Suburban Soliloquy #50


Pelham Parkway, a tree-lined boulevard in the Bronx, was the growing edge of the city back in the 1930s. New apartments were rising out of empty lots. Across the Parkway were yet private homes and even farms. Max and Musha Cohen moved into the neighbourhood with their two children. They were moving almost every year because in those days landlords were trying to fill apartments and would attract tenants by offering the first month rent free. In the year of this story, the Cohens were living in a one bedroom apartment at 2136 Wallace Avenue which had a shallow fountain in the courtyard that glowed with coloured lights at night.

On the particular day of this story it was autumn, a day in the month of Tishri, which is the first month of the Jewish calendar. Young Esther, the second of the two children born to Max and Musha, and not yet my mother, had permission not to go to school, P.S. 38. Sukkos (a Jewish festival [Leviticus 23:41-43] celebrating the harvest and having many different spellings, all of them right) was approaching. Esther had received an invitation from cousin Tamar, whom everyone called aunt Tamar, to come and see their sukkah (a temporary booth of sorts, built to remind Jews of their forty years spent wandering the chapters of Exodus).

Esther shared her parents' bedroom, sleeping on a cot with an old featherbed that had accompanied her mother from Europe. That morning her mother called for her to wake and come eat breakfast before getting dressed. She joined her parents, who were already dressed, at the small wooden table in the kitchen and was served oatmeal, bread, and hot cocoa. "Eat, eat," her mother insisted. Esther was not to arrive to Aunt Tamar's doorstep seemingly hungry. Tamer shouldn't think her cousin Esther's parents can't afford to feed their children. "You should only eat a cookie," Esther's mother said.

As they ate breakfast, they all read the newspapers. Her father read the Jewish Morning Journal, a conservative paper printed in Yiddish. Her mother read The New York Times. The Jewish neighbours were reading The Forward and Der Tag, which were the "union" papers, the "socialist" papers. As parts of the paper were being swapped back and forth, Esther would catch what pieces of the Times no one else was reading. Her older brother, Jesse, was not at the table, having already left for school.

She was made ready for her visit. Her mother brushed her daughter's long, wavy, auburn hair and braided it into tzeplach - Russian for pigtails. Then she instructed her daughter to "Put on your Shabbusdiker clothes." Esther wore her green, shirtwaist dress. Of all the clothes her mother made for her, this was her favourite. On this special day she got to wear her mother's silk stockings, held up with round garters. She was thrilled to be wearing her best shoes, brown kiltie shoes. And off she went, wearing her beige wool coat and a bouclé Juliet cap against the cool autumn day, a beautiful day, an auspicious day, and for the first time, she was being allowed to ride the train into Manhattan unaccompanied. She marched proudly along the few blocks to the el, each block with its own baker, grocer, Kosher butcher, tailor, barber, and shoe repair. She walked past her favourite candy store, where every tooth in the merchant's mouth was gold. He delighted in smiling and showing them off whenever she came in for her two-cents plain (chocolate syrup in seltzer - if she could have afforded more, they would have added milk and called it an egg cream). She made her way up the staircase into the thick web of over-engineered girders that held the tracks aloft. Pelham Parkway Station. She put her nickel into the turnstile and climbed a further story to the platform, there to await her train, by herself, adult-like, the only child not in school.

The rumbling train ride lasted over an hour. She sat, maturely, watching the panorama of the Bronx. The train crossed the narrow Harlem River and soon burrowed into New York City's subway system. At 77th Street she disembarked, and climbed out of the underground network of tracks. The easy part of her journey was over.

Making her way across Central Park from east to west was fraught with danger. The journey across Central Park was wrought with fairytale challenges. The forested park was beautiful, inviting, the coloured leaves rustling in the wind and everywhere raining down, but the park also concealed statues. Esther had a fear of statuary, afraid they would come to life. As she made her way among the scenery, she also had to avoid being surprised by them. When she saw a bronze figure lurking around a hillock or in a cove of trees, she would have to give it wide berth. By circuitous route she avoided first, the Pilgrim, then the Falconer, and while trying to avoid where Daniel Webster laid in wait, she was caught unawares by the Civil War Soldier representing the 107th Regiment. However she made it safe and sound to Central Park West and 70th Street. Across the street was her destination, a majestic building with tall Romanesque windows, stained glass from the Louis Tiffany Studios, and Corinthian columns. It was the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, home of the Shearith Israel Congregation, consecrated 1897. Later, in 1942, Esther would be married to my father in that synagogue.

