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Flatbush Avenue, Borough Park, Coney Island and Brighton Beach, Brooklyn Bridge, Loehman's and Lundy's, Mrs. Stahl's potato knishes, the Dodgers, Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen, front stoops and back porches, Hasids and Socialists, a place, a feeling, a state of mind — Brooklyn and American Jewry grew up together in the 20th century. From the first documented settlement of Jews in Brooklyn in the 1830s to the present day, Jewish presence — always between a quarter to a third of Brooklyn's entire population — has been key to the development of the borough. Jewish families and foodways, businesses, schools, and synagogues, simchas and celebrations, have been an essential component of Brooklyn life.
In Jews of Brooklyn, over forty historians, folklorists, museum curators, musicians, and ordinary Brooklyn Jews with something to say about egg creams and Brooklyn accents, present a vivid, living record of this astonishing cultural heritage.
Essays in the first section, "Coming to Brooklyn" explore the creative and often bewildering foundations of immigrant life. Juxtaposed are arrival experiences of eastern European Jews, Syrian Jews, Jews from Israel, and Holocaust survivors, and the kinds of shops, factories, synagogues, and schools they established there. "Living in Brooklyn," looks at neighborhoods, culture, and institutions from the 1930s to the present. Evocative portraits of Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Brighton Beach, Brownsville, Canarsie, Crown Heights, Flatbush, and Williamsburg describe street life and local characters, offering an intimate look at Jewish family life, even as they convey a sense of evolving neighborhoods and changing times. "Leaving Brooklyn / Returning to Brooklyn" features essays on famous Brooklynites such as Barbra Streisand and Danny Kaye as well as numerous personal reminiscences and family portraits of ordinary folk, making it clear that Brooklyn, for better and for worse, maintains a lasting presence in the lives of Jews born and raised there.
Ilana Abramovitch's Introduction provides general historical context. The book also features a detailed timeline of Jewish immigration to and settlement in borough's neighborhoods, and of key events and turning points in the history of Jewish Brooklyn, as well as a Selected Bibliography.
Your Best Face
Brooklyn Jewish Studio
By the twentieth century, more than a third of New York City's population was foreign-born. In Brooklyn alone, immigrants or the children of foreign-born parents made up an estimated 1,235,000 of the total population of 1,700,000 in 1912. Drawn to the borough by its booming real estate market, attractive modern apartment buildings, and less congested neighborhoods, immigrants continued to leave older neighborhoods in Manhattan for Brooklyn. Some newly arrived immigrants even chose to dispense with the traditional interlude of residence on the Lower East Side and came to Brooklyn directly from Ellis Island. By 1925, Jews accounted for 36 percent of all Brooklyn residents.
Those who feared the changes that immigrants might bring to a hitherto more ethnically homogenous America complained of the "'fantastic cosmopolitanism' which had submerged [New York's] original Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock." Leading cultural figures such as Henry James worried that "the newcomers were remaking New York more than it was remaking them." Indeed, the thousands of new apartment buildings erected by real estate developers (many of whom were Jewish) did alter the Brooklyn skyline forever. Immigrants and the children of immigrants literally and figuratively "remade" the borough once known as "the city of churches."
A 1912 pamphlet published by the Municipal Club of Brooklyn both acknowledged and sought to allay its readers'worries about the impact made by the newcomers on the borough:
Brooklyn today impresses one more as a New England city, with a high percentage of native-born than a community composed of over fifty per cent of foreigners and children of foreign parents ... The thoroughly American Brooklynite of the early days finds his city invaded by many from the old countries of continental Europe. He maintains the spirit of the "City of Churches," and at the same time, through the schools, through the social settlements, and the numerous other charitable and educational agencies, is making over the foreigner into the American of tomorrow....
