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October 21, 2014 / 27 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Lower East Side’

The Twelve Tribes At The Bialystoker Home

Thursday, March 15th, 2012
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A quiet monument to the courage and determination of hundreds of thousands of Jews sits vulnerable on the Lower East Side of New York City at 228 East Broadway. This location was the former home of the Bialystoker Center, built in 1931. For many years it was primarily operated as the Bialystoker Home for the Aged that finally closed in November 2011. In its heyday it was one of the most important Jewish benevolent societies, a landsmanschaftenfor generations of immigrants from Bialystok. A groundswell of protest has arisen over the proposed sale of the building to a luxury residential developer with the possibility of its demolition. They are harnessing support to appeal to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to save the historic façade that boasts an Art Deco gem, roundels representing the 12 Tribes of Israel under the proud Bialystoker name.

Bialystoker Center Building Façade (1931); Henry Hurwit, architect

While initially easy to miss, especially since it is now partially covered with scaffolding, the façade leads to significance in two different directions. First it testifies to an enormously important aspect of Jewish immigrant history and secondly reflects the complex relationship between tradition and modernity, still playing itself out in the 21st century.

New York City, and specifically the Lower East Side, was in 1910 the largest Jewish city in the world. Moreover, the Lower East Side was arguably the most densely populated place on the planet. These facts alone set the stage for a momentous transformation of the downtown Jewish population. The predominately Jewish Bialystok suffered terrible depravations and violence during the Russian Revolution, World War I and subsequent upheavals. Therefore a mass emigration occurred both before and after WWI that resulted in a diaspora of Bialystoker Jews in Chicago, Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Tel Aviv.

The first Bialystoker landsmanschaften was established in 1886 and the Bialystoker Center in 1919. The current building opened to great celebration in 1931 with the Forward declaring, “Bialystok is now on East Broadway.” As the Bialystoker Jews banded together they offered services and collected money – not only to help their brethren here in New York – but also to help rebuild Bialystok in what is now Poland. This strong sense of identity, “forever a Bialystoker,” entered the complex immigrant mix in 1920’s – 1930’s Lower East Side. Many Jews resisted American values and assimilation and did not even become citizens or learn to speak English. They dug in and lived as if they had never left home, while others attempted to adjust to modernity, sometimes even completely abandoning Jewish life. It was complex and bewildering for thousands of immigrants and their descendants and the Bialystoker Center was at the center of much of it.

Bialystoker Center Doorway with 12 Tribes Roundels. Henry Hurwit, architect

The façade of the Bialystoker Center expresses much of this complexity. The grand doorway boldly proclaims “Bialystoker” in Hebreicized English lettering. The pride of Judaic-Polish ancestry is proclaimed simultaneously as the English language, and all it implies, is asserted. Above the entrance doorway the stone façade is capped by a grand balcony. Art Deco stylized reliefs ascend between the three central windows for the eight floors of golden brick. In its time it was one of the tallest and grandest buildings on the Lower East Side. It is clear the architect Henry Hurwit wanted to send as inclusive a visual message as possible.

The recessed doorway is concise, assertive and revealing. The 12 Tribal symbols flank the doorway: 4 on the right, 4 on the soffit above and 4 on the left. The images are ensconced in roundels that approximate a Hebraic formulation (right to left) of Jacob’s “blessings” found at the end of Genesis. They start on the right with the first born, Reuben, travel up, cross the transept and down the left side to the final child, Benjamin.

Bialystoker Doorway Soffit. Henry Hurwit, architect

The exact order and most of the images actually follows the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 2:2 that expands on the arrangement of the tribes around the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness; “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ household.” This midrash codifies the information from Jacob’s blessings (Genesis 49) and Moses’ blessings (Deuteronomy 33) into a blueprint for the color and image for each tribe’s flag or symbol.

At the base of each side panel there are stylized representations of the Temple Menorah superimposed over a Star of David/pyramid design anchored by schematic sunrises. These images link this building on East Broadway with both the ancient Temple and the growing Zionist movement in Palestine. Reuben’s mandrakes, a gift of fertility for both his mother and Rachel, effectively sidesteps Jacob’s stinging castigation. Simon is represented by a massive city gate, alluding to the city of Shechem, while Levi gets off scot-free with a depiction of the High Priest’s breastplate, the Choshen HaMishpat that contained the Urim and Tumin. The right side panel is then completed with the Lion of Judah confirming Jacob’s blessing of kingship to his fourth born son.

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Where’s The Outrage?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012
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When the disproportion of terrorist acts committed by Muslims – and the resulting hordes cheering the carnage on the Arab street – lead clear-minded observers to conclude that jihadism is the dominant strain in the Islamic world, we are accused of painting with an unfairly broad brush, discounting the silent (and invisible) majority of Muslims who oppose violence and crave peace.

I am ashamed at how fitting the comparison is to the current behavior of certain haredim in Beit Shemesh and parts of Jerusalem. Harassing women, terrorizing schoolgirls, assaulting police officers and journalists, vandalizing property—the so-called Sikrikim seem to have styled themselves after the Iranian vice squads. It matters not whether the perpetrators of these acts constitute 5 percent or 25 percent of the haredi community. Because all we hear from the background is a deafening silence.

There have been no public statements or rallies to oppose this outrageous behavior by those who claim to speak for them. In fact, the only rallies by haredim have been to protest the way they are being victimized by the media and Israeli authorities – including a huge rally last week in Meah Shearim featuring men in yellow “Jude” stars and children dressed in concentration camp uniforms. A handful of haredi rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but most have not, choosing to reserve their public pronouncements for other matters.

This can only lead one to conclude that a large number of haredim agree with the viewpoints espoused by the activists – even if they do not condone their tactics. They share the worldview that, as one man interviewed at the aforementioned rally was quoted as saying, “there’s only one Jewish way.” If you are not like us, you cannot profess to be frum, to love God and fear Him, to deserve basic human dignity.

Such an exclusionary – dare I say hateful – way of thinking is totally antithetical to Torah and many of its most foundational teachings: “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your fellow man as yourself); “V’halachta b’drachav” (And you shall walk in His ways); “D’racheha darchei noam v’chol nesivoseha shalom” ([The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace); “Derech eretz kadma laTorah” (Human decency comes before Torah). . . .

Why has the haredi leadership taken such a passive stance on this cancer metastasizing in their midst? It pains me to say this, but their silence – and that of their followers – is not surprising. The most consistent, persistent message that the extremely right-wing religious leaders send out to their followers, at least publicly, is not ahavas Yisrael, achdus, or continuous introspection. Instead, it is “Banned!” “Treif!” or “Anyone who does [X]or uses [Y] is not worthy of respect.” Whether it’s the Internet, digital cameras, smartphones, music (even by frum artists), public transportation, clothing that offers a hint of femininity, or stores with any percentage of non-mehadrin inventory, the circle of exclusion is forever expanding.

As a result, more and more people – regardless of whether they are indeed shomrei mitzvos and yarei Shamayim – fall outside the parameters of toleration. Holiness equated with quarantine will naturally give rise to disdain for anyone perceived to be “less than.” And so, I believe, this “cheirem culture” has created a monster: a society where it is seen as acceptable to lash out – physically, verbally, or otherwise – at fellow Jews.

What about the rising wave of anti-haredi – and indeed, anti-religious – sentiment in Israel, which has also given way to incidents of real harassment? Of course it is wrong. Completely indefensible. There is no excuse for attacking others (physically or verbally) who have not lifted a hand (literally or figuratively) against you, just because you find their lifestyle, or that of others who look like them, unpalatable.

But for the haredi community to cry victim – without in the same breath disavowing the actions of those who claim to represent their values – is nothing more than a red herring. The anti-haredi incidents are a backlash, and there would be no backlash had no women been heckled out of their seats on a bus and no little girls terrorized as they tried to make their way to school.

There surely are many haredim, whether in Beit Shemesh, Beitar, or even Meah Shearim, who abhor what is happening. But according to Chazal, silence is tantamount to acquiescence. So silent majorities are no bulwark at all – they are simply passive enablers of a grave chillul Hashem.

Ziona Greenwald is a full-time mother who has worked as a court attorney and magazine editor. She currently does freelance writing and editing from her home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

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Occupied Territory

Saturday, November 12th, 2011
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Ever since a light bulb went off in Yasir Arafat’s head and the idea of a Palestinian people was born, Israel has become known to the world as an “occupier.” The narrative of occupation, despite being a complete fiction, has turned the founding of modern Israel from a miraculous story of Jewish rebirth into a sordid genocidal project.

Language serves as one of the Palestinians’ (I use the term for convenience only) chief weapons in their war against the Jews.  The word “occupation” is supposed to conjure images of an arrogant colonial power, hungry to amass land and wealth regardless of who might be trampled upon like scrambling insects.  It paints in black and white:  one party as perpetrator, the other as victim.

Interesting, then, that the hordes of squatters who have, since September, been camped out in Zuccotti Park at the bottom of Manhattan have chosen to call themselves “occupiers.”  The Occupy Wall Street movement portrays itself as representing the victims in this country’s economic downturn, the poor grasshoppers whose rights and interests got squeezed out in the government’s bailout of big financial institutions.  (The gripe about the bailout is but one item on their motley list of grievances, and one of the only coherent ones.)

To me it seems clear that the makeup of the OWS crowd is overwhelmingly liberal, lefty, even a smattering socialist. The same elements who are the first to criticize Israel for every move it makes, to demonize the Jewish state and its supporters and swallow every lie that comes out of the Palestinian propaganda mill, are now raging against the American capitalist machine.

Thus, I find it curious that the protesters adopted for their movement the same pejorative terminology used against Israel.

Any connection here?  I doubt that Israel or the Palestinians were on the protesters’ minds when they hatched their ragtag operation.  Not consciously, anyway.

But I think there’s a notable irony.

This movement is grounded in an entitlement mentality that promotes self-pity above self-sacrifice.  The attitude is: We’ll stay as long as we like, we’ll appropriate the space and resources we need, and we’ll conflate activism with proactivity.

There are many things wrong with OWS—a lack of clear goals, a unified voice, a determinable endpoint, a hodgepodge of complaints as loosely related as Obama is to the pope. But what stands out most, and especially rankles me as a resident of lower Manhattan, is the utter disregard for the rights of others whose daily lives, routines, quality of life, and even livelihoods have been upset for nearly two months.

Police barricades, as well as offensive odors, require pedestrians (not to mention motorists, who are already under assault in Bloomberg’s New York) to reroute themselves, or avoid the area altogether. The already strained NYPD and FDNY, which have suffered diminishing ranks as their budgets continue to shrink, have had to allocate their scarce resources toward protecting the protesters and maintaining some semblance of order and safety in the area.  And local businesses have suffered severe downturns.  The months-old Milk Street Café, a huge, upscale kosher eatery that was drawing both kosher and non-kosher crowds, has already laid off more than 20 employees, and its owner has said he may have to close.

The rapidly growing OWS movement—last I checked, copycat groups had sprung up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Sacramento, Toronto, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta,  Minneapolis, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Oakland, Montreal, Vancouver, and many more – has spawned violence and vandalism, all in the name of peaceful social protest.

Just last week in Oakland, riot police arrested dozens of demonstrators who had started a fire on a downtown street and threw chunks of concrete and metal pipes – this after the group had managed to shut down the nation’s fifth busiest port. Even right here in New York, over 800 people have been arrested, most on charges of disorderly conduct.

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Max Miller’s Kaddish: A Year’s Journey In 50 Shuls

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009
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Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street, New York, N.Y.;   (212) 294 8330
Exhibition Sponsor: New York Foundation for the Arts 
Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.;
$8 adults, $6 children, students & seniors
Until August 16, 2009   
www.yumuseum.org

 

 

To make a pilgrimage is to travel far and participate in something holy, singular and transformative.  Upon the death of a parent, Jews make a pilgrimage thrice daily to a synagogue to participate in the same ritual, the Kaddish said over and over.   It doesn’t have to be far or near.  It simply must be a place that Jews have decided is holy.  And if we open our hearts, it is always transformative.  That is what Max Miller discovered and documented in the year he said Kaddish for his father, Murray A. Miller.


“Final Mourner’s Kaddish: 333 Days in Paintings by Max Miller,” at the Yeshiva University Museum until August 16, 2009, is more than the 50 brilliant watercolors of the shuls Miller visited to say Kaddish.  Each painting is accompanied by a textual comment on the synagogue, a personal mediation on what happened there that day and what impression this place of Jewish holiness made upon him.  With this text in hand, which is the only way this exhibition should be seen, suddenly a random selection of images becomes a hymn to American Judaism, a celebration of its diversity, complexity and most of all its warmth and kindness.


The geography of Miller’s synagogue pilgrimage was diverse; his journeys through Brooklyn, New York, Miami and Coral Gables, Florida; Burlington, Addison County, and Middlebury, Vermont; Columbus, and Bexely, Ohio and finally Baltimore, Maryland, were driven by the vicissitudes of earning a living and familial obligations. By memorializing a watercolor image of the shul in which he said Kaddish, he made each trip precious, effectively creating a pilgrimage site.


The visual diversity is truly amazing – constantly shifting his focus from details of an aron, the paroches, a glorious ceiling, stained glass window, a modernist façade to the jumble of men davening, a view from the pews to a view of an entire interior.  Each image is different, unique and, once seen in the context of the text, amazingly personal.


The artist, along with curator Reba Wulkin, has meticulously grouped his shuls to create mini-narratives highlighting the contrasts between communities and his experience of them.  An excellent example is the coupling of the Bialystoker Shul on the Lower East Side, a busy bright image of the ornate aron, contrasted with a plain image of the simple wooden aron set in the corner of the Hillel space in Middlebury College in Vermont.  The Bialystoker recalled for Miller, his maternal grandparents who lived on the Lower East Side a hundred years ago.  Saying Kaddish there immersed him in the religious and traditional world of his ancestors.  In a contrast, both visual and emotional, the Hillel aron in Vermont exposed him to a younger generation that embodied tradition by the conscientiousness of the students and Rabbi Ira Schiffer making sure he had a minyan during his teaching stint at the college.  “The students were right on it, helpful.  I was thrilled, impressed, and amazed.”

 

 

 


Chabad, Burlington, Vermont (2006), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist

 


Miller, evidently not a frequent shul-goer in the past, was abruptly thrust into a complex and diverse world when he took on the responsibility of saying Kaddish for his father.  But the experience quickly became a source of constant surprise and comfort.  He relates that in the Chabad in Burlington, Vermont, he is immediately welcomed and given a cup of tea, especially welcome since it was 20 degrees below zero at the time.  And of course, Kiddush and lunch are offered.  Similarly at the B’yanah Shul on the Lower East Side he is hugged and greeted warmly on a Shabbos morning.  His reaction is grateful, “In the past, this would have seemed to be a community from which I was worlds apart.”  Now he is welcomed as a friend.

 

 


Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami (2005), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist

 


In his wanderings he discovers many things.  First in some shuls he stumbles upon unexpected connections; a friend of his parents helped found one, a student tells him she had her bat mitzvah in another, and still others uncover surprising links to a whole host of family and friends.  The Jewish universe starts to seem more intimate. 


And funny.  He walks into a synagogue in Miami Beach.  At first there are only two people there.  “More come in.  Someone comes up to me and says, ‘Excuse me, you are sitting in my seat, would you mind moving?’ Someone else comes up to me and I say ‘Hello.’  He says, ‘Excuse me, you are sitting in my seat .’ After a few more encounters ‘At this point I’m pretty flattered as everyone is speaking to me.  I move 15 times for 12 people (some of them ask me twice.)”  The game of Jewish musical chairs plays on.

 

 


Congregation Derech Amuno (Charles Street Shul) (2005), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist


It is the poignancy and familiarity of these stories that transform his lively watercolors from a visual feast to a rich banquet of Jewish experience.  One can see the subtleties of these experiences in many of his images.  Chabad in Burlington, Vermont, sports psychedelic color, both on the walls and in the tallis of many the daveners, alluding to the fervent spirituality of Lubavitch Chassidim and those drawn to them.  And yet there is a figure on the extreme left in a plain light-colored jacket without any tallis at all.  Is that perhaps Miller, still feeling a bit apart from the minyan, even as he is embraced by the color and structure of the shul, not to mention the cup of tea?


Frequently Miller evokes his memory of the shul with the use of light as a metaphor for warmth and welcomeness.  Charles Street views the sanctuary from the vantage point of the women’s balcony, the lights casting an eerie glow on the supporting poles and ceiling above.  The chandelier seems to float suspended like an internal moon, further illuminating the reader’s desk and distant aron. On Shabbos, Miller was welcomed by “Herman, who is in charge ” and went back to sample Andy Statman’s klezmer music later in the week.  One could imagine the shimmering lights as visual echoes of the soulful music played there over the years.

 

 


Agudas Achim, Columbus, Ohio (2004), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist

 


In an early watercolor Miller depicts Agudas Achim in Columbus, Ohio.  Soon after his father’s death, it was one of the first shuls where he said Kaddish while visiting his mother in Columbus.  It is a stark, arresting image; the rows of comfortable blue seats in profile contrasted with the walls pierced by brilliant stained glass windows.  On an intense coral-colored wall an object floats, perhaps another stained glass window, perhaps a large wall hanging.    It is a disturbing presence, almost a tinted ghost, that reflects his uneasy state and, as he discovers later, a shul riven with controversy – about to change from an Orthodox to a Conservative synagogue.  Its uneasy change seems to reflect his personal turmoil in mourning.


The pilgrimage is one in which the seeker doesn’t know either where he is going or what he will find.  And yet for a year, he continues.  Miller finds himself in Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida.  He was entranced by the blue stained glass behind the bimah and was informed it was from the original Morris Lapidus design.  Suddenly he remembers that his father, an architect, admired Lapidus; “He would have loved Temple Judea.”  The pilgrim has found, quite by accident, that which he seeks – a connection and a memory of his father.  And yet, his image of it is quite different, a single panel of abstracted glass locked in a grid of translucent glass.  And yet, one clear pane looks out on the palm trees outside, a perfect vignette of the inside/outside conundrum the mourner is forced to traverse.

 

 


Temple Judea, Coral Gables, Florida (2005), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist

 


All 50 of Miller’s watercolors are part of one complete and complex work of art.  It is homage to a year spent in transformation – in art – a memorial to his departed father, celebrated through a son’s creativity.  He started as an outsider and has now made us all insiders.


Max Miller has accomplished something quite moving for us in his pilgrimage.  He has shown us the breath and depth of American Jewry in the multitude of shuls he visited.  His year of mourning and saying Kaddish could only have been done with his fellow Jews in their sacred spaces, each different and yet sharing a bond of holiness.  The ultimate unity of the Jewish people is found in these remarkable works.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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The Changing Face Of Boro Park

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009
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On a windy day in Boro Park, if you listen closely you will hear the trees ( the few that survived the timberman’s axe) rustling praises to their Creator – some in nusach Ashkenaz, others in nusach Sfard – but all rising to the heavens in unison with their human co-daveners.

And when they shmooze, the sapient, centuries-old maples swap memories of huddled masses yearning to be free, longing for a new lease on life in an alien land and finding themselves in this South Brooklyn neighborhood.

For those not attuned to the trills of the trees or the tides of transformation but who wish to uncover the mysteries of Boro Park, there is another source: the venerable researcher and historian Dr. Philip J. Kipust, author of the longstanding Boro Park Community News column “I Remember Boro Park” and founding president of the Boro Park Historical Society.

Born in Boro Park in 1927, Dr. Kipust attended Toras Emes, Torah Vodaas and Beth Yosef yeshivas. He worked for the Board of Education for 34 years, first as a biology and general science teacher and then as a guidance counselor. He was principal of Kaminetzer High School until 1969, Lubavitcher High School from 1985-1988 and Yeshiva Tiferes Yisroel (Chofetz Chaim) of Flatbush from 1988 until his retirement in 1998.

“I feel it is a contribution to Judaica to research and preserve the history of the world’s largest Orthodox community and to keep the facts accurate,” says Dr. Kipust, referring to the published three-volume compilation of his columns. “Wherever you go in the world, people have heard of Boro Park. It has received a lot of press. It has become a tourist attraction. There is a need for authentic documentation.”

Dr. Kipust recently shared his firsthand knowledge of Boro Park with The Jewish Press.

Jewish Press: Where did Boro Park come from? Has it been here since the Six Days of Creation, or was it hewn from a forest? Did Adam and Eve stroll here?

Kipust: The tract of land we now call Boro Park, which used to be called Blytheborne, has been here since the creation of the world. It may have lain fallow until it was inhabited by the Canarsie Indians. There is a theory that the Indians may be from the ten lost tribes of Israel, and there are some Indian customs that seem very similar to ours.

At any rate, the Indians sold Boro Park, along with the rest of Brooklyn and Manhattan, for some shirts, shoes, stockings, knives, scissors, and combs. Boro Park as a community celebrated its 120th birthday last year. In the early decades, Boro Park was sparsely populated, and there were few, if any, Jews here.

What are your earliest memories of Boro Park?

In the ’30s and ’40s there were mainly Italians and Jews living in Boro Park. We lived side by side very peacefully. The wealthier, more modern Jews from the Lower East Side or Harlem – and some from the Bronx and other congested neighborhoods – gradually moved here because Boro Park was considered suburbia.

Early Boro Park was all farmland, with horses and buggies. The early houses were beautiful. It was considered a comparatively affluent neighborhood. There were no shtreimel Yiddin; very, very few beards. It was not a frum community but it was a Jewish-minded community.

Can you tell us more about the people who lived here in those years?

There were very few Jews here who were shomer Shabbos. Very few. Our house was the only one on the block that had a sukkah. Most of the Jews here ate kosher, lit candles Friday night, and went to shul on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and when they had yahrzeit.

Many others wanted only to be modern, to live with the times, and gave up their Jewish observance. Some felt they couldn’t be frum because it was too difficult. People had to work seven days a week. Those were the Depression years. Many went to shul on Shabbos morning, often just to hear the chazzan – we had many famous chazzanim including Yossele Rosenblatt, Berele Chagy, Moshe and David Koussevitzky, Mordechai Hershman, Moshe Stern – or just to keep in touch with their Yiddishkeit before going to work afterward.

There was a man with two missing fingers. When asked how he lost them, he said that one Shabbos he was at work operating a machine, and he began to cry because he had to work on Shabbos. Because his eyes were so full of tears, he did not see what he was doing and his fingers got caught in the machine.

Was it possible to buy kosher food in Boro Park in those days?

There was no such thing as kashrus symbols or cholov Yisroel or glatt kosher. If you wanted to buy something, you would just read the ingredients on the label. If it didn’t say animal fat but said vegetable shortening, you assumed it was kosher. There was no other way of knowing. At our house we used to make our own food. Merchants came around on horse and buggy selling vegetables. There were kosher butcher stores, and people had to depend on the reliability of the butcher. There was a retail kosher chicken market on 13th Avenue, where a shochet slaughtered live chickens on the spot.

What were the stores like in Boro Park?

Thirteenth Avenue was a very busy shopping area with fancy Jewish-owned fine-clothing shops. All the stores were open on Shabbos and closed on Sunday, except for butcher shops, which were closed on Shabbos. We had the Blue Laws – storekeepers received a summons for being open on Sunday. There were seven movie theaters operating at one time. Most residents went to the movies.

Which shuls were here in the early days?

The first Boro Park shul was Beth El on 12th Avenue in 1902. Then, in 1904, came the Conservative synagogue, Temple Emanuel, followed by Cong. Shomrei Emunah in 1908, Anshei Sfard in 1915, and Cong. B’nei Yehuda, Young Israel, and the Reform temple in the ’20s. There were a few small shuls. Rabbi Parnes opened a shul in his house on 16th Avenue and 55th Street in about 1923. There was Rabbi Ralbag, who had a shul in his house on 18th Avenue near 45th Street, Sfas Emes on 42nd Street, and a few others.

