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.