The Avenger of Sixty-Sixth Street
Come September, the women's section of the Shield of Young David synagogue was once again crowded as families returned from their summer holidays, and those of us who had been left behind week after week to attend virtually empty services felt a bit like soldiers who man aged to prevail on a hopelessly abandoned battlefield. Back from the family bungalow in the Catskills, Mrs. Ruben, the rabbi's wife, once again took her seat in the front, her flock of daughters in tow; the Ruben girls, each named after a biblical heroine – Miriam, Deborah, Rebecca, Rochelle – occupied an entire row behind the tall wooden divider that separated us from the men.
My mother, Edith, and I were among the first to arrive on Saturday mornings, and while we could have grabbed the front-row seats of the women's section for ourselves, more often than not we made our way to the second row, in deference to "la femme du rabbin" as Mom liked to refer to Mrs. Ruben.
She never once called her by her name.
Rabbi Ruben's wife was a thin, stern figure who never raised her voice or lost her temper, yet still terrified me. She was vastly different from her husband, who was jovial and charismatic and whose passionate speeches from the pulpit held us in thrall.
Shortly after my family had left Egypt and moved to America two years earlier, the murder of Kitty Genovese dominated Harry Ruben's sermons. He'd constantly decried her brutal slaying, pounding the lectern as he recalled that dark March morning in 1964 when she'd screamed "help me" but no one came to her rescue. He terrified us with his vision of a country where some forty neighbors could listen to a young woman's cries, shut their windows, and not bother to call the police.
Yet even at his most fiery and intense, Rabbi Ruben radiated goodwill and bonhomie. His wife, on the other hand, while perfectly proper and polite, seemed somehow disapproving even when she greeted us and wished us Good Sabbath. I had the feeling she didn't much care for any of us in this little immigrant congregation where fate had landed her. The Ruben daughters didn't budge from their chairs, and they tended to play among themselves. David, the lone son, occasionally wandered over because little boys were permitted to enter the women's section, and many darted in and out during services to confer with their mothers.
Our section was situated at the rear of the synagogue, though a portion of it jutted out into the sanctuary. It was small and rectangular shaped, surrounded on two sides – the front and the left – by a decorative beige wooden fence; the right side's natural boundary was the synagogue wall. Although it was an enclosed space, much like a pen, it felt more cozy than claustrophobic. Mom and I always took seats next to the divider on the left, where we could look out into the sanctuary and follow every prayer, every movement by the men.
I went to services dutifully every Saturday morning. I'd walk hand in hand with my mother from our house on Sixty-Sixth Street to the beige brick synagogue around the corner on Sixty-Seventh Street. Together, we would climb the dimly lit staircase to the sanctuary on the second floor, which was bathed in light from the windows as well as several crystal chandeliers.
Most of the women behind the divider were refugees from the Levant like us who had retreated to this small comfort zone whose name alone promised a buffer from the vagaries and pressures of the outside world: the Shield of Young David.
The wooden divider was an elegant if flimsy affair. After opening my prayer book for cover, I'd peer through its filigreed holes in the shape of diamonds and clovers and curlicues. I found it all so thrilling, the goings-on in the men's section. The men were constantly being called up to the elevated reading table at the center of the shul, so that there was a sense of continuous motion – they'd be marching, singing, bowing, putting on their prayer shawls, taking off their prayer shawls – whereas we mostly stayed put in our seats.
The men were the ones who led the services and chanted out loud. During the silent devotions, how I envied the way they prayed – with such focus and single-mindedness – their heads and shoulders wrapped in their soft white shawls. Surely, they enjoyed a special relationship with God.
I was anxious to trade places with them, to be the one to lead prayers and lift torah scrolls high in the air. I noticed that whenever a man was called up to the holy Ark at the front of the synagogue, his wife and daughters jumped to their feet and paid tribute to him by remaining standing until he returned to his seat. Would anyone ever stand up for me?
In my mind, there were two worlds – the gossipy, trivial, inconsequential world of the women's section and the solemn, purposeful world beyond it, the world where men sat in vast and airy quarters communing with God. The world that I longed to join and where I felt I belonged. The world beyond the divider.
Our section became more cramped with every passing week. As we approached the high holidays, there was barely an empty seat.
In anticipation of the holidays, all the women began to dress up; and everyone, from dowdy matrons to toddlers, paraded in their finest clothes. Our little house of worship turned into a fashion runway. Everyone eyed what the others were wearing.
It was a challenge I couldn't resist.
In the fall of 1966 when I turned ten, my heroine was Emma Peel, the British secret agent who managed to be stylish and lethal at the same time, delivering karate chops and judo flips while clad in skintight black leather. Mrs. Peel was the star of The Avengers, a show that I watched obsessively each week on our new TV set, our first major purchase since coming to America.
