by Erica Lann Clark

Story Summary

In the melting pot of the very poor, Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, NY neighborhood, there lived Irish, Italians, Blacks, Polish, Jews and one Holocaust escapee kid -- Erica. Kids only played with their own kind on their own block, but since Erica didn’t belong to any of those groups, she got to play with everybody. For Erica, that’s how unexpected friendships (and unexpected prejudices) formed.

Discussion Questions

  1. Were you ever “the only one” of your “kind” in your class or neighborhood? Were you excluded or included? How did being “the only one” make you feel?
  2. What are some ways you got to know someone new to your neighborhood or class?
  3. What are some ways you have helped someone different from you feel welcome and at ease in your school or in your community?

Resources

  • Teaching Tolerance a magazine for educators is published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It has strategies by educators for educators. SPLC is dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation's children.
  • Nobody Left To Hate: Teaching Compassion after Columbine is a book by social psychologist Elliot Aronson. Social psychology is the scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others.

Themes

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Jewish American/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript
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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 Sty; Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Bed Sty 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 vat 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 a 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 what do you do on a fire escape does not count!”

I thought she was prejudiced against Harold. But then she said, “What counts in his life Erica is that our doors open on zis Jewish block; this modern Jewish block and not on zat orthodox one.”

Oh… yeah… My mother, she didn’t believe in God and she didn’t believe in old fashioned stuff like keeping Shabbos 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 that in school I got a new seatmate Miriam and Miriam came from that 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 second best friend and her stoop became my synagogue. We’d sit there, me and her and her county, Kodak Brownie camera and hmm, she took pictures of everything. Miriam and in between she taught me how to be Jewish. You want to know who gets Bar Mitzvah’d? Not us. Only the boys. Ya know what we get? What? When we get  married – we get to wear a wig! No! 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 wanna learn it? Yesss!

And just then the whole street went completely silent. Is it God coming? No it’s the Lubovitchers – look! They’re way Orthodox. And there they came the Lubovitchers, two abreast and they were looking straight ahead like they didn’t see anybody on the street. They were wearing their long black shiny coats and big black hats and they’re payot, their sideburns hung down to (looks downward). 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 snapped, click, took their picture but they didn’t even care. They parted around us like we were a couple of boxes. And then from behind their backs, they wiggled their fingers at us like uuh 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 Lubovitchers and they waved at me. And she turned, “Erica from our experience in the you know what, ve are not prejudiced. You know vat I mean. But in this life, you cannot play potchkeh, potchkeh with everyone!”

“What are you talking about Ma.”

“ I am speaking of this Miriam who you like so much and you like these Yiddish things that she teaches you, but you think because you are both Jewish you are the same? Ohhh look where she lives, It’s like a shtetl and look where we live. Our people left the shtetl many years ago. We come from Vienna a great city, ve live on this modern block and you mark my vords, one day ve vill get out of here. But your Miriam – eeeenh, when she is an old woman and (inaudible), she will still be zer. On zat Lubovitcher 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 mishpocheh 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.