For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Brooklyn 1938 - Jews and Protestants

by Walter M. Jackman


n 1938, Van Buren Street between Throop and Sumner Avenues in Brooklyn was a gentle place to live for working class Jewish, Italian and Black families. There were several very old, five-story walk-up apartment houses with outside fire escapes plus many more small two and three-family brownstones on our block.

An ancient oak tree spread its shade on the sidewalk close enough to the street to include a car or two beneath its penumbra. Nearly all the women living near the oak tree took out chairs on warm summer evenings, sat under the tree and talked quietly. The women would often call to one another from the street after supper, asking each other to sit outside. My mother would join our neighbors with a folding chair kept for that sole purpose. She sat with all the women in a half circle around he tree. It was too close to the street to permit a complete encirclement.

The sacred oak of Guernica, along with the city of Gurernica was destroyed the year before during a brutal bombardment from the German Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War.

Myths from ancient Greece were concerned with the power of trees to transform and bear witness. Communication from one culture to another with an ancient oak as venue was apparent in the magic Brooklyn of 1938.

Near the corner of Van Buren Street and next to a grocery store was a remnant of the old Protestant establishment. It wasn't much of a remnant, but it served as a reminder to the Jewish families that the Irish and Italians weren't the only kinds of Christians that existed in America. As an eight-year-old, I thought that the Protestant ladies were very old. There were just two of them, a truly elderly woman in her eighties and her companion, a gaunt woman in her fifties.

In the hot summer, we played in front of their house and the grocery store. The pavement was broken at the curb, and I would occasionally trip while running from nowhere to nowhere as is the privilege of a child. The bruises on my knee bled and I paid them little or no attention, also the privilege of a child.

We played all over the sidewalk, dashing back and forth into the street and waiting to be chased away by the owner of the grocery store, a hunchback with a beautiful blonde wife. The previous owner, an elderly man, died the year before. The hunchback, his beautiful wife and a small child appeared out of nowhere just after Guerrnica was obliterated. The entire world must have suffered lapses and traumas when the sacred oak was destroyed.

The older boys spent a lot of time buying loose cigarettes and teasing the grocer's wife. I think I loved her. She seemed to appear in many of the adventure stories I read during the afternoons I spent in the library located nearby in the center of Tompkins Park.

The Protestant ladies were tall and always dressed in colorless, shapeless dresses that emphasized their almost dead-white skin color. The younger woman had stringy, gray-white hair that was tied in a bun. She had a nervous fervor that was exhibited in a religious devotion to a mission that appalled all of her Jewish neighbors. She was a member of a religious society that felt obliged to convert Jews to a belief in Jesus Christ as their messiah.

Whenever she would try to hand us a pamphlet, we would curse her, yell, and run around in little circles. Her neighbors were familiar with pogroms and other more deadly methods used to alter the conditions of Jews. They chose to ignore her except for occasionally throwing a full-bodied Yiddish curse in her direction.

My father was a working class intellectual - a species that surprised no one by its existence during the thirties. He was a former labor organizer, employed as a dress presser in the garment center, a condition he accepted with total equanimity. He objected to anyone working for a union drawing a salary from members of the union. The premise wasn't logical, but it suited him.

I remember hugging him one day and feeling something hard in the pocket of his coat. I reached in and pulled out a huge Blue Milk of Magnesia bottle wrapped in a handkerchief. He explained to me as if I were an adult and I listened with a child's rapt devotion, that he was on strike and he was going to picket his shop, and that he would be fighting scabs and goons hired by his boss. He said the police at that time searched the workers looking for hidden weapons, but not the scabs and the goons. So the strikers all carried Milk of Magnesia bottles wrapped a handkerchief, protesting that they had severe stomach problems whenever the medicine in its lethal container was discovered.

One cool, summer morning, my father prepared to go to work and I decided to accompany him halfway to the subway station. He wore the usual clothing of the garment workers of that period: an old suit jacket, an equally old pair of pants from a different suit, a white shirt, tie and a gray fedora. All of his clothes were old, some slightly frayed, but all very neat and clean.

I walked next to him, trying my best to imitate his serious, measured pace. He walked slowly and deliberately, probably not in any great hurry to get either to the subway station or to the sixteenth floor sweatshop on Seventh Avenue.

When we reached the grocery store, my father paused. He took out a cigar and reached into his pocket for a match. The younger of the two protestant ladies must have seen him from their window and she came from rushing from the house. She greeted my father and he tipped his hat. She said, "I've received some new material. I know that you would like to see it."

My father took the pamphlet from her, smiled and tipped his hat again. The woman seemed to glitter in triumph as she returned to her home.

I was mortified. My friends stared at us. They pointed fingers at me behind my father's back and mouthed the word, "meshumit" (convert). The grocer's wife had just stepped out of the store and she was wiping her hands on her apron when she saw my father taking the pamphlet. She stopped wiping her hands and stared open-mouthed at my father. I wanted to disappear from the entire earth.

I walked with my father, looking up at him, stumbling and not knowing what to say. He walked serenely along and after we turned the corner, took the pamphlet out of his pocket, glanced at it and threw it into a garbage can. I couldn't stop myself. I began to yell, "Why did you take that thing? Why did you talk to that crazy lady?"

My father took the cigar out of his mouth and said quietly, "Why, I made that poor old lady feel good."

He walked on to the subway station, and I spent a few minutes near the garbage can before returning to my friends for our punch ball game. They said nothing to me.

It is my inheritance that whenever I am placed in some ridiculous or impossible situation, an oak tree rises in my imagination as one more traumatic remembrance of the destruction of Guernica; and I think of my father taking the pamphlet from the Protestant lady, tipping his hat and walking away. All simply to make an old lady feel good without giving a damn what anyone thought - including his son.

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