Reminiscences of a Childhood - Neighborhood Mayhem and Personalities

by Barbara L. Rothschild


A few weeks ago, for the umpteenth time, I had the pleasure of viewing on one of the classic film television channels, the 1980 film production of "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF." Written and produced by Jerome Robbins, as a tribute to his father, whose life had similar beginnings and experiences as the characters that Robbins introduced in his play. All of the persons represented in the production, resided in a small village or "shtetl" in Tzarist Russia.....who they were, personality traits, interaction as members of the community, etc.

The time frame of the story occurs at the height of Anti-Semitic Pogroms anywhere from the early 1880's, until the around the first decade of the 20th , near the beginning of great immigrations to America by many cultures and ethnicities. The area of the world where the tale unfolds, familiarly was called "The Pale," then, in its time. The area had a very overwhelming large population of Jewish people.

"FIDDLER ON THE ROOF" was first presented as a Broadway play, beginning in 1964, and was an instant smash hit. Among the soon-to-be famous celebrities cast in a role at the play's inception, was the very talented and versatile diva, Bette Midler, whose career was soon to reach the utmost heights of fame.

The Hollywood film version followed in 1980, and starred Topol, the well received Israeli actor, as the protagonist and main character, Tevye, the local dairyman of the "shtetl." Throughout the many ongoing years of the Broadway play version, the role of Tevye was performed by some very well known actors, such as Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, etc.

Until the present time today, the production of "FIDDLER" still maintains its vast popularity, often yet staged by any number of groups: various organizations, high schools, colleges, amateur and professionals, among others who perform the play. The production has also been occasionally done for fundraising benefit of any number of charitable organizations .....or it has simply been staged once more.... purely by desire and demand of public joy and entertainment. Productions are held worldwide, and at any given time, the play has been translated into many diverse world languages.

For those readers of Old Newark, who might not yet be familiar with the story line of "FIDDLER," (and I doubt that many such persons exist), I would imagine most everyone can recognize or recall the tale of Tevye and his family and life. For those few who may not recall, I will give a basic synopsis of what the story reveals:

Tevye, who is always being "henpecked" by his domineering wife, Goldie, is an impoverished Jewish dairyman. He is also the father of five unmarried daughters, for whom eventual "suitable" husbands must be found, beginning with the eldest daughter. Tevye and his family reside in a small "shtetl" or village, called Anatevka, somewhere in Russia, called "The Pale." This was an area that once had a very great number of the Jewish population.

Tevye wants the best for his family, although he can provide very little. He wishes his daughters "marry well', the custom in the community then, being arranged marriages through matchmakers, called "shadchens." However, these are matches also made with the "papa's" approval, and the suitability, prospect and " rank of choice",rank of of the prospective groom and his family, is also dependent on the family's financial circumstances of the prospective bride...and once again, Tevye is a very poor dairyman. He follows "traditions" in both his religious beliefs and in his manner of everyday life, holding on to "the old ways", and MO mostly with rebuff to "new thinking," or ideologies, and he lives according to the dictates,customs and times established long ago within his community. He is decidedly not an iconoclast! He interacts well with his fellow villagers and neighbors, describing each one by their personalities, vocations and livelihoods...and also their various idiosyncrasies.

Tevye is really not sure the reasons why he follows ordained traditions; he just does. However, he often bemoans/questions his impoverished, worrisome lot in life, sharing his problems by constantly engaging in soliloquies with his God, eyes always Heavenward in appeal. He seeks resolution and advice; he beseeches his Higher Power for wisdom and understanding,... why does life have to be so unfair?.... Why do some people hate others?... These are some of his cares:... Personal and familial matters, poverty, five daughters to properly "marry off"... The constant fear of prejudice.... and the peril of violence towards those whom he loves, respects and cares deeply for.... Fear of sudden Pogroms authorized by Tzarist mandate and government officials and authorities...these all comprise the majority of his woes, as he complains to God for remedy.

However, Tevye does like most of his neighbors, and the feeling is mostly reciprocated. He heartily describes many of his co-villagers: who they are, their appearances, their likes, their habits, similarities, differences, his discourse and comportment with them......and of course,........ Individual peculiarities, or if you will, their personal idiosyncrasies. Yet, most of the people are tolerated and accepted, for the most part, some even loved, by most everyone in Tevye's immediate community.

So begins my recall of events and individuals, some of those different neighbors, who shared living in the Belmont Avenue community, along with my family, and including so many of my close friends and former playmates.......

