The Committee for Saving Williamsburg; Notice and Warning:
It has come to our attention that a resident of our city has sold 2 properties on 176/178 Division Avenue to someone from outside “our city” for a high price, which puts the project in danger of being built for artists, god-forbid.

The rabbis have written in their proclamation on the first of cheshvon 5764:
“We have come to triple and reinforce our warning with added strength and warn that no man dare rent or sell any apartment or loft to these people in our neighborhood, nor to sell them any lots. This includes even if selling to a Jew with the knowledge that he will build for them, or if selling to a Jew for a price which proves it is for them, is as selling to them. And whoever will dare transgress this will be shunned, him his sons and his daughters, from synagogues, institutions of Torah, and educational institutions, in Williamsburg. Therefore we turn to the seller that he is obligated according to the Torah to make sure the buyer does not build for artists. ”

Anyone who has any information about this is asked to call the committee.

As it has come to our attention that the buyer is going around to the neighbors offering to buy their houses in order to be able to build on their lots (which is further proof he is planning to build for artists) we extend our warning in the name of the great rabbis shlita that no one should dare sell a house to them for any price offered, and one who transgresses will be punished.

Many Jews remember Williamsburg before its Hasidic transformation; when centrist Orthodox and secular Jews were part of the neighborhood landscape. But not many dedicated themselves to recording their memories and preserving the fascinating history of the community as it transformed to a Hasidic community. Philip Fishman is of the few who shared their experiences with the public. His book “A Sukkah is Burning; Remembering Williamsburg’s Hasidic Transformation” is part autobiographical, part ethnography of the Williamsburg of his time; and part political and religious commentary. He maps the social and religious landscape of his youth by telling us at times amusing, at times painful, anecdotes of a childhood in Williamsburg and intimate stories that tell us not only about the author, but also about the mood of the time and the changes the author lived through. I consider his book a  great addition to the bookshelf on Jewish Williamsburg.
Philip was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for my blog. Here is our conversation:

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what your relationship to Williamsburg is. Where do you live/what do you do?
 I live in Newton Massachusetts. I am a retired scientist that worked on the design of satellite communications systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the MITRE Corporation. In the 1970s I was a professor at Washington University. I have a doctorate in applied mathematics. My wife is a professor of Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham Massachusetts. We have three children and six grandchildren. I was born in Williamsburg in 1943 and lived in an apartment house on Hewes Street across from the shul of the Sigheter Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum. He was the nephew of the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and became the Satmar Rebbe after his uncle’s death in 1979. I attended the Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath and graduated its high school in 1960.

Which years did you live there and at what age?
I lived there from my birth in 1943 until I was married in 1967.

What was your religious affiliation? Is that still the same?
My family was Orthodox. My father was a member of the Sigheter shul across from our house. Though I frequently davened at Sighet, I was active in the youth minyan of the Agudah (Pirchei Agudah) that was on Bedford Avenue around the corner from my house. I was bar mitzvahed at the Sigheter Shul though I was an “American kid.” I am now a member of a Modern Orthodox congregation in Newton Massachusetts that in contrast to these Williamsburg congregations has strong Zionist and feminist leanings.

Can you describe what Williamsburg was like then?
In the 1940s and 1950s Williamsburg was very different than it is now. The largest shuls (such as Hewes Street Shul, Clymer Street Shul, and Young Israel) though all Orthodox, had a Religious Zionist orientation and had Israeli and American flags displayed prominently in their sanctuaries. Many—perhaps most—of the Jews living there then were not observant and had little Jewish education. There were also large numbers of non-Jews including Irish, and (in the 1950s) Puerto Ricans. In my apartment building in the heart of Jewish Williamsburg I had five Jewish playmates—only one of them was Orthodox.

The major Jewish institution then was the Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath. This started out in the 1920s as a progressive Hebrew and Zionist oriented school but by the 1970s was becoming Haredi. Around 1970, Torah Vodaath moved to a new campus in Flatbush. A factor in its move may have been that Williamsburg was now dominated by Satmar.

What changes did you experience during your time?
The most dramatic change was its transformation from a very mixed Jewish and gentile neighborhood into a Hassidic neighborhood dominated by Satmar. This transformation was going on when I left Williamsburg in 1967 and is now apparently total. In 1967 the Hewes Street Shul and Young Israel were struggling but still functioning as what we might call today Modern or Centrist Orthodox synagogues. Today the magnificent Hewes Street Shul has been converted into a school for girls owned by the Klausenberg Hasidim. The Young Israel (across from the Tzelemer shul) is also a Hassidic yeshiva. 

