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Growing up in the Williamsburg Housing Projects

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by Joe Dorinson

I grew up in the Williamsburg Housing Projects and lived there from 1939 to 1960. To qualify for residence in this FDR crafted New Deal experiment in public housing, you had to be poor.

That didn’t bother my lifelong friends, Irving, Ivan, Mike, Vinny, Bernie, Richie, Leslie, Barbara, Howie and me because we were all poor. Fineshmecker snobbery did not appeal and we thought everyone was in the same boat. Not so. Most of my friends went to religous after-school programs in Talmud Torahs. Some, like Irving, attended Torah Vidas Yeshiva.

My secular left-wing family sent me to shule zeks und dreisik (School 36) where I learned Yiddishkeit: language, history, literature, culture, and core values. En route to school, we were often accosted by young thugs, mostly Irish, who threatened to beat the hell out of us and sometimes their fists matched their words. Every Halloween brought mini-pogroms to our neighborhood as those “dear hearts and gentile people” would fill socks with chalk and bean every Jewish child they could find on that hateful day. Lucky for me with my turned up nose, I looked Irish and escaped their wrath. When they yelled “Christ killers!” at us, I cringed in fear and reacted with indignation.

I never killed anyone except for a few mosquitoes and some flies. Besides, I later learned that Jesus was originally a member of our tribe who rose from a humble carpenter’s job and made it “big” in a new religion. Symbolized as “the Prince of Peace,” he certainly would not have approved of the pogroms waged in his name to avenge his death at the hands those cruel Romans.

So one day, when I decided to play hookey, i.e. stay home from shule situated on Manhattan Avenue, four blocks from our apartment at 165 Scholes Street, a miracle occurred. The usual assemblage of pogromchiks gathered to harass my friends. And a hero–no, a heroine emerged to defend our faith. She was a feisty, well-built girl named Rochelle Zannet. With a devastating right cross, she bloodied the nose of their gang leader. His band dissolved in shame. They never bothered us again. Who needed Superman or Shimshon h’agibber (mighty Samson) when we had a Jewish Wonder Woman? Rochelle succumbed to illness a few years ago according to her sister Alice Kalischman, but in “this heart of mine,” a Brooklyn Jewish female champion lives–forever young and tough as nails.