There is an interesting conversation on the frum internet forum imamother.com about our tours. The questioner wants to know how insiders feel about what we do. This is a question we get asked most often by our tourists and it is something we grapple with ourselves. Here is the most succinct version of the ethical dilemma:
We do can't give a single answer because various people we asked had different reactions; and because what we experience isn't the sum of the community's philosophy towards tourism. But while we don't know how everyone feels, we do know how people have treated us over more than three years of quietly touring the neighborhood. People in the businesses we visit are just friendly and very down to earth, while everyday folk go about their daily affairs as if we aren't there. On occasion we get stared down, or people ask what we come to see, or contribute to the conversation. Rarely but sometimes a Hasidic person gives us a short lesson. We had only one instance of an individual disrupting the tour on several occasions. A middle-aged man followed the group around and disrupted with cries of "hypocrisy"; at some point a local Hasidic shopkeeper came out of his store to ask the disruptive gentleman (in Yiddish) to "leave them alone". The two had a conversation as the older gentleman argued we had come on some traitorous mission, before he went his way and we went ours (to taste some rugelach.)
Here is what people on this forum say they feel about the tours:
It is worth pointing out that the comments on an online forum are not a particularly indicative sampling, and people online tend to be more open in the first place, but these sentiments were the surprising and thoughtful reactions we have always experienced.
(We should clarify that we never run tours on Shabbes or holidays. We have no connection to the large bus tours that make a quick stop in the neighborhood on weekends. If our tour guides are in the neighborhood on such occasions, we are usually visiting family or friends.)
The most negative feedback that we get from community members is that we come to Williamsburg to "gawk as if at a zoo". This is a critique that is not unique to Williamsburg tours; all cultural tours or anthropological studies might be guilty of turning people into involuntary performers or unwilling objects of analysis. We do our best to avoid disrespect by coming in small groups, engaging with the shops and avoiding stereotyping at all costs.
If we had an opportunity to explain to members of the community why we do this; we would say that visiting cultures so radically different than the mainstream is a worthwhile learning experience; it broadens our understanding of history, community, Jewish life and the colorful tapestry that is New York.
A century ago a Christian Mission to the Jews stood in the heart of Williamsburg. A great sign "The House of the Prince of Peace" stood atop the building, and inside was, among other things, a medical clinic called the Sar Shalom Dispensary.
It was founded by Leopold Cohn, a Hungarian apostate, who founded a ministry to the Jews called the Chosen People Ministry. Amazingly, the ministry founded in 1892 survived eventually became Jews For Jesus, 80 years later!
And even more amazingly, Leopold Cohn (1862-1937) wrote the following about his youth in Hungary:
"At about eighteen years of age I was proficient in Hebrew literature and Talmudic law. I then received from several rabbis, in whose colleges I had studied, a diploma containing a certificate of my good character and acquirements and and authority to become a rabbi. This was confirmed by my first and chief rabbi, a miracle performer, S. L. Teitelbaum, in Sziget."
That is, the Williamsburg missionary Cohn was a student of the Yetev Lev, progenitor of the Satmar rebbes, in his youth, in Sighet!
There's been a lot in the news recently about how Hasidic women dress for swim. This comes amid a controversy in Williamsburg over if the Metropolitan Pool should offer hours especially for women, catering to Hasidic women who will not swim in a coed pool. Yesterday the city announced that it will keep the women's hours, albeit only four instead of eight, which again fueled intrigue and conversation about unique Hasidic women's swim tradition.
In its June 26, 2016 report, this is how the New York Times described the clothes of Hasidic women:
"Their swimming outfits would have been considered prudish even by the standards of 1922, when the pool was built. They swam in dresses, some with long sleeves. One paddled in thick black tights. Inside the locker room, wigs sat upside down on window ledges and benches while their owners swam with heads under ruffled swimming caps or knotted silk scarves."
It may seem from the many comments about Hasidic women's dress in pools that these women are all simply swimming in their house coats.
This is what most Satmar Hasidic women wear to the pool.
A shvimkleid is made of the type of material boy's swimshirts are made of; a non-absorbant, quick to dry fabric. It has underpants sewn into it of the same fabric as the rest of the dress. With its shirt skirt and sleeves, it is not modest by Hasidic standards for wearing outside the home.
Why don't Hasidic women wear bathing suits?
Because the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) believed that the bathing suit itself, as a garment that revealed so much of a woman's body, was a "beged pritzah" a dress of impiety. In his letters he wrote that even if a woman wears a T-shirt over her bathing suit (which some women will do, especially from other Hasidic sects) she is still wearing that garment of impiety, and therefore sinning.
The answer to the bathing suit was the shvimkleid, which is worn by hundreds of girls flocking around in pools as we write this.
A Chikenpox outbreak among Hasidic children of Williamsburg had the NYC Department of Health launch an ad campaign in Yiddish newspapers to promote timely vaccination.
Another NYC ad, by the Department of Emergency Management, promotes readiness in the event of a hurricane.
Too bad the ad uses a Yiddish word for hurricane (הוראגאנען) that readers won't understand, as contemporary Hasidic Yiddish uses the loanword "hurricane".
Bike registrations are annually organized for Williamsburg Hassidic children by Shomrim, a Hasidic neighborhood safety patrol volunteer organization. At the registration drive, identification numbers are ingrained into children's bikes and scooters and a registry of the IDs and andcorresponding owners' information is kept by the NYPD to be used in the event of suspected bike theft, according to thus poster advising of today's registration.
h/t @WMSBG on Twitter
This bagleiten video is from June 30, 2016 in Williamsburg, Bedford Avenue corner Ross Street, on the streets around the residence of the Satmar Rebbe Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum.