Can you tell us a story to illustrate that?
In the 1950s and 1960s the Sigheter Shul across from my apartment was heavily attended during the week by many Orthodox men who were not Hasidim. They were there because there were multiple morning and evening services at many times during the day. They were welcomed warmly by the Sighet Hassidim. One of the daily regulars was the sociologist and educator Dr. Gershon (George) Kranzler who also lived on Hewes Street and who later wrote a number of books about Williamsburg. My next door neighbor Shmuel (Samuel) Lifshitz was an ardent Zionist and leading member of the Young Israel. In his retirement years he studied Talmud every morning in the Sigheter shul with a Sighet Hasid. I cannot imagine interactions like these today.

Tell us about your relationship with the Sigheter Rebbe’s family. Do you remember the brothers Aaron and Zalmen Leib? 
My childhood impression of the Sigheter Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, was that he was much more gentle, moderate, and mild mannered than his uncle the Satmar Rebbe. This was reflected in his shul where people of all backgrounds were welcome to daven—in strong contrast to the Satmar shul. My mother who was not a Hasid had occasional conversations with his rebbetzin (his second wife) who also impressed her and me as a pleasant personality. I was bar mitzvahed in the Sighet shul and was greeted warmly by the Rebbe who gave me his blessing (“I should grow up to live a life of Torah”) even though he knew I was not Hassidic in dress or inclination. I remember Aaron and Zalman who were a few years younger than me, but I had almost no personal contact with them. I think their parents kept them totally away from the neighborhood children. This was understandable since during the early fifties almost all the other children on the block were not Hasidic and many were not religious or even Jewish. Even as little children they were always dressed in black garb and had the shaved heads and long peyote typical of Satmar. They impressed me as austere and uncomfortable with outsiders. One Pesach on a hot day I was walking down Hewes Street drinking from a soda bottle that was kosher for Passover. I am sure that the kosher certification was not accepted by Satmar. One of these brothers looked at me angrily and called me by a Yiddish epithet. I guess he was thirsty. He was probably 7 years old at the time.

 I remember giving hopscotch lessons to the Rebbe’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. I believe she died at a relatively young age.

What made you leave Williamsburg?
Most non-Hasidic people left Williamsburg in the 1960s and 1970s. This was for a variety of reasons including: They no longer fitted in as the neighborhood was increasingly dominated by Satmar; the core of the neighborhood was destroyed by the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

They moved to more affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. I myself moved to Manhattan when I was married in 1967. My mother moved to Far Rockaway where my older brother lived.

Did you experience the leaving of the non-Hasidic orthodox community from Williamsburg? What would you attribute it to?
The non-Hasidic Orthodox community moved out gradually beginning in the 1950s. A big part of this move occurred in the late 1950s when the Brooklyn Queens Expwy was being built and physically destroyed the heart of the Orthodox community. As people earned more money they moved to Boro Park or Flatbush or more pleasant suburbs in Queens or Long Island. Many of them moved from tenements or apartments to single family homes. Even the Yeshiva Torah Vodaath no longer felt comfortable in Williamsburg and moved to a more pleasant neighborhood in Flatbush. Also, Satmar didn’t particularly welcome non-Satmar people. The large shuls along Bedford Avenue gradually lost most of their membership and eventually could barely maintain a minyan. The writing was clearly on the wall. It was sad to see.

Can you describe what you saw and how you felt when you returned to Williamsburg recently? What changed? What was the same?
I was impressed with the quality of the housing on many streets. The brownstones on my own street (Hewes) appeared to be kept up nicely, and looked better than I remember them 50 years ago. Many young mothers were dressed well and were wheeling expensive baby carriages. I certainly did not get the impression that this was an economically depressed community. Many of the backyards and alleys have now been filled with small apartment houses. There is much less vegetation and trees than there were 50 years ago.

Most of the major institutions that I grew up with have been transformed into Hasidic schools. These include the YMHA, the Young Israel, Hewes Street Shul, and Eastern District High School. Many other major institutional buildings have simply been demolished. These include the Agudah, Klymer Street Shul and Mesivta Torah Vodaath. The Yeshiva Torah Vodaath on Wilson Street (which I attended through eighth grade) is still standing but is now a Hasidic yeshiva. The disappearance of so many institutions that defined Williamsburg when I was young was very disconcerting.

