A Nation Lost and Found: 1936 America Remembered by Ordinary and Extraordinary People
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Living among the gangsters of Murder, Inc., under the elevated railroad, during the hardships of the time, Warren recalls feeling utterly secure, regretting only that it lasted such a short time.
There were 11 of us living in my maternal grandparents’ row house on Strauss Street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the Great Depression. My parents had been dispossessed from their apartment in Crown Heights. My father, a gentle, handsome man, was a bookkeeper, and a good career start was detonated by the depression. He had come to America from the East End of London when he was 10 years old. He never recovered his economic footing for the rest of his life, and although he lived on the generosity of my mother’s brothers, he was never made to feel inadequate or lesser in their eyes. In the period I am writing about I was, as near as I can figure, between 6 and 12, from 1934 to 1939. Living in my grandparents’ house were my mother and father, myself and my baby brother, Cyrus, Uncle Chic and Aunt Rose and Cousin Joyce, Aunt Ida and Uncle Sunny.
I slept in the same bed with my little brother as soon as he was out of the crib. My parents slept in what was called a daybed in the downstairs dining room, my grandparents had the master bedroom and one aunt and uncle slept in one room with my little cousin. My single aunt had her little bedroom and my single uncle slept in the back kitchen. There was one bathroom. The address on Strauss was 2108 and was practically under the IRT. Elevated trains clamored past every few minutes, making a big racket that would make it impossible to hear the radio as they rattled past. After a while no one noticed.
In those days the old world of the shtetl and its rituals had not completely disappeared from the lifestyle of my grandparents’ generation. Despite an adjacent bathroom with modern plumbing, my grandparents continued to place a pishtepple under their bed for nocturnal emergencies. Many signs were in Yiddish. There was a thriving Yiddish culture, a number of Yiddish newspapers graced the newsstands, a theater showing Yiddish plays and movies, the Hopkinson, was nearby.
Fish and poultry were bought live. In the fish store a woman on a high platform overlooking a pool in which live fish were swimming. My grandmother would point to the fish of her choice, which was quickly netted and brought upward to the cutting board, and after a few skillful chops and the removal of innards it was passed along, wrapped in paper, to my grandmother.
She would then proceed to the live chicken market, study the noisy birds, then point to the chicken of her choice. The vendor would lift it by its feet and my grandmother would test its plumpness her hands, and, if it suited her, nod her agreement. The chicken was then directed to a shoiket, an official religious slaughterer, who cut its throat in a blood-draining koshering ritual. It would then go to the chicken flicker, who would pluck its feathers, singe off the remainder and Present it to her. The process emitted a rather unsavory smell that lingers in olfactory memory as I write.
Religious rituals were strictly observed. Keeping kosher was essential. Two sets of dishes were there for the separation of meat and dairy meals. Under my grandparents’ roof, one was expected to conform on the Sabbath; no cooking was allowed and yesterday’s food simmered on a metal sheet placed over the stove, which stayed lit from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.
To my grandmother, sundown must have meant sundown in Smolensk, since it was always pitch dark when she officially declared the Sabbath over and allowed us to turn on the lights. In her zeal, she would neatly prepare cut strips of toilet paper for use during the Sabbath holidays. No tearing of paper was allowed on Shabbos, nothing was allowed. No smoking, no driving, no working, no cooking and no riding on public transportation; nothing, except reading, walking or going to the Synagogue.
My successful uncles never left the house without putting paper money in a china closet dish for their parents’ support. Although the use of money on the Jewish Sabbath was also forbidden, my grandfather’s joke was that he did not want to hear the sound of money as it was passed into the china closet dish. This was interpreted to mean that only paper money was to be expected.
All my uncles who could afford it contributed to the support of their parents and siblings. It was the unwritten rule of the times. Jewish families took care of its members. If that failed, Jewish charitable organizations filled the gap. Relief, which was what welfare was called in the Depression days, was for the goyim. To accept a relief stipend was shameful and degrading to Jews. We were, in fact, impoverished, although I never thought of us as poor. Other people were poor, not us.
Pitkin Avenue, the great white way of Brownsville, was as crowded as Broadway. In front of Hoffman’s cafeteria, men argued into the night about the joys of socialism and heartlessness of the bosses. Social ferment was everywhere. Candy stores were everywhere, along with delicatessens and Chinese restaurants. Young men hung out with their buddies in front of the corner candy store. The candy store on Saratoga and Livonia, owned by a shadowy woman dubbed ‘Midnight Rose Gold,” was the headquarters of Murder, Inc., that band of Jewish gangsters who serviced the Mob’s killing machine. Pay phones in the back of the store were used to assign hit men to their jobs. But in the vicinity of Saratoga and Livonia no one considered street crime a problem.
My mother was a housewife, devoted to her children and her parents. Indeed, it was the tradition of the time that there was an element of shame for a woman to work, implying that her husband was unable to support her. While today’s women might think housewifery a demeaning occupation, from my perspective I attribute my own inner security to her being there for me always. She was there when I came home from school for lunch. She was there when I returned from school in the afternoon. She was there at mealtimes, including breakfast, and there when I awoke and went to bed.
It was an essential ingredient of the Brownsville culture in my day, especially for boys, to learn the rudiments of Hebrew and the history and rituals of the Jews. It was a hard time for boys who, like me, would rather go out and play, and the poor, harried Hebrew schoolteachers suffered the brunt of our repression and scorn. Somehow we did learn Hebrew, never to the point of fluency, but we were able to read the various prayers and bask in the admiration of our parents and grandparents, especially at Passover, when we had to recite the four questions in both Hebrew and Yiddish.
Saturdays were reserved for movies. There were two theaters within walking distance, the Blue Bird and the Ambassador. A typical offering on a Saturday was two features, two or three cartoons, Movietone News, coming attractions, a school supply giveaway and often a drawing for prizes, all for 10 cents.
Most of the kids my age loved action movies. When any love scenes came on we would scream and yell and throw spitballs at each other. The imprint the movies made on others and me in the 30’s never ceases to amaze me and baffles my children and grandchildren.
My father worked sporadically at jobs he hated, run by bosses he despised. He was often out of work. Yet the family went away every summer to the beach to escape the stifling heat of the city. Our resort of choice was the Rockaways, where the family rented rooms in big old houses converted to what was referred to as coochalains, a Yiddish word that meant a kitchen shared with other families.
In those days, the Rockaway beaches were pristine, the boardwalk wonderful and the summers a cornucopia of excitement, recreation and new friends. Usually we shared a tiny room with my parents on an upper floor and my grandparents had a slightly larger room on a lower floor.
When my father was working, he would usually come home after a long hot ride on the railroad and he and I would take off for a before-dinner swim in the surf. Was this poverty? A few pennies from my mother for the penny arcade were tangible riches in those glorious summer days. Intangible riches were far more valuable. In those terms, we were billionaires.
Whatever the devastating Great Depression meant to others, I can say with deep honesty that the period of the early and middle 30’s was for me a time of great joy and happiness. I had no doubts about being loved by my parents and everyone else in my extended family. I never felt deprived by lack of money, never observed despair or pain in the world around me, never felt the tensions of economic hardship. There were no bitter arguments among family members and an angry word was rarely heard.
I have thought about this period of my life often and always with tears of regret that it lasted such a brief time. I still revisit it in memory and enjoy the recall with much emotion.