From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

The bedrock of individual success in life is securing the friendship, the confidence, the respect of your next-door neighbor in your little community in which you live.

Booker T. Washington

When I saw the new house in Flatbush, I had a hard time believing it was ours.

The three-story brownstone was a far cry from the four-bedroom, one-bath frame house we’d left behind in the Brooklyn ghetto. Our large, three-generation family— there were about twenty of us—needed the extra space.

But, only nine years old, I froze as still as a mannequin when I saw our new neighbors. The men and boys wore long, black coats and round caps the size of small dinner plates perched on their heads, locks of curls peeking out the sides. The women and girls wore short coats over their long dresses. Their white stockings were as stark, cold and grim as their stares.

Our new home stood next door to a Jewish synagogue. The first morning, we awoke to a surprise. Garbage littered our front steps—our welcoming present. Neighbors stood outside pointing and talking. For the first time, I saw them smile.

My grandparents, called Daddy and Mama by all of us, appeared with brooms to begin the arduous chore of cleaning the mess. As I began to help put the garbage in bags, I spotted a little dark-haired girl peeking at me from behind a woman’s skirt. She smiled; I waved—but the woman scolded her in a foreign tongue.

The next evening, a gray-bearded man appeared wearing a round hat trimmed in fur and a white shawl around his shoulders. The same little girl hugged his leg and played peek-a-boo with me and my cousin Naomi while he spoke in broken English to Daddy.

“I don’t know what we will do if we don’t get help.” The rabbi nodded toward the synagogue. “Our maid is suddenly hospitalized and Sabbath services begin in fifteen minutes.”

I wasn’t sure whether his cheeks reddened from the cold or the embarrassment of asking for assistance. But all of us knew what was coming next because we knew Daddy and Mama.

We spent the evening serving and cleaning in the rabbi’s antiquated kitchen. Rebecca—who, we discovered, was mute—stuck to us like glue, crying until she was allowed to dine near us and laughing at our antics. Once, I caught her mother beaming from the shadows. She quickly turned away, but not before I saw the tears in her eyes.

When we were done, the rabbi and his wife, the woman who had at first shooed the little girl away, thanked us profusely. They offered us money that we refused. Without being asked we volunteered to come back the next morning to turn on the lights, which they were prohibited from doing during their Sabbath. Someone else would be there to help later. They stood speechless holding hands as we departed.

In the morning we didn’t need an alarm clock. The blaring horn from the synagogue awakened us. We dragged ourselves next door and entered the unlocked back door, turned on the lights and went back home.

An amazing thing happened when we stepped out of the door on Sunday morning. From top to bottom, flowerpots and baskets of breads, cakes and fruit lined the sides of our porch steps. Some of our neighbors, the rabbi and his wife stood at the bottom of the stairs with a sign, “Welcome to the Neighborhood.” Rebecca scampered up the stairs and gave Naomi and me flowers and a hug. Because of a good deed and the blind love of a child, at least for that day, there were no walls standing between the Johnson family and our new neighbors. Flatbush felt like home.

Cheryl Dash

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