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Home is Where the Heart Is: In the South Bronx

Lauding the Met Council’s “mix of government, the good people of the building industry and [the] nonprofit community that cares,” John Ruskay, UJA-Federation of New York executive vice president and CEO, set the tone for the August 10 Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty Builders’ luncheon at Tavern on the Green. Met Council CEO William Rapfogel touted his organization’s programs for the city’s 100,000 neediest each year (14 residences throughout New York for the elderly and formerly homeless; a kosher food pantry, which last year distributed 2.8 million pounds of food to more than 10,500 homeless… and more).

Jumping on the bandwagon, City Council speaker Gifford Miller added, “All services don’t mean much unless a person has a home… to study… to grow old in with dignity.” Alluding to the “faith-based army of compassion represented by Met Council,” keynote speaker Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said: “I want to thank you for the work you are doing…. President Bush sends his deepest regards for the work that is being done.”

Met Council’s “Man of the Year,” Gregory Cuneo, chairman of HRH Construction LLC (the eighth-largest construction firm in the country) was introduced by Bill Rancic, winner of Donald Trump’s TV reality show, “The Apprentice.” As Carolyn Kepcher, Trump National’s general manager (and Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” observer-adviser) looked on, Rancic recalled: “After I won ‘The Apprentice,’ I got a call from Cuneo, a construction guy from Brooklyn: ‘You need to learn the construction business,’ said Cuneo. As a Chicagoan, I needed a translator.” Cuneo, who recently joined the board of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, expounded: “Part of Bill’s training is how to build a building…. But much of the training is how to run a company, which, in turn, is how to treat people…. [In closing] I’d like to say something in Hebrew,” said Cuneo, who then labored over kulahnu shavtim, kulahnu ahrayim, zeh lahzeh. Met Council senior executive consultant Rabbi David Cohen later translated for me: “We are responsible for one another; we are all equal.”

Among the nearly 200 lunchers were Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Borough of Queens President Helen Marshall, Executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York Michael Miller, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and many New York City council members, including the 33rd (Williamsburg) district’s David Yassky.

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To the list of forever-gone Jewish communities I’ve called “home” — Warsaw, Byten, Vilna — I add the South Bronx. The New York Times’s City section’s August 8 article, “The Last Empty Lot,” by Seth Kugel, highlighting the renaissance of the South Bronx’s Hunts Point area and Tiffany Gardens — a new housing development — triggered memories for me and my husband, Joseph. I caught the waning echoes of that neighborhood’s heymish texture when I spent the first six months of married life in the apartment Joe inherited from his parents — a fourth-floor walkup railroad flat in an elegant building on architecturally diverse Tiffany Street. The neighborhood then boasted full-service Jewish eateries, kosher delicatessens and a Hungarian restaurant. In the Tiffany Street outdoor/indoor multi-street market near Westchester Avenue, the sour-pickle vendors sat in front of their barrels, hawking, “A nickel a pickle.” Groceries still sold butter scooped from tubs; Yiddish-speaking merchants called out: “Vaybele, vaybele, tzvantzik sent a funt” — “Lady, lady, 20 cents a pound!” — and there were always women hanging out the windows, leaning on pillows, surveying the block and chastising wayward children.

A few of Joe’s select memories further define this once-upon-a-time American shtetl. Born upstate in Troy, N.Y., he lived from the mid 1930s to the early 1950s at 952 Tiffany Street (a block from 952 Kelly Street, where Colin Powell grew up). Balkanized demarcations reigned. Joe’s side of the street was “Jewish” territory. Across wide Tiffany Street, Irish Catholics and other Christians held domain. Going to the Hunts Points Library past St. Athanasias church meant running the gauntlet. Joe recalls: “Open mixing occurred only during competitive games of stickball.”

He fondly remembers the live chicken warehouse near the Intervale Avenue elevated station — a throwback to an East European shtetl market — where women wended their way on sawdust-covered floors past stacked cages crammed with live chickens. Pointing to a bird of their choice, the shochet (butcher) would pull out the chicken, slice its throat, then hang it up to drain. There was the option of paying a “chicken flicker” to de-feather or doing it yourself.

Joe accompanied his father to the Hunts Point Jewish Center (siddur and tallis hidden in paper bags), where, he recalls: “The rabbi delivered all his sermons in Yiddish and brought the congregation to tears over what was happening in Europe.” But a harbinger of changing Jewish response to local antisemitism was a near-riot toward the end of World War II when new arrivals in the neighborhood severely beat up some Jewish boys. In an unprecedented response, word spread throughout the surrounding neighborhoods, bringing hundreds of Jewish men and teenage boys — some with bats — to the apartment house where the hoodlums lived. The building was about to be stormed, when the police arrived in time to mediate a truce. As the crowd dispersed, Joe remembers hearing: ”We’ll never let them do this to us again!”

A nostalgic visit in the late 1960s to Tiffany Street was wrenching — akin to a war-devastated town. The once elegant Tiffany Street buildings were shells. The residents of the new Tiffany Gardens and the rebuilt Hunts Point area may never know of the rich Jewish life that once flourished there.

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