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Culture & Traditions

Brooklyn’s Jews have a Love Affair with Mah Jongg

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Mah jongg! That’s the call of a winning hand! Since the 1920s, the game of mah jongg has ignited the popular imagination with its beautiful tiles, mythical origins, and communal spirit. Come learn the history and meaning of the beloved game that became a Jewish-American tradition.

Mah jongg is much more than a game: it is a carrier of fantasy, identity, memory, and meaning. Three bam, two dot, flower, five crack, dragons, winds! The tiles, lined up against racks as four players sit around card tables concentrating heavily on making a viable hand and winning the game.

From early 20th century Shanghai, where Jewish men and women first began playing to Brooklyn, mah jongg is a popular game played in senior citizen centers, community centers and in private homes, mah jongg.  The game spread to the United States., becoming extremely popular among Jews from New York to California. The American version is slightly different than the Chinese. American sets have 152 tiles in four suits. In the early days, tiles were made of ivory, then bakelight and today different plastics and materials are used. The rules of the game are determined by the National Mah Jongg Association.

Jewish actors like Eddie Cantor and Woody Allen refer to their mothers playing mah jongg.

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Author of “The War of the Roses” reminisces his youth in Brooklyn

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By Warren Adler
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle – may 23, 2013

Warren Adler

Warren Adler

It is remarkable that Brooklyn has become synonymous with cultural ferment, artistic innovation and an unstoppable surge of gentrification that is attracting a growing horde of super achievers. Although these two strains of environment changers are often in conflict with one another, both are prospering, radically changing the reputation of the borough from what was once an object of both pride and ridicule to one of the most culturally dynamic places in America.

The fact that I no longer recognize it as ‘my Brooklyn’ does not in any way impugn its current significance, but looking at it from the vantage point of the Brooklyn of my childhood and youth, roughly within a sixteen year span from 1932 to 1948, I can only conclude that the present, despite its glorious trappings of culture and prosperity does not come close to the wonder, excitement and exultation that captured my adolescent soul and never let go of it.

I have recapitulated those old Brooklyn days in a number of my novels like Funny Boys, Banquet Before Dawn and the New York Echoes short story collections, which offer the most details of that halcyon experience, but allow me to open the spigot of memory with some brief images of that bygone moment of urban joy.

My life in Brooklyn was lived betwixt two neighborhoods, Brownsville and Crown Heights, both Jewish enclaves then.  Irish and Italian neighborhoods were contiguous. Of course, there were other Brooklyn neighborhoods for every ethnic group under the sun, racial, national and religious. There were also wide economic and class distinctions easily identified by house sizes and the usual trappings of wealth.

In my Brooklyn days these other places seemed to reside in another country, perhaps another planet. We were very aware of our boundaries by look, smell, dress, religion and customs and we knew that when we crossed those lines we had invaded a somewhat hostile foreign land.

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Mikvah is the first to open in brownstone nabe

Mikvah is the first to open in brownstone nabe

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By Natalie Musumeci
The Brooklyn Paper

The first mikvah ever in Park Slope finally opened after more than five years of construction.

The three-story William and Betty Katz Center for Jewish Life, on 15th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, was celebrated with a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday, drawing dozens of observant Jews and shutting down the street to traffic for several hours. The project has been controversial with neighbors since its inception.

A mikvah, which literally translates as “pool,” is a Jewish ritual bathhouse and an integral part of the religion, said Rabbi Shimon Hecht, leader of Congregation B’nai Jacob on Ninth Street. He also heads the Chabad of Brownstone Brooklyn, which built the mikvah.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said, adding that building a mikvah even takes precedence over building a house of worship.

The pristine, spa-like, facility is designed for observant Jews to partake in a ritual process of purification and cleansing, in a solitary and ultra private manner, by immersing themselves in specially constructed pools. The new mikvah has baths for men on the first floor and separate baths for women on the lower level. It’s available only by appointment.

“It’s a major component of the Jewish community,” he said. “You need a mikvah because Jewish purity is dependent on a mikvah. You cannot build a family without a mikvah. And if you don’t have a family then you cannot build a community.”

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Old-School Brooklyn Hat Store Keeps Hasids and Hipsters Looking Dapper

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By Nate Lavey

Published June 03, 2013, The Jewish Daily Forward
Bencraft HattersStanley Goldstein sits at the center of a narrow hat store in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, fielding customers’ questions about brim sizes, crowns and colors. Bencraft Hatters, which was first opened in 1948 by Goldstein’s father, has been selling hats to Jews and non-Jews for 65 years and carries everything from cowboy hats and flat caps to the fedoras and Homburgs favored by the religious crowd. At 85, Goldstein still oversees much of the operation in Williamsburg, while Steven Goldstein, Stanley Goldstein’s son and the other owner of the business, can often be found shuttling between Williamsburg and the Goldsteins’ other store in Boro Park. In their own way, the two stores represent different part of New York’s Jewish community: The Williamsburg location accommodates a more secular crowd, including hipsters, while in Boro Park the clientele tends to be distinctly Orthodox.

Steven explained that “there are three or four hat stores in Boro Park, and for the most part each hat store takes care of a different sect of the community.” Bencraft is mostly oriented toward the Lubavitch and Modern Orthodox communities, which are not heavily represented in Boro Park. That means that customers sometimes trek across the city just to try on a Borsalino.

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Art Exhibit in Brooklyn Examines Hasidic Dress and Culture

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by Elke Reva Sudin – http://www.algemeiner.com – July 12, 2013

Viznitz SatmarThere are two ways people typically explore Hasidic subjects through art. It is either a sensitive portrayal of a tradition they are a part of, or an outsider’s perspective on a strange and unique culture. Brooklyn based artist Michael Levin has done both, and quite successfully at that.
In his new series “Jews of Today” opening July 20th at the 109 Gallery in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Levin explores the nuances and contradictions of Hasidic ritual dress through a series of elegant drawings and explanations, delving into larger issues of Jewishness and cultural identity in the process.
Originally from Los Angeles, Levin received his BA in Classics at the University of Chicago in 2006, and this fall he will begin his MFA in Printmaking at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Levin became obsessed with Hasidic culture and dress after becoming neighbors with many Hasidim in the ever gentrifying Williamsburg, and looking for a way to relate to them.
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The Seltzer Man

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By  Published: April 26, 2013 NYTimes

Eli Miller, 79, New York City’s senior seltzer man.

“I just can’t stay home,” said Eli Miller, 79, who has been delivering seltzer for more than 50 years.

Eli Miller, 79, New York City’s senior seltzer man, hoisted crate after crate of seltzer — weighing 70 pounds apiece — into his van and then draped himself over them.

“I’m running on fumes — the reason I work is, I just can’t stay home,” said Mr. Miller, who has been delivering seltzer in Brooklyn for more than a half-century.

He can afford to retire, but that would mean his customers, many of whom have been with him for decades, might have to resort to store-bought seltzer.

“I don’t want them to have to drink that dreck you buy in the supermarket,” he said, using the Yiddish term for dirt. “So I guess I’ll retire when Gabriel blows his horn.”

Mr. Miller said that when he began delivering, on March 10, 1960, there were perhaps 500 seltzer men in the city, and a half-dozen seltzer bottlers. Now he can count his delivery competition on one hand, and they all fill up at the last seltzer factory in the city: Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie.

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“The Romeos” – Feeding on Memories

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By DAVID DeWITT

Published: NY Times, July 18, 2013
“There’s something historical about us,” says one of the Romeows, a crew of septuagenarians that generally meets every Wednesday in Brooklyn for dinner and conversation. He’s right, and history should record their weekly — but rare — achievement more often. Thank goodness this gentle, affectionate documentary does it.
There’s nothing flashy about “The Romeows” the film or the Romeows the men, but what they’ve created — their life’s art — matters. It’s sitting around a restaurant, eating family style, every Wednesday, just to talk. (Romeows stands for Retired Older Men Eating Out Wednesdays.)
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Brooklyn – A Boro Transformed

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5777

Sukkah Store

View Our Sukkots in Brooklyn Video

Throughout Brooklyn, the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) was blown during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year welcoming in the year 5774. The holiday was the beginning of a month of holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot) and a transformation of the borough, which has more Jewish people than anywhere else in the country.

The holidays came late this year, so early that many Jews remained in their summer homes for the holidays. The holiday preparations include the [preparation] cooking of many traditional foods, which are eaten as symbols of the holidays. Holiday challah is formed into a round shape to represent the circle of life. So that we may have a sweet New Year, it is filled with sweet raisins, and you can smell the challah baking, along with the traditional honey cake, as you ride down the avenues. At the holiday table, the challah is dipped in honey, along with the apples, the fall fruit, with a benediction. Symbolic foods like dates, the head of a fish (or animal), pomegranate seeds, gourds, and Swiss chard are traditionally eaten in different  varieties, whether  in Ashkenazi or Sephardi families.

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150th Celebration Siyyum Torah Dedication and Sukkot Block Party

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Sunday, September 22, 10am-1pm
Sukkot FestivalJoin our community as we culminate our 150th year by holding a special Siyyum and Torah Dedication ceremony.
This Siyyum, or closing celebration, is the culmination of a year of programming to mark Congregation Beth Elohim’s 150th anniversary. The Torah that will be dedicated has been scribed by a ritual scribe, Linda Coppleson, together with over 700 members of the CBE community who have participated in individual scribing rituals. This will also be an opportunity for us to rededicate CBE’s seven sifrei Torah.

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