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Far From Flatbush

Ghosts of the Nazis Were Everywhere

 

It was the first time since my bar mitzvah that I'd stood before people in a synagogue and spoken to them. The occasion: an October 27 gathering of the Temple Sinai Book Club, in Dresher, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. Members of the club, and others who'd heard about the event, came to hear me read from my memoir Bobby in Naziland and to ask questions about it.

 

My cousin Susan Klausner-Bratt loved the book—she knew a number of the "characters"—and pitched it to club president Tobey Grand, who agreed to add Bobby in Naziland to the fall reading list.

 

But Susan and Tobey both had issues with the title. Susan had called me after reading it and said, "I hate the title. If I were your publisher, I'd make you change it." Tobey told me that she almost didn't read the book because of the title. She thought it was going to be a depressing Holocaust memoir and asked if there'd been any discussions with the publisher about changing it.

 

There were not, I said.

 

As I told the book club, I lived with the title for several years, and it stuck—because it's a true title; it's what the book's about. Bobby in Naziland is a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s, surrounded by Holocaust survivors and World War II vets who fought the Nazis. I describe Flatbush as a place where "the war lingered like a mass hallucination." Ghosts of the Nazis were everywhere. The book describes in visceral detail how Flatbush was a neighborhood suffering from an epidemic of what was not yet called post-traumatic stress disorder, and how this physically and emotionally violent environment could affect a child.

 

And though the Holocaust of course plays a major role, Bobby in Naziland is really a book about America in the aftermath of the war, with baseball a major theme. Tobey, a Philadelphia Phillies fan, was delighted by what I'd written about the final days of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the invincible New York Yankees of the early 1960s. "The Dodgers betrayed Brooklyn!" she said. "And Mickey Mantle was like a movie star!"

 

Since Bobby in Naziland is also about food and candy stores—and since Susan and Tobey had assembled a celebratory candy store in the temple lounge, where egg creams were served—I read "The Flatbush Diet" chapter and a few paragraphs from "The Great Candy-Store Tragedy," which explains how to make perfect egg creams.

 

A surprising number of people in the audience had once lived in Brooklyn. One woman told a story about how her father had owned a candy store in Brighton Beach. My story, I said, could have been her story, and her Brighton Beach memories again reminded me that Bobby in Naziland's themes are universal and that Flatbush was a microcosm of post-war America. (Yet, as I've also heard at this and other readings, people living on a different street a few blocks from where I grew up could have had a completely different experience.)

 

One man, Max Levine, was also originally from Brighton Beach, the son of Yiddish-speaking Holocaust survivors from Poland. His father is one of the main characters in the documentary The Boys of 2nd Street Park, about a group of men who'd grown up together in Brighton Beach in the 1960s. Max talked about how American-born Jews looked down upon the Yiddish-speaking refugees and survivors, calling them "greenhorns."

 

Most of the discussion, on what happened to be the first anniversary of the massacre in Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue, was about the Holocaust, and one theme that emerged was how Holocaust survivors rarely spoke of their experiences, but the next generation, my generation, needed to find out everything. Tobey mentioned that she didn't even know about the Holocaust until she read about it in a book.

 

"Were you afraid that the world was out to get you?" somebody asked.

 

"No," I said, "I was only afraid my neighbors were out to get me"—referring to how the kids were always beating each other up.

 

Another Jewish writer, Philip Roth, once said, "It's a curse to have a writer born in the family." I suppose that can be true. But in the case of Bobby in Naziland, as my readings have demonstrated, the book has been bringing people together, Jew and goyim alike. That, I think, is a blessing.

________

The next Bobby in Naziland event is Saturday, November 9, at 5 PM, in The BookMark Shoppe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

 

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my recently launched Instagram.

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Next Stop, Philadelphia… But First, a Word About St. Louis

 

If you're into Brooklyn, candy stores, and literature, the place to be Sunday, October 27, at 10 AM, is Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. In celebration of Bobby in Naziland and my father's candy store, which plays a big part in the memoir, the temple book club is building a candy store on site. They will be serving egg creams and I will be reading from and signing copies of the book. The event is free and all are welcome. To attend, please RSVP by October 22 to Tobey Grand, tgrand10290@gmail.com.

 

With any luck, the event will go as well as last Wednesday's reading at Subterranean Books, in St. Louis, where, for an enthusiastic SRO crowd, I read from two chapters of Bobby in Naziland, "The Goyim and the Jews" and "Something Different Happened." Though the book, in many ways, is the best published representation of what you might call my "natural voice," parts of it are not easy to read out loud in front of people, though I didn't realize this until I started preparing for the reading.

 

Primarily, it has to do with the subject matter and the way it's presented—the thoughts and emotions of a meshuggener child filtered through an adult consciousness. The book's narrator, in describing his childhood experiences, reverts back to that childhood.

 

As I explained at Subterranean, some of the passages I'd first considered reading were just too raw. I wouldn't have been comfortable reading them in front of an audience. For example, I thought I might read from chapter two, "Naziland," part of which describes the mutilated Auschwitz survivors I saw in the locker room at a Brooklyn beach club a friend had taken me to when I was 10 years old. But it was too painful, I decided. Another part I chose not to read was a graphic depiction of racism—it was too wrenching and emotional.

 

Instead, I read (or should I say "gossiped"?) about my Brooklyn neighbors from six decades ago, and I read granular descriptions of the Flatbush streets—what they looked like, sounded like, felt like, and smelled like. I also read a scene that took place February 10, 1964, 79 days after the Kennedy assassination and the day after the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show—the moment when the 1960s began for me. The Q&A that followed was lively and served as another reminder that the themes I explored in Bobby in Naziland are universal.

