A Coney Island Chanukah: The Surprise on the Clothesline
Not many children can boast of having an amusement park in their backyard, but I lived on West 3rd street in Coney Island where Deno’s Ferris Wheel, the Cyclone Roller Coaster and the Parachute Jump anchored an alternative carnival of a universe for a child growing up in a modest third floor walk up in the 1950s. Several years later, a visionary developer named Fred Trump purchased the entire neighborhood of rundown tenements and the site would become home to a sprawling Trump Village.
Outside our kitchen window, which overlooked a courtyard, my father, David, had suspended a long clothesline that extended about 30 feet, the entire length of the courtyard. It was in constant motion.
There was no washer or dryer in our house. Dora, my mother, converted our bathtub into a laundry with her wooden and metal washboard. After vigorously scrubbing our clothes with a bar of dark brown soap, she carried them into the kitchen where she removed the wooden clothespins that hung in a sack alongside the window and expertly pinned each item to the line. Several hours later my mother reeled them in, all dry and smelling of sunshine. But one magical Chanukah night, more than just laundry was reeled in from the clothesline.
My brother Milton and I had already lit our simple metal menorah and eaten our fill of the potato latkes that had been expertly fried by my mother when my tati, my father, announced he heard a noise outside our kitchen window. He purposefully pulled on the clothesline, reeled in a large black sock, thrust his hand inside and to our childish delight pulled out two bright orange tangerines! How did they get there? My father laughed knowingly and said they must have been left as gifts for Milton and me. Maybe it was the carols we learned to sing in public school or the constant barrage of holiday television ads, but we were only too eager to believe that we weren’t forgotten.
I attended Public School 100, located directly across the street from our apartment, where my third grade class was busy rehearsing the play “Christmas Everywhere.” My classmate, Mitchell, and I starred as the brother and sister who visited various countries to learn how each different culture celebrated the holiday. However, there was a lot of discussion in our house as to whether I should take part in the play.
My parents survived the Holocaust, and allowing their child to participate in a play with a Christmas theme posed a serious dilemma. Although my ancestors had been shtetl-dwelling citizens of Poland for hundreds of years, the Holocaust had left my parents homeless and stateless. Poland became totally lawless after World War II and the few surviving Jews who tried to return to their homes were murdered by the locals who had confiscated their property. Ironically, it was Germany, now under the control of the Allied Forces, which provided a safe haven for the Jews who were temporarily housed in Displaced Persons Camps throughout the country.
I was born in 1947 in a makeshift Jewish hospital on the grounds of the St. Ottilien monastery outside of Munich, while my parents were shuttled around from one miserable DP camp to another. For them and the thousands of other survivors, emigration became their only option and so they put their names on a list and waited. My mother’s Aunt Hinda, her father’s sister, had come to America in the 1920s, and agreed to be our sponsor so that our family wouldn’t be a burden on U.S. citizens and could be considered for immigration.
President Harry Truman finally set out the welcome mat for the surviving remnant, known as the Sh’erit ha-Pletah, in 1948. Our family’s turn came in 1951 when we boarded the General Harry Taylor, a converted troop carrier and set sail for America. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society found us a temporary two-room apartment in a boarding house on West 2nd Street in Brooklyn.
My father came from a family of expert craftsmen who constructed many of the buildings and furniture in his town of Sarnaki. In America, my father became a master carpenter and as he began to prosper, we were able to rent an apartment in the more upscale 2964 West 3rd street building located one block away from our boarding house. One day, my parents filled up a wheelbarrow with our meager belongings and we moved up in the world, literally.
As was the custom in Europe, my mother and father were raised to be very respectful of schoolteachers and they were especially fond of Mrs. Carol Reilly who had presented me with my very first book, “Alice In Wonderland,” as a reward for winning the Class 3-1 spelling bee. The controversy over my participation in the holiday production was finally settled when my mother consulted Betty, one of her few surviving relatives and a very worldly cousin, who insisted it was only a play, with the emphasis on “play.”
Assimilation was the buzzword in the 1950s and my Americanization began when I started kindergarten and learned to speak English. When I had my first appointment with the school dentist, he encouraged my parents to give me a name more appropriate for an American child and so Chaya became Helen. When the television set finally invaded our house we were mesmerized by shows like “Father Knows Best” and I was only too eager for my tati to become daddy.
But then a funny thing happened on the road to assimilation. Our adult children began to embrace the heritage of their grandparents and today my nephew, Eric, has become the tati to his young daughters. That simple word stirs emotions deep within me evoking the beloved image of a man who could create anything from an origami duck to a wooden cradle for my doll. And one Chanukah night my tati gave me the gift of a loving memory that still warms my heart more than sixty years later.