with the New School
This tour got off to an inauspicious start when, caught up in Sunday subway reroutings and reschedulings, we missed the group at their meeting point on the Brighton Beach boardwalk.
I should explain that my mother and I are long campaigners. We save newspaper clippings, plan events, and take tours. We quickly formulated a plan. Brighton Beach is like Odessa in more than one way. It has a beach and it also has a population of solidly packed Russian emigres amongst whom New Schoolers would surely stand out. We would walk the main drag, and keep our eyes peeled for people who looked like they belonged in Westchester or Soho.
After just two blocks we spotted them - skinny, wearing trendy sunglasses, and carrying water bottles. We ran over, yelling, "New School? New School?" And they yelled back, "Maryland and Rhode Island, we knew you'd be late." No amount of explaining, that we had woke up that morning in Manhattan, that we were actually from here, would erase our out-of-town identity. Who cared, we'd found them. Our campaigning skills had worked.
We'd chosen this tour because it was one food and culture we were totally unfamiliar with. The tour, given by historian Annie Lawson-Hauck, would cover the neighborhood's Jewish history and its Russian resurrection. Lawson-Hauck had studied the neighborhood for years and knew the shopkeepers. We would visit the sites and shops, and finish with lunch.
The tour stopped at a shop where they made hand-ground gefilte fish, a holdover from the Jewish community. We went to a soda and sweet shop that was a shadow of its egg cream heyday. The real excitement was a huge deli, grocery, candy shop, bakery. Two floors full of exotica. I remember piles of candy wrapped in bright paper covered with Cyrillic script, loaves of baked bread without a baguette in sight, and at the deli counter a stuffed chicken breast sold only by the pound.
The deli also operated with an old world, Soviet tradition of service. No self-serve, candy was scooped up and weighed, pastries parceled and tied with string. There were also crowds and lines at every counter, and cashiers as well so your wallet was in and out at every turn. The customer was rarely right.
My mother and I didn't want a whole pound of that stuffed chicken breast, so why not buy one and have it cut in half. No, not possible, says the counterwoman, with the knife in her hand. We pleaded, you won't even have to wrap them separately. She shook her head, shook her head, we pleaded, and she finally relented.
Lunch was at Primorski, a Georgian restaurant that could easily sit 600 people, and on many nights, does. We sat in one corner of the cavernous room and ate while around us the tables were being set for a wedding feast. The main preparation seemed to be depositing a gallon of vodka for every eight seats.
Lunch began with appetizers, small chopped vegetable salads, soups - a borscht and a lamb barley in a tomato broth. Then grilled meats and bits of bird. All of it savory, explained incomprehensibly by the owner who just kept bringing plates piled with food.
During the meal the group shared experiences and impressions, laughing and listening. We said goodbye in the restaurant's lobby and my mother and I sallied forth, determined to do some shopping. We bought plastic, woven bags, the kind carried by sensible immigrant women, and hit the bricks. An hour later, staggering under our packed bags we took the subway back and agreed that Brighton Beach would not be a bad place to live.