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A century ago a Christian Mission to the Jews stood in the heart of Williamsburg. A great sign “The House of the Prince of Peace” stood atop the building, and inside was, among other things, a medical clinic called the Sar Shalom Dispensary.

It was founded by Leopold Cohn, a Hungarian apostate, who founded a ministry to the Jews called the Chosen People Ministry. Amazingly, the ministry founded in 1892 survived eventually became Jews For Jesus, 80 years later!

And even more amazingly, Leopold Cohn (1862-1937) wrote the following about his youth in Hungary:

“At about eighteen years of age I was proficient in Hebrew literature and Talmudic law. I then received from several rabbis, in whose colleges I had studied, a diploma containing a certificate of my good character and acquirements and and authority to become a rabbi. This was confirmed by my first and chief rabbi, a miracle performer, S. L. Teitelbaum, in Sziget.”

That is, the Williamsburg missionary Cohn was a student of the Yetev Lev, progenitor of the Satmar rebbes, in his youth, in Sighet!

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A really interesting first person account of Hasidic Williamsburg, seemingly written by Deborah Feldman (nee Berkovic,) author of NYT Bestselling book Unorthodox. It is a description from an insider’s perspective, although the writing is a better reflection of the style of writing among high school students than of a reliable personal opinion. 

Thank you to the former classmate for sharing!

Here’s the text:

“I know no other place as well as I know Williamsburg. It is the place where I first skinned a knee, established a friendship, and tasted a slice of pizza. Many outsiders have remarked that only a native can enjoy life in Williamsburg, due to its overt familiarity, which can be interpreted a meddlesome. However, it is this same familiarity that enliven a simple errand on a cold winter’s day, and ensure that reputed safety of our neighborhood. There is a wonderful feeling in knowing that wherever I go, I am always certain of meeting some form of acquaintance. Moreover, the fact that I can canvass the streets at all odd hours of the night, without a single qualm, is reassuring. If, by any chance, I pass a wedding hall, I would not hesitate before entering, as I am assured of finding someone familiar there. In fact, it is likely that I owe a Mazel Tov to the Ba’al Simchah in question, for if she resides in Williamsburg, then she automatically becomes my neighbor. This is especially true if the host family is of the Satmar sect (of chassidus).

Another great advantage of Williamsburg is that it is the center of chassidus. The community is renowned for its scrupulous observance of the commandments, and faithful adherence to the tenets of its religion. This sheltered environment provides an ideal Chinuch (the Jewish term for religious upbringing) for the neighborhood’s impressionable youth. As a result, when I leave Williamsburg’s enclave for a short time, I am always glad to return, after witnessing the comparison between the corporeal outer world and my strictly ethical hometown.

Aside from the social and religious benefits, Williamsburg also offers many conveniences. Its ideal location allows one to commute to the city in less than a quarter of an hour. Its various bus routes provide quick and easy access to common outer destination, for example; Borough Park, another flourishing Jewish community. There is even an improvised version of the old trolley, a form of shot-term transport from one end of Williamsburg to the other. In the community itself, small, individualized shops are in abundance, including the countless grocery stores that seem to be cropping up at every corner, as well as the famed “Lee Avenue”, Williamsburg’s shopping center. There is rarely an item that cannot be obtained in the immediate vicinity, and if such is not the case, one can always trail to a nearby superstore, for instance Home Depot; which is situated between Williamsburg and Borough Park.

Williamsburg is not a very pretty place, due to its crowded conditions and haphazard amalgamation of every kind of domicile existence, yet it remains a clean and cultivated appearance. Each family fulfills their responsibility of caring for their property to an admirable extent, which results in a neat and pleasant environment. Residents focus on beautifying the interiors of their homes rather than the facades, although homes may display decrepit fringes, many are, if not beautiful, at least cozy on the inside. The typical family in Williamsburg lives in a clean and serviceable apartment, wears quality clothing and eats quality kosher food. They lead organized lives, which revolve around Torah, and their actions are fueled by an unwavering faith in G-d. The family ideal is cherished in Williamsburg. None of the otherwise rampant rebellion and discord is evident in this neighborhood. Many gentiles prefer the rare social harmony, and refuse to relocate to other communities and make way for the growing Jewish population. The price of real estate is rising rapidly as demand for housing in Williamsburg soars; proving that it truly is an ideal place to live in.

On a personal note, I could not imagine living anywhere else. As a part of the community, I am equipped with what I term “insurance.” The daily trials I face are so much easier to withstand when I am one of many. The intensely religious environment keeps me on the straight and true path, protecting me from foreign influences and temptations. I will always be thankful for its direction.”

