Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge

By Rabbi Eli Hecht


By way of introducing my readers to a special world, often known only to the orthodox Chassidic Jewish community, I have selected to share my experiences as an eight–year–old American boy.

I am the third of nine children, the oldest boy and named after my deeply Chassidic great–grandfather, Eliyahu. It was thought that in order for me to give honor to his name I should be exposed to the lifestyle he and his family lived.

As a young child I was moved from a modern American orthodox home to my grandparents’ home located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. There I met a new type of Jew, Hungarian Jews, refugees from Europe. Many had their children born in “displaced person camps.” They had just arrived with their families to New York after a hard-earned escape from the Russian suppression of Hungary in 1957.

While living with my grandparents, called Upa and Uma, I learned how to live and dress in a Chassidic lifestyle. I learned to love my teacher, called Rebbe, and my classmates.

In the 1950s, almost all of my classmates were children of the infamous Auschwitz deportees from Hungary. Most teachers had branded tattooed numbers on their arm, physical reminders of inhuman cruelties.

I remember visiting a family with my Uma, and being told by the mother, "How lucky you are yingela, sonny-boy, that you have a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, uncles, aunts and even grandparents. The only thing I have left from Germany is this!" She shoved her arm with the blue numbers in front of me.

Other times, my Jewish teacher, a survivor of the camps, would cry in class, thinking of the suffering he and his family had experienced. Many of the school children were from second marriages. Either their father's or mother's first spouse had been killed. It wasn't uncommon for children to have half brothers and sisters who were 10 or 15 years older than they.

Being a fourth generation American living in Williamsburg with survivors of concentration or DP camps, was like living in a different world, the “Twilight Zone.” The butcher had a tattoo number, as did the baker and teacher. Almost everyone had a number. I thought that when you came from Europe you received a number on your arm together with your passport.

As long as I can remember there was hardly a religious holiday or happy occasion that didn't end in a funeral speech for the family members who weren't there. Every newborn baby, Bar Mitzvah, or wedding party that I attended had a discussion about a dead or martyred parent. The newborn child was always named after one of its parent's deceased mother or father, sister or brother. Households of that generation persisted with fear of death and persecution.

It was very frightening to hear my traumatized teacher tell us how an SS soldier who would, at times, give a ration of an extra morsel of bread to a child, and then shoot children that stepped out of line asking for bread.

As I grew into a teenager I visited friends in their homes. Inexplicably, the conversation would rotate back to the war years. Parents who were survivors of the Holocaust would point to say, and me "Look at this American. I had a son just like him. How old are you?" I would state my age. "Yes, that's how old my son would be, but he was killed in the camp." Another would ask, "How many brothers or sisters do you have?" After answering all their questions, they would say, "Lucky you! I had that many family members but most of them were killed before their Bar Mitzvah age." I became very sensitive to their cries of misery and untold misfortune.

I strongly feel the need for people to understand the Chassidic community. How, as survivors of European Jewry, they rebuilt a vibrant community. Their way of life, thought destroyed by Nazism and anti-Semitism, has been preserved. Their mode of life lives on in Brooklyn, New York.

However, their lifestyle is still a mystery for many. Both Jews and non-Jews haven’t the slightest clue how these people think or act. In presenting my few years living in Williamsburg old questions will be answered and new ones asked. Interesting lifestyles will be illuminated. Living in Williamsburg makes me different from other American Jewish-born children. I changed from an all American child who dreamt of Sandy Koufax my childhood hero, and reading Superman comics, to a little Chassid. Turbulent but important years they were to me.

When looking back I know for a certainty that those short few years have indomitable affect on me.

My insights for values, life and tolerance for diversity could not be learned by reading books. Being immersed in a Chassidic community makes Judaism real, vibrant and not a religion of the past. So this short book will help you understand the Chassidic world and dispel many negative stereotypes of Chassidim.

"Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge,” consists of stories and experiences while living in Williamsburg. The reader will glimpse the world of Chassidim through the eyes of an American youngster. The stories I heard carry a special message for me and, hopefully, for the reader.

This story is my growing into a Chassidic child. I have included my memories of holiday stories during the Holocaust conditions, which sensitized me to have a real deep belief in a G‑d, giving me a faith that cannot be understood.

“For those who question G‑d there are no answers but for those that have complete belief in G‑d, there are no real questions.” This is something I learned living in Upa and Uma’s home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y.

You can order your copy by going to:


ISBN Hardcover: 1-4134-4966-2

ISBN Softcover: 1-4134-4965-4