Were there any yeshivas here?

In the early years there were no yeshivas. Most of the Jewish kids attended public school. The first yeshiva was Etz Chaim in 1916. It began as a school of Hebrew culture and language called The Hebrew Institute of Boro Park. The Hebrew teachers were not necessarily Orthodox. The school later became Orthodox. Then came Machazike Talmud Torah, which had 600-700 students, followed by Yeshivas Toras Emes in 1927. All the large shuls had their own Talmud Torahs which, by the way, were always co-ed.

Most of the Jewish children went to public school and then to Talmud Torah in the afternoon to learn Hebrew language, songs and some Yiddishkeit. Yeshiva students mostly went to public high schools after graduating eighth grade. In 1929 Shulamith School for girls opened, and several years later, in 1941, Bais Yaakov.

To what can we attribute Boro Park’s having become the world’s premier Orthodox Jewish neighborhood?

I think there are three probable spiritual explanations. First, Boro Park was probably blessed because of all the mitzvos and maasim tovim done here. In the earliest years, the Jews who first came here were very charitable even though they were not frum. They gave tzedakah and did chesed generously.

Second, the Gemara in Shabbos says one should always seek to dwell in a city that was only recently populated because its sins are few. Boro Park was one of the newer communities in New York City. It had less time to commit the aveiros other communities committed, and maybe that is why it became a city of refuge and was not destroyed like other communities.

Third, Boro Park was a very peaceful and tolerant community. Even though there were different groups, and later on many branches of chassidim living here, they always lived together in peace and harmony. We had Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – and never a real conflict.

We also had different ethnic groups. Everyone who came here accepted the environment, adjusted to it, and didn’t try to change it. Shalom, peace, is a great blessing, and that, I think, is the blessing of Boro Park.

What are the current trends in Boro Park?

The population has been greatly increasing and changing. Non-Jews and many Modern Orthodox Jews moved away from the neighborhood, and more chassidic Jews moved in. There is physical and spiritual internal growth. We are much more integrated than other frum communities. We mix more. We daven in each other’s shuls more. More and more yeshiva students are opting to sit and learn and not go to college. Girls want to marry boys who are sitting and learning. The community, like Orthodoxy in general, moved to the right in religious commitment and observance.

The chesed and tzedakah endeavors of Boro Park are proliferating. Alongside the increased Torah learning, we have myriad chesed organizations including many bikur cholim societies, Chaverim, numerous gemachs, Hatzolah, Shomrim, just to name a few.

Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of how Boro Park has evolved?

As time advanced, more yeshivas opened here. Many families who wanted their children to get a Jewish education came to Boro Park, as did Jews who wanted upward mobility, who wished to improve their lifestyle, who lived in deteriorating areas like Harlem, Brownsville, East New York, the Lower East Side, Crown Heights, and the Bronx.

The subways and bridges, of course, had made Boro Park accessible from all over. When the BQE was built, a lot of Williamsburg families who had to relocate moved here. Jews from Hungary needed a place to settle after the Hungarian Revolution, and Boro Park was their first stop. Chassidishe rebbes moved here with their followers. Boro Park was fast becoming an urban shtetl.

On the economic front, the Sunday Blue Laws were repealed. Stores could open on Sundays, so this became a good area for business. Kosher products began to proliferate. Orthodox organizations were established. Yeshivas and shuls were constantly increasing in number.

Today we have in Boro Park, depending on how we define the borders, over 100 yeshivas and at least 300 shuls and minyanim, plus innumerable shiurim at all hours of the day and night, many mikvaos, and, of course, many girls’ schools. Even though rents were higher here, Jews were willing to give up other luxuries just to live here. People felt it was a special zchus to live in a place that had so much Torah and mitzvos.

Now Boro Park is growing up. That is, it is growing vertically because virtually every piece of land is built on. There is almost no more room to grow sideways, only upward.

How do you view the more recent environmental, sociological and religious changes in Boro Park? How do they impact the area? And what do they portend?

Boro Park is no longer a suburb. It is now overcrowded and overbuilt. Traffic has become a major problem. It is very difficult to find a parking space. People come to Boro Park from all over to shop. There is no municipal parking available. The overcrowding, traffic congestion, noise pollution, litter and other environmental problems engender negative behavior, rudeness and disrespect between people.

Differences in religious attitudes – involving, among many others, the eruv and intra communal leadership frictions and fractures – have a profound effect upon others.

Although these conditions are not endemic to Boro Park, they should not exist here because they might well jeopardize that which brought Boro Park to its lofty reputation as the premier Orthodox Jewish community.

Boro Park may lose its proud heritage of being the community of shalom. The age of the neighborhood is advancing. We can no longer claim to be a young community with no aveiros. The precious fabric of shalom may be beginning to fray, and the vital zchus of shalom is being threatened.