Everyone recognized "C." We only knew her by her first name, never more than that, but everyone knew she was English. She spoke with a beautiful lilting accent,.. that is,when she spoke or did not rant loudly and maniacally ...It was said, even supposed, that she had come from London, sometime in the unknown past. She surely must have lived in America for a long time, anyway. She was "elderly", (according to those times), perhaps aged in the late '50's, or early '60's. It was surmised she was probably a homeless person, (no one really seemed to know where she resided), if indeed ever she lived locally. She was just there. She was seen by everyone, strolling just about daily throughout the neighborhood, usually at the same hour, and always going about the business of nothing. Often, she was heard mumbling, usually something about "people being locked in a jitney." She would also persistently rave about someone who stole her false dentures.. She was a very poor soul, quite unbalanced, and obviously mentally ill.

Her hair, always unkempt, was perpetually in wild disarray. It was steel gray, long, and worn loose and free, whenever you saw her. She usually wore the same clothing, over and over again...and ALWAYS everything in the color of the brightest red shades imaginable: shoes, overcoat, dress, hat...even her hosiery, which was torn and very dirty,... As definitely was her entire person. Most remarkably, was the makeup. One could not avoid seeing the heavily layered pancake cosmetic face powder,... and always with two huge circles of red, clown like rouged cheeks, finishing with heavily applied , and extremely bright, red lipstick. It was rumored she had been a "lady of the evening" during the first World War, and that somehow, she had become unbalanced after the war ended. The year she came to America was unknown, as stated previously.

We, the children of the neighborhood, were terribly frightened of "Miss C," our mothers having strictly forewarned us to keep our distance from her. It was visually quite apparent how extremely physically dirty she was, caked on dirt, having the probability of head and body lice. Heaven forbid we children pick up from her, chancing whether she approached us closely in any way, or vice versa! It was also quietly rumored among the adults, she had become mentally ill, due to having had some venereal diseases, many times over, in the past. Being very young, innocent children back then, we naturally never understood or knew ANYTHING about SUCH THINGS, as was known or spoken of, it was only in the world of the adults. (Times have changed today, haven't they?!!)

Yet, there was also some compassion for "C."...the local merchants and neighbors would very often hand her food, out of sympathy for her, and sometimes, even pocket change also, even articles of used or discarded womens' clothing no longer wanted or needed. She was truly very pitied, just an "old and harmless" woman no one really wanted association with, nor really dare or care to approach very much. She would IMMEDIATELY wade and pick through any clothing given to her, promptly discarding any item of clothing ...if it wasn't the color RED. When she would occasionally disappear from the neighborhood for a while, it was assumed she was taken away to Greystone Park Asylum, in Morristown, New Jersey, a New Jersey State or Essex County mental institution, now thankfully long closed and gone. When she would next suddenly appear again in the neighborhood, everyone surmised she had probably been there and released, ( as previously stated, she was non-violent), because for a short while when she returned, she did appear to be more cleanly,... but only for a short while.

One day, finally "C." disappeared ...forever. It was rumored she had died, perhaps while at Greystone, no one ever really knew or found out what her destiny was. Apparently having had no other family to provide her with a burial,, she was most certainly interred in "Potter's Field," given an indigent's funeral, courtesy of the state, county and taxpayers.

We also had local and harmless neighborhood alcoholics. Everyone knew a few of those back in their own childhood neighborhoods, of that I am certain!

The funny thing is, Mr. "M." was a "happier drunk," much more pleasant and funny than when he was cold sober, which he rarely was. When sober, he was a truly nasty and miserable curmudgeon, simply put, just a harmless " 'ole cuss." You would daily see him being safely escorted back to his home, to sleep it off until the next day, and around the same hour every single day,usually escorted by some of the more concerned neighborhood men. The next day, it was, of course, the same thing all over again, business as usual. When he was intoxicated, he would very often come up with the funniest jokes, never of the "dirty' variety, such as the repeated obscenities spouted by many of today's comedians. I would suppose that once in a while, Mr. "M." came up with one or two "really good ones," while in the sole company of the men who helped him arrive home, but NEVER, no matter how drunk, while in the presence of women and children. No one ever figured out how he managed to remain so "respectful and polite," even during his most drunken state of mind! But he did... And oddly enough, he was always seen somewhat sober, when he regularly attended religious services, as one understood how he did that, either, him being such an habitual alcoholic.

He was also an elderly bachelor individual, or at least, so it seemed. Everyone figured his wife took off, left him, because of the alcoholism, and that perhaps, he may have had been abandoned or estranged from children, if he had any,... And perhaps also from other family members. He never indicated that he had any relatives, never spoke of any, drunk or sober, so far as anyone knew. If he did, they probably could not cope with the many problems of alcoholism, that is what everyone in the neighborhood believed. No one seemed to know whatever became of him, either. One day, he just fell off the planet...probably died of malnutrition, psrosis of the liver, or something akin to any of these ailments.

