Boro Park


Effects of a “job well done” – Boro Park reacts to Obama’s speech

By Mirjam Donath

August 29, 2008

Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president on August 28, 2008. An estimated 38 million viewers watched him on television, setting a new record for convention viewership, according to Nielsen Media Research. Not that many of them were from Boro Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood mostly lived by Orthodox Jews.

Nancy Pelosi ended the spectacle of Sen. Barack Obama’s nomination acceptance speech in front of an estimated 84,000 people in an ‘Amen’ Thursday night. Certain religious groups in Boro Park, however, remained unconvinced.

On Friday morning, when most of Boro Park’s residents were out shopping for the necessary ingredients of a good Sabbath, Obama did not seem to be on their minds. “We do not watch television,” said a young Jewish woman in her 20s standing in front of a supermarket on 13th Avenue, too shy to give her name. “We do not need to. The community tells us whom to vote for. But I do not think Obama has what a president needs. He does not have enough experience. Who is he? A former college president. So what? He is too young to be the leader of the country. He lacks strength too. Deep inside, I feel that he would not make a good president.”

“He is not for me,” repeated an Orthodox 70-year-old woman waiting for the private bus line of the neighborhood, who asked for anonymity. “I am wary of him. I have not made up my mind yet but I have a strong feeling that he is not for us Jews. He is an actor. And most importantly I do not like his wife. She is cold. McCain, on the other hand, has a nice, silent wife. He at least chose a woman as a vice president!” Some strictly Orthodox Jews might not have a television but they are certainly well-informed. It was 11 a.m. Friday morning when the old lady mentioned Gov. Sarah Palin, who had been named as McCain’s running mate only a couple of hours earlier.

Drawing away from some strictly religious members of the community, called Hasidim, opinions seem to vary. “I was agreeably surprised,” said Holocaust survivor Leslie Blau. “It was an inspirational speech. I liked the part when Obama said that the election was not about him and that they turned back to the old American values again. Whether America is ready for a black president is another question, but this speech was nicely done.”

Friday is a short day in Boro Park as its Jewish locals prepare for the Sabbath. Others may finish work earlier too. At 2 p.m., near where 52nd Street meets 12th Avenue, Antonia Felix, a Puerto Rican nurse, walked home from work. “Obama did make it,” Felix said “His speech changed my opinion of him when he talked about the upbringing of children and about the values he got from his mother and grandparents. He represents real family values. All my life was about working hard so that my daughter could have a proper education. Yesterday’s speech was really touching.”

That family touch did not seem to resonate with the large Orthodox families, with a range of 8 to 10 children. Most of Boro Park’s residents find common ground on ‘family values’ issues with Republicans instead. “When Obama supports abortion, it is as if he was killing babies and putting America into despair,” said a woman in her 40s. “He is evil and all the fuss around him is a show. McCain named his vice president on his birthday. It is another show. But less evil.”

Other residents, however, affirmed McCain’s message to Obama that his speech was indeed a “job well done.” “I am going to vote for Obama,” said Hayat, an Algerian immigrant, who is now an American citizen, as she sunbathed on one of the little benches that characterize the neighborhood’s small porches. “I could not watch television yesterday because I needed to work.” She cleans and cook for a handicapped Jewish woman. “Now that salaries do not grow together with the prices, this country might need some change.”

A young African-American woman was rushing down 13th Avenue. “It is not because he is black that I fell for him,” said Jamie. “I did not fall for him first. I wanted Hillary. He convinced me now, and anyway, McCain equals to Bush.”


Boro Park’s memory on that Tuesday

By Mirjam Donath

September 11, 2008

Some volunteer organizations are specialized in the healthcare of religious Jews but could equally provide high-professional help to any New York City resident in need as 9/11 proved seven years ago.

The first medical workers to arrive at the World Trade Center on Sept 11, 2001, jumped out of vehicles marked “Hatzolah.” The word means “rescue” in Hebrew, and the rescuers were civilian emergency medical technicians: people who come to help voluntarily not because help is in their sphere of activities.

