Noel Comes to Brownsville


The time: A mid-December weekend, 1935, on a residential street in inner Brooklyn. Two 14-year-old youngsters inspect the thin layer of snow covering the streets and decide that this is not a good day for roller-skating. They then glance in both directions seeking some alternative. Nobody is tossing a football and nobody is playing handball against the brick wall of the abandoned factory, which leaves little choice but to talk.


The local Brownsville streets, in winter, are grim and without character. Unemployment is high, and this block of tenements witnesses periodic, depression-era evictions, domestic disputes and a pervasive dread of what the next year might yield. The newspapers tell these two youngsters – Shlomo and Leon – that the Christmas holidays will shortly arrive, but to these two, on the brink of a troubled maturity, their knowledge of Christmas is little more than a medley of fear and wonder.

And so they stroll down the street, talking randomly while occasionally tossing snowballs at the fire hydrants. The conversation drifts haphazardly over many subjects: the penitential nature of their public school, whether the Dodgers will fare better next year and, inevitably, their sense of exclusion concerning Christmas.

Shlomo is silent for a moment and then suddenly blurts out, “Leon, did you know that your name, spelled backwards, is Noel?” Leon laughs, clearly amused by this odd feature of his name. And so he responds, “Do you think that, as Noel Hurwitz, I might now get invited to a Christmas party?” The thought amuses both of them as they continue their aimless stroll.

The idea of actively participating in Christmas festivities intrigues them, although neither has any notion of what transcendent rituals take place around a Christmas tree. Their experience with the Christmas holidays remains confined to inaccurate tales, dreams and storefront displays in the department emporia of downtown Brooklyn.

Shlomo stops walking, pauses and asks, “What, really, is the inner stuff of Christmas?” Neither has answers, so they sit – and reflect – on the snow-covered bench in front of Fischer’s Drug Store.

After a moment of reverent silence, Leon says, “The big storefront window of A&S’s, in downtown Brooklyn – the Lionel model trains going around in a large circle! They only appear in the Christmas season. And I know that you also stare at them.” Shlomo nods absently in agreement.

Silence prevails for a moment; then Shlomo remembers his great adventure of the prior weekend. He had gathered enough money for a roundtrip, via subway, to visit Radio City and its recently opened theater called The Music Hall. It was an astonishing palace, starkly modern and festive and, in addition to a first-run movie, it featured a Christmas stage show highlighted by a company of dancers, called “The Rockettes” dancing in amazing synchrony.

And so, Shlomo nominates The Rockettes as his candidate for what underlies the spirit of Christmas. Two secular children of the inner city with not the vaguest notion of the fundamentals and dynamics of the Yuletide holiday. And so their conversation drifts to other topics such as Edna Goldstein’s fancy hat.

And their brief flirtation with the essence of Christmas? The holiday remained, for them, a very Christian celebration; and while they were never explicitly invited, nor were they ever barred. A primitive – perhaps hereditary – apprehension of the Noel Mysteries persisted; and so they nominated their adolescent icons of the holiday: Lionel model trains encircling a pine tree and a team of highly trained chorus girls called the Rockettes.

Years pass: both Leon and Shlomo attend a city college; World War II arrives and both enter the army. In 1943, Leon dies on the beaches of a remote islet in the South Pacific. Shlomo is luckier and returns to civilian life with a safe job for life.

The world, then, confronted them – and their entire generation – with further unsolvable problems, but had they bothered to investigate, they would have learned that their childhood dreams of Christmas – which they assumed were eminently non-Jewish – would prove otherwise. Lionel trains from their origin in 1901, were the accomplishment of Joshua Lionel Cohen (1877-1965) who made the name Lionel famous by advertising his trains in Manhattan department store windows at Christmas.

And the Rockettes? They were the vision of the impresario, Samuel Roxy Rothafel (1882 - 1936) who organized the precision dance ensemble as well as the theater now called Radio City Music Hall.

Two successful entrepreneurs, to hide their East European origins, used their generic sounding middle names for their eminently successful enterprises.

M.D., may be reached at