I wrote about the Hanover Mansion that’s now the Vien’s Girls School a few weeks ago. I was looking for pictures of the interior, and yesterday, I was lucky enough to be allowed in to take a few. The students all seemed to know that the significance of the building is its history as the “Rothschild Mansion”. I told them that it used to be a club, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that.
Psychologist Marty Klein and visiting tourist of Williamsburg (he did not tour with me) wrote a detailed report on his blog about his experience in Williamsburg. His essay contains numerous blatant errors of fact. He writes that in the Hasidic community marriages at 14 are common (wrong), that girls rarely enter high school (wrong) that Hasidim can’t speak English and only gesticulate wildly (very wrong), that if he would come on Saturday he would be forcefully removed by the local militia (so wrong; in fact, I hear many tourists come on Saturday – although I don’t), that internet passwords are shared with the head rabbi (oy vey, how terribly wrong and cliche!) and that the entire neighborhood has one restaurant (which is wrong, as anyone with eyes can see!) In order to be respectful he visited with “no food or water” and wore a wide brimmed hat. I’m not sure why he thought not bringing food or water or wearing that hat was respectful and what he thought Hasidim sustain themselves on if food and water isn’t respectful. Maybe manna?
He really absorbed those stereotypes that I try so hard to get people to see beyond. Not only did he get facts wrong, but he also didn’t seem to try to see beyond his cultural biases. In the most troubling part of his post, he writes that women have dead eyes, and are trained to have dead eyes. All women, according to him, have the same measured five degree chin tilt and dead, autistic eyes. Even six year olds already have dead eyes! If a baby laughed to him, he reports, the baby was quickly covered or wheeled away. None of his interpretations of what he saw are plausible; in reality the Hasidic women probably cared too little about a strange outsider to pay any attention to him. On occasion I see visitors interact with the babies in their carriages. On my tour yesterday one visitor cooed over a little baby in a Maclaren. The Hasidic mother of the child smiled back and thanked the visitor for complimenting her baby. It was an entirely ordinary touring moment.
Besides for the incorrect interpretations Klein made of what he saw around him, I will say that if a strange man walks around my neighborhood with a mission to smile up little girls, I’d have felt uncomfortable.
Mr. Klein’s strange, superficial and troubling conclusion that women are trained to have dead eyes is almost laughable considering that in New York City avoiding eye contact is almost a cultural norm. And besides, when I am in Hasidic Williamsburg I get looked at very closely. I can see the women’s eyes travel all over me before they look away. I’m sure they don’t look the same way at men, but that’s a gender issue, not a matter of disdain or lack of life in eyes. Some Hasidic women don’t only look, they even ask me what I am looking at or talking about, and on occasion we have a longer conversation. I took pictures of some buildings yesterday and on several locations women (and men) came over to ask me what the significance of the buildings are. Their eyes were eyes; like all people.
Klein’s assessment about women seems to come from the sort of skin deep feminism that does not care to see people, but only to reconfirm cultural superiority and biases. It promotes the myth and misinformation about Hasidim that I find so troublesome. It bothers me because it turns people, live, different complex communities, into caricatures.
Someone on Facebook pointed to this line (thanks JK) in Klein’s wiki page: “Klein clearly has issues with cultures which he does not understand. In an article on his blog,  he speaks of visiting a community in a style which one would visit a zoo. He makes assumptions and derogatory comments which are not based on facts.” Indeed, his conclusions lack any insight.
Here’s the article. H/t DS.
“Training Women to Have No Eyes
I’m in New York training psychologists this week, and as I always do here, I visited a neighborhood with a professional guide.
On previous trips I’ve toured Harlem, Wall Street, Brooklyn Heights, Midtown, Upper Park Avenue, and several other neighborhoods. This year we went to Williamsburg, home to the most insular and religious community of Hasidic Jews in North America.
The group is called the Satmars, who came to this country from Eastern Europe after WWII. They dress meticulously like the nobility of 18th century Lithuania/Poland. Even in summer, the men wear long sleeve white shirts, black vests, long black coats, and black fur hats (along with thick religious underwear). Women cannot show their arms, legs, or collarbones, so they wear long dresses over thick flesh-colored stockings. Upon marriage they shave their heads and wear wigs, and often wear hats.
