A Girl Grows Up in Brooklyn
“It was the magic age of growing up in Brooklyn,” my grandmother Helene told me as she recounted her idyllic 1940s and 1950s childhood. “A lot of people came out of Brooklyn, and it was a great place to grow up…Bernie Sanders was in my class...Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated a year ahead of my brother…”
Helene’s mother and father were public school teachers; she explained that at the time it was common for husbands and wives to have the same profession. Her mother did all the cooking, following kosher dietary restrictions. Some Friday afternoons, Helene’s father would stop at an appetizing store and buy black pumpernickel bagels, lox, and herring (two kinds) to bring home. The family would go to synagogue together on holidays. During the summer, the family would vacation in the Adirondack mountains with other teachers and their kids.
In the Brooklyn neighborhood where Helene grew up, 95% of her neighbors were Jewish. On the High Holidays, there was no traffic, and kids used to walk from synagogue to synagogue in their fancy clothes to pass the time and meet new people. Across the street from Helene lived a Catholic girl named Rose. Rose and Helene used to talk about their beliefs and traditions. Helene helped Rose decorate her Christmas tree, and Rose would help Helene finish her cake and candy before Passover.
Helene attended a yeshiva when she was younger. The male teachers taught classes in Hebrew in the morning, and the female teachers in English in the afternoon. Later, Helene attended James Madison High School and graduated at age 16. When she asked her father about going away for college, maybe to Syracuse like one of her friends, he said no, even though Helene’s brother had done so. Her father was afraid that if she went away she would marry a non-Jew. Instead, Helene went to Brooklyn College, which was a few stops further on the bus than her high school. She studied speech pathology, her interest stemming from her love of theater and desire to help others. Although she initially hoped to go away to school, she was glad to be living at home when her father tragically died when she was 18.
After Helene graduated college, Helene’s mother was worried about her. Unlike several of her friends who had gotten married during college, Helene had dated a lot but didn’t have a serious boyfriend, a fact I was extremely interested to learn. But soon Helene met Albert, my grandpa. She could be herself when she was with him. They had a lot in common and enjoyed going to movies and shows together. It felt right. They got engaged the day before Helene’s 21st birthday at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and married six months later. Like her parents, Helene and Albert kept a kosher home and had Friday night Shabbat dinners. Helene soon gave birth to my mother and, a few years later, my uncle.
Helene stayed home with her kids for a couple years but felt conflicted about it. It was her choice; she wanted to stay home because her own mother never did. She read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in the early 1960s at the recommendation of her sister-in-law and identified with it. She did feel that desire to do more in her life and wanted to be employed outside the house. She enjoyed working and, being enthusiastic and qualified, received job offers without difficulty. But when she did choose to work part-time jobs, she felt guilty leaving her kids.
Eventually, Helene went back to work full-time, and used her mother’s old tricks, like cooking dinner the night before, to stay on top of parenting. A speech pathologist, Helene taught and coached countless students to improve their verbal skills, helping some to say their own names. After decades of tireless work in public schools, Helene eventually retired in the early 2000s. Since then, she and Albert have been traveling, playing bridge and mahjongg, and taking classes at the local university and their synagogue.
My grandmother Helene is the definition of hard work, scholarship, and kindness. When I was young, she instilled in me an appreciation for history and the arts, for which I am very grateful. I hope I can honor our family’s values and continue our Jewish traditions just like she has done in her life. Though I greatly admire Bernie Sanders and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Grandma Helene is my favorite person to come out of Brooklyn.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Biskowitz, Sarah. "A Girl Grows Up in Brooklyn." 2 June 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 28, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/girl-grows-up-in-brooklyn>.