If you head out to Greenheath, Long Island, today, you'll find that the schoolyard where Zvi Blum was attacked is more or less as it was. The bell at the public school still rings through the weekend, and the bushes behind the lot where we played hockey still stand. The only difference is that the sharp screws and jagged edges of the jungle gym are gone, the playground stripped of all adventure, sissified and padded and covered with a snow of shredded tires.
It was onto this lot that Zvi Blum, the littlest of the three Blum boys, stepped. During the week we played in the parking lot of our yeshiva, where slap shots sent gravel flying, but on Shabbos afternoons we ventured onto the fine, uncracked asphalt at the public school. The first to arrive for our game, Zvi wore his helmet with the metal face protector snapped in place. He had on his gloves, and held a stick in his hand.
Zvi worked up a sweat playing a fantasy game while he waited for the rest of us to arrive. After a fake around an imagined opponent, he found himself at a real and sudden halt. The boy we feared most stood before him. It was Greenheath's local Anti-Semite, with a row of friends beyond. The Anti-Semite had until then abided by a certain understanding. We stepped gingerly in his presence, looking beaten, which seemed to satisfy his need to beat us for real.
The Anti-Semite took hold of Zvi's facemask as if little Blum were a six-pack of beer.
Zvi looked past the bully and the jungle gym, through the chain-link fence and up Crocus Avenue, hoping we'd appear, a dozen or more boys, wearing helmets, wielding sticks. How nice if, like an army, we'd arrived.
The Anti-Semite let go of Zvi's mask.
"You Jewish?" he asked.
"I don't know," Zvi said.
"You don't know if you're Jewish?"
"No," Zvi said. He scratched at the asphalt with his stick.
The bully turned to his friends, taking a poll of suspicious glances.
"Your mother never told you?" the Anti-Semite asked.
Zvi shifted his weight and kept on with his scratching. "It never came up," he said.
Zvi remembered a distinct extended pause while the Anti-Semite considered. Zvi thought—he may have been wishing—that he saw the first of us coming down the road.
He was out cold when we got there, beaten unconscious with his helmet on, his stick and gloves missing. We were no experts at forensics, but we knew immediately that he'd been worsted. And because he was suspended by his underwear from one of the bolts on the swing set, we also knew that a wedgie had been administered along the way.
We thought he was dead.
We had no dimes even to make a telephone call, money being forbidden on the Sabbath. We did nothing for way too long. Then Beryl started crying, and Harry ran to the Vilmsteins, who debated, while they fetched the mukzeh keys, which of them should drive in an emergency.
Some whispered that our nemesis was half Jewish. His house was nestled in the dead end behind our school. And the ire of the Anti-Semite and his family was said to have been awakened when, after he had attended kindergarten with us at our yeshiva for some months, and had been welcomed as a little son of Israel, the rabbis discovered that only his father was Jewish. The boy, deemed gentile, was ejected from the class and led home by his shamefaced mother. Rabbi Federbush latched the back gate behind them as the boy licked at the finger paint, non-toxic and still wet on his hands.
We all knew the story, and I wondered what it was like for that boy, growing up—growing large—on the other side of the fence. His mother sometimes looked our way as she came and went from the house. She didn't reveal anything that we were mature enough to read—only kept on, often with a hand pressed to the small of her back.
After Zvi's beating, the police were called.
My parents wouldn't have done it, and let that fact be known.
"What good will come?" my father said. Zvi's parents had already determined that their son had suffered nothing beyond bruising: his bones were unbroken and his brain unconcussed.
"Call the police on every anti-Semite," my mother said, "and they'll need a separate force." The Blums thought differently. Mrs. Blum's parents had been born in America. She had grown up in Connecticut and attended public school. She felt no distrust for the uniform, believed the authorities were there to protect her.
The police cruiser rolled slowly down the hill with the Blums in procession behind it. They marched, the parents and three sons, little Zvi with his gauze-wrapped head held high.
The police spoke to the Anti-Semite's mother, who propped the screen door open with a foot. After her son had been called to the door for questioning, Mrs. Blum and Zvi were waved up. They approached, but did not touch, the three brick steps.
It was word against word. An accusing mother and son, a pair disputing, and no witnesses to be had. The police didn't make an arrest, and the Blums did not press charges. The retribution exacted from the Anti-Semite that day came in the form of a motherly chiding.
The boy's mother looked at the police, at the Blums, and at the three steps between them. She took her boy by the collar and, pulling him down to a manageable height, slapped him across the face.
"Whether it's niggers or kids with horns," she said, "I don't want you beating on those that are small."
W e'd long imagined that Greenheath was like any other town, except for its concentration of girls in ankle-length denim skirts and white-canvas Keds, and boys in sloppy oxford shirts, with their yarmulkes hanging down as if sewn to the side of their heads. There was the fathers' weekday ritual. When they disembarked from the cars of the Long Island Railroad in the evenings, hands reached into pockets and yarmulkes were slipped back in place. The beating reminded us that these differences were not so small.
Our parents were born and raised in Brooklyn. In Greenheath, they built us a Jewish Shangri-la, providing us with everything but the one crucial thing Brooklyn had offered. It wasn't stickball or kick-the-can—acceptable losses, though nostalgia ran high. No, it was a quality that we were missing, a toughness. As a group of boys thirteen and fourteen, we grew healthy, we grew polite, but our parents thought us soft.
Frightened as we were, we thought so too, which is why we turned to Ace Cohen. He was the biggest Jew in town, and our senior by half a dozen years. He was the toughest Jew we knew, the only one who smoked pot, who had ever been arrested, and who owned both a broken motorcycle and an arcade version of Asteroids. He left the coin panel open and would play endlessly on a single quarter, fishing it out when he was finished. In our admiration we never considered that at nineteen or twenty we might want to move out of our parents' basements, or go to college. We thought only that he lived the good life—no cares, no job, his own Asteroids, and a mini-fridge by his bed where he kept his Ring Dings ice-cold.