They speak the Yiddish of 18th century Eastern Europe. Working on Friday night or Saturday is strictly forbidden (and “working” includes driving, phoning, cooking, and turning electricity on or off). 100% of their children go to private religious schools. Every family is strictly kosher. Except for work, the internet is forbidden, and all internet usage (including passwords) must be logged with the head rabbi. There are no smartphones here.
Marriage and all other social relations are strictly regulated; community matchmakers are used, and betrothal by age 14 is not uncommon. Breeding begins immediately upon marriage. The average family has some eight or ten children.
Girls here rarely enter high school, and if they do, they rarely graduate. They learn no math, no science, no logic, no languages, only homemaking and Jewish law. Women have no cellphones or computer access; they own no property, have no right to divorce, and rarely leave the neighborhood. Satmar families don’t go out to eat (the entire neighborhood has only a single restaurant, primarily for men caught between meals), so shopping and cooking are a full-time female occupation.
Which brings us to the women, the women who have no eyes.
I admit that I am not welcome in the Satmar neighborhood. As a tourist, I dressed modestly—long pants in 85-degree heat, with a broad-brimmed hat. I brought no camera, no notebook, no food or water. And I certainly didn’t come on a Saturday. If I had, I would have been encouraged (in Yiddish, with much gesticulation) to leave. And if I had insisted on my right to walk New York’s public streets, I would have been forcefully removed by thugs from the local militia.
So my guide and I quietly and respectfully spent 90 minutes walking Keap Street, Bedford Avenue, South 4th Street, and the rest of Williamsburg. I passed men talking on old internet-free flip-phones, and women pushing strollers. I passed groups of girls (all the boys were in school, studying Torah). I walked by bakeries and schools and wig shops.
The men either looked at me or ignored me. The women, however, had no eyes at all.
You know how you walk down the street, see a stranger come toward you, and you either nod, smile, or (more often) look away? Even the looking away is an acknowledgement of the other’s existence.
The Satmar women did none of these. As we approached and then passed each other, they all had the identical, studied look: chin tilted about 5 degrees down from horizontal, just enough so they didn’t have to see my face or body. Moreover, their eyes were completely unfocussed, a dead stare you’d expect from someone deeply autistic, profoundly depressed, or in total shock. Even when a pair of them were talking to each other normally as I approached (often with two strollers and 3 or 4 other young kids in tow), when we had to momentarily negotiate our en passant, their eyes died and I ceased to exist.
(And it’s not just because I’m a man. They relate to non-Satmar women the same way.)
For the first few blocks I was respectful, and even lowered my eyes once or twice. Then I smiled at a few. Of course, there was no change in their expressionless expression. Then I started to smile when I passed groups of girls, starting with adolescents: same dead eyes. Schoolgirls: same dead eyes. Six-year-olds: a few looked back at me, although always without smiling (a rather creepy experience). And almost immediately an older sister would intrude to fuss over the kid or pull her away. Finally I smiled at a few babies in strollers at red lights. When the babies laughed or smiled, they were quickly wheeled away or covered. They’re only a few years from learning to deaden their eyes.
The afternoon tour was fascinating in many ways—I even saw a crowd gathered (actually, two crowds, men on one side of the street, women on the other) watching a rabbi praying loudly over a coffin. According to a nearby Hispanic cop, a 12-year-old girl had died the night before.
But my enduring image of Williamsburg, the very last person I encountered before crossing Broadway and leaving the neighborhood, was an eight-year-old girl. She and two friends (cousins?) were standing on a street corner handing out yellow fliers. They were in Yiddish, and I obviously wasn’t going to participate in whatever they were announcing, but I was curious. And I thought I might actually have a momentary interaction with this young person.
So as I approached, I smiled warmly, and held out my hand, gesturing for a flier. And I didn’t get dead eyes. Instead, I got the most disdainful, disgusted, derisive look I have ever gotten from a human being. She was eight, and she’d already learned to look down on me.
Soon enough, she’ll learn to express this disgust with dead eyes. Meanwhile, I guess she forgot that I’m created in the image of her god, too.”
The Klausenburg Synagogue at 131 Lee Avenue, Beth Baruch, used to be a small movie theater that had just one screen and 550 seats. Because there was only one movie showing at a time and it seems, from accounts of those who went, that it was a small, intimate environment.