 

Earlier that week in St. Louis, at a private gathering, I read "The Flatbush Diet," which I described as one of the "lighter and more Jewish chapters." The party was thrown by an old friend from Flatbush, whom I'd lost touch with in 1972, soon after he'd transferred to an out-of-town college. I mostly remembered Ernest Abramson from our super-competitive pickup football games. In the ensuing years, he'd become a prosperous dentist who lived in a beautiful, art-filled home in the St. Louis suburbs.

 

It was mind-blowing when he contacted me. He happened to see the book on Amazon, and noticed my name, but thought that there were thousands of Robert Rosens (which there are). Then he saw my picture and realized it was me. He read Bobby in Naziland and it blew his mind. "It was like reading my biography," he said.

 

The party he and his wife, Ellen, threw was fantastic—a gathering of the local Jewish community, and a feast of many of the foods I wrote about, including chopped liver and numerous sweets that my father used to sell in his candy store.

 

The dialogue that followed the reading was exactly the kind of provocative conversation I'd hoped the book would spark—a discussion of the newly inflamed bigotry throughout the world and the fact that the generation that experienced the Holocaust and fought in World War II is dying out and that their stories must never be forgotten.

 

These events made me feel that Bobby in Naziland is a book that's bringing people together. I hope this will continue in Philadelphia and beyond.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my recently launched Instagram.

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Meet Me in St. Louis

 

The first official event of the Bobby in Naziland reading tour, 2019-20, will take place at Subterranean Books, in St. Louis, on Wednesday, October 16, at 7 PM. I'll be reading from chapter one, "The Goyim and the Jews," which sets the scene for the book and gives the reader a sense of what it was like to be in Flatbush in the 1950s and 60s, when a significant portion of the population of this provincial Brooklyn neighborhood was comprised of Holocaust survivors and World War II vets who'd fought the Nazis.

 

I'll then be taking questions, and one question I expect (because many people have already asked me) is: Why that title?

 

It's a good question, and I can tell you this: I lived with that title for years, and it stuck—because it's an accurate title; it's what the book's about. Because of who my neighbors were, Flatbush was a place where the war lingered like a mass hallucination. Ghosts of the Nazis were everywhere.

 

As you may have guessed, the title is also a reference to Alice in Wonderland. As you may not have guessed, the subtitle, A Tale of Flatbush, is a reference to the subtitle of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivner: A Story of Wall Street.

 

If there's still time after the questions, for my encore I'll read part of the Beatles section, from chapter 18, "Something Different Happened."

 

I'm very much looking forward to returning to St. Louis, which I make a point of doing when I have a new book out. When I was there in 2012, after the publication of Beaver Street, I did three events, in Shameless Grounds, Left Bank Books, and the late, lamented Apop.

 

Wednesday, at Subterranean, I hope to see some familiar faces.

 

________

I'll be reading and signing Bobby in Naziland at Temple Sinai, in Dresher, PA, Sunday, October 27, 10 AM. To attend, please RSVP by Oct. 22 to Tobey Grand, tgrand10290@gmail.com. The event is free, all are welcome, and, I'm told, there will be a candy store and egg creams. Seriously.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should buy it if you can.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my recently launched Instagram.

Be the first to comment

Everything Fades

 

The picture I refer to in the caption, an excerpt from Bobby in Naziland, is the one above, a colorized photo of my parents, Eleanor and Irwin Rosen, taken November 1948, on their honeymoon in Miami Beach. Back in Brooklyn, many decades ago, the photo stood on the dresser in their bedroom, and I'd stare at it every time I walked in.

 

I didn't have the photo when I was writing about it; I was going by memory. But I have it now, and clearly, the ocean is not turquoise and the sand is not golden. Yes, the memory plays tricks, but the photo is 71 years old, so the colors have obviously faded. Though I think when it first penetrated my consciousness, probably in 1956, the water was some shade of blue and the sand, if not golden, was certainly not gray.

 

Everything fades.

 

Inspired by the photo, I spent my childhood longing to go to Miami, "the most beautiful city in the world." But to do so seemed an impossible dream, as fantastic as going to the moon. Ironically, in the early 1970s, when I began to expand my horizons through the magic of low-cost jet travel and hitchhiking, I was no longer in any rush to get to Florida. Europe and California called more loudly, and I listened.

 

I finally did make it to Florida in 1975, during my brief career as a speechwriter for the secretary of the air force. I'd written a graduation speech for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach, and I flew down there to watch the secretary deliver it. The morning of the speech, from my hotel balcony, I watched the sun rise over the Atlantic.

 

Perhaps more ironically (though not surprisingly), when my parents retired to Florida 25 years ago, moving to a town called Greenacres, near Lake Worth, their condo at one time was within a few miles (if not yards) of two uncles, one aunt, two cousins, and four of their friends, all originally from Brooklyn, some with their accents intact.

 

Journeys to Florida, where my mother still lives, have become routine, and it now seems about as exotic as Brooklyn did all those years ago.

 

As for Miami Beach, my wife, Mary Lyn, loves the place. So visits to Greenacres always include a side trip to that revitalized and climate-change-threatened city, faded in parts, but still, in its way, retaining a touch of magic.

________

Meet me in St. Louis, Wednesday, October 16, 7 PM, at Subterranean Books. I'll be reading and signing copies of Bobby in Naziland.

________

I'll be reading and signing Bobby in Naziland at Temple Sinai, in Dresher, PA, Sunday, October 27, 10 AM. To attend, please RSVP by Oct. 22 to Tobey Grand, tgrand10290@gmail.com. The event is free, all are welcome, and, I'm told, there will be a candy store and egg creams. Seriously.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you really should buy it.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my recently launched Instagram.

Be the first to comment