September 11, 2021 Interview with Gerald Friedman
In November of 2019, after I completed a walking tour at my final stop at Gottlieb’s Deli, I started to talk to one of the diners, Gerald Friedman. He was born in 1941 and grew up in Williamsburg during the time when Holocaust survivors resettled there and eventually completely overtook the neighborhood.
We talked about my son’s bar mitzvah, which was the next day. We talked about not-for-profits like Footsteps and Moshe House. We talked about leaving behind the Williamsburg world. But most importantly, we talked about the history of Williamsburg and Gerald’s memories of a time the community underwent profound change.
The following are some excerpts from our conversation:
Friedman talked about the relationship between the old-timers and the war-torn newcomers. At first, the local Williamsburg community, especially the Orthodox community, helped resettle the Hasidim there. But with time, the Hasidim became “too triumphant” and were unfriendly to the locals, whom they saw as too Americanized.
Question: How do you remember the Hungarian immigrants?[24:30]
Emaciated, crazy, like Hanz. I remember… they weren’t necessarily Hungarian. This was… a Holocaust survivor. A “rescued,” of “the leftovers of the refugees,” whatever we called them…
I made fun of them. I didn’t know, I didn’t know — he looked to me like he was crazy. Cause he was crazy. He lost his whole family. He was emaciated; he may have weighed maybe 50 lbs.
And my father once called me in and said “Mr. Spitzer told me you laughed [at Hanz]… You mocked him. What the hell is wrong with you? Are you insane?”
I said, “Why, why, he’s crazy.”
He said, “You don’t understand anything. What did I teach you?”
I couldn’t understand, I was six, seven years old. But it opened me up.
[the conversation doesn’t go on to the other kind]
[25:50] The other thing that I liked very much [of the settlement of post-war survivors to Williamsburg] The can-do attitude. The helping hand. We were all in it together…
You were there to help them. Was that the attitude?
For many of us, yes. Certainly, in the Orthodox world that I inhabited, we were very aware that to some degree we felt we were enriched by them… I remember going to Hasidic synagogues to hear the singing. That was the heyday of Ben Zion Shenker… He animated all of Jewish music… He was the first to put out the first set of albums of the music that would have been lost!
To be around when all of this was cooking…
So the survivors were a little bit treated by the old-timers as a treasure?
Not all of them. Remember, there were a lot of secular Jews. Plain Jews.
The Orthodox world knew this was an opportunity. That we should step forward. Listen, Torah V’Daath (the big Williamsburg Orthodox men’s yeshiva) was very instrumental in bringing over the Satmar Rebbe. Rav Manlovitz, the founder of Torah V’Daath. Willhelm. [he mentions several important community leaders] Everyone got involved!
I wasn’t privy to the details… but you knew, you saw. People were helping out. People took people for jobs. They helped… I remember my father helping a number of people build their huts for the holiday Sukkot. And in those days, there were no prefabricated huts. You scraped together a structure — it was a door here, a crate there. It was ridiculous.
I loved it. It was lively. We had it from all ends. And when you got a little bored, you went over the bridge, you were in the Lower East Side.
So it was really the dawn of a time when everything was changing…? [30:00]
It was a time everything was getting better.
And then… it changed. Then, maybe in 1954 it really changed.
There were too many of them [Hasidim]. There were too many of them. And they got very triumphant. They wouldn’t walk on Bedford Avenue. They wouldn’t say Good Shabbes to someone who wasn’t one of theirs. They didn’t want to interact with simple Jews.
And until then they were very deferential?
No! It was Jew to Jew. You’re not big and I’m not big.
Friedman also remembered the construction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which was also a part of why Jewish families like his left the neighborhood.
Do you remember the Brooklyn Queens Expressway being built?
Yeah, that was horrific. It killed the community. It made us unhappy. They were tearing down houses! And they weren’t paying enough. And they tore down old churches and cockroaches and roaches were all over the streets. It was horrific. It split open Bedford Avenue, it split open Lee Avenue… our beloved Williamsburg!
It was terrible.
I asked Friedman to tell me why he thinks the non-Hasidic Jews left Williamsburg.
If you were to give me three reasons why there are no Orthodox Jews over here besides Hasidim, what would they be?
They were crowded out.
The Hasidim made it uncomfortable?
They made it uncomfortable, but they had voracious needs for six, eight children.
But also, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.
But also, all of a sudden, the Jews here were no longer shopkeepers on Lee Avenue… or they were, but they were retiring. And they wanted their kids to be doctors and lawyers. And they sent them away to Brooklyn College and City College because that was affordable — I paid $15 a semester.
He shared an interesting observation about the changing color scheme of the neighborhood:
[38:35] Listen, you should know, when I grew up the color white was very prominent in my life, not black!
Why white? Because of the Brooklyn Navy Yard [on the border of Williamsburg]! There were sailors all over the streets! They were watching, formation, being off, shopping, going to a movie… all of it.
Here’s a map where you can see the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It is no longer in the service of the U.S. military, but the big waterfront section remains an icon of Williamsburg. It sits between the East River and the Hasidic community.