This story was part of a writing challenge proposed by my American Jewish Lit professor in grad school. After reading Bernard Malamud's short story from 1955, "The Angel Levine," about a Jewish black angel who saves an old Jewish tailor in order to get his wings. The story looks deeply at Jewish identity, posing the question: what makes a Jew?
In turn, my professor asked, "where did this angel come from? What was his life when he was alive? Was he born Jewish?"
I grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, the son of an entrepreneur who made his money opening speakeasies in Jungle alley. Jazz musicians, homosexuals, bohemians, and upper class whites flocked to his establishments. In 1926, when I was four-years-old, we moved to a Hamilton Heights brownstone. At the time (although much has changed) Hamilton heights was a desirable neighborhood for affluent whites, and my father’s success with his speakeasies sprinkled throughout Harlem allowed us to live among whites. I remember the whiteness of my neighbor’s skin was odd to me. It’s not that I’d never seen white folks; I just always assumed they were curious creatures with stringy hair and colorless faces. Our first week in our house, I watched the boy next door kick his pale legs against the steps. I’d never seen a white boy with shorts on before.
“Mama! Mama!” I screamed out into our shiny new kitchen.
She came running into the living room. “What Levi?”
“Look Mama. Look at that boy. What’s wrong with him?”
“What do you mean, what’s wrong with him? He’s sitting on the steps. Whew, boy. You scared me.”
“But, Mama. His legs…he got white leg disease.” My mother just stared at me trying not to laugh.
“Child, that boy is not diseased. Look at his face. What color is his face?”
I paused and studied his light brown hair and pale pale skin. “White.”
“ So, if his face is white, what color are his legs?”
“Brown.” I answered confidently.
She cocked her head to the side and let out a laugh. “Why would a white boy have brown legs?”
“Cuz everyone’s got brown legs Mama. Everyone.” I replied stubbornly folding my arms around my body.
“You think Miss Wineblatt’s got brown legs?”
“Yes.” I answered defiantly, now secretly embarrassed by my fears. I suppose my mother’s employer, a wealthy Jewish society lady, did not have brown legs.
Despite my father’s success, Mama insisted on working. My mother, a proponent of Prohibition, found the speakeasies distasteful, so even after my father provided a comfortable home for us, she stayed attached to an old Jewish spinster on the Upper West Side. Mama worked for crumbling Miss Wineblatt for as long as I can recall. She cleaned her apartment, did her cooking, and helped her shop. I was never sure who needed the other one more. My father begged Mama to act like a respectable lady and stop living at the beck and call of some old Jew. However, Mama refused. Miss Wineblatt was getting on in age, and Mama couldn’t bear the thought of Miss Wineblatt stumbling though her vast apartment alone. Plus, she didn’t need no women of ill-repute, who hung around Pop’s lap-joints, ruining her days. At least, Miss Wineblatt had some class.
Miss Wineblatt’s class, in my young mind, was questionable. Her clothes never seemed to fit and I swear I’d see her drool into her lunch as I watched her eat. Plus, Mama and Miss Wineblatt fought constantly. “Oh Mother Wineblatt” she’d scream, “You gotta listen to me when I talk!” She’d scream in a bellowing voice when Miss Wineblatt insisted on doing anything independently of Mama. “You can’t be wondering around this apartment, half-dressed, someone might see you. “
“I do whatever I want to do Ella.” Miss Wineblatt would scream back. “You’re always pushing. I maybe be old, but I’m not dead yet. You should be so lucky that I die.”
Then she’d look over at me with her wrinkly face, and place her tiny vein-filled hand on my cheek. “Look at this boy. Levi, such a boy. With a good Jewish name. You should be home with him, not pushing me around.”
I winced when she said my name. Even at four, my name got strange looks. Levi did sound like a Jewish boy and not a black boy from Harlem. However, after years of working for Miss Wineblatt, Mrs. Ella Anderson grew to love the foreign sounding names the Jewish community bestowed upon their children. She thought Levi was lovely and respectable, so that‘s what she named me. Pop might have argued, but he’d found if he let Mama make her own decisions, she’d stop making decisions for him.
Read on next week for Part 2.