Firemen and Kosher Salt

by

03/17/2004

1207 49th St, Brooklyn, NY

Neighborhood: Boro Park, Brooklyn

The firemen came when I was six years old.

Sirens screaming, bells clanging, the big red fire engine parked right in front of our house at 1051-46th Street in Boro Park, Brooklyn.

They entered wearing  their yellow rubber coats, red helmets and tall black shiny boots. So many of them in our tiny apartment. They overwhelmed me.

I was a friendly, open child, talkative even with strangers, but within the boundaries of my comfort zone. I was scared of the firemen.

From the age of three, I grew up in a matriarchal family. My brother,Danny, who was ten years older, spent most of his time away at Yeshiva.I was raised in the company of women, my widowed mother and my sister, Rachel,seven years older. Therefore, I was not  comfortable around men.

My mother and my sister, Rachel, and my friends and teachers in the all girls’ religious Bais Yaakov of Boro Park were the people who made up my world. Since I was not allowed to mix with males, that  only made the company of boys and men mysterious.

And then on that spring  evening, these firemen arrived.  They were big, tall, and so “Un-Jewish”. At that time, I was not aware that the majority of fire fighters are Irish. The Italians who lived on my block didn’t look as different from me as those firemen.  They may as well have come from a foreign county and certainly didn’t meet the requirements of the comfort zone of my self-made world.

It was early evening. My mother was cooking supper. There was meat; steak or lamb chops in the broiler. My mother, in her flowered cobbler apron, called to my sister,  “Rachel, please open the over door and check if the meat is ready. Use the big  fork.”

She followed my mother’s instructions, and flames shot out. Thinking quickly, she closed the oven  door.  It was a  decrepit old -fashioned stove. As my mother took her place standing guard near the over door, she yelled to my sister, “Quickly, call the fire department.”

Next I heard, “Sairy,  get out of the apartment.  Wait on the stoop.” Even then I knew the logic of  my overprotective Jewish mother. What she really wanted to tell me was that if the house burned down, at least her youngest child, at 6, would be spared.

Of course, I didn’t move.

My eyes opened widely, and speechless, I waited to see the action. Like my mother I was  also thinking morbidly, but if  the house burned down, I wanted to be with my mother and sister.

Within moments, I heard the sirens, louder as they got closer.  Then I saw the giant firemen with their axes and hoses.  I looked at them in awe.  I wasn’t that  frightened because my mother and sister were right there. I didn’t talk.

My mother  yelled, “Why all the axes? Please, it’s a tiny fire in the stove. I’m afraid it will spread, but there’s no need to destroy the apartment.”

Once they realized the non-emergency of the event, they calmed her fears.   “We won’t break anything if we  don’t have to. But we have to be prepared for all situations.”

I was a bit disappointed. I kind of wanted them to demolish the apartment. Totally unaware of the expenses involved,  I envisioned moving to a bigger apartment with a recreation  room, just like my friend Miriam. And  we’d move to a different block, nearer to my friends.

Then those brave fire fighters opened the oven door. Once again, flames shot out. One of them called to my mother, who at 5 feet tried to hover over their shoulders, “Do you have any kosher salt?”

She always had a tinful right next to the stove. Amazed at the antidote, she asked, “Kosher salt? That’s it?” And we watched the firemen extinguish the fire by throwing salt onto the flames.

An army of fire fighters, tons of equipment, huge fire truck, and they vanquished the enemy with kosher salt, a staple of my mother’s cooking.

Then they smiled at me, laughed, wanted to be my friends. They asked me, “What’s your name, sweetheart? How old are you? Were you afraid? Don’t be. The fire is gone.”

I was caught. They were so scary. Such big men. But I liked it when they smiled at me, and I became the center of attention. Suddenly, they were not so scary. They were appealing, strong, heroic men. So out of place in my mother’s kitchen on 46th Street. An invasion of men, an army of masculinity in a country ruled by a woman.

They had such nice smiles and blue eyes that crinkled when they looked at me. So I answered shyly, “Sairy. Six. I’m not scared. Thank you for putting out the fire.”

In response they patted me on the head, smiled warmly and said, “You’re a brave Iittle girl” They left with bravado. Said good-bye with flair. The last one to leave turned to my mother and said, “We’re going to take away your Good Housekeeping Seal”. And he laughed and walked out the door.

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