For most of my childhood, my grandparent, aunts, uncles and cousins all lived in the same, general area. Even those who moved “far away” were usually within an hour’s drive. Family relationships were augmented by neighbors who became friends, the relationships often emerging more from proximity than from shared interests. One of my closest companions from before my memories start was JoAnn, who lived down the block. We had a lot of fun, but we didn’t have a lot of choice. It would never have occurred to our mothers to make play dates and arrange transport for little girls. They unlocked the door in the morning, expected their daughters back for lunch and supper, and assumed that they would find companions without leaving the block.
My friendship with JoAnn was a weekday one. Saturday was my Shabbat and Sunday her day for church. I went to a Jewish school; she to the local Catholic one. Our differences went beyond religion, though. I was an avid reader while JoAnn’s mother had to coerce her into reading anything at all. She enjoyed fixing hair and trying out new styles while I wasn’t terribly interested in fashion. Had we met in the classroom or at a camp, we probably never would have gravitated to each other. But for those many years during which we were too young to venture far, we played hopscotch and stoop ball, and spent many summer days splashing about in her four foot deep plastic pool. We rode endless circuits around the block and if memory serves me right, were intrepid spies who more than once saved civilization from utter destruction.
We knew each other’s families. JoAnn and her siblings rotated spending evenings with her grandmother, and I joined her in visiting the black-clad, elderly widow who knew as many words in English as I knew in Italian. I knew more about communion and convents than most of the kids in my class and JoAnn knew more about less popularized Jewish festivals, like Shavuot or Shmini Atzeret, than the majority of Jews.
All the families on our block were either Italian-Catholic or Jewish. Across the street lived an older Jewish couple. For many years their youngest daughter was a favorite babysitter for many of the families on the block. After her marriage, this young woman and her husband took an apartment next door to her parents. A few years later, we were all shocked when her father died suddenly. Jewish burials take place as quickly as possible, and within 24 hours matters were arranged. I was considered too young to go to the funeral with my mother, but old enough to stay home alone. Our ex-babysitter’s toddler was sent across the street to JoAnn’s house.
About two hours after my mother left, JoAnn came running down the block. Their young Jewish charge was hungry and her mother, knowing that it was Passover and how the food restrictions on that holiday are extremely serious, was hesitant to give him as much as a fruit from her kitchen. I solved the problem by sending over kosher for Passover food, but it wasn’t until years later that I recognized and appreciated the sensitivity and respect which JoAnn’s mother exhibited.
People endlessly talk about multiculturalism and the need for valuing all ethnicities, races and religions as if America in decades past was a hostile and evil nation for all but a select few. To speak that way is an insult to so many who, like the people on my block, treated each other with dignity, were quick to help one another, and who created safe and secure neighborhoods for their children.