It was active from about the late 1920s to 1950. It was first named the Lee Theater and then became Models Theater.
The first mention of this building is in the 1921 zoning record in the Bulletin of the Board of Standards and Appeals of the City of New York. The architects Gronenberg & Leuchtag asked for a permit to erect a two story, 39×132 feet “motion picture theatre” on the east side of Lee Avenue and North of Hewes Street. This leads us to where the Klausenburg synagogue is today.
It was the Lee Theater for a while and this is a little confusing because there was a large Lee Avenue Theater elsewhere earlier, which I’ll write about in part 2.
It seems the Congress Club was also located there in the early 1920s but I am not sure what that was all about. Maybe offices.
In 1922 the organ for music was installed.
Philip Fishman remembered the Model Theater in A Sukkah is Burning: “The Model movie theater had been a highly popular neighborhood institution during my childhood. The Model was a large, old fashioned theater located around the corner from my home, on Lee Avenue between Hewes and Hooper Street. For fourteen cents I and my friends, and frequently my mother, could see a triple feature. I remember many pleasant summer afternoons laughing at the cinema…”
The theater was even sensitive to the kosher laws of the many Orthodox Jews that lived in the neighborhood. “Before Thanksgiving, the Model would hold a raffle where they would offer a turkey as the prize. In deference to neighborhood sensibilities it was a kosher turkey. One year my mother won the turkey. She was overjoyed. She told me that this was the first time in her life that she won anything, which, upon reflection, was a rather sad statement.”
Fishman remembers when it shut its doors: “Sometimes in the early fifties, the Model closed its doors as a movie theater and the building was purchased by the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, who converted it into a synagogue that is still active today. Needless to say, I was disappointed at this turn of events.”
The August 10, 1947 Brooklyn Eagle announced the sale of the theater to an investor.
This is a very interesting story of a Jehovah’s Witnesses worship house in the heart of Kiryas Joel. Kiryas Joel is the Satmar Hasidic satellite community in Orange County, New York, about an hour and a half from Williamsburg. The Satmar Rebbe Yoelish Teitelbaum founded Kiryas Joel in 1977. He had homes in Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel.
Kiryas Joel is more insular than Williamsburg, because while Hasidim and ethnic minorities coexist in the housing projects of Williamsburg, and Hasidim and Hipsters live next to each other there, Kiryas Joel’s population is isolated (except for some outside employment for cleaning help, etc.) This is reflected in the almost-entirely white population reported in the census:
I admit, what prompted me to look into the building was an old curiosity because of my childhood in Kiryas Joel. The “church” was actually right in back of my childhood home. I grew up on Satmar Drive, the street named for our sect. There was a large area of beautiful Hudson Valley woods behind us. It was broken up by a narrow road that led to what we called “The Tifleh”, a Yiddish term for Church.
As a child I couldn’t actually see the church building because it sat deep into the path. Twenty five acres of woods surrounded it so I had no idea what happened behind the curtain of vegetation, but as a little girl I imagined it looked like any medieval church I encountered in stories about blood libels and bishops. I had heard that the church bells can be heard from Lizensk Blvd and it was all the proof I needed to imagine the church as a gray, towered medieval work of architecture.
Everyone I speak to remembers the mass of parishioners that used to come every Saturday. Masses of busses and cars streamed out of the woods every Saturday. Because it was right behind my home, on long, sticky Saturday afternoons my friends and I clung to the yard fence to watch the cars leave the church. We even waved to every single car. It was great fun. We choreographed a practiced, cheer like motion for the wave: hang hand over fence, pick up, wave right to left, left to right, drop down. Repeat. Sometimes, someone waved back, and then we laughed and ran away, a little scared.
I was on the “church” property once or twice while the religious group was still active there, sometime in the 1990s. My father used to go for a leisurely stroll with us kids on Saturday afternoon. He usually walked up Forest Road, but there were times he walked into the church path you see below. I remember there was an open electronic gate at the entrance and the road leading up to the church was beautiful – waterfalls and flora – but my father didn’t go far enough for us to actually see the “church.”