We must try to avoid that which has adversely affected or destroyed other communities.

But shalom is not only a goal to strive for, a midah to develop. It is also a great reward, a great blessing from Hashem. The Vilna Gaon said that shalom is not just a blessing, it’s a receptacle that contains all the other blessings. If one has the midah of shalom, it means he already has acquired all the other midos. The same surely applies to groups and communities.

The rabbis taught that one of the factors in bringing the Redemption will be the practice of ahavas chinam. It behooves the religious leadership to find ways to preserve the important characteristic of shalom so that Boro Park may be among the first to greet Moshiach.

Sorah Shapiro, a journalist, is the author, most recently, of “Whither Thou Goest: The Jewish In-Law’s Survival Guide” (Devora Publishing), available at all major Jewish bookstores and Barnes & Noble and online at Amazon.com. Her other books include “City on Fire,” an anthology on 9/11 and the Twin Towers; “Nation on Fire,” an anthology on terrorism in the Holy Land; and “Trials and Triumphs,” a collection of inspirational stories.

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The Character Of Rabbi Jacob Joseph

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008
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          The Jewish Press recently published three articles about the life of New York’s chief rabbi, Rav Jacob Joseph (1840-1902): “Failed Experiment: New York’s Only Chief Rabbi” (front-page essay, May 30); “The Chief Rabbi Encounters Opposition”  (Glimpses Into American Jewish History, June 4); and “The Chief Rabbi’s Funeral”  (Glimpses, July 4). This column augments the previous pieces by providing some insight into the personality of RJJ, giving readers a feel for the measure of the man.

          When RJJ passed away, he was survived by his wife, Esther Rachel[i], his son Raphael, and two daughters, Mrs. Anna Brody and Mrs. S. R. Schultz. Toward the end of his life, the chief rabbi was under the care of his son-in-law Dr. S. Robert Schultz. His children and his wife were all present when RJJ passed away at 11:45 p.m. on July 28, 1902.[ii]

 

As soon as the death became known crowds began to gather in front of the house. Nearly a thousand persons were there, and prayers were offered for the rabbi. The fervor of the men and women was striking. Inside the house could be heard loud lamentations over the death.[iii]

(Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes below are from “The Position of Chief Rabbi.”[iv])

Many stories about the greatness and philanthropy of the chief rabbi were told after his passing.

“He never knew what money was,” said a President of one of the synagogues last week. “Rabbi Joseph could have left a million dollars, but he died in absolute poverty. Millions passed through his hands. Never a dollar did be hold for himself.”

Rabbi Joseph’s concern for his fellow man and his humility were legendary. He was scheduled to deliver his first drasha on Shabbos Parshas Devarim 5648 (July 21, 1888) at Congregation Bais Medrash HaGodol, located at 64 Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, where he had been appointed rav. The officers of the congregation anticipated a huge crowd would turn out to hear the chief rabbi speak. They estimated that as many as 50,000 people might show up. However, the shul was designed to accommodate 1,000 people at most. Their concerns about an overflow crowd were justified. The New York Times reported:

At an early hour yesterday afternoon a crowd began to gather in front of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Synagogue, on Norfolk street, attracted by the report that the new chief rabbi, Jacob Joseph, would preach there his Inaugural sermon. As time went on the crowd grew denser, until by 3 o’clock it had filled not only the space directly in front of the synagogue, but the entire block between Grand and Broome streets. It clamored vociferously for admission, and Capt. Webb and 12 stalwart policemen had their hands full trying to preserve order among the struggling mass of people bent on gaining at least a foothold within the temple.
They paid not the slightest heed to the officers’ remonstrances and positive declarations that no more would be permitted to enter.

The synagogue was crowded. It accommodates comfortably about 1,000, but yesterday afternoon it must have contained at least 1,500 people. The heat and lack of proper ventilation caused considerable discomfort, yet every man, and there were none but men present, wore his hat. Several Individuals, evidently not of the Jewish faith, took or their hats, but were at once politely informed that It was contrary to the Hebrew religious law to appear in the synagogue with the head uncovered. [v]

Rav Joseph arrived at 3:45 PM. As the president of the synagogue related:

We decided to sell tickets of admission. Rabbi Joseph was then little known here — that is, his personal characteristics. The doors were opened for the lecture and thousands flocked around the place. Rabbi Joseph, tall, dressed in a frock coat, came through the crowds practically unknown. He went to the door of the church [sic] and saw the people giving up tickets of admission.

“What is this?” asked Rabbi Joseph of the heads of the synagogue who were near the door. It was explained that an admission charge was necessary to keep the people from hurting themselves in the jam at the church [sic]. “Then I will buy one of those tickets,” said Rabbi Joseph quietly. “You don’t need one,” said one of the leaders of the synagogue. “Yes, I do,” replied the rabbi. “I want one ticket to get in, and I want another ticket to take me back whence I came. I won’t stay in a place where the people must pay to hear me lecture.” This was the first time the men in that synagogue were brought in contact with the splendid views of the rabbi who had already won fame as a biblical scholar and teacher.

