“From Suburb to Shtetl”—How Borough Park, Brooklyn Laid Claim to the Largest Population of Jews in America

(Picture: Hasidic Jewish men and a boy. Center man is pictured wearing a shterimel.)

Men draped in long garbs and black velvet shtreimel lined with fur smile and walk along the streets with their modestly dressed wives patiently watching over their children. Turning a corner, you are beckoned by a man speaking Yiddish to enter his grocery store, which is kosher of course. As you hop off the D train on 50th street or the F train at Ditmas Avenue, the world around you is immediately transformed. Suddenly, you are at the center of what is considered the Jewish capital of the United States—Borough Park, Brooklyn.

The F train riding along Ditmas Avenue

From the outside looking in, Borough Park (also known as ‘Boro’ Park) is a community that epitomizes how immigrant groups, specificallyJews, have been able to shape and influence a communty to change its structure and overall culture to adhere to a specific, dominant group. Borough Park is a large neighborhood in southwest Brooklyn that is comprised of approximately 100,000 people of Jewish descent, most of which are Hasidic. In fact—New York itself is home to the second largest metropolitan Jewish population in the world, behind Tel Aviv, Israel. The community itself is awe-provoking in its ability to retain orthodox tradition and beliefs amongst a very large, tight-knit group of people united by the same fervent devotion to their faith/religion.

Borough Park had its beginnings as a Dutch settlement that thrived off of agriculture, specifically vegetable production throughout the late 17th century to the late 19th century around 1871, when it the land was repurchased, causing the town’s economic source of agriculture and crops to dwindle. By the 1890s, the area that would become Brooklyn became incredibly urbanized and saw a huge emigration of people—having a population totaling over 560,000, making it the third most populous city in the nation at the time. At the turn of the 20th century, Borough Park would see a huge rise in Italian, Irish, and Orthodox Jewish immigrants. It wasn’t until after World War II that Borough Park would become the Hasidic Jew enclave that it is today.

One of the catalyst events/circumstances that caused a surge in Borough Park’s Hasidic population was the rising racial tensions, poverty, and crime in the area between Lubavitch and Bobover Hasidic (Hasidic Dynasties) Jews in Crown Heights and the emerging population of immigrants from the West Indies, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Fights between the immigrant groups became commonplace, and police involvement became increasingly difficult as the police were accused of favoring one group of the others if they were to take a stance. During the mid-1960s, the Bobov population of Jews left for Borough Park (a much safer part of Brooklyn at the time) to escape the continuing crime and race issues that awaited them in Crown Heights. The Lubavitch, however, remained in Crown Heights at the request of their leader, Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. Crime, violence, and tensions between the groups of people would continue until the 1990s with urban renewal initiative and gentrification.

Article posted by the New York Times about racial tensions, police-community tensions, and rioting in Crown Heights. Published August 22, 1991.

Boro Park’s atmosphere allows for both religious and cultural tradition and social assimilation to occur. Many aspects of life within the community are affected by Hasidic and/or Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. Homes within the community, for example, commonly have rooms added onto the original structure, in order to accommodate to Hasidic families, which usually have up to 6 or 7 children. Another aspect that have been affected in order to align religious beliefs with home life is education. School attendance of children in Borough Park is lower than in other places because of the amount of days of religious observance in Judaism/Hasidim. In addition, many children attend single-sex religious schools. Many facets of life reflect this orthodox community– from the clothing stores that comply with modest dress code called by Judaism, to the existence of kosher restaurants. The existence of kosher restaurants opens the opportunity for Hasidic and Orthodox Jews in the area to enjoy meals with their family, a luxury that is not always commonly available due to the lack of menus that comply with their strict dietary code. This retention of culture and religion throughout the neighborhood, whilst still being part of the larger community and borough of Brooklyn, addresses what it means to be in an ethnic enclave amongst the vastly diverse melting pot that is the United States and particularly New York.

Gitl from Hester Street

Boro Park embodies the complexities of Jewish American identity in an aggressively modern society that mirrors the relationship of Yankle (“Jake”) and Gitl in the film, Hester Street. The movie focuses on their struggle to embrace the unfamiliar New-World, American lifestyle and culture that no longer closely resembles their previous Russian, Jewish home-life. Boro Park’s location of Brooklyn, a metropolitan borough of Manhattan, is similar to Hester Street’s setting of the Lower East Side. In Hester Street, the Lower East Side is similarly depicted as a Jewish enclave despite its modern, urban surroundings. The disparity between what is Gitl’s home life within the confines of her apartment with Jake and the quest for assimilation and seem like a “Yankee” as both desirable and necessary is the focus of the film.