Then there was Mr."R." Also a hard core alcoholic, this seemingly middle aged African American man, would go from apartment building to building, and then from private house to house, (there were some in the neighborhood, mostly two to three family homes. ) Mr. "R." was seeking to earn cash, by cleaning windows and glass storefronts, in order to have enough to cover and spend on his favorite pastime of drinking cheap whiskey. Mr. "R." also never had any family either, we believed, was truly a hard worker, and damn good at what he did. There were many takers of "R's" services, because usually, besides enduring the strong odor of liquor on his breath, no one did a better job of cleaning windows than Mr. "R."...very thorough, indeed! He never harmed a soul. He had his strict and own "personal" methods of cleaning windows; he insisted that wiping with old newspapers and using a mixture of plain tap water mixed with vinegar, was the best and surest way to make windows sparkle....and he was right! The neighborhood, especially the busy housewives, used to love him for his work! Somehow, he managed to meet all his needs for living, rent included, but no one knew where he lived or came from. He would just suddenly appear, and usually each and every springtime, after a usually long, hard winter of snow, much cold, and a lot of urban soot left over, caking all the windows in the home.

Everyone ran a quick distance to avoid seeing "Mrs. O." coming down the block. She was forever trying to peddle raffle tickets of every kind, each and every time she met or saw anyone walking in the neighborhood. And then there was Mrs. "W.", who for whatever reason, was an early "working mom," and she sold cheap house dresses and such, going from house to house, and door to door. Very often, women would not answer their doorbell, peeping through the blinds and seeing it was Mrs. "W", because she was so very persistent in making a sale. I guess one might say, she was an early type of "Avon Lady," the company not yet quite existing, at least not in our neighborhood back then. She always had a great sales pitch, and housewives felt "guilty" if they didn't purchase anything from her...she just made everyone feel they just "had to have" whatever it was she sold, on any given day," because she was a neighbor." Just trying to make a living, I guess.

Miss "P.", was an super obese person, perhaps weighing in at more than four hundred pounds. She was some type of office manager. A career woman with an important job, (and that was very early for that era), she had a special seat manufactured for her automobile, to accommodate her "avoirdupois." She could not fit in to drive the vehicle, otherwise. As I recall her now, she was very neat and very intelligent, and truly a very kind and sweet woman. She had a beautiful face, and was probably in her mid thirties, or thereabouts. Just a wonderfully, good person, she truly was!

One hot, summer day, there was a great deal of clamor in the neighborhood. No one had air conditioning back then, and Belmont Avenue was a very economically modest neighborhood. Most everyone had window fans devices, to cool off...maybe,.. if they could afford one. Most neighborhood windows were open on those very hot days, and suddenly there were very loud screams and calls for help that everyone was hearing. Shortly thereafter, the sound of fire trucks, sirens fully blaring away, and specifically the arrival of the very large hook and ladder trucks. Persistently loud screaming continued, when neighbors realized the sounds were emanating from Miss "P.'s" apartment, from her bathroom window, to be precise. The poor lady had decided to take a bath, after coming home from a lengthy work day ....and somehow had became stuck in her bath tub. She could not get herself free and out of the tub in any way, apparently! Unfortunately, nude and very embarrassed, the poor soul had to be extricated with the assistance of firemen, who had to come to her rescue. There was no other simple, less painful way to go about it, other than to haul the unfortunate woman out, in the fastest way possible, in order to save her life, perhaps avoiding her from having a fatal heart attack.

The neighborhood excitedly talked about this event for many days afterward, and very few spoke with any mirth or ridicule about it. Most of us felt sympathy for this very nice young woman, and she was a well liked, good neighbor for many years. Many women brought Miss "P."foods and cakes after her ordeal, a bit later that same week, as if somewhat an attempt to commiserate or compensate her for enduring such suffering, shame and humiliation.., but foodstuffs were truly the very least thing that Miss "P."quite needed then. Everyone surely had to realize the many physical problems and ailments she must have suffered, yet no one really knew HOW to assuage her pain and embarrassment of the situation, and as I would imagine it, there was plenty of that. Neighbors thought that by offering her some gifts, it would help her mood somewhat, I guess. For the majority of people, food is and will forever be a welcome comfort, and appropriate as a gift for any occasion, be it happy or sad. Surely, the women of the neighborhood did not intend any offense to her, by the offer of "goodies."

These are but few of the many types of people that inhabited my childhood neighborhood.

As I become an "elderly" person myself now, almost at least more than fifty years since the passage of those times, I look back at history with much nostalgia, for the many memories I yet have of my growing up years, and yes, even respect, for the many differences between all of those individuals who were once known as neighbors.



Email this memory to a friend.
Enter recipient's e-mail: