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Against a backdrop of racial tensions and spanning four decades, Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale explores the entanglements of three lives: Joshua Eubanks, a young black man struggling to overcome the crime, drugs, and despair of the streets; Rachel Weissman, daughter of a Hassidic rabbi, wrestling pangs of rebelliousness against the insular and restrictive practices of her religion; and Paul Sims, the product of a privileged Long Island Jewish family, yearning to escape his troubled ...
Against a backdrop of racial tensions and spanning four decades, Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale explores the entanglements of three lives: Joshua Eubanks, a young black man struggling to overcome the crime, drugs, and despair of the streets; Rachel Weissman, daughter of a Hassidic rabbi, wrestling pangs of rebelliousness against the insular and restrictive practices of her religion; and Paul Sims, the product of a privileged Long Island Jewish family, yearning to escape his troubled past.
Joshua first encounters Rachel in the local synagogue, where he works as an assistant to the custodian. Over the years their bond intensifies, though their lives diverge. Rachel aspires to be a doctor, but surrenders to a strict Hasidic life, thus leaving her unfulfilled. Paul leaves his home to find solace in the Hasidic enclave of Crown Heights.
From different worlds and unaware they share a father, Joshua and Paul see their lives collide in a quest for Rachel's love. Through these and other challenges, culminating with the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Joshua explores the tensions between two communities in close physical proximity, but still worlds apart. Through Joshua, Rachel, and Paul, a vision of hope is offered, but is tempered by the reality of human ignorance and tragedy.
His old neighborhood, north of Atlantic Avenue, had suited him just fine. But not his mother; she wanted "more," and that meant "living with white folk," as she put it. "You're not going to be another one of those bums out there, making trouble and ending up with nothing," she once yelled, after learning he'd been truant from school for several weeks. "You'll become something if it's the last thing I do!"
He was scared when she spoke that way, which was fairly often. And it wasn't the fury in her voice, nor the fire in her eyes that terrified him, it was the fact that she always meant what she said.
And this time was no exception. For it was soon after that when they moved from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section to the tree-lined streets of Crown Heights, from a dinky walk-up above a grocery store on Lewis Avenue to a bona-fide two-bedroom flat in a building on the corner of Rochester Avenue and President Street, directly across from Lincoln Terrace Park.
Crown Heights was a heterogeneous neighborhood in many respects, reflecting a spectrum of social classes. Joshua's new home was on the top floor of a four-story, red and brown brick apartment building with the name Rochester Court engraved in the cement arch above the entrance. Beneath the arch, two glass doors stood, framed and protected by swirling black wrought-iron. A four foot high black iron fence also ran the length of the building along Rochester Avenue, and the width down President Street.
President Street had both apartment buildings and private homes. The private homes were attached, two-story red-bricks with driveways and above-ground basements. A few blocks down, past the intersection of Troy Avenue, there were brownstone and limestone row houses interweaving among the apartment buildings, and even further down, past Kingston Avenue, were the large private homes that the locals called "mansions."
Joshua and his mother were privileged to live in this place—at least that's what his mother thought. Loretta Eubanks often reminded Joshua that they were one of two black families in the entire building, and one of thirty within a five-block radius. "Don't you go messing up our lives here," she repeatedly warned him, "I worked real hard to get us here, and you best not forget it!"
She was referring to her job as a housekeeper for a wealthy, Jewish family out in Long Island. She had worked for them eleven years, the first two as a live-in. But as soon as Joshua had arrived on the scene, the lady of the house, Mrs. Sims, told Loretta that she would have to find her own place.
Joshua never believed that his mother was actually angry with him, no matter how harsh her words. He understood that her true antagonism was toward Mrs. Sims, her employer, to whom she could never express such a sentiment. And she was also angry with herself. As he was growing up, Joshua often wondered why Loretta seemed to loathe herself, her life, her position, perhaps even her color.
She was also disgusted with the way men frequently reacted when they saw her on the street. In the old neighborhood, the black men would constantly whistle and jest, while in Crown Heights the white men silently gawked.
She was a tall woman, about five-feet eight, slender but nicely endowed. Her ebony hair was long and wavy, her skin dark chocolate, and her face bore North African features, a sharp nose and full lips. Her voice was raspy, and she spoke with a deep black-southern inflection. And while Joshua may have portrayed her as harsh from time to time, the one thing he never doubted was her love.
They moved into their new home in 1959. Loretta was twenty-eight years old. The other black family consisted of Mr. Williams, the building superintendant, his wife Mary, and their two children, Jerome and Celeste. Luckily for Joshua, Jerome was his age. Celeste was a year younger.
The other tenants were mostly lower middle-class Jews and Italians. The wealthier Jews in the neighborhood lived in the mansions on President Street, between Kingston and New York Avenues. They were large, red-brick palaces set back from the street, each standing on slightly less than a quarter of an acre. The only thing these homes had in common was that they all had lawns and gardens; otherwise, no two were alike. One was three stories, while its neighbor was five. One had old-fashioned, white, plantation pillars in front, another an open terrace. One had a flat roof, another an arched roof.
A few blocks west of the mansions was the Irish section, in the heart of which stood the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola and Brooklyn Preparatory School. What most of the Irish didn't know was that their church and school were located on the plot of land upon which the Kings County Penitentiary had once stood. The prison had been built in 1846, and torn down almost a century later because of the growing community around it.
The Irish lived predominantly among their own. Their confines were the brownstones of Carroll and Crown Streets between Bedford and Nostrand Avenues. But the Irish kids often journeyed to Joshua's side of the neighborhood to hang out in the park, play handball against the Italians, and pick fights with the Jews.
Loretta frequently praised Mr. Alfred Sims, her Jewish employer and illustrious landlord of their new premises, for his generosity in providing this home rent-free. Joshua never wondered about that, for in his nine-year-old mind, it seemed that this was the way things were supposed to be. As for the other tenants, there may have been suspicions about Loretta's rent-free status, but nothing ever surfaced.
Surprisingly, their immediate neighbors, the Eisenmans, were quite gracious. They were an elderly Jewish couple, and Mrs. Eisenman would check on Joshua regularly whenever Loretta was running late from work. The old lady even told Joshua once how lucky she thought Mr. and Mrs. Sims were to have someone as hardworking as his mother. "Giving you poor people this apartment is the least those rich suburbanites can do," she added. It would be years before he realized this wasn't exactly a compliment.
Joshua had never met Mr. and Mrs. Sims, nor their only child, Paul. He was, however, resentful of the fact that Paul was the one his mother took care of while he was left wandering the streets. Of course, that wasn't Loretta's intention. She needed to earn a living, and had always made arrangements for Joshua to be looked after. Even when he was an infant, Loretta had enough unemployed friends to do for Joshua what she was doing for Paul. But as soon as Joshua began to understand anything, he realized he was getting the short end.
Joshua was one year younger than Paul. He believed his mother really loved "that white boy," as he often put it. Loretta didn't mean to make comparisons, but sometimes she just couldn't help herself. It was no secret that she wished Joshua had been more like Paul, occasionally saying things like, "Paul is such a wonderful student; he gets A's in all his subjects."
She somehow imagined that Joshua was interested in her endless accounts about the life of Paul Sims, and that he was grateful for all of Paul's hand-me-down clothing she brought home over the years. A roof over his head in a choice location, his own bedroom, clothes on his back: he had much to be thankful for. At least that's what Loretta thought.
"We got ourselves a good thing," she often remarked. "So you best fit in, go to school, and do what you're supposed to be doing!"
At times like this, Joshua wondered what planet she lived on. Here he was, a poor black kid from Bed-Stuy, in a middle-class white world, and she was telling him to "fit in."
The law school dean was a tall, robust man with a ruddy face, bulbous nose, and deep set eyes. His raspy voice resounded over the loud-speaker. "Lawrence Manchester," he announced as one of Anshel's classmates approached the podium to receive a diploma. Anshel knew he was next. The dean cleared his throat, as he did every five or so names, and then spoke the two precious words Anshel had been waiting for: "Alfred Sims."
Anshel's classmates and family looked bewildered. Who was Alfred Sims? It was a name that Anshel alone recognized: it belonged to him, part of his master plan to become powerful and successful. For a name like Anshel Simenovitz would only be a liability. So, a few weeks prior to graduation, he finalized the legalities to assume his new identity. He hadn't told his classmates, mother, or any of his relatives, many of whom were present in the audience. The only other person who knew was his fiancée, Yeda Voratitsky, who recently underwent a similar transformation. She became an Evelyn, still Voratitsky, but soon to be Sims.
Growing up on East 53rd Street in Brooklyn, between Foster and Avenue G, Anshel couldn't have known the difficulties of being an Anshel. After all, his friends were Moishes, Shloimes, and Hymies. And although the Italian and Irish kids frequently gave the Jewish kids a hard time, the names themselves didn't seem to matter so much as the fact of just being Jewish. But among the WASPs, whose antipathy toward Jews was more subtle, Anshel believed that a name change could make a difference.
He had learned this from his four years in the Navy during World War II, stationed on a supply ship in the Philippines, the only Jew among one hundred and fifty sailors. Although he was smart and educated, his ethnicity kept him at the three blue stripes of a Seaman, never to advance. His peers were mostly Poles, Irish, and Italians—just the sort of people he'd been accustomed to dealing with. A few fist fights and pranks, and soon he managed to gain respect. He was a tough kid from Brooklyn, not to be messed with.
They nicknamed him "Angel," an obvious takeoff on his real name, and an allusion to the fact that he was quite the ladies' man. Tall and muscular, with thick black, wavy hair and green eyes, he was the desire of all the island girls and many a Navy nurse. The envy of all. A powerful and successful man.
