To my child’s eye, Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn, was a magical, wonderfully colorful world in the 1950s, inhabited by Orthodox Jews in a tightly knit community with its customs and values rooted in the Eastern European shtetls annihilated by the Holocaust.
Women, modestly clothed in unfashionable dresses with long sleeves and high necks even in the hot, sticky New York summers, went in and out of the unlocked brownstone houses, seeking each other’s advice, accompanied by swarms of children, each dressed as miniatures of their mothers or fathers.
Most summers, I visited my flamboyant Aunt Goldie and her husband, Shmuel, who spent all of his days talking to God, though his conversation was so uninteresting that neither God nor man listened. Goldie, a rabbi’s daughter, had the brains but not the genitalia for the scholarship she craved. As the balabosta, the keeper of the house, she was entirely responsible for their family life: cooking, cleaning, shopping, raising the children.
Since Shmuel was as inept in commerce as in discourse, she also marginally supported them by hosting a radio show and writing a column for the Yiddish newspaper. My Aunt Goldie did it all with great style.
In the women’s domain, people came to her with questions that might seem esoteric but were, in fact, of great import in this circumscribed world of rule and law. If a piece of meat accidentally touched a pot used to cook only milk products, could the pot be re-koshered or must it be thrown away? Goldie would ponder, taking into consideration Jewish law informed by thousands of years of commentary and custom. More in touch with the realities of contemporary household life than Solomon, she would adjudicate these matters to satisfy the letter of the law as well as the pocketbook of the supplicant.
Although no one ever went hungry, money was at a premium, and bill collectors were a part of the landscape. They knew Aunt Goldie well, thriving in a mutually beneficial relationship. Each bill collector — invariably male, white, non-Jewish, an “American” in Williamsburg lexicography, tutored by his predecessor — would visit Aunt Goldie. He’d sit at her table while Aunt Goldie enveloped him in her gastronomic love.
“Vat kind of job is this for a grown man? Feh! Ess, tatele, ess.” Eat, little father. Heady with exotic smells from her kitchen, he would dine sumptuously on homemade gefilte fish kissed by the sea, rich stews redolent with unidentifiable seasonings, honey cakes that filled a mouth with religious fervor.
And her stories! Riotous looks at her everyday life, the thrown-in Yiddish words translatable in context. The bill collector, arriving stressed, would leave Goldie soothed, nourished in body and spirit, though of course without a dime on the overdue account. Both were happy.
One hot August day when the humidity was so high that the simple act of breathing drenched a body in sweat, there came to Williamsburg a bill collector. This guy was so new his shoes still squeaked. To tell the truth, he got the job because his father-in-law was the boss. The other bill collectors kept him at a distance and failed to school him in proper Williamsburg behavior. As it happens, Aunt Goldie was his first visit.
As he opened the door of the old brownstone, in front of him were stairs, at the top of which was a washing machine wildly vibrating, threatening to make its way down. Nonplussed, he turned to the main entrance on his right and came face to face with the clock hanging upside down on the wall (it was the only way that it kept time correctly) and a wig on the doorknob. Orthodox Jewish women shaved their heads and wore wigs called shaytels. Aunt Goldie’s spare shaytel lived on the doorknob, where she could find it in the chaos of the house.
Goldie emerged from the kitchen. As I mentioned, Goldie had style: Rakishly, she wore her shaytel a bit askew, with the unfortunate consequence that some of her shaved scalp showed.
She had been butchering a chicken using, as kosher law proscribed, a knife sharpened to a razor’s edge, without nick or flaw, to cause the animal the least pain. It was still in her hand. And there was a bit of blood on the walls and, well, quite a bit on her apron. Hospitality in her bone marrow, she looked at the bill collector and said, in her heavy Yiddish accent: “Ver iss the other boychik? Zo, never mind, sit, eat, vat vud you like?”
The bill collector, gazing at the upside-down clock, the blood on the walls, the wig on the doorknob, the partially scalped woman, knife in hand, muttering incomprehensible incantations, was transfixed in an eternal moment of terror. Two worlds opened before him: one leading to an otherness that was a hellmouth; the second to an alien universe, rich and mysterious.
Hurtling into the former, he ran for the door, the vibrating washing machine beginning to make its way down the stairs, boosting him into overdrive down the street. Goldie, deeply offended, ran after him, waving her arms, forgotten knife slicing the air, piteous, beseeching, “Meester, meester, plis, hev a little something to eat. ...”
This particular bill collector was never again seen in Williamsburg. Aunt Goldie never understood why.
WHAT THE JUDGES SAID
Gene Weingarten: “Aunt Goldie” shows the unmistakable signs of a real writer: an eye for significant detail (“Goldie’s spare shaytel lived on the doorknob, where she could find it in the chaos of the house”), a feel for richly textured syntax (“there came to Williamsburg a bill collector”), and the simple fact of beautiful ideas told with beautiful words, to conjure a specific time and place: “accompanied by swarms of children, each dressed as miniatures of their mothers or fathers.”
Steve Friedman: The setup is hilarious. Some nice lines (about her uncle and God, and the conversation being so dull neither God nor man listened). I like how she let us see into the poor gentile bill collector’s head, too.
As her reminiscence suggests, Shoshana Levenberg 68, was raised in a religious community, but for most of her adventurous adult life — helping voter registration drives in western Tennessee in the 1960s, nursing HIV patients in San Francisco in the 1980s, recently retiring as a research nurse — she says she was not a practicing religious person. She got involved with a gay Jewish congregation in San Francisco, and three years ago the rabbi asked her to compose a sermon for the High Holy Days.
“It unstoppered things,” she says. “I’ve been writing madly since then.” She debuted this piece of family history at a writers’ conference, and it was a hit. “I love reading that story,” she says. “For somebody who is very shy, I’ve turned into a total ham.”
— David Montgomery
More from the Humor Contest:
Memoir winner: A stroke of luck?