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A Memory Grows in Brooklyn

On the Occasion of my Father's 80th Birthday in Brighton Beach.

By Seth Itzkan
December, 2009

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"Mrs. Stalh's Knishes were the best", says my father, pointing to the corner on Brighton Beach Ave where the legendary provider of the Jewish delicacy used to serve thousands.  It's a nondescript pharmacy now, but that doesn't tarnish my dad's recollection.  You can see the savoring smile creep across his face.  "I've never tasted pastry as flaky as she made it".  It's my father's 80th birthday, and we're spending it in the neighborhood of his youth.  We've never traveled here together like this, just for fun. Judging by his grin, you'd think he was becoming a kid all over again.

Dad Pointing Dad in front of deli

"I used to stare at the beach from that window", he says, pointing to the top floor of the building on the corner of Brighton Beach Ave and Brighton 13th Street.  "Six stories was as high as the fire department allowed buildings to be back then.  That was high enough to look out over the Brighton Beach Baths and Racquet club", he says looking across the street to where the famous private landmark stood for ninety years.  Now, the waterfront property that used to be low-lying courts and pools is high-rise condominiums.  "You can't see the beach from Brighton Beach Ave anymore", he says with just a bit of irony.

Turning down a side street, we are now standing in front of a small two-story, four-apartment house.  "This is where I lived between the ages of 4 and 6", he says, "Out the back window my parents had a built a box to hold food in the winter.  We didn't have a refrigerator.  We had an icebox.  A horse drawn cart delivered the ice.  It also delivered coal - ice and coal in the same cart. There was horse manure everywhere.  Charlie Chaplin-like workmen would come by with brooms, shovels, and buckets to clean it up".  

Standing on the street lined with fancy cars and almost every passersby gabbing on their cell phones, it's hard to picture that he remembers horse drawn ice and coal delivery here, but that was 1934, in the heart of the depression, so why not.  That seems perfectly reasonable, and don't be too surprised if those days come back. "My father had a car once, for a few years", he says, adding, "Few people in the neighborhood had cars then".

Dad in front of school Dad Staring up

"We used to make fires and cook potatoes here", my dad says, standing by the metal fence of a playground.  "It wasn't a playground then, it was just a vacant lot", he says.  "You cooked potatoes here”, I asked, somewhat bewildered.  "Yeah", he says. "We'd build a fire and some kids would steal potatoes from their parents pantries and cook them".

Moving on, we're now on Brighton 12th Street, standing in front of Public School 225 (PS 225).  "This is where I went to elementary school", he says, "and this is where I learned to ride a bike.  I used to walk it to the playground behind the school and practice there."  Suddenly, however, there is consternation.  "What are all those cars doing here?!", he exclaims, looking at the parking lot filled with vehicles, "This used to be the school playground."  Indeed, the playground behind the school where he learned to ride a bike was now a parking lot.  What does that tell us?  

Standing directly adjacent to the school, my dad looked up at another six-story building and pointing toward some windows said, "My uncle Abe and aunt Pearl lived there.  Their daughter and her husband lived in the apartment above."  It was at that point that the sense of community struck home.  His parents, aunt, uncle, cousins, school, and friends, were all within a few blocks of each other in this small, tight, Brooklyn Jewish neighborhood.  This was his life as a kid.

Dad on boardwalk  Russian Sign

"The parents of friends of mine ran the fun house at Coney Island", he adds, while we are both a bit later walking on the boardwalk. "When their parents got older, my friend and his brothers took over the business", he says, "I went to Coney Island often."  In fact, it's because of his friend in the amusement park business that he met my mom. She was a Coney Island gal, and he was a sailor man, fresh out of the navy.  How many hot dogs they must have eaten at Nathans? 

What struck us both was how the whole neighborhood has now become Russian.  "Little Odessa", it's called.  All the shop signs are in Russian, and you hear Russian in all the markets.  "Were the signs all in Yiddish or Hebrew back then", I ask my dad. "No", he says firmly, "They were in English. People wanted to assimilate."


Old Brighton Beach

Nathans Mrs. Stahls