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Brighton’s Early Development: Seaside outpost meets entertainment district
Brighton Beach was first developed in the late 1870s by German-American railroad magnate William Engemann, who hoped to cater to a middle class, explicitly non-Jewish vacation crowd. Engemann built a sea-side resort including a pier, a bathhouse, and The Brighton Beach Hotel, in hopes of providing a “respectable family-oriented counterpart” to what he saw as the vulgar working class attractions of the neighboring Coney Island – sites which tended to attract young Jewish immigrants. Engemann excluded Jews from his hotel, but the neighborhood soon supported boardinghouses and “bungalow colonies” that drew Jewish immigrant families from across New York (Orleck, 87). When Engemann built the Brighton Rapid Transit elevated train line – which brought travelers to Brighton for only a nickel – it further enabled the area’s development as a Jewish community, as working families were able to summer at the sea while fathers and other workers commuted daily to garment shops in Williamsburg and Lower Manhattan.
Brighton’s development as an entertainment district took off in the early twentieth century. A horse racing track, Reisenweber’s restaurant and dance hall, and the Yiddish Repertory Summer Theater, the nation’s first Yiddish summer stock company, were constructed (Jackson). A three-mile long wooden boardwalk built by local hoteliers brought residents from overheated inner city neighborhoods to Brighton’s shores. On the site of the old Brighton Beach Hotel, developer Joseph P. Day opened the Brighton Beach Baths in 1907. Historian and former Brighton resident, Professor Annelise Orleck describes the baths as “[Day’s] attempt at an urban Jewish equivalent to the country club” (88).
Still, in the early twentieth century, Brighton maintained the feeling of a seasonal seaside outpost– its streets were unpaved and sandy, lined with small wood and tarpaper homes mostly rented to single immigrant men and women newly arrived to New York. Many residents of Brighton earned a living catering to summer visitors, renting out seafront lockers or selling goods on the beaches. Brighton Beach Avenue, the primary seafront strip, held small tailors’ shops, kosher butchers and bakers, glaziers, shoemakers, and “home cooking” stands (Orleck). Though its population was heavily Jewish, Brighton had no official synagogue. Rather, Orleck summarizes the reflections of Sadie Reiss, a long-time Brighton resident, who recollects that until 1923, “adults would pray and the children study in tents in a muddy, puddly lot. For much of the rest of the 1920s, a shack heated by a wood stove served as the neighborhood’s only synagogue” (90). Through selling baked goods and clothes, immigrant women – most from southwestern Russia – raised money for the region’s first synagogue, the Hebrew Alliance of Brighton by the Sea Inc., to be completed in 1928.
The 1920s: A leap towards modernity
In the 1920s the migration of upwardly mobile Jews to Brighton sparked a real estate boom that transformed the face of the neighborhood. Jewish migrants fleeing the increasing hostility of Europe, and even more of those fleeing the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions of the Lower East Side, Brownsville, and Williamsburg, came to Brighton in droves. Residents of inner-city New York sought the health benefits of Brighton’s clean air, and the possibility of social mobility. Between 1921 and 1929 Brighton saw the construction of thirty modern apartment buildings – quite large for the time, six stories high, Art Deco entrances, serviced by modern elevators with doormen, and with ten or more apartments on a floor (Orleck, 92). The new apartments advertised glamour and a resort-type lifestyle attracting immigrants who could afford to escape the tenements of the inner city (Jackson). Brighton land values tripled during the summer of 1925.
The mid-century in Brighton: European Jewish haven and working class mecca
Yet, Brighton’s prosperity was short-lived, as the 1929 crash and subsequent masses of unemployed workers brought a new influx of Jewish migrants to Brighton, and land values fell just as quickly as they had risen a few years before. Following the crash, jobless and homeless Jewish families began to move in with their relatives in Brighton, and the neighborhood itself became one of the overcrowded slums that its residents had fled just years before. Meanwhile, Jews fleeing Europe – particularly the pogroms in Poland, and Hitler’s increasingly frightening anti-Semitic policies – came to Brighton with an assurance that the U.S. was to be a Jewish safe haven from European repression. Dr. Maxwell Ross reflected upon dedicating the newest of Brighton’s synagogues in 1937, “Brighton Beach, not Europe or Palestine, is the real promised land for Jews…where we may practice the religion of our forefathers without interference from narrow-minded bigots or maniacs” (Orleck, 91-92).
The circumstances that brought together large numbers of unemployed, desperate, Jewish immigrant trade unionists turned Brighton into a center of radical activism during the Depression. The Communist Party had a huge influence in the neighborhood – as Orleck quotes Brighton resident Shirley Kupferstein saying, “…Who doesn’t want to be a Communist when they’re hungry?” (93). Brighton during this period was “as politicized as any community in the United States” (Orleck, 93). Along Brighton Beach Avenue could be seen the headquarters for the Communist, Socialist, Mizrachi, Labor Zionist, Democratic, and Republican parties. Garment workers and shoemakers unions were active in Brighton. Brighton’s branch of the community-affiliated housewives’ union, The Emma Lazarus Council, was active until the 1950s. During that time the housewives organized several city-wide strikes to protest high bread, milk, and meat prices, and helped Brighton residents thwart evictions, keeping Brighton’s eviction numbers unusually low for Brooklyn neighborhoods at the time. Radicalism remained at the center of social life too, as all of these organizations frequently organized rallies, and The Workmen’s Circle, a Yiddish Socialist association, sponsored dances, concerts, and literary readings. With political variety also came questions of identity and plenty of dispute. While many Jews embraced the Communist Party cause, others criticized Jews’ embrace of the Stalinist line at a time when Jews were being persecuted in the Soviet Union (Orleck, 94, 95).
