February is the slowest month for New York walking tours. It’s a cold and dreary month, the last bastion of the harsh winter, when all the January holiday travel is finished. The last of the winter tourism has gone into a bit of a lull before the spring season, as if to let us catch our breath before the fresh weather brings an onslaught of bookings and walks and umbrellas under the spring rain. 

But all year round, I joke with my tourists that they should come to the Hasidic community especially in February. Sure, I’ve got goods to sell, I’m biased, and sure, it’s good to visit when our groups are small. Small groups feel like visiting town with acquaintances and having a good shmooze. But that’s not the main draw.

The really special thing about February in Williamsburg’s Jewish South Side is the blissful, beautiful, magical, romantic, absolutely enchanting absence of Valentines Day junk from the scene. There is no clamor of white-and-red gift bags, not a shelf packed with white bears clutching red hearts, not a Cupid with his matchmaking and over-promising, not an “I-love-you” or “Be-mine” preprinted on a helium balloon by a cheap Chinese manufacturer.

No consumerist agenda throws Valentine’s Day into your face again and again, that only he who shall pay the shekels to the corporations that churn out an unmanageable mountain of waste, only he is deserving of love. That’s because Valentine’s Day is forbidden in Williamsburg. The holiday is seen as doubly bad: It’s at once a gentile holiday and is also a holiday about sex and desire and carnal pleasure. (Should it only be this raunchy!) I don’t think I even knew of the holiday until I was an adult. Then I tried the big whop and got tired of it quickly. Now I’ve fallen in love with the absence of Valentine’s Day in Williamsburg, so I come to Williamsburg to buy myself kosher cherry balls and my tongue gets terrifically red, which happens to be the color of true love.

The Hasidic candy shop is, to an adult with an interest in cultures, a sociological candy shop, really. The things that aren’t sold are as telling as those that are. There are no products that express romantic love, there are no sexualized candy displays (think candy underwear, which seems terribly uncomfortable and best to tell the kids not to share that treat!). There are no Trumps and Elsas and Minions and political cults of personality (no rebbes either, thankfully), and also no scatological humor, like poop, toilet, flush candy, and other candy that is designed to steal your appetite and save you the cavities.

Instead, there is an assortment of loose candy, nuts, rows of fancy cut-your-own-fresh sesame halva, many many gift baskets for newborns. Lots of baby pinks and baby blues. There is some mazel tov paraphernalia: greeting cards and congratulations balloons and keychains. Many barrels of good nuts. There are even non-dairy chocolate bars that come in fancy wrapping that read “#1 husband” or “Keep calm and you’re the best wife,” or something very unsexy like that. There are even a rare few “I-Love-Yous” on the specialized lollipops, but I doubt those are even meant to be romantic. 

The toy stores and pharmacies likewise are without any such junk. I found one exception: an oversized teddy bear on display in one of the big toy stores holds up a heart that says “XOXO.” But that’s innocent: who says that doesn’t mean “play tic-tac-toe with me?” Such misunderstanding of symbolism crops up here and there in the shops, like one shoe store that has an Easter Bunny on display down to the eggs in his basket, or a designer clothing store that decorated its windows in rainbow flags and purple-and-blue flags, the very same flags you see waved around by tattooed and pierced gender fluid half-naked goyim at the Pride parade. Besides the unintentional, nothing.

But there is more: This year in February, the candy stores are busy with a different holiday that falls mid-month. It’s the minor holiday Tu B’shvat, or as it’s locally called, Chamish Assar B’shvat. It’s an occasion to celebrate, listen to this — the trees! It almost feels woke! Once a year in the Jewish calendar, there’s a New Year for trees with convening, eating, singing and praying for our fellow planet dwellers. To honor the trees, we eat their fruits, including exotic fruits and dried fruits and nuts.

So now the candy shops are transformed into a party of all sorts of dried fruits, including beautiful flower arrangements molded out of the fruits, wrapped in cellophane, topped with a bow. Let’s be honest, it’s much better to celebrate the trees by eating a dangerous amount of prunes and sugar-packed dried apricots than by depending on your relationship status to be allowed to partake in any fun. Sure, all holidays are opportunities for businesses to push their goods, and the Hasidic community is also increasingly consumerist, but at least the holiday stands for something. The contrast between candy shops here and there made me think about how our ancient holidays were often mindful of something larger than ourselves, because humans felt so vulnerable next to the powers of nature. We might have moved beyond unscientific myths and we might have found ways to deal with some of nature’s destruction (might!) but we are still at the mercy of nature. I don’t think humility for the power of the world can co-exist with the intense individualism that has come to define Valentines Day. So I’m in Williamsburg with my small groups, enjoying the assorted nuts, having the best of both worlds.

A shell of what would have been one of the largest synagogues in the world stands abandoned at 540 Bedford Avenue Williamsburg, in the heart of the Williamsburg. From the site, we can see the luxury Williamsburg waterfront and the Manhattan skyline, and at two blocks from the Marcy Avenue subway, this monstrosity sits on prime real estate. It’s nearly a square block, although the main residence of the Satmar Rebbe Zalmen Teitelbaum cuts out a corner of Ross and Bedford.

The rusting behemoth at 540 Bedford:
the rusting behemoth at 540 bedford
The Rebbe’s home on the corner of Ross. The younger brother, Reb Zalmen, occupies this building:

Construction began in 1998 when the congregation was granted a city permit to build the three storey synagogue. But it came to a halt in 2001 when the dispute between the sons of the late rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, over which of the two should lead the flock, blew up into full scale internal drama and chaos. The stormy succession feud was well-publicized then, and it fizzled out only after the sects split in two.

