Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology.
By Jeff Z. Klein
Walk down Hertel Avenue and see the mix of cultures: hipster cafes and old Italian red-sauce restaurants and halal butchers and louche interior design stores and pubs where young Americans have decided they’re huge Barça fans. Maybe even a rainbow flag here and there. Walk down the side streets. The houses are filled with young families, different cultures — middle class, not rich, not poor — fresh ground coffee, organic groceries, craft beer.
Funny, though — it still looks exactly the way it did half a century ago. All the two-story houses. The attics topped by the same triangular or square roofs. The little backyards. The narrow driveways just wide enough to accommodate a Model T (from another fifty years before, when the houses were built). The five- or six-stair stoops. The trees shading the street, almost as tall and domelike as the elms whose arching boughs formed vast, block-long ceilings, like a great green cathedral. Late at night the train horns, blaring distant and lonely from the raised embankments on either margin of the neighborhood.
The winter. Walking to school on the snow banks. Bombing cars with snowballs. Grabbing the rear bumper of some unsuspecting Dodge and pogeying down the snow-covered street.
You’ve never had ham?
You think you’re too good
for it, don’t you.
That was one of the things that set them off.
You’ve never had ham? You think you’re too good for it, don’t you.
I had two best friends when I was a little boy, James M. and Freddie C. They were cool with me, but their brothers called me Hambone, in honor of the dietary habits of the Jews. Freddie was a couple years older than me. He and I would debate who was better, the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five. He loved the Beach Boys, and we both thought “Help Me, Rhonda” might be the best song ever. James was a good football player, touch or tackle. We followed the Bills closely. Jack Kemp or Daryle Lamonica? Against the Boston Patriots, should they give the ball to Cookie Gilchrist on every play? The other sport that mattered was baseball. James and his family liked the San Francisco Giants. My family and I liked the L.A. Dodgers. My father was from Brooklyn. My sister was born there. And I liked Sandy Koufax because he was the best pitcher in baseball and wouldn’t play that World Series game on Yom Kippur. I had his baseball card. So James’s older brother John is standing next to the stoop and asks if he can see my Sandy Koufax card. I hand it down to him. He takes it and rubs the face of it, hard, on the iron railing, up and down, several times. Here, he says, handing it back to me. Koufax’s picture is still there, but it’s got black streaks all over it.
The food especially seemed to get to them. The older C. and M. brothers simply could not get over their impression that keeping kosher meant Jews thought Catholic meat was inferior and couldn’t be eaten. One day when my mother wasn’t home, the M. brothers asked if they could come inside and get a snack out of the kitchen. I let them in and they descended on the fridge and cabinets like locusts, devouring all the Wise potato chips and Ritz crackers and Hershey bars they could find. But their real motivation was simply to see what the kitchen of Jews looked like.
Not so different, one of them said. Where’s the kosher stuff?
I don’t want this to sound like a bitter catalogue of slights from the musty scrapbook of my childhood. That’s not my point. It’s just that we’ve gotten into the habit of extolling the tight-knit ethnic enclaves of long ago, conveniently omitting one of their distinguishing characteristics — they could be snake pits of hatred. It didn’t matter who the majority was, and it didn’t matter who the Other was. The majority actively hated the Other. That’s the way it was in most neighborhoods, in most cities. Yet, despite that, those neighborhoods could be wonderful. North Park — the old North Park, not the one now, which I like, but I’m talking about the old one — that North Park was a great place to be a kid.
But there was this one thing. It kept coming up.
I don’t want this to sound like a bitter catalogue of slights from the musty scrapbook of my childhood. That’s not my point.Once I went over to Freddie’s house down the block, the C. house. His two or three older brothers seemed surprised to see me.
Hambone, what are you doing here?
They stood around in the living room, ostentatiously discussing politics. Hitler, he was bad. But he had some good ideas. A look at me to gauge my reaction. These were fifteen, seventeen, twenty-year-olds talking in front of a nine-year-old. I think one of their parents told them to stop, but I might be making that part up. I do recall unmistakably their banter, their laughter, and how it went on long enough to make me uncomfortable. I knew full well what Hitler had done. It had happened only twenty years earlier.
My mother could sense the anti-Semitism in the air of our neighborhood, and she hated it. She’d grown up in Toronto when Toronto was the polar opposite of what it is today. When she was a girl, there’d been a riot, Gentiles vs. Jews, at the Christie Pits playing fields over the display of a swastika flag. At the beaches on the other side of town, some swim clubs flew swastikas to keep the Jews out. “No Jews need apply” signs at job sites were common. All that institutionalized anti-Semitism when she was growing up, and then the Nuremberg Laws and World War II and the camps. She had reason to suspect Jew-hatred everywhere she looked, but I scoffed — I thought what she experienced had gotten to her and made her obsessive. Many years later, we were watching TV together, and we saw a universally respected statesman disembark from a plane for a peace-keeping mission at some international trouble spot.
“Look at that anti-Semite,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I said dismissively. “That’s the secretary general of the UN.”
It was Kurt Waldheim. Later we learned he’d been an SS officer during the war. My mother was right; the old world was full of them.
She’d claim that things in our neighborhood got worse around Easter. I never noticed, but I do remember the only time in my childhood that I heard the phrase “You killed Christ.” It came from one of James’s older brothers on a spring day. I didn’t understand. What?
You killed Christ. Well, not you, but your people.
