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Introduction to Memoirable ... Return to Kingston Avenue|
Well, folks, after 12 years of professional writing and a career that reads like a roller-coaster of ups and downs, I've finally decided to skip the whole mainstream process of how nice girls are supposed to get published and just give it to you here and now.
I'm presently working on two memoir books.
One is light and funny and laced with food the other is often funny but sometimes dark and gritty, a bit like, well, like me. Hey it's a memoir, after all.
What's the point of writing if you can't reach out and touch someone?
My other purpose is the hope that someone out there reading my work might publish my work. Hey, a girl's gotta eat!
So if you're here for a read, or you're here a member of the biz, I welcome you!
What's left to say except, I'm Rossi. Fly me!
By the way, I welcome your comments, feedback anything you want to throw my way.
So here goes.
He hadn't been in my thoughts for years, but news of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's death hit me strangely, like the loss of an uncle who lived far away, but never forgot a birthday. My fingers stroked the headline to see if it was real, if the ink was dry. Suddenly I was dripping in loss.
And so, spontaneously, on a quiet afternoon in the lull between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I decided to return to Kingston Avenue. I considered it a pilgrimage of sorts and, of course there was the matter of my having nothing on my "to-do" list that day but vacuuming.
With notebook, pens, chewing gum and subway tokens on hand, I set out to say goodbye to the Rebbe in person, or at least on his home-turf and perhaps bury the last bits of rage that still sparked up whenever I heard mention of Crown Heights.
I was sixteen when my parents delivered me to the Lubavitchers. With the last remnants of tan earned from long summers on the Jersey shore still glossing my cheeks, my knotty sea-worn hair flicked in punk rock pink, I was dropped off, like an overnight package to the Chasidic community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
I stood out like a slice of cantaloupe in a bowl of blueberries.
My occasionally Orthodox Jewish parents, had given up trying to turn me into that sweet, virginal Jewess of their dreams and decided instead that I should live with a young rabbi and his wife who specialized in reforming wayward Jewish girls. Specialized, meaning they had a good track record of converting lost souls into the ways of the Lubavitch world. A talent I would later find akin to giving food to starving children in third world countries in exchange for a little time in church. You can pray to anything if you're hungry enough.
It seemed like seconds had elapsed since I went from hosting a beer bash in my first pad (a low-end hotel room in Long Branch, New Jersey, famous for its high murder rate) to being scrutinized by several bearded men in black hats and dark suits and a pregnant woman with an accent I would later learn was South African. I blinked my eyes and tried to decide whether or not I was having a hallucination induced by too many Dexatrim diet pills. I decided I was.
"You must feel pretty strange," a whisper came from the pregnant woman.
"Where am I?"
"You're in Crown Heights."
"What is Crown Heights?"
"It's in Brooklyn." She paused. "... You know ... Brooklyn ... New York?!"
Going from South Jersey to Brooklyn is kind of like leaving Mexico for San Diego, close but worlds apart. As far as I was concerned, I was on Mars.
So there I was: broke, underage, underskilled and lost. I looked out the window, searching for something familiar. A sea of dark brown buildings sprang up like a wall of paranoia. Nowhere seemed a safe place to run. There was nowhere to go, even if I were able to break through the wall of blue and black suits.
I felt like a cat treading water in the middle of the Atlantic. I was nowhere and there was nothing. So I caved, took a deep breath and settled in. With zero options (except for suicide and going home, which were in essence the same thing), I decided to bide my time, and reformulate my battle plans. I allowed the rabbi's family to believe that they might bring me around to their way of life. They, in turn, allowed me a spot on the living room couch plus two hot meals a day. The rules were simple; I would attend Hebrew classes with Lifsa -- the South African woman -- at least three days a week and show respect for the Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. Other than that I was free to roam the neighborhood but not to leave it without permission or an approved escort. Which meant that I was free to do absolutely nothing but sit on the benches of Eastern Parkway and watch the traffic drive by.
Whoosh! The cars would go. "Take me with you," I would beg internally. Whoosh! The blue car service sedans would speed by. "Please, please," I would think through my teeth, but it seemed no one on Eastern Parkway was psychic.
* * * *
Now, ten years later, I was going back to my former prison -- voluntarily. On the 3 train to New Lots Avenue, I found myself, once again out of place, staring at a trainload of West Indian commuters, staring at me and wondering why I didn't get off at Grand Army Plaza with all the other white people. It was mid-afternoon. The businessmen were already at work. The kids not yet out of school. This was always my time to ride the trains. Two Lubavitch men sitting diagonally from me looked at me with mild concern as it became clear I was headed for Crown Heights, then returned to their prayer books before I could meet their gaze. How familiar it was, on the New Lots train, trying to decide to whom I was more similar: the Lubavitchers or the Jamaicans.
