Brooklyn Boro

Remembering 1950s Brooklyn: My first vote

November 13, 2020 William A. Gralnick
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I came from a family of democrats. My mother, a homemaker with a college education, was particularly involved in politics. She was an active member of the League of Women’s Voters and the local democratic whatever in the county. The most remarkable thing she ever pulled off was the establishment of the first multi-ethnic child care center in the city. Sound hard? Try this.

The site was a building in Williamsburg. Puerto Ricans had begun to move in and there were frictions between the Hasidim and their new neighbors. My mother’s light bulb went off. If the kids went to school together, good things would happen. Sound easy? Keep reading.

They needed a building. Of course, the building had to be acceptable to the Hasidim, meeting all the rabbinic requirements of Kashrut, etc. The food had to be glatt kosher. To the newcomers it sounded like hocus pocus.

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Somehow my mother got to Mayor Wagner’s crew, they did the mediation, and the next thing I knew there was a fully functional, educationally certified, child care (never day care — they take care of children not days…) center hosting a multi-ethic opening night ball attended by no less than the mayor of the city of New York! The Chari-Tot Nursery had been born.

We were CBS watchers, and Walter Cronkite, with whom my brother started his professional TV news career, was our guy. Eisenhower/Stevenson was my first election. The call, “Another county heard from” still rings in my ears.

I was a Stevenson man (really boy) because everyone else was. He also appealed to me a lot more than dodgy old Eisenhower. Ike wasn’t the same guy I saw on newsreels, so my excitement for him as a general was gone once I saw him in a suit and giving a speech. BORING!

Come election day my mother told me I was going to vote with her. That was an extremely exciting prospect. She was particularly good at object lessons. You lied, you got smacked. You wanted to smoke, “Here have one of mine. Inhale as deeply as you can.” Coughed for six years and never smoked another cigarette again. To seal the deal on political involvement, voting was the answer.

Looking back, I must admit that of all the hoopla that goes with elections, voting is not exciting, also boring (standing on line forever), and not a big deal. Unless of course you had accompanying you the Howard Cosell of voting broadcasting the play-by-play, it really was a stroke of genius.

We walked to the polling place, which was in the basement of a very big, very dark church. Churches for Jews in those days were a whole different ball of wax than today. In Catholic churches and many Protestant churches, Jews weren’t allowed in — period.

During the Easter period sermons of great vitriol mostly from the book of John were thrown at the congregation, younger members of which later went on “Jew hunts” to make up for the killing of Jesus. When my turn came, I was completely befuddled because I didn’t even know who Jesus was. So going into a church had for me a special anxiety, though it seemed not to bother my mom at all.

Well before we got there, we found ourselves online. My mother, who knew everyone in the neighborhood, didn’t know but a person or two on line. She explained why. As we inched forward, she explained what we’d see when we got into the basement, who the people were, what they were doing, where you voted and how.

Finally, it was our turn. She had to ask permission for me to enter the booth with her. The curtain was open, the flip book with the candidates’ names on it with their party affiliation was there and the pen for box-filling. She pulled the lever, the curtain snapped shut, I watched intently as she did her bit as an American citizen.

When finished she snapped open the curtain, handed in the ballot and it was over. Having done that, watching the return somehow made more sense, and even though “we” lost, it had been an intriguing indoctrination to democracy.

Intriguing enough so that from that vote on, I’ve never missed an election.

Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.


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