I was completely baffled. I didn’t know the story. I asked my mother. “This is what they teach them in their churches,” she said. She named the church down the block. “They teach this every Easter, and people like the C.’s and the M.’s come out and act worse than they usually do.”
I asked my father too, but he just shrugged it off. He’d grown up in a place where all the ethnicities blended without incident, and he simply didn’t care. He was an architect and an FDR Democrat through and through, and he never had a bad word to say about any group. (The last job he did was to convert an old East Side church building into a mosque, and that was after 9/11. He was friendly with the imam. I thought the whole thing was pretty remarkable. I wanted to write an article about it for a Buffalo magazine, and after much hemming and hawing the magazine editor got back to me. “Well, it’s like this,” the guy said. “A lot of people we talked to don’t think what your father did is necessarily a good thing.” Jerk.)
Hitler, he was bad. But he had some good ideas.If you weren’t around in the 1960s, you may not truly understand how pervasive this stuff was. People then didn’t veil their prejudices — they were all out in the open, and nothing to be particularly embarrassed about. This was a time of ubiquitous Polack jokes, or, as sanitized on TV by famous comedians, “Polish jokes.” No Asian immigration was allowed, so there simply were no Asians around, but there was plenty of talk about the Japs in World War II. And the N-word wasn’t something you heard on TV, but it was pretty common in casual conversation. One of the older M. brothers spoke of a kid he knew who was a great football player. “He’s a n–, but I tell you, I respect him,” he said.
We grunted gravely in agreement, acknowledging how sincere and important an assertion this was. I tried saying the word a couple of times, but even back then it sounded foul; now I can’t even type it, and you’d be mortified to see it in print. I can’t remember the kid’s name, but he came over once and played football with us. He was the only black kid who set foot in our neighborhood in the thirteen years I lived there.
One day when I was eleven or twelve, I went out our front door and heard a tremendous amount of yelling from the C. house. It seemed to be directed across the street, where a family of Hasidic Jews were moving in, although I didn’t know the term at the time. They looked exotic. We and all the other Jews we knew were totally secular and assimilated — no yarmulkes, no outward sign of Jewishness. But these guys in their black suits and black hats, they stood out. Still, I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
I walked over to the C.’s porch. The older C. and M. brothers were there, huddling behind the railings, yelling Get out! Get out! They’d spring up and throw small stones at the Hasids hauling chairs and couches into their new house, then duck down again behind the cover of the railing. I can’t remember if James or Freddie were there. Maybe I don’t want to. But I do remember, quite vividly, asking, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” One of the older brothers answered.
Look at them. We don’t want them living here.
He seemed to forget that I was one of them too. He sprang up and threw another stone, and so did a couple of others. They yelled across the street. Get out, you Jews!
For many years I blamed myself for not saying anything at that moment, but now I understand that I responded within the boundaries of the behavior that had always worked for me: I simply left the porch and walked away. They kept screaming at the Hasids, who kept moving their furniture in without responding to the taunts or the stones, and they were still screaming as I stepped through my front door. But something in me had changed. I never talked to the C.’s or the M.’s again. Not even James or Freddie, even though I thought then, and still think now, that they never shared the hatred that their older brothers spewed.
The Hasidic family moved away just a month or two later, and after another year, so did we, to Eggertsville. Officially we could be counted as part of the white flight fleeing Buffalo, like all the whites leaving cities for the suburbs across late-‘60s America. But in our case, that’d be misleading. We weren’t fleeing black people, or poverty, or crime, or declining city services. We were fleeing the M.’s and the C.’s, to the northern suburbs, where the other Jews lived.
So the first week I’m at my new suburban junior high school, and a kid comes up to me and asks, “Are you Jewish?” Uh-oh, here we go, I think to myself.
“I am — does that affect anything?” I answer, challengingly. I think at this point I’m finally ready to fight.
But the kid was totally normal. “Oh no,” he said. “I was just curious.”
And that was it. From the moment we moved to Eggertsville, I never heard an anti-Jewish slur again. And in the five decades since, living in Manhattan and L.A., and now, just off Allen Street, nothing. I’ve heard Jews say bad things about other people, but never the other way around.
It seems like everything turned way back there in the 1960s, thanks to Vatican II, which changed church liturgy to stop blaming the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ; and thanks, too, to the civil rights movement, the feminists, new immigration laws that permitted Asians and Africans to come to the United States, Stonewall and the gay rights movement, and, all in all, to the very slowly dawning recognition that everyone deserves dignity and respect.
I recognize that what I experienced in my childhood was not all that difficult, and certainly nothing compared to what most black people can tell you about their experiences — or First Nations people, or Latinos, or Asians, or those in the LGBTQ community. And as I write this, a guy running for president wants to ban Muslims from entering the country. I recognize that we’re definitely a long way from utopia.
But now, when I walk down Hertel Avenue, I feel all right. My old neighborhood may look the same, but it has definitely changed. No slurs, no hate, no threats. The only sounds are the music streaming from the bars, the happy shouts of the soccer fans, and the rustling leaves in the boughs arched high overhead, the great green cathedral that shelters everyone.
Excerpted from Right Here, Right Now: The Buffalo Anthology, available now from Belt Publishing.
Jeff Z. Klein is a former editor and reporter at the New York Times and the Village Voice; currently he writes and produces the Niagara Frontier Heritage Moments on WBFO radio. He went to Sweet Home Senior High before moving to New York to attend Columbia University, and has written several books about sports, including The Death of Hockey, with his Sweet Home classmate Karl-Eric Reif. Klein lives in the Allentown section of Buffalo and in Manhattan.