Shopping for Beauty in Brooklyn

This entry was inspired by a conversation on the storytell listserv about childhood shopping memories.

LS Borough Park

A man went in search of beauty. He could not find it anywhere until he was told to visit a woman in a cave on a remote mountain. She was very old and very ugly, but she understood the nature of beauty and offered to teach the man all she knew. He remained for years until he had accomplished what he could. But before he left, he asked his teacher, “How should I describe you?” She said, “Tell them I am young and beautiful.
—from a Sufi tale

I grew up in the 1950’s, in Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York. Our street was a refuge for Jews who had escaped Europe and Eastern Europe before and after World War II. Every kind of Jew lived on our street: conservative, orthodox, Chassidic, and communist. I knew from my mother that there were Gypsies in Coney Island who had also come to Brooklyn at the same time but that is another tale. On several occasions my mother would tell me, while brushing my dark hair, that I was not really her child, “Your grandmother found you in a garbage pail in Coney Island. The gypsies threw you away because of your green eyes and black hair.” I was horrified that I was an orphan, but thrilled at the idea that I might be unrelated to my family who lived in the midst of too many languages and untold stories. I think I was also delighted to possibly be part of a coven of witches or a community that had colorful clothing and loved to dance (this is what I assumed about the Roma). The strange absence of related histories, and stranger family storytelling, may be what inspired me to seek stories from everywhere else for a very long time.

My family lived in an old farmhouse that had been renovated into a private home. It stood in the middle of 47th street between 13th and 14th Avenues. There was another large house on our street, a ranch house with a well-kept lawn and a fence. It was owned by a famous baseball player, who was unrelated to the secretive Yiddish world we lived in. Our street was filled with foreign languages, hanging laundry, makeshift basement shuls, and small dark shops. At our corner was the smallest shop. It was a grocery owned by the Gottesman Family. It was dark inside and smelled of candy and meat. The window held a wild assortment of food in boxes and large bottles of penny candies. Mr. and Mrs. Gottesman were exotic. They looked almost exactly the same to me; the same size and shape. I knew them apart because she wore a scarf over her hair and he wore a black hat. They hardly spoke English, seemed to rarely smile and wore long sleeves and black jackets through the intense heat of the summer. I believed they slept in the store. My brother and I often commented that we never saw them on the street; not even on Saturdays—the Sabbath—when the shop was closed, and everyone in the neighborhood was out walking. In our childish lack of knowledge (no one spoke about what had occurred only years before in the old country) we remained ignorant, making jokes about them. Until I was nine years old.

There was a morning, when on an emergency run for milk, I saw Mrs. Gottesman leaning over the meat shelf. Her sleeve fallen backwards, revealed numbers printed in black ink on her arm. I rushed home with the strange news. I was laughing about how “weird” they were, when my mother, with a raw rage I had not seen until that moment, stopped me, grabbing my arm. She said sternly, “They were in a camp.” I had no idea what that really meant. The only camp I knew was the one I was forced to attend for four weeks in the Adirondacks every July. How did I escape this knowledge of holocaust and suffering? She sat me down and told me about the camps: the horror, the brutality, the hatred, the murders, and the escapes. These were part of the forbidden lurking stories that drenched our street with tears. I was afraid to go shopping at “Gottesmans’” for days. I would only walk on that side of the street if I had my dog with me on a leash for safety.

My mother sent me with a list to Adelman’s Delicatessen instead. It was well lit and spacious with amazing smells of what we called “Jewish Food”. It was across the main road (13th avenue) from the Gottesman’s store. A different universe. The Adelman’s were a well to do family that owned the Deli and several other shops on 13th Avenue. They dressed normally, “like Americans.’ They spoke English without an accent. They wore colorful clothing (but not as colorful as gypsies), laughed a lot, and chatted. There was often music playing in the store. Their parents and grandparents had come to Brooklyn in the 1880’s and did not have numbers on their arms, wear long coats and skirts, nor cover their heads every day. From them we purchased bagels, fresh rye bread, pastrami, derma, sour pickles, pistachios, kosher salami, lox, and creamed cheese. They had a machine that sliced bread and deli meat either thin or thick. I walked out daily with a shopping bag of items, separately packaged in white paper, and four black and white cookies always given to us as gifts, for each person in the family.