‘I Don’t Want Your Money’

A Mr. Levy, who was president of one of the many synagogues that dotted the Lower East Side, related the following story:

He came into the world in poverty and he went out in poverty, after devoting his life and every dollar he earned to his fellow beings. No man was ever a broader philanthropist than Rabbi Joseph. One matter I had before him which showed to me his character.
Two brothers became involved in a lawsuit. After a civil action had been begun it was decided by the brothers to take the matter to Chief Rabbi Joseph. The lay judges who were associated with Rabbi Joseph and who were seated around him when he heard statements of his people gave careful attention to the litigation of the two brothers. Rabbi Joseph settled the matter, and the brothers were so well satisfied with his decision that both insisted on giving Chief Rabbi Joseph $200.

“I don’t want your money. I want to help you all,” he said. The two brothers insisted. It then became my duty to give the $200 to Rabbi Joseph. He turned to his lay judges and said: “Take this money and divide it among the first eight needy people who apply for assistance.” That ended the litigation.

 

The Jacob Joseph Playground

It was mentioned above that Rabbi Jacob Joseph had one son, Raphael Joseph. Raphael had a son Lazarus (1891-1966) who was an attorney, six-time New York State Senator from 1934-45 (21st District 1934-44, 24th District 1945), and New York City Comptroller (1946-1954). Lazarus had a son who was named after his illustrious great-grandfather. Captain Jacob Joseph died during World War II. A park located on the Lower East Side was named in his honor.

           This playground, bounded by Henry and Rutgers Streets, is named in memory of Captain Jacob Joseph (1920-1942), a member of the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, and scion of a family devoted to religious education and civic affairs. Born and raised in New York, Joseph left Columbia University as a junior in 1938 to enlist in the Marines. Joseph died in action at Guadalcanal on October 22, 1942. Five years later, a local law named this playground in his honor. The dedication ceremony was attended by Mayor William O’Dwyer, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Councilman Stanley Isaacs, and Joseph’s father, City Comptroller, Lazarus Joseph. Parks also unveiled a bronze commemorative plaque on the flagstaff, which celebrates the life and bravery of Capt. Joseph.

This playground was built in part to meet the needs of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, named after Capt. Joseph’s great-grandfather.[vi]

May Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph long be remembered for his valiant efforts to strengthen Yiddishkeit at a time when there was an overwhelming move on the part of many to reject the religious values of their ancestors. The existence of today’s vibrant American Orthodoxy rests on the groundwork laid by him and others like him.



[i]Obituaries of Esther Rachel Joseph, The New York Times,February 11 and 12, 1922

 

[ii]Death of Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph, The New York Times, July 29, 1902, page 9.

 

[iii]Ibid.

 

[iv]  “The Position of Chief Rabbi: How It Was Made One of Importance by Its First Occupant, the Late Rabbi Joseph — Little Stories Now Told on the East Side Illustrating His Character,  Just Why He Wielded so Great an Influence,” The New York Times, August 10, 1902, page 25.

 

[v]Hearing the New Rabbi, The Synagogue Crowded and Hundreds Causing Disorder Outside, The New York Times,”July 22, 1888,page 8.

 

[vi]http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_your_park/historical_signs/hs_historical_sign.php?id=8261

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu  
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A Tribute To My Beloved Rebitzen, Lillian Chomsky

Thursday, July 10th, 2008
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Shalom, My Dear Rebitzen Layahle

Shalom my beautiful Rebitzen Layahle, a”h, so sweet and dear

Heavenly angels are surely greeting you, from far and near.

An exemplary life you did lead

Leaving us a wonderful heritage in word and deed.

Outstanding was your friendly and kind smile

Making our lives ever more worthwhile.

Many have done valiantly and stand tall

Your smooth grace and humility excels them all.

Divine inspiration was your constant guide

Experiencing religious life with joyful pride.

Arare treasure in many ways

Resulting in many brighter and blessed days.

Reviewing your wonderful life in brief

Enables us better to endure our grief.

Born in poverty on the Lower East Side

It’s amazing how you rose to give us such pride.

Transplanting luxury for vital need

Zeal and courage led to many a good deed.

Exceptional mom, grandma, wife and community leader

No one could have been more generous and sweeter.

Looking at all the good for family and community you’ve done

Asecure place in Olam HaZeh and Olam HaBa you’ve surely won.

Your premature departure can cause resentment

As we look back, however, we’re filled with quiet contentment.

How much we miss you, no one else can fully appreciate

Losing you, all the world’s riches cannot compensate.

Enter your heavenly dwelling place in peace.

May your intervention help our blessings increase!

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Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/features/a-tribute-to-my-beloved-rebitzen-lillian-chomsky/2008/07/10/

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