“We had a car in the Financial District.” recalled Bernie Gips, coordinator of the voluntary emergency services in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. That ambulance sped to ground zero. Hatzolah dispatchers never ask about nationality or skin color, when they answer a call. “Jewish or not Jewish; a human life is a human life. On 9/11 we transported many, many victims, at least two hundred people to the hospitals.” The organization lost two ambulances and had major damage to its mobile emergency response vehicle, which is used to treat multiple patients at a time.

A lost ambulance

A lost ambulance

The Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn founded its own ambulance service in the late 1960s to improve medical response, and to provide the community paramedics who understand Jewish culture, languages and laws. Gips, who runs an air-conditioning business in his “spare time”, was an early recruit and has been volunteering for 35 years. Hatzolah paramedics have all the necessary life-saving objects in their cars. On the Sabbath, when religious Jews are not allowed to work or even to carry a handbag, Gips and fellow volunteers will pick up the phone and rush out of the synagogue when needed. Under Jewish law saving life outweighs the demands of Sabbath.

Hatzolah was not the only Orthodox Jewish organization that offered aid at ground zero. According to Jewish law when somebody dies the body needs to be watched until it can be buried with dignity. Following the 9/11 tragedy, religious Jews from Hatzolah’s sister organization Misaskim, which provides recovery services for mourners, kept vigil to watch over the collection of body parts that lay scattered and unidentified.

“Our job was to figure out how to respect the rules of the authorities

without jeopardizing the law of religion”

Rabbi Jack Meyer from Misaskim spent several months on the site working along in team effort with the Port Authority Police Department and the New York City Police Department. “Our job was to figure out how to respect the rules of the authorities without jeopardizing the law of religion,” he explains. Under Jewish law, a recovered body must be quickly brought to burial. “We helped to get the notification of the family and the DNA tests as fast as possible.” Rabbi Meyer says there was a spirit of cooperation among diverse members of the clergy at ground zero. “There was no body removed from the site without a chaplain being there to pray for them. We offered spiritual guidance to anybody.”

Shimshi Goldstein and his family were among those who benefited from the work of Misaskim. Goldstein had no idea that his brother-in-law, 52-year-old insurance agent Abraham Nathanel Ilowitz, had come back from Europe a day earlier and that after his early- morning prayer he had rushed to his office in the World Trade Center. “We did not know if he died or not because we figured maybe he was safe.” real estate developer Goldstein said. “It took a couple of days to finally realize that he was not here.”

Goldstein said he got “exceptional help” from Misaskim. “Based on the DNA tests about two month later they found parts of Abraham so at that point we could have a proper funeral.”

Overall, there were relatively few victims among the Orthodox Jews. Those who went to synagogues and stayed for the lengthier morning service on the week right before the Jewish New Year did not get to work by the time the first plane struck. Hatzolah and Misaskim had casualties but they did not lose any volunteers. They see divine hand in this mercy too. “If someone above says it is time then all the circumstances surrounded a person is geared accordingly.” said Goldstein about his loss. “We are very lucky to be here today.” said Rabbi Meyer. “I did not think we dared to see the day. Somebody was watching us.”

A shopper’s Mecca is in Borough Park for a week

By Mirjam Donath

September 24, 2008

When the majority of New York City is busy with sales offering stuff for the new school year, Jewish communities are involved in a different sale-marathon before businesses close down for the significant Jewish holidays.

There are stores as far as the eye can see. Behind the storefronts whose graphics seem to be untouched for the last 60 years or so, there is hardly anything you cannot find on 13th Avenue between 39th and 54th Streets. Meat and fish markets, groceries and bakeries, clothing boutiques and appliance centers populate the liveliest shopping street of Borough Park.

