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The Dancing Grandmothers of Jewish Jackson Heights

Susan Reimer-Torn
December 2, 2015

by Susan Reimer-Torn

Discussed in this essay: In Jackson Heights, a film by Frederick Wiseman. Zipporah Films, 2015, 190 minutes.

GROWING UP AS AN ORTHODOX JEW in Jackson Heights, back in the 1950s and ’60s, I knew we had been sidelined, as if a piece of the borough had broken off, lying forlorn and fallow, while other parts grew ever-more prosperous.

I’m told that “the downward slide” began when Jackson Heights was overlooked as a site for the new Orthodox day school that was instead built in Forest Hills. “We were like remnants,” my childhood friend, the filmmaker Toby Perl Freilich says, as we settle in to watch the new Fred Wiseman documentary, In Jackson Heights, at a sold-out show at the Film Forum.

82nd-street-jackson-heights-8I had scanned the lobby ticket line wondering if I would find any faces familiar from childhood. Those of us who grew up in the working-class monotone of the old Jackson Heights could not imagine our sleepy streets attracting this kind of artsy attention. Surely there were others, like Toby and I, who could not wait to see Wiseman’s take on its transformation into a colorful riot of ethnic diversity, where more than 150 languages are spoken? But I don’t recognize anyone, and have to remind myself that aside from merchants or neighbors, we only knew Jackson Heights’ Jews — and of those, only the ones whose families attended one of the two Orthodox synagogues. Grown now, they were not rushing out to see a documentary about a neighborhood they were all too happy to leave behind.

Toby and I are curious as to how, and indeed, if, Wiseman would treat the neighborhood’s Jewish past in his film, which focuses on the vastly diverse new immigrant populations of today. We get a capsule history in an early scene: An LGBT support group is meeting in the relocated and reduced premises of what was once a thriving Jewish Center. (That included a robust Conservative synagogue, which we Orthodox kids did not frequent.) A gay male activist explains that this synagogue now finds itself in need of others to participate in its upkeep. He adds that he finds the locale to be well established in its inclusive embrace of sexual-orientation diversity. Toby and I turn to one another, astonished: This was not a population that was at all visible to us in our youth, though the people on screen evoke a long history of the neighborhood as sanctuary.

All that Wiseman documents about Jackson Heights as a refuge for displaced Indians, Bangladeshis, and Central and South Americans had a prototype in the post-war era among its resident Jews.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY of Jews in Jackson Heights would speak of a small prewar presence. Postwar subsidized housing catered to returning vets, many of them secular, left-leaning Jews, mostly working-class, quite separate from our religious crowd. The late 1950s saw the founding of Young Israel as a more forward-seeing umbrella for Orthodox congregations, and the integration of Holocaust survivors who arrived in the neighborhood at around the same time. Later, in the 1980s, the absorption of a new wave of ex-Soviet immigrants was natural in a Jewish community welcoming to its own in need.

I turned my back on the humble turf, as much for its relentless exhortation of piety as its failure to thrive. But a case study of our community might well link its typical upbringing of minimal indulgence informed by Jewish religious values to a high yield of achieving, socially-conscious adults. When I returned after decades of expatriate life, I remarked how many of my former Jackson Heights friends were contributors to Jewish and cultural life. Ari Goldman had been the religion editor of the New York Times, and Josh Barbanel was also on the paper’s staff; rabbi and educator David Silber was the founder of Drisha, the first serious institute of Jewish learning for Orthodox women; Ann Kirschner discovered a shoebox of letters under her mother’s bed that became the subject of the acclaimed book and exhibit, Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story; and I’m viewing the Wiseman film with Toby Perl Freilich, whose latest documentary is Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment. Others of my peer group are authors, academics, and community leaders of note. When our paths cross, it is a reunion with a landsman from a vanished, intimately recalled shtetl, complete with our own loyalty and lore.

Wiseman’s film triggers a stream of memories:

Our tight-knit group of observant families met every shabes. When we shared shabes meals, the women cooked and waited on the men; the spirited and soulful singing of zmirot in which we all raucously participated could go on for hours.

We elementary school kids had to take a combination of buses and subways to attend far-away yeshivas, stretching our already long school days into a couple of added commuter hours. When I was 9, I was in charge of a 7-year-old girl for the commute. I remember my panicked and catastrophic failure to find her a subway toilet in time, one awful afternoon. Later, in high school, we tolerated strangers molesting us in packed subway cars to Manhattan. We never questioned a physically and intellectually-demanding regime, and the abuse that today would be considered outrageous was more or less normal. We were not encouraged to complain.