When World War II came, hundreds of Brighton’s young men – the first American-born generation – were sent to fight, and nearly one in two would be killed as the war played out. The absence of the young, in addition to the deprivation and wear of the Depression, created the sense, as one resident said, that “Brighton would never be young again” (Orleck, 95). When soldiers returned from war they found little to hold on to in Brighton. Poverty and overcrowding had dilapidated accommodations, and created a shortage in available housing that made it difficult for returning soldiers to find homes of their own. Those who married began to look toward suburban regions of Long Island and New Jersey. A small but steady exodus out of Brighton continued through the 1960s, and few American-born families remained in Brighton.
Between 1948 and 1958 the neighborhood saw yet another influx of Jews – the survivors of Nazi death camps and “wartime partisan brigades” – who left the displaced persons camps where they had taken refuge since the war’s end, and came to New York City (Orleck). Most came from the large industrial towns and cities of Poland –Vilna, Lodz, Krakow, and especially Warsaw. Smaller numbers came from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Germany. The first to arrive were those with family in the U.S., who from the displaced persons camps had contacted relatives, friends, or acquaintances, who sent affidavits to U.S. authorities promising the refugees would be taken care of upon arrival. Eventually the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA) – founded by New York Jewish philanthropists to aid in the resettlement of European Jewish war refugees – decided that Brighton would provide a supportive environment for survivors. By the 1950s, Brighton was home to one of the largest survivor communities in the country. Some opened a range of businesses – tailors’, glaziers’, and bakers’ shops, or more modern clothing stores, bookstores, and household goods – on Brighton Beach Avenue, replacing the shopkeepers and store owners of earlier decades, many of whom were ready to retire. A majority worked in the garment industry, although after WWII the industry’s influence was declining as factory owners shifted their business away from the heavily unionized Northeast to the South and Midwest. Some survivors who came to the U.S. knowing no one found familial support within trade unions.
Brighton Beach Becomes Little Odessa by the Sea
The “shadows of the Holocaust” were accompanied in the 1970s by new qualms brought by the economic downturn (Orleck). The city of New York, facing bankruptcy, made all kinds of deep cuts to public services. The neighborhood and city were in decline: businesses were moving out, landlords weren’t investing money in their properties, thus perpetuating a cycle of deterioration; crime was increasing. Meanwhile, young people were fleeing the increasingly decrepit neighborhood, leaving behind one of the oldest populations in the country (Jackson). The homes of those who left were converted into single-room occupancy housing for welfare families, the elderly, and mental hospital patients (Rangel) who had been released from halfway houses as the city made budget cuts, and many of whom ended up homeless on Brighton’s streets (Orleck).
Then a change in the Soviet Union immigration policy led to a new wave of immigration that halted the progression of Brighton’s decline (Jackson). Immigrants from the Soviet Union began to arrive and were settled by NYANA caseworkers who fixed them with housing, health care, language training, and social services (Lewine). Because Brighton was already heavily eastern European, many Soviet émigrés were settled there (Orleck). As the neighborhood became a haven for Russians and Ukrainians, it came to be known as “Little Odessa.” Nearly forty thousand Soviet Jewish émigrés would arrive in Brighton between 1975 and 1980 (Orleck, 86) to form the largest Russian population in the city (Jackson). Immigrants were attracted by the available public housing, low and middle-income cooperatives, synagogues, and the sea (Blanksteen). By the late 1970s, young people and families were seen on Brighton’s streets again. Prices in the area began to increase as Soviet émigrés purchased homes and stores at their low market prices. And faith in the neighborhood nurtured stability, as the population increased, demand increased and investment in the area picked up again.
Cultural differences between Brighton’s long-established Jews and the newly arriving Soviet immigrants began to highlight the question of what it meant to be Jewish. In the Soviet Union the government had suppressed the practice of Judaism while also discriminating against Jews on the basis of their Jewish identity (Lewine). In the 1970s observant Brooklyn Jews reached out to the newcomers through synagogues and yeshivas, providing pedagogy on the fundamentals of religious practice that Soviet Jews had been prevented from observing for decades. Yet, most Soviet Jews were “well-educated city dwellers with little religious feeling” (Lewine). Of the eleven synagogues in Brighton, only five attracted any Soviet immigrants, most of whom were elderly, and Soviets kept their stores open on Jewish holidays. The Soviet immigrants’ indifference towards religious observance produced tensions between the two groups. Though often less religious than their American counterparts, the Soviet Jewish émigrés did embrace a wide range of Jewish identities and practices. As Orleck describes, “Living in the Soviet Union, where they were forced to carry internal passports with the letter J emblazoned on them…all of these émigrés were keenly and always aware that they were Jews” (100). And this fact made them outraged at all American Jews who would tell them otherwise.
