My concession to “Throwback Thursday” …
I had the good fortune to be born into a melting pot … “The Center of the Universe,” Mayor Lindsay called it. He was including my entire universe of five New York boroughs, a place filled with countless languages, omnipresent houses of worship, and restaurants as bland as The Green Tea Room and as chili-pepper vibrant as the La Fonda del Sol.
It was a wonderful place to start life. It sizzled. I loved it, though I was the most unhappening girl in that happening town, which teemed with beautiful, loveable multi-hued peoples from faraway places. We shared their foods and cultures. We learned something of their religions and history.
Because of the way immigration flows into the U.S. in response to wars, oppression or economics, in that day our doctors tended to be Jews or Catholics; our bakers German and French; and our ethnic restaurants, Greek, Italian and Russian. Our Chinese restaurants were Cantonese. We didn’t know from Schezwan or Henan. Our deli’s were generally Jewish or (in Bay Ridge) Norwegian. The Italians, of course, had their “pork stores.”
The ubiquitous newsstands and corner candy stores of that time and place were mostly owned by Eastern Europeans and Russian Jews with an occasional Puerto Rican or Irishman throwing himself into the mix here and there. A succession of such candy stores were owned by one Judah Asimov, Isaac Asimov’s daddy.
The candy store closest to us was owned by another Russian Jew who was the cantor at the local synagogue. He kept his store open until late at night and had the habit of practicing after dark. In the silence of cold snow-laden winter nights we occasionally caught his song wending its way along 86th Street. The beauty of that man celebrating his tradition far from his place of birth, far from the lost family of his childhood, still evokes tears.
The rag industry (fashion) was dominated by people from the Near and Middle East and Eastern Europe and so was the entertainment industry. Women’s Wear Daily and – to a lesser degree – Variety were staples of my youth. My father was a furrier, my Uncle Charlie manufactured lingerie, and for a minute, my shirttail-cousin Willie owned a dry cleaning shop. I started out as a model and I have relations and nearly-relations who are performance artists.
Italians were also prominent in the entertainment industry and most readers can probably tick off the names of several world-renowned New York Italian-American singers including Jerry Vale (Bronx, he passed away this May), Tony Bennet (Queens) and Danny Aiello (Manhattan).
Unfortunately in those days, hiring and promotional decisions were influenced by race, country of origin, and gender, creating ghettos of kitchen, housekeeping and maintenance staff and pink-collar workers. Schrafft’s servers were young Irish women, usually newly arrived. Counter-servers in Nedick’s restaurants were black men as I remember. Secretarial and clerical support functions were largely handled by women. One wondered what arts and aspirations lay hidden behind their earnest ministrations. Such customs have changed at home as they have elsewhere and certainly they needed changing …
… but when I think of Brooklyn, it’s mostly of good old Brooklyn. I think of my mother with her intrepid trips to Manhattan’s theatre district and to work in the financial district and of my illiterate grandmother who seemed afraid to go out at all but was the stalwart cook and housekeeper for her ten children and for one grandchild, my big sister.
Sometimes I think I hear my Aunt Yvonne’s voice telling me and my cousins that the Lebanese are the Irish of the Middle East, presumably – and sadly – because of internecine conflicts. (That was well before Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement of 1998). And I remember the Irish, mostly fair and hardy and sometimes delightfully carrot-topped. Irish or not, Catholic or not, almost everyone was Irish on St. Paddy’s Day.
In memory I still taste my Aunt Mildred’s Italian meat-sauce and pasta. I catch the scent of my father’s Metaxa and Turkish cigarettes, Mrs. Ekdahl’s freshly baked hallongrottor (raspberry thumb-print cookies), and the classic Italian cookies baked by PopPop, my cousins’ paternal grandfather, a professional Italian baker.
The thought of my Aunt Julie’s kielbasa, my Aunt Laurie’s New York Cheesecake, and Mrs. Levi’s pot roast, gravy and homemade knishes (a la Grossinger’s, so they told me) still have the power to make me drool, though I don’t eat meat or other animal products anymore. I’ve developed an aversion to cannibalizing our younger brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom. This would have flummoxed my parents were they alive today. Imagine life without stuffed grapeleaves, kibby (Middle Eastern meatloaf made with lamb) or leban (yogurt cheese)! Well I have learned to make vegan versions of all and a light marinara is perfectly lovely on pasta.
Food and theatre were and are the biggest of biggies in my home town. My once-upon-a-time Iowa-born-and-raised husband observed that when New York folk get together in California, you can count on them to reminisce about fine old theatres, who-was-who on Broadway, the plays they enjoyed and the food they ate.
Memories! They make us strong and break our hearts with the sweetness of people, places, and traditions gone and irretrievable. But every morning a new day dawns with a new happiness and we take our joy where we find it. It is, as the kids today say, “all good.” And often – as I have found – it’s even better.
“THERE WAS A CHILD WENT FORTH EVERY DAY,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or
pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of
the day . . . or for many years or stretching cycles of years.”
Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), American poet, essayist, journalist
© 2014, words and photographs, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; photos are from the family album. Please be respectful.