A Sukkah Is Burning: A Brooklyn Community in Tense Transition

Article excerpt

My father moved our family to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 1939--four years before I was born--because it had a community of committed Orthodox Jews. However, prior to the large-scale immigration in the early 1950s of chasidic refugees from Europe, the neighborhood's Orthodox culture was religiously heterogeneous and had little of the charedi attributes that dominate it today. The two largest synagogues, the Clymer Street Shul and the Hewes Street Shul, had a strong Zionist orientation. The other prominent synagogue, The Young Israel of Brooklyn, with its highly innovative "Americanized" prayer services, represented, at the time, a radical shift away from the traditional East European prayer styles typical of most Orthodox synagogues. I am told that on the day in 1947 that the U.N. voted for partition (two states), in effect, allowing for the establishment of the State of Israel, all of the many synagogues lining Bedford Avenue joyfully displayed the blue and white Israeli flag outside their windows with the sole exception of the small anti-Zionist Agudah synagogue occupying a converted brownstone next door to the imposing Hewes Street Shul.

The transition of this neighborhood into a charedi anti-Zionist stronghold that occurred in the post-war period was accompanied by much tension. As a child, I personally experienced this kulturkamf in a series of incidents involving the residents of our own apartment building.

The building my family moved into in 1939 was a 30 unit apartment house at 163 Hewes Street. The building's name, The Harding, still appears prominently in fading gilt paint above the front entrance. The building was put up in 1926 and was named in honor of the then recently deceased President Warren G. Harding who died in office in 1923. This may be the only monument to Harding outside of his birthplace in Marion, Ohio.

Considerable irony permeates the fact of having a building largely occupied by East European Jewish immigrants named after a nativist president closely identified with the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s--but this irony escaped its largely apolitical residents of the 1940s and 50s, who were more preoccupied with the immediate economic exigencies of the 30s depression, World War II, (1939-1945), and their aftermath. Hewes Street, together with its immediately adjoining street--Hooper, Penn, Rutledge, Lynch, and Heywood Streets--were all named after signers of the Declaration of Independence representing North and South Carolina. I recently heard about a Williamsburg neighbor who was applying at the time to prestigious law schools during a period when there were restrictive Jewish quotas. He was asked by a hostile admissions dean at the University of Chicago Law School to name signers of the Declaration of Independence. Without missing a beat, he recited "Hooper, Penn, Rutledge, Lynch, Heywood, Clymer, Ross, Lee, Wilson .... " He was one of the few Jews who got into his chosen school.

Most of the housing stock consisted of nineteenth-century tenements and brownstones in various states of decay. The Harding was one of the newer buildings, and tree-and-garden-lined. Hewes Street was one of its more pleasant streets. The Harding's residents may have been slightly more affluent and diverse than was typical of the neighborhood. Of the 30 families in the Harding in 1950, most were Jewish, but perhaps one in four was Sabbath observant. Many, if not most, of these residents were second or third generation Americans.

Representative of the ethnic mix were the ten childhood friends on the block with whom I daily played the improvised street sports popular in Brooklyn in the 40s and 50s--punch ball, stick ball, and stoop ball. Three were Orthodox like myself, five were Jewish but with little religious identification, and two were Irish-Catholic. My friends valued the athletic prowess of an individual rather than his religious or ethnic identification. …