Several years ago, my friend Anita and I went to see the Buddhist teacher and performance artist Nina Wise at the Marsh theatre. Because Nina is brilliant, her play was at once heartbreaking and hilarious. Breathless from worry and laughter, I followed each & every twist and turn of the story, growing firmly attached to what I hoped would happen and fearfully facing what I hoped would not.
At the end, she delivered her final coup d’etat, chanting first in Pali, then in English.
“Annica wata ankara u pad u wa ya domino
u pa kee tu wa neeri chanti tay sahng u passamo sukkho
All things are impermanent. They arise and they pass away.
To be in harmony with this truth brings great happiness.”
Suddenly released from our attachment to how things turned out, relief amongst her enthralled audience was palpable as we exhaled in unison and gave her a standing ovation.
When I was younger and experienced some kind of sadness, my mother would attempt to soothe me with “This too shall pass”. For years I thought that was the whole saying. But the other half, the first half is “The good and the bad.”. Then, “This too shall pass”. We’re only too happy for the bad to pass. But the good?? It will pass just as surely. As will the bad. All of which leaves space for the new, for change — the truth of the Buddha’s teachings on Impermanence.
Recently my cousin Neil posted this beautiful video of PS 321 (in Brooklyn) showing the vibrancy of its community — the students, teachers, and parents. Neil and his wife Robin both have been teaching there for years. Their children, now adults, were students there.
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/167414414″>321_Subtitled</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user12319036″>Passerby Films</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
I love this video — the whole-hearted intelligence, creativity, and the warmth and caring that permeates the PS 321 community. And then I noticed… no one spoke with a Brooklyn accent.
You have to understand. My mother was born and raised in Brooklyn. I too was born in Brooklyn, but raised in Phoenix. In Phoenix post-WWII my parents did their best to assimilate into their new, white, western, very Christian community. No, they didn’t convert. Not at all. Instead they got busy building a business together, a livelihood for themselves and their family. And they got busy belonging to a very culturally non-Jewish way of life.
My father was an atheist. His mom had been a seamstress at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (fortunately she left before the big fire). She’d also been an actress in the Yiddish Theatre (that’s her on the far left), and a socialist. My father was not Bar Mitzvah’d.
My mother on the other hand had been from an Orthodox Jewish family which kept kosher. But she wasn’t religious either.
In my childhood home in Phoenix, we celebrated Chanukah and Passover. Not quite once a year mother and I would go to shul for a half day of Rosh Hoshanah services. We also celebrated Christmas. A Santa Claus-based holiday rather than Jesus-in-the-manger. I think there was always some guilt for us — at least for me and mom about all that Christmas business. Though it was very mixed for me because I LOVED a whole pile of presents as much as any kid ever did. Also every last one of my friends had a gorgeous Christmas tree and we had none. Somehow the tree went against my mother’s sense of identity, was too symbolic for her of a Christian Christmas.
Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that returning to Brooklyn every other summer was about as close as I got to religion, to my people, to my people’s culture. There were the things like pink rubber balls, New York chocolate egg creams, tenement apartments, etc. There were the sounds and smells. There were the people — Grandma Anna, Grandpa Harry, Aunt Rose, Uncle Sid, cousins Neil, Gary, and Pamela, who lived around the corner from Grandma’s. Other aunts, uncles and cousins lived in New Jersey or Long Island. But Brooklyn was ground zero. Brooklyn was home base.
The extended Katz family posing for a photo after the wedding of the youngest son. This is on Lincoln Terrace, across the street from Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment. That’s me front row center, sitting on the sidewalk, sandwiched between my cousin Don and my brother Paul. Mom is standing far right. Sister Terri not yet born.
In my memory, there were “regular Jews” (us), Chasidic Jews (the strangely garbed ones who kept to themselves) and Blacks sharing the neighborhood. There were probably others — Italians, Irish, but I don’t remember them. The three groups seem to eye each other suspiciously. The adults didn’t talk and the children didn’t play together. Blacks were called Schvartze and Christian whites were referred to as Goyim. You didn’t call the Chasidim anything; you just knew they were crazy and had gone off the religious deep-end. So you kept your distance. In this way everyone else was othered. As there was a large population of “regular Jews” (my tribe) to be part of, I never felt the outsider. Except I lived in a strange foreign land — Arizona, and I didn’t have a Brooklyn accent.
Back in Phoenix de facto segregation kept Blacks and Mexicans out of our working/middle class white Christian neighborhood. I’m surprised we were allowed. Though I lived there I knew I was not a member of their tribe. My identity straddled Brooklyn and Phoenix and basically landed me no where. At 14 I attempted to adopt a Brooklyn accent. My mother who had lost hers suggested I do the same.
In my mind, even if Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Rose, Uncle Sid and the rest of their generation would one day move away and eventually die, Brooklyn would always be Brooklyn and people would always speak with a Brooklyn accent. Of that I was certain.
My cousin Gary had proven this by moving to Phoenix forty years before, and keeping his strong Brooklyn accent through all of it — big time real estate lawyering, an Irish-American wife, and every kind of American success possible until his too early death this year. His accent wasn’t only an accent, but carried the stories and culture of another time and place.
Almost fifty years ago, I left Phoenix and settled in San Francisco. Almost 39 yeas ago I gave birth to my one and only child. A born and bred San Francisco girl. When she was 23 she moved to NYC, which included Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and back to Brooklyn where she lives now. Do you see the big round loop of a journey made over three generations? Before she was born I’d thought about naming her Brooklyn. But her great-Grandmother Anna had recently died, and her Grandmother on her father’s side (who had died young) was Anne. So…
Until viewing the PS 321 video, I hadn’t realized that Brooklyn accents had disappeared. I’d never thought about how the Irish might have felt having had to move out of Noe Valley. Or how little Spanish one hears now on Valencia Street and what that means for Latinos who grew up there or perhaps only visited their grandparents in the Mission. (You can still hear Spanish one block over on Mission Street, but that’s changing too).
I can feel my attachment to the Brooklyn of yesteryear. But hey, it had a great run; WE had a great run. Now it’s a whole new thing. In the PS 321 video one can see how the tribal lines have broken down (except for the Chasidim — no Chasidim in sight). The kids all have a similar non-Brooklyn accent. Across previously strong tribal divides, they work and play happily together. It’s joyful to behold. (Of course there’s a whole economic piece I’m not speaking of here. Whether people leave a community because they want to or are forced out by gentrification. How the change happens. It’s a whole other topic I’ll leave to a future piece or someone who can write it better than I).
I’ll be visiting Brooklyn in its latest incarnation this summer and staying with two of the teachers from PS 321, one of whom still carries a bit of a real Brooklyn accent. Like his brother, he’s a good storyteller. I’ll listen happily to the stories he speaks out loud and the hundreds of unspoken ones his accent will deliver straight to my heart.
My mother brought me into life in Brooklyn and now my daughter has brought me back there. Sometimes, despite all manner of change — the good and the bad — there is a strange and beautiful symmetry. Maybe if one day she has a daughter, she’ll name her Phoenix, or Ivia, the town her Great-Grandma Anna left to cross an ocean to an unknown land. Brooklyn.
“All things are impermanent — they arise and they pass away.
To be in harmony with this truth brings great happiness.”