On the evenings culminating any of the three holidays, Passover, Shovuos and Sukkus, Wiliamsburg streets around the primary Satmar shull of each of Satmer's two factions swell into crowds for the bagleiten procession, a ceremonial final walk home by the the rebbe, who's accompanied by men dancing to blasting music and women spectating from behind police barricades. This marks the end of the holiday with the rebbe.
The bagleiten ends with the rebbe's short address to his followers from the balcony of his residence, in which he's summarizing a spiritual takeaway of the holiday, calling for invigorated spiritual focus in the individual's and families' lives, and for standing guard against influences hampering such commitments. The address is traditionally followed by a call-and-response of Yechi adoneinu moreinu verabeinu (long live our master, teacher and rabbi), after which the men resume dancing for a while.
A screenshot taken from a Whatsapp group titled in Yiddish "Satmer Worldwide" is circulating on Whatsapp, the social media platform of choice for many Hasidim. It suggests that as part of the ongoing campaign amongst Hasidim to limit their use of internet and smartphones for non-commercial ends, the focus has now turned to the widespread use of Whatsapp and Whatsapp-groups.
This "Satmer Worldwide" group's purpose seems to have been the sharing and discussing of internal news of interest to Satmer Hasidim (Aroinim faction), usually involving the rebbe, his institutions and the community. The members of the group were men who take a stronger interest in or are more active with internal affaris than the average Satmer member does.
The Yiddish message reads: "Per the rebbe's request that we commit to not busy ourselves with Whatsapp groups, we're going to leave this group. With God's help, we shall meet one another at simchas."
Today's front page of the weekly Satmer Yiddish newspaper, Der Blatt, representing the same Satmer faction, reports about the rebbe's public address during last week's Shovuos holiday, alerting his followers to the ills he associated with Whatssapp groups, homiletically connecting them to the three cardinal sins, namely the exposure to and dissemination of nonconformist sentiment, immodest content, and gossip.
Listen to the Satmar Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum explaining in Yiddish the ease with which exponential sharing is possible through such groups (i.e., social media). This recording was from the last Shovuos Tish, which extends well past the end of the holiday, which explains why a recording (prohibited during the holiday)
Update: A whatsapp-shaming ad campaign is now ongoing by Vaad Letahreinu, the official Satmer committee for the regulation of Internet and technology:
Are you planning on passing by Hasidic Williamsburg on this weekend? The following tips might contribute to your fuller understanding of the neighborhood on these days.
Pre-Shovues shopping days in Williamsburg: Video captures a custom unique to Shovues and it isn't about creamy cheesecakes.
To local florists in Hasidic Williamsbrug, business this week is busy. Very busy. The Shovues holiday substitutes for lost opportunities on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, two holidays Hasidim generally don't celebrate.
In the days leading up to Shovues, families and acquaintances will exchange the language of flowers. And by the time the holiday arrives - and shopping and commerce have come to a total halt in Hasidic Williamsburg - greenery and floral decorations will augment the holiday spirit in dining rooms at home, where holiday meals with family will be feasted, and around the bimah and aron hakodesh in synagogue halls, where holiday prayers and services will be held.
Note in the video how local religious schools also benefit from the increased demand, setting up competing ad-hoc florist bazaars.
Video courtesy of VINNews, 2013
Blog post by Yoelish
via Visit Hasidim http://ift.tt/1NWcXqY
One of my favorite books that describe contemporary Hasidic life -- and probably one of the least known -- is Teacha; Storeis from a Yeshiva. The book only gives us a sliver of a glimpse into the community, through the eyes of Gerry Albarelli, a non-Jew who was hired to be a teacher in the Satmar boy’s school. Albarelli writes with candor and an eye for detail about the chaotic, rough, all-male bubble of education inside the Hasidic community. It is clear from his writing that he is neither intimidated nor awestruck by the wild and unusual yeshiva he finds. What we get instead is subtle warms, an occasional shoulder shrug, and a good sense of humor. Albarelli is able to show us how wild and untamed these boys are, a "factory" running into the evening, while it is also clear that he gets through to the children, grows on them as they grow on him. What I like about his stories is that he does not belabor any of these feelings. He just says it as he experienced it, and lets the readers feel the range of experiences through his.
It is told in short essays, but all of the essays together follow him through one school years, from when he was hired as he becomes more comfortable in the yeshiva, until he leaves at the end of the year. His first efforts to earn the boys respect:
“They (the Hasidic boys) were outside the classroom, six or seven boys, waiting, hopping in place, talking excitedly behind their hands. When they saw me coming, they ran inside, “Teacha! The teacha!” The tables and benches were shoved out of their usual arrangement and boys were running around them. Books and papers were all over the floor.
When the boys saw me walk in, they stopped what they were doing – chasing each other, walking on the tables, screaming, laughing, only long enough to let me know they were not going to stop.
Then I was the boy up near the ceiling.
He was on top of the wardrobe that contained their jackets and bookbags.
“Get down!” I said.
Everyone looked up.
“Teacha,” he said, smiling now that everyone was watching. “Look! I’m a janitor fixing the pipes.”
Later, Albarelli adapts and learns to navigate this challenging teaching post, but we know that this is not a situation where he ever completely wins the staff or student's trust. He is only more successful and teaches more than the other English teachers, but that doesn’t say much, as many of the teachers are terrified of their own students and are just there to get out. Albarelli educates by putting on performances with the boys, or as the boys call it “makhen plays”, something everyone loved.
“The play began with one boy whistling and sweeping the floor of his store in the morning. It was easy to see the broom would have been taller than he was; it was probably even in the way he held the imaginary broom. Whistling, sweeping, and then he had a customer. All the other boys were watching; they were all sitting on the floor, on their tables, quietly listening.