As Brooklyn's old guard worried over the changing racial and ethnic character of their city, it is ironic that many of those they thought of as so different from themselves were (albeit on their own terms) preoccupied with nothing less than transforming themselves into middle-class Americans. Evidence of their aspirations can be seen in the studio portraits of the time. These formal portraits—taken by professional photographers in an era when most American families did not own cameras—are more cryptic documents than the snapshots that make up the bulk of today's family albums. Unlike candid photographs, in which people are caught "as they really are," in the settings of everyday life, studio portraits serve as socioeconomic statements about ascension into the middle class or the aspiration to do so. To a much greater degree than today's casually posed pictures, late-nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century portraits are about posterity, about self-commemoration through putting on one's "best face." They are relics of a time characterized by a much more formal aesthetic, when portrait photography was still firmly attached to the conventions of oil painting—when photography, which made formal portraiture accessible even to the poor, was a visual expression of social mobility.
Every culture reflects its own aesthetics and traditions in its photography, but to a large degree, studio portraits mask ethnicity and class. In the more formal images of bygone ages—the wedding, confirmation, baby, and family pictures of the past—few signs of ethnicity, national origin, or even of class are apparent. If we compare a portrait of a Jewish family in Brooklyn with that of a Protestant family in Ohio, we would not immediately be able to point to differences of ethnicity and class. To some extent, this is a function of our distance from and ignorance of the portrait sitters' world. Nonetheless, the studio portraits of different ethnic groups and classes are remarkably similar. It is this very absence of difference that reveals the universality of the photographic aesthetic at the turn of the century. Everyone followed the same visual conventions: the world over, people held a common idea about what a proper portrait should look like.
Despite the stereotypical image of Jewish immigrants as unsophisticated rustics, most arrived in America already familiar with modern, middle-class mores. Many came not from the ranks of the poorest Jews but from more financially secure families who could at the very least manage the cost of steamship tickets and railway passage to the port. Moreover, many eastern European Jewish immigrants were natives of large cities such as Warsaw, rather than of the small, rural shtetlakh that feature so prominently in the public imagination. By the 1890s, the custom of putting on one's shabes (Sabbath) best and sitting for one's photo portrait was a well-known ritual even in eastern Europe. Farewell portraits, taken on the eve of departure and left behind with loved ones as mementos, as well as portraits of left-behind wives and children sent to America to remind husbands of their family ties, were common.
Even in the smaller towns of eastern Europe there were professional photographers who made portraits that do not appreciably differ in style from those made in large cities or in the United States. Some places not big enough to rate a permanent studio were regularly visited by traveling photographers. These portraits present us with a very different set of images than the pictures of newly arrived immigrants made by social documentarians such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Riis and Hine depicted the differences and distances between poor immigrants and native-born Americans. The potential immigrants themselves invariably chose to represent themselves as respectable and middle-class.
Immigrants were acutely aware of the importance of physical appearance and fashion. One of the first things that many did after arriving here was to go out and get completely outfitted in new American clothes. Indeed, having one's photograph taken could serve as an important rite of passage for a newly arrived immigrant, allowing for a speedy (if superficial) transformation of greenhorn into middle-class American (figs. 1-3).
JEWISH STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHY
Hundreds of photographers were active in New York City at any given time during the mass immigration era, and Brooklyn appears to have been well served by the profession. Evidence for this comes from the cardboard mounts of the studio portraits themselves. Most not only provide the names of the photographers but also give the street addresses of the photo studios (fig. 4). Card mounts from photographs in family history collections at several New York City archives suggest that at any given time, Brooklyn Jews had the pick of dozens of storefront photographers. These studios were most often located on or near main shopping streets such as Broadway, Manhattan Avenue, and Graham Avenue in Williamsburg; Pitkin and Rockaway in Brownsville; and Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. (To judge from their predominance in collections of family photos, the Williamsburg studios of two photographers, A. Warshaw and H. Caplan, were particularly popular with Jewish immigrant families). By the evidence of names alone, most of the studios that catered to a Jewish clientele seem to have been owned and operated by Jews; a few others appear to have been Gentile-owned establishments (e.g., Amos Silkworth at 261 Manhattan Avenue in Williamsburg).
