ACTUALLY, BERKLEY, DIDN’T SEEM SO BAD. THERE WAS NO MALICE IN THE KIDS THERE. WE WERE ALL JUST PLAYING BY THE “RULES”. I DIDN’T ENCOUNTER REAL BIGOTRY, UNTIL I MOVED TO SEVEN MILE ROAD AND MET TWO OF MY OWN KIND, JEWS
One aspect of both Judaism and bigotry that has always fascinated me is something that both Jews and bigots have in common: That is the uncanny ability to spot a Jew a mile away. I never quite figured out how they could do it, the nose, the name? It was an art, maybe the only one, I consciously strove to never master.
I first saw this knack in action when we arrived at Seven Mile Road. There were two Jewish boys, who lived around the corner, Thank God, at least, a block away. Their names were “Bloom”, and they were brothers. The older one was John. Hummm, John doesn’t seem like a Jewish name to me. He was a few years older than his younger brother, Douglas, who always went by his creepy nickname, “Snazzy”. Snazzy was about my age. Of course, they had the knack of smelling out Jews, and appeared at my house, the first day.
The Second World War was in full swing, and racial and national stereotypes were considered OK. We were all taught to hate the enemy, and call them names that would be considered politically incorrect today. Germans were called “Nazis”, and that was bad enough a word for them. It had an ugly sound to it, sort of like “nasty” or, for that matter, “Snazzy”. But “Japanese” just wasn’t hateful enough, so they had to be called “Japs”! Even Bugs Bunny called them that. Well, how can I best describe John and Snazzy Bloom? Sinister grins, high cheek bones, thick glasses, and squinty eyes; they looked like wartime caricatures of Tojo. In other words, they looked like “Japs” to me!
Anyway, they asked if I could “come out and play”. And when I did, they began to plead their case, explaining that, like me, they too were Jewish, and therefore, we were required to be friends. Furthermore, we had to stick together and pool our energy to fight our common enemy. The enemy, in this case, they explained, was the boy who lived right behind me. Bucky was his name, and he was a “Dirty Pollack”. I don’t think I’d ever heard that word before. I later learned that he was Polish. Because of this, I had to hate him, and, eager to please, at that moment I did despise him with a passion, sight unseen.
The next thing I knew they were leading me to the far corner of my back yard where it overlapped a corner of Bucky’s, the place, where my Father’s Magic Fountain would, one day, be. At John’s direction, we crawled on our hands and knees. The Bloom brothers assured me that this was proper protocol when stalking the enemy. Then, through a clearing in the bushes, they pointed out Bucky’s house to me. Mercifully, the odious Bucky was nowhere to be seen.
The house itself was rather large and stately. It was also somewhat creepy, not unlike the one occupied, years later, by the Addams family on TV, or a miniature version of Hogwarts Academy, yet to be. In the back yard, stood a galvanized pipe swing set, impressive in its playground size.
As the coast was clear, we could stand up to plot our strategy. My two new friends coached me, explaining that when we saw Bucky we would shout “You’re a Dirty Polack”, repeatedly. Then they started gathering stones and putting them in little ammo piles. Suddenly Snazzy got an inspired idea, and what he did, next, absolutely flabbergasted me. He gingerly pulled down his pants, stuck out his ass, and took a crap right on the grass!
According to an entry in the blue satin covered baby book my mother made for little me, I was toilet trained when I was four and a half months old. Be that as it may, suffice it to say that, apart from being anal retentive, I became extremely neat and tidy, as a child, anyway. And Snazzy’s spontaneous defecation totally repulsed and revolted me.
Then, to my amazement, he managed to pick up his masterpiece, aided by some sticks and leaves, and forging boldly through the bushes, deposited it, steaming hot, on one of one of Bucky’s swing seats!.
Now, as he scurried back again, Bucky, who had, apparently, been watching all this through a window, stormed out of his house, steaming mad! Then, to my utter astonishment, he picked up the still hot poo-poo in his hand, and flung it back again. With that, the War began! Stones and insults filled the air: “You’re a dirty Pollack!”, “You’re a dirty Jew”, again and again. I had been transported into no man’s land, buffeted by the Horrors of War!
I’m sitting here now, wracking my brain, in vain, trying to remember just what happened then, trying to remember how it came to an end. Even If my life depended on it, I don’t believe I can. But I do recall the empty feeling, the hollow realization that my heart just wasn’t in it. I couldn’t even understand it. How did I get into this mess, anyway? I’d let those Jews lead me astray. I was in over my head.
The next day I saw Bucky in his back yard, sitting on that self-same swing seat. Somehow I mustered up the courage walk over to the far corner of the yard where my father would construct his Magic Fountain, and stepped through that clearing in the bushes, for the first of what would be ten thousand times to follow, and as best I could, apologized to Bucky. His name was actually John, “John Tenerowicz”. But, as he had an older brother, whose name was also John, “Bucky” became his chosen name.
Before the week was over, we had become the best of friends. And so began a friendship that endured, from that time forward, until we reached our college days, and, little by little, drifted away. When I look back on all those years, and remember the great times we had together, having so much in common, and uncommon, at the same time, I give thanks for being blessed with such an amazing and amusing friend. And say to myself, time and again: “I was so lucky to have a friend like Bucky”
By the way, I never had anything to do with the Bloom Brothers again. Well, not if I could help it, anyway. They never got over it, the fact that I, a Jew, preferred the company of a “Dirty Pollack” over the miraculousness of them. They used to lay in wait to menace me on my way home from school. One day, the bigger brother caught up with me, and hit me. My Father called his father, and, thus, discovered where all that hate originated. Acorns, they say, don’t fall far from the parental tree. Sometimes, it pays to have a father who is a lawyer. That was the last time they ever bothered me.
Bigotry, for me, has always been tinged with Irony. Because my parents were each of different faiths, Fate gave me the ability to, not only, SEE, but BE on either side. And I always seemed to have just half a dog in any fight. Jewish or Gentile, “Yiddishe” or “Goyim”, as some of my obnoxious relatives would say, didn’t make much difference to me; I could swing either way. But growing up in Berkley, I identified with Jewish, and I had no reason to question it, until, that is, when I was six, and we moved to Seven Mile Road, where I met some Jews, who were not members of my own extended family.
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT