IN 1954 BC (BEFORE CORONAVIRUS) (3/31/20)
JEWS & ITALIANS IN THE SUMMER AND A MEMORY OF A STRIPPER NAMED GEORGIA SOTHERN
(If you're like me, at this moment you're under house arrest. Let's take our minds off of death and destruction and travel back to a happier time.)
I've been thinking about summer camp and the difference between Jews and Italians. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, the Jewish kids lived in what was essentially "The Village of Kings Highway" and I lived in "The Village of Avenue U." We were physically only a few blocks away, separated from each other by Ocean Parkway, but culturally we were a million miles apart.
I remember being amazed when I was eight years old and my friend Junior Fasatti first told me about the concept of summer camp.
"I'm telling you it's true," he said. "In the summer Jews send their kids away." I was shocked.
"Where do they send them?" I remember asking, concerned about these little unwanted Jewish kids.
"Places," he answered vaguely.
"Places?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "Places like Pennsylvania and Massa ... Massa ... Massa ... tusetts," was his weak answer.
I realize now that Junior had no idea what he was talking about.
"They send them to farms and lakes," he said, shaking his head in disbelief at the notion.
"And they don't see their mothers all summer?" I asked timidly, hoping he didn't spot me for what I was – a mama's boy.
"They don't see anyone all summer, but they get to milk cows," he added, closing the subject.
Up until that point of my life I had never heard of camp. The fact is I didn't even see a live cow until I was 17 years old. And I only visited another state, New Jersey, for the first time when I was 16. I went with a bunch of my friends on a summer night to Union City to watch a burlesque show starring the fabulous stripper Georgia Sothern.
Georgia's show was a doozy. The show started with an oily Master of Ceremonies saying Miss Sothern was late and would not be performing this evening. There was a loud moan from the testosterone-crazed all-male audience. Then, by pre-arranged signal, Georgia came running up the aisle in her street clothes yelling, "I'm here! I'm here!" Then she started to strip not out of a gown but out of a very modest-looking outfit. What she never explained was why, when she took off her bra, she had tassels covering her breasts. This, of course, was to keep the cops from raiding the joint when she removed her bra, but the effect was very very sexy to our impressionable young minds.
What a sense memory. I remember Georgia stripping and the thought of it has me perspiring, my throat is dry and my fingers are trembling even now as I write this.
At the same time that as a horny 16-year-old I was drooling over Georgia Sothern, my wife, the beautiful Judy Licht, at the age of 6 1/2 was being shuffled off to her first summer camp, Camp Wangum.
This was followed by a few years at Camp Snow Hill, and finally she found her favorite camp, Camp Kittatinny. Even today at the drop of a hat say the words "summer camp" to Judy and she'll break out into the camp cheer: "KITTATINNY K-I-T-T-A-T-I-N-N-Y YAYYYYYYY KITTATINNY!"
So that's how it was between Italians and Jews in my part of Brooklyn. The difference between summer and winter where I lived on West 7th Street was the difference between an open fire hydrant sprouting water in the summer and a closed one wearing icicles in the winter.
In the summer while Judy swam in cool, sparkling lakes, sang camp songs and made arts and crafts in the clean fresh air of the mountains, my Italian friends and I went to Coney Island, cruised on Ocean Parkway and went at night to "The Spumoni Garden," which was not a garden but had the most delicious Italian Ices, gelato and spumoni.
During the hot sticky days we happily played in a 20-acre wasteland called "The Dumps," which was filled with mountains of garbage and ashes that mysteriously burned all the time – sort of like an eternal flame of garbage. On hot, still nights the smell went through the neighborhood. For nature lovers, The Dumps was also the home of some awesome-looking rodent wildlife.
Years later the city built a low-rent housing project on that same site, giving it the distinction of being the first neighborhood in the country to be improved by the addition of a low-rent housing project.
In the end, whether you were a Jewish kid in a camp in the mountains or an Italian kid on the streets of Brooklyn, there's nothing as wonderful as being a kid in the summertime.
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