Other than the occasional murder, few newspaper stories, if any, originate from the desolation of East Tremont Avenue; certainly no stories in Jewish newspapers, now that all the Jews have long ago scattered from these Bronx streets. Thereís nothing left on East Tremont, is there? But let it be written, in the words of the biblical Jacob: ìSurely, God is in this place ó and I, I did not know.
Oh, a murder did happen on March 20, when a Jew was arrested for the killing of a Christian boy. But first, a question for the youngest child to ask on Passover: Does Elijah still walk the streets of East Tremont on seder nights?
It used to be the most Jewish of neighborhoods. In 1929, when Gertrude Berg brought her famous show, ìThe Goldbergs,î to radio, she situated her fictional Jewish family at 1030 E. Tremont. Sheíd call through the window, ìYooo-hooo, Mrs. Bloooom!î The streets of East Tremont were filled with Goldbergs and Blooms.Years later, the night wind howls. A solitary tire rolls down the sidewalk. A peddler outside La Antillana Supermarket Carniceria hawks green plantains, yellow brooms, plastic hangers. From a boom-box, Latin dance music punches the air. A poster in a storefront window offers real estate options: ìHouses in Ghana … Electricity. Water. Tarred roads.î Why live on East Tremont when you can live in Ghana?
There are no signs or Stars of David to tip you off, but the one-story building at 236 E. Tremont used to be a shul. It is now a senior citizen center. Inside, a black woman makes plays a gospel piano, sweet and stately: ìHow Great Thou Art,î and ìWaiting on the Everlasting Lord.î Old black women sing along, jabbing plastic forks and spoons at meatloaf and canned fruit cocktail. There are nearly 20 black and Hispanic seniors here; nearly a dozen old Jews eat at a table across the room.Welcome to the East Tremont Lunch Club, a glatt kosher kitchen run by JASA, the Jewish Association for Services to the Aged, part of the UJA-Federation network. Thousands of Jews may have moved away, but JASA stays on for the few and the brave.Seniors thumb through house copies of El Diario, Jet and the New York dailies. They are poor, and the price of a newspaper gives pause. At the Lunch Club, JASA sells a hot meal for 60 cents, but pay what you can. On this particular afternoon, 32 hot meat meals are served; JASA collects $18.60.Cartons of milk are kept in crates outside the dining room. Danny, the black porter, explains, ìItís a glatt kosher lunch, you know. Got to keep the milk away.
A black woman, Mae, director of this senior center, looks to her husband Danny and smiles: ìHeís the mashgiach.îThereíll be a seder here on Passover. The Graenum Berger Bronx Jewish Federation Service Center is providing a rabbi and the food. ìWeíll probably have chicken,î says Danny, ìkugel, derma, soup, and macaroons.îMae insists, ìMy whole concern is that the center remain open as long as we have even one or two Jewish people here, so they can rest assured they can have a glatt kosher meal. Thereís not even a place around here where they can shop.înìHey, thatís nothiní,î says one of the Lunch Club Jews after some post-meal story telling. ìYou want a good story? Talk to Rae.îRae Beilis, 90 years old, looks up, finishing her lunch. Letís call her Raya, the name her Russian parents used to coo to her in a far and distant time.Yes, about that murder. Raya asks, ìYou know what happened to me, donít you? You donít? Are you kidding? I thought thatís why you wanted to talk to me. My father was Mendel Beilis. It was like yesterday.îThey found a dead body in Kiev, March 20, 1911 ó 88 years ago yesterday: A 12-year-old Christian boy was stabbed 37 times, his bloody body dumped in a cave. The district attorney pinned it on Beilis, who supposedly needed Christian blood to make matzah.Beilis, 37, managed a brick factory, overseeing hundreds of non-Jewish workers. ìThey loved him,î says Raya. Sure they did.ìI was 2 years old,î recalls Raya. ìThere was a knock on the door. They took father away so fast, he was just in his underwear.îThe shock of the ìblood libelî shot through Poland and Russian Jewry, an international sensation inspiring rallies and campaigns to free Beilis, even in America. (The story, in fact, has ricocheted through the decades, inspiring Bernard Malamudís ìThe Fixer,î and dozens of other histories and fiction.)After three Passovers in jail, he was acquitted. He left jail a Jewish celebrity, a Czarist-era Sharansky. As the song says, every generation throws a hero up the pop charts: in 1913 it was Beilis.Sholom Aleichem wrote him letters: ìMy dear Mendel Beilis. Youíre going to get offers from all over the world, ëCome here. Go there.í Take time to think things over.îThe Beilises ó Raya is the youngest and last of five siblings ó moved to Palestine. ìWe had terrible, miserable luck,î she says.Mendel Beilis was famous, sure, but how, exactly, did running a brick factory and being tortured in jail qualify him for anything? ìHe never found steady work,î says Raya. He barely learned Hebrew, and after moving to New York he barely learned English. ìTo be honest with you,î says Raya, ìhe didnít do anything. He was sick.î One of his sons committed suicide.ìJewish organizations said ëMendel Beilis, come to the United States and we will take care of you.í In New York, they put us up in the Trotsky Hotel. My father entered the dining room, people would stand and applaud.îEvery Jewish hotel in the state, it seemed, invited the Beilis family ó to do what? ìTo do nothing,î says Raya, ìjust sit. And the guests would say, ëYou know whoís here? Mendel Beilis!í I donít have to tell you about the Jews, how they carried on.
Jewish landlords let Mendel Beilis live rent-free. The Hunts Point apartment ìwas full of visitors,î says Raya. ìWhen I saw the crowds Iíd run out; I didnít want to hear about [the blood libel] every minute. After a while my father would say, ìMy dear Jewish people, you put such a big monument on top of me, Iíll never get out of my grave!í îRaya simply wanted her father. She remembers touching his clean cheeks, circling around his mustache. She shares his down-turned mouth.A Jewish banker paid him just to sit in the bank. Businessmen recruited him to sell insurance to other Jews. Wise guys took advantage, says Raya. Jews would yell at him: ìVat, you dink dat youíre Mendel Beilis, you can overcharge?î Beilis backed down. He dropped dead in a Saratoga hotel on the Fourth of July, 1934.Even in death, he was sought after. Raya remembers a millionaire paying for the funeral so the philanthropist could someday share a Queens cemetery with the great Mendel Beilis.Raya lived alone in the Bronx, never to marry. When March turns to April, the matzah stirs memory of her private Egypt, the years of childhood seders while her father was in jail for a matzah he never made. Sheíll have seders this year in the JASA center on East Tremont. ìI donít know what Iíd do if I didnít have such a seder. Really, to just sit alone in a room and eat matzah?îThey say the neighborhood has changed, and it has: It exemplifies redemption. With no incentive other than a mitzvah, a Jewish federation subsidizes her daily meals and makes arrangements for the rabbi to lead the East Tremont seder. Raya once feared ìgoyimî but now they, too, sustain her: A black man brings glatt kosher chickens and matzah to her seder. A black woman keeps the Lunch Club going. The police in America stop by to make sure all is well. The non-Jewish Guardian Angels group will send a squad to walk her home in peace.On seder night, when she opens the doors of 236 E. Tremont, is not Elijah there as surely as in Jerusalem? As Father Jacob said when he awoke from a dream: ìSurely, God was in this place ó and I, I did not know. … This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of Heaven.î