I liked to imagine myself as a world-class spy, an international woman of intrigue. Consumed with Emma Peel, I tried to emulate her speech and manner and adopted her wry half smile and her hairdo. I longed for her strength, her courage, her wit, her intellect, and above all, her wardrobe.
Alas, I couldn't find Mrs. Peel's sleek leather jumpsuits – the epitome of the new London chic – on Brooklyn's Eighteenth Avenue, the strip of bargain stores where we usually shopped, or at the few department stores where we dared venture like S. Klein's on Union Square, Mays on Fulton Street, or Gimbel's Basement. None of the wonderful clothes she wore, not the jaunty hats or the hip-hugger slacks or the geometric mod dresses, seemed available to me in my universe of discount outlets, though I searched and searched and wondered when I would attain the Avenger's elegance and flair.
At last, my runaway older sister came to the rescue.
Shortly after my birthday, I arrived at the women's section dressed in a dashing green woolen blazer with gold buttons and a gold crest with a matching forest green velvet carnaby hat, both gifts of Suzette who had left home two years earlier, shortly after we'd settled in New York. She compensated for her departure by lavishing me with expensive clothes. I wore the hat, which resembled a newsboy's cap, tilted at an angle and let my hair grow long, resisting my mom's entreaties to trim it.
I wanted it the precise length as Emma Peel's – slightly past my shoulders in a soft flip and swept off my forehead.
I'd make a grand entrance on Saturday mornings in my blazer and carefully angled hat and take my seat by Mom, feeling confident and self-assured and in my view decidedly more elegant than any other inhabitant of the women's section. As more women arrived over the course of the morning, I'd leave my mother's side and stride up and down our little enclave to be embraced by some, patted on the head by others, and – I hoped – admired by all.
What do you want to be when you grow up? I'd be asked.
An Avenger, I always replied, without missing a beat.
The show's introduction became my mantra. I would recite it out loud to anyone who would listen, pleased with myself for having memorized it. I attempted a British accent that must have sounded jarring, coming on top of the French accent I couldn't quite shed. "Extraordinary crimes, against the people and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner, Emma Peel, talented amateur, otherwise known as The Avengers . . ."
Of course, it wasn't clear what there was to avenge in this cosseted little world of mine. There were no extraordinary crimes here. There weren't even many ordinary crimes. Sixty-Sixth Street was remarkably safe – the kind of street where children played day and night without a care, where physical danger seemed remote. Bensonhurst was a staid, working-class area whose residents, mainly newly arrived immigrants, felt so removed and disenfranchised from the rest of New York that everyone around me called Manhattan "the city."
My universe consisted of about a dozen blocks, bounded on the west by Eighteenth Avenue, the lively discount shopping district my mom adored, and on the east by Bay Parkway, the vast and slightly more opulent boulevard of banks, luncheonettes, and stationery stores that my father favored. Wedged in between were my elementary school, my synagogue, my friends, and key food, my first American supermarket whose shelves I liked to scour and whose aisles and sawdust-covered floors I found enticing.
I much preferred the world of the Avengers – the heady world of 1960s London, where one woman emblemized all I wanted to be on this earth. I prayed for the day when I would be asked to step in and avenge some extraordinary crime.
Every Saturday as I walked with my mom to services, I considered the possibility that my skills as an Avenger would be urgently required. I imagined a hostage situation – arriving one morning and finding the rabbi and the other men being held at gunpoint by vicious marauders – mad scientists, master destroyers, military megalomaniacs. I pictured myself rushing to the front of the synagogue exactly like Emma Peel and, with some elegant judo moves, disposing of the bad guys who had dared invade our little world.
But we'd walk in to the same placid scene we found every week. There was Mr. Menachem conducting the prayers with his usual pleasant cadences while Rabbi Ruben sat, as always, impassive in his armchair on the makeshift stage at the front, and I took my seat next to Mom by the divider.
I was usually blissfully content in my chair. the universe as defined by the wooden partition was one of the few places where I could be myself, where I felt at ease, and where that sense of not belonging, of being different and foreign that had haunted me since leaving Egypt, vanished.
But I also chafed at the divider. The more I watched the men, the greater my longing to join them, sit next to them, worship at their side.
The extraordinary crime was there, in front of me, I decided. The extraordinary crime was the divider itself.
I knew what I had to do: I had to become the Avenger of the women's section. I wanted to demolish our wooden enclosure, to smash it into a thousand pieces, to strike it down with some deft karate chops the way I knew Emma Peel would if given the opportunity.
Excerpted from The Arrogant Years by Lucette Lagnado. Copyright 2011 by Lucette Lagnado. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.