July 29, 2018 Book review: ‘Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge’ by Eli Hecht
Summary: Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, a memoir written by Rabbi Eli Hecht, tells the story of an eight-year-old boy who is without warning moved from his Jewish modern Orthodox community in Bensonhurst to his grandparents’ house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1950’s. Hecht was thrust into the world of Satmar Hasidism, and had to learn how to quickly adapt to their radically different ways of life. Hecht’s turbulent childhood taught him many things, and he is grateful for the experience.
When Hecht arrived in Williamsburg, his life changed dramatically. He had to dress as a Hasid in a long black kaftan, white knee sox, and black shoes. He was also made to get the classic Hasidic “haircut,” which involved shaving the entire head except for the sideburns. However, Hecht was transformed on the inside as well as the outside. He learned tolerance for diversity and religious values that he still carries with him today. Hecht, who is now national vice-president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and the regional director of the Chabad Center in the Southern Bay of Southern California, deeply appreciates the sometimes difficult path that led him to Hasidism, as it made him the person who he is today.
Hecht’s account is a really good resource for anyone interested in post-holocaust Hasidic Hungarian Williamsburg. The author was a “Yankee kid” who was sent to live with his Hungarian grandparents in Williamsburg, in the 1950s. There are some really good bits — the description of the men’s mikvah before shabbes and the various options available (steaming, warm, etc), the haircut he got (options for haircuts: to get a haircut or not to get a haircut), his grandfather’s disdain for American food like hot-dogs and potato chips (which are now seen as harmless in Hasidic circles everywhere.) I especially liked that the author was able to capture the experience of living with old-school elders who didn’t shy away from using the shteken on the kids, who were often impatient or dogmatic or unsympathetic. In modern parenting culture, it is hard to describe the hierarchical, loving-and-fearing relationships between adults and children without retroactively applying misery and all sorts of traumas to the children. But Hecht did a fine job of sticking to the child’s experience of loving adults who are strict and scary and have a more restrained way of expressing love.
The book also has a lot of holocaust miracle stories that I didn’t particularly want to read, but it did remind me that those who remained Hasidic after the holocaust dealt with the war by focusing on stories of miracles and extra-ordinary martyrdom for the sake of religion. It was a distinctly different story than that told in popular literature, in which persecution – not religious triumph – is central.
There are also a bunch of explanations for specific religious customs – why the tsitsis is worn and why the lulav is necessary for Sukkos – that felt almost Chabad-like. Hecht gives only the religious reasons for customs, citing a verse or an origin, which makes it sound like all religious customs are the direct results of an original decree. It fails to account for the cultural factors in which these customs developed.
1. The butcher had a tattoo as did the baker and the teacher. Almost everyone had a number. I thought that when you came from Europe you received a number on your arm together with a passport… It was very frightening to hear my traumatized teacher tell us how an SS soldier who would, at times, give a ration of an extra morsel of bread to a child, and then shoot children that stepped out of line asking for bread.
2. I remember visiting a family with my uma and being told by the mother, “how lucky you are yingele, Sonny-boy, that you have a father and mother brother and sister, uncles aunts and even grandparents. The only thing I have left from Germany is this.
3. “During recess I taught some kids about Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mantel, Sandy Koufax and stickball. They in turn taught me soccer, hopscotch and how to shoot marbles.”