Thursday, August 13th, 2009
In 1978, my family made aliyah.
At least it felt that way. After growing up in an area of Bensonhurst with a bare-bones Jewish community, where my brother and I sometimes faced anti-Semitism on the streets and the idea of a kosher restaurant seemed like something out of a dream, I found myself at age 12 in Midwood, the most Jewish part of Flatbush.
Just old enough to begin walking around myself, it amazed me to visit Jewish-owned shops, kosher pizzerias and delis, with a conspicuously Jewish majority around me, just as it had amazed me several years earlier when we visited Israel for the first time. Switching mindsets from standout to mainstream came easy, and was one of the happiest transitions of my life.
We lived in a walk-up apartment on a quiet, tree-lined street on East 9th Street, just a short walk from the perfectly named Avenue J, which was the heart of Jewish commerce in the area then and remains so today. If a proprietor could afford the rent, a kosher or shomer Shabbat business almost couldn’t fail on Avenue J because of the volume of foot traffic, the four stops of the B6 bus route (which traced our migration back to our Bensonhurst origin), the D train station and the presence of Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. For a few years, there was also the Midwood movie theater, but a combination of nearby multiplex muscle and the shift from modern Orthodoxy to haredi majority closed it down in the early 80s.
I spent much of my after-school time hanging out on Avenue J, and but for a few years living in Canarsie after marriage, it remained my central errand and dining destination for years, especially from 1994 to 2006 when my wife and I had a house on East 28th Street, exactly one mile away.
Returning there this week, many months after my last visit, I marveled at the fact that this strip, unlike any other I’ve seen, not only continues to thrive but remains in flux. The biggest shock was the absence of Natanya Pizza, a J bedrock. Yehuda Moldovan and his family ran Natanya for more than 30 years, opening just a year before I arrived in the neighborhood, and I not only grew up sprinkling red hot pepper on his thick slices but went to interview him in 1998 for a “Day in the Life of Jewish New York” feature we did in the Jewish Week’s Directions magazine. A slice of life if ever there was one.
When I got over the shock that this fabled eatery, which outlasted numerous competitors, had been taken over as an annex to another local pizza establishment, I walked down the strip to find that the liquor store where I’d often bought Shabbat wine had now become a kosher pizzeria.
Willing to try new, I considered a slice, even at a high-for-Brooklyn price of $3, but couldn’t bring myself to shell out that much coin for what looked like a sheet of paper with tomato sauce and some cheese. Walking another block down I noted that the most successful restaurant in Avenue J history, the Garden of Eat-in, had expanded to the store next door, with a spanking-new party room, as did another kosher pioneer, the Kosher Delight burger emporium.
But just where I had left it was Jerusalem II Pizza, the first of many stores to bear that name, still the same size and decor from when it last expanded — in the late 80s, to the best of my recollection — to take over the Baskin Robbins next door. J2 has gone through numerous changes of ownership over the years, but the quality never suffered, largely because the same guys were making the pizza. I shelled out a reasonable $2.50 for a slice, and biting into it took me back in time, to the late 1970s, when kosher pizza was still a novelty, and I was a 12-year-old kid enjoying my first taste of heimishe life.
There are some good things in life, after all, that are resistant to change.