The portraits and card mounts are almost the only surviving remnants of these once-thriving businesses. Apparently, very few Brooklyn photographers thought it worth their while to pay for advertisements in trade journals, such as Lain & Healy's Brooklyn and Long Island Business Directory, Uppington's Elite Directory, or the Almanac of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (the nineteenth-century equivalents of today's yellow pages). Show windows and, here and there, ads in ethnic newspapers seem to have served as sufficient advertising for what were essentially small neighborhood businesses. In fact, show windows were apparently the local photographer's most effective type of advertising. Neighborhood institutions in themselves, they afforded local people the pleasant experience of seeing flattering portraits of themselves and their friends as they walked by on the way to work or shopping.
Sent to families back home in Europe, studio portraits of Brooklyn Jews functioned as compelling advertisements for the New World's middle-class consumer culture. At the same time, the portraits also furnish proof of the continuing bonds of homeland and ethnicity (figs. 5 and 6).
Photography both reflected and reshaped Jewish rituals. For instance, courtship rituals were markedly different in the New World. Whereas, in the Old Country, the emphasis was on matchmakers and arranged marriages, in America, young people were increasingly in charge of choosing their own mates. Romance played a role that it hadn't for previous generations. Young women, in particular, had more freedom to socialize with the opposite sex than they had had in Europe. As a Lower East Side photographer told a reporter for the Forverts in 1902,
A lot of girls ... have themselves photographed with the boys they're going out with, before they're married. Others do it on purpose, so that later on, the boy will be unable to deny that they were going out. One girl was photographed by us with 8 different boys in 2 years.
In these cases, you often notice that the boy is not happy about it. He comes late on purpose and gives different excuses, but it does him no good. He's got to be photographed with her.
I've got a hundred dozen of these sorts of photographs because in the couple of weeks before the pictures are ready, in the meantime they've broken up. The match is off, so the pictures remain unclaimed.
Indeed, the custom of sitting for engagement, bar mitzvah, and wedding pictures was far more widespread than it had been in the Old Country (figs. 7 and 8). Fancy bar mitzvahs and weddings were another way of proclaiming that one was American and middle-class, or at any rate up-and-coming:
All brides and grooms want to be photographed in their wedding outfits: he in his top hat and she in her white dress and veil. Most come to us by carriage before the ceremony, others come on foot dragging their bundles with them, and some come the day after the wedding, getting dressed up again in their silly costumes to get snapped. But it's a fact that 50 percent of all wedding portraits lie around at the studio for a year and sometimes 2 years before they're claimed. They spend all their money on that wedding day and become paupers as a result. They simply don't have the money to pay for the wedding pictures. A lot are simply never picked up.
Another photographic item popular with Jewish immigrants was the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) portrait greeting card (fig. 9). It was an American innovation to mark the High Holy Days in this way and is but one example of the commodificafion of culture and ritual as it was developing in both immigrant and general American society. In America, holidays like Christmas, Easter, Chanukah, and Passover were associated with consumer products to a degree as yet unheard of in the Old Country.
Portraits of elderly parents and grandparents represent another instance of the commodification of ritual (fig. 10). Back in Europe, veneration of ancestors was traditionally expressed by visits to grave sites—but in America, immigrants were severed from ancestral graveyards. Newly established cemeteries set off by themselves in remote areas of Long Island or New Jersey were not part of the landscape of everyday life to the same extent as back home. Now, children wanted more close at hand mementos of loved ones than distant tombstones. As one Lower East Side photographer related:
Many parents won't go to a photography studio for no money and we have to photograph them at home. It's not easy. But the overwhelming majority come in to us with their parents. The parents are dragged in reluctantly, protesting, but it does them no good. And the children have all sorts of trouble with their parents! Here, not long ago, we had one who for no money would tuck his earlocks under his skullcap, even though his children wept and begged. But it did them no good.
