In The

In the Beginning...

1966 - 1981

My name is Jeff Neckonoff. I was born in Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn in 1966. I was raised in Canarsie, in an area that was so Jewish that for my first few years of elementary school, I really thought that non-Jews were a minority people in the United States.

However, my maternal great-grandparents (on both sides) were observant Orthodox Jews. They came from a town in Poland called Ostrow Mazowiecka,which is located about fifty miles northeast of Warsaw, on the Grzybowka River and along the highways running from Warsaw up to the towns of Lomza, Zambrow & Bialystok.My mother recollects how she wasn't allowed to touch the light switches on Saturdays in their homes, and that her grandparents were strictly kosher. She's not sure, but thinks her great grandfather was a Rabbi. However, my maternal grandmother passed away before I was born. And the only person who had just a tenuous connection to that long-lost world of Torah was my maternal grandfather, who passed away when I was nine years old, from a major heart attack while working at the main Post Office near Madison Square Garden.

Both sides of my family came to the United States in the first two decades of the 20th century. They settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and then migrated east to the a suburb called East New York in Brooklyn.

My paternal grandparents were extremely secular. Interestingly enough, I learned from my grandfather, of blessed memory, that his parents in Kishinev, Moldova, were basically secular irreligious Jews who didn't keep kosher or Shabbos. They only went to synagogue on the High Holy Days, like many secular Jews do today.

So that means I'm descended from many generations of assimilated Jews with extremely limited Torah knowledge (on my father's side). My paternal grandparents and my parents were both raised very secular.

In 1968, five years after my parents married, due to white flight out of East New York, they moved three miles southwest to Canarsie, a very unique, up and coming middle-class community made up of predominantly second generation Jews and Italians. Canarsie back then was literally a suburban oasis in Brooklyn.

In 1970's Canarsie, even though we were brought up secular, being "culturally" Jewish was an important part of our close knit family. We celebrated the Jewish holidays by staying home from school, and having nice dinners with some close relatives. Unfortunately, there were no prayers or explanations of what we were doing. Once in a while, we'd attend services at the Canarsie Jewish Center (Conservative) on East 107th Street. Everything seemed to be done out of habit. I never felt any spirituality there. Years after leaving Brooklyn, I found out that there was a very large Orthodox population in Canarsie. But they were on the other side of the neighborhood. I remember seeing people dressed up in hats on Saturdays & Jewish holidays as we drove to do errands. Unfortunately, we had nothing to do with them.

The Jewish community of the Seaview Village area of Canarsie was almost totally secularized. While there were about five synagogues within walking distance, there was no spirituality. Most went to the synagogue that was closest to their home, not for any spiritual or denominational concepts. Nobody I knew was interested about the reasons we celebrated the holidays. We did it because we were Jewish, and we were supposed to.

I learned from an early age that part of being Jewish meant using your brain. Throughout our elementary & junior high school years, my two sisters and I were in the special "IGC" and "SP" classes (Intelligently Gifted Children and Special Progress). Most of the kids in our classes were also Jewish. Intellect was emphasized in our home far more than religious or spiritual mandates. The latter were viewed as ancient rules and traditions - nice to know about, but basically impractical and irrelevant. All of my Jewish childhood friends also had similar upbringings. Ironically, my shul was actually the more religious one, as half of my friends went to the Reform Temple (Emanuel) on Rockaway Parkway. So, I can only imagine what they were (or weren't) taught.

Beginning in the fifth grade (you're supposed to start anywhere from 1st thru 3rd grades), I attended Hebrew school three days a week for three years. There I studied Jewish history and learned how to read Hebrew but did not learn much about God. I truly disliked being there, and looked forward to when I would never have to return. I was the class wise guy, the one who wrote, "Jesus Saves" on the blackboard one day before a teacher whom I especially disliked came in. I thought it was pretty funny to watch her huffing and puffing as she erased it. To me, the name "Jesus" meant as much as the name Leroy, Bob, or Buddha. But I knew it would get my teacher upset. Mission accomplished.

I had my Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and that ended my Jewish education. I remember the planning of the celebration at the Colonial Mansion catering hall in Bath Beach more than any part of my haftorah. While we had a great time at the party, I sadly learned almost nothing (besides some Hebrew and how to torture frustrated teachers) from the typical non-spiritual Jewish education I had. To my mother’s credit (and because of that pintele yid), she was adamant that the party be kosher and to take place the day after the service. She wouldn’t allow it to take place on Shabbos, even though we didn’t observe it whatsoever.

We all had nicely catered bar/bat mitzvahs, ate bagels & lox and no bread or cake on Passover. But for what reason, not many truly understood why. I didn't. If any of my friends did know, most certainly didn't act as if they did. Unfortunately, I came to believe that being Jewish was simply like any another ethnicity, just like being Italian, Irish or Puerto Rican. In school, we extensively studied, read and were shown films such as "Inherit the Wind", "Brave New World", "1984", etc. which didn't exactly lead one to a Torah-observant lifestyle. In the defense of public education, it imbued within me a thirst for knowledge as well as the desire to seek out truth. But just in case you didn't know, the public school system teaches pretty much a totally atheistic world view.

Within society in general, there was a spirit of a new age upon us. It was the late 1970s, and the concept of the American "melting pot" and the beginnings of political correctness were being pushed upon us by the educational system. I learned about Communism, Karl Marx, the 1948 Chinese Revolution, Socialism, etc. These "enlightened" teachings, mixed in with my middle-class, know-it-all Brooklyn sensitivities to fit into the popular culture, created within me a recipe of contempt for Judaism, and "organized religion" in general.

Up to that point, 90% of my friends had been Jewish. In ninth grade in junior high, my social circle suddenly opened, and I had plenty of friends from various backgrounds. We never discussed religion; we were all too busy going to teen discos, meeting girls and getting into minor trouble. I had a vague notion that Christians believed in some guy named Jesus who said that he was God. It seemed even less relevant to my life than Judaism was.

It was also at this point in my life that my hobby of collecting 12" disco records became somewhat lucrative, as I invested some of my hard-earned paper-route money into buying some professional DJ equipment, and began to actually get hired to spin at events. I continued doing this through high school & college.

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