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A Hen Goes to Brownsville

Oct 25, 2012 6:32 PM | 0 comments

In the early years of the 20th century, the building of the Williamsburgh Bridge encouraged garment workers and other Lower East Side residents to move to Williamsburg and Brownsville. In the interwar years, Brownsville, its population about 75% Jewish, was thrumming with cultural activity; not only theaters but newspapers, the labor movement, the Hebrew Educational Society, schools and synagogues all provided cultural enrichment in hard economic times. 

For many of these Brownsville residents, Yiddish would have been the language spoken at home, a fact that is reflected in print materials that have come down to us from that period.

The Brooklyn Collection's sheet music collection contains about a dozen rare Yiddish songs that would have been performed in homes and in theatres like the Liberty (1919-1933) in East New York or the Lyric (1908-1937) in Siegel St. But rarer still is this item we found some years ago in the catalogue of an antiquarian bookseller. One of only a handful of copies in libraries throughout the U.S., and the only one in a public library, as far as I can tell, Geyt a hindele kayn Bronzvil (A Hen Goes to Brownsville) is a charmingly illustrated children's book published in 1937, about a generous hen who decides to improve the health of the children of Brownsville by traveling there to lay eggs for them. During the long journey through Manhattan and into Brooklyn, circumstances conspire to keep her from her quest.  This strikes the modern reader as a strange tale, and yet perhaps we can understand it as an attempt to carry into a starkly urban environment the memory -- or the fantasy -- of a place across the ocean where mothers could collect eggs for their children, and there was always enough to eat.

I include almost all the illustrations; the text, translated for us by a brilliant polymath in our cataloging department, has been considerably abridged.

Geyṭ a hindele ḳayn Bronzṿil / Y. Ḳaminsḳi ; bilder un liṭografishe plaṭn fun Noṭe Ḳozlovsḳi.

A Hen Goes to Brownsville, written by Yehoshu Kaminski; illustrations by Note Kozlovski.

New York : Farlag Ḳinder ring bay dem Arbeṭer-Ring Bildungs-Ḳomiṭeṭ, 1937

A hen goes to Brownsville to lay eggs. She has heard that the children in Brownsville are short, pale, thin and weak because their mothers often don't have money to buy fresh eggs for them...The hen finally comes to Times Square, where there are so many people passing by.

She decides to lay eggs right here in Times Square. She puts down her basket...sits herself down and starts singing, "I sit down and close my eyes, and one, two, and three I lay eggs."

Meanwhile cars, buses, wagons and passers by come to a standstill and can't move. Traffic builds up for miles...A policeman quickly comes to the scene. He starts to yell at the hen, "Hey, how dare you stop all the traffic here in Times Square? You are under arrest! You are going to court to pay a hefty fine."....


 In the courthouse, the judge rules that the hen must pay a $2 fine. The hen asks, "Your Honor, is this the case even for a hen that is going to Brownsville to lay eggs?" He shows her the page in the law book. The hen  says, "Your Honor I do not have $2. She sits on that very page in the law book and places a white egg there. Then she picks up her basket and flies out the window. She gives eggs to the children on Delancey Street at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge.


She comes to the other end of the bridge. A man asks her, "You want to go to Brownsville? You have to go right, then left, up, then down, but it is very far on foot. Take the bus over there. It will take you to Pitkin Avenue, in the heart of Brownsville.....

The bus driver calls out "Pitkin Avenue!" ...The hen jumps out and lands on an open window leading to a basement. She sees through the window an infant being cuddled by its mother. The hen starts to sing, "I sit down and close my eyes and one, two, three I lay eggs." A white egg appears on the window sill. The mother takes the fresh egg and shows it to her child and says:

"Just as this egg is clean so shall my child's eyes be clean. Just as this egg is round so shall my child's face be round. Just as the egg is fresh, so shall my child's face be fresh."

As the hen heard these charming warm words, she was so touched that she began laying more eggs near the window sill. Mothers came from all around to get eggs and began to say the same words:

"Just as this egg is clean so shall my child's eyes be clean. Just as this egg is round so shall my child's face be round. Just as the egg is fresh, so shall my child's face be fresh."