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News from Childhood
Ben lived in a 1950's Yiddish-speaking neighborhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He used to listen to his neighbors argue out in the hallway through a crack in his first floor apartment. Ben had three neighbors on his floor in Seaver Street across from the Franklin Park Zoo. One neighbor was Mr. Green. He had a full beard and smelled like Mrs. Stein's borscht, used to read Die Tag. Mrs. Stein, who was in perpetual mourning for her late husband, wore a rhinestone apron which barely got around her and wore horn-rimmed glasses for reading The Daily Forward. And there was Mr. Ram, an elderly bald man who wore thick bifocals and was an unhappy Communist, who diligently read The Freheit six days a week.
These neighbors talked and argued politics with each other. No one could sway the religious Mr. Green, or Mrs. Stein's democratic-socialist and Americanized outlook, nor Mr. Ram's Communist sympathies. Mr. R., as we called him, was always talking to Ben about Karl Marx and Lenin. He invited him to his Culture Club, which we all knew was really a Yiddish-speaking CP cell. But we all went anyway, and heard many Russian and American speakers extol the USSR. At these meetings they were always campaigning for something, asking for signatures – whether it was integration for the baseball team, unionization, help for the unemployed, while talking about peace, democracy, socialism and unilateral disarmament.
When Ben was eleven, Mr. Ram invited him up to a camp in New Hampshire and he was told to dance with the black girls, when he hardly danced or liked girls. The newspaper boy always hid Mr. R.'s paper in the New York Times during the McCarthy period. Mr. Ram went to the USSR, but the last year he came home he worried about anti-Semitism, though he brushed it aside when he spoke to Mrs. Stein to whom he gave a white apron from Leningrad.
"Come and have some borscht and a glass of tea, and tell me about the new Russia."
"I don't say it's always good for the Jews," said Mr. Ram as he fastened a napkin onto his lap. "I don't say it's better for the Jews, but what is?"
"Maybe it's better here in America or in Israel."
Mr. Ram's face starts to blush. "Don't tell me about America or Zionism. I never found a place for myself here. I was always poor in the 30's. I was always on strike with the garment workers."
"You always fought with my late husband."
"Well, Dora, he always divided the working class."
"No, Mr. Ram, he accepted the American dream and not the Russian nightmare."
"I know from mine own experience the USSR isn't perfect; it isn't a utopia. When I told some of my comrades that last week, one of them almost pushed me down the stairs. I still have a bruise on my elbow. But how can I give up my reason for existence?"
Mrs. Stein puts her hand on her hip. "That's the whole trouble with you Mr. R. – you've been seeking a paradise which The Forward says has become a concentration camp."
"Why do you read only the Social Democrat Forward? Why don't you read The Freheit and get another perspective? You know what America is doing with the Rosenbergs."
Mr. Green, holding his tallis bag, walks in without knocking. "Stop arguing. Every day, you two – hot and cold, fire and water. Oh, gut morgen, Mrs. Stein."
"Here's the wise man. Going to shul?"
"What's wrong with that, Mr. R.? They allow it in this country."
"You all of a sudden became religious after the Holocaust when you should have realized by then there was no God."
"I lost family. My religion gives me hope."
"Why, you believe in a Messiah for the Jews?"
"If not for us, who else?"
"So what are you hoping for, Mr. Ram? A red heaven on earth? You'd think after Stalin signed the pact with Hitler, you would have woken up."
"It's you, Mr. Green, who needs to wake up."
"I have to go to minchah."
"All your morning prayers and evening prayers. Maybe it gives you time to think or maybe it's just rote saying to relive your childhood and relieve your guilt, that you lived."
"My childhood in Vienna was no walk in the fields."
"And mine was easy in America? That's why I'm always organizing for a better way."
Mrs. Stein interrupts, "But Stalin's Russia is bad for the Jews. You even told us yourself the last time you came back that there was anti-Semitism."
"And there isn't in Boston or the White House? And what about our own prejudices toward others?"
Mrs. Stein stares wide-eyed at Mr. Ram. "Everyone has preferences, but no one has a right to murder."
"America is where they lynch people for being the wrong color."
"And in Russia they didn't kill people over class? What about their secret police?"
"What about the FBI?"
"They're probably looking for you right now, Mr. Ram." Mr. Green chuckles.
"I wouldn't doubt it, with the Un-American Activities Committee and the imperialist government against progressive ideas."
"I always wondered, Mr. Ram, what is it exactly you don't like about America?" asks Mr. Green, as he puts on his kippah and wraps up his paper in his tallis bag.
"You read the news and The Tag, Mr. Green. Do they tell you about the real America – the starving America, the lynching America?"
"How about those, Mr. R., that are doing well here, like Mrs. Stein's children and my own? You should have married again, Mr. R."
"What's it to you? My wife was my comrade. There will be no other like her. She was a reporter in Spain and she was union organizer with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in many strikes in Massachusetts."
"All we have is our memories," Mrs. Stein says.
"I believe in a better world to come, and it's not in the life hereafter, Mr. Green." His soup falls on the floor and the cat jumps for it.
"I used to pity you, Mr. R., for eating donuts on Yom Kippur. But don't think I don't know what's going on."
"I suppose you're going to turn me in."
"I have to go to temple."
"Mr. Green, have something before you go." She offers him some homemade challah.
Mr. Ram says, "You wouldn't make him bacon and eggs, would you?"
Ben, listening from his apartment, finished his notes.
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