There he was, with his peyahs, and white shirt tucked into his pants, whistling, and the other boys, looking exactly the same, were watching…
All of a sudden another boy entered the store, grabbed a chicken and ran out. When the store owner realized what had happened he was in a panic. He called the police. He was on a first-name basis with the policeman who answered the phone; he even told him to get right over there. The policeman arrived, took a description of the thief, went out, searched for and found him. Then he arrested him and put him in jail, which was the closet at the back of the room.”
We also get a little feel for how the children feel about this outsider, this teacher, who they call a goy, or a "half Jew, half goy" doomed for gehenna. There is an obvious chasm between the Yiddish speaking students and their "English" teacher.
“Every day they teach me a few new words but they seem to have no faith in my capacity to absorb and remember because every time I throw a Yiddish word into a story, they look up, astonished. “This is a story about an old woman who sweeps with the besom, with the broom.” “Teacha,” a boy says, “you can Yiddish?”
A central character in the boys’ lives is Rabbi Katz, the man who carries the stick and the carrot and shoves around the boys and teachers with the same rough manners. He has a trademark "scariness" that is supposed to put everything in to order, yet his pushing and shoving means he's not really taken seriously. We all know the bad guy in schools; from whom all the students run. And sometimes thhis bad guy is even the good guy.
“Sorry for my English,” Rabbi Katz says as though he weren’t sorry at all. “I’m born in Israel.”
Then, all of a sudden he switches gears.
“Eleven years I am a teacher. Not only a teacher!” Shouts Rabbi Katz. “I’m director from the boys’ choir. I’m running the kitchen. I run a summer camp. You ask any boy – any boy – who having the best camp! I work mit details!”
Rabbi Katz is explaining himself to us. He goes on and on. There’s a lot to say. He’s explaining himself to the teachers more or less the way he explains himself to the boys."
Albarelli ends this way-too-short little book with the closing of the school year, when the boys are suddenly informed that they will no longer have English and they can leave early. As Albarelli leaves, there are no obvious expressions of affection to mark their parting, but it is clear that he does not leave the boys easily.
“Walking away, I was thinking about the boys. It was as if they lived on a rope stretched between a lake of fire, Gehenna, and the fires of ecstasy. The boys never saw themselves as individuals but as boys who were wild and in need of a smack. It was as if in the ruin of a classroom – all classrooms were ruined all the time as if ever day were the last day of the year – it was as if the ruin of a classroom was wild ecstasy – chairs broken, overturned, paper, strips of paper balled up, paper all over the floor, candy, plastic bags with the remains of potato chips and pretzels, orange peels, overflowing trash, books spilling out of the class; all the wildness and destruction of the room – also ecstatsy.
I was walking away from the yeshiva, the rabbis and the boys, but leaving, it was as if I was still there. Even half a block away, I could hear the joyous screaming behind me."
The book is a compilation of several fictional stories about a few individuals in the ultra-orthodox community. The stories are unoriginal; about a couple meeting through a shidduch, a meddlesome mother in law, a young yeshiva boy who has an affair with a black girl and a middle-aged woman who runs off from the community. The stories are cut up in chapters that skip between the different stories, so all stories span the length of the book. But most of the book actually reads like a long long long introduction to the climax: the salacious wedding night scene between Chani Kaufman and her groom. The author clearly loves to write about the going-ons between couples. I regret to say however, that except for the final chapters, the couples’ going-ons are rather uneventful.
The people in the book seem mostly stifled, uninspired, obsessed with Hashem and repressed by the religious society. It is very frustrating and grating to read a book that is full of giant inaccuracies. Not inaccuracies of ritual, but inaccuracies of the cultural essence, the characters and the spirit of the people. So my problem with this fairly negative book is not that it is negative, but that the negativities are often inaccurate.
The ultra-orthodox women have many children. While to the outsider, each child may seem to come as quickly as a single breath, well, that is not how it actually happens. The biological law of the nine month pregnancy applies to religious women too! (Surprise!) So young Chani Kauffman whose mother had many children “had watched her mother’s stomach inflate and deflate like a bullfrog’s throat” we get probably the worst, inhumane and ridiculous description of the life of a woman who has many children, condensed into one terrible metaphor. A nine month process is described as superficially as the duration of a breath. Are women really getting pregnant and unpregnant as grotesquely as a bullfrogs throat’s dilation? The author expands: “Chani’s mother had become a machine whose parts were grinding and worn… an exhausted mountain of dilapidated flesh, endlessly suckling, soothing, patting or feeding... Her father sowed his seed time and time again in his wife’s worn out womb”. Is this realistically how big families happen, or is this rather overflowing with the condescension of store-bought feminism? I think the latter. Women everywhere work themselves to sheer exhaustion for whatever they value; and the ultra-orthodox women do too. The assumption that this makes them machine like objects without any agency or pleasure is classic narrow-mindedness. All that this description reflects is someone’s snap judgment of large families. It lacks any empathy or insight. In fact, when Chani’s mother is actually seen in action throughout the book she is engaged and warm and not at all 'a machine of dilapidated flesh.'
There are many more such problems, for instance in the way the children experience being stifled (they wonder about bacon; right, because another culture’s diet is REALLY what a curious person would think about) or in the radical, unrealistic way the rebbetzin runs off from the community.