Loud young men and silent mothers pushing twin strollers are equally rushed on the Avenue under large shop signs that shout “SPECIAL,” “UP TO ½ PRICE OFF,” “SALE.” It is the last week of September but customers do not fly like busy bees from store to store because of the sale calls. Rather sales calls try to attract even more people who have been preparing for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which will be celebrated in a few days, closely followed by  Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur and Sukkoth.

"sweet" dominates

"sweet" dominates

Most of the “busy bees” of the Avenue are religious Jews for whom honey is indeed one of the primary items to get. “We dip pieces of loaf and apple into honey for a sweet new year.” explained Edit Gruen, school teacher, who helps her elderly parents in the holiday shopping. In fact “Sweet” dominates the ads.

Boro Park Foodmart, at 45th Street, one of the neighborhood’s busiest groceries sells a pound of apples for 59 cents. It was 69 cents the previous week. As quick as thought, pears (59 cents a pound), peaches ($1.25), watermelons (59 cents a pound) and fresh cantaloupes ($2.49 each) are sold as “sugar sweet.” An impressive amount of red fruit-balls, pomegranates, occupy a big part of the stands. They are symbols of fertility, and so are one of the most popular fruits of the coming holiday.

“We eat a new fruit on New Year’s Eve,” said Gruen, “one that has not been eaten in a year or so to taste the newness of the year by enjoying a curious taste. In tradition, nothing ever changes but modernity can show itself as we find fruits from other countries that have never been eaten before like kiwi, star fruit or papaya.”

Symbolizing fertility

Symbolizing fertility

A block away, Benetton welcomes the flood of customers even without offering large discounts. For a toddler boy a perfectly elegant pair of trousers are sold for $62, a white shirt for $52 and a sweater for $65. “It really is a busy time for us.” said store manager Carol Sheinfil. Most of the Jewish residents come before the holidays to get a nice piece for their children, she explained, because they would like to bring something new to the New Year and to God by wearing something new.

A more practical reason for shopping now is timing. “By the end of the holidays, which is the end of October, it is going to be already cold so that most people buy their winter outfit now.” said Sheinfil.

But the discounts are also hard to resist, for Jews and non-Jews alike. The 40th Street Jack Sabacy’s sport store sells men’s shirts for $5 instead of the original $15, and Payless ShoeSource at 44th Street offers 50 percent off discounts and introduces a 30 percent Fall Preview sale at the same time.

Most of the sales end by Monday,  Sept. 29, the beginning of the Jewish New Year at sundown, as 13th Avenue wraps up its one-week sale marathon.


High Holiday on different highs

By Mirjam Donath

October 2, 2008

Two large dining tables had a man seated at their heads around  7:30 p.m. Monday night, when Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, of 5769 came round in New York. They both had their closest family members around and were glad seeing their wives lighting the candles and saying the blessing.

One of the men is Leslie Blau, a retired writer, who hardly ever removes the kippah that small piece of silk lid, which, in the Cabbalistic tradition, symbolizes God’s Divine Palm. He has lived in Borough Park, Brooklyn for about 50 years. The other man, George Bock, is a general surgeon in his 60s and has his home in Jamaica Estates, Queens.  He rarely ever puts on the kippah. But this night is different.

The Jewish Community Study of New York conducted by UJA-Federation counted more than 1.4 million Jews in 2002 in the five boroughs and the adjacent three  counties Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester. Roughly about 35 percent of the New York Jews considered themselves as secular, according to National Jewish Population Surveys of the North American Jewish Data Bank. And while all Jewish denominations traditionally celebrate the Jewish New Year, secular Jews have as many different approaches to the holiday as many they are.

“Some of us believe in God; others don’t. Some honor the holidays in some fashion; others –like my younger sister — pay it no attention at all. It’s an individual matter,” said Manhattan resident Claudia Wallis, a journalist.

At first glimpse there was no significant difference between the dining tables of Blau in Brooklyn and Bock in Queens. On each of them decorated mugs of honey offered themselves with slices of fresh apple on their sides. Two round loaves of challah bread waited under the best tablecