A new generation returns to the ‘Old Country,’ Brooklyn

A new generation returns to the ‘Old Country,’ Brooklyn

A row of historic brownstones in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Courtesy of Miriam Groner/JW
A row of historic brownstones in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Courtesy of Miriam Groner/JW

Pop wouldn’t have believed it. Neither would my mother-in-law. “Brooklyn!” they would have cried. “You’re moving to Brooklyn?”

Here’s a young man, our grandson, bright and talented, born and bred in a tiny New Jersey suburb, the product of a day school education followed by a gap year in an Israeli yeshiva and topped off by an Ivy League diploma, with a solid new job in Manhattan, looking for his first apartment — where? In Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Of course, Brooklyn has a huge population of folks who never left for greener pastures — folks whose mansions and elaborate shuls and yeshivot sit along streets like Ocean Parkway, who live in places like Midwood and East Flatbush, not to mention the charedim of Williamsburg.

Brooklyn started becoming trendy decades ago. Places like Park Slope attracted young urban professionals. Those neighborhoods, however, became prohibitively expensive, far out of the reach of the present generation of newish, Jewish grads.

So, intrepid wannabe Brooklynites search out the neighborhoods that are a bit edgy, a bit off the beaten path — places like Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant.

I can hear my mother-in-law calling from the grave. “Crown Heights,” she would exclaim. “We ran from there; we only got as far as East Flatbush, but streets like Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway were places to escape from, not arrive at.”

Rosanne Skopp

And then there was Pop, my maternal grandfather. From where he was born — outside Bialystok, Poland — Brooklyn appeared as an ultimate and ephemeral dream destination, light years from the miseries of the Pale. First the goal was to come to America, where years of hard work and striving made his dream come true.

At first, he and Peshka, the grandmother I barely knew, settled in a cold-water flat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, the first American in the family, my mother, was born, joining two older brothers who had arrived with their parents from Europe. My mother always spoke of the bone-chilling cold in that apartment, and how Pop would iron her sheets every night before she, his princess, hunkered down. The delicious warmth was fleeting, but the love was not.

The parents had a dream. Escape to a place where there was heat and warm water, to the same place that their great-great-grandson would choose a century later: Brooklyn.

And so they struggled and worked without respite. They managed to buy a small hotel in the Catskill Mountains hamlet of Parksville, N.Y. With their earnings, they bought a brownstone in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, a short subway ride from Crown Heights. It was a given that the apartment on the second floor would be the offices of Dr. Charles Bauman, D.D.S., their second son. It would be quite an understatement to say the new dentist’s parents were inexorably proud with a lifelong-dream-fulfillment kind of pride.

But Brooklyn lost its charm for their progeny. My mother married and moved to another promised land, Weequahic, in Newark’s much-loved South Ward. Her brothers — Charlie, the dentist, and Dave, by then a successful businessman — moved with their families to Queens.

A row of restored brownstones in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Courtesy of Miriam Groner/JW

And the brownstone on Vernon Avenue, no longer needed after Peshka’s premature death, was sold to strivers from a different place. Pop moved to Weequahic, where he spent his remaining years living with us, around the corner from his new shul. He never longed for Brooklyn. It became a place in the family lore and nothing more.

I, however, did visit, more than once, with my children and grandchildren. We never went inside, but that building still looked perfect to me. Brownstones were built to last. Perhaps I planted the seeds for our grandson’s plans.

I still remember from childhood visits that the inside was odd; the three bedrooms were captive, one without a window at all. The kitchen was somehow disconnected from the rest of the apartment, and the bathroom was in the hall. There was, however, a nice back yard for Pop and Peshka; she would sit there in her wheelchair with the family dog, Phoebe, standing guard.

I don’t know anything about the apartment our grandson and his four buddies have chosen in Crown Heights. I hope that the bathroom is inside the apartment, along with the kitchen.

Beyond the layout, I hope that my grandson’s dreams flourish in his new home and that the voices of his forebears remind him that they too chose Brooklyn and ultimately did find success and happiness in its storied streets.

Rosanne Skopp is a contributor to NJJN and blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange and Israel.

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