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.