Visit my main site,
Rabbis and Mozzarella|
The first thing my brother said after landing at JFK Airport – after saying his kids wanted a bathroom, his wife was nauseated and that he was dying for some kosher fried mozzarella – was that he wanted to visit 770.
I have to say, I was shocked. Why would anyone who lived in Beverly Hills want to visit 770, a rustic old Lubavitch synagogue in Crown Heights? Maybe all the color in Beverly Hills made him long for Brooklyn browns -- brownstones, brown brick, brown paper bags thrown on the ground.
Then again, I never understood why Matt moved to California, either. How could anyone with the option to live in New York City move to L.A.?
Anyway, back to 770, mostly known as “the shul,” at which the famous Chasidic Rebbe Shneerson held court. Shneerson, who passed away some years ago, is considered by many Lubavitchers to be the messiah.
My brother more than wanted to visit the rebbe’s shul; he had to see it. He had always hungered for anything intensely Jewish, whether it was those kosher mozzarella sticks or, now, the shul.
I figured it was something about never fitting in when he was a kid. Being Jewish gave him the group affinity he’d always craved. It culminated in the epiphany he and his Israeli wife, Dahlia, had six years earlier, after which they’d decided to ditch their fast food lifestyle and become ultra-Orthodox.
So we went to 770. Matt rented a sedan so we could cruise Eastern Parkway in style. All the way there, I was thinking what I’ve thought since I was 2 years old: Surely I am adopted.
While most of my friends were coming of age on the Jersey Shore, Manhattan’s Upper West Side or some other safe and cozy place, I was watching my teens drift away in Crown Heights in the high-crime ’80s.
Now my family was dragging me back to the place I had spent all my energy and money trying to escape. Why do families seem to have a sixth sense for making you do exactly the thing that will give you tsuris and gas?
We parked on a side street, and Matthew led the kids along as his wife videotaped every storefront on The Avenue. When we got to the corner, the old industrial shell of the shul shot up before us. Matthew screamed for his wife.
“Quick! Dahlia, it’s 770!!!”
She videotaped Matt touching the brick wall, Matt walking up the stairs, her little girls Francis and Harriet touching the walls, Francis and Harriet walking up the stairs. She videotaped me rolling my eyes, me trying not to go up the stairs, me kicking at her when she tried to push me up the stairs, me waving and winking at a young Chasid man staring at my tattoo in horror.
Inside the shul, Matthew went down to the open, airy, room with the pumped in air conditioning to pray with the men, while Dahlia let the girls drag their tattooed aunt to the claustrophobic, poorly ventilated women’s section upstairs. All was just as I’d remembered it: a scattering of sidurim -- prayer books -- and those painful wooden benches thick with layers of dull brown paint.
Peering down onto the main floor, I could see Matthew praying while a few dozen rabbis-to-be argued over semantics and whatever. He was thrilled to be there and seemed to be praying as much to be seen by these men as to be heard by the almighty.
Dahlia watched her husband with pride. I opted to wait outside where they keep this stuff called air.
770 was much the same, but it was quiet, especially for the high holidays. Missing were the thousands of visitors who used to pour onto the streets. I guessed the rebbe’s death had changed that.
A few tour buses disgorged loads of big-haired women in jogging suits at all the pertinent rebbe stops. His former office. His former home. At each place, you could hear the excited tour guide scream into her microphone, “and this was actually where the rebbe lived … and … [gasp] … slept!”
I wondered if they had the whole shebang on the tour. …“This is where the rebbe once used the bathroom. Over here ... he had a sandwich. ... At this corner, he hailed a cab.”
We passed all the places I remembered from my teen years -- the dairy luncheonette, the Puerto-Rican bodega with hairy-chested men wearing perhaps too many gold chains, Weinstein’s Hardware, and a multitude of Judaica gift shops.
The shop windows were filled with rebbe keepsakes: rebbe T-shirts, keychains, post cards, photo albums. Crown Heights had turned into Rebbe Graceland.
While Dahlia checked out the rebbe keychains, Matthew began his mezuzah interrogation. He was on a mission to find a scroll for the mezuzah on my door jamb that would be so holy, so pure that it would prevent non-kosher Chinese food from being delivered.
I had made the mistake of asking him to help me find a scroll. He was so thrilled, after more than three decades, to finally have me ask for his help that he turned this into a full-scale mission.
“This doesn’t feel right,” he said to Dahlia, fingering a tiny scroll. “Let’s keep looking.”
In high tech full color, a banner bearing the rebbe's image stretched across Kingston Avenue. It announced, “Welcome Moshiach!”
A flag waved the words, “Moshiach is on the way. Be a part of it.”
As if on cue Matthew announced, “Let’s eat!” and led us on stampede along
We found the kosher pizza joint, which now sported a bright neon sign reading, “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 parlor. Full-color fluorescent signboards offered tahini, babaganoush, falafel and pizza. I stuck with the safe: falafel and iced tea.
Matthew ordered an array of dishes: baked ziti, french fries, pizza, falafel, fried fish, Israeli salad and, of course, fried mozzarella.
It was a heartburn parade, and my brother was the grand marshal.
Sitting in the fluorescent eatery took me back.
I was sixteen when my parents delivered me to the Lubavitchers, hoping others would succeed where they had failed. Someone had to turn me into the virginal Jewish princess of their dreams.
I don’t know what part of my pink hair, black leather jacket or perpetual half-pint of Hiram Walker Blackberry brandy sticking out of my hip pocket made them think they needed help, but I was delivered just after high school graduation to the Lubavitchers for what was supposed to be an immersion in all things Jewish.
I took to it like a cat to water. Lots of water.
A group of yeshiva boys walked into the pizza joint. They looked at Matt with mild concern until they saw his yarmulke, then nodded with approval. As they passed our booth they saw me and got that look of consternation I’d seen many times in this neighborhood: “What’s a bad girl like you doing in a place like this?!”
In the old days, when I would bang up against that look, one of the locals would say “balchuvah,” and everyone would smile and laugh.
Balchuvah is the name given to Jews who are not brought up “frum” (religious) but who are brought into the fold of Chasidim after growing up in the outside world. “Lifers” are the Chasids born into it.
Being a balchuvah excuses everything from apparent schizophrenia to earrings made out of coke spoons. Most lifers I met thought of the outside world as something between pure sin and madness. So, my having come in from the cold pretty much excused everything.
To amuse myself in the hood, I used to talk to myself loudly, and when one of the locals would give me a concerned look, I would smile and say, “balchuvah.” Hey, a girl’s got to have a little fun.
We walked by my old flat on Kingston. Visions of my huge bachelorette pad, nestled over the pharmacy danced in my head. The two-bedroom place for which we’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 I prepared for my mishmash of local pals consisting of 2-for-a-dollar spaghetti covered in 4-for-a-dollar tomato sauce mixed with stir-fried kosher hot dogs. We chased this with cold Colt 45 and warm Manischewitz. I remembered the faces, so intent on my every word, so clearly temporary despite all their pretenses of love and affection. Everything then was temporary. Even the plates were paper.
Fagee, my Parisian roommate, surfaced many years later in a bar in South Street Seaport with a doctor husband and a glass of chardonnay.
“Remember how wild we were?” she cooed.
“Yes,” I answered, remembering, too, how poor we were, how bad the neighborhood was, and deep inside, how wild we really weren’t.
“This is where your Aunt Rossi used to live,” Dahlia told the girls.
“Woooowwwwww!” they screamed and danced in front of the two-story building.
“That’s right, kiddies. I once blessed this place with my bubbling personality.”
At the end of Kingston, Matthew found a shop owned by the uncle of the nephew of a friend of his friend in Los Angeles and decided this would be the place pious enough to have the right mezuzah scrolls for his sister.
While I fingered through a book of recipes for dishes like “Mock Chopped Liver” – yum – Matthew haggled.
“Give me a good price,” my brother told the old man. “I’ve come all the way from California.”
Seventy-five dollars and 40 minutes later, I had a bag with two mezuzah scrolls guaranteed to keep traif from my doorstep, and we were back in the silver town car on Eastern Parkway pointed toward Manhattan.
Ahhhh, Manhattan. Just knowing we were heading toward the isle of sanity sent a soothing calm through me.
“Your aunt really met the rebbe,” Dahlia said to the girls.
“Reallyyyyy!” they squealed excitedly,
“Yep. One time he gave me a shot of wine and the other time he gave me a piece of bread.”
“Oooooooohhh,” the girls squealed.
“Did he ever give you ... a mozzarella stick?”
They are, after all, my brother’s children.
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