Yesterday, my son and I made our yearly stop at the dreaded mall. He wanted to go to a chain called "'n Bling." Two thousand mall stores and I still don't know what an "'n Bling" thing is. But he needed one.
I avoid places where short Jewish people over 40 are overtaken by pressing flesh, life-sized replicas of Niagara Falls, and standing maps that start with "This is where YOU are." (And I can't find myself.) Which is why I only venture forth with my son.
"We're on Level One, A4," he recites perfunctorily. "If we stay right, go up escalator 30, and take the straight ramp to avoid the Food Court ... then veer --
"To a ‘Cardiac Care Court'?" I ask, feeling palpitations and the pain of Jewstalgia as I flash on my neighborhood shopping area, circa 1950s, Springfield Blvd, (Not "Boulevard." That's for the Champs-Elysee, not Queens.)
These were the places where everyone knew your mother's name.
Our "bling" was a tiny shoppe called "Rings 'n Things." The "things" were earrings. My mother bought a toe-ring there once. The same time she sported the blonde skunk streaks. (A very good fashion year for Queens Jewesses it wasn't). On a brighter note, "Rings 'n Things" joined Moshe, the Kosher butcher, Sammy's deli, Switzers candy store, my-guy, Doc Handelman, Abie's Appetizing, and Morris, the tortured-by-Yenta owner of Maurice's Beauty Parlour. Parking wasn't in some color-coded, 30 story, concrete monolith, with death-defying turns, designed by the Dukes of Hazzard. It was a little lot behind stores that left their back doors open, so the Springfield Sadies didn't have to shlep around a whole corner.
These were the places where everyone knew your mother's name. Because places are really about people. The lively, fighting, happy, difficult, suffering, hopeful, loving people, who in an eyeblink ... become the anecdotes of Jewstalgia.
Join me in one last schmooze?
The Appetizing Store. If the Sabbath is described as the Queen of the Week, then Abie was dubbed the King – of the weekly whitefish -- by the good Sadies of Springfield. Those were the days when "Appetizing" was also a noun, as in, "Right in the Appetizing , I told Abie, ‘Lighter on the thumb' that chazzer!'"
Abie wore a shaky crown. The Springfield Sadies watched like hawks to make sure they were paying for fish, not thumb. Too much Abie-thumb on the scale was grounds for revolution. But overthrow? Never. His tiny kingdom was safe. It wasn't just that his lox, carp, white fish, shmaltz herring, bagels, bialys, cream cheese and scallions – were the best in Queens. No. This tiny establishment, adorned by "nickle for a pickle" barrels, was also the Sunday morning Yiddishe Mamas Bada-Bing. While the goyim were in church, the Sadies were tasting the fish – and filling up on the 411. At 10 a.m., the first wave arrived and took a number. Oddly, t it was always "13." Then 90 courageous Sadie-Sarahs would "file out," forming a circuitous snake, to do their job – shmooze -- in rain, sleet, or snow, like soldiers ... or letter carriers.
The Neighborhood: Hillary Clinton didn't invent "It takes a village to raise a child." We Jews did. For thousands of years. Back then we had stoops -- and used them. While the grown-ups talked (OK, argued) on the stoop, we kids played. After Howdy Doody, we'd run to the street, for hopscotch, potsy, and punch ball. The boys and girls would fight for turf – until they were old enough to share turf – on our stoop.
"Mom" was generic. If you were "bad," you were given a k'nock by any adult close enough to grab you. Worse, the "message" went from stoop to stoop. At age five, I tried out a bad word on little David Gittleman. A "ma" on an adjoining stoop heard. Suffice it to say I never used that word again. .
These weren't "50 is the new 30" moms, decked out in designer duds, with lips like dirigibles and Botoxed brains. These were "40 looks 50 – if you're lucky" moms. Nobody exclaimed "Like sisters, they look!" when Mrs. Fleigelman waddled next to her 25-year-old daughter.
As for the dads ... if you needed a hand? This was post-War. Mine did everything from building porches for a neighbor, to practicing surgery, without a license. He once spent 72 hours saving little Michelle's infected leg, then staying at her bedside, across the street, until her fever broke. Her immigrant parents were in mortal fear of hospitals.
The Neighborhood, whether in "K-nocking," or kvelling, made our world a much safer place, even as we hid under desks in fear of the Red Menace nuking P.S. 158. Under "their" watchful eyes, we were never alone, never exposed – never abandoned.
Visiting Day: After "appetizing"-Sundays, there was visiting ("wisiting" my bubbe called it). People actually shlepped to see the people of my Jewstalgia.
"We're going to Mortie-and-Adele's," mom would say, as if they were one word, as were all couples back then. We'd bundle up. Bubbe would grab her "setchel" of food in case a hoarding Mongols were invading Jewish cars on the Long Island Expressway. And we were off.
I loved going to Mortie-and-Adele's! E! Entertainment? Feh! Adele knew – without Google, what every human on Long Island was doing, and to/with whom. But more, she had the gift of the "telling" – describing the most delicious "news," pitch-perfect.
Another favorite was Tanta Dora, in the Bronx. Tanta Dora weighed maybe 350 pounds and never quite made the transition from Russian to Yiddish to Yinglish. Which meant I never quite understood a word she said – in any language. But I mimed "flu" early, to avoid death by chest-smother.
Tanta Dora weighed maybe 350 pounds and never quite made the transition from Russian to Yiddish to Yinglish.
At the end of the long hall in her apartment, there was The Room. Nobody went in. Nobody dared use it. There it sat – with her "best" – covered in enough plastic to protect the Bubble Boy. To her, that living room meant she'd "arrived." But as a child, it was my secret play house. I'd sneak in when Tanta Dora and bubbe (Oy!) were fighting – in Russian-Yiddish-Yinglish.
Which meant I had a lot of time in there.
Even better, she had a huge penny jar. I was allowed exactly one handful. When my brother arrived ... we negotiated an upward modification.
And Then There Were ...: When it came to Family, participation wasn't optional. Quirk, neurosis, even insanity, didn't count. They were Family.
Picture it. Our Pesach table, circa 1960: Uncle "don't-mind-if-I-do" Iggy, who helped himself to the leftovers - and the carpeting; Aunt Merna who sent her sputum to the-Mayo Clinic, badmouthed the turkey, and weighed in at 300 pounds. Then there was Cousin Thelma, who redecorated the table, then our home - before rushing off to visit her kids in rehab. Second cousin Elliot joined us from the East River, where he tested his scuba equipment (if he lived, it worked); Oh, and Uncle Jacob with the silk PJs, and unpaid water bills; Great-Uncle Henry, the hand-writing expert, who got samples from everyone, then, after the Manischewitz -- told the truth – to everyone. And of course, Tanta Shayna, the "fembly" historian, who starred in, created, invented, and gave birth to every one of us and our accomplishments.
These were the times, the community, the people of my youth I miss every day. With us Jews--especially those of the 1950s – our loved ones took with them a world. One, borne from the knowledge and experience of the darkest tragedies, unimaginable sacrifices, and magnificent hope, we'll never see again, not from their eyes.
What I wouldn't give to watch Cousin Thelma re-set Mom's forks, Aunt Merna "holler on" the turkey, Iggy, his pockets full – my parents saying, "Oy … but they're family" just one more time.
Now, I can only tell anecdotes about them.
Continue weaving the tapestry they continued.
And hope that someday my son will have his own Jewstalgia to share with his children, and they, with theirs. Then I'll know I've done my job.
After all, what right does one stitch have to ignore the design?