21 Apr Once upon a time, Lee Avenue had a sense of humor
Before Hasidim made Lee Avenue into a shopping epicenter and into the place to be guarded and presented just-so, it was a different kind of Jewish neighborhood. Scrappy Jewish immigrants from the Lower East Side of Manhattan poured into Williamsburg, and the neighborhood was a slight step up from the tenements on the other side of the bridge.
And among its residents was once none other than Mel Brooks.
Yes, this Mel Brooks, of real Jewish irreverence and apostasy.
Once upon a time, he was Melvin Kaminsky.
As a teen, Brooks lived on 111 Lee Avenue—as can be seen from his high school yearbook. Before Lee, the family had lived on South 5th.
Brooks attended Eastern District High, which is now the Bais Rochel girls’ school and another important, rich piece of Williamsburg’s prior incarnations. I love to look at the old yearbooks—the full disclosure of the address is that touch that takes me back to a time that schoolmates always hung out at each other’s homes.
I found this on Ebay and it was sold for some five hundred dollars. Which of course means I don’t own it.
111 LEE AVENUE
Class Day Committee: Senior Council: Dean’s Assistant: Fencing Tem.
Keminsky – To be President of the U.S.
Eastern District High School Brooklyn, NY:
I do own an Eastern District High School yearbook from another year. Who knows what kind of famous people hide in their, their past Jewy names cast aside. After all, Mel Brooks is Melvin Kaminsky and Deborah Feldman was Sarah Berkowitz.
This is the house he lived in:
It now has a gorgeous renovated Judaica shop on the ground floor with ornate silver Torah decorations and a nice window display with the scrolls and ink for writing the Torah. I wonder what Brooks would make of THAT level of Jewish.
This building is one of the rare ones that are on the general market. A number of the apartments show up on Streeteasy with regular listings (usually they would only be advertised in Yiddish newspapers). This is for a forth floor, 2 bedroom walk up was listed on Street Easy for $2,500 a month.
Brooks attributed his developing a comedic persona on his childhood in the neighborhood.
“Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it [anger and hostility] in comedy to spare myself problems – like a punch in the face.”
Williamsburg’s streets are named after the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and that came in handy for him, as he recounts:
I remember doing my homework—it was to write down as many signers of the Declaration of Independence as you knew. I knew three. My brother Irving came home, and I said, “Irving, I only have three. I’m going to fail this test.” He said, “Where do you play ball?” “I play ball on Franklin Avenue.” He says, “There’s one.” He said, “Where do you play roller hockey?” “On Hooper.” “There’s another.” “Where’s the library?” “Hewes.” “Well, there’s another one.” I said, “Wait a minute, I’m beginning to get it.” I aced that test.