Scenes from a Jewish Girlhood

by

07/19/2006

167th St & Grant Ave., Bronx, NY, 10456

Neighborhood: Bronx, East Bronx

On my corner of 167th Street and Grant Avenue in the Bronx was a small grocery that sold “Appetizers”—dairy foods, pickles, milk, eggs, and fresh tub butter and cheeses in large refrigerated glass cases. The owners were refugees. From the War, my mother said. I was twelve and that War had ended fifteen years ago. One white-jacketed worker behind the counter spoke with an East-European accent. He smiled all the time, showing the gold-fillings around his two front teeth, as he sliced a chunk of tub butter and put in on the scale to weigh it.

One day I ordered a pound of bologna and moved up close to where he was slicing because I liked the machine and the rhythmic movements of the rotary blade slicing back and forth. I watched the way he caught each slice the moment it fell, dropping it neatly like a pancake onto the accumulating pile. The sleeve of his white jacket crept up his arm as he straightened his elbow and bent it again and again. I noticed numbers tattooed on his arm, numbers from the concentration camp riding forward and back.

In the relentless motion of his arm that seemed riveted to the steel of the spinning blade I died a little; the thin slices of bologna falling like bodies from the blade into a pile that grew bigger and bigger until he finally clicked off the machine and folded the white waxed paper over the grave of meat, marking the white with a big black greasy number from a crayon pencil he took from behind his ear. Smiling his gold-tooth smile, he asked, “Anything else?” and it was as if he were miraculously resurrected, his corpse-white butcher’s coat, the gold from his teeth the Nazis had extracted, back in place.

“No,” I stammered, “that will be all,” though there was more on my list.

I didn’t like it when he waited on me after that. I couldn’t bear it when he smiled at me. Maybe it was just the light that caught the gold in his teeth in a sinister way, but that servile smile he gave the customers made me feel like a Nazi, like someone who was automatically in charge, someone he had to please, no matter what. Then I felt remorse and tried to change my attitude. Maybe he was smiling because he was glad to be alive; maybe he was in shock and smiled nervously out of a fear that had been permanently scorched into his being like the numbers on his forearm. Then I felt enraged for him, humiliated; his job seemed to make a senseless mockery out of all that he had survived. How could he stand behind the counter, day after day, measuring out farmer cheese and potato salad? Why did he accept such a meager existence? After all that he had been through, why didn’t he demand more out of the life remaining to him?

Around and around I went accusing him and forgiving him; accusing myself for my restlessness, my inability to be content with my life as it was. How dare I yearn for more when he who had more right than I seemed to ask for so little? I yearned for grand gestures, theatrical outrage, flourishing acts of courage to counterbalance fear and timidity.

Later that week, on a cold Sunday morning I went into a different shop, the bakery. The store was packed as it was on Sundays when people crowded in to buy fresh rolls, jelly doughnuts, and French crullers for a late breakfast. Just inside the front door I stood against a crush of grownups, men in full-brimmed hats, formidable and unresponsive in their bulky overcoats. I couldn’t make my way past them to the front counter and the ticket-number machine.

“Fifty-five! Fifty-six!” Aging saleswomen in yellow uniforms yelled over the pyramids of miniature Danish and fancy cookies piled high over the glass counter-tops, and if a customer did not instantly respond to the number, they went on, “Fifty-seven, fifty-eight…”

The heat was palpable, and I began to perspire beneath my coat; no one heard me say “excuse me” and I couldn’t move. The men who came in behind me shouldered their way past me up front to the ticket machine and the women used their square leather handbags to knife their way ahead.

“Two salt sticks, two horns, a half dozen hard rolls—what else, what else? You got a little over a pound of marble cake. You wanted the rye bread sliced, why didn’t you say so?”

The five dollars my father gave me was damp in my fist. I was being very patient only because I didn’t know how to be rude to people who looked like my aunts and uncles. I hoped someone would be polite and move out of the way once they had a ticket, but each one just stood there, right by the machine, so that others had to reach out over their shoulders from behind to get to the lever that released the ticket like a little tongue from the slot. I couldn’t reach so high and needed to stand on my toes to get my finger-tips on the lever.

“Seventy-eight, seventy-nine, eighty, eighty-one,” the women in yellow shouted, and hands went up, five voices called out their orders, and the cash register never stopped ringing, the crowd never thinned, and by the time I got a ticket, 92, I’d lost a little faith in human decency.

“Do you want it without seeds or not, make up your mind—Whaddya mean is it fresh? Listen Mista, if you don’t want it there are plenty of takers—ninety-two, ninety-three!” “Here!” I said, but the saleswoman didn’t hear me. On and on she went, the next customers spat out their orders. No one noticed when I started to cry.

Maybe it was the ovens in the back of the bakery that made me think of the camps, or maybe it was the people, all Jews, packed into the steaming space with no room to breathe; maybe it was the numbers we had to fight for, but it hit me that I never would have protested to save myself, never among so many of my own people could I have pushed my way to survival.