(the picture is of the entrance, when the church was already vacated)
Fast forward to about 2000, the cars stopped coming. We didn’t know it then, but the congregation had moved out. As far as I know, there was no conflict between the Hasidim and the religious group. I don’t know why they sold, but they sold for $2.5 million to a Hasid, and the price tag may have had something to do with it.
The building then stayed vacated for ten more years, till about 2010 when it was demolished. The whole twenty five acre property was not cleared for construction until now – in 2014. I hear lots are now being sold for a quarter million a single family lot.
Recently, when I noticed they are starting construction there, I decided to research the “church.” Here’s its story:
It was built by Jehovah’s Witness in approximately 1972. The Witnesses are an unusual religious group. Relative to religion, this one is young, founded in 1870. The belief system is a radical offspring of Christianity. According to wikipedia, the Witnesses are known for their aggressive proselytization. They go door to door and ask if they can share a word about “the truth”, or Jehovah, or a passage from the Bible. They tend to be very insistent. They also do not allow blood transfusions, military service, celebration of birthdays and believe that everyone who isn’t a Witness is doomed. Their leaders have unsuccessfully predicted the end of the world many times, beginning in 1914.
They meet about once a week or twice a week in a Kingdom Hall but it seems these meetings aren’t prayer services; they are more like sermons or bible study sessions. While most of their locations are Kingdom Halls, the one behind my childhood home was not. It was a much larger Assembly Hall, as it served many congregations from the tristate area. Every week several parishes took turns occupying the space. The members do not call their worship house a “church,” but somehow that is how Hasidim referred to it.
Here is a picture of the Jehovah’s Witness Assembly Hall that was active near Kiryas Joel from about 1970-2000. The photo was taken aprox late 1970.
Because Brach was not aligned with the leading Hasidic village officials, he could not get the property annexed into the Village of Kiryas Joel, so it wasn’t zoned for multi-family homes. That’s why it wasn’t developed and the “church” stayed so long. In essence, the twenty five acre property was an island of Town of Monroe land in the middle of the Hasidic shtetl. We called the property Cheskel Brach’s Lot.
During the ten years that the building was abandoned, I passed it many times. All the building markings of a worship house were removed. The previously manicured lawns were decrepit and the walls scrawled with Yiddish graffiti.
This is the church when it was abandoned. You can see the water fountain is just a pool of muddy water. Notice the playground set up by Brach’s dissident school that was housed in trailers.
TIMES HEARD RECORD:
Building survives another arson attempt
A former Jehovah’s Witnesses building just outside of Kiryas Joel caught fire yesterday evening, marking yet another suspicious blaze there in a year.
Authorities are investigating.
This is becoming a common occurrence at the structure. Most recently, firefighters made two trips to the building on March 14 to douse suspicious fires. While inside, they found evidence of a fourth blaze that had gone out on its own. Days earlier, they put out another fire there. There was yet another suspicious fire in the building in May 2003. No arrests have been made in connection with the fires. The building and surrounding 25 acres are owned by Zigmond Brach, a prominent dissident in the Satmar Hasidic community.
Mahran said officials have been trying to talk Brach into boarding up the building, but so far no one’s had much luck. Several fire companies assisted at the scene of yesterday’s blaze, including Woodbury, Harriman, Washingtonville and South Blooming Grove.
The existence of a worship house in Kiryas Joel, right next to the heart of everything, is incredibly unusual, and the particular group that gathered there makes it even more mindboggling. It’s interesting to read what the Jehovah’s Witnesses members thought of their center that neighbored Hasidim. What I heard at home as a child was that the “church people” were polite goyim and that they respected the Hasidic lifestyle.
It seems they actually had more colorful opinions. From a forum from members of this faith and members who left their faith, http://www.jehovahs-witness.net, here are their comments.
It is worth reading.
One member remembers the Hasidim “being very upset that the Witnesses ‘worshipped’ there among them.”
And one claimed that Hasidim were known to “beat up and toss out Jehovah’s Witnesses out of their neighborhood.” And that men don’t grow beards until they marry.
Neither the comment about the beards nor about the women showing hair to their husbands is correct, and I know of no incidents in which Hasidim beat up any Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“We knew we were unwelcome there and would never have gotten out of the car to speak to them even if we broke down.”
It's the winter season... Please bundle up for the tours!