My love for walking throughout New York City can be traced back to a game my father played with me as a child called “Last Stop.”
On every available weekend, from the time I was nine to the time I was fourteen, my dad and I took the subway from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where we lived, to the last stop and walked around for a couple of hours.
When we ran out of new last stops on the various lines, we did the second and then the third to last, and so on, always traveling to a new place.
In that way I learned to love and appreciate the city, which I like to call the world’s greatest outdoor museum. I also developed a very close bond with my father who gave me the greatest present a kid can have – the gift of time.
In preparation for my new book, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows, I walked most of Brooklyn, 816 miles. Whenever I could, I walked in the daytime, at night, during the week, on weekends, and in all seasons – in rain, snow, and shine – from mid-October 2014 to mid-August 2015.
In the larger sense, the story of class, race, and religion in Brooklyn is best seen through the prism of five distinct groups: blacks, Hispanics, Orthodox Jews, Asians, and gentrifiers.
With the departure of Italians, Irish, and more assimilated Jews, these new populations have taken over and they are sweeping into communities where they had never lived before.
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Midwood is often grouped together with its neighbor, Flatbush, and many residents see themselves as part of Flatbush proper. In many ways it’s similar to southwestern Flatbush, but it is nevertheless a distinct area with its own boundaries.
These are Avenue H on the north, Nostrand Avenue on the east, Avenue P on the south, and McDonald Avenue on the west.
Famous individuals who lived or attended schools in Midwood include director/actor/comedian Woody Allen (who lived at both 1402 Avenue K and 968 E. 14th Street), Brooklyn Dodgers star and manager of the 1969 Miracle Mets Gil Hodges, singer/songwriter Barry Manilow, playwright Arthur Miller, and Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Midwood also has two prominent colleges, CUNY’s Brooklyn College and Touro College, a school with many locations throughout the city but with a heavy presence in this area and a predominantly Orthodox Jewish student body.
Today, Midwood is a heavily Orthodox Jewish community featuring many yeshivas and a shul on almost every block. (There are smaller numbers of Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated Jews who make their homes in Midwood. Once upon a time, in the 1940s and 1950s, they were the dominant group. Today, they are dwarfed by the Orthodox.)
On the main avenues and even many of the side streets there are vast numbers of shops and stores selling just about everything imaginable, and catering to every taste and budget.
Pomegranate, an immense, upscale kosher supermarket on Coney Island Avenue near Avenue L, is a worthy rival in design and presentation to Whole Foods.
Midwood is also home to New York’s, and quite possibly the world’s, most famous pizza shop, Di Fara’s Pizza, located at 1424 Avenue J. Observant Jews cannot eat in this non-kosher establishment but looking is not the same as eating and as I watch Orthodox Jews walk by I can see some of them peering curiously into the place, possibly wondering why it’s always so crowded and maybe thinking that the pizza must be really good.
They’d probably be surprised to know that two of the many ingredients that go into the pies, oregano and basil, are imported from Israel.
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Most residents probably don’t know this, but Midwood was home for years to the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts at 1407 Coney Island Avenue, a building the school shared with Eichler’s, the well-known Jewish bookstore on the ground floor.
The school graduated more than 500 students and even though it closed since I visited it several years ago while researching this book, the story is worth mentioning for what it says about kashrus, kosher cooking, and kosher restaurants.
The school was directed by Jesse Blonder and was the only kosher-oriented culinary school in America. One of the people who worked with him, Philippe Kaemmerle, was formerly a pastry chef at Windows on the World (which was located at the top of the World Trade Center) and Club 21.
As it happened, a class on food safety was going on during my visit, with several yarmulke-wearing young men listening raptly. The instructor, who was not an Orthodox Jew, told his students:
“Why do I teach this course? I’ve been in the food business for thirty years. One day, long ago, I read an article about a woman who died from sugar toxin 48 hours after taking her kids to a fast-food restaurant somewhere in the Midwest. When I read this story I thought: ‘Mom took the kids out to dinner and now these two kids have to grow up without a mother.’
“I realized that if I could teach classes on food safety I could save lives. That’s why I’m here today. I don’t want restaurants to kill their customers. This is nicht gut, like they say in French.”
Besides teaching about safety and sanitation, there were courses on making tasty food, menu design, baking quality breads and pastries, even career counseling.
It was a 200-hour program and with a certificate of completion graduates were able to enhance their chances of getting a well-paying position in the industry. Among the topics covered in a typical week were: knife skills, lamb cookery, Asian cuisine, baking principles including creaming and foaming; buffet preparation, hors d’oeuvres and canapés. Who knew?
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A few doors away, at 1359 Coney Island Avenue, there’s Essen New York Deli, for those who want delicious homemade Jewish food. That means overstuffed and honey-glazed corned beef and hot pastrami sandwiches, golden chicken soup with kreplach and matzah balls, and a full menu of kosher Chinese food.
The latter item speaks to the long and venerable lineage of this place, hearkening back fifty years to the time an eatery popularly known as Shmulke Bernstein’s (formally named Bernstein-on-Essex) flourished on Essex Street in the center of the Lower East Side.
