GUESTWORDS: Brotherhood Week

By Lona Rubenstein

    By the end of 1940, in America or New York or Manhattan or maybe just in Washington Heights — an Upper Manhattan or maybe just in Washington Heights — an Upper Manhattan neighborhood running approximately east to west from the Harlem River to the Hudson River and north to south from 190th street to 160th Street — someone decided the children of Washington Heights needed a Brotherhood Week celebration.
    The national poll at the time that revealed a sizable number of Americans believed that the Jews in Hitler’s Germany must have done something wrong to be treated the way they were being treated — did those findings trigger the event? Who knows? But a Brotherhood Week celebration was announced in the schools, both religious and public, and in the polyglot collection of houses of worship in Washington Heights. Houses of worship! Was that euphemism for churches that embraced synagogues as well, I wondered, made up as an inclusive concession to togetherness?
    The event was set for a Saturday morning — the Jewish Sabbath and day of rest. Observant Jews couldn’t travel or hold money on the Sabbath. Even though I was 7 years old, I was a precocious only child, a third grader, and I knew that choice of day was problematic. Something that made you feel even more like an outsider. I was uncomfortable with this brotherhood concept.
    Washington Heights was a map of Europe, and its multitude of churches reflected it. Within a five-block radius of my home near the George Washington Bridge there was a Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch church, an Episcopal church, a Greek Orthodox church, and an Armenian Orthodox church. The Catholic church, the Church of the Incarnation, was a little farther away, servicing mostly “shanty Irish, as opposed to lace curtain,” that national group’s own distinction, and Spaniards, not Latinos. (No Baptist churches, no African-Americans in Washington Heights.)
    As to houses of worship, synagogues, that is, there was the Y.M. & Y.W.H.A. across from the George Washington Bridge, mainly a Conservative form of Judaism, and there was Congregation Mount Sinai Anshe Emes, which my grandmother attended, two blocks east of the Y. It was primarily Orthodox (men and women were separated for praying, for example).
    Washington Heights had its own “south of the highway.” West of Broadway, closer to the Hudson, was better than east of Broadway, closer to the Harlem River, with Riverside Drive and Amsterdam Avenue representing the best and the worst, respectively, the outer limits of both. There were two subway systems, trolleys to the Bronx across the East River, and Fifth Avenue buses that took you downtown, all the way to Greenwich Village. Some on the west side of Broadway were double-deckers. Some of those had open tops on the second tier. That was a helluva 30-cent round-trip ride.
    Jews essentially lived west of Broadway. How high a street number was was directly related to an economic ladder, with the more affluent (garment center Jews) living above 181st Street. Irish and Spanish Catholics lived east of Broadway, mostly on or near the boundaries before one hit the East River.
    Protestants, sprinkled west of Broadway and mostly above 178th Street, were near their Reformed and Episcopal churches. They were in a kind of shock, surrounded as they were by their churches, with dwindling populations and all of these foreigners. Their children — with names like Robert Ames, Martha Martin, Harry Harvey — still wore shirts and ties and plaid skirts with cardigans to school.
    There were a few Chinese families in the neighborhood — the Gwons, the Chins — with brothers who soon would be quietly killed fighting for America in World War II. They lived near their Chinese laundries.
    Only my Orthodox grandmother would daily sit on her wooden grocery crate with the Chinese grandmothers on their wooden grocery crates in front of the six-story apartment building. They didn’t speak English. She didn’t speak Chinese. And there they sat together, shunned by other old ladies. After all, they were clearly of a different race.
    All of this didn’t escape the precocious 7-year-old third grader that I was. So when the planned Brotherhood Week celebration was announced at my Hebrew school at the Y, I admit I wasn’t thrilled.
    Except for Hebrew school and my cousins, I had little contact with Jewish children. My friends on the block, the block that was across the street from the Dutch Reformed church, were all Protestant. The boy from the one Catholic family on the block was always mistaken for Jewish. He was short and fat, and the Irish gangs that would occasionally wander west of Broadway would always verbally abuse him.
    He said to them once when they called him a dirty Jew, “I’m not Jewish. I’m Spanish.”
    “Okay, you’re a dirty spic,” they shot back. And then they moved on, safety in numbers.
    So I guess Brotherhood Week, celebrated for a few hours on the morning of the Jewish Sabbath at the majestic Loews 175th Street, the grandest and fanciest second-run movie house in the neighborhood, was thought by those who organized it to be a step in the right direction. I didn’t like the idea but had to go. There was something wrong with the concept, the remedy itself. How could a few hours in the dark make everyone love one another?
    We met in front of the Y and marched the four blocks to the Loews, two by two and hand in hand, with Miss Reiner and Mr. Marcus, our Hebrew teachers, keeping order with Hebrew commands. Sheket! Sheket bevakasha! they would shout at us. All it meant to me was stop whatever you were doing. Be quiet!
    When we were inside the dimly lit theater, there were matronly matrons dressed in white, faded blond-gray hair drawn back in buns. They had large flashlights and stern, unfriendly faces.
    We were led to roped-off rows of segregated seats near the front of the theater labeled the “Jewish section.” Other areas had similar religious signs. I don’t know, was it some movie I had seen? “The North Star”? “Watch on the Rhine”? (Had they been released yet?) I was waiting for the German shepherd guard dogs to be brought out, teeth bared, struggling on their leashes to get at us huddled together in the Jewish section.
    I looked at the stage, the maroon velvet drapes pulled back. There were five or six chairs, a microphone, and a lectern. The chairs were for the members of the clergy. I saw our Rabbi Bogner, his round black yarmulke perched on his bald spot, short and round, a really nice guy who made you feel good even when you were bad. (Naturally the rabbi from the Orthodox synagogue did not attend — it would have been a violation of his Sabbath.) Seeing Rabbi Bogner chatting with the Christians made me feel better.
    The program started. Each clergyman had his clique that cheered when he got up to speak while others clapped politely.
    Rabbi Bogner was the third to speak. When he stepped up to the lectern and was introduced there was a loud and raucous round of boos and hisses from every part of the audience — the acoustics were marvelous at the Loews 175th Street — from every part of the theater targeted at the Jewish section. Only the priest from the Church of the Incarnation was able finally to stop it. He got up, grabbed the microphone, and intervened.
    I felt so sorry for my Rabbi Bogner.
    And, if nothing else, I had an experience to go by, to imagine how people felt, as that terrible war with its unthinkable events went on. That was the Brotherhood Week celebration in Washington Heights in Manhattan, in New York, in America in 1940.


    Lona Rubenstein is the author of “From Away,” a novel, and “Getting Back in the Game: Finding the Fountain of Youth in Cyberspace,” a memoir. With her latest novel, “Itzig,” set in Germany from 1900 to 1935, she will take part in Authors Night at the East Hampton Library on Aug. 13. She lives in East Hampton.