He was a playground bully in 1965. His film about it is up for an Oscar.
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He was a playground bully in 1965. His film about it is up for an Oscar.
The filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt at his old elementary school, P.S. 194, today the Raoul Wallenberg School in Brooklyn, on March 17, 2022. His short documentary, “When We Were Bullies,” was nominated for an Oscar. Jackie Molloy/The New York Times.

by Stuart Miller

NEW YORK, NY.- A long time ago at the southern end of Brooklyn, a lone fifth-grade boy was set upon by his PS 194 classmates, who punched and kicked, yelled and spat at him. Jay Rosenblatt was part of the mob.

More than half a century later, Rosenblatt revisited the incident, and the schoolyard itself, for his short documentary, “When We Were Bullies,” which is nominated for an Academy Award and which makes its TV debut Wednesday on HBO. Rosenblatt tracked down 20 former classmates to ask them how they look back at their behavior on that day more than 50 years ago and how they felt after their teacher, Mrs. Bromberg, caught them and punished them, calling the group “animals.”

Intriguingly, he chose not to interview the victim, since the film’s themes revolve around the complicity and collaboration that come with a mob mentality and the lasting impact of such childhood events.

The incident itself, though, was far from a defining moment of Rosenblatt’s youth, and not just because bullying was a fairly regular occurrence back then. The year before, his younger brother died during what should have been routine surgery for colitis. It was that tragedy, he said, that “completely changed me — how sensitive and reserved I was, my entire life’s trajectory.”

Rosenblatt recalled those difficult days recently while sitting in the living room of his aunt and uncle’s apartment on Knapp Street, across the street from the schoolyard. It’s the same apartment complex where he lived until he was 12.

That bullying episode remained submerged until the 1990s, when Rosenblatt was working on “The Smell of Burning Ants,” which would firmly establish him in the world of short experimental documentary film (a small world, he wryly notes). That movie examined the cruelty and pain that boys inflicted and endured as they grew up.

While sifting through found footage of boys fighting, one snippet triggered his memory of the event. Then came one of those coincidences that New Yorkers often seem to encounter, which eventually led to this new movie. Rosenblatt, who lives in San Francisco, met with a man named Richard Silberg about narrating “Burning Ants.”

It turned out Silberg was also from Brooklyn — Sheepshead Bay, to be precise. Rosenblatt soon discovered that not only were they fifth-grade classmates but that Silberg was the instigator that fateful day, and he remembered the whole shameful scene vividly.

The two men continued working together and stayed friends, and eventually Rosenblatt turned the camera on their past to try to understand how he and his classmates remembered what happened, and what it meant to them all these years later.

With his aunt and uncle, Simmy and Arnie Greenberg (graduates of Tilden High School and married for 66 years), sitting in on the conversation, Rosenblatt reflected on growing up in Brooklyn and how his past shaped his present. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How would you describe your childhood in Brooklyn?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily want to live where I grew up now, but I can’t think of a better place to grow up back then. I had so many friends. The neighborhood was filled with kids. We played all these street games — stickball, punchball, slapball — all those aggressive-sounding games that were so fun. We played ringolevio, which was great because you didn’t need anything; all you did was run.

Q: What about your teenage years?

A: When I was 12, we moved to Mill Basin right near Kings Plaza. I went to Marine Park Junior High and then Madison High School. On weekends we’d go into the Village and hang out. We were starting to explore, getting stoned and going to concerts, which helped us get through high school. High school was tough, though I had a gang of friends and we relied on each other.

Q: Was there a lot of bullying and fighting?

A: We were with mostly good kids in school, but in the neighborhood there were bullies. There was a kid named Richie, and he would do things that would just humiliate me. I’d be sitting on a bench outside and he would just sit next to me and start punching my arm with all his force. I can’t believe I took that, but I was afraid that if I didn’t withstand it he’d do something worse. He terrorized a lot of kids, and we tried to placate him and hoped he would leave. We never played with him.

The neighborhoods were segregated, although Richard Silberg grew up in the projects, so he had a more diverse experience. Where I lived was very white, mostly Jewish, Italian and Irish. There was camaraderie with the Italian kids culturally, but we were afraid of the Irish kids and avoided the blocks where the Catholic schools were. There were bullying incidents with them. Once I was shooting baskets and wearing these aviator glasses my grandfather had given me that I loved. These Irish kids surrounded me and wanted the glasses. Rather than give the glasses over, I broke them and threw them to the ground, then jumped on my bike and rode home against traffic.

The fights were usually more wrestling than hitting. Whenever I had to fight, I didn’t necessarily try to win. I tried to get the person down on the ground and just end it.

Q: How did this shape you?

A: Growing up in New York, you learn street smarts early on. When I’m in situations that are a little dodgy, I have confidence that I can navigate it. My peripheral vision is good.

Q: Watching for Richie?

A: Watching for anything unexpected. These incidents were hard to go through, but they built a certain strength. We worked it out whatever way we could.

But it’s better now that there is also more of an awareness — there are more anti-bullying campaigns. I think today you’d be more likely to find a kid who would step up and say, “Stop doing that.”

Q: If bullying was so prevalent at school, shouldn’t Mrs. Bromberg have done more to prevent it?

A: One woman I interviewed from my class said she was “an off-key kid,” and she felt that Mrs. Bromberg was a bully.

Q: Was Mrs. Bromberg right for calling you animals?

A: She was right to shame us. One key to this whole story is that I don’t think I’d remember it if we hadn’t been caught.

There’s a lack of shame now in our culture. People try shaming each other on social media, but they do it anonymously. Obviously, shame can go overboard and become negative, but I think we need some of it to keep us in line as a culture. Look what’s happening with bullies in the world right now.

Q: Did your classmates feel guilty about being complicit in the bullying?

A: Most people felt bad but didn’t really remember the incident.

The complicity part of bullying is very complex, because a lot of it is just trying to avoid being bullied yourself. So you’re an observer and don’t say anything. It’s the rare kid who has the courage to stick up for someone else. I wish I had done that.

But one student had so much trouble imagining he would have been there and not done something. I had to say, “Maybe you were out sick that day, don’t berate yourself.” He felt so bad, saying, “I can’t imagine ever being part of something like this.”

Another one said: “I was an obnoxious kid, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I did that. But in fifth grade you’re insecure about yourself so you raise yourself up by putting others down.” He’s the last person from back then that I’d have thought would have had that kind of insight.

Q: For those who cheered on the playground beating 50-some years ago, how much shame or guilt should they carry today?

A: We can’t lose sight of the fact that we were 10. People do grow.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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