Well. The inaccuracies were actually only the least of my problems with this book. The writing is, to quote its own words “not talking like a mentch!” I have no idea who the hell the Man Booker prize people are, or what their prize is, but I cannot begin to understand how a book like this one can receive an award. The writing tries very hard to be cute, so hard; it distracts from what’s happening in the stories. And the stories are told in chopped up pieces, hopping from one character’s tale to another, giving you a long drawn out piece about Chaim’s interest in Chani's looks, or in Mrs. Levy’s scheme to stop the shidduch, so you lose your tale just when you were maybe (maybe!) starting to get faintly interested in one saga or another. In trying to describe what these characters are like, nothing comes to my mind but their physical characteristics (either great youthful beauty or terrible unsightliness) and their endless kvetching. The characters are so flat, that when you read it you almost see caricatures get pasted in from a crafty handbook of stereotypes. There is very little dialog, all of it stale. (example: “Chany Kaufman, your behavior today was inappropriate at the very least.’ ‘Yes, Mrs. Beranrd,” Chani whispered. “What’s that?” snapped the Deputy Head. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Bernard.” Etc.)
Lots of things happen because the author tells you it happened (“they grew closer”) not because the scenes are in the book, in over-decorated language riddled with bad metaphors: “her eyes shone with liquid apology” and she walks down the street “her legs pumping like pistons.” Or my favorite “he flamed the colour of chraine.” The pacing is distracting too because of the way the story jumps abruptly from character to character, but worse because you spend so much time with the drawn out descriptive language, nothing happens, and then suddenly it is six months later. Most of all, the appeal of this book seems to lie in its exciting wedding night scene (which isn’t so exciting after all) and this single episode seems to be the book, with three hundred pages of adjectives fluffed around it. In all, I had a hard time getting through it and I would not recommend it.
This picture, of a plaque on Hewes Street in Williamsburg that not only protests the state of Israel but reads "Free Palestine," made its rounds on the Hasidic Whatsapp. The reason this was newsworthy even to Hasidim is because while anti-zionist Israel may be the attitude amongst many sects, the general sympathies among Hasidim are still not pro-Palestine, especially because many Hasidim live in Israel or American Hasidim have relatives in Israel. The loyalty among many Hasidim I know is to a diaspora type of Israel, but not subsurvients to Palestine or sympathies to Palestinians.
A few individuals are the exception, and in being the exception, they are marginal figures. They not only protest the State of Israel but also loudly support Palestine, and try to even make connections with Palestinians (ie Neturei Karta's open relationship with Yassir Arafat). They make so much noise that they skew the public perception and make the impression that all anti-zionist Hasidim are pro-Palestine. In reality, these men who make up this pro-Palestine Hasidic faction are a select few, and their voice is not encouraged by the community, as can be seen from the second picture below, taken a few days later, when this pro-Palestine plague was already removed and a small Star of David with a cross over it was inside the window instead.
The people who put up with sign don't advertise an official affiliation with Hasidism or any sect. On their website, www.dropisrael.org there are many biblical quotes, pictures of the few individuals at protests, and even keychains with pictures of a little Hasidic boy with a Palestinian child that can be bought for $0.00 but while it can be bought, it is also marked "coming soon."
The Committee for Saving Williamsburg; Notice and Warning:
It has come to our attention that a resident of our city has sold 2 properties on 176/178 Division Avenue to someone from outside "our city" for a high price, which puts the project in danger of being built for artists, god-forbid.
The rabbis have written in their proclamation on the first of cheshvon 5764:
“We have come to triple and reinforce our warning with added strength and warn that no man dare rent or sell any apartment or loft to these people in our neighborhood, nor to sell them any lots. This includes even if selling to a Jew with the knowledge that he will build for them, or if selling to a Jew for a price which proves it is for them, is as selling to them. And whoever will dare transgress this will be shunned, him his sons and his daughters, from synagogues, institutions of Torah, and educational institutions, in Williamsburg. Therefore we turn to the seller that he is obligated according to the Torah to make sure the buyer does not build for artists. "
Anyone who has any information about this is asked to call the committee.
As it has come to our attention that the buyer is going around to the neighbors offering to buy their houses in order to be able to build on their lots (which is further proof he is planning to build for artists) we extend our warning in the name of the great rabbis shlita that no one should dare sell a house to them for any price offered, and one who transgresses will be punished.
Many Jews remember Williamsburg before its Hasidic transformation; when centrist Orthodox and secular Jews were part of the neighborhood landscape. But not many dedicated themselves to recording their memories and preserving the fascinating history of the community as it transformed to a Hasidic community. Philip Fishman is of the few who shared their experiences with the public. His book “A Sukkah is Burning; Remembering Williamsburg's Hasidic Transformation” is part autobiographical, part ethnography of the Williamsburg of his time; and part political and religious commentary. He maps the social and religious landscape of his youth by telling us at times amusing, at times painful, anecdotes of a childhood in Williamsburg and intimate stories that tell us not only about the author, but also about the mood of the time and the changes the author lived through. I consider his book a great addition to the bookshelf on Jewish Williamsburg.
Philip was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for my blog. Here is our conversation:
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what your relationship to Williamsburg is. Where do you live/what do you do?
I live in Newton Massachusetts. I am a retired scientist that worked on the design of satellite communications systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the MITRE Corporation. In the 1970s I was a professor at Washington University. I have a doctorate in applied mathematics. My wife is a professor of Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham Massachusetts. We have three children and six grandchildren. I was born in Williamsburg in 1943 and lived in an apartment house on Hewes Street across from the shul of the Sigheter Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum. He was the nephew of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and became the Satmar Rebbe after his uncle’s death in 1979. I attended the Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath and graduated its high school in 1960.
Which years did you live there and at what age?
I lived there from my birth in 1943 until I was married in 1967.
What was your religious affiliation? Is that still the same?
My family was Orthodox. My father was a member of the Sigheter shul across from our house. Though I frequently davened at Sighet, I was active in the youth minyan of the Agudah (Pirchei Agudah) that was on Bedford Avenue around the corner from my house. I was bar mitzvahed at the Sigheter Shul though I was an “American kid.” I am now a member of a Modern Orthodox congregation in Newton Massachusetts that in contrast to these Williamsburg congregations has strong Zionist and feminist leanings.
