Necks craned and cameras clicked as the man next to the stage at the Brooklyn Historical Society Tuesday night took out a glass seltzer bottle. He held it high for all to see, a relic of the not-so-distant past. And then he sprayed its contents into a glass containing milk and chocolate sauce.
“How many people here have tried an egg cream before?” Alex Gomburg, a self-proclaimed “seltzer boy,” asked. Nearly 100 people thrust their hands into the air, looking in disbelief at the few people who kept their hands lowered. Egg creams are a “big piece of history in Brooklyn and Jewish culture,” Gomburg said. But they don’t actually contain eggs. The white foamy head at the top forms from mixing the milk and seltzer, he explained.
The point of the evening was not making egg creams. It was celebrating the 10 new inductees into the Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame. In its third year, the hall of fame recognizes Jewish Brooklynites who have made a lasting impact through education, politics, the arts and, now, seltzer. Eli Miller, who many call “the last seltzer man,” was inducted this year. So was Judith Sheindlin, better known as Judge Judy on her long-running television program, Ira Glasser, a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Rabbi Simon Jacobson, author of the best-selling book “Toward a Meaningful Life.”
“If you grew up in the ‘50s, or ‘60s, or ‘70s, you know what an egg cream is,” said Sarina Roffé, the president of the Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative, the group that organizes and sponsors the hall of fame ceremony. “It’s purely a Brooklyn Jewish cultural experience, and it’s a dying art.”
Egg creams and the Brooklyn Dodgers were two topics that came up throughout the night as inductees shared stories of growing up or moving to the area.
Glasser said he wouldn’t have become a civil rights lawyer if it wasn’t for Brooklyn or its baseball team.
“The two sources of my social justice work were my mother and Jackie Robinson,” Glasser said, remembering the childhood days when he watched Robinson at Ebbets Field. “The importance that civil rights had in our lives was really a function of what happened in Brooklyn around Robinson.”
Several of the inductees mentioned the Brooklyn Dodgers in their speeches, including Judith Clurman, an Emmy-nominated conductor whose music filled the room before and after the ceremony. Rabbi Simon Jacobson also spoke of the Dodgers, referencing 1956, the year he was born in Brooklyn, “as the year the Dodgers left New York.”
But Merle Feld, an author and playwright who was inducted, had more painful memories of Brooklyn. She had not visited her family’s apartment “since we moved away 50 years ago,” when she left Brooklyn.
“It was this tiny, tiny, really decrepit walkup that I grew up in,” said Feld, who spent time in the West Bank as a feminism activist. “And I thought, how did I have dreams growing up here? Never in a million years could I have thought I would be where I am tonight.”
Sheindlin, aka Judge Judy, was unable to attend the ceremony because of a tight filming schedule in Los Angeles. For most inductees, attendance at the event is mandatory, but exceptions are made for “A-list celebrities,” said Roffé, the organizer. In a pre-recorded video played during the event, Sheindlin said she’s reminded of good times when thinking back to her childhood in Brooklyn.
“I always smile when somebody says to me, ‘You’re a Brooklyn girl,’” she said. “I know that they’re usually saying it warmly and lovingly.”
Seltzer maven Miller was the last to be inducted. He told a long and winding tale about how he broke into the seltzer business. Gomburg, the 34-year-old who bought Miller’s route when he retired a few months ago at the age of 84, laughed along as his mentor shared stories of shlepping seltzer up stairs. The crowd erupted in applause as Miller finished his tale, capping off the ceremony.
As some people headed for their coats and others for the refreshment table, Feld, the author, was in the back of the room catching up with old friends from primary school. It was the first time she had been back to Brooklyn in years.
“I literally rediscovered all of what was wonderful about being in Brooklyn,” she said.