Do you still have old friends in Williamsburg?
None that I am aware of.

What compelled you to write the book A Sukkah is Burning about your time in Williamsburg?
Williamsburg’s transformation into an exclusively haredi neighborhood was the first of its kind in the United States, but these changes were soon repeated in many other American and Israeli communities. The Williamsburg story is of profound historical importance and has had a dramatic impact on American Jewish life. The story of its transformation deserves to be written. I also include material of a personal and familial nature, some of it quite humorous, that I hope will be rewarding to the reader. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

Did you get any feedback from the Williamsburg community to your book?
Yes. Many classmates from my graduating class at the Mesivta Torah Vodaath have written and emailed complimentary comments. Generally, they feel that I accurately capture events that I describe—though some have pointed out minor errors. In Chapter 6, I describe the fire in my apartment building that ruined the wedding gown of a young woman who was about to get married. That young woman, now in her seventies and living in Israel, recently informed me that though much of her apartment was destroyed the wedding gown survived intact. In chapter 8, I describe an incident in 1959 where a classmate was briefly suspended from the Torah Vodaath High School for hanging an Israeli flag in a corridor on Yom Ha’atzmut. That classmate recently jocularly complained that I didn’t mention his name in the book. He was PROUD that he hung the flag.  I love getting feedback like this about events of more than 50 years ago.

On a sadder note, a classmate called concerning the material in Chapter 11 about my childhood experience with a pedophile who was a leader of the Agudah movement. This classmate informed me that he personally observed the perpetrator committing many similar acts in Camp Agudah in the Catskills. This kind of tragedy unfortunately is still all too common. There are also those who are critical of me for bringing these facts to light at all.

Though my book has sold in more than 30 states, about half of the sales have come, not surprisingly, from the New York City area. I conjecture that a number of these are from present and former Williamsburg residents.

Did you leave something out that you now wish you’d included?
I regret not putting in more historical material about many of the Jewish institutions. I also would include more about the “haimishe” culture of Williamsburg then. But I am by and large happy with the book as written.

If you were to lead groups of visitors on educational tours of Hasidic Williamsburg; what would you want to teach them about the era in Williamsburg you experienced?
I would bring them to the institutional buildings (some of which have been demolished) that defined the neighborhood sixty years ago and describe the culture, history and importance of each. These include Hewes Street Shul, Clymer Street Shul, the “Polisher Shteibel”, Tzelemer Shul, Torah Vodaath, Sighet, and Klausenberg. I would probably bore them with my “ancient history.”

Are there any buildings that are still around that have significance to you?
The apartment building I lived in (163 Hewes Street) is still standing, as well as the Sighet Shul across the street and the Klausenberg Shul around the corner. The Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Hewes Street Shul, Young Israel, and YMHA buildings are still standing but have been taken over by Hasidic groups.

Do you plan to return to Williamsburg again to visit?
I have been returning about once a year.

If you were to join me on a tour, what would you want to learn?
I would like to learn about the different Hasidic groups and how they interact with the modern world that surrounds them. In what ways have their attitudes changed over the intervening decades? Are there significant defections among the young men and women? How do they feel now about secular education? How does the average Hasid make a living (diamonds, real estate, teaching, retail,…) ? What work do the women do?  Are there religious and economic tensions, conflicts?

Before we let you go, can you tell us a story to illustrate what memories of Williamsburg you look back fondly to?
When I was a senior in the Torah Vodaath High School, I took a number of advanced math classes taught at the end of the day by the secular studies principle, Rabbi Max (Moshe) Lonner Z”L. We lived near each other and we walked home together from the school that was about a mile from our homes. Rabbi Lonner was a refugee from Nazi Germany and we frequently talked about his experiences as a youngster in Germany. As far as I recall he was the only faculty member in the school that really opened up to me on a personal level. He also had a fine sense of humor. If a student was misbehaving in class he would yell at him good-naturedly “leave the room and close the window behind you,” or “every dog shall have his day and I shall have mine.” Unlike many of the administration at Torah Vodaath today, he took secular education very seriously and prided himself in the academic achievements of his former students. I really miss him.


