In loving memory of our friend Lesli
By Linda Jacobson
Presented June 23, 2013 at CJC’s Half Moon Bay Memorial Service for Lesli Sachs-Williams
Lesli loved music. So, as I read this to you, please imagine that a musical soundtrack accompanies these words. The soundtrack consists of 3 songs, and is an excerpt of the custom CD that Lesli asked me to put together for Eddie and her to play at their wedding reception. The songs are: Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and Louie Prima’s “Brooklyn Boogie.”
So. It was because of Half Moon Bay Review that I became friends with Lesli. Around 10 or 11 years ago, Lesli talked me into helping her write an editorial opinion column taking the Review to task for its publisher’s OpEd appeal for everybody in town to start saying Merry Christmas to each other instead of the more politically correct phrase that had become commonplace on Main Street, “Happy holidays.”
You can just imagine Lesli’s reaction to the publisher’s suggestion. I agreed with Lesli, and agreed to join her in writing a Jewish response. As I recall, what we wrote was not the most diplomatic or tactful of published responses. Because it wasn’t a Coastside Jewish response. It was a Brooklyn Jewish response.
We did it to hopefully warn caution people about the potential to cause pain or discomfort to others by excluding their holidays.
Several CJC friends questioned my rationale, for allying myself publicly with Lesli in this way, and I didn’t get it at all. Why were people rubbed the wrong way?
Other CJC friends had to explain that some people took offense at Lesli’s interpersonal communication style. But let me tell you that Lesli’s communication style is pure, organic, unadulterated, unpasteurized midcentury, Flatbush Brooklyn.
It so happens that I came from the same exact neighborhood as Lesli, we grew up on the same city blocks, she in the 1940s and ‘50s and me in the 1960s and ‘70s. The families in our neighborhood were a blend of working-class and middle-class families mostly headed by 1st-generation Americans and immigrants. It was racially mixed– Mostly East European Jews, Italians, Irish, and in the 60s, more black and Puerto Rican and Chinese families– but the different racial and ethnic groups didn’t really mix together.
The place Lesli and I grew up in was gritty and loud, down to earth, crowded and a little rough around the edges. Very densely populated spaces meant that a lot of people were crammed in small apartments, classrooms, shops, buses and trains, everything was noisy, you had to speak up to be heard. It was a world in which kids were taught well that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And that to thrive, you had to develop a thick skin, and you had to give as good as you could take.
So yes, Lesli could express herself in direct, brusque, sometimes heated ways — just standard operating procedure for anyone in the outer boroughs of New York City. From a sociologist’s perspective, the style represents the vestiges of an obsolete social survival technique that often fails to translate smoothly in 21st century coastal California. In fact these personal behavioral dynamics might be construed as poor behavior.
But not in Brooklyn.
When Lesli was coming up, the only really cool things about Brooklyn were its cultural icons, its socially unifying touchstones: the Brooklyn Bridge and the Brooklyn Dodgers, both of which seemed permanently Brooklyn and helped form every Brooklynite’s perspectives on the world at large.
And let’s consider this: in 1947, when Lesli was a still just a girl playing jacks on the stoop, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, becoming the first African-American player in the major leagues. That is also part of Lesli’s story, when we say she had Brooklyn in her blood by that we mean the Brooklyn Dodgers and player #42.
Then, in 1957, when Lesli was a teenager, the pride of every Brooklynite was dealt a harsh blow when the Dodgers moved to California. That made a big impression on Brooklynites’ and their take on the impermanence of things, and maybe even made some of them think that California is a quite attractive destination for Brooklynites.
There’s something else I would like for you to know. Almost all of us Jewish people of mid-century Flatbush had a relative or a neighbor with Nazi concentration camp numbers permanently tattooed on their arms. Lesli would have come across many more of those tattoos than me, given the fact that she was a girl playing potsy with bottle caps on the sidewalk when most of the Holocaust refugees and survivors were arriving and still alive in Brooklyn.
During the 1940s and ‘50s, many of these survivors had to be identified in Europe, searched for, and deliberately brought here by their more fortunate relatives who were able to get to America before the Holocaust. That’s how my Polish grandfather spent the 1940s and early ‘50s, searching for his brothers who had been taken by Nazis. Many of the Jews who wanted to remain in Europe during those years chose to convert to Christianity or otherwise conceal their Jewish heritage. This matter of finding and saving and uniting Jews was a hugely dominant, often controversial, sometimes scandalous, always heated topic among the Jewish families in mid-century Flatbush. It affected so many of us.
And you know the rest of the story, where we talk about Lesli’s passion for searching for and identifying Jews. Yes, Lesli was a [CJC’s] founder – and she was a finder, too.
* * *
The first day that I met Lesli, I observed her polarizing effect.
It was at a baby shower for Allison Levi. I had just moved from SF to El Granada. I was standing in a circle of apparently all CJC women, beside my former domestic partner, and she and I were excited about the impending birth of our firstborn. We were the only lesbians at the baby shower, and Lesli found that quite intriguing, especially when she quickly determined that I had come to El Granada indirectly from her hometown neighborhood.
So we were all chit-chatting about the fact that my son would have two mothers, how cool and lovely, hooray for us, when Lesli proclaimed loudly that our son was destined for a life of bullying and teasing if we sent him to HMB middle school and high school. She stayed on the topic long enough to cause the circle of women to dissipate.
Lesli was the only person I met on the Coastside some 11 or 12 years ago who was willing and eager to share her own doubts and ambivalence on my future socio-cultural contentment. This is not what we expect from people who aren’t our closest friends. It strikes some as inappropriate and that is true for them. But for those of us from mid-century Flatbush, there’s no time or tolerance for indirectness or euphemism, especially when there’s trouble ahead, you gotta blow the whistle to protect your own.
I will always be grateful to Lesli for her authenticity and directness. Thanks to Lesli’s early warning system, after several years had passed, when it seemed like some Coastsiders reacted negatively to a family with two moms, I was mentally and emotionally prepared to cope with the situation. That’s what you do for your friends and neighbors, you warn them of potential threats or dangers.
So, nu, Lesli practically kvelled when she heard that I was moving my family to Berkeley 2 years ago. Most of you know that Lesli went from Brooklyn to Berkeley so she took special delight that I would be doing that too.
In Berkeley, people wear T-shirts with slogans and their cars wear bumper stickers. My favorite Berkeley bumper sticker is one that now makes me think of our dear Lesli Sachs-Williams:
“Well-behaved women rarely make history.”