Most of us lived in two and three-bedroom co-op apartments, often sharing a bedroom with siblings, without the verdure and bourgeois solidity of our classmates with private houses in thriving Orthodox sections such as Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. I remember my culture shock when entering Ramaz and visiting classmates’ ten-room Manhattan apartments on Madison and Fifth Avenues complete with en suite bathroom for each child and servant’s quarters. As a cheerleader, I often stayed over after Saturday night basketball games, noting the looks on neighbors’ faces when a classmate’s uniformed chauffeur drove me home Sunday morning in their shiny limo.

It never occurred to us to worry that we didn’t have enough. When with my friends we put on little plays, the admission price went to charity. Snobbery and social hierarchy did not take root here. On the other hand, my concern for aesthetics marked me as out of step, even at an early age; there was little distinction in Jewish Jackson Heights between a personal aesthetic and narcissism.

ONLY LATER DID I LEARN that it was unusual for American-born Jews like my parents, who had college degrees and unaccented English, to mingle seamlessly with people like Toby’s parents, Yiddish-speaking refugees courageously reconstituting shattered lives. Rabbi David Silber credits the enduring faith of the Jackson Heights survivors as a steady inspiration for his life’s path. Ann Kirschner, whose American father insisted they move to the suburbs, tells me that her own refugee mother was shattered by the forced rupture. The supportive friendships that were extended to her in our cozy Jackson Heights homes, and on outdoor benches when the weather was fine, were reminiscent of the Polish village she had lost in the war.

The survivors were not only welcomed, they were treated with a refined emotional intelligence. We never pressed for their stories but always listened respectfully when they arose. One shabes afternoon in the sitting area, Mrs. Freilich and Mrs. Orenstein, another survivor, learned that they had known people in common back in the Old Country, and their joy was profound. Rabbi Silber remembers his mother’s gentle insistence that he avoid the commercial Northern Boulevard when walking to Young Israel on shabes morning. He later realized that she did not want to risk his glimpsing one of the survivors who was obliged to work in his store that day.

Toby often told me how much it meant to her survivor mother to be included in the close friendships of American-born women, particularly the legendary one between Rabbi Silber’s mother, Martha, with my own mother, Mildred. The two women, who never heard of leaning in, much less having it all, supported one another daily in their roles as wives, mothers, New York City school teachers, and committed Jews.

I spent every shabes afternoon in gatherings of observant girlfriends from the neighborhood. We shared books and provocative ideas from our different day schools, along with family joys and woes. Week after week, for many years, we entered that limnal space where we could take on different characters and play-act our way through various invented scenarios, always informed with Jewish content. We role-played with an intensity and lack of self- consciousness that easily took us up to havdalah time. The prohibition of gadgets, TV, or any of the extant technology did much to foster creativity.

The Wiseman film makes me wonder where we all are now. From time to time. I spot, or hear news of, former Jackson Heights kids on the Upper West Side and at larger Jewish gatherings. With the film’s premiere, there was a flurry of bemused outreach on social media. But almost all of my Jackson Heights girlfriends are mothers and grandmothers of many children living in Israel, while several are living on settlements in the West Bank. I heard one, last time we spoke some twenty years ago, say something that was shocking to me about the, to her, not entirely regrettable assassination of Rabin. Another confided that she was living a lie, she was in fact a closet non-believer, terrified of breaking away and losing the respect of her vigilante sons. When visiting Israel, I am restive about a reunion in real time, uncomfortable with the clash between their allegiances and my own more rebellious path.

But I fully credit the soulful solidity of Jackson Heights with my own eventual reconciliation with religious Jewish life. When I attended Congregation B’nai Jeshurun a decade ago after a long estrangement, I knew the words to all the songs and whole Biblical passages were intact in my mind from Sabbath Torah readings of childhood.

JUST RECENTLY, at the musical Friday night BJ services, I noticed some young Israeli men behind me who seemed to be religious Zionists of army age, participating with enthusiasm. They tapped out rhythms and even some counter rhythms with talented fingers on prayer books, along with the percussionist. They got to their feet in contagious enthusiasm as the crowd dances to Lekha Dodi. As the music quieted, Rabbi Silber drew near. He asked me to say hello to a man I did not recognize: his younger brother, whom I have not seen for forty-five years, is visiting from Israel.

They are taking their leave and the young men behind me get up to leave as well. In a fleeting moment, I am introduced to his younger brother’s two sons.

Something decants as I return, alone, to my seat. The percussionist lending the beat to the BJ brand of Friday night fervor is my own son. A professional musician, raised in France by a still rebellious, Jackson Heights self-exile of a mom, he had little religious affiliation. But it was as if his Jackson Heights grandmother still had a hand in the course of events. It was my mom’s grandson providing the liturgical heartbeat for the visiting grandsons of her life-long best friend. Martha and Mildred were looking down from Jackson Heights heaven, joining in the celestial dance.

I can’t wait to tell that story to Toby as the Wiseman film ends and we emerge into the present.

Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of Maybe Not Such a Nice Girl: A Memoir of Rupture and Return, published by our Blue Thread Books.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.