Many Soviet émigrés eased into Judaism over time, finally gaining comfort making varieties of Jewish culture, religion, and language part of their public lives once again after decades of repression. Brighton provided a type of healing environment for many immigrants with lingering trauma from the violence of Europe, as the concentrated Jewish community developed a tradition of public communal mourning, especially through commemorations of the Holocaust. Brighton Soviet immigrants created a day of remembrance for the tens of thousands of Jews shot to death by Nazis in the forest of Babi Yar in 1941, and took the initiative to turn a small lot in Brighton into the “Babi Yar Triangle” (Orleck, 102).
Brighton today: A “variety of human life”
Russian immigration to Brighton slowed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the neighborhood has retained its Russian air since then, though it is now becoming more diverse. Much of the last wave of Russian immigrants to come to Brighton had more money, were better educated, and knew more about the U.S. than those who had come before them. Not all of them were Jewish, and more of them were illegal (Lewine). Brighton’s streets maintained a distinctly eastern European immigrant feel, but what lined them represented a stark difference from the repressive environment that the Soviet émigrés came from. Brighton Beach Avenue is lined with modern groceries, offering dozens of options of Polish, Hungarian, German, Russian, and American meats, cheeses, juices, and chocolates. Such spaces have become informal community centers: groceries are places where residents talk and exchange news, and restaurants with curtained windows provide a place where residents can gather in groups, relax, and celebrate Russian Jewish culture. Russian criminals too gained a new start in Brighton, as The “Odessa Mob” as it is known, originally made up primarily of Ukrainian Jewish gangsters from the port city of Odessa, has run a sophisticated crime syndicate, stretching in scope from New York to Moscow, since the 1970s. Brighton provided the perfect place for Russian mobsters due to its proximity to JFK Airport and its teeming streets full of innocent Soviet immigrants to provide cover. The multitude of abandoned apartments in Brighton in the 1970s also provided space for the gangsters to set up shop.
Orleck writes in 2002 that Brighton retains the “taste and feel of an immigrant ghetto, its streets redolent with the smells of frying onions, overripe fruit, hot piroshki, and oiled metal” (83). Elderly Soviet immigrants continue to speak a mixture of Yiddish and Russian to be heard on the streets, though Orleck admits that Russian has almost completely replaced Yiddish as “the neighborhood’s language of commerce and camaraderie,” as most of the immigrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Germany have either died or moved away (86). Though in more recent decades the Russian hub has been diversified with an influx of immigrants from Mexico, Pakistan, and the Middle East, it still retains much of its eastern European character. Garth Johnson describes that a new generation of Central Asian immigrants has begun to arrive – many attracted to the familiarity of the Russian ambiance – and bring its own culture to the neighborhood: “Lagman and manty, Central Asian-style soup and dumplings, have joined borsch and bliny on local restaurant menus, and holidays like Nowruz are celebrated with flair,” Johnson describes. The area continues to develop and be developed: an Islamic center has joined the synagogues along Neptune Avenue, a gated condominium complex has replaced the historic Brighton Beach Baths, and pockets of glitzy commerce have begun to appear (Jackson). Orleck suggests the newest residents of Brighton are “Brooklynites – fast talking, unflappable, quietly amused by the variety of human life that passes each day along the Avenue.”
Orleck, Annelise. “Waves Upon the Sand: Jewish Immigrant Life in Brighton Beach.” In Jews of Brooklyn, edited by Ilana Abramovitch and Seán Galvin. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2002
Blanksteen, Jane. “New Soviet Immigrants Uplift Brighton Beach.” The New York Times, December 31, 1978. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=FB0713FC345413728DDDA80B94DA415B888BF1D3 (accessed June 12, 2012).
Jackson, Nancy Beth. “If You’re Thinking of Living in/Brighton Beach; Magnet for Immigrants, Moving Upscale.” The New York Times, July 7, 2002. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/realestate/if-you-re-thinking-living-brighton-beach-magnet-for-immigrants-moving-upscale.html (accessed June 12, 2012).
Johnson, Garth. “Fewer Jews Make Brighton Beach Less ‘Little Odessa,’ More ‘Little Soviet Union.’” Gothamist, June 7. 2012. http://gothamist.com/2012/06/07/with_fewer_jews_brighton_beach_is_n.php (accessed June 19, 2012).
Rangel, Jesus. “In Brighton Beach, Another Time of Change.” The New York Times, July 23, 1986. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/23/nyregion/in-brighton-beach-another-time-of-change.html (accessed June 12, 2012).
Lewine, Edward. “From Brighton Beach to America; The Wave of Immigrants Began 25 Years Ago. Soon Russian Filled the Streets. Now, the Tide is Ebbing.” The New York Times, March 14, 1999. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/14/nyregion/brighton-beach-america-wave-immigrants-began-25-years-ago-soon-russian-filled.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm (accessed June 12, 2012).