Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Visit Hasidim" - A Personal Story of Life in Williamsburg‘s Hasidic Community

Freida Vizel, tour guide of Visit Hasidim
 I had seen members of the easily identified Hasidic community strolling in Central Park in Manhattan.  A flight on El Al to Israel was filled with the faithful.  Thousands live in Jerusalem where we tried to engage their children in play but were shooed aside.  And in “The Chosen” and “The Promise”,  well regarded author, Chaim Potok, revealed the inner life of this most private sect of Judiasm.  I knew of them but had never met a member – until our “Visit Hasidim” tour of the Hasidic Community in Williamsburg, a part of Brooklyn. 
Synagogue with Separate Entries for men and women

This branch of Orthodox Judaism was founded in the 18th Century by Baal Shem Tov in Poland and spread throughout Eastern Europe.  Rebbe Tov was a sincere and simple man who believed that an ordinary person who prayed from his heart could be acceptable to God even without being versed in all the Jewish laws.  His mystical approach appealed to the poor and was immediately embraced.  Most of the followers were killed in the Holocaust of WWII but survivors immigrated to Israel and New York and have established a strong presence in various parts of Brooklyn and the New York environs.

Our guide, Freida Vizel, was the 5th of 15 children in her family.  She grew up speaking Yiddish in Kiryas Joel, a thriving Hasidic community north of NYC.  They would often visit her grandmother in Williamsburg .   The family had no radio or TV and only a Yiddish newspaper to bring word of the outside world.  She never saw the  planes slamming into the Twin Towers on 9/11. 

Toy store in Williamsburg
Today, Freida provides a walking tour through the Hasidic community of Williamsburg  which appears rooted in the 1800s.  As this branch of Judaism aged, rules set in again.   Men must wear long black coats, white shirts, fur hats, large beards with side curls, and black shoes.  The women have some more flexibility in dress but married women must shave their heads (so that not a strand of hair can be shown to the public) and wear a scarf, hat or wig.  Since the rabbi must consent to the use of birth control, large families with eight children are common. 

Internet Cafe in Williamsburg
As we walked, Freida revealed the nuances of this life.  She pointed out the synagogue with separate entrances for men and women who sit apart,  a linen store selling single bed covers as husband and wife must sleep separately,  a men’s tailor shop with a selection of only white shirts,  and a school bus with Hebrew lettering for transporting children to yeshivas or schools.  Boys must study the Torah and only receive one-half day per week of secular studies that include science and math.  Girls, surprisingly, get one-half every day in those studies.   Behind one storefront door was an Internet CafĂ© with cubicles where the Orthodox could use properly filtered internet.   Surprisingly, Email is allowed.
School bus to transport children to yeshivas

Freida’s story was most compelling.  At 18, her parents paid a matchmaker $2,000 to find a husband.  Matchmakers consider family compatibility, looks, economics, and personality.  Both families will be given a name and they have an opportunity to “view” the prospective bride and groom.  To accomplish this, Freida was taken to Wal-Mart by her mother who told her to look straight ahead.  Suddenly, it was over when a person quickly walked past.    With both parties liking what they saw, the couple met alone in a family living room for 20 minutes.   When they exited the room, they had to say “yes” or “no”.  Freida knew it wasn’t right but all she could say was “I can’t say no”.  She couldn’t go against her father. 

Freida always knew she was different.  She had a typewriter and had written since a child.  Thirst for knowledge and experiences eventually caused her to leave the community.  Being an obedient wife and mother were no longer enough.   When Freida withdrew four years ago, her husband did not join her and they divorced.

Gottlieb's Restaurant in Williamsburg
During the tour, we stopped at two delicatessens.  In the first, a low wall separated men from women and children.  We had one man on the tour and no one seemed bothered by his presence on the women’s side.  Freida chatted with the owner and brought us hot chocolate.  At tour’s end, we visited Gottlieb’s restaurant where only men were eating.   Working hard to maintain good relationships, Freida again visited with the owner who brought us an array of traditional Jewish dishes. 