The identities one acquires in the Old and New World, and to which one should remain true is reflected in the difference in ideals between characters such as Mamie and Jake and Bernstein and Gitl. Jake and Mamie are characters who have embraced an identity that is far more fitting of what was considered “American”, to the point that they view their former selves and immigrants who are reluctant to change as archaic, and almost stubbornly foolish. This abandonment of their old character is baffling to Bernstein and Gitl, who view the desire to assimilate as both illusory and hedonistic. When Gitl arrives in the United States with their son, Yossele, she the picturesque Russian-Jewish immigrant, much to Jake’s disgust. Her traditional clothing and sheitel (a wig) almost seem to embody her identity—a physical connection from the Old World to the New. The differences between Gitl and Jake are noticeable on several levels—physically (appearance-wise), socially, religiously and idealistically. Appearance-wise, Jake is more “fashionable” in his outfit choices, choosing to dress more like an American. In terms of ideals and social lives, Jake also seems to be more of an individualistic or egocentric character. He disregards his wife and son waiting for him in the apartment, choosing instead to stay out, party, and drink with the company of Mamie and his friends. Gitl is almost exclusively seen in the apartment, either doing housework or taking care of her son. This, amalgamated with the different ideals in raising their son (e.g. calling him “Joey” or “Yossele”, cutting his hair, putting salt in his pocket to ward off evil, etc.) causes the end of their marriage, thus demonstrating how culture clashes, namely between an immigrant group, become more prominent in a different environment due to the exposure to a diverse group of people.

Despite the open balance between religion and tradition with more modern conventions seen in Borough Park, there is social tension in the neighborhood, ironically mostly regarding the role of religion in the community. In Jerome Mintz’s book, Hasidic People: A Place in the New World, he states that some in the community believe that more “social responsibility” and “courtesy” should be expected out of the public because of the expansive existence of religious piety in the community. A resident of Borough Park states, “Yiddishkayt [“Jewishness”] is not only between man and God but between man and man. The way people behave to each other in the street is what it’s supposed to be all about… Borough Park should be on a higher level.” As Hester Street tackles how an interpretation of identity and culture affects one’s “American experience”, Borough Park seems to be ladled with the same difficulty within the community regarding different interpretations between social behavior and religious upholding. This disparity in beliefs is furthered by the different subsets of Judaism, namely Hasidism and Orthodox Judaism. In Mintz’s book, a resident who left Borough Park retells of their experience:

I need a yeshivah [an Orthodox Jewish school] for myself and my family. I need a kosher butcher, a mikvah [a Jewish bath], and a synagogue. And they are all available in great numbers here in Borough Park. But there is one thing that is lacking—socialization. My children were playing and the neighbors [told their children], ‘Don’t play with the goyim.’… There’s no socialization. That’s why I left…

Complexities of the Jewish identity does not only exist within the confines of their personal relationship with their own religion and culture, but also others. The many subsets of Judaism, which each have their own set of beliefs, morals, and values deepens understanding and misunderstanding, acceptance and denial, community and isolation. It is for this reason that Borough Park captures the essence of diversity within a neighborhood. Hester Street commonly addresses this with the instance of Gitl and Jake’s differing views and experiences. The inter-workings of a community are not only founded on commonalities between its people, but also the differences—thereby contributing to the puzzle that is the United States, a quilt that is made of sewn patchwork of different ethnic, religious and racial groups.

An ironic end to Hester Street is the subsequent assimilation of Gitl. At the conclusion of the film, Gitl is seen in more modern clothing, her hair out, and speaking English. She also no longer calls her son Yossele; she calls him Joey, as Jake formerly suggested. Besides changing idealistically, she also seems emotionally different. She is no longer demure and insecure. Gitl seems more confident, especially in her pursuit of a new identity and a new life. To immigrate and to change accordingly has varying definitions in society. Some are eager to “belong” and abandon one identity in pursuit for one anew, like Mamie and Jake. Others, are reluctant in their pursuit, struggling to find a balance between traditional and modern ways of living. The pursuit of the American lifestyle and identity whilst maintaining a former sense of self that was founded in one’s country of origin is an aspect that Borough Park encapsulates. Borough Park’s Jewish population, whether Hasidic or Orthodox, Bobov or Lubavitch, has shaped the community around it. The grocery marts are kosher, the streets are lined with over 200 synagogues, and the signs are in Yiddish. Thus, Borough Park is the encapsulation of what it means to be an immigrant in America whilst bringing over and balancing their own culture, beliefs, and ideals.

Works Cited

Abramovitch, Ilana, and Seán Galvin. Jews of Brooklyn. Hanover, NH: U of New England Brandeis UP, 2002. Print.

Bramann, Jorn K. “Hester Street.” Frostburg State University. N.p., 2006. Web. 07 May 2017.

Corso, Phil. “City Living: Tradition and Culture Thrive in Borough Park.” Am New York. N.p., 19 Mar. 2014. Web. 09 May 2017.

Maeder, Jay. “REAL WORLD HASIDIM, DECEMBER 1978-FEBRUARY 1979 CHAPTER 436.” NY Daily News. N.p., 08 Oct. 2001. Web. 09 May 2017.

Mintz, Jerome R. Hasidic People: A Place in the New World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1994. Print.

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