October 11, 2021 Williamsburg is stuck in the 1950s, Part 1
As I’ve spent years exploring the story of Williamsburg, I’ve come to believe that the most profound cultural exchange between Hasidim and modern society occurred in the 1950s. Because of this, this community is a cultural time-capsule of the decade.
To be sure, significant amounts of influence trickle in in every era, even if this influence is heavily mediated by modes of censorship. The routes of cultural exchange are usually concentrated in commerce: The shops import items, fashions, and fads from the west. Businesses that trade in information, like newspapers, bring in media—styles and pop-culture. All of these go through both formal and informal censorship.
In part one of this series, I’ll explain why the 1950s saw an extraordinary amount of influence. In part two, I’ll give examples of cultural artifacts still alive in the Hasidic community today, as if frozen in time.
Williamsburg, up until about the 1900s, was a leafy suburb where several wealthy merchants built their family mansions. After the Williamsburg bridge opened in 1909, connecting the area to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Williamsburg was transformed into a working-class neighborhood. It became home to a diverse group of immigrants: Jews, Italians, Poles, Irish, and others. Many of the Jewish families came during the height of Jewish migration from the Pale of Settlement and later moved to Williamsburg, a step up from the tenements in the city. In the 1930s, religiously inclined American Jews emerged as a prominent group. As George Kranzler writes in Williamsburg, a Jewish community in Transition, Jews who would otherwise live in nicer areas came to Williamsburg for its growing number of synagogues, yeshivas, and emphasis on traditional life. The Hasidic sects that would come to dominate the area, like the Satmars, would come later, after the war.
Norman Kruger, born in 1931 on Rodney Street, described the neighborhood like this: “By and large the population was Jewish, but the whole range. From a Jewish communist who lived underneath us to Hasidim, Orthodox. It didn’t mean they embraced each other, but they were all influenced by each other to some degree.” It was eclectic—old and new world, Jewish and not.
Mel Brooks, Leonard Lopate, and Red Auerbach are among many children of this world: the typical Jews of the borscht belt and Lower East Side epoch. A Commentary Magazine article from 1959 mused that, “If it had not been for Hitler and the war, Williamsburg might have gone much the way of all the other immigrant sections around New York, becoming year by year just a little more American Jewish, adapting to the surrounding pattern.”
But in the 1940s and 1950s, its fate changed, when refugees from the war began to settle there. Williamsburg was a natural choice for those seeking insularity from the “treyfene” (unkosher) America, because it already had many religious institutions. But it didn’t become insular enough for Hasidim overnight.
For one, there was already the local Jewish population that was prominent there, and they were considered too modern for many zealous Hasidim. And survivors didn’t all come with the end of the war: Some came straight from DP (Displaced Persons) camps, others years later as the situation in communist countries remained difficult. The period of resettlement began after the war, but I know of families that came as late as 1956, fleeing the Hungarian Revolution. Lastly, Williamsburg didn’t immediately emerge as the headquarters of piety. There were many other locales that were desirable to religious refugees, places where relatives lived. In my own deeply pious family, my paternal grandparents settled in the Lower East Side, Manhattan, while my maternal grandparents settled in Bensonhurst, South Brooklyn. Eventually, Williamsburg became the most insular ecosystem in all of Jewish New York City. Both sets of my grandparents ended up in Williamsburg during my childhood, like many other firm believers in search of a closed-off community.
A series of events led Williamsburg to become the crown jewel of pious enclaves. In 1946, the Satmar rebbe settled in Williamsburg, one of the major moments in its transformation. This roughly coincided with another fateful change to the area: the construction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which began in 1948 and opened for traffic in 1952. The highway, a project of the infamous city planner Robert Moses, cut through the area and forced out many-longtime residents. It ruined the neighborhood for many. A lot of second generation Jews also had dreams of moving to greener pastures—when moving up meant leaving the city for the suburbs. So many of the old-timers left, many pious newcomers came. The more the religious survivors dominated the neighborhood, the more it alienated different types, and the more homogeneous the neighborhood became.
As the Hasidim took over, they created their own shops for their own modest and traditional clothing, their toy stores for games with kosher values, their own schools, and synagogues. Eventually, the only children playing on the street would be of the sects. But that wasn’t how it was in the years after the war. It was still eclectic, it was still the world described by Norman Kruger.
And so, I’ve heard and read many anecdotes of the fascinating period after the war, when traumatized and zealous Holocaust survivors were forced to be neighborly with Jews whom they considered Americanized, spiritually somewhat tainted. The stories are rich with tension as western multiculturalism clashed with Hasidic intense isolationism.
Gerald Friedman was born in Williamsburg in 1941. I met him one Sunday evening at Gottlieb’s Deli after my walking tour group had dispersed. He invited me over to his table—not an uncommon request from curious diners in the small deli—and he reminisced about the times he lived here. He had grown up religious and now served as a rabbi in a temple. That evening, Friedman wore a colorful knitted yarmulke over a big head of white hair, and he gave me a card from Temple Beth Sholom. He had gone to college, and many of his family had lost their Yiddish. In other words, his is an American Jewish story.
He remembered how the local Jewish community helped resettle survivors in Williamsburg. The big local yeshiva was instrumental in bringing over the Satmar Rebbe. They saw it as an opportunity to rescue and preserve a world that would have otherwise been lost. “Everyone got involved!”
But, he said, many newcomers didn’t embrace the communities that aided their resettlement. They instead sought to form their own community, where only the utmost piety is observed.
For Friedman, in 1954, or thereabouts, something changed in his beloved childhood part of Brooklyn.
