April 6, 2021 Book Review: ‘Worlds Apart’ by Sudy Rosengarten
BOOK: WORLDS APART / The Birth of Bais Yaakov in America – A Personal Recollection
I’m very grateful to Naomi Saidman and the Bais Yakov Project for sponsoring this book, Worlds Apart: The Birth of Bais Yaakov in America by Sudy Rosengarten. The book is a short memoir of sorts published by an Orthodox Jewish press, detailing the childhood of Rosengarten, who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s. This was a fascinating period when Williamsburg became a place for religious conservatism, but had not yet been changed by the influx of Hungarian Holocaust survivors. Rosengarten’s book focuses specifically on the birth of Bais Yaakov in America, which began in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I enjoyed reading this book—not many primary resources from religious memoirists are as pleasant to read, because their message is almost always too heavy-handed. This book was well written and had good little bits of details. Rosengarten had been raised on a path towards typical Americanization. She and her sister were in the gifted program in the public school, which was 95% Jewish, but everyone pretended to be Christian and sang Christmas carols. After some pleading from local religious missionaries, her parents took her out of her advanced program. This essentially brought her career ambitions to an end. She was placed into the barely functional Bais Yaakov elementary school, a dump of a building on Division Avenue where the stench of dead meat was strong. Rosengarten recalls:
“Very often we sat in darkness because of unpaid electricity bills. The desks were broken, the plaster peeling. All of the building, broken pipes dripped and puddles grew larger and deeper until some charitable plumber arrived.”
Shoshana Ehrenfeld also mentioned this school in her memories of the neighborhood, as she said: “I went to the Bais Yaakov over there, which was across the street from the Brooklyn Public Library on Division Avenue.” This was on 255 Division Avenue, which is now where the BQE runs through the neighborhood. Presumably, the building was demolished with the BQE construction.
Rosengarten would sit “on the fire escape of Knapp Mansion” from where “you could see straight across to the East Side.”
The Knapp Mansion was on Bedford Avenue and Ross Street and had once been a glamorous place. It was the home of Joseph F. Knapp, the president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. In its heyday, the papers described it as “the most complete house in Brooklyn, luxury and elegance prevailing in the furnishing and decoration.”
By the 1920s, Williamsburg was getting a lot of Jewish settlers who came from the Lower East Side tenements, and the wealthy elites from Bedford Avenue had largely moved out. The mansion and its banquet halls became a space for the Jewish community. In 1928 there was a dinner there for “two social workers” who were involved in various major Jewish schools and yeshivas, including the Beth Jacob school for girls. (Ironically, there names were Kaplan — although not the Kaplans that would alter play the most important role in bringing religious schools to Williamsburg.)
This is one of the few early mentions of the famous Orthodox Jewish Beth Jacob school system in Williamsburg. Bais Yaakov (or Beth Jacob) had been founded in 1917 by Sarah Schenirer in Poland, and it would not have an official branch in the United States until in Schenirer’s pupil, Vichna Kaplan, settled in the heart of Williamsburg in 1937. Vichna Kaplan started a Bais Yaakov seminary in her dining room. Rosengarten would go on to attend both the Beth Jacob primary schools and its high school. She went on to become an accomplished Orthodox writer. Her book tells the story of how her life was changed through Bais Yaakov, and how this saved her from assimilation.
Ironically, the site of the Knapp mansion is now occupied by a very different mansion for its Jewish community: the home of the Satmar Grand Rabbi’s and the sect’s unfinished, massive synagogue.
The most interesting part of the book, however, was her account of Williamsburg when the Hasidim arrived. Not many accounts were as hospitable as Rosengarten’s—take for instance the memories of Philip Fishman in A Sukkah is Burning. However, Rosengarten’s description was a gem in its own way:
The war was over. European Jews liberated from Nazi concentration camps invaded Williamsburg—and Williamsburg changed overnight. The sights and sounds of the streets had turned European. The Chasidim gravitated to Williamsburg as to nowhere else, because Williamsburg, with its yeshivas, synagogues, strictly kosher food products and other religious necessities was where rebbes were settling.
The streets were filled with somber groups of caftan-clad Chasidim in broad-brimmed black hats of all shapes and sizes. Beards and side locks made every man look old and familiar. They gesticulated wildly as they congregated on street corners and in doorways of stores. Shops were crowded with black-kerchiefed women, in thick, dark stockings and drab dresses, excitedly carrying on conversations in a cascade of Yiddish and Hungarian. Everywhere there were baby carriages, surrounded by groups of children in assorted sizes.
Now, when Pappa hurried to Reb Moishe Lieber’s class in early dawn, he was hardly alone. Others were hurrying on their way, Tallis and refilling bags hugged under one arm, a towel thrown over the other. Long before the whimpering of babies, banging of doors and clanking of pots, came the sound of prayer announcing the new day—and with it the murder of study, the argument not of study, and cries of devotion as the people unburdened their souls before their Creator, declaring their love for Him and offering Him their unbounded service. Only afterward could the day begin.
What had once been a quiet neighborhood was now alive with motion and commotion, and cries and shouts that seemed never to subside. Clotheslines squeaked under loads of diapers, long sleeved nightgowns, thick, long stockings, and white Shabbos aprons. Little girls skipped rope to thickly accented English verse, hurriedly adjusting babies in carriages between jumps and pulled up thick, wrinkled, cotton hose.
When they bounced ball, they chanted, oh, so seriously, “C-my name is Charlotte and my father’s name is Carl, I come from California and I sell cauliflower.” But their names were not Carl or Charlotte; these kids were Chayale, Chaike, Chavche, and Chaim. They had not survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Treblinka only to submit to the spiritual death that begins with changing a name.
The languages of the streets had “officially,” it seemed, become Yiddish and Hungarian. When we called to each other in English everyone to turned to look, as if we were the foreigners.
One other thing I enjoyed finding in the book was defunct slang that we no longer hear in New York English, but which I think remains very popular in the Hasidic community. Over the years I’ve collected archaic terms that have gone out of fashion almost everywhere but have persevered in the Hasidic community, such as these:
Gutter for street:
“And right this morning—so weak I am already—right in the middle of Lee Avenue, I go and faint! There I am, all stretched out right in the middle of the gutter.”
Rolling for laughing hysterically (like this Hasidic woman used it)
”the accent that seemed to be getting thicker all the time, she had the camp rolling.”
And having a “ball” for a jolly old time.