An interview with Philip Fishman; author of “A Sukkah is Burning”


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.

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