Climbing out of the station, "770" shot up before me, jetting out from its aching sidewalks. I squinted at it, adjusting to the sunlight. 770, the Rebbe's synagogue; I never heard it called by any other name. The old brown synagogue was getting a facelift, new iron fencing and real stone steps. Work crews scurried around the aged facade like flies around road-kill, pricking the brown structure mercilessly with their tools. Such modern alterations to this dinosaur seemed almost blasphemous.
Pushing past a stream of Chasidic men caught up in trying not to let their bodies touch mine as I passed, I took the side steps up into the women's tower. All was still there; a scattering of prayer books and those painful wooden benches thick with layers of dull brown paint. A sign posted on the wall read "Please don't talk in Shul." Who was there to talk to, anyway? Peering down onto the main floor, I could see 100 or so men in prayer shawls and tefillin. Some burned candles on the wooden desks. Most seemed in a state of despair or frenzy chanting to themselves in near delirium. Then I remembered, they were mourning the Rebbe. The smell of sweat and dust and candle wax filled the air and was swept away along with remnants of despair by a row of ceiling fans. I walked to the locker section of the women's tower and sifted through the tattered Hebrew books searching for something to shake away the cold settling inside me. The billboard was filled with messages, "Mashiach car service," "Wigs by Deborah," "Baby-sitter available."
Modern facelift aside, 770 was almost as I remembered it, but it was quiet, especially for the High Holidays. Missing were the thousands of visitors that used to pour onto the streets during the lull in "The Days of Awe." They came by the busload, especially for these High Holidays and filled the take-away meat store with screams of "Me next!" ... "Kishka ... one pound!" Huddling together in the dairy eatery, sipping strong bitter coffee, they tore apart their strudel with icing so that each swig of the intolerable coffee was met with a sweet, fruity chaser.
To a tourist, Kingston Avenue might have looked much as it did a decade ago, except for the smaller numbers of people. Ess and Bentch Luncheonette was still there, the mom and pop grocery stores, still there. I passed the Mitzvah Tank, Weinstein's Hardware, and then entered the Judaic gift shop.
The shop reminded me of a souvenir stand my family had visited in Memphis, the year Elvis died. Prints, paintings, key chains, post cards, biographies, letters, and posters of the Rebbe filled the store. I didn't know whether to laugh or be offended. The Rebbe gone commercial?! What would be next -- Rebbe T-shirts? Then I saw those, too.
The merchant was amused by me and my purchase of Rebbe postcards. (I couldn't resist.)
I noticed his inquiring gaze and smiled at him. "Was it crowded here for Rosh Hashanah?"
He looked up," No, not at all. It was nothing like it used to be." He reflected for a moment sighed and added, "People used to come from all over the world to see the Rebbe, but now ..."
"Now we are just a small community in a high crime neighborhood in New York City. Why should they come?"
"I used to live here you know."
He laughed. "Everyone seems to have a connection to this place, even Barbra Streisand. I bet you don't miss it, though. Maybe the memories, but not living here."
The waiting customers began to give him that disapproving look I'd grown to associate with, "Don't talk to the outsiders."
Our conversation ended politely.
Billboards and borscht aside, the pace on the avenue was vastly different. The Lubavitchers seemed to walk slower than I remembered, like they were just going through the motions of a normal day, almost sleepwalking. The community did not have that buzz of aliveness and nervous energy that used to fuel the air like the electric before a storm. It felt like a movie. Were we all background extras in a high budget movie by Coppola or Scorsese or some dark master of tale spinning? Yes, yes, this must be a film.
In high tech full color, the banner bearing the Rebbe's image stretched across Kingston Avenue. It announced, "Welcome Mashiach!" – a reference to the Messiah's apparent imminent arrival.
A flag waved the words "Mashiach is on the way. Be a part of it." The movie continued.
A little farther down Kingston Avenue, the Kosher pizza hangout now sported a bright neon sign that read, "Kingston Pizza." The owners must have sold out to restaurateurs with a flair for technology. Inside felt more like a Wendy's than a Jewish pizza joint. Full-color fluorescent sign boards offered tahini, babaganoush, falafel, baked whitefish, kugel and pizza, all on the same menu. I stuck with the safe: falafel and ice tea.
