My grandparents’ house was a huge brownstone in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The upper two floors were rented to two rabbinical families. My grandparents and their large family (seven children still living at home) occupied the lower two floors.
In those days — the 1940’s — we had no car and it took a bus and a trolley car to get to grandma’s house. We (my mother and I and my baby brother who is seven years younger than I) would come there for all the major Jewish holidays, as well as many Sundays. We often came weeks before a holiday and stayed until weeks after. Momma was the only daughter, the galley slave, the one who helped grandma cook and clean. I can remember leaving for Passover with the world all gray and frosty and returning home to Boro Park, Brooklyn, to sunshine and budding trees. My mother would take me out of school for weeks on end. This — preparing for the holidays at grandma’s — was more important than school.
The house had three entrances — a high front stoop with an iron railing that led to the second floor; a main level door which was reached by passing through a small fenced front yard, and the back door that lead out to a large fenced yard with a grape arbor, pear and cherry trees and wild flowers.
The main hallway had no coat closet, but large brass hooks — a whole wall of hooks — which held dozens of coats, jackets and sweaters. There were always the coats of newcomers to America in this hallway; my grandparents’ home was a halfway house for immigrants — relatives, friends, landsleit (hometowners) — who stayed here until they got established in America. To the right of the hallway was a great dining room with a gigantic table and intricately carved dark furniture which looked like ebony. Here was the location of the largest seders I have ever seen. Thirty to forty people. One table added to another table added to another table — as many tables as required. I can still remember Uncle Hymie presiding over the children’s section, as both instigator of mischief and policeman. Here was the room where we gathered to plod endlessly through every word in the Haggadah before all my cousins and I, with our voracious appetites, could get something to eat. Often the service would be interrupted by Talmudic arguments between my grandfather and one of his sons. A narrow passageway that led from the dining room to the kitchen was lined with linen closets — they were often the source of the little surprises my grandmother had hidden away for me: an embroidered handkerchief, a colored hair ribbon, a package of fruit-filled candy.
The kitchen had a walk-in pantry, always filled with enormous pans of strudel and mandelbread, and pots — for cholent (Sabbath stew), for knaidlach (dumplings), for soup — large enough to use as baby baths. The only bathroom in the apartment was off the kitchen and had an oversized tub on clawed feet. On Friday nights, you could see lengths of pre-torn toilet paper draped over the radiator in preparation for the Sabbath. I always wondered what we would do if they had not prepared enough paper, but that never happened. At the back of the kitchen, past a closet for potatoes and onions, and up two steps, was the yard with its wooden swing big enough to seat four, and a special corner reserved for the building of a sukkah (harvest hut) each year. The fourth wall of the sukkah was the house itself so that grandma could open the window of her kitchen and pass the plates right through into the sukkah.
A polished wood staircase led upstairs. I can still remember my brave cousin Marilyn sliding down the smooth banister, the only one of us who ever had the guts to do it. She never got caught or spanked although we all lied to protect her when she hit her head on the metal ornament at the bottom.
There were three high-ceilinged rooms with polished mahogany doors on the second floor. The first was a room with twin beds where my brother and I often slept. On Friday nights, someone would bring a candle for us and put it on the dresser because it was already Shabbos and we could not use the lights. Left alone to sleep, we would hold hands across the gap between the beds as we watched the dwindling candle cast strange shadows on the walls. There was no bathroom on the second floor and we would not venture from our beds in the darkness, so we would lie there waiting for morning rather than go downstairs in the darkness to the bathroom.
The second bedroom was grandma and grandpa’s room, with twin beds and grandpa’s porcelain chamber pot.
The last room was the parlor, my favorite room in the house. It was about two-thirds the size of the entire floor. Rust damask drapes hung from the highest ceiling I had ever seen. Between the front windows was a mirror that ran from floor to ceiling with a small ledge at bottom where a child could sit. There was a sofa, several beds, easy chairs, another fireplace like the one in the dining room, a player piano, giant paintings in gold carved frames, wooden wardrobe closets to hide in, and best of all, a wind-up Victrola with strange Russian records that sounded even more strange when the Victrola needed winding. I spent a lot of time in that room.
When I tired of talking to “Crazy Irene,” the gentle retarded girl on the block (it feels terribly insensitive for me to call her that today, but in those days there was no understanding of retardation — especially among small children and uneducated people), I would sing and dance in that room in front of the tall mirror and make up songs in my head. I knew nothing about music and had difficulty writing down the melodies until I devised a system of “up dots and down dots” which enabled me to remember what I composed. I tried to play the piano and spent many hours thumping away, trying to make something familiar come out. Sometimes, when cousin Janet came, we would put on the Okeh “Laughing Record” and giggle until we wept.
I attended my grandparents’ Orthodox synagogue with its stained glass windows and separate sections for male and female. I paraded around with apples and candles painted on paper flags on Simchat Torah, and collected the colored tickets (yellow, blue, pink designating different seating sections) discarded as Yom Kippur drew to a close. When I was old enough, Uncle Victor presented me with my own prayer books and tickets to the High Holy Day services.
When I was about twelve, I began to rebel against religion and did not want to go to services anymore. Although I was a Talmud Torah (religious school) student, I was angry because my Hebrew education would not culminate in a bar mitzvah. Finally I quit. That year I said that I did not want to go to services and that they could get along without me. What difference did one more or less make, I asked.
Uncle Victor said he would buy me a ticket anyway, which got me even angrier. I felt guilty having a ticket and not using it. It does make a difference whether one comes or not, he said, because each of us is unique and cannot be replaced, a lesson I remembered in later years. Is there anything you like about it? he asked. Only the choir, I said. Then come for just that, he said. And I could not refuse him. The choir that year was superb, and when I told him that I enjoyed it, he beamed. I have gone every year since. My memories of that house are rich with Jewish tradition, with sounds of zmiros (holiday songs) and grace after meals, with tastes of knaidlach with griven (cracklings) centers, Passover birthday cakes made of sponge cake with strawberries, strudel and hamentashen. In that house, I spent many holidays with nothing to do and amused myself reading the Wonderland of Knowledge and an enormous two-volume dictionary, the only English books in the house.
I remember tashlich (a ceremony to symbolically cast sins away) on the Williamsburg Bridge and “Uncle Money-Bags” who came to the seder directly from his candy store, his nickels and dimes in the two canvas sacks — the size of small supermarket bags — he carried. Usually he would go straight to the bank with his sacks (no one gave him dollar bills — he sold penny candy!). But on holidays he came immediately home.
I remember the annual Chanukah party attended by more than 50 members of the family. Great numbers of latkes were consumed and the children stood on lines to collect their silver dollar Chanukah gelt. One distant relative always asked for a kiss in return, because he loved all the children so much — a reason for much shy giggling — and none ever denied his request, despite the tickling gray mustache.
At Grandma’s house, I received unconditional love, always. It was not that I did not get wonderful things in my parents’ home, too. I did. But at Grandma’s house everything was done in such an enormous way — the rooms, the tables, the furniture, the feelings, the number of people — everything was done on such a huge scale. And Grandma would sit at her table and look with great pride at the family gathered around her and say in Yiddish, “Ale fun meyn kerper aroys gegangen (All of you have come from my body.)”
Toby Joan Rosenstrauch writes for both children’s and women’s magazines. She recently became a grandmother herself.