Brooklyn On Line

Brooklyn On Line
- Brownsville



I grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.  It may not seem like
something to brag about, but I am proud of this fact for a number of

In the early 1950's, Brownsville was a most unpretentious neighborhood: 
for the greater part, it was inhabited by working-class eastern European
Jews.  My own family is among these ranks.

Now living in Scarsdale, I can appreciate more fully than ever before
the qualities of my growing up in Brooklyn.  Every day after school, the
streets were filled with children.  We all seemed to take adequately
good care of each other and possessed a wild spontaneity that today's
more privileged suburban children seem to lack.

In spite of the fine schools that Scarsdale boasts today, I know that my
education in Brownsville, though different, was infinitely superior.  My
teachers were the teachers of the Depression:  thus they were all
experts in their fields who because of the economic crisis, could only
find work in education.  Thus, Alter Landisman, the great scholar of
medieval Jewry, taught our Saturday Hebrew school.

My teachers took a real interest in my life.  My mother only spoke
Rumanian when she came to this country, and her English was not good
even by the time I was growing up.  The first American novel I read in
school was Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls."  Mrs. Steigman, my
teacher at the time, was able to tell me where I could get a Rumanian
translation of this and other works so that my mother could read with me
and take an active part in my education.  I remember well going to the
Donnell Library in Manhattan to get my mother that translation.

But the most important part of my education was from the variety of
people in the neighborhood.  I was a member of the neighborhood
basketball team.  We regularly would have as coaches such greats
(although we were not aware of it at the time) as Abe and Hy Gotkin, and
Julie Bender, the All American Long Island University player.

Things began to change significantly when my father died.  I was 15
years old and my mother had to raise the five of us on a meager income. 
What is more, the neighborhood was changing.  Households in the area who
had children old enough to work now had more than one income, allowing
these families to move up in the world to better neighborhoods on Long
Island and Westchester.  We did not have that option with my father
dead.  Poorer black families began to move into the neighborhood so that
by the time I was in sixth grade there was no white male in any grade
below me. We lived in a three-family house, now with a black family
above and below us.  We got along well with these families and I never
lost my feeling of concord with the neighborhood.

Ever since I left Brownsville, I have made it a point to go back to the
old place and take a drive around to see how things have changed and
show my children where I grew up.  I always wanted them to be proud of
my upbringing there and to understand my feeling of affinity with the

In the summer of 1982 I was taking such an excursion.  While driving
down Pitkin Avenue-which was once a busy commercial market street and
now resembles demolished Dresden after the war-I noticed an old
storefront with Hebrew lettering over it.  There were 10 old indigent
Jews huddled in front with a younger man who seemed to be in charge. 
The lettering read "Hatzilu" which means "Rescue."20

I learned on approaching the group and speaking with the young man that
this was a special project to provide social services for the last 50 of
the former 250,000 Jews in the area.

Almost hidden among the group was a tiny woman who introduced herself to
me a Riva Rheinhardt.  She was like a little bird and was just as neat. 
Her gray hair was tied back and arranged in a bun.  She pushed her way
up to me and said she had not seen a young man wearing such a nice suit
in her neighborhood for years.

Her charm worked on me because before I knew what I was doing I was
driving her home and she was telling me all about the old days in
Brownsville.  She lived alone in a small apartment on Stone Avenue. 
When I parked the car she invited me in.

We walked up to her apartment on the second floor.  It was as neat as
herself, although it certainly was the only such one on the block, which
was badly in need of attention.  She told me that she only had one
daughter, who lived in California;  otherwise she had no one.  I
wondered about their relationship Riva idolized her daughter, but I
wondered why she was in California and never home visiting in the four
years that I knew Riva.  It seemed that this "wonderful" relationship
was quite illusory.

I began to visit Riva about once a month and take her shopping. 
Sometimes she would phone me at home and ask me to come and visit and
bring her groceries.  I knew that she was poor, for sometimes she would
even ask me for a little money.  She became a family friend.  My
children would write to her frequently and she became a sort of
grandmother figure for them.  I knew that she was lonely, but I was only
too willing to look into the eyes of this little bird which were windows
into my happy days in Brownsville.

The Stone Avenue of 1983 was very different from the one she spoke of in
her stories.  The corner of her block was claimed by a gang of drug
dealers who, fortunately, left her alone because she seemed to them
"some kind of crazy old lady."  Indeed, she was harmless, but they saw
her as some kind of supernatural being, since she was the last of her
kind in the area.

As time went on and the drug preference in the area changed from heroine
to crack, I began to worry about Riva's safety.  I tried to get her in
one of the apartments in Scheuer Houses in Coney Island; she'd be among
her own kind and would be well taken care of there.  But she constantly
refused and spoke of her good friend Ida Zimmermann, who also lived by
herself on Hopkinson Avenue.  She would say how brave Ida was and that
if Ida didn't move neither would she.

Late in 1986, Riva phoned me with the sad news that her daughter had
died in California.  I took it upon myself to make arrangements to have
Riva flown to Los Angeles to attend the funeral.  After her return, she
was a different woman  She was constantly depressed and finally gave in
to my urging to move to the Scheuer Houses.  The moment she moved from
her apartment, the thugs of the area destroyed it. I could not believe
my eyes.  They literally took the wallpaper off the walls.  It was a
gross insult to a once proud but now broken woman.

Seven weeks later I read in The New York Times that Ida Zimmerman was
murdered in her apartment on Hopkinson Avenue.  I didn't know how to
tell Riva, but I phoned her in her new apartment and gave her the sad
news.  How she was crushed.  When I next visited her, I knew that she
would not last long.  She died a few weeks later.

On a recent visit to Pitkin Avenue, I noticed that the "Hatzilu" project
building is gone-the shop front is gutted and no signs remain of the
elderly Jews of Brownsville.

The writer, the executive vice president of a major national real estate
firm, resides in Scarsdale