THE OTHER BLOCK
A short story told by
Easily identifiable, Erica Lann-Clark tells of childhood dreams and friendships. We all have that special friend whom we were so close to in our youth. The one with whom we shared secrets and time. Ms. Lann-Clark discloses a story of her close childhood friend, Miriam. Both being Jewish and from neighboring blocks, these girls shared a bond of friendship that allowed Ms. Lann-Clark to grow in her understanding of her own Jewish heritage. Not having the devoutness that Miriam possessed, she was fascinated with the orthodox practices of her friend. She relished the opportunities to discuss and experience being Jewish in the fullest sense.
Listen and relate to the innocence of childhood, and to the closeness of having a good friend. Cherish the memory of that special friend of your youth, but recognize that childhood friends rarely extend beyond adolescence. They do, however, last forever in our recollections and make us smile with fondness.
Listen and learn from this beautiful story:
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Other-Block
Hi, I’m Erica Lann-Clark. When I was a little girl, we were dirt poor immigrants, new to America, so we lived where the poorest of the poor lived, in Bed-Stuy. Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy had dangerous gangs, so, everybody had to have their own block. The Irish block was over here. The Italian block was there. In between, was the Polish block, but the Jews had to have two blocks. Our block was right around the corner from the black block and it was where all the regular Jews lived. But way over there, was another Jewish block where the Orthodox Jews lived.
Now, everybody only played with their own group on their own block, except for me because I didn’t have a group. I mean, my parents, they were Jewish but they weren’t regular and they weren’t Orthodox. We were Holocaust escapee Jews or, as my mother would say, “You know vhat escapee Jews.”
She never used the H-word. But, on account of that, I got to play with every group on every block. And it was completely okay for my best friend to be Harold. Our apartments were right around the corner from each other. They were on the same floor. I was on the Jewish block. He was on the black block, and our fire escapes faced each other, kitty corner. And we would go out and stand on our fire escapes, and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk.
And one day, I said to my mother, “I love our fire escape. It’s my private Harold telephone.”
And she said, “Erica, in zis life, vhat you do on the fire escape, does not count.”
I thought she was prejudiced against Harold. But then she said, “Vhat counts in zis life, Erica, is zat our door is open on zis Jewish block, zis modern Jewish block, and not on zat Orthodox von.”
Oh, yeah, my mother, she didn’t believe in God, and she didn’t believe in old fashioned stuff like keeping Shabbat, and going to synagogue, and, and keeping kosher, and talking Yiddish. But for me, all of that stuff, well, there was something about it.
And then, in the school, I got a new seatmate, Miriam. And Miriam came from that other Jewish block, the Orthodox one, where they had a synagogue, and they even talked Yiddish on the street. And I was so excited.
And Miriam became my secret, sacred, s… second-best friend, and sh… her stoop became my synagogue. We’d sit there, me and her and her county… Kodak Brownie camera. And, uff, she took pictures of everything, Miriam. And, in between, she taught me how to be Jewish.
“You want to know who gets bar mitzvahed. Not us, only the boys. You know what we get?”
“We get, when we get married, we get to wear a wig.”
“Yes. You want to know all the secret, sacred names of God, even the secretest one you could never, never say it ’cause terrible things might happen. God might come and you wouldn’t know what to say to him. And when you write it, you have to leave one letter out. You want to learn it?”
And just then, the whole street went completely silent. “Is that God coming?”
“No, it’s the Lubavitchers! Look, they’re way Orthodox.”
And there they came, the Lubavitchers, two abreast. And they were lookin’ straight ahead like they didn’t see anybody on the street. They were wearing their long, black, shiny coats and big black hats and their payots, their sideburns hung down to… And they never cut their beards, never shaved all the way down.
And Miriam grabbed me, and grabbed her camera, and we lunged in front of them and she… Snap. Click. Took their picture but they didn’t even care. They parted around us like we’re a couple of boxes. And then from behind their backs, they wiggled their fingers at us like, ooh, waving! I was so thrilled. Finally, I had seen real Jews. I ran home, burst into the apartment.
“Ma, I finally saw real Jews, the Lubavitchers, and they waved at me.”
And she turned, “Zo, Erica, from my experiences in ze you know vhat, ve are not prejudiced. You know vhat I mean. But, in zis life, you cannot play paczki, paczki viz everyone.”
“What are you talking about, Ma?”
“I’m speaking of zis Miriam, who you like so much. And you like zees Yiddish zings zat she teaches you but you zink because you are both Jewish, you are the same. Huhhhh. Look vhere she lives. It’s like a shtetl. And look vhere ve live. Our people left the shtetl many years ago. Ve come from Vienna, a great city, and ve live on zis modern block and, you mark my vords. Von day, ve vill get out of here. But your Miriam? Ahhh! Vhen she is an old woman, an alteh bubbe, she vill still be zer on zet Lubavitcher block in her vig!”
And as she said that, Miriam shriveled into an old Jewish woman, who schleps her folding chair down from her apartment to the mischpoke of folding chairs on the sidewalk. And in the winter, they all chase the sun, and in the summer, they all chase the shade.
And I never sat on Miriam’s stoop again. And my mom was right. We got out.
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