A local Lubavitch girl sharing a pizza with her elderly parents gave me a startled glance before turning her back. What was she scared of? Of course, I was a new white person, a woman in jeans. Perhaps I was just passing through.
A group of local artists, pioneers who had been sprouting up in patches along the outskirts of the community in search of big spaces and low rent, counted out small change for a slice. They scratched their heads and piled their pennies and nickels on the counter. The bounty: one slice and a side order of stuffed grape leaves. The Israeli man behind the counter was not prejudiced. He was rude to everyone. "Why not throw in a few quarters for once," he yelled at the artists, "Make my day!"
Pushing my luck just a tad, I asked him what had changed in town. He became instantly offended and barked at me.
"Everything is the same!"
"But aren't there less people in town now that the Rebbe is gone?"
Like a prophetic messenger, he announced, "Four hundred people are coming in four days!"
Maybe P.R. was part of pizza these days.
* * * *
In the old days, life felt rushed on Kingston Avenue. New faces came to see the Rebbe every day regardless of the holiday or lack thereof. The energy was explosive. Lubavitchers and Orthodox tourists would argue over semantics, the Bible, the Rebbe, Israel, what kind of car was best. They loved to argue. They lived to argue. When we were too poor to buy food, my roommates and I would go to the Lubavitch free food hall and wolf down salami, pickle and challah sandwiches. Being Jewish and dressing modestly was the only requirement for entry. Lost in the savory mix of salt, sour and sweet, we would close our eyes and listen to the whir of a dozen different languages blending together like helicopters.
Back then, they used to call Lifsa and me "balchuvah." Balchuvah is the name given to renegade Jews who were brought up without the strict traditions of Lubavitch and returned to the old ways -- or were dragged back kicking and screaming by missionaries like my host. Lifers are the Lubavitch who were born into it and knew nothing of the outside world except what they viewed through the thick wall of glass through which they observed all outside their community. I only had patience for the balchuvahs. The lifers reminded me of virgin priests telling the sinners not to sin. I figured if you were going to knock something, at least have the decency to know what you were talking about. That being said, I considered myself qualified to knock just about every legal sin I'd heard of and a half-dozen or so illegal ones, too.
The rabbi's wife, Bayla, used to cart me and her small children to the synagogue on Friday nights to listen to the head rabbi, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneerson, speak. I felt claustrophobic in the women's tower, pressed against hundreds of Slavic and Israeli women, seated (if you could find a seat) on hard, wooden bleachers. The younger women struggled to look down below at the Rebbe. The older ones contented themselves in just hearing his voice.
Being shut up in that tower, with the men free in the open air below, left me outraged. I wondered out loud why the men were not shut in the tower and the women dancing and singing below. "How could such a pious man as the Rebbe want his women to nearly suffocate above him?" These verbal wonderings were always met with horrified "Shhh ... that's not modest!" from the women. Feminism was not popular in this synagogue.
To be modest, I was told not to sing out loud when men were present, as the sensual voice of a woman might distract them from prayer. I was asked to cover myself above the elbows, from the knees up and the collar bone down and never to wear pants. It was assumed that I would learn the customs, go to synagogue and marry a man whom I would not know at first, but would grow to love. I was then expected to have somewhere between six and twelve children and physically touch no male, not even a handshake, except for my husband and sons for the rest of my life.
Naturally, I found this less than amusing.
But the Rebbe did interest me. There was something compelling about him, like a cult leader, a modern day prophet. I was aware that I was being sucked in, but could not fight my curiosity. His soft, light brilliant eyes peering out from that mass of white fur beckoned to me. He was adorable.
CATCHING THE WAVE: The Lubavitcher Rebbe
My first fabreggan came just before the high-holy days. A fabreggan is when everyone gathers around the Rebbe's table to eat, sing, and hear words of wisdom. The Rebbe spoke in Yiddish, which was almost simultaneously interpreted and piped through speakers hanging from the ceilings. As 770 was overstuffed with awestruck followers, the Lubavitchers would gather by the hundreds around the speakers outside. I had been lucky enough to be smuggled inside before the rush by Lifsa and a battalion of balchuvah women.