One father was simply tricked by his children into coming in. They told him to sit down for a while and in the mean time I snapped him. But later he realized what had happened and he wanted to hit me because I had made it so that in the next world his skin would be separate from his face.
Hints that photography was becoming an aid to memory were the rotogravure photo spreads in the Forverts, which began to appear in 1923, a year before a new immigration law all but cut off the flow of newcomers from eastern and southern Europe. The Yiddish newspaper's illustrated section included the regularly featured "Pictures of Jewish Life and Characters" and "Portrait Studies of Jewish Women." Readers were encouraged to submit family pictures, which were then printed in the paper. The layouts often interspersed portraits from Europe with more recent pictures of immigrants in the United States.
These newspaper features simultaneously awakened the nostalgia of their readers, by encouraging them to remember their loved ones and their old hometowns through photographs, and provided them with visual markers of their own transformation into middle-class Brooklyn-Americans.
Excerpted from Jews of Brooklyn by . Copyright © 2002 by Brandeis University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Acknowledgments • Introduction
Putting on Your Best Face: Brooklyn Jewish Studio Photography, 1881-1924
First Synagogues: Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus and Union Temple • First Synagogues: The First 144 Years of the Congregation Baith Israel Anshei Emes (The Kane Street Synagogue)
The Early Years of the Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn
Syrian Jewish Life
Tastes of Home in Three Brooklyn Groceries
Brooklyn as Refuge: Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust
Notes on the Celebration of Purim in Williamsburg
Holy Rolling: Making Sense of Baking Matzo
New Synagogues: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann Talks about Congregation Kolot Chayeinu
Waves upon the Sand: Jewish Immigrant Life in Brighton Beach
The New Wave from Russia
A Williamsburg Childhood in the 1930s and 1940s
Sephardic in Williamsburg
Brownsville and Irving Levine: The Making of a Jewish Liberal Activist
Nice Jewish Girls: Growing Up in Brownsville, 1930s-1950s
My Mother's Borough Park
A Hasidic Woman in Borough Park
Crown Heights in the 1950s
Cruising Eastern Parkway in Search of Yiddishkayt
Growing Up in Interwar Bensonhurst
The Brooklyn-American Dream
From Brownsville to Park Slope: An Interview with Simon Dinnerstein
From Flatbush to SoHo: An Interview with Ivan Karp
Mazel Tov! Klezmer Music and Simchas in Brooklyn 1910 to the Present
Klezmer Revived: Dave Tarras Plays Again
New Jewish Music in the Orthodox Community
Bad Jews: Jewish Criminals from Brooklyn
A Brooklyn Accent: Borough Park in the 1940s
Candy Stores and Egg Creams
Street Games in Brooklyn
Poultry in Motion: The Jewish Atonement Ritual of Kapores
Suits and Souls: Trying to Tell a Jew: When You See One in Crown Heights
Brooklyn Yiddish Radio, 1925-46
Jewish Commitment and Continuity in Interwar Brooklyn
"A Home Though Away from Home": Brooklyn Jews and Interwar Children's Summer Camps
Blacks, Jews, and the Struggle to Integrate Brooklyn's Junior High School 258: A Cold War Story
A Tour of Jewish Coney Island Avenue
Dr. Alvin I. Schiff Talks about Jewish Education
Rabbi Robert Kaplan Talks about Changing Institutions
Radically Right: The Jewish Press
"Across the Great Divide": Alfred Kazin and Daniel Fuchs
Approximations Made with Line: An Interview with Phillip Lopate
Cyber-Spirituality: An Interview with Binyamin Jolkovsky
Thoroughly Modern Orthodox: An Interview with Rina Goldberg
Danny Kaye: Brooklyn Tummler
The Doctor and the Comedian
Scenes from a Superstar's Childhood
"Play Ball!" Jewish Athletes from Brooklyn
Flatbush Memories in the Florida Sun
Are We There Yet? One Family's Brooklyn Diaspora
Time Line of Selected Jewish Brooklyn Events or People
Selected Bibliography and Recommended Reading
List of Contributors