It’s hard to admit, but when I was thirteen I became what my grandmother referred to as a ganif. Initially, my life of crime had nothing to do with greed and everything to do with moving to a new neighborhood – a Jewish American dreamland of split level homes, a place I never felt a part of.
We left our apartment on Avenue C in Brooklyn where life made sense: stickball on East 4th street, kick-the-can on Ocean Parkway, and my best friends; people who finished my sentences and had the good grace not to laugh at my Israeli accent. They taught me to ride a bike and dance to Motown. We discovered Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix together – our Book of J. We slept over each other’s houses, swam at the St. George Hotel pool, walked to Prospect Park and rolled down Suicide Hill. I went to church with them on Sunday to the despair of my Jewish-Israeli parents. However, there were more tangible problems for my parents to worry about than the state of my assimilating soul.
I was blind to what they saw happening to our neighborhood: garbage in the courtyard, bicycles stolen, kids smoking weed, drinking beer. They took exception to my friend who flipped out on acid. She was fourteen. Cops came. They peeled her off a doorpost after she tried to wrestle her mother to the ground. Earlier, she had danced on the roof of my Dad’s Cutlass Supreme; her shoes scratched the paint. Dad had sweated nine years for that car. If that wasn’t enough, when he came home from the late shift at CB Manufacturing Co., he stumbled over Rebel, a local heroin addict who used our vestibule to shoot up in.
“We gotta run from here,” Dad said.
Three months later, we moved to Georgetown, Brooklyn, a new development of attached homes in a sea of undeveloped lots. For my younger siblings, these tracts were a wonderland of concrete slabs, abandoned tires, tall marsh grasses and a bay that belched onto a muddy shore. For my parents it was the fulfillment of the American Dream. For me, it was a wasteland. Houses were built on fill and swamp. At night, our two-family groaned as it settled into the ground. Something lived beneath the blacktop: a tired Golem, the Jewish equivalent of a disillusioned Atlas carrying our street on his shoulders.
Eventually, I found new friends in Georgetown: Jewish transplants from Bushwick, Brownsville, and East New York, urban neighborhoods whose rough innocence we couldn’t recreate. The move had amputated our childhoods. Now we babysat for wealthy families in Mill Basin. We smoked their cigarettes and ate their junk food. We went to dances at St. Bernard’s Church and did the bump with Catholic schoolboys who dared to test the rumors they’d heard about Jewish girls. Here, we couldn’t get away with wearing hand-me-downs. So we stole clothes for fun and because we were angry at our poverty, which hadn’t been as keenly felt in those places we left behind.
Our greatest haul took place one June afternoon at A&S. We asked a bagel store owner for a shopping bag. He gave us one that stood three feet high. We filled it to the brim and ran out of A&S laughing. No one stopped us.
We became good thieves and after reading Jerry Rubin’s book Do It, we attributed a cause to our crimes, though none of us could say which one, except perhaps our own, defined by our rage at parents who’d displaced us. I had forgotten how many times my folks were uprooted. Before they moved to Israel, their youth had been spent at the mercy of brutal regimes: Mom in Russia, Dad in Syria. I had only changed zip codes.
Six months after the move, I felt comfortable enough to merge this new world with the old one and invited my friend, Beth from Kensington, to spend the weekend. Her mother gave her money to buy a blouse at Kings Plaza Mall. We used it to see Love Story at the Loews. I promised Beth I’d steal whatever she wanted. We went to Macy’s and when she chose a blouse, I reached for it without hesitation.
As soon as we walked out, I felt a hand grip my arm and stared into the impassive face of a strange man. Beth was being towed past clothing racks by a woman who appeared even less sympathetic. They were plain-clothed security officers, Macys’ version of the Mod Squad. I hung my head like the criminals I’d seen getting into police cars on the nightly news, dismayed at what my parents would think, knowing that I had failed them.
They brought us into a deprivation-tank of a room. We never learned their names. We didn’t think to ask. Authority in my parents’ immigrant world was never questioned. We had no identification. The man wanted to call my home to verify our identity. I pleaded with him to let the woman call. I wasn’t allowed to receive calls from boys. Stealing would be easier to explain – America had rubbed off on me. He must have thought any girl worried about a man telephoning her house was no great threat to society.
We were lucky. They let us go without involving the cops or our parents, but not before they told us we were blacklisted. Our names, our faces would be circulated in all Macy’s stores. We were banished. Macy’s was no longer our country. I cannot vouch for Beth, but it was twenty years before I crossed their threshold. She never spoke to me again. I never blamed her. Because of my hubris she had experienced terror and shame.
I spent the rest of that afternoon in self-exile in my room, vowing to never steal again. I’ve kept that vow. The word blacklisted burned across my breast. Mom was in the kitchen frying pork-chops, listening to Tom Jones on the radio sing, Delilah. My sister and brother frolicked in the secondhand pool Dad bought off our neighbors who were selling up and moving to Florida. Dad was due home. Any minute he’d walk in tired and dirty, his foreman’s cap firmly on his head.
This was as close as any of us could get to being American.