06 Apr Book Review: ‘Worlds Apart’ by Sudy Rosengarten
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, as their message is almost always too heavy handed. This book was well written and thought provoking. Rosengarten had been in the gifted program in the public school, which was 95% Jewish but where everyone pretended to be Christian and sang Christmas carols. She was removed from the school and placed into the barely functional Bais Yaakov school, a dump of a building on Division Avenue where the stench of dead meat was strong, and 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.”
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 time Rosengarten sat on its fire escape, it was long past its glory days, as the neighborhood had transformed into a sort of upgraded Lower East Side immigrant neighborhood. The building is no longer there, and this is now the site of the Satmar Grand Rabbi’s home and the location for the 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.