When a friend of mine was in Williamsburg late one night for a wedding, he explored the neighborhood a little bit, and told me that he stumbled upon the old Young Israel of Brooklyn I wrote about here, one of the important sites in historic Williamsburg, and had a conversation with the purported owner of the property. My friend learned from the owner that there are plans to renovate or demolish the Vien building and the Skver shul nearby and create one big building of the two old buildings, making use not only of the old spaces, but also the property in between. Here’s what my friend told me:

“I was in Williamsburg recently for a wedding at the glamorous Vayoel Moshe hall. As I hiked back to my car, I went past a building with rubbed out sign on the window: Young Israel of Brooklyn. Of course, I had to go in for a look.  Even though it was close to midnight, the place was open and guys were loitering in the hallway. I looked around for a bit, and accepted a friendly greeting from one of the loiterers As I was leaving, a guy came over to me and asked, “Did you grow up here” I told him no, I just like to look at a old shuls. Turns out, he claimed to be the landlord of not just the old Young Israel, but the whole block, in partnership with the Square collective. He gave me the brief, buffed, history of the block, then took me next door to see the original Square Bes Medrash. He said he remembers when the walls were decorated with pictures of lions (!) and that when he was a kid in the fifties the place had 35 mispallalim, and that was Square.

“Anyway both the old Young Israel and the historic first Square Bes Medrash aren’t long for the world. My new friend plans to combine the two structures and turn it into a modern synagogue complex. So say goodbye to two, historic old Jewish structures.”

I’ve done some research and I hear that there are indeed constructions plans to renovate the two historic buildings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be demolished. They may only be thoroughly renovated. I don’t know to which degree this is imminent and how much will change, but will share as I learn more. 

Yom Tov Ehrlich was probably the most important Yiddish songwriters/artists in the post holocaust American Hasidic community. I grew up with Yom Tov Ehrlich and can sing many of his songs [and I do; and not only to my son!] and I associate many of them with very warm memories of my mother. But there is one song in particular that I think is as good a sociological investigation of the community of the time Yomtov Ehrlich wrote. I translated the song as best as possible, because I think the lyrics are the best possible tour ever offered by an insider.

The song is called Williamsburg! In the lyrics you can hear a sense of bewilderment and amazement that this Hasidic post holocaust community arose in the ‘treifene medina’; that the Jews are so proud, “stand tall” and openly wear their religious garb and share in religious tradition. It has a freshness and appreciation for the community that I think only the first generation had; but from it rose a kind of commitment and loyalty to preserve it and not to allow it to dissolve into the American society.
In the Williamsburg streets,
When you go outside at dawn,
And you begin to look at her from afar,
You will see Jews walk with shtreimls,
Tsitsit, beard and white socks,
And the side curls hang from the sides.
Women walk carrying fabrics,
Fish and milk and bread and fruit,
All of them in their wigs and scarves,
They run through the streets modestly,
They don’t want to talk to anyone,
And they don’t want to look at anyone.

In every street a boy’s cheydar [boy’s school],
Filled with children who learn Torah
And there are many yeshivas as well.
From someone we hear “hamnich”
From someone else “hashaliach”
And the third on yells “hakol shochtin” [all of these words from the Talmud]

And the fathers from dawn,
People run to earn money,
All of them go to work after praying, what a pleasure.
One sells meat, one fixes tables,
And from time to time in between,
They take a look into a Mishnayos [religious text.]

There is in Williamsburg a doctor,
Who wears a tallis katon (fringes),

And a female lawyer,
A good Jewish woman.

A taxi goes by with relatives,
Head of yeshivas and rebbes,
And the drover discusses with them Torah studies.

To whichever Jew you will go,
You will get something to eat,
And he will toast you a l’chaim.
If you want to have a part of the afterlife,
Listen to that Jew and stay for Shabbes,
And you will think that you’re in Jerusalem.

Oh, Williamsburg!
What a pleasure there!
Populated by good Jews,
May that be my luck.

Oh, Williamsburg!
It is a whole new world,
We learn the Torah, we thank God,
In every home.

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh vey!
From the Rebbe’s house,
A ruckus can be heard,
The Hasidim are dancing, a “l’yehudim” [a dance]
And lift themselves up throughout.

Oh, oh, oh, vey, vey, vey!
Around the long table,
They raise their feet,
Erect, unbent,
Lively and full of energy!

