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Growing Up in Gravesend

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By Steve Slavin

Neck Road looking west toward Gravesend Avenue 1923
Untitled, 1923, V1974.1.617; Eugene L. Armbruster Photograph and Scrapbook Collection; Brooklyn Historical Society. Neck Road looking west toward Gravesend Avenue, Old Gravesend Inn on northwest corner of Gravesend Ave.

Back in the 1950s there were dozens of Reform temples scattered throughout what we called Flatbush. The closest to where I lived was Temple Ahavath Sholom, which we always called “the Avenue R Temple,” since it was on Avenue R and East 16th Street in the heart of Gravesend. There was also a Conservative synagogue on the corner of Homecrest and Ave T, Beth El Jewish Center.

Almost every Jewish child in those years attended Talmud Torah, an after school Hebrew program. My friends and I attended Hebrew school two afternoons a week. The idea is that we learn enough Hebrew to get us through our Haf Torahs at our bar mitzvahs. Temple Ahavath Sholom, which dated back to 1909, was torn down in the early 1950s and a very modernistic new one was built in its place. In fact, my bar mitzvah, on September 6, 1952, was the first one at the new temple. In the late 1970s, the Hebrew school building and the temple were purchased by Prospect Park Yeshiva, and it became a very well regarded Orthodox Jewish girls’ school — a Bais Yaakov. I enjoy telling my Orthodox friends that mine was the first bar mitzvah at their school. How could that possibly be, they wonder?

Growing up on East 18th Street, just a block off Kings Highway, my friends and I often walked around the neighborhood, played in Kelly Park on Ave S, or walked down the ‘Highway.” To me, nearly every older person had a Jewish accent. In fact, I was 10 or 11 before I realized that my name was not actually pronounced “Stivy.” My friend, Chuck, who was a great mimic, would have us in stitches talking with an accent. In fact his grandfather, who was in his late 80s would say, “His accent is better than mine.”

I should mention that PS 153 was on the corner of E 12 and Ave T and PS 255 on Ave S and E 16th St, just across the yard from Cunningham. Cunningham had a sizable Jewish population. Gravesend was almost entirely middle and working class Jewish, with a sprinkling of Italians, Irish, and Greeks. At James Madison High School, on Bedford Ave and Quentin Road, and drew almost entirely from an area of about four square miles.

Today, the neighborhood, which we called “Kings Highway,” is still predominately Jewish, albeit with a sizeable number of Russian Jews and Orthodox Jews and here are even more synagogues, most of them Orthodox. There are also many Asians, mostly along Ave U. One warm spring evening I was walking down the Highway behind three teenage girls wearing stylish jeans. I was able to overhear some of their conversation. It was in Russian. But other than the unfamiliar language, they could have been identical to the girls who strolled down the highway more than 50 years ago.

This was the neighborhood where I grew up.