Yet, notwithstanding his social achievements, Anshel Simenovitz realized that there was one circle in which he would never be welcome: that of the WASPs. Most of the officers were WASPs, especially at the higher ranks. A well-educated Catholic or Baptist occasionally got a shot as well. But never a Jew.
Even among those few of his fellow seamen who were WASPs, there existed an odious undercurrent. They, like the officers, shied away from him. They were, of course, always formal and polite, but never quite accepting. It wasn't long before Anshel came to recognize this as the most insidious form of anti-Semitism he had yet encountered. And it wasn't long after that, he swore to himself that he would never fall victim to it again.
Now, four years after his discharge, Anshel Simenovitz and Yeda Voratitsky had officially become Alfred and Evelyn. Now, they could "pass" in the gentile world. Nothing stood in the way of achieving power and success. Nothing—except maybe Anshel's mother.
"Vhat is dis Alfred Sims business, Anshel?" she asked angrily as the family gathered around at the end of the graduation ceremony. "If your father—God rest his soul—vere still alive, this vould surely send him to his grave."
Anshel's sister, Brindle, and his Uncle Izzy and Aunt Rivka pretended to ignore Sheindle Simenovitz's rebuke. They might have harbored similar feelings, but they knew better than to start up with Anshel. Everyone seemed to fear him, save his mother. She, like him, feared nothing. She had been through too much in her life to ever be intimidated by the likes of Anshel. She had seen her first children, two daughters, raped and murdered as teenagers during a pogrom in Russia. She fought with her bare fists as the same butchers nearly beat her husband to death. And in her own struggle, she had lost her left hand and had been stabbed through her stomach. No, she wasn't afraid of Anshel.
"Will you ever stop with that nonsense about how everything I do would cause my father's death? He's gone already, and so—by the way—is Anshel," Alfred responded.
Evelyn came over and interrupted. "Congratulations honey," she said as she embraced and kissed him.
He responded, "Thank you," a bit coldly, still affected by his mother's comments.
Evelyn stepped aside, and held Alfred's hand while facing the others. "An emesse lawyer, a real lawyer, yes?" she exclaimed heartily. She would have to lose that Yiddish inflection, Alfred thought to himself. Aside from that, she would make a perfect wife.
That was his plan—the perfect wife, the perfect family, the perfect home. Nothing would get in his way. Soon enough, the striking, tall, full-figured brunette with blue eyes, Evelyn Voratitsky, the princess of Bradford Street, would be taking diction lessons.
* * *
They were married that August. Three months later, they abandoned the basement apartment of Sheindle Simenovitz' East Flatbush home for a large new home in the exclusive town of Hewlett Harbor, one of the famed "Five Towns" on the south shore of Long Island. Ten years earlier, Alfred had inherited a substantial amount of money from his father, a successful furrier on the Lower East Side. Since his law school tuition had been courtesy of the GI Bill, and as a student he kept his living expenses to a minimum, he was able to save and invest. In those years, the stock market was his forte. He did quite well. Now, his sights were set higher, properties and buildings in the five boroughs. Real estate would be his future. Buying, selling, managing, and perhaps even developing.
"Vhat is it you vent to law school for, to learn to be a salesman?" his mother asked, standing over a plate of smoked fish at the bris of his son Paul, just a year after he and Evelyn were married. Alfred had been talking up his latest venture to some of the guests and was caught off guard by the remark. "No, mom, I went to law school to learn how to argue with you," he responded. Touché. He seemed to enjoy this thing with her.
In truth, law school, as everything else, was simply a vehicle for Alfred. Practicing law was smalltime compared with what he had in mind, but he knew that the prestige of being a member of the Bar would be an asset. As a lawyer, people would be afraid to "screw" him. Alfred always thrived on the fears of others.
Everything was going exactly according to plan. Until, that is, the exotic Loretta Eubanks entered the picture. Alfred had a weakness for black women. He was excited by them because they were taboo for a proper Jewish boy from Brooklyn.
While he had regularly been fooling around on the side, he respected his home and kept his family insulated from his escapades. But when Evelyn hired Loretta as a live-in, things began to change. It wasn't two months before he was sneaking into her room downstairs in the middle of the night. The danger of this made it all the more enticing, for both Alfred and Loretta.
Loretta may have harbored fantasies of stealing Alfred from his family, but deep down she knew that she was no more than a mistress, not very different from many of the slave girls in the South a few generations earlier. She tried not to let that bother her, and the satisfaction of being more desirable than the white woman, in whose house she lived and worked, seemed to help. In the end, however, she knew she had no choice in the matter. It was either play along with Alfred, or find another job.
For a few months, Alfred managed to keep his gallivanting under one roof. It was rather convenient while it lasted. Then, something happened. Loretta learned that she was pregnant with his child. This changed everything. He pleaded for an abortion, but she—a Southern Baptist—would have none of it. "Don't you go worrying yourself about anything," she told him, "I can take care of this child on my own."
Excerpted from Joshua by Andrew Kane Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Kane. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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