April 21, 2021 Building series: Mel Brook’s childhood home on Lee
Site: Childhood home of Mel Brooks
Location: 111 Lee Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Before Hasidim made Lee Avenue into a shopping epicenter — and into the place to go out looking 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, in the early 1940s, Brooks lived on 111 Lee Avenue—as can be seen from his 1944 high school yearbook. Before they lived on 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 found this 1944 yearbook on Ebay. It was up for sale for some five hundred dollars. Which of course means I don’t own it. (Someone else was probably lucky, because the listing is now gone.)
His entry reads:
111 LEE AVENUE
Class Day Committee: Senior Council: Dean’s Assistant: Fencing Tem.
Keminsky – To be President of the U.S.
This is an old postcard of the Eastern District High School Brooklyn, NY:
I don’t have the yearbook. But I own an Eastern District High School yearbook from a year later – 1945. 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 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 fourth floor, 2-bedroom walk up was listed on Street Easy for $2,500 a month.
Brooks attributed his development of a comedic persona to 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.