The Last Rebbes: Life among The Hasidic Jews, Part X

By Ray Schultz

The war ended with a fragile ceasefire, and the sides disengaged as Henry Kissinger barnstormed the Middle East. If the war were not enough to worry about, there was tension in the U.S. Nixon’s presidency was unraveling, the Hasidim feared instability, but were wary about saying so. I had once tried to engage Albert Friedman on the subject.

“How do you look at Watergate?” I asked.

“It’s none of our business,” he said.

“Would you support Nixon again?”

“Is he running again?”

“Did you vote for him?”

“We supported him in 1972. It was between Nixon and McGovern, and we felt the choice was clear.”

The Satmar’s Rabbi Stauber had explained their position in an article on Nixon’s most recent speech in Der Yid. It stated that while Nixon “has not answered questions, still, it’s a valid point that we should look to the future now, not the past, not let things undermine his administration,” Stauber said.

On top of Watergate, there were increasing stresses in the Hasidic neighborhoods bordering on African-American and Hispanic communities. Many of the disputes were political—over resources and influence. “They want to control the area,” charged Angel Reyes, a local activist in Williamsburg. “They try to push the Spanish out, offer them money to buy their house. Sometimes they abuse them to move out.”

That was in Williamsburg. For their part, the Lubavitchers settled in Brownsville, a rough neighborhood filled with declining housing stock. They then starting moving to the better area to the West: Crown Heights. Shrage laid out the sequence. “When Hasidic Jews move into fancy Jewish neighborhoods, the fancy Jews move out. And as the fancy Jews move out, more Hasidim move in. Then the goyim move out, then the blacks move in. That’s the way it changes. When blacks began to move into Crown Heights, to tell you that the Hasidim were delighted by that—of course, they weren’t. Not for dislike of blacks, not for that, they wanted to have a Hasidic community.

“A Hasidic Jew is at least liberal in that he feels the same way about all goyim—to him, there’s no difference. He remembers what happened in Europe, and he figures he’s got to be careful with all of them. No matter what you say, I know a lot of people who believe very strongly that it could happen all over again right here in the United States. Because they’ve been through this. They don’t want to be with goyim., they want to be with their own. I don’t care, a schwartze goy, a weisse goy, Puerto Rican, same thing. At least in that way there’s a common denominator.”

Shrage explained some of the differences that lead to mistrust, as he saw it.

“A black person comes into a Jewish, Hasidic-owned store to buy a dress, and is talking to the guy in English. In comes another lady, and she begins to talk in Yiddish. The black woman will think there’s a separate price going on: ‘I’m getting screwed here, I think I’m paying for the woman’s dress, too.”

“Why are they talking in Yiddish? That’s their language. It’s an effort for this guy to talk English. He’s got to think—it’s not his mother tongue. Little things like that.”

Other issues took place at the street level. Rose Shrage’s father, who had narrowly escaped being captured by the Gestapo in France, had been stabbed in the early days in Brownsville, sustaining a16-inch cut. And there were many assaults on Hasidim, fueling the rise of the Macabees.

Shrage took a hard line. “Its our fate,” he said. “So we get beaten up every once and awhile, it happened for years, it will happen until the Messiah comes. That’s what being Jewish means, we’re always gonna suffer that way. I say, damnit, no, it will take a little while for the Messiah to come. I want to welcome him healthy–I want to be in good shape when he comes.”

Rev. Bryan Karvelis, of the Church of the Transfiguration in Williamsburg, was in the forefront of community leaders complaining about alleged Hasidic actions. “A kid was brutally beaten by a mob of Hasids,” he said. “They pulled a gun on him and beat him up—he looked Spanish. The official story was, ‘Sorry, we’ll try to control it.’ That’s what they all say. There’s no response from the police and the courts.”

Karvelis conceded that “this is a tough neighborhood. There’s a high narcotics rate, and attacks and robberies.” And it was true that the Hasidim “might be abused verbally, or have their curls pulled. A few times.” But he added that the Hasidim “have an incredible hatred of Spanish and blacks. They come with a built-in hatred for anyone who’s not Jewish. You yell ‘Gonif,’ and within minutes you have 200 Hasidic men there.” Karvelis claimed he had thrown himself on top of  a 19 year-old youth being beaten with tin cans. “I wasn’t wearing a clerical collar–it might have made them more respectful.”

Maybe so. But how could he expect Hasidim to tolerate physical abuses like having their curls pulled–or worse? And did he have an inkling about Jewish history?

In December, I visited Ben’s Dairy, a purveyor of farmer’s cheese and other delicacies on East Houston Street, run by Jonah Friedman, a tall Satmar Hasid with dark hair and a beard, usually wearing a Russian fur hat. We went into the back room , a large area with work benches and a couple of adjoining freezers, and Jonah talked with me while he was moving cheese from the freezer into the oven. His father had “learned by the Rebbe in Europe,” and his family had followed him to Brooklyn. Partially financed by community funds, Jonah had built a good business. “Today there is no reason to be poor if you are only willing to work,” he said.

“How do you like the neighborhood here?” I asked. (East Houston had not yet been gentrified in those years).

“Beautiful. I love it here.”

Before I had a chance to follow up, he held his finger up, sort of winked, reached up to a shelf and pulled down a small revolver in a holster. “If anybody should come in here, I have this,” he said.

“You would kill a man?”

“The Torah instructs you, if your life is in danger, you must kill the other person first. It’s your duty. I would shoot first.”

Later that month, the Satmar held an event at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn As the large crowd settled down, someone started going over the financial situation of the yeshiva. They read out the names of each contributor. Some sums were quite large: $5,000, $10,000 and higher. Then there were the $50 ones: Everybody knew what everybody else gave.

There were prayers, then the Rebbe himself, whom everyone was struggling to see, began speaking. He spoke at some length in his hoarse voice, going over (I later found out) the Torah passage for the week. When he left, there was a mad scramble for pieces of the challah he had touched. Abe Beame, newly elected as mayor, spoke, too. He was led up to the podium, pushed into a seat, then pulled up again and given the microphone. He mentioned his visit to the boy’s camp during the summer and told the Satmar how much he appreciated what they had done for him during the election. Again, he didn’t smile.

And now there was bad news for Shrage. Beame, who was taking over as mayor on Jan. 1, declined to reappoint him. So Shrage was out of government. And now Shrage was awaiting new commands from the Rebbe. “If the Rebbe calls me at 2 in the morning and says, ‘Sam, you’ve done your thing in New York, get your passport ready, take a plane tomorrow and go to New Zealand (family, too), and build a yeshiva, I would do it,” he said. “And the Lubavitcher Rebbe does that all the time. This week, he sent people to Australia—five young guys. 24 hours notice. Go, no question.”

To be continued early in 2020.

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