A history of Jews in New York - Scholar and author Oscar Israelowitz to host lecture at the Williamsburg Library

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On June 24, the Williamsburgh Library (240 Division Avenue) will host a lecture on the history of Jews in New York by renowned Jewish architect, scholar and author Oscar Israelowitz.

Israelowitz gives walking tours of several New York City neighborhoods, and is the prolific author of many books about Jewish New York, including Guide to Jewish New York City and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg: City Within a City.

Entitled “Wandering Jews of New York City,” his one-hour lecture will look at the history of the city’s Jewish community through the prism of its synagogues.

“Synagogues are the landmarks of the Jewish community,” he said, describing how it is possible to trace the history of these communities through these landmarks.

Take, for example, Temple Beth Elohim, which became the first synagogue in Brooklyn when it was built in 1876.

Beth Elohim was originally a Reform Jewish synagogue: Its High Victorian Gothic style, replete with a steeple, gave it a Catholic touch reflecting Reform Judaism’s emphasis on breaking with Orthodox customs.

But the use of the building has changed with the times. The 1876 version of Jewish Williamsburg – home to Jews spilling over from the crowded Lower East Side – bears scant resemblance to the Williamsburg of today, with its large Hasidic community that arrived after World War II.

Its current use – as a Hasidic yeshiva – reflects that change.

Israelowitz’s lecture touches on many of these fascinating evolutions of Jewish communities in Brooklyn.

Borough Park, for instance, has long been home to a large Jewish community, but one whose composition has changed considerably.

In the 1920s and 30s, the area was home to many wealthy Jewish doctors and lawyers lured by new luxury housing developments and the promise of fresh air.

But as with Williamsburg, an influx of Holocaust survivors after World War II turned it into the largely Orthodox and Hasidic neighborhood of today.

The Brownsville/East New York area was once “the Jerusalem of America,” according to Israelowitz. In the early part of the 20th Century, there were, at peak, around 500,000 Jews in the area, many of whom worked in sweatshops in lower Manhattan at the beginning of the century.

But when “White Flight” took hold in the 1950s, this once-Jewish neighborhood changed precipitously.

Israelowitz, a master storyteller, covers this and all of New York City Jewish history in an engaging and informative hour.

It is a tale that starts in 1654 when New York’s first Jews landed in Lower Manhattan from Brazil and were promptly told by Peter Stuyvesant to go back from whence they came.

Along the way, musical interludes will break up the lecture, including a taped recording of renowned cantor Yossele Ronsenblatt, a Harlem resident and Orthodox Jew who turned down a job with the Chicago Opera House because it would have conflicted with the Sabbath.

“Hopefully it will be very enjoyable – it will be like watching a documentary,” Israelowitz said.


“Wandering Jews of New York City,” a one-hour lecture by Oscar Israelowitz, will take place at 6:30 p.m. on June 24 at the Williamsburgh Library (240 Division Street).

Admission is free.

Updated 3:48 pm, October 19, 2011
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