Musing of a Contemporary Pathologist

Easter Memories

The New York Times crossword puzzle for Wednesday May 20, 2015 included, as a clue for 23 across: Holiday not widely observed by Quakers. The answer was: Easter. I did not know that about Quakers but I was reminded of one of the reasons to do crossword puzzles: you learn a lot. That puzzle also reminded me why, despite the bunnies and the painted eggs, I am not fond of Easter.

The South Brooklyn neighborhood of my childhood was almost completely Christian in the 1940s and, within that, mostly Catholic. Italians, Irish, Poles and Germans. I was the only Jew in Public School #40. Every now and then a friend invited me to mass or Holy Communion. Even though I never doubted or denied my Jewishness, the history and mythology of Christianity greatly interested me.

Even later, when we moved to mostly Jewish Flatbush, I loved reading novels about Christianity, especially those by Lloyd C. Douglas. Some of my favorite movies remain Song of Bernadette with Jennifer Jones, Ingrid Bergman’s Saint Joan and The Robe with Richard Burton. It was many decades later that I learned that Franz Werfel, the author of the book Song of Bernadette on which the movie of the same name was based, was an Austrian Jew. He married Alma Mahler, the widow of the great composer.

In contrast to Easter, I always loved Christmas. I don’t know most of the traditional songs of the Jewish holidays but I am reasonably sure that I could still sing Adeste Fidelis, the classic carol, in Latin, with only a little refreshing.

My grandparents owned a small “candy” store (more about that later) in a Flatbush where they sold more toys and greeting cards at Christmas than any other time of year. Christmas was magical. The streets and the shops were all specially decorated. The radio constantly spewed Christmas music. People were happier and friendlier.

My grandmother, Fanny Levine Podberesky, an immigrant from what was then Russia, insisted that we celebrate Christmas at home. Christmas, for her, was an American, rather than a religious, holiday and she wanted her grandson to be thoroughly American. I suppose it was also her way of closing the door on the unhappy old world she had left when she was only 15 years old. For as long as I can remember we had a Christmas tree and Christmas presents. Even during the years of World War II I had wonderful gifts. A Radio Flyer wagon. A wonderful red scooter. A tricycle. And then, one glorious Noel, Lionel trains.

Although not favored by aficionados of hobby trains who preferred smaller gauge tracks, Lionel was the Cadillac of train makers as far as the general public was concerned. We started with a simple oval track. Later, each Christmas, we would add to the set: more tracks, a trestle, houses and trees. Railroad cars with special functions. Then a bigger, more powerful control box. Little white pills made the smoke stack smoke and the press of a button on the control panel elicited a long and somewhat mournful wail from the engine. Push another button and special tracks would open the connection between two cars while the train was still in motion. Or dump logs at a depot. Or switch to another road that went over a bridge.

Easter was different.

When I was six- or seven-years-old I was roughed up, punched and kicked, even stabbed, by a group of ten and eleven year old boys. It was Good Friday. They surrounded me and shouted, “You lousy Jew, you killed Jesus Christ.” Trying to defend myself, I dropped to the cobblestone street and covered my head with my hands. As soon as I was on the ground the punches stopped. There were a couple of last kicks, not that hard, and then the boys disappeared. The kicks, directed against my legs rather than my head or chest, weren’t as painful than the shouted “kike” and “yid” and “lousy Jew.” Strangely, even then, I thought those boys didn’t seem that angry. Years later I realized they attacked me almost as casually as if they were doing homework or, perhaps unknowingly, acting out some ancient ritual they didn’t truly understand or care about.

My knife wound, from a one-inch “pen-knife,” was little more than a deep scratch, the skin barely broken. Internal organs well protected by a sweater, a shirt, an undershirt and, mostly, an often-fed belly. I can still vividly recall the sharp sting from the iodine (there was no betadine in those days) my mother put on the wound before covering it with a white Band-Aid. Otherwise I hardly noticed or thought about the wound very much.

When my grandfather came home from the store that Good Friday evening I told him what happened.

“Dummies, dummies, Stevela, ignorant, stupid boys,” Grandpa said, his raised forefinger churning the air, seemingly propelled by his heavy Russian accent. “They don’t know. Ignorant. You didn’t kill Jesus. Jewish didn’t kill Jesus. Jesus was Jewish. Just like you. Jesus was Jewish. Jesus died from Romans.”

Until that time I hadn’t fully understood that Jesus was Jewish. Two neighborhood Catholic churches stood on Fourth Avenue, one a few streets to the east of where we lived and the other about the same distance to the west. Not yet having seen the great cathedrals of the world, or even St. Patrick’s or St. John the Divine in Manhattan, I was awed by those houses of worship. I knew from classmates they were the places where Jesus and Mary lived. But I was confused. What did that mean? Did Jesus and Mary live in both churches? Did they spend some time in one for part of the day, and some in the other for the rest of the day? Were they there at the same time or did they alternate churches? What about the nuns who solemnly walked in and out, dresses and veils pitch black, their heavily starched, chalk white bibs seemingly so uncomfortable? Did they live there also? And why did Jesus have brownish hair in one church and blondish hair in the other? And what about Mary’s husband? Why was there was so little talk about Joseph? Very confusing stuff for at least one chubby Jewish boy living in a world of goyim.