This was Freida’s opportunity to ask us questions.  She wanted to know how we would have approached living in her community.  Had we ever self-isolated ourselves?  The women present were sure we wouldn’t have lasted long in such a restrictive environment.   Yet, Freida clearly appreciated her family and respected her former community.   It just wasn’t right for her.  We were lucky to have such an articulate and knowledgeable guide and as my sister-in-law said, “Can’t wait for Freida’s book.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Manhattan Museums - The Frick and The Tenement



The Henry Clay Frick Home that now houses the Frick Collection                      

Henry Clay Frick was a very wealthy man.  As one of the “robber barons” of the Guilded Age in the 1880s,  Mr. Frick’s close circle of friends included Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Mellon.    He accumulated his large estate through the mining of coal and production of coke used in steel manufacturing.  His company, in partnership with Carnegie Steel, was the predecessor of United States Steel.  With his earnings, Mr. Frick indulged in his favorite pastime of collecting art – especially Old Masters such as Titian, Rembrandt, Goya, Whistler, Vermeer and El Greco.  This premier collection is housed in the 1912 New York City Upper East Side home he had designed to display his art with the intent that it be the showcase for the Frick Collection.   

Since 1935, the public has been able to view the beautiful art and stunning home setting that Mr. Frick bequeathed to the people of New York City.  Sculptures of marble, bronze and terracotta fill hallways,   natural light from 5th Avenue streams in and benches beckon all to rest and gaze.  If you’re lucky, an organ master will be practicing for a concert on the hidden Aeolian-Skinner Organ, the same fine company that built the organ at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Paris.  Our two hours hardly seemed enough. 

A very different museum building was constructed as Mr. Frick accumulated his wealth.  Located seventy blocks south on the Lower East Side, the contrast between the Tenement Museum and The Frick was stark.  In 1863,  a five story apartment building was built at 97 Orchard Street, originally populated with German  immigrants.  Over seven hundred beer halls filled the streets.  As  Germans moved out, Eastern European Jews and poor Irish took turns filling the apartments.  



By 1935, as the Frick Collection was opening, seven thousand tenants had occupied this building compared to only two at the Frick mansion.  It is believed the landlord boarded up the building that same year rather than upgrade according to newly developed code.  When reopened and inventoried in 1988,  the Orchard street property was a treasure trove of every day tenant life.   Developers of the museum researched specific families who had occupied the rooms and created tours with their stories.  Of the tours offered, we selected “Sweat Shop Workers”. 

As we entered the dingy building,  light from a single overhead lightbulb gave us the first glimpse of an immigrant’s life.  In the 1880s, the Henry Levine family lived in three rooms where a full scale garment sweat shop employed the family and 3 to 4 more.  Heat, poor ventilation, and work for 14 hour days/7 days a week contributed to high death rates.  Population density in the area equaled 2,791 persons per square block, the highest in the world at the time.  Today, it is only 400. 

Most touching were the mementos found in the apartment.  As our guide noted, “Rats’ nests are great archives.”  A set of girls jacks, large garment scissors, admission ticket to the synagogue,  box of Kasha, a Russian cereal, card for an overdue library book and a Kosher cooking jar all made the Levine family more real.

A second apartment revealed much of the lives of Abraham and Fanny Rogarshevaky in 1911.  Sweat shops had shut down after new regulations limited their viability and large factories opened.  Because women were paid less and Jewish men often were required to study their faith, the daughters of this family worked at a garment/shirtwaist factory. With high ceilings, bright light and ventilation, the factory was an improvement for workers.  But they could also now meet and compare stories of working conditions.

And, this is where the stories of our two museums meet - in the often violent atmosphere of the birthing of the American Labor Movement.  Henry Frick hated labor unions.  He fought them tooth and nail, including hiring hit men to attack strikers at his Homestead Plant and erecting a solid wood wall around the premises.  He thought nothing of hiring scab workers and making offers below the workers' existing salaries.

Across town, female workers at the Triangle Waist Company were submitted to one humiliation after another - clocks purposefully slowed to require more work, being searched as they left to be sure they carried nothing home, 14 hour work days and working above the regulated 7th floor limit in case of fire.  On March 25, 1911, a fire at the company trapped many workers as the door were locked from the outside.  Until 9/11, it was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC with scenes of women jumping out windows to their deaths.  The disaster galvanized women to join union and socialites  to join the fight leading to improved work conditions.

A good museum teaches, engages, and makes the past personal.  Mr. Frick’s home exemplified the Gilded Age, life of the elite, and the power of money to surround oneself with beauty at the expense of the other 99%.   At the Tenement Museum, it was made clear we owe a great debt to that 99% - immigrants who lived under painful circumstances but persevered so that their descendants could do better.   Thanks to them, we have.

 Frick Collection website                                                                                                                                                   





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