The Rebbe, at this particular time, focused mostly on children and how they were the future. He dreamt of Jewish children carrying a message of unity and peace for generations. He spoke of the Messiah and what we must do to prepare for him. He told jokes and whispered messages that only the old rabbis seemed to understand. They would answer with a bend in the knees, like praying or a rocking on the toes. His eyes twinkled from above his long Santa Claus beard, then he bent forward, using the podium to steady himself and sent out a breathless stream of Yiddish. A single word from him could send shudders through the masses that gathered in 770 and screams from the blur of blue and gray on the street -- followed by a distant purr from the homes along Eastern Parkway tuned into the live radio broadcast.
The Rebbe seemed uniquely qualified to carry his message of peace of forgiveness. He had survived the Holocaust, in which he had lost his entire family, yet there seemed to be no trace of bitterness in his eyes, only a sorrow that bordered on joy and the feeling that he was always remembering and hoping at the same time.
He moved me.
The way the community worshipped him, asked him for permission to travel, to use birth control, to divorce, to have surgery, scared me to death. I wondered if it scared him, too.
* * * *
After a month sleeping on the couch, I used the few hundred dollars my parents sent to move out of the rabbi's home and into a large apartment with three other balchuvah women. After what seemed like a decade, it was finally the opportunity to enter my own room and close the door behind me. I can still remember the ecstasy of that sound, the rub and click as my bedroom door shut for the first time.
We were social girls, bent on finding a way to have fun and not cause trouble amongst the elders. On Sunday nights, our apartment filled with just-past-adolescent women, some in the first stages of the shidduch (arranged marriage), some still missing Levi's and Christian boys. We would bust out from our chains and sing loudly and out-of-tune with the radio and laugh as we consumed horribly sweet kosher wine from coffee cups.
During the week, we gathered at the pizza shop and smoked cigarettes, comparing our rage at submission and double standards. "Why must I marry someone I don't even know," said Anya, the British girl raised in Israel, "I want to marry for love, not the hope of love."
Slowly, gradually and with shocking firmness, I began to put away my pretense of acceptance and regain my independence. I was never a follower anyway, but in this sea of sameness, I felt doubly fierce about asserting my difference.
Once my mind was set, it happened quickly. On a Monday, I put away my Salvation Army maxi skirts. By Wednesday I was wearing tight jeans and safari wear instead.
My friends watched with a mixed gaze of fear and admiration. Some ended their friendships with me, some circled me in awe. I became their voice, perhaps inspiration and a walking message that joy and pride could be felt even by a woman who wore pants.
The rabbis in the community quickly began to see me as a rebel and a bad influence. They did not want the young women to accept me if I would not embrace the rules. They sent out messages to my landlord to try and force me out and to the shopkeepers to make me wait longer in line. I was told of this by some who liked me and wanted me to stay, if only to make life a little more interesting on the avenue. Even my admiration for the Rebbe could not dull the sting of living in a community that only accepts its own.
On Kingston Avenue I quickly felt the chill of being branded an outsider.
* * * *
Now it is different. All is changed. I closed my eyes searching for the old hum of aliveness on the avenue, but everything felt still. Crown Heights had been deflated. A group of moms in matching wigs trotted past, pushing their babies in strollers, dragging toddlers by the hand.
They stared, then looked through me and continued as if some sort of blemish had been left on the street. Here on Kingston Avenue I was an outsider once again.
I walked by my last apartment in Crown Heights -- my first apartment that involved an actual lease. Visions of my beloved bachelorette pad nestled over the local pharmacy danced in my head. The large, two-bedroom place for which I'd paid a whopping $250 a month was now a podiatrist's shop.
I remembered the parties with chairs made of milk crates and the overturned basket turned coffee table, the feasts of spaghetti covered in tomato sauce out of the jar, chased with countless beers and joints rolled with the good stuff from the Rastas across the Parkway. I remembered the faces, so intent on my every word, so clearly temporary for all their earnestness. Faigee, my Parisian roommate, surfaced years later in Manhattan's South Street Seaport with a doctor husband and a glass of wine and cooed, "Remember how wild we were?" With the most unlikely of witnesses, the Lubavitchers, I found adulthood on the Avenue.
On this return visit, a Russian man who was all but obscured by a wondrous, bushy red beard projecting out, not down, displayed his wares on the sidewalk: children's books and toys. To my surprise, he smiled at me, and I stopped to talk.
Searching through the Jewish storybooks, I tried to find the least-threatening voice through which to inquire, "How has it changed here since the Rebbe died?"
"Who are you? Do you write for a newspaper?"
"Well, no, but I am a writer."
"I used to live here ten years or so ago," I added. "I remember the Rebbe and all the people." He shrugged.
I sighed and gave him the password he was waiting for, "I am Jewish."
