Sunday, February 21, 2010

A very personal story

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.


Anonymous said...

Sad story. We understand it must have been painful at the time and probably again when you wrote about it. I am sorry it hapened to you. It is frightening to see that religious leaders are not immune to this sort of behavior.

mother in israel said...

Baila, that did give me the chills. Thank you for sharing it with us. I have a friend whose doctor felt her up at every visit when she was a teen, and her parents didn't do anything when she told them. They trusted him because he was a doctor.

SuperRaizy said...

Your story made me shudder, too. How horrible for you.
No matter how difficult it is to talk to our children about this, we absolutely must. I still remember sitting Flash down when he was 12 years old and explaining to him that there are men in this world who like to touch young boys. I felt sick to my stomach doing it, and I will never ever forget the look of horror in his eyes. For some reason, it was easier to talk to my girls about it, though.

Leah S said...

What a terrible experience. I wonder if times are really different now, or if people just are just more aware than in previous generations. No one used to talk about abusive behavior; the child was meant to be ashamed, (if anyone believed him/her in the first place) and there were no consequences for the perpetrator.
I hope, whoever this guy was, he was soon exposed so he couldn't harm any others.

Unknown said...

Baila, this is exceptionally well-written. Very sorry that you had this experience....

This is sadly something all parents need to address. I am so grateful that our pediatrician in the States used to begin EVERY exam of our kids by asking their permission to examine them. As he would examine them, he would gently explain/remind them that our bodies are private, and only doctors and ima/abba could ask to see them, and doctors only if ima/abba were there, too. In this gentle and non-threatening way, the kids learned and understood. I sincerely wish that all pediatricians did this. I also sincerely wish that there were no need....

Anonymous said...

Oh Baila! I am so so sorry for what you had to suffer, and still do to this very day. I too had a terrible experience when I was a little girl, but unfortunately did not have the courage/confidence to come forth and tell my parents. This had awful repercussions on my emotional well-being for years and years to come. I thank you for sharing, and admire your taking action.


Anonymous said...

Baila, thank you for this beautifuly written post. Your mother must have done something right for you to have trusted her with the story.
I can tell you that I personally know 2 pedophiles and they were both educators at Jewish schools.

Baila said...


The most frightening thing to me is--who can you trust?


I feel terrible for your friend. My mother's anger and quick reaction makes me feel great.


We MUST talk to our kids no matter how uncomfortable. With my kids almost everything is pretty much out in the open.

Leah S.,

I don't think times are all that different. Yes, more awareness, but this kind of behavior will always exist because the people doing it truly can't stop.


What a great doctor your kids had.


I am so sorry that you had that experience. Our situations are probably different. I think that because it happened with a stranger and so little happened I was able to tell my mom--I didn't have time to think about it.


Thank you. I hope those people are no longer in a situation where they can hurt children.

Baila said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Asher said...

Very important was the response of Baila's mother, and her saying that Bai;a is child who couldn't make such a thing up. Well done Baila's mum!

odm said...

Good for your Mom, Baila!

I'm sorry that that happened - but I'm glad that you were able to tell her, and that she reacted quickly and intelligently.

As far as I know, research has shown that what matters more than any kind of help a child gets later on, what matters most in any case of sexual harassment or abuse is the support of the parent or caretaker of the child. So kol hakavod :)