One of my favorite books that describe contemporary Hasidic life — and probably one of the least known — is Teacha; Storeis from a Yeshiva. The book only gives us a sliver of a glimpse into the community, through the eyes of Gerry Albarelli, a non-Jew who was hired to be a teacher in the Satmar boy’s school. Albarelli writes with candor and an eye for detail about the chaotic, rough, all-male bubble of education inside the Hasidic community. It is clear from his writing that he is neither intimidated nor awestruck by the wild and unusual yeshiva he finds. What we get instead is subtle warms, an occasional shoulder shrug, and a good sense of humor. Albarelli is able to show us how wild and untamed these boys are, a “factory” running into the evening, while it is also clear that he gets through to the children, grows on them as they grow on him. What I like about his stories is that he does not belabor any of these feelings. He just says it as he experienced it, and lets the readers feel the range of experiences through his.

It is told in short essays, but all of the essays together follow him through one school years, from when he was hired as he becomes more comfortable in the yeshiva, until he leaves at the end of the year. His first efforts to earn the boys respect:


“They (the Hasidic boys) were outside the classroom, six or seven boys, waiting, hopping in place, talking excitedly behind their hands. When they saw me coming, they ran inside, “Teacha! The teacha!” The tables and benches were shoved out of their usual arrangement and boys were running around them. Books and papers were all over the floor.

When the boys saw me walk in, they stopped what they were doing – chasing each other, walking on the tables, screaming, laughing, only long enough to let me know they were not going to stop.

Then I was the boy up near the ceiling.

He was on top of the wardrobe that contained their jackets and bookbags.

“Get down!” I said.

Everyone looked up.

“Teacha,” he said, smiling now that everyone was watching. “Look! I’m a janitor fixing the pipes.”

Later, Albarelli adapts and learns to navigate this challenging teaching post, but we know that this is not a situation where he ever completely wins the staff or student’s trust. He is only more successful and teaches more than the other English teachers, but that doesn’t say much, as many of the teachers are terrified of their own students and are just there to get out. Albarelli educates by putting on performances with the boys, or as the boys call it “makhen plays”, something everyone loved.

“The play began with one boy whistling and sweeping the floor of his store in the morning. It was easy to see the broom would have been taller than he was; it was probably even in the way he held the imaginary broom. Whistling, sweeping, and then he had a customer. All the other boys were watching; they were all sitting on the floor, on their tables, quietly listening.

There he was, with his peyahs, and white shirt tucked into his pants, whistling, and the other boys, looking exactly the same, were watching…

All of a sudden another boy entered the store, grabbed a chicken and ran out. When the store owner realized what had happened he was in a panic. He called the police. He was on a first-name basis with the policeman who answered the phone; he even told him to get right over there. The policeman arrived, took a description of the thief, went out, searched for and found him. Then he arrested him and put him in jail, which was the closet at the back of the room.”

We also get a little feel for how the children feel about this outsider, this teacher, who they call a goy, or a “half Jew, half goy” doomed for gehenna. There is an obvious chasm between the Yiddish speaking students and their “English” teacher. 

“Every day they teach me a few new words but they seem to have no faith in my capacity to absorb and remember because every time I throw a Yiddish word into a story, they look up, astonished. “This is a story about an old woman who sweeps with the besom, with the broom.” “Teacha,” a boy says, “you can Yiddish?”

A central character in the boys’ lives is Rabbi Katz, the man who carries the stick and the carrot and shoves around the boys and teachers with the same rough manners. He has a trademark “scariness” that is supposed to put everything in to order, yet his pushing and shoving means he’s not really taken seriously. We all know the bad guy in schools; from whom all the students run. And sometimes thhis bad guy is even the good guy.

“Sorry for my English,” Rabbi Katz says as though he weren’t sorry at all. “I’m born in Israel.”

Then, all of a sudden he switches gears.

“Eleven years I am a teacher. Not only a teacher!” Shouts Rabbi Katz. “I’m director from the boys’ choir. I’m running the kitchen. I run a summer camp. You ask any boy – any boy – who having the best camp! I work mit details!”

Rabbi Katz is explaining himself to us. He goes on and on. There’s a lot to say. He’s explaining himself to the teachers more or less the way he explains himself to the boys.”

Albarelli ends this way-too-short little book with the closing of the school year, when the boys are suddenly informed that they will no longer have English and they can leave early. As Albarelli leaves, there are no obvious expressions of affection to mark their parting, but it is clear that he does not leave the boys easily.

“Walking away, I was thinking about the boys. It was as if they lived on a rope stretched between a lake of fire, Gehenna, and the fires of ecstasy. The boys never saw themselves as individuals but as boys who were wild and in need of a smack. It was as if in the ruin of a classroom – all classrooms were ruined all the time as if ever day were the last day of the year – it was as if the ruin of a classroom was wild  ecstasy – chairs broken, overturned, paper, strips of paper balled up, paper all over the floor, candy, plastic bags with the remains of potato chips and pretzels, orange peels, overflowing trash, books spilling out of the class; all the wildness and destruction of the room – also ecstatsy.

I was walking away from the yeshiva, the rabbis and the boys, but leaving, it was as if I was still there. Even half a block away, I could hear the joyous screaming behind me.”