The Satmar congregation that owns the property. The problem however is that there are now two Satmar congregations and the American courts have been unable to figure out how to decide which of the two brothers should inherit this particular Satmar property.

The feuding sons: Aaron and Zalmen Leib:

In 1998 construction of what was meant to be one of the biggest synagogues in the world began.  But it stopped in 2001 when the succession feud really blew up, and devolved into incidences of slashed tires, estranged families, brawls in the streets, arrests, and many, many disputes in the American courts.  Many of the questions of who should inherit which piece of valuable dynastic real estate were resolved eventually one way or another, for instance, the older brother inherited the father’s home in Kiryas Joel (where I grew up) and the younger brother inherited this one, on Ross corner Bedford. Like a messy divorce, many pieces were split based on which of the brothers had been more closely associated with that neighborhood or institutions. But this 199,251 square foot baby could not be split. I didn’t follow the process of construction from the beginning, but my guess is that the people deeply involved in the project ended up split on two sides of the divide, both claiming to have invested money or energy or focus in this building.

In 2008, when the divorce had been fairly complete, the construction was renewed when building permits were issued in Aaron’s name. In 2010 it was again stopped when Zalmen’s followers filed complaints that the Aaron camp was unauthorized to receive permits for the building. Authorities decided that this showed that nobody really controlled the project and revoked the permit till a resolution could be found.

The building sits unfinished to this day, almost twenty years since its construction began. It is one of the only things in Williamsburg that have stood unchanged over the six years that I’ve been a tour guide here. Everything is changing so quickly in Brooklyn — but the skeleton sits, a monument to the Satmar feud.

Here’s the Google Maps street view from June 2009:

Here’s the Google Maps street view from September 2018:

We pass this site on our tours and occasionally the big garage door is raised and we are privy to what’s inside, mostly storage for the Zalmen faction; bleachers and sukkah boards. But most important of all (:) the scaffolding makes this one of the few places in the area where we can find reliable shelter from the rain.

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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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. 

Updated 1/27/20

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. As of 2020, it looks like permits have been filed for residential project on this lot.

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The story of the Clymer Street Synagogue is an important one, and it pains me that it’s lost. I spent quite some time trying to piece it together by combing the old pages of the Brooklyn Eagle and googling the heck out of google, but it’s been hard to get the story or images of the important synagogue that once stood here.

What we do know is that as with many Williamsburg Jewish institutions, the property first housed a church. It was the Bedford Avenue Reformed Church or First Reformed Dutch Church of Williamsburg, built in gothic revival style. It was first in use as a church in 1869.

It looks like it was acquired by a Jewish Congregation at about the turn of the century. In 1925, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported this tragicomic saga:

Benjamin Friedman has no home and no overcoat and yesterday he took his life in his hands to get the overcoat.

He entered the Betachlon Synagogue at Clymer st. and Bedford ave., one of the largest in the Eastern District, where 2,000 persons were worshipping, and snatched an overcoat belonging to Mayer Concoll, 161 Ross st.

Then he ran down Bedford ave. with the entire congregation at his heels. Traffic was stopped and the entire neighborhood thrown into a turmoil.

1925, Brooklyn Eagle

In the 1965 picture by Irving Herzberg it is described as the Synagogue on Clymer Street with the following details: Synagogue on Clymer Street in Williamsburg, with steeply gabled roof, square tower at left, and two rounded arches surmounted by Star of David at entrance portico; man (possibly Hasidic) walking by iron railing in front of synagogue; bare London plane trees on sidewalk. You can see in the picture that there is a Star of David above the entryway.

In the early 1970s a fire destroyed this magnificent building. The New York Times reported that a new building was inaugurated in 1976. “Some 100 Orthodox Jews who had worshiped in makeshift quarters for five years dedicated their new, one‐story synagogue in the heart of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn yesterday.

But by the 1970s, Williamsburg’s non-Hasidic Jewish community was almost entirely gone. Notice that there were only a hundred Jews in the Times story in the seventies, while there were two thousand worshippers in the story in the twenties. By the time the new synagogue opened, the congregation was already destined to lose its place in Williamsburg, as had been the case for almost all non-Hasidic institutions.

Whenever I talk to Jews who lived in Williamsburg but were not of the Hungarian-holocaust survivors, I hear a mournful story about the Clymer Street shul. In my interview with Phillip Fishman, who wrote about his childhood in Williamsburg in the book “A Sukkah is Burning”, Fishman talks about it as one of the most important Jewish institutions in Williamsburg. This is how George Kranzler, author of “Hasidic Williamsburg” wrote about it in 1995:

 

[the Clymer Street synagogue] had been one of the largest and politically most active Ashkenazic congregations before, during and after World War II. The shul was packed on Sabbath and holidays, and on many occasions when it served as the location of mass meetings and celebrations or protests on behalf of the larger Jewish community.

A disaster out fire destroyed the huge building with its elegant architecture. In its place there is a small building, which is still too large for its small congregation. Officially it has about 150 members, but the regular attendance rarely gets up beyond thirty, even on Sabbath.

In 2003 the Times of Israel reported that the synagogue was about to be demolished. That’s all I have. I wish I could find a picture from before it was turned into a vacant lot with Williamsburg’s last Star of David.