But every day I thought about the Gottesmans. So I returned. It became a special event. I would go inside for a penny candy that was in a bottle in the window. I entered with the same sort of respect I had for my grandparents who knew English but mostly spoke Yiddish; who were not as strange, but also seemed to live in another time zone. Although we never spoke about what they had experienced, nor did I tell them that I knew, my now tempered requests for groceries and candies finally won me tender smiles in response. Perhaps they felt sorry for me since I seemed to need to enter their store more than they needed to sell me occasional foods. It was a place of history, and a pilgrimage to the mysterious realm of Eastern Europe where people were killed because they were Jews. I was buying groceries, but I was also buying history. My visits put me in contact with a revelation of unspeakable occurrences that happened elsewhere. “How could that have happened?” I often asked my mother who just shook her head. I grappled with evil and weighed what I had heard against the acts of giants and demons in fairytales that I read nightly to keep in contact with the inner sanctums of reality that were becoming known to me through the grocery store.

It was that elsewhere that my grandparents also came from. They did not speak about that place either, though they did not have numbers on their arms, or own restaurants. Later, I learned the Gottesmans were from Poland, like my father’s family. I realized that must have been why my grandma Ida often walked in to their shop reverting to her other language. She reserved Yiddish for the Deli. I never knew their first names. The Gottesmans had lost everyone and were saved by a distant relative living on our street. This unnamed family member, I overheard, rarely visited them but had “set up” the shop so they could continue their life as they had lived it in their shtetl in Poland. I did have “big ears” as my father repeatedly said. When I was seventeen and my father and mother still lived on that street, I walked to 13th Avenue. When I came home from college. I was in search of the story that I had never heard about the Gottesmans. I wanted to see them again and know more about them. Perhaps they had children, or had learned English. But the shop was gone. A hair salon replaced the dark entrance to Poland. End of story.

There were trees and gardens on 47th street, but no meadows or forests to walk through to get groceries. It was neither an urban world or a suburb like the kind my cousins moved to where houses were all the same. It was an in-between place. We had lived half in the 1950’s of America and a haunting other world of Eastern European memory and over sized furniture. The deli and its shopping bag and the grocery where food was wrapped in newspapers were my coming to terms with a complex history that slowly unfolded for me when I started reading about the Holocaust on my own. The smell of their grocery is the smell I often remember when listening to stories that are hard to tell and best shared in a cradle of gentle listening. That listening cradle is still made of old newspaper and wrapped in kindness. Perhaps it is from the Gottesmans that I learned how to ask questions without asking questions and to listen to all as if I am listening to my own family.

In the city of Malini in the northern part of Moldavia, Romania, a city known for its powerful refusal to give up its peasant philosophy even in the threat of the hated dictator, I took orphans (teenagers) to live in farms for three summers on a storytelling program. At first, I was told there were no Jews in the city. “They left after the war,” the mayor explained. However, I learned there was one family still living in the outskirts in a fenced compound. I went to see them. The father welcomed me into his well-kept large house and explained that he and his son worked in Italy and had built the house. I asked further about the war. He told me that his mother lived in the original house, still standing behind this new building. I went outside to a small wooden peasant house. Inside, the walls were papered with old newspapers and the only decoration was a wedding picture. The mother only spoke Romanian and Yiddish. I bumbled along with the help of a translator and learned that she grew up in Dorohoi where my mother’s mother was born at the same time. I began to make a desperate inquiry, but she kept saying she did not remember much. At one moment she began to tell me about the synagogue they attended, when her son interrupted and yelled at her to stop talking nonsense. Our conversation abruptly came to an unnatural end. He dragged us back to his house and served coffee and cakes on plastic covered furniture (reminiscent of our neighbors in Brooklyn in the fifties who were protecting their newly acquired middle class homes.) Finally, we left disappointed. But the mother came to the car, just as I was about to roll up the window. She whispered furtively, “My mother used to take me to the mikvah every Friday morning. She would wash me and then dress me for the Sabbath. I remember. She sang to me. I remember.” Her son arrived and we had to drive away. I knew I would not see her again. Again, end of story.

The next day I had two cakes delivered to the house for the Sabbath. But I had no idea if they were received or the mother was given one for herself. They were wrapped in newspaper and bought in a small dark shop that smelled of meat and candy.

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