The Great Pizza War
By Jean Ende
Grandma Golda discovered pizza in the summer of 1953 at The Pelham Parkway Pizza Parlor, a dingy store located on the very edge of her three-block kingdom in the Bronx.
She’d never paid much attention to the place. Why should she? It was just a shop with a dirty red-and-white sign, generally crowded with teenagers who smoked cigarettes, talked loudly, and fed their allowances into a pinball machine while they waited for a coke and a slice of pizza. It certainly wasn’t the sort of place where you’d expect to find a small, frail woman in her eighties who didn’t speak much English. She’d long ago decided that learning another language made no sense. She spoke Yiddish perfectly well, and anyone who had anything to say to her could say it in that language.
But when she heard one of her grandchildren mention that he and his friends were going to hang out at the pizza shop, she decided she had better find out what was going on there. Grandma did not believe that her daughters-in-law properly supervised their children. She put on her long black cardigan sweater, changed from worn slippers to her black orthopedic shoes, patted her sparse white hair, and lightly powdered her wrinkled face.
She walked slowly, a little unsteadily, but with great determination. She barely paused to glance at the car driven by the rude man who blew his horn and pointed at the red traffic light as she crossed the street.
When she got to the pizza parlor, Grandma Golda sniffed, nodded her head, and pushed open the door. She looked around for a minute and then walked to the front, past the customers sitting in cracked leather booths along the wall.
A tall teenage boy was waiting at the Formica counter where the pizzas were displayed. As soon as he noticed that a little old lady, at least a foot shorter than him, was glaring at him with her bright blue eyes, he stepped aside so she could see the merchandise.
“Vus is dos?”said Grandma Golda, pointing at the pizzas. “Geb mir a bisel.”
“You want something, Grandma?” asked the clerk at the counter, a fat, middle-aged man in a long, stained, once-white apron.
Although not everyone in the neighborhood was Jewish, it was rare to find a gathering in which there weren’t at least a few Yiddish speakers. Sometimes it was the only way to communicate with grandparents, or it was the language of choice when parents wanted to discuss something private. Smart children learned early on to understand at least some of the lingo.
“She wants a slice,” said the boy who'd stepped aside for her. “Give her a plain piece, she doesn’t want sausage or pepperoni.”
The clerk carefully put a slice of pizza into the large oven while Grandma Golda paid careful attention. Then he put the pizza into a white bag, handed it to her, and Grandma Golda turned to leave.
“She gonna pay for it?”
Grandma Golda understood what the clerk was asking. Usually a family member was nearby to pay for anything she wanted, and she started to explain that someone would come by later with the money.
“I’ll pay for her,” said the boy. “My bubba doesn’t carry money, either.”
"A dank ,” she said, patted the boy’s arm, and went home.
Grandma Golda lived in the downstairs apartment of her oldest son’s two-family house. Her other two sons and their families lived on either side in identical, sturdy red-brick houses with yards in the front and back, a large car in each garage and a mink coat in each hall closet. The houses were connected by a boardwalk in the back to make it easier to visit one another. Other relatives lived only a block or two away, which enabled Grandma Golda to keep an eye on what everyone was doing.
If anyone, like one of her daughters-in-law, thought a little more privacy might be nice, she knew better than to let Grandma Golda know. Grandma Golda had raised a large family in a hostile Polish village, gotten her children to safety while she stayed behind to tend a dying husband, and then came to the U.S. by herself, barely escaping the Holocaust. She’d produced healthy sons who made a good living, sons who understood that they had an obligation to provide anything their mother could want, and who made sure their wives understood that, too.
As soon as she got home, Grandma Golda put the pizza on a plate and cut off a small piece with a knife and fork. She tried it, she liked it, and later that day she told her daughter-in-law, my Aunt Rachel, who lived next door, was married to Grandma Golda’s youngest son, my Uncle Max, and did all of Grandma Golda’s grocery shopping, that from now on she wanted pizza at least once a week.
If the old lady wants pizza, let her have pizza, thought Aunt Rachel. She’s never been strictly kosher anyway. As long as she’s satisfied, does anyone care if I have one more errand to run for her? Dr. Goldberg tells me to avoid aggravation because of my high blood pressure, but no one cares. Aunt Rachel didn’t even think about her own father, Mr. Rabinowitz.
Mr. Rabinowitz was one of the very few people who regularly challenged Grandma Golda’s authority. A tall, thin man with a booming voice, Mr. Rabinowitz was the oldest person in the family. He stood up straight and tall, towering over the softly rounded moms and dads who slouched through the neighborhood. At least half his height seemed to be composed of his head, a massive structure topped with wiry grey hair as coarse as Brillo pads. He had a large nose, heavy jowls and, where other people had wrinkles, Mr. Rabinowitz had furrows—trenches plowed into his forehead—above his thick black eyebrows. Mr. Rabinowitz and his wife lived in the downstairs apartment in Aunt Rachel and Uncle Max’s house, fifteen strides across the cement alley from Grandma Golda’s identical apartment. Mrs. Rabinowitz was a small, quiet woman, who often wore a long, faded, floral print apron. She was easy to overlook unless you needed help. Mrs. Rabinowitz was always lending a hand in the kitchen, doing the laundry, or babysitting someone in her extended family. Of course, these chores didn’t interfere with her primary job: cooking for her husband and cleaning her apartment, which was decorated in a combination of easy-to-care-for Formica and ornate mahogany transported from other times and places.