The congregation is much older than the building. It was founded in 1654, the first Jewish congregation in North America. Until 1825, it was the only Jewish congregation in New York. Their ancestry, however, could be traced back to 1492 in Spain, and 1497 in Portugal, when Judaism became outlawed. Some of the exiled Jews escaped to Holland where Jews were tolerated. From there they joined the colony established by the Dutch West India Company in Pernambuco, South America. But even here the Inquisition caught up with them when Pernambuco was surrendered to the Portuguese and became Brazil. At that time, 150 families fled Recife only to be driven ashore in Jamaica by Spanish ships. It was just twenty-three members from this community, joined by Dutch Calvinists, who reached New Amsterdam (later named New York). Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial administrator in the Americas and the last governor of New Netherlands, didn't want these Jews, but the Dutch West India Company refused his petition to deport them. After all, many of the company's stockholders were Jewish.

Esther wasn't going to the synagogue. Instead she was visiting the Rabbi's home attached to the synagogue and facing Central Park West. Her Aunt Tamar, née Hirshenson, was married to the very famous and influential Rabbi David de Sola Pool, an Englishman who earn his Ph.D. at Heidelberg. Tamar de Sola Pool (Hunter, the Sorbonne), born in Palestine the daughter of a rabbi, was famous in her own right. She was a passionate Zionist. Unfortunately, Esther in her youth was not aware of any of this; Tamar was just her cousin.

Esther climbed the steps to the heavy wooden door and rang the doorbell. The door was answered by a maid in uniform. She stared down at the plump, red-haired child standing on the stoop and frowned. In a little voice, Esther explained, "I've come to see Tamar."

"Well, I'm sorry," said the maid with a heavy accent, "but she has a guest right now and cannot see anyone." This alarmed Esther. Wasn't she expected? Had there been a mistake? Her parents didn't have a telephone, so plans must have been made days in advance.

Lacking courage, Esther replied, "But Tamar said - Mrs. de Sola Pool - she expects me. I'm her cousin Esther."

The maid did not conceal her indignation at this child's impertinence. "I'll go see," she said, and closed the door leaving Esther to stand outside. This was terrible. How could it be resolved? Maybe her parents made a mistake! But it was Tamar in a tailored black dress who next opened the front door, her round, familiar face, tender and always loving, immediately put Esther at ease. Of course Esther was expected and was not to be left outside. The maid was admonished and Tamar personally led Esther into the house. Esther was filled with pride.

"I have a guest I want you to meet," said Tamar. They walked down the hall past the rabbi's study filled with books and arrived at the drawing room. Esther immediately recognized Tamar's guest from pictures in the newspapers. "Esther, I want you to meet my very dear friend, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor, allow me to introduce you to my cousin Esther from the Bronx."

Esther was in awe and too shy to speak. This day she would always remember. The three of them retired to the yard of the synagogue, where the sukkah had been set up and decorated. They sat inside the sukkah and the maid brought them tea. Years later she remembers little of the conversation, although she thinks the First Lady asked her about school. However, my mother has a remarkable memory for clothes. She cannot forget what the First Lady wore. It was a brown dress with buttons down the front, a little white collar, and on her feet she wore Oxford shoes. My mother remembers wondering why wasn't the First Lady wearing pumps?

How I wish I could enter into a machine that would deliver me back in time to that memorable moment in my mother's childhood. I would not interfere or make myself known. I would just want to be sitting across the street from the de Sola Pool residence that fine autumn day. There are park benches along Central Park West, against the stone wall that encloses Central Park. I just want to sit there, smoke a cigar, and wait for the little girl with red pigtails and beige coat to arrive at de Sola Pool's front door. Just to see the sneering maid and knowing what would happen next, how wonderful it would be to just have a glimpse. If Mrs. Roosevelt's diaries are kept in archives, I wonder if a search under the proper date would find an entry mentioning a meeting with an adorable girl whose red hair was in braids?

With my mother I strolled Pelham Parkway, arm in arm, as she tried to help me see her past - different apartments at different ages; where she lived when her older brother gave her the money to have her hair cut; the route she walked when schoolmate Mercer Ellington, the bandleader's son, carried her books because he had a crush on her, and she on him, although she could never let her family know; the romantic interludes with other boys in front of the Blind Home at night, confident there could be no witnesses. She and her friends stopped traffic by dancing the Big Apple on Pelham Parkway. She showed me Evander Childs High School, where she remembered the antics of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. She showed me where she first met my father. She pointed out the window of her mother's last bed room. Behind that window, her mother died in bed of cancer. And she pointed to the adjacent window at which her father later died, suffering a heart attacked while trying to open that window.

February 8th is my mother's birthday, and none of your business how old she'll be.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the fiftieth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is now available from Amazon, as well as "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"