Can you describe what Williamsburg was like then?
In the 1940s and 1950s Williamsburg was very different than it is now. The largest shuls (such as Hewes Street Shul, Clymer Street Shul, and Young Israel) though all Orthodox, had a Religious Zionist orientation and had Israeli and American flags displayed prominently in their sanctuaries. Many—perhaps most—of the Jews living there then were not observant and had little Jewish education. There were also large numbers of non-Jews including Irish, and (in the 1950s) Puerto Ricans. In my apartment building in the heart of Jewish Williamsburg I had five Jewish playmates—only one of them was Orthodox.
The major Jewish institution then was the Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath. This started out in the 1920s as a progressive Hebrew and Zionist oriented school but by the 1970s was becoming Haredi. Around 1970, Torah Vodaath moved to a new campus in Flatbush. A factor in its move may have been that Williamsburg was now dominated by Satmar.
What changes did you experience during your time?
The most dramatic change was its transformation from a very mixed Jewish and gentile neighborhood into a Hassidic neighborhood dominated by Satmar. This transformation was going on when I left Williamsburg in 1967 and is now apparently total. In 1967 the Hewes Street Shul and Young Israel were struggling but still functioning as what we might call today Modern or Centrist Orthodox synagogues. Today the magnificent Hewes Street Shul has been converted into a school for girls owned by the Klausenberg Hasidim. The Young Israel (across from the Tzelemer shul) is also a Hassidic yeshiva.
Can you tell us a story to illustrate that?
In the 1950s and 1960s the Sigheter Shul across from my apartment was heavily attended during the week by many Orthodox men who were not Hasidim. They were there because there were multiple morning and evening services at many times during the day. They were welcomed warmly by the Sighet Hassidim. One of the daily regulars was the sociologist and educator Dr. Gershon (George) Kranzler who also lived on Hewes Street and who later wrote a number of books about Williamsburg. My next door neighbor Shmuel (Samuel) Lifshitz was an ardent Zionist and leading member of the Young Israel. In his retirement years he studied Talmud every morning in the Sigheter shul with a Sighet Hasid. I cannot imagine interactions like these today.
Tell us about your relationship with the Sigheter Rebbe’s family. Do you remember the brothers Aaron and Zalmen Leib?
My childhood impression of the Sigheter Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, was that he was much more gentle, moderate, and mild mannered than his uncle the Satmar Rebbe. This was reflected in his shul where people of all backgrounds were welcome to daven—in strong contrast to the Satmar shul. My mother who was not a Hasid had occasional conversations with his rebbetzin (his second wife) who also impressed her and me as a pleasant personality. I was bar mitzvahed in the Sighet shul and was greeted warmly by the Rebbe who gave me his blessing (“I should grow up to live a life of Torah”) even though he knew I was not Hassidic in dress or inclination. I remember Aaron and Zalman who were a few years younger than me, but I had almost no personal contact with them. I think their parents kept them totally away from the neighborhood children. This was understandable since during the early fifties almost all the other children on the block were not Hasidic and many were not religious or even Jewish. Even as little children they were always dressed in black garb and had the shaved heads and long peyote typical of Satmar. They impressed me as austere and uncomfortable with outsiders. One Pesach on a hot day I was walking down Hewes Street drinking from a soda bottle that was kosher for Passover. I am sure that the kosher certification was not accepted by Satmar. One of these brothers looked at me angrily and called me by a Yiddish epithet. I guess he was thirsty. He was probably 7 years old at the time.
I remember giving hopscotch lessons to the Rebbe’s eldest daughter Chaya (Chayka?), but when she was around 8 years old she was also taken off the street and I rarely saw her. I believe she died at a relatively young age.
What made you leave Williamsburg?
Most non-Hasidic people left Williamsburg in the 1960s and 1970s. This was for a variety of reasons including: They no longer fitted in as the neighborhood was increasingly dominated by Satmar; the core of the neighborhood was destroyed by the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
They moved to more affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. I myself moved to Manhattan when I was married in 1967. My mother moved to Far Rockaway where my older brother lived.
Did you experience the leaving of the non-Hasidic orthodox community from Williamsburg? What would you attribute it to?
The non-Hasidic Orthodox community moved out gradually beginning in the 1950s. A big part of this move occurred in the late 1950s when the Brooklyn Queens Expwy was being built and physically destroyed the heart of the Orthodox community. As people earned more money they moved to Boro Park or Flatbush or more pleasant suburbs in Queens or Long Island. Many of them moved from tenements or apartments to single family homes. Even the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath no longer felt comfortable in Williamsburg and moved to a more pleasant neighborhood in Flatbush. Also, Satmar didn’t particularly welcome non-Satmar people. The large shuls along Bedford Avenue gradually lost most of their membership and eventually could barely maintain a minyan. The writing was clearly on the wall. It was sad to see.
Can you describe what you saw and how you felt when you returned to Williamsburg recently? What changed? What was the same?
I was impressed with the quality of the housing on many streets. The brownstones on my own street (Hewes) appeared to be kept up nicely, and looked better than I remember them 50 years ago. Many young mothers were dressed well and were wheeling expensive baby carriages. I certainly did not get the impression that this was an economically depressed community. Many of the backyards and alleys have now been filled with small apartment houses. There is much less vegetation and trees than there were 50 years ago.
Most of the major institutions that I grew up with have been transformed into Hasidic schools. These include the YMHA, the Young Israel, Hewes Street Shul, and Eastern District High School. Many other major institutional buildings have simply been demolished. These include the Agudah, Klymer Street Shul and Mesivta Torah Vodaath. The Yeshiva Torah Vodaath on Wilson Street (which I attended through eighth grade) is still standing but is now a Hasidic yeshiva. The disappearance of so many institutions that defined Williamsburg when I was young was very disconcerting.