Most days Mr. Rabinowitz and Grandma Golda sat on the grey, wooden bench in the alley between their houses, soaking up the sun or complaining about the cold. Sometimes other old ladies who lived in the area, sharing the homes of their sons or daughters, would sit down there for a while and talk. Inevitably the amicable conversations turned into an argument between Grandma Golda and Mr. Rabinowitz.
Mr. Rabinowitz, in his Lithuanian-accented Yiddish, would correct Grandma Golda’s Polish-accented pronunciation, and she’d insist she was correct. Grandma Golda was a fan of the melodramas at the Yiddish theater; Mr. Rabinowitz thought they were silly. They’d start to yell, Mr. Rabinowitz standing up tall, blocking the sun with his powerful body, and Grandma Golda shaking her tiny fist to let him know she wasn’t afraid of him.
Sometimes Mrs. Rabinowitz ran outside and tried to calm them down, or Aunt Rachel or another relative heard them and tried to ease the tension. Once the neighbors across the street were seen peering through their curtains to eavesdrop on the disturbance. These people were known as “the Italians.” This caused at least a temporary truce since it was surely a disgrace for Jews to argue in front of Gentiles.
Usually after a brief bout of yelling, Grandma Golda and Mr. Rabinowitz moved on to less controversial topics.
Of course, that was before the great pizza war.
Shortly after Grandma Golda made her decision to start eating pizza, she was sitting next to an open window enjoying a slice when Mr. Rabinowitz walked by and recognized the aroma. He immediately barged through Grandma Golda’s door and demanded to know what she was doing.
“I’m having pizza for lunch,” she said calmly.
“It’s not kosher,” he roared. “It’s made by goyim who handle pigs all day.”
“When did you become a rabbi?” Grandma Golda asked, cutting off a piece of her pizza and holding it out to him. “Do you want some?”
Mr. Rabinowitz drew himself up to his full height, the top of his head barely clearing the ceiling. Grandma Golda continued eating. Mr. Rabinowitz looked at the pizza for a minute. He took the piece she had offered him, put it back on Grandma Golda’s plate, picked up the plate, walked across the kitchen, and threw both the pizza and the plate into the trash. Then he washed his hands and turned to her.
“You want garbage, eat it from the garbage pail!”
“It’s a sin to throw out food!” yelled Grandma Golda, smacking the table so hard that the salt shaker fell over. “Now Rachel will have to go back to the store and buy some more for me.”
“You won’t send my daughter to get more of this forbidden stuff. I will not permit it!”
“She’s my son’s wife. She’ll do what I say or I’ll tell Max.”
“Max is a good man. He will not tell a daughter to disobey her father.”
Some of us younger grandchildren had been playing in the backyard. Now we heard the commotion and peeked through the window. “Better get a grownup,” someone whispered.
Soon Aunt Rachel appeared, and we children followed her into the apartment. Mrs. Rabinowitz followed us. Grandma Golda and Mr. Rabinowitz weren’t surprised to see the crowd and loudly explained what was happening.
“Rachel,” said Grandma Golda, “go get me some more pizza. Your father threw mine out and I haven’t had any lunch.”
“Rachel,” said Mr. Rabinowitz, “you are not to ever go into that evil place again.”
“Rachel,” said Grandma Golda, “your husband does not want his mother to go hungry.”
“I’ll be glad to make you something nice for lunch,” Mrs. Rabinowitz said softly. “We have plenty of good food. It will only take a minute.”
Everyone turned to look at her, and Mrs. Rabinowitz backed out the door without another word.
Aunt Rachel looked at her father. Then she looked at her mother-in-law “What are you both doing?” she said. “Stop it.”
“It’s not your place to criticize your elders,” said Mr. Rabinowitz sternly.
Grandma Golda nodded in agreement. “What kind of example is this for the children?” she asked.
Aunt Rachel pressed her hands to her chest. “My blood pressure!” she cried, and sat down heavily. “Jerry,” she said to her oldest son, “go get Dr. Goldberg.”
Aunt Rachel did look strange. Her color was wrong, her mouth was crooked, and one of her eyes was bigger than the other. Was she really having a heart attack? Would Dr. Goldberg get there in time to save her?
I later learned that Aunt Rachel had been interrupted by the argument mid-makeup session, and was so worried that she’d run outside without first putting on her entire face. She hadn’t finished applying her lipstick and rouge, and she had mascara, eyeliner and blue eye shadow on one eye but not the other.