Oy, Williamsburg!
She has no equal!
It is the water of life, Jerusalem,
For the diaspora Jew.
A mezuza scroll on the door,
It is full of song,
Full of fear [of God,]
May health be with her.

Friday in the afternoon,
All the shops in Williamsburg close up,
Quickly, everyone runs home at once.
They dress up, they wash up,
They are filled with new energy,
The table is set with wine and challah.

The husband goes to the synagogue,
The woman takes her Korben Mincha [women’s prayer book]
She says first the Yiddish prayer.

The husband comes home from the synagogue,
The wife welcomes him with happiness,
On his head rests the divine spirit.
In the ritual bath from dawn,
One can already find Jews,
It almost looks like they always sit there.
One of them constantly washes up,
The other one constantly dries his hands,
And someone else is always looking for his clothing.

And they begin to rush 
from the ritual bath ,
Through the streets, through the yards,
The coats are bulging with the prayer shawls.
And everyone runs to the Rebbe,
And everyone looks after him,
And everyone behaves according to the Rebbe’s instructions.

Oy, every Rebbe is a wonder,
Everyone one with his separate style,
Of how to serve the Father in heaven.

And when [Shabbes at the meal] someone is finally making Kiddush on wine,
Someone else is already saying a new Torah thought,
And a third is singing a new march.

At the Klausenburger [Rebbe] tears fall,
And deep sighs at the Skvere,
And the Stoliner Hasidim, they yell.
At the Satmar Rebbe they didn’t even begin yet,
They just went to the ritual bath,
And at the Viznitzer they are already drinking a l’chaim.

Oy, Williamsburg!
In Torah V’daath,
On the upper floor little children learn,
While downstairs partners in Talmud.

Oh Williamsburg!
Vien young men,
Go calmly to pray mincha,
They go perfectly in time.

Oy, vey, vey, vey, vey!
By me, and Belz and Ger, Pupah, Tzelimer,
And the students from Bais Yaakov,
Wherever you take a look.
Oy, oy, oy, vey, vey,
Busses go slowly,
Filled with soldiers [of Torah,]
Children to the yeshivas,

Driving them back and forth.
Oh, Williamsburg!
She is not alone,
There are among us Jews more corners,
That are as beautiful.

The main thing is this:
We should have a lot of Jewish pride,
From our little ones.

There are some things in the song worth noting:
* You can see the emphasis on the many different sects that were in Williamsburg, not merely Satmar as seems to be the impression of many outsiders. Vien is also not listed as a Hasidic group, and their “yekkish” punctuality is made note of to set them apart from the other sects [Yekkes = Oberlander Jews, who were known to be punctual while Hasidim always prayed late.]

* Yomtov Ehrlich seems very proud that Williamsburg had its own religious doctor and a female lawyer, a pious Jewish woman, a phenomena that would I don’t think would be a source of pride today; or at least it is hard to find such career oriented religious Jews.

* It is also interesting that the Williamsburg of this time is singularly welcoming, so much so that if you would come by you would be asked to stay for shabbes.

*Williamsburg, not Israel, is described here as the Zion, the Jerusalem. This reflects the continued feeling that Jews were in diaspora and had to build their communities amid non-Jewish nations.

In a previous post, I wrote about the Satmar Rabbi’s influence on the Williamsburg community, and that his anti-zionist stance can be seen all over Williamsburg, even among non-Satmar sects, in the absence of pro-Israeli symbols in its streets. Where Israeli flags and Jewish Stars were commonplace in Williamsburg before the non-Hasidic Orthodox population left, the Jewish stars have been vanishing. I used the Star of David from the Klausenburg Talmud Torah as an example, but I will follow up on that story of the broken glasswork of that old building in another post. (I know I’ve been a little backlogged in finishing some posts I’ve been working on but I hope to get to it soon. That building is a great story!)

I have been asking if anyone can help me find a Jewish star in Hasidic Williamsburg. This week I finally found one, and even in the heart of Williamsburg, across the street from the Satmar Rebbe’s original house/synagogue on Bedford Avenue! It is on the fence of an empty lot owned by the Vien congregation. Previously, there was the big Clymer Street Shul, an orthodox synagogue, and then Congregation Tifereth Israel on that property. Since the synagogue was demolished and the construction of a Vien building was delayed due to legal disagreements, the original fence is still up.