Through the mid-20th century, Bensonhurst developed as an Italian and Jewish enclave. Despite a wave of commercial development in the 1980s, some land had remained undeveloped by then. By the early 2000s, condominiums were being built in Bensonhurst, and it had turned into a diverse community of Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Middle-Eastern, and Russian residents.
Located in the southwestern part of Brooklyn, the neighborhood's southern tip is at the corner of Stillwell Avenue and 86th Street; it runs north along Stillwell Avenue to Avenue P, east to McDonald Avenue, north to 60th Street, northwest to Fort Hamilton Parkway, southwest to Bay Ridge Avenue, southeast to 14th avenue, south to 86th Street, and southeast back to Stillwell Avenue (Wikipedia).
Bensonhurst derives its name from Arthur W. Benson, the former president of Brooklyn Gas, who in 1835 began buying farmland that formerly belonged to the Polhemus family. Between 1835 and 1850 Benson divided the farmland into generous lots that were sold in the following decades as part of the newly created suburb of Bensonhurst by the Sea. Some of these lots became the current day Bath Beach section, which was annexed into the 30th Ward of Brooklyn in the 1890s. Brooklyn became part of the City of New York in 1898.
The Influence of Jewish Immigrants
In the early 1900s, Bensonhurst’s Jewish immigrants, many of them Syrian or Egyptian Jews, joined the mix in the mostly Italian neighborhood. During the first half of the 20th century Jewish children primarily attended the local public schools. These Sephardic Jews spoke Arabic and shopped in stores that carried the food from their native Syria. Mainly peddlers and retailers, they opened the landmarked Magen David Congregation and the adjacent school building on 67th Street near 20th Avenue in 1921. This synagogue served the Jews from Aleppo. Under the leadership of Rabbi Maslaton, Jews from Damascus opened the Ahi Ezer Synagogue on 71st St, the first synagogue in Bensonhurst to have a social hall. In 1933, the community brought Rabbi Jacob H. Kassin from then Palestine, to be its Chief Rabbi.
Life cycle events were generally celebrated in private homes. A couple would be wed under a chuppah in synagogue and then go to the family home for the party, where the woman of the family would cook and serve Middle Eastern delicacies.
Many of these celebrations as well as shivas (days of mourning), were catered by Esther Cohen, who had a catering business in the garage of her 63rd Street home.
The community also operated a Talmud Torah, after school Jewish studies program, for the multitude of children in public school. The program was housed in the school building adjacent to the congregation and had so many students they operated in two shifts. All of the children, no matter what age, learned together. Children attended five days a week for two hours a day.
By the late 50s the Syrian community began sending their children to Magen David Yeshiva, which had opened on Ave P and Stillwell Ave. Later Ahi Ezer Yeshiva opened on Ocean Parkway. By the late 60s, virtually all children in the community were attending a Jewish school.
In the late 1950s and 60s, many of the Sephardic Jews moved to the Ocean Parkway area, later dubbed “Aleppo in Flatbush” by author Joseph A. D. Sutton, whose book bears the tag. In the 1980s, Asians began to supplant the local Italians. In 2000 an influx of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union began to arrive, mixing with the local Asian population, as did ethnic Albanians, Arabs, Mexicans, and Puerto Rican Americans.
Bensonhurst is also home to several Jewish day schools, including Yeshiva Ohel Moshe and Magen David High School, as well as the very active Jewish Community House.
Bensonhurst’s Claim to Fame
Famous Jews born in Bensonhurst include:Marshall Flaum (1925–2010), documentary filmmaker; Daniel Glass, music producer; Gary David Goldberg, television producer; Elliott Gould, actor; Buddy Hackett, comedian; Curly and Moe Howard, of the Three Stooges ; Sandy Koufax, baseball player; Herbie Kronowitz, boxer; and Carl Sagan, astronomer/teacher/author.