A moving memoir of Jewish Brooklyn, said tchotchke by tchotchke
(New York Jewish Week) – In his bestseller “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal traces the rise and fall of his wealthy and influential late 19th century Ukrainian, French and Viennese Jewish family in the 21st century. Its organizing principle is a collection of tiny Japanese sculptures, or netsuke, which have accompanied the family at almost every stage of their journey.
Items are the Skeleton Keys that unlock the Family Story. In writing the memoirs (which became a terrific exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York last year), de Waal explained that he wanted to “walk into every room this object has lived in, feel the volume of space, knowing what pictures were on the walls, how the light was falling from the windows.
I thought of de Waal while reading Richard Rabinowitz’s lovely new book, Objects of Love and Regret: A Brooklyn Story. Like de Waal, Rabinowitz uses heirlooms to tell his family story; unlike de Waal, he is inspired by objects that are not heirlooms but common tchotchkes, and the family is hardly a legendary dynasty.
David and Sarah Rabinowitz are lower-middle-class Jews whose families arrived in New York in the early 20th century — his father’s family in 1905, his mother’s 20 years later. Through a series of cozy objects – a bottle opener, a hot plate, a cigar box – Rabinowitz (with the precious help of his older sister Beverly) recreates the life of his parents and the places where they lived, including a Very Jewish East New York. , the skyscraper near Rockaway Beach where they moved after the racial and economic upheavals that transformed Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s, and finally the condo in Florida where they found some peace of mind after years of economic anxiety.
“I’m interested in everyday objects because they help me understand the actions in the family, the relationships of people in the family,” Rabinowitz told me last week. A trained historian and museum curator, Rabinowitz was part of the teams that created the Tenement Museum and transformed the Eldridge Street Synagogue into the Eldridge Street Museum, both located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“There is a kind of enormous wealth in the lives of ordinary people,” he added. “That’s my animation principle.”
Rabninowitz and I talked on a bench outside the Seward Park Library on the Lower East Side, across from the Educational Alliance — founded to acculturate Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe — and the old Forward Building, which once housed the most widely read library in the country. Yiddish every day. His father David grew up nearby, at 39 Essex St. While searching for the book, Rabinowitz scoured the streets to discover the “tactility”, as he calls it, of his father’s childhood.
Although his son attends Harvard University, David Rabinowitz struggled for much of his life: raising pennies to sell newspapers as a child; watching a jewelry business thrive and then fail; eventually supplying grocers throughout the city and Long Island until large operators moved in and forced him out of his sole proprietorship.
“More than half of New York’s Jews in the metropolitan area in 1950 were actually lower middle class,” said Rabinowitz, born in 1945. “I constantly come across people who have this experience of a class life lower average, but really nobody talked about it” – or at least not in the most well-known accounts of 20th-century Jewish life.
His stay-at-home mother, for her part, anchored the family in a Jewish philosophy from which, he writes, “everything flowed”. Her parents did not go to synagogue or observe Shabbat in the traditional way, but Sarah’s was a home religion in which the family ate kosher and she lit Shabbat candles at her own pace, late on Fridays. evening. “Even when the teachings of the Jewish holy books failed, when the Ethics of the Fathers seemed too remote, when nothing quite matched, she was nevertheless deeply loyal and committed to ‘her people,'” Rabinowitz writes. The family had almost no non-Jewish friends.
“I mean, without making an explicit argument against anyone, that we don’t pay enough attention to how people practice being Jewish,” he told me. “They lived in an island world, very anxious, cautious when approaching [gentiles] even though anti-Semitism waned during their lifetimes and they lived in heavily Jewish places. »
This island world was destroyed in the 1960s, when, he writes, “federal and municipal governments adopted policies and practices that effectively sifted and segregated the working class, lower middle class, and peoples of New York’s middle class by race”. In 1960, 85% of East New York’s 100,000 residents were white. Six years later, 80% were black or Puerto Rican.
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Rabinowitz describes in detail – citing Walter Thabit, Craig Steven Wilder and other historians – how political and business interests accelerated blockbusting, white flight and de facto segregation. The villains include a “shrewd mortgage broker” named Harry Bernstein, who would ultimately be convicted in a conspiracy to embezzle federal funds meant to help poor people buy homes.
“My parents were 50 years old, in their prime. The kids grow up and suddenly everything falls apart and they lose that sense of security,” Rabinowitz said. David and Sarah, he writes, never fully recovered from exile from their close-knit Jewish neighborhood.
I told Rabinowitz that his book reminded me of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” another product of a lower-middle-class Jewish childhood. Like Linda Loman in Miller’s play, “Objects of Love and Regret” demands “paying attention” to the “little” lives of ordinary people.
“I think that’s true,” said Rabinowitz, who recently attended the Broadway revival of the play starring Wendell Pierce and Sharon D Clarke. “That scene was just difficult for me.” He also sees the play as an indictment of the “cruelty” inflicted on immigrants and the politically and economically dispossessed.
“This whole country is built around constant waves and waves of immigrants,” he said, pointing to the Asian and Hispanic families who came in and out of the library and enjoyed Seward Park. “I think the Trump years tore through that kind of shield that the core of America was that promise of equal rights. In fact, there is also this other persistent violence” against the poor. “It’s a predatory society.”
And yet, he writes, “I grew up in the luckiest times in history.” His parents and their neighbors had “traveled the world outside the immigrant ghetto to start or buy a small business, or to get a job in the post office, in the school system, or in some other part of the city government.” Richard attended elite Stuyvesant High School before leaving for Harvard and a career his father could not have imagined. Despite his parents’ struggles, he said, “They seized the 1950s and the chance to participate in this expansion of American economic development.”
Which brought us back to the bottle opener, a device with a green handle that his mother picked up for 20 cents in 1934 and gave as a gift to his mother – and which would later make her cry. Rabinowitz researched the history of the door opener and the maker to tell a very different kind of immigrant story, but ultimately the device is about relationships – between family members and between family and the rest of the world.
Her mother didn’t have the money to buy new appliances, but she could buy a bottle opener that would allow her own mother to open the kinds of consumer goods that would make them feel more “American.” And the gift also represented, Rabinowitz imagines, what mother and daughter shared: “the pleasures of taking care of the kitchen, the house and the family.”
At one point in our conversation, Rabinowitz reached into a satchel and pulled out the neatly wrapped bottle opener. Infinitely less valuable than a Japanese netsuke, it seemed about as rich as an object could get.