My mother was in town for a few days that summer, babysitting her granddaughter (and my niece), while she had some time off between camp and school starting again.
One day I picked the two of them up and drove them to Brighton Beach, which I prefer over Coney Island mostly because I like being around all the Russians, our people a few generations back, but also because it’s easier to find parking there than Coney Island.
On the beach the man selling sodas from a cooler flirted with my mother. She’s still got it, I thought, which I found encouraging in a narcissistic way. We slathered ourselves with suntan lotion and committed to a time limit of exposing ourselves to cancerous rays. We squinted in the sun.
Whenever I have these moments, when it’s just the three of us, the three generations of women, I like to ask my mother questions about our family history. It’s good to pass on stories. That’s what my whole life is about now, passing on stories to the next person.
That day she told us about a family member that had escaped Russian military service by puncturing his eardrums. This weird tale of cleverness and cowardice did not faze me. In fact, it delighted me. I plucked the detail from the air and put it into the book I was writing the very next day.
My mother and my niece wandered off toward the water and jumped the waves, and then later it was just my niece and myself. The both of us squealed along with the other Brooklynites when the waves crashed around us. My mother watched us. I held my niece’s hand. We were fearless.
I have very distinct memories about growing up as part of what was then a very small Jewish community in Buffalo Grove, IL. Today my hometown has a big Jewish population, as does the rest of the North Shore. But at the time, there was only one other Jewish family on the block, and I don’t recall them being particularly invested in their Judaism. It was on the Attenbergs to represent.
Just what every child wants. To represent their religious differences.
I did get in a few fights in school. Kids threw around anti-Semitic slurs, not knowing necessarily what they meant. It was probably just something they picked up somewhere, as kids do. In third grade a girl called me a kike in gym class, and I challenged her to a fight after school. We met in the soccer field, surrounded by other children. I was chubbier than her, so I just sat on her and sort of slapped her around the head. I was eventually declared the winner. A few years ago she friended me on Facebook, and I declined.
The holiday season was the toughest, I think, because there so many differences between how we celebrated our holidays and everyone else celebrated theirs. I remember being banned from other houses as a younger child during the winter holiday season; I was the only one who didn’t believe in Santa Claus, and I was ruining everyone’s Christmas.
Still, in all of this, I developed a sense of pride in being a Jew. If we were different, weren’t we at least a little bit special?
When my parents first moved to Buffalo Grove, the population was small in general, and while there were plenty of Jews in say, my father’s hometown of Highland Park, about a half hour east of us, they just hadn’t found their way out to us yet.
I called my dad recently and asked him about it.
“There was one other Jewish family on the block, maybe?” I said.
“You have to remember that there were only six to eight thousand people in Buffalo Grove,” he said.
“It was very small,” I agreed.
“When you consider what percentage of the population is Jewish anyhow, you didn’t have a lot. And we were one of the first forty families in our synagogue – we joined in the second year of the synagogue. Everybody who was in the synagogue at that time was well aware of that particular problem in Buffalo Grove.”
I pictured a bunch of Jews in the 1970s gossiping about The Buffalo Grove Problem.
“By the way, Patton Drive has not changed,” he said. “There’s still only two or three Jewish families.”
I don’t know why I find that comforting, but I do.