“There were too many of them [Hasidim]. 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 [American] Jews.”
This type of attitude was what led one shopkeeper to tell the Commentary reporter that the Hasidim were “fanatical.”
By looking at old pictures of the post-Holocaust generation, for example, the rich and lovely archive of Irving Herzberg at the Brooklyn Public Library, it looks like the Hasidim of Williamsburg then were less austere. Many women dress in stylish clothing of the day—some with short sleeves—and men and women seem to mingle more comfortably. One photo is of the Pupa sect, with men in ties and women in suits standing together. But that doesn’t mean that the typical Satmar Hasid was okay with it. The neighborhood was simply still diverse; the more moderate people hadn’t all uprooted yet and left.
In fact, the more firm believers often had audacious religious standards. And they expected compliance even from those who came from traditions that were much more moderate.
Nelly Grussgott was born in Berlin in 1930, and she and her mother escaped to America when she was nine. She was gracious enough to join me for a Zoom conversation about her memories, Her father died in the camps after a nightmare of bureaucracy, and in 1946, her mother remarried to Moshe Neugroshel, a devout Hasid. The new couple, along with a teenage Nelly, moved to Williamsburg. She remembered that the Hasidim tried to institute Bedford Avenue for men only and Lee for women.
To Nelly’s horror and dismay, her mother agreed not only to put on a wig after marriage—something she had not done in Germany—but also to also shave her head, as was the custom in some Hasidic circles. When Nelly was to get married two years later, she approached the Rav of the Klausenberg sect and asked him to officiate the wedding. He said he would only do it on the condition that Nelly shave her head too. This Hasidic leader, after losing his congregation in the war and starting over in a foreign land, felt comfortable to demand of a young Americanized girl who had gone to public school, who had no prior connection to this custom, who was horrified by the practice, that she participate or else. This is different from asking a young girl to shave her head after she had grown up with this ritual among all the women in her life. Later Hasidim would not ask women to swim against the tide around them.
But no matter how extremist they were, marrying into families of outsiders like Nelly meant having intimate connections to American culture. These interactions were not a sign of openness. For many, they were just an unhappy fact of unkosher America.
Rabbi Eli Hecht was another outsider who was thrust into this culture. In the 1950s his Modern Orthodox parents sent him to live with his Hungarian grandfather, which he chronicles in his book Over the Williamsburg Bridge. His Upa—the Hungarian word for grandfather—gave the child a Hasidic haircut to rid him of the “goyish chup” and put him in the local cheydar system. Today, an English speaking kid from South Brooklyn would never be accepted into the Hasidic school for a year. But Hecht attended class with disoriented war survivors who sometimes only spoke Hungarian or Yiddish. Hecht taught the kids games he’d learned with his friends, and they taught him theirs:
“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.”
In a telling story, Hecht recounts that a non-Hasidic Jewish neighbor shared the family’s sukkah abode. This had some unhappy consequences when this “real American family, put a big red bottle of ketchup on the table. Upa nearly had a fit. Things like ketchup and mustard were of the hotdog mentality, and not for a Jewish kid to see. How upset he was with things like hot dogs and potato chips!”
Even the rabbi’s children were exposed. Philip Fishman lived in Williamsburg from his birth in 1943 until 1967, long enough to know how robust the non-Hasidic community was, and to watch its congregations dwindle, its gorgeous synagogues close and become Hasidic institutions. He remembered how austere the sons of the Teitelbaum dynasty were, the boys who would come to inherit the roles as great leaders. And he recounts playing with the great rabbi’s daughter:
“I remember giving hopscotch lessons to the Satmar Grand Rabbi’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.”
Sudy Rosengarten also wrote of the children who arrived after the war, having lived there in the ’30s and ’40s. The new kids would turn and gawk if they heard anyone speaking English. Unlike Sudy, who as a child attended public school and sang Christmas carols with all the other Jewish kids, these newcomers would not even Americanize their names. Sudy writes, “They had not survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Treblinka only to submit to the spiritual death that begins with changing a name.” But even as these kids were sheltered greenhorns, they picked up American stoop games from the likes of Sudy, and played them like they inhabited her world.
“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.”
In years, Sudy would move, the others would move too, and no young children would come along to teach the next generation of Hasidic girls new sidewalk games.
Not all non-Hasidic Jews left. Moshe Yida Wizeltheir stayed. He was born in Williamsburg in 1930, and he lives there to this day. His wife was from Milwaukee, and they were raised religious. Unlike most men of the area, he has no trace of a Yiddish accent. The orthodox non-Hasidic yeshivas he attended disappeared, and the many “modern” orthodox synagogues he grew up with are no longer there. Now Mr. Wizeltheir looks like any other Hasid of the area. And his son, who was at the helm of his wheelchair when I last met them, was in the Chol Hamoed garb with the Hasidic bekishe and shtreimel.
This was the story of Williamsburg. It was once diverse enough to attract the Krugers and the Kaminsky and the Hechts, but it eventually became only a place for the ultra-orthodox. You either joined or moved away. There was no more diversity. The well of cultural exchange was plugged.
So from the period after the war, especially the ten years following the war, Hasidim had a degree of exchange with American culture unlike anything that would come later. They learned of foods, children’s games, expressions, and other cultural nuances. Then their world changed and became smaller, more tightly controlled. Bits of culture that trickled in during the first years in America stayed. It didn’t get the updates. Words and fads and games that were forgotten everywhere else remained a part of the living language and culture here, many of them to this day.
In the next installment, I’ll give examples of anachronisms that survived even as they faded everywhere else.