Sometimes, I was afraid it would happen again. The Nazis or someone like Hitler would get to be President. I remembered seeing the McCarthy hearings on TV and sensing my mother’s fear. She whispered whenever she said the word, “communist.” I remembered the loud accusatory voice of Joe McCarthy. He reminded me of Hitler, the TV pictures I’d seen of Hitler shouting. Once they thought you were a Communist or a Jew ordinary good people stopped listening to reason and got swept away by hate and fear. Neighbors turned against you and you lost your job and people were afraid to hire you because they feared being associated with you.

If it happened again I could see my friend Caroline or Joyce telling on me because I was Jewish. And I wished it wasn’t so obvious that I was Jewish, but there was little I could do to hide it. For one thing, I had this Orthodox Rabbi and his tiny synagogue right next door to where I lived and my grandfather was the president of the congregation. We were 1184 Grant Avenue and they were 1186. The houses were attached. Toby, the Rabbi’s slow-witted daughter, sat outside on the ledge in front of my house all day long repeating, “Good Yom Tov, Vos Machstu,” like a parrot.

Other houses had limestone lions or ornamental flowerpots perched on the level brick partitions separating one stoop from another; I had screeching Toby, clapping her knees open and shut like a grasshopper, a white patch of underpants blinking between her legs.

“The Rabbi’s wife wears a wig. She shaves her head—Gross,” my friend Caroline said. “You’re Jewish aren’t you?”

If we stood on tiptoes we could see inside the rows of long benches through the shadeless French windows and the fluttering white curtain that separated the women’s prayer section from the men’s.

“Yes,” I said. I felt as if I’d just admitted a crime. I wanted to be proud of being Jewish but I didn’t know how. I hated being associated with the Rabbi and his family and was embarrassed and intimidated by their Orthodoxy. When I was little my mother would dress me up on Saturdays and send me into the synagogue at the end of the service to wish my grandfather a “Good Shabbas.” On my seventh birthday, a hot Saturday morning in June, I went to visit my grandfather as usual. I was standing in the rear near the women who had a way of shrinking behind their prayer books and the long filmy curtain that blurred their view of the men and the dais where they read from the Torah. The air was close from the warm, stale breath of prayer. The men were davening, half chanting and whining in Hebrew, they stood rocking forward and back, each in his own rhythm, enclosed in the bold black and white stripes of his Tallis. Their voices sounded angry, one growing loud as another trailed off and I hesitated, afraid, looking for a safe moment to move up front where my grandfather sat.

A hand clamped down on my shoulder. I turned and the Rabbi towered above me in his long black satin coat that touched his shoes, his massive brown beard hiding his face.

“Shame, shame.” He held my wrist and whispered, pointing up and down my bare, sleeveless arms. “You must cover yourself. Go. Tell Mama, put on a sweater.”

I ran upstairs crying to my mother as I went through my bureau in search of a sweater. My mother was angry. Her eyes grew smaller when she listened, her face mirrored my distress.

“Rules, rules,” she muttered. She blamed the Rabbi, but I blamed her. Most of all I wanted to please, and in some way I blamed her for that too, as I ransacked my bureau and found the sweater I wanted.

The Rabbi nodded approval upon my return. I used to like the part when they finished reading from the Torah and many hands joined in to roll up the scrolls. The men grew tender, careful like I was when I dressed my doll, as they slipped the velvet coverlet over the top and smoothed down the gold braid embroidery and the silken fringe along the border. I would kiss my hand, imitating Zeyde, and reach out to touch the velvet as one honored man paraded through the congregation, cradling the holy bundle one last time before he returned it to its niche and drew the red plush curtain. Now it seemed as if the Rabbi and all these old men reserved their love for their precious Torah and saved their disdain for me.

“If you’re Jewish you have to marry someone Jewish,” my friend Caroline stated. You could marry Toby’s brother Shloymee,” she giggled. “You could live happily ever,” her laughter was loud and mean.

Shloymee, a sallow-faced adolescent with curly sidelocks and a yarmulke on his head, had once come to my house to see my grandfather. I answered the door and he would not look me in the eye. “And this is my room,” I gestured, trying to be friendly. Refusing to look, he turned his head away and stared over his shoulder into the darkness of the hallway.

“He’s not allowed to look at the things that belong to girls,” my mother explained later. “It’s part of the religion for boys to learn self-control and not be distracted by the opposite sex. All their attention should be on God.”

“But there’s nothing sexy about my room!” I had protested. “He can’t even look for a second?”

“It might trigger the imagination,” my mother said.

What dirty minds they have, I thought, angry that the pasty-faced boy might think I was attracted to him. And now I had to put up with Caroline’s teasing.

“Don’t say you come from the Bronx or New York City.” My mother corrected me in the elevator of a large hotel that summer we drove to Florida.

“Why not?”

“Just say you come from New York. Be sure to pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘York.’ Say it, New York.”

“New Yauk.”

Otherwise, they’ll hear that accent and feel superior.

“New Yaourk.”

“If you say we’re from the City, they’ll know we’re Jewish.”

“New Yaurk, New Yorrk.” I practiced until I got it right.

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