I never remembered to ask Grandpa all those questions because he usually sat down for dinner as soon as he came home from a long day’s work and immediately turned on the radio to hear Fannie Brice, Fibber McGee and Molly or Jack Benny. It was only many decades later that I considered the fact that Grandpa worked seven days a week, every week. Except for one long weekend at the end of August when the store was closed and he came with the family to the Catskill Mountains, to ‘the country,’ he never had a day off. Until I remembered Grandpa’s schedule I always thought my habit of working 10- or 12-hour-days five days a week and half-days on Saturday, which began when I was a resident at The Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, was solely influenced by our indefatigable chairman, Hans Popper, who worked from early morning to after nine at night Monday through Friday, to late afternoons on Saturdays, and to noon on Sundays.

My grandfather, Louis Podberesky, a graduate of the great University of Vilna, deserted from the Russian cavalry to come to America in 1903. A short, slim, pale, grey-haired mostly bald man, Grandpa was remarkably even-tempered, never easily flustered, never rushed, never visibly angry. Grandpa did not look like a cavalry officer.

He was also a historian, a fervent admirer of great literature and opera, and, when I was a child, the owner of that very small store – what was then called a ‘candy’ store – at 324 Church Avenue in Brooklyn. In addition to candy, the store sold newspapers, cigarettes, coffee, ice cream, sodas and toys, as well as magazines and comic books. When I was old enough to help out behind the counter I took special pleasure in serving Mel-o-rols, a two inch diameter cylinder of ice cream that came individually wrapped in a peel-off white paper. It was a challenge to simultaneously unwrap the ice cream roll and position it exactly in a specially manufactured cone wasn’t at all conical and that broke easily with pressure. Mel-o-rols were very popular in Brooklyn in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Marketed by a number of companies, including Horton’s, Reid’s, Borden and others, they were often promoted as ‘cleaner’ than the common ice cream since they were served only as single servings. Mel-o-rols made headlines when they were selected as the choice ice cream for the Dionne Quintuplets.

Back to Easter. The Easter of my childhood is the time when I experienced anti-Semitism, although I did not know it by name or even appreciate that it was a worldwide occurrence. Only the Polish children attacked me; never the Italian or Irish or even the Germans. At family gatherings I often heard mumblings that the Poles were worse than anybody else in their treatment of Jews during the war. Our next door neighbors, including a girl just a few years older than I was, were Polish and they were good friends. More confusion.

I was never badly hurt, but I was punished almost every Easter for killing Jesus. When my grandfather told me that Jews did not kill Jesus and, further, that Jesus of Nazareth was himself a Jew and a Rabbi, I stopped being angry at those boys and stopped being afraid. Even as a child I understood that Jesus’ gospel of compassion and tolerance would not permit scapegoating me for his death.

The year before that fateful Good Friday I had been enrolled in an orthodox Hebrew school. Fortunately my time of participation was mercifully brief. During the second lesson the young rabbi teacher smacked the back of my hand with a ruler for some mistake I committed or a mispronunciation I made. Hitting her Stevela was not acceptable to my grandmother and my formal Jewish education abruptly ended. A few years before my bar mitzvah we joined what may well have been the most liberal Reform synagogue in the country: Congregation Beth Elohim on Garfield Place. Rabbi Eugene J. Sacks was an intellectual, a man of great and gentle wit, and an inspirational scholar/teacher/leader. His eloquence, compassion and concern for social justice inspired his congregation and his community, including one little boy whose attention was completely captured when he spoke. In contrast to my friends at more conservative synagogues I didn’t learn much about religious practice but was taught history and tradition. Even then, I knew I was well on the agnostic path leading to atheism.

When in the first grade my parents took me on the ferry to Liberty Island, then called Bedloe’s Island, to see the Statue of Liberty (which I could also easily see from the front steps of our South Brooklyn apartment building). I carefully read the inscription at the door: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” “The young woman who wrote this, Emma Lazarus, was a poet” my mother told me, “and she was Jewish, just like us.”

That fateful Good Friday was my only childhood experience with antisemitism. Other than at Easter time no one ever seemed to care that we were Jewish. In the New York of those years it was important to proclaim your affiliation with the New York Yankees or the New York Giants or, of course and most importantly, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In the late 1970’s I helped organize an international scientific meeting in Vienna. A friend and colleague, Jan, lived in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Although less than an hour from Vienna, in those years it was definitely behind the Iron Curtain. In my rented white Ford I set out from Vienna to meet him on the bridge spanning the Danube. Jan described his yellow Fiat-like car and said I would have no trouble seeing him. Unfortunately, the Austrian government had recently been protesting to the Czech government about illicit drugs passing from Czechoslovakia. In response the Czechs were being particularly diligent in searching vehicles coming from Austria. Consequently, it took more than three hours to get past the checkpoint and onto the bridge to our meeting point. Jan was not there; he had given up and gone home.