Do you still have old friends in Williamsburg?
None that I am aware of.
What compelled you to write the book A Sukkah is Burning about your time in Williamsburg?
Williamsburg’s transformation into an exclusively haredi neighborhood was the first of its kind in the United States, but these changes were soon repeated in many other American and Israeli communities. The Williamsburg story is of profound historical importance and has had a dramatic impact on American Jewish life. The story of its transformation deserves to be written. I also include material of a personal and familial nature, some of it quite humorous, that I hope will be rewarding to the reader. I certainly enjoyed writing it.
Did you get any feedback from the Williamsburg community to your book?
Yes. Many classmates from my graduating class at the Mesivta Torah Vodaath have written and emailed complimentary comments. Generally, they feel that I accurately capture events that I describe—though some have pointed out minor errors. In Chapter 6, I describe the fire in my apartment building that ruined the wedding gown of a young woman who was about to get married. That young woman, now in her seventies and living in Israel, recently informed me that though much of her apartment was destroyed the wedding gown survived intact. In chapter 8, I describe an incident in 1959 where a classmate was briefly suspended from the Torah Vodaath High School for hanging an Israeli flag in a corridor on Yom Ha’atzmut. That classmate recently jocularly complained that I didn’t mention his name in the book. He was PROUD that he hung the flag. I love getting feedback like this about events of more than 50 years ago.
On a sadder note, a classmate called concerning the material in Chapter 11 about my childhood experience with a pedophile who was a leader of the Agudah movement. This classmate informed me that he personally observed the perpetrator committing many similar acts in Camp Agudah in the Catskills. This kind of tragedy unfortunately is still all too common. There are also those who are critical of me for bringing these facts to light at all.
Though my book has sold in more than 30 states, about half of the sales have come, not surprisingly, from the New York City area. I conjecture that a number of these are from present and former Williamsburg residents.
Did you leave something out that you now wish you’d included?
I regret not putting in more historical material about many of the Jewish institutions. I also would include more about the “haimishe” culture of Williamsburg then. But I am by and large happy with the book as written.
If you were to lead groups of visitors on educational tours of Hasidic Williamsburg; what would you want to teach them about the era in Williamsburg you experienced?
I would bring them to the institutional buildings (some of which have been demolished) that defined the neighborhood sixty years ago and describe the culture, history and importance of each. These include Hewes Street Shul, Clymer Street Shul, the “Polisher Shteibel”, Tzelemer Shul, Torah Vodaath, Sighet, and Klausenberg. I would probably bore them with my “ancient history.”
Are there any buildings that are still around that have significance to you?
The apartment building I lived in (163 Hewes Street) is still standing, as well as the Sighet Shul across the street and the Klausenberg Shul around the corner. The Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Hewes Street Shul, Young Israel, and YMHA buildings are still standing but have been taken over by Hasidic groups.
Do you plan to return to Williamsburg again to visit?
I have been returning about once a year.
If you were to join me on a tour, what would you want to learn?
I would like to learn about the different Hasidic groups and how they interact with the modern world that surrounds them. In what ways have their attitudes changed over the intervening decades? Are there significant defections among the young men and women? How do they feel now about secular education? How does the average Hasid make a living (diamonds, real estate, teaching, retail,…) ? What work do the women do? Are there religious and economic tensions, conflicts?
Before we let you go, can you tell us a story to illustrate what memories of Williamsburg you look back fondly to?
When I was a senior in the Torah Vodaath High School, I took a number of advanced math classes taught at the end of the day by the secular studies principle, Rabbi Max (Moshe) Lonner Z”L. We lived near each other and we walked home together from the school that was about a mile from our homes. Rabbi Lonner was a refugee from Nazi Germany and we frequently talked about his experiences as a youngster in Germany. As far as I recall he was the only faculty member in the school that really opened up to me on a personal level. He also had a fine sense of humor. If a student was misbehaving in class he would yell at him good-naturedly “leave the room and close the window behind you,” or “every dog shall have his day and I shall have mine.” Unlike many of the administration at Torah Vodaath today, he took secular education very seriously and prided himself in the academic achievements of his former students. I really miss him.
When a friend of mine was in Williamsburg late one night for a wedding, he explored the neighborhood a little bit, and told me that he stumbled upon the old Young Israel of Brooklyn I wrote about here, one of the important sites in historic Williamsburg, and had a conversation with the purported owner of the property. My friend learned from the owner that there are plans to renovate or demolish the Vien building and the Skver shul nearby and create one big building of the two old buildings, making use not only of the old spaces, but also the property in between. Here's what my friend told me:
"I was in Williamsburg recently for a wedding at the glamorous Vayoel Moshe hall. As I hiked back to my car, I went past a building with rubbed out sign on the window: Young Israel of Brooklyn. Of course, I had to go in for a look. Even though it was close to midnight, the place was open and guys were loitering in the hallway. I looked around for a bit, and accepted a friendly greeting from one of the loiterers As I was leaving, a guy came over to me and asked, "Did you grow up here" I told him no, I just like to look at a old shuls. Turns out, he claimed to be the landlord of not just the old Young Israel, but the whole block, in partnership with the Square collective. He gave me the brief, buffed, history of the block, then took me next door to see the original Square Bes Medrash. He said he remembers when the walls were decorated with pictures of lions (!) and that when he was a kid in the fifties the place had 35 mispallalim, and that was Square.
"Anyway both the old Young Israel and the historic first Square Bes Medrash aren't long for the world. My new friend plans to combine the two structures and turn it into a modern synagogue complex. So say goodbye to two, historic old Jewish structures."