He looked into my eyes as if searching for something. "We are waiting for Mashiach."
The movie inside my head resumed. "How long will you wait?"
"I am not a rabbi. I can only say that we are just waiting."
Suddenly, the answer of the day was so clear to me. I felt ridiculous for not seeing it right away. Kingston Avenue was not sleepwalking. People were waiting. This was a community caught between departure and arrival, between sorrow and rejoicing, frozen in time, waiting for the resurrection of the Rebbe.
The Russian man continued. "The people here are closed. In Russia it was not so closed. The children are open. My son was five-years-old just a few days ago. I gave him a stuffed animal and a book. He opened the window and threw it out. He yelled I want Mashiach!" The man looked up at me. "Children say more sometimes," he said.
There were police on almost every corner, waiting or just going through the motions of beefed up protection. From my days in the community I remembered that it was understood that more police would be here, that crimes could be committed on the other side of the tracks in Bedford Stuyvesant, but not here.
A television news crew pulled up to 770 and jumped out like a S.W.A.T. team. The Lubavitchers ran in the opposite direction.
Their anchorwoman approached me.
"Do you think they'll let us film in the synagogue?" she asked.
I shook my head, pretended ignorance and strolled away. Maybe I was more of a local than I realized.
As the reporters looked elsewhere for a stool pigeon, I could feel myself going back. The bitter taste of how it all ended filled my throat and senses and I had to pace to clear my head.
* * * * *
It happened just after my 17th birthday: a new sensation, the feeling of having lost. The rebellious fury that had fueled a teenager on her own to push on in this often-unkind neighborhood had fizzled out. I was left to ponder the shocking realization that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As if on cue, self-esteem came in the form of a phone sales job at The New York Times, an irony not lost on me or anyone else to this day. Who better to cold-call over the phone than someone who had been so totally rejected and managed to pull through? I did well in my first real job and put every extra cent aside for my future home in Manhattan.
Something else, a gift, a guardian angel, or just my luck finally jumping in: I found a new best friend who accepted me unconditionally.
She was a black woman who had the audacity not to mind being black (as she would have said). She was raised in a single-parent home in Harlem and had educated herself on the stoops of her apartment building reading Shakespeare while the other kids played in the streets. She was proud and fiery.
With a little coaxing from my landlord (an illegal eviction), I left my $250 flat on Kingston Avenue and moved into a hotel apartment on 23rd and Lexington. For $400 a month I had my own phone, a bed, a set of dresser drawers, a private bath and 24 hours of room service offered by the same diner that had once employed Rita Hayworth.
I checked in late one afternoon with two suitcases full of black clothing and had all but forgotten Kingston Avenue by the next morning. It was buried like an abusive childhood or the death of a parent you were too young to remember.
* * * *
The death of the Rebbe had brought it all rushing back.
"You can leave Kingston Avenue," the kosher-dairy shopkeeper once said to me, "but it's always on you. The road sticks under your feet."
Returning to Manhattan from Kingston Avenue as daytime began to ebb into evening, I felt the urge to run, to run as fast as I could until the road ended and then to find another one, but I breathed myself down.
Plick, plop, plip, plop, all these bits of who I was, they dropped along behind me, emotional garbage, bread crumbs of myself to leave behind. It was time to go.
On the platform at the 3 train two Lubavitch schoolgirls huddled against the wall, one reading aloud from her prayer book.
"Excuse me," I interrupted. "Would you mind if I just asked you a question."
I waited as she finished her prayer.
"With the Rebbe gone? Do you think that the crowds will return?"
She thought before answering.
"Some will come. Some will not. My friends ask me why do you still go to the Rebbe's synagogue without him, and I answer because his essence is still here. I believe some will come for his essence."
Her friend jumped in, "We go on as usual but we are a little sad."
This was the first time that day that anyone had admitted to me that they were simply sad. I thought of the Russian man's words, "Children say more sometimes."
"I'm a little sad, too," I told them as I headed towards the door of the incoming train. "Thanks for reminding me."
All material © copyright 2001-3, Rossi
But wait! There's more!
the Family supper
The Last Road Trip
Cabbage and Noodles
Days of Awe
Rabbis and Mozzarella
The Guilt Wheel
The Breakfast March
TOTALLY COMPLETELY AND ABSOLUTELY NORMAL
Miss New Jersey
Ramada Inn Makes Nice Soap
Buying a Piece of Jackie
Introduction to Memoirable ... Return to Kingston Avenue