to as “the dumps”), past Coney Island Avenue, where Mrs. Stahl’s Famous Knishes was a landmark and the Oceana Theatre a main attraction.
Delicatessen stores lured people in with window displays of salamis hanging above trays of sizzling hot dogs on a grill, sauerkraut nearby, and pastrami and corned beef steaming in their bins fogging the windows. Such delis, open from early morning until after midnight, were common meeting places where people ordered a glass of tea knowing they would be given a free basket of bread. Those who could afford an occasional “meal out” did so on Sunday, the busiest day of the week for all restaurants in Brighton.
Subways whistled and roared throughout each day, but only visitors to the Beach heard them. For those of us who lived there, it was the background noise that lulled us to sleep. It bothered no one. It came with the territory.
What excited me most was venturing outside our four rooms, witnessing the iceman deliver his ice — large blocks wrapped in canvas, strapped to his back — or hearing the rag man sing from his horse-driven wagon, “Rags for sale, rags for sale.” Along with Mr. Yutnik, the shoemaker at the corner, Harry the fruit man, and Sophie the bakery store lady across the street, they were all anchors of familiarity.
So, too, were “The Refugees,” the grocery store where everyone shopped and where Mother sent me — as young as six years old — to buy whatever staples we needed when she was too tired to go herself. I’d walk or skip along the straight seams of the cemented sidewalk to our corner, swing left onto Brighton Beach Avenue, where the fascinating array of stores stretched across and underneath the elevated BMT line, until I’d reach the grocery between 2nd and 3rd streets. I learned only years later that the grocers were not Mr. & Mrs. Refugee, as I had thought. Everyone simply called them “The Refugees” because they had arrived from “the other side”more recently than my parents or the parents of any of my friends. When I’d enter their small, crowded store, the owners were usually unpacking canned goods, filling the emptied shelves from the day before, while their wives stood behind the counter, packing customer’s bags and working the cash register. Barely tall enough to reach the counter top, I’d wait my turn before asking for a nice rye bread, a good quarter pound of butter and an excellent half-pound of fresh pot cheese, just as Mother had told me to do. One of the men would find whatever I’d need, place it neatly into a brown paper bag, where, after adding up the total, he’d count aloud in Yiddish, then lick an unsharpened pencil and write the amount due on the outside of the bag. I marveled at how he, like my father, added numbers in his head by rolling his eyes upward and then down again, mysteriously arriving at the sum.
Beyond their pleasant smiles, though, I was frightened by the other numbers, the ones tattooed on their arms beneath their rolled up shirtsleeves. I had to force myself not to look at those numbers because Mother, who seldom cautioned me about anything, had told me, “Never stare at their arms, mamaleh. It will only remind them of terrible things. In America, thank God, you’ll never know from such numbers. Here the Hitler devils won’t dare come! But the Refugees? God alone knows what they went through! He should only spare them now. Give them a little peace. Let them make a living. Enjoy some little pleasures.”
Each time I left the Refugees, they thanked me and reminded me to “Say hello to Mama!” before one of them added, “You’re a good, sweet maydaleh, Lindaleh.”
I’d walk home feeling proud, having shopped like a grownup. However, once Mother had put the notion of devils into my head, I began thinking that even our cozy neighborhood was no longer safe. Despite the fact that everything seemed familiar — the freshness of the ocean’s salty air, the brightly colored fruits and vegetables displayed outdoors, the occasional overhead screech of the elevated subway — even so, safety became relative. The mystery of the numbers on their arms and the sadness I saw in their eyes stayed with me.”
[End of quote from Prologue]
Years later – after I was married, had children, and had long since left the Brighton in which I grew up – it was featured in many of New York’s newspapers as “The New Odessa,” a revitalized neighborhood where houses were being renovated by a new wave of immigrants (mostly Russian, some Korean). I returned to see it and what I found was quite startling.
That all happened years ago. And while the saying, “You can’t go home again,” clearly has relevance, we do have the option to return to where we spent our childhood years, though what we find may seem familiar, memory often distorts the size and shape of things, along with the meanings we have attached to them.
What I remember about the Brighton of my youth – albeit peopled with many immigrants from the same part of the world as reside there today – is a bustling world filled with immigrants, whose experiences were deeply reflected in the very essence of who they were and in what they expected from the America for which they had left their homeland. The Brighton they created was, therefore, very different than the Brighton of today.
Today’s young Russians grew up in a secularized country where Communism separated them from many of the world’s various cultures. They were not, as my parents were, survivors of WWI, witnesses and victims of the ravages of WWII, the evil of Kristelnacht and the burning death of many loved ones. My parents awareness of life’s possibilities and probabilities were totally different from those of the giddy young woman eager to offer American TV watchers an exotic sense of the Russian immigrants of today’s Brighton Beach. My parents and their generation were too busy trying to “fit in,’ to become Americanized and have their children excel, planting new roots in a New World. There was not much that was “exotic” about their lives, and those of us who were their children felt, in turn, that we owed so much to them and to our country.
I wonder how many of you have returned to your childhood neighborhoods and, if so, what your experiences were. If you would enjoy sharing them with me, I’ll be happy to post them in next week’s blog.