I've done some research and I hear that there are indeed constructions plans to renovate the two historic buildings, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will be demolished. They may only be thoroughly renovated. I don't know to which degree this is imminent and how much will change, but will share as I learn more.
Yom Tov Ehrlich was probably the most important Yiddish songwriters/artists in the post holocaust American Hasidic community. I grew up with Yom Tov Ehrlich and can sing many of his songs [and I do; and not only to my son!] and I associate many of them with very warm memories of my mother. But there is one song in particular that I think is as good a sociological investigation of the community of the time Yomtov Ehrlich wrote. I translated the song as best as possible, because I think the lyrics are the best possible tour ever offered by an insider.
The song is called Williamsburg! In the lyrics you can hear a sense of bewilderment and amazement that this Hasidic post holocaust community arose in the ‘treifene medina’; that the Jews are so proud, “stand tall” and openly wear their religious garb and share in religious tradition. It has a freshness and appreciation for the community that I think only the first generation had; but from it rose a kind of commitment and loyalty to preserve it and not to allow it to dissolve into the American society.
In the Williamsburg streets,
When you go outside at dawn,
And you begin to look at her from afar,
You will see Jews walk with shtreimls,
Tsitsit, beard and white socks,
And the side curls hang from the sides.
Women walk carrying fabrics,
Fish and milk and bread and fruit,
All of them in their wigs and scarves,
They run through the streets modestly,
They don’t want to talk to anyone,
And they don’t want to look at anyone.
In every street a boy’s cheydar [boy’s school],
Filled with children who learn Torah
And there are many yeshivas as well.
From someone we hear “hamnich”
From someone else “hashaliach”
And the third on yells “hakol shochtin” [all of these words from the Talmud]
And the fathers from dawn,
People run to earn money,
All of them go to work after praying, what a pleasure.
One sells meat, one fixes tables,
And from time to time in between,
They take a look into a Mishnayos [religious text.]
There is in Williamsburg a doctor,
Who wears a tallis katon (fringes),
And a female lawyer,
A good Jewish woman.
A taxi goes by with relatives,
Head of yeshivas and rebbes,
And the drover discusses with them Torah studies.
To whichever Jew you will go,
You will get something to eat,
And he will toast you a l’chaim.
If you want to have a part of the afterlife,
Listen to that Jew and stay for Shabbes,
And you will think that you’re in Jerusalem.
What a pleasure there!
Populated by good Jews,
May that be my luck.
It is a whole new world,
We learn the Torah, we thank God,
In every home.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh vey!
From the Rebbe’s house,
A ruckus can be heard,
The Hasidim are dancing, a “l’yehudim” [a dance]
And lift themselves up throughout.
Oh, oh, oh, vey, vey, vey!
Around the long table,
They raise their feet,
Lively and full of energy!
She has no equal!
It is the water of life, Jerusalem,
For the diaspora Jew.
A mezuza scroll on the door,
It is full of song,
Full of fear [of God,]
May health be with her.
Friday in the afternoon,
All the shops in Williamsburg close up,
Quickly, everyone runs home at once.
They dress up, they wash up,
They are filled with new energy,
The table is set with wine and challah.
The husband goes to the synagogue,
The woman takes her Korben Mincha [women’s prayer book]
She says first the Yiddish prayer.
The husband comes home from the synagogue,
The wife welcomes him with happiness,
On his head rests the divine spirit.
In the ritual bath from dawn,
One can already find Jews,
It almost looks like they always sit there.
One of them constantly washes up,
The other one constantly dries his hands,
And someone else is always looking for his clothing.
And they begin to rush from the ritual bath ,
Through the streets, through the yards,
The coats are bulging with the prayer shawls.
And everyone runs to the Rebbe,
And everyone looks after him,
And everyone behaves according to the Rebbe’s instructions.
Oy, every Rebbe is a wonder,
Everyone one with his separate style,
Of how to serve the Father in heaven.
And when [Shabbes at the meal] someone is finally making Kiddush on wine,
Someone else is already saying a new Torah thought,
And a third is singing a new march.
At the Klausenburger [Rebbe] tears fall,
And deep sighs at the Skvere,
And the Stoliner Hasidim, they yell.
At the Satmar Rebbe they didn’t even begin yet,
They just went to the ritual bath,
And at the Viznitzer they are already drinking a l’chaim.
In Torah V'daath,
On the upper floor little children learn,
While downstairs partners in Talmud.
Vien young men,
Go calmly to pray mincha,
They go perfectly in time.
Oy, vey, vey, vey, vey!
By me, and Belz and Ger, Pupah, Tzelimer,
And the students from Bais Yaakov,
Wherever you take a look.
Oy, oy, oy, vey, vey,
Busses go slowly,
Filled with soldiers [of Torah,]
Children to the yeshivas,
Driving them back and forth.
She is not alone,
There are among us Jews more corners,
That are as beautiful.
The main thing is this:
We should have a lot of Jewish pride,
From our little ones.
There are some things in the song worth noting:
* You can see the emphasis on the many different sects that were in Williamsburg, not merely Satmar as seems to be the impression of many outsiders. Vien is also not listed as a Hasidic group, and their “yekkish” punctuality is made note of to set them apart from the other sects [Yekkes = Oberlander Jews, who were known to be punctual while Hasidim always prayed late.]
* Yomtov Ehrlich seems very proud that Williamsburg had its own religious doctor and a female lawyer, a pious Jewish woman, a phenomena that would I don’t think would be a source of pride today; or at least it is hard to find such career oriented religious Jews.
* It is also interesting that the Williamsburg of this time is singularly welcoming, so much so that if you would come by you would be asked to stay for shabbes.