At the Czech side of the bridge I came to a branching point in the road. To the left was some place I didn’t know (but later learned was where Jan lived). To the right was “Zentrum,” the center of town. I drove there, intending to call him, all the while planning on swallowing the little piece of paper on which I had written Jan’s number if necessary to prevent his identification by the authorities, whoever they were.

Then I realized I didn’t have Czech money. I had been so distressed by the unexpectedly long time it took me to get through the checkpoint that I had not taken time to change Austrian for Czech money. I was hesitant to show American dollars although, as I later learned, I would have found many people in the street anxious to trade for them.

At the corner of a busy commercial street a number of women and children were going in and out of an imposing stone building. Just before I reached the open doors at the top of the stairs I looked up at the banner over the entrance, reading the words but not yet fully digesting them.

Inside were two separate areas. To the right a large, dimly room with a very high ceiling, a shiny marble floor and no activity. It reminded me of an old bank, but without customers or tellers. Two bulky, broad-shouldered men wearing dark square suits, one with wide pinstripes, stood at the far end. Many B movies convinced me they were second level Communist functionaries. The Czech KGB. I was not going there.

To the left, just a few steps away, was a delightfully colorful little shop into which women and children happily streamed. Brightly colored dolls and aprons and various trinkets and items of clothing decorated the shelves and countertops throughout the small space. I entered to inquire if one of the very attractive young women behind the counter would exchange my money. Suddenly I realized what I had read over the street entrance but not really thought about: “Polska Kultural,” Polish Cultural! This was a shop operated by a Polish cultural agency. In the only fit of acute paranoia I ever had I told myself this was no place for a Jew from Brooklyn and I quickly turned and left the building to find another, ultimately successful, way to call my friend.

Forty miles from Vienna, 4,000 miles from New York, forty years after the fall of Nazi Germany, I trembled with the fear of anti-Semitism. Did that all start on a long ago Good Friday on 16th Street?

Currently there is hardly a day when we don’t hear about anti-Semitism somewhere in the world. In Paris, where it has smoldered for many years, in Denmark, where a king once proclaimed he would wear a star of David if the Nazis forced Danish Jews to wear one, even in the United Kingdom and other places. As Santayan told us: those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it and, sadly, anti-semitism has again emerged as a reality in the United States as a candidate for the presidency fails to recognize how his angry xenophobic ravings, which he fails to acknowledge or reject, encourage our nation’s angry and ignorant, including neo-Nazis, Klan members and others. How terribly, awfully, horribly, frighteningly different he will be, if he is elected to replace the extraordinarily wise, gentle, tolerant and humane leader we currently have, a man who even acknowledged non-believers in his first inauguration address.

8 Responses to “Easter Memories”

  1. John Craig says:

    thank you for a wonderful story of your youth. I had a very sheltered youth but did not notice anti-semitism until college. perhaps just blind at the time? but raised in the mid West of German/Scottish heritage and all white communities.

    • John,
      Glad you enjoyed the story. My guess is that we all live somewhat sheltered lives when we are young – it is one of the great benefits of being young. Perhaps that is why it is so tragic when a young person is confronted with evil and is forced to surrender youth.

  2. Karen Rappaport says:

    I have begun to realize that Jewish people my age (who came of age in the 1970s) were part of a generation of Jews that was least likely to face anti-Semitism. I have been sheltered my entire life, and I watch with dismay the growing anti-Semitism on college campuses today.

    Thank you for a beautifully written piece. Please write and post more often!

  3. Jane Bergner says:

    I shared your piece with a friend of mine, and she remarked as follows: “When I was in 2nd grade in Buffalo my classmates told me I killed Christ. I had NO idea what they meant but they never sat or played with me after that. When I came home from school I told my parents who joined a temple and sent me to Sunday School the next week!” A happy ending (or beginning), I think. Re-read your opera piece with delight.

  4. Herb Goldberg says:

    great writing–but then we would expect no less.
    Content of story of “Brooklyn Transplant” brings up memories of my particular case, of growing up in the “south” in perhaps a relatively “redneck” part of the country. Charleston was probably liberal (certainly, the Jews were) comparatively.

    • South Carolina and Georgia were the only two of the original 13 states to have an open policy toward Jews so it is not so surprising the Charleston was relatively liberal. Even little Beaufort, an hour south of Charleston, had an old synagogue although the Jewish population when I was there, 1969-71, wasn’t large enough to justify a full-time rabbi and was only open for the high holidays at which time a traveling rabbi would preside.
      Thank you for the comments.

  5. maxrobinowitz says:

    Dear Stevela,

    Your story has much in common with my own upbringing in non-shtetl Washington DC Capitol Hill. Too bad the Orthodox Jews, Christians, Moslems, Budhists, Hindus, and yes even militant athiests insist on enforcing mind-control on their young. Even now I find it very difficult to read Hebrew letters because of the “baggage”.

    All the best,

    Max

  6. Milt says:

    Amazing to learn how similar my Easters were in Washington Heights, Steve. And how similar a small man with a quest for knowledge after arriving from a shtetl in the Ukraine and eaking out a “living” in a miserable hand laundry could be so devoted and so optimistic our grandfathers were.

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