The Silent Summer of Boro Park
I was checking my Facebook, a frequent occurrence, when I saw a friend post a notice regarding a missing child, sadly also a frequent occurrence. What was less pedestrian about this particular alarum was where the child was from. The notice said “Leiby Kletzky, age nine, failed to return from camp to his home in Boro Park”.
Now, Boro Park is generally not a place where small children disappear. I would know. I grew up there. At the time, I couldn’t remember a single instance in which a child went missing. The big scary world of the ten o’clock news, before Mr. G. with the weather, that was where children went missing, children with different names, different looks, different worlds. This was new; this was scary.
I was away at the time of the disappearance, but I knew what was coming next. The calls for concentrated searches, the shomrim stepping in, etc. The last time something like this happened, when a girl disappeared in the forest on a class trip, the wagons were circled, and she was eventually found not four days later. I even recall hearing about her engagement a few years back. That’s how these things usually ended, quickly, and happily. Boro Park loved the happy ending as much as anyone, and so Boro Park was once again gearing up to manufacture another one.
It’s been a long time since I’ve identified with my hometown in more than a passing, distantly ironic way, but seeing how the community banded together in one of their own’s hour of darkness, I couldn’t help but feel pride at where I came from. No matter how far from the beaten track of 15th avenue I wandered, I knew then that there was what to take away from having grown up there. Boro Park, like everywhere else, had what to accept as much as reject, which can be hard to swallow for those who were rejected as well.
There I was though, wishing I could be back, joining in on the search, as some of my friends and former classmates were. Till then, my only recourse was to monitor the search from my friend’s Facebook feeds. One advantage of having received a Haredi Brooklyn education is that you can be sure a few fledging shomrim officers and assorted proto-askanim I had gone to yeshiva with were posting info and progress reports nonstop, a lede for the black-hat world. They would post pictures of tables laden with food for the search committees, men with flashlights combing alleyways in Bensonhurst, boys on bikes scouring the underside of the elevated D train by New Utrecht. We all said and believed, that, like always, it’s only a matter of time. Everyone comes home here.
You all know what happened next. The shock of it settled over the city with a pall not seen since September 11. Everyone knew someone from around the neighborhood who perished on that day, and by the last day of the search, everyone knew Leiby Kletzky too. I could have said as much then, but I wouldn’t yet know how right I would have been. All I and everyone else knew was that this, this was the abyss.
The hope generated by the revving up of the great communal labor force, the hope that seeing every able bodied individual give of his or her time and energy to find Leiby, this hope blew out in the wind like so many Styrofoam coffee cups left over from the abandoned search.
I came back to New York a few days after the funeral. I went to visit my father and brother that afternoon, my mind not particularly on the events that took place within the past week. What grabbed my attention was how unbelievably quiet it was. The streets weren’t even quiet really; they were completely desolate, save for a few women coming home from 13th avenue, Miller’s Cheese and Satmar Schechita bags in tow. There were no children. This was unprecedented. This was scary.
Granted it was the summer, when the Chassidish families that as a whole populate Boro Park hightail it to Swan Lake and various other Catskills locales, but this was something else. Children owned the streets of Boro Park during daylight hours, and more often than not after as well. Every child grows up here playing on these streets, riding his bike, throwing around a football, losing incalculable numbers of punch-balls in 15th avenue sewer drains. I was no different, except that I never went upstate in the summers, but there is a fair number of those exceptions too. What we may have lacked in manpower during the summer, we more than made up for in pure demon–summoning noise. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no difference in how many vilde chayas (“wild animals”) ran around terrorizing passersby in July as there were in April. Except now they were all gone. The children were gone, presumably banished to the safety of their homes, the streets taken from them.
It’s funny really. One man takes a child from the streets, and then all the streets are taken from the children. It doesn’t add up, but it seems the only solution, the sum of all fears. More than a child disappeared from Boro Park this past summer. The spirit, the sounds and sensations that let you know you were in Boro Park, as opposed to say Flatbush or Crown Heights—that was gone. I would walk around the area where father and brothers live many times in the following weeks, cataloging all the changes, trying to make sense of this new world order. Leiby Kletzky had lived in this area as well. His absence wasn’t simply felt; it manifested all the newly empty space that I walked, filling it with the mournful gravity that arrives in the wake of every violent loss of innocence.
“He knew him, you know.”
The implications of this simple sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. I had wondered from the beginning what my little brother, 10 at the time, would make of the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy from the neighborhood, but the news that they used to play together in the shul we prayed in on Friday nights was just a bit much. My brother had apparently picked his face out from the paper, back when they were still searching for him, and asked my dad: “Hey, isn’t that the kid from the Kemarna Shteeble [synagogue]?” Upon hearing the affirmative response, he did what all small children from Boro Park are taught to do in times of duress: he said some Tehillim. Yossi was the one who suggested that he and our father should go to the funeral. My dad told me, with no small undercurrent of relief in his voice, that Yossi had handled the whole thing extremely well, his emotions not given over to the fear that gripped the community presently. We agreed, though: woe to the land that has to test its children by such fires.
A month and half later, the general feeling of fear and mourning had started to subside from Boro Park, but its streets have yet to be reclaimed. They will be soon, by the other great signifier of Boro Park, the endless rows of bright yellow busses, carrying children to their various cheders and Bais Ya’akovs. Once the busses start filling up eye-lines and lane-spaces, the great stillness that defined the last six weeks of the summer will dissolve, but the fears of every mother and father who send off their precious cargo will not. This year, everyone will feel the weight of the one fewer child being sent to school, and they will take heed of it when they collect theirs in the evening. Even my little brother, about to start taking mass transit, will feel it, because, for at least one extra year, my father will be there at his stop, waiting to pick him up.