*Williamsburg, not Israel, is described here as the Zion, the Jerusalem. This reflects the continued feeling that Jews were in diaspora and had to build their communities amid non-Jewish nations.
In a previous post, I wrote about the Satmar Rabbi's influence on the Williamsburg community, and that his anti-zionist stance can be seen all over Williamsburg, even among non-Satmar sects, in the absence of pro-Israeli symbols in its streets. Where Israeli flags and Jewish Stars were commonplace in Williamsburg before the non-Hasidic Orthodox population left, the Jewish stars have been vanishing. I used the Star of David from the Klausenburg Talmud Torah as an example, but I will follow up on that story of the broken glasswork of that old building in another post. (I know I've been a little backlogged in finishing some posts I've been working on but I hope to get to it soon. That building is a great story!)
I have been asking if anyone can help me find a Jewish star in Hasidic Williamsburg. This week I finally found one, and even in the heart of Williamsburg, across the street from the Satmar Rebbe's original house/synagogue on Bedford Avenue! It is on the fence of an empty lot owned by the Vien congregation. Previously, there was the big Clymer Street Shul, an orthodox synagogue, and then Congregation Tifereth Israel on that property. Since the synagogue was demolished and the construction of a Vien building was delayed due to legal disagreements, the original fence is still up.
I’m always interested in the communication between the self-isolated Hasidic world and the modern world. Researchers, as a matter of their profession, need to find ways to cross into the Hasidic world as their work depends on that relationship. Although to date there hasn’t been a lot of serious research on the community, some good work was published every now and then. The recent Commentary Magazine article on What You Don't Know about the Ultra Orthodox by Jack Wertheimer is an example of excellent research that is both well informed and insightful. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about the community.
Another prominent researcher of Hasidic life, and of Hasidic Williamsburg in particular was George Kranzler, one of the only academics who wrote about Hasidic Williamsburg. He wrote the book Williamsburg, a Jewish Community in Transition and followed it up years later with Hasidic Williamsburg: A Contemporary American Hasidic Community . He must have spent some time in Williamsburg for his research.
A reader/Hasid who met Kranzler while he was doing his research shared with me his interaction . Here’s this reader's story: (Thanks for sharing!)
“I was a young bochur of about thirteen years old and I prayed at the Satmar Rodney Street synagogue in the evening [when I met the scholar Kranzler.] Several of my friends told me that there’s some modern Jew who is interested in talking to us, and as I was a little bit of a wise-guy as they call it, and I spoke a better English than my friends, they came over to me.
Kranzler was a small skinny yiddele without a beard, but his eyes blazed with the light of a soft heart. Any mischievous plans I may have had by going over to him poured out between my fingers in our handshake. He told me that he was in Williamsburg for a celebration in the V’yoel Moshe hall and since he really likes the whole Williamsburg business and Satmar is one of its leaders, he wants to see it from up close. So I offered to walk him to the wedding hall (his grandson went along with him.) He asked a lot of questions about my parents and the yeshiva, what we do in our free time, etc. I remember one thing – he showed a tremendous respect for the Williamsburg community in general and respect for me, even though I was so young.
After talking at the wedding hall, he told me that he published books on Williamsburg and he wrote the titles down for me. Those were of the first books I read in English, with a dictionary (since he was a professor he didn’t write simple John Grisham English) but I managed!”
I just came across this line in an email correspondence: "life of an Hassidic woman."
Because of the an before the word Hassidic, we think that Hassidic is pronounced with a silent H, as if it was acidic. Our sentence reads "life of an Acidic woman." No, that is not good. Grievous error. Hasidic is actually CHasidic, with a strong guttural CH in the beginning. Because the guttural CH does not exist in English, we drop the guttural letter chet - ח and replace it with the H sound. Hence (not ence): Hasidic
When I googled acidic, one of the first images that came up was a graphic presentation of this terrible sin of grammar: An Acidic man would look like this:
Enough with the ilarity and umor! We now know two things: that Hasidic's H is pronounced and Google's spying habits on my search history is even more so.
The other day, I passed the Ladies Bikur Cholim and tried to look inside. I've always known a little bit about Bikur Cholim: it is an all volunteer organization that helps the poor and the elderly. I knew that it provides free services not only to community members in need, but also to the sick outside of the community. They fill refrigerators in hospitals full of food and provide all sorts of services to those in need. I've often heard that if there's ever a way the Hasidic community reaches out, it is through the Bikur Cholim. It is really an exceptional organization.
Since I wanted to know more about how it works and what goes on inside, I tried to look around. A kind gentleman offered to show me around inside. The Ladies Bikur Cholim is mostly a giant kitchen with a little office at the front. Where I came in, there were giant uncut loaves of marble cake. I asked about them, and the woman at the desk said that they were baked by the women in the neighborhood. Both Hasidic women who were working there said they do the work strictly on a volunteer basis. The woman who cooks prepares kosher meals for shabbes and labels the shipments with stickers, to identify which hospital each shipment needs to go to. As you can see, they go to Columbia, Mount Sinai, Cornell, NYU, Beth Israel... All the major hospitals. There is even a "special surgery" category.
There was also a large rack stacked with dinners for the elderly. Those I was told are sent to seniors in Williamsburg, Boro Park, Flatbush and even Manhattan. Often the aides come to pick up the food for the seniors that can no longer care for themselves.
I was also told that only the Ladies Bikur Cholim has a kitchen because the women do the cooking.
The gentleman who showed me around told me that Bikur Cholim was created by the Satmar Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum and his wife some sixty years ago (this was a point of debate between the man and the woman and they at last agreed it was sixty years) and that all the Bikur Cholims that are around today are the products of the Satmar Rabbi's and Rebbetzin's original efforts.