A very vivid memory that occasionally comes back to me:
I don't recall how old I was; probably between 7 and 10 years old. Very, very young and very, very innocent.
At the time, we lived at 153 South 9th street, in a walk-up railroad apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Next door to us was a church. 153 and up were 4 to 6 story apartment buildings, filled with chassidic Jews. Below the church lived the Puerto Ricans. That's just the way it was.
On the corner, across Driggs Ave. was Bahndo's Grocery. Mr. Bahndo was an old chassidic Jew. At least he seemed old to me--his beard was filled with grey and he had lots of kids, some of them teenagers.
At the time, there weren't many supermarkets. People shopped in these little corner grocery stores, where the owner knew you by name and if you needed a little credit, you said, "write it down" and he would find the page that had your name in his book and he would write-it-down.
All my siblings and I ever wanted was for my mother to allow us to go to Bahndo's alone. After all, this meant crossing the street alone. Driggs Avenue, corner South 9th was a tiny intersection, but to us kids it was the end of the world. Across the other street was the candy store, and we knew that if we could get to Bahndo's it would be no time at all before we would be allowed into that candy store (where all those yummy chocolate bars like Three Musketeers and M and M's would all-of-a-sudden-one-day be declared not kosher; we'd have to wait years until they were no longer forbidden again).
I can't remember exactly when my mother allowed my brother and me to go to Bahndo's on our own, but when she did, we were thrilled. I loved picking up a rye bread and some milk and saying to Mr. Bahndo, "Mymothersaidyoushouldwriteitdown." I felt so big, so grown-up.
And here's where the scary memory comes in.
One day I walked into Mr. Bahndo's alone. His was a tiny shop that had everything you wanted at the time: milk, eggs, bread, cereal. I remember going to the bread section and picking up a rye bread. I walked over to the counter and handed it to Mr. Bahndo to slice. He took it and as he went over to the slicer, a chassidic (we used to say "chasseedisha") man came to stand next to me. To this day I remember what he looked like. He had a reddish beard and he was tall and heavy. He was wearing a long, black, satiny, bekeshe (coat) and the black velvet hat the chassidim wore during the week.
What happened next still gives me the chills.
As I waited for the rye bread I felt something moving on the side of my outer right thigh. When I looked down, I was horrified and terrified to see the man's hand on my skirt, trying to lift it up from the hem. I felt the skirt creasing and moving along my thigh.
And that's all.
Mr. Bahndo handed me the bread and I ran home. I don't recall if I paid him or told him to write it down. I burst into our apartment, hysterical, telling my mother exactly what happened.
She grabbed me and took me back down to Bahndo's.
She entered his store, screaming like a banshee. She shouted, "Who was that man that was just here while my daughter was here??!!" And she told Mr. Bahndo what I had told her.
Mr. Bahndo stuttered, "It can't be. That man is a "chooshiva yeed" (I remember those words)--an "important jew". "She is a CHILD!" my mother said, "She couldn't make such a thing up!" I don't remember exactly what my mother said next. Knowing her, she probably told Mr. Bahndo that if that pervert ever came near me again she'd kill him.
I buried that incident and I don't think that it had lasting psychological effects. But every so often it resurfaces and I remember a little girl's fear, a little girl wanting to say, "stop!", but being afraid to. Years and years later, I began to wonder just who this man was. If he could not help himself in so public a space, what was he doing--who was he hurting--in private?
Was this an isolated incident or were other children really and truly harmed? I shudder to think about it.
Many of you reading this probably know why this memory comes to me now.
Who can we trust if we can't trust our religious leaders?
What are we supposed to tell our children? We send you to religious schools, but don't have a meeting alone with your principal's or teachers because really they are just men (and women) and you never know what their very real and very damaging human failings can be? How do you say that to your kids without scaring the living daylights out of them?
Because we live in a different world than I grew up in, my daughters are not as innocent as I was at their age. They know way more than I did. So we found ourselves, at our Shabbat table discussing the events of the past week. Pretty honestly and matter-of-factly. To be safe, they have to be aware.
But when I think about the disappointment and devastation of so many people because of the actions of an "important Jew", I just have to cry for that little girl who I so vividly remember. And for so many, to many, others like her.
8 Years and Counting
9 months ago