That storied restaurant specialized in making kosher Chinese food taste as good as the real thing while still adhering to Jewish law.
What really packs them in at Essen are traditional Jewish dishes such as cholent (a stew of meat, potatoes, beans, and perhaps a piece of well-done kosher sausage), potato kugel, and kishke. Go there on a Thursday late at night and you’ll find the place packed with young people enjoying the fare their mothers might still make.
Across the street, at 1472 Coney Island Avenue, you’ll find Masbia, a non-profit soup kitchen for the poor. It has several locations in Brooklyn and Queens and has served millions of meals since its inception in 2005, receiving funding from UJA Federation and other Jewish organizations.
As I walk in, a number of people, most of them alone, are eating what looks like nourishing chow at cafeteria-style tables.
But Masbia serves others in need as well. After Hurricane Sandy, it provided 20,000 meals, including hundreds served to stranded seniors temporarily placed in a Park Slope armory. Without such support, which is also provided by a vast network of Catholic, Protestant, and non-sectarian groups, the city’s efforts to feed, house, and clothe the needy would be immeasurably more difficult.
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Sephardic Jews comprise a significant portion of Midwood’s Jewish community. Most of those living here hail from Syria and first came to Brooklyn around the turn of the 20th century.
I visit the Sephardic B’nai Yosef Synagogue, or “The Painted Shul” at 1616 Ocean Parkway. It looks totally nondescript from the outside but it’s the opposite inside. The walls are covered with murals painted by Archie Rand, an art professor at Brooklyn College. Most are drawn from biblical stories like the flood in Noah’s time and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. One of them, a depiction of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, even has fake tufts of grass sticking out from it. The artwork certainly makes the synagogue unique, but to the members what’s really important is that hundreds of people come to services there every day of the week.
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Each ethnic group in Midwood has its own niche – houses of worship, restaurants, specialty stores, etc. For instance, at 451 Avenue P, I walk into Vasha-Kniga, a Russian language bookshop. It is filled with both soft-cover and beautifully bound hardcover books, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy. There’s also a selection of children’s books including many illustrated Russian fairy tales. Altogether there are 18,000 different titles.
“Who comes here?” I ask Yulia, who shows me around.
“Mostly Russians, of course. We’re one of the biggest, especially on the Internet and the only major one in Brooklyn….
“We have the same problems with a decline in book readers as other bookstores. But Russians, including Orthodox Jewish Russians, like to read real books. We sell to hundreds of libraries all over the country – Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles – wherever there are Russian communities.”
The importance of enterprises of this sort is that they preserve Russian culture for the newcomers who miss it. They also help immigrants bridge the gap between the homeland and the new land. How long will stores like this last? As long as there’s a need for them.
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On the corner of Avenue P and E. 24th Street, in the Madison neighborhood, there’s a synagogue and kollel – a place where young married men engage in Talmud study – inside a very large and beautiful private home.
Called the Beis Medrash Imrei Zvi, it is a most unusual place. The interior is stunning, especially given its small size. (Large synagogues are often ornately designed, but small ones, serving perhaps 100 or so members, are generally simple affairs – a couple of long tables, for which folding chairs or simple benches are good enough.)
Outside, there’s an elevator for the family of the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Scheinerman (who live on the upper floors), and for parties held in the basement.
But it is the beauty of the interior that makes it special. The floor consists of beige blocks of gleaming marble. It’s ornate yet very tasteful. The built-in wooden, carved bookcases, with more than a thousand leather-bound volumes, are constructed from what appears to be an oak that’s a rich and glossy honey color. The tabletops look like polished cherry-wood and the thick upholstered gold fabric, patterned chairs are likely made from mahogany.
The ark housing the Torahs is magnificent, made again of carved wood with intricate designs of grapes and vines. There are also Ionic/Corinthian pillars of made of shiny, maple-colored wood. There’s a menorah etched into a glass surface. The inscription atop the ark reads “I put God before me always.” The five chandeliers throughout the room are elegant and constructed of dark polished brass.
As I gaze upon all this on a quiet weekday afternoon I’m left with a feeling of deep serenity.
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On Coney Island Avenue you’ll find many grocery stores, clothing shops, and other enterprises owned by and catering to the Muslim population.
Of course, there’s no strictly controlled border between Flatbush and Midwood, so the Muslims, like the Orthodox Jews, straddle both communities.
The Jews and Muslims get along quite well, with incidents of any sort a rarity. When the Pakistani community first began moving here and no halal meat was available, they happily bought kosher food.
Both groups believe strongly in the importance of religion and the women dress modestly. But they avoid discussing flashpoint topics like politics and have very limited social contact.
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Midwood has a lot of beautiful homes, many of them recently built. One of the most attractive areas is the Nottingham section, between Aves L and N, from north to south, and running from E. 21st to E. 28th Streets.
You might also want to walk along two very quiet streets near Nottingham – Bay Avenue and Olean Street.
Each is about two blocks long and they contain a number of very old brick and stucco houses worth seeing in terms of a walk through the past.
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Whether you live outside its boundaries or are a longtime resident, there’s a lot to be seen and savored in Midwood. Long, leisurely strolls are the best way to enjoy this old but constantly changing part of Brooklyn.