Memories of East New York

by Joyce Halpern (Cherry Hill, NJ)

Having been raised as a Jew in a gentile neighborhood, I was delighted with the vibrant Jewish community where my husband grew up.  We visited his parents in this neighborhood frequently during the late 1950’s and 1960’s when I was in my twenties. Family members and neighbors told stories about their immigrant experiences as children.  Some talked about “the old country” and their good fortune to become Americans. My mother-in-law took me shopping and demonstrated some of the accepted folkways in the neighborhood.  Others traditions I learned from family gatherings and from my own observations as I walked the streets and mingled with the people.  I knew this unique, cohesive society would some day disappear, so I made some notes so I would not forget it.  From these notes, I present a loving memory of a vanished neighborhood.

Some of the Jews who had come to America as children in the 1920’s later established a community in a section of East New York.  They were garment and factory workers or small shop owners.  Having left the tenements years ago, they now lived in long, two-family duplexes.  Modest synagogues were nestled in all neighborhoods so children could walk to Hebrew school. Streets were lively with walkers because walking was the primary mode of transport.  Small shops, owned by men who formerly made their living from pushcarts, nudged each other on streets, their signs with bold Hebrew letters competing for attention. Clothes, bolts of fabric, and pots were displayed outside under the careful eyes of the shlepper. “Come inside, Mrs.,” he would call.  “I have bargains.”  Customers entered the store and the drama of negotiation began. Buyer and seller played their expected role until a price was struck.  Bargaining was conducted in Yiddish.  English was too passive a language for such an important struggle.

Many of the homes in East New York had porches where children gathered.  Some adolescents sought a more sophisticated venue.  The corner candy store was their salon.  Quiet chess players or combatants arguing about politics could also adorn porches. Extended family members lived within walking distance.  Children could show up at any relative’s house for an after school snack.  Relatives gathered frequently. They might play cards, debate union activities or just visit, but they always ate a six course meal.  So much togetherness was a mixed bag.  Everyone had an Aunt Sadie who found dirt in corners of houses and children who were too thin.  “He is tsu din,” she scolded a mother.  “Why don’t you make him eat?”

Cooking and baking were serious, time-consuming jobs for housewives.  When they met each other, they often greeted one another, not with “Hello,” but rather “So, what are you cooking for supper tonight?” Preparing for any holiday was always a frenetic activity. Women jostled for attention at the kosher butcher shop vying for the plumpest chicken.  Then it was off to the fish monger to select a swimming carp.  Grinding the flesh to make gefilte fish was an onerous task which the women did willingly every holiday. The traditional dishes they cooked were an essential part of every holiday experience.  On Rosh Hashanah the air in the neighborhood  was layered with the delicious smell of chicken soup coming from so many homes, yet another link in communal joy.

The High Holidays were an opportunity for neighbors to display their growing prosperity in America.  How proudly they walked to the synagogue wearing clothing they could never have afforded in Europe.  This was a once-a-year show, however, because garment workers had lay off times over which they had no control.  Solid financial stability would only come in the next generation of their college-educated children.

Joyce Halpern enjoyed a long career as a teacher but has always been a writer.  She  was contributing editor to an art magazine and an art newspaper, and, as a free lance writer, her articles have appeared in various Philadelphia and New Jersey publications.  Recording her observations and feelings in both prose and poetry has been a life long necessity.

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