Within minutes Dr. Goldberg was in the crowded apartment, checking her pulse and listening to her heart with the stethoscope around his neck.
You’re fine,” he said to her. “Just go upstairs and take it easy. The rest of you leave her alone for a while.”
Everyone filed out, leaving Grandma Golda to make her own lunch.
The next day Grandma Golda was sitting on one end of the bench. Mr. Rabinowitz was sitting on the other. They didn’t talk to each other. The next day the same thing, and the next, and the next. But by the following week they were sitting a little closer to each other. Within two weeks they were talking again as if nothing had happened.
“Who won the fight?” Sarah, one of Grandma Golda’s grandchildren, asked Aunt Rachel.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “The important thing is that there’s peace.”
Judy, who was the oldest grandchild and generally managed to figure out what was going on before the rest of us children, took Sarah aside and told her that for one dollar she’d reveal something really interesting about the fight over the pizza. This wasn’t the first time, or the last, that Judy wound up collecting allowances from her younger cousins in exchange for information.
“Next Saturday afternoon, just come over and ask Grandma Golda for some candy,” she said.
“What’s so special about that?” Sarah asked. “Grandma always gives us candy.”
“You’ll see,” said Judy, walking off with the money.
Grandma Golda believed that rock candy was good for her throat, and always had a long string of the smoky crystals in her pocket, along with a small pair of nail scissors. She’d cut off a piece of the string and hand it to you, always reminding you to be careful and just suck off the candy. You didn’t want to swallow the string because it could get tangled up in your insides.
On Saturday Sarah impatiently waited for Mr. Rabinowitz and Grandma Golda to stop talking, and asked if she could have a piece of candy. Instead of reaching into her pocket, Grandma Golda said the candy was inside her house and invited Sarah to come inside with her.
When the door was closed behind them, Grandma Golda asked, “Would you like some pizza instead of candy?”
“You have pizza?”
“I want pizza, so I have pizza,” Grandma Golda said, as she walked into her bedroom in the back of the apartment.
On her lace-covered dresser was an unmistakable pizza box and a warming plate. “We have to eat the pizza here,” she said. “Otherwise the smell gets all over the house and I don’t like that.”
The bedroom window was open even though it was a cool day. Any smells that escaped from the bedroom would go into the alley on the side of the house that faced an apartment occupied by strangers. Who cared what they could smell?
Grandma Golda warmed a slice of pizza, but Sarah was so excited she could barely eat it.
“How did you get this? Does Mr. Rabinowitz know?”
“I got it because I wanted it. What I eat is none of his business. Here, if you’re finished have some rock candy for dessert, and go play.”
It took a while for the rest of the family to figure out what was going on, but eventually they learned that on the day of the big battle, after Mrs. Rabinowitz left Grandma Golda’s apartment, she stood in the alley trying to figure out what to do. Then she looked across the street. Of course, who better to solve a pizza problem than the Italians?
Mrs. Rabinowitz walked up to their house, rang the doorbell, and introduced herself. The neighbors were startled to see her at their door, but over the years they’d been watching the occupants of the bench and hearing their battles, so they knew who she was. Also, one of their sons was in Judy’s class in school and they knew her parents. It took a while for Mrs. Rabinowitz to explain the situation, but by the time she left, there was a plan in place.
Every Saturday the neighbors’ son would go to the Parkway Pizzeria and buy a few slices of pizza. Then he would go into the alley facing the back of Grandma Golda’s apartment where he’d find the bedroom window open. It was a wide window, with plenty of room for him to slip the pizza onto the table in front of the window and to take the money that had been left there. Enough to buy more pizza the next week, plus fifty cents for his effort.
“It’s like I’m part of a spy movie,” he told friends who asked about his increased spending money.“I’m a secret agent going into enemy territory to deliver a coded message hidden in a pizza. I try to look nonchalant when I walk down the street. Then I stop a few houses before the grandmother’s place and check out the scene. If no one is around, I run as fast as I can into the alley and make the drop. I’m just worried about what would happen if that great, big, old guy ever got hold of me. He’s pretty scary.”
It all worked smoothly. Every Saturday morning, rain or shine, warm weather or cold, Grandma Golda would open her bedroom window and then go about her business. She returned to the bedroom just before lunch, and there was the pizza waiting for her. Sometimes she shared a slice with a grandchild, sometimes she ate it all herself, but she never took it out of the bedroom, and never said a word about it when she was outside.
No one ever knew if Mr. Rabinowitz figured out what was happening. Maybe he thought he’d finally forced Grandma Golda to behave properly, or maybe he was just smart enough not to ask questions when he didn’t want to hear the answers. He and Grandma Golda returned to their usual level of bickering, Aunt Rachel continued to complain that they were driving up her blood pressure, but Dr. Goldberg didn’t have to make any more house calls.
About a year later, Mr. Rabinowitz died. One day one of the children asked Grandma Golda if she wanted him to get some pizza for her now that she could eat it in the open.
“No,” she said. “I don’t have a taste for it anymore.”