I finally read the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” about 40 years after my Baby Boomers cohorts of 1957 did, but the wait was worth it. Some tug toward older but timeless literature led me to request it from the library and I found myself entranced from the first page of author Betty Smith’s classic. Having lived in what is now brownstone Brooklyn for eight years, I had a strong feel for the geography and mysteries of the borough.
I liked the book for its style, its Dickensian sweep of social strata and issues, from sex to work to politics to the media, for its unblinking ability to tackle adolescent issues decades before Judy Blume did, and Smith’s ability to excavate her childhood memories for materials for a long but sprightly book.
Oh, and I noticed the book brims with the lead character’s struggles with the Jewish Question..
In my online rummaging, I’m surprised nobody commented on the Jewish content in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The comments come repeatedly, especially in the first 150 pages of the book. They show, in a pitiless light, the violence, harassment, contempt and religiously based anti-semitism aimed at the immigrant Jews of Williamsburg. The book’s main character, young Francie Nolan, mostly reports on what she sees, never sparing the perpetrators and sometimes admiring the Jews. After reading books like Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, I found that this book looks at the Jewish immigrant experience from an Irish-Catholic perspective.
Indeed, Smith writes about Jews more often than she does any group outside her own. She lives near the neighborhood called “Jew Town,” which “started at Seigel Street, took in Moore and McKibben and went past Broadway.” Francie typically encounters Jews in retail settings, such as the pushcarts with the “bargaining, emotional Jews” who made a deep impression on her:
She stared at the bearded men in their alpaca skull capts and silkolene coasts and wondered what made their eyes so small and fierce . . . A woman, big with child, sat patiently at the curb in a stiff wooden chair. She sat in the hot sunshine watching the life on the street and guarding within herself, her own mystery of life.
Francie’s mother, the unsinkable Katie Nolan, explains that Jews are still waiting for the Messiah and each woman thinks she may be the Messiah’s mother. Hence, Francie sees behavior of the “Pregnant Jewess” as a marker of cultural distinctions:
“I guess that’s why the Jews have so many babies,” Francie thought. “And why they sit so quiet . . . waiting. And why they aren’t ashamed the way they are fat. Each one thinks that she might be making the real little Jesus. That’s why they walk so proud when they’re that way. Now the Irish women always look so ashamed. They know they can never make a Jesus. It will be just another Mick. When I grow up and know that I am going to have a baby. I will remember to walk proud and slow even though I am not a Jew.”
At the same time, in her 12 year old way, Francie has no problem going to a store on Moore Street with “fat Jew pickles floating in a heavy spiced brine.” Imitating other children, Francie says, “Gimme a penny sheeny pickle.” As Smith/Francie explains, she didn’t really know what sheeny meant, she just used it to mean something “alien, yet beloved,” although the elderly Orthodox couldn’t of course know the subtle uses of language in 1912 Brooklyn.
Perhaps Francie really did views Jews as alien, yet beloved. The book emphasizes her mother’s determination to promote literacy, delivered through nightly readings of a page of the Bible and a page of Shakespeare. I like to think that Francie and Neeley enjoyed, in their own way, a rigorous and heartfelt education in the Chumash. Year after year the readings continued (along with the New Testament, but that’s relatively short). The characters and message of the Torah, Writings and Prophets sank into them and connected them to the Jews they interacted with daily in Williamsburg. That I’m even musing on the characters in this way shows how well Smith brought all of them to life.
If Francie lacked the worst instincts of her time, the boys and men around her had a simpler view of Jews, expressed in violence and abuse. That’s the language they speak and they demand others listen to them. Jews appear as lone individuals surrounded by young wolf-packs ready to pounce with Jewish mothers sometimes yelling and coming to the rescue just in time. The visceral dislike spread out beyond the Jews to encompass all groups. Francie’s Austrian grandfather comes across as a demented bigot: “Thomas hated Johnny Nolan [Francie’s father] because he was Irish. He hated the Germans, he hated Americans, he hated the Russians but he just couldn’t stand the Irish.”
And the Germans hated right back, with their own special focus, as shown in a street musician:
If provoked enough, he’d let out a string of oaths in German ending up with something that sounded like Gott verdammte Ehrlandiger Jude. Most Brooklyn Germans had a habit of calling everyone who annoyed them a Jew.
As the book progresses, Jews slip into the background. Francie and her brother Neeley (Cornelius) deal with their father’s alcohol-driven death and the struggle for education and money to keep the household going. Smith shows her skill at depicting raw social exchanges in a scene when the siblings and their mother go shopping for a Christmas gift, a hat, for Katie. Their mother handles the negotiation with the Jewish owner of the hat store, who speaks in cadences straight out of a Philip Roth novelistic nightmare. As the bargaining spins on and on, the owner says,
“I want you should listen.” The woman made her voice deep and sincere. “They say that by the Jews, money is everything. By me is different. When I get a pretty hat and it goes with a pretty customer, something happens to me here.” She put her hand on her heart. “I get so . . . profits is nothing. I give free.” She pushed the bag into Katie’s hand. “Take the hat for four dollars. That’s what it cost me wholesale.” She sighed. “Believe me, a business woman I shouldn’t be. Better I should be a picture painter.”
The price finally settles at $2.50, with a reluctantly offered dime for a box.
“I give it to you so cheap, you should come back next time you buy a hat. But don’t expect such bargains next time.” Katie laughed, as they left, the woman said, “Wear it in good health.”
As the door closed on them, the woman whispered bitterly, “Goyem!” and spat after them.
Against the background of intimidation, religious ignorance and ghetto merchants, Smith includes a scene late that neatly brackets Francie’s early thoughts on Jewish women being proud when they’re pregnant. Years later, Katie’s sister Sissy, a vivacious woman burdened by 10 stillborn babies, all born at home under the (mis)care of midwives, becomes pregnant for an 11th time. Her husband (her third), demands she use a hospital. If that’s not shocking enough for her traditionalist sisters Katie and Evy, she’s also going to use a Jewish doctor. She explains that Jewish doctors are more sympathetic during childbirth, and, anyway, “everybody else knows that the Jewish doctors are smarter.”
Without giving away what happens next to the nine people in the world who haven’t read the book, the Jewish doctor shows he’s got the right stuff indeed.
Sissy took his hands and covered them with kisses. And Dr. Aaron Aaronstein was not embarrassed about her emotionalism the way a Gentile doctor would have been.
She named the baby Stephen Aaron.
The scene plays on stereotypes, but it points to another future, of Jewish civic accomplishment and a degree of ethnic cooperation based on practical value. What might Katie and Evy take away from the good work of Dr. Aaronstein?
Never-say-die Francie’s encounters with the Jewish Question in Brooklyn are just one part of this epic. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn covers a vast amount of material, almost all of it ringing with authenticity, except for the name Aaron Aaronstein, which suggests of course, that Smith lacked some insights into Jewish naming conventions.
Still, that’s a quibble. Smith’s Brooklyn left me with a sense of a profound reading experience. I learned something about literature and about life from the book, about the will to survive and thrive against odds, against culture, against poverty, for live (there must be a gaelic equivalent of l’chaim). Smith/Francie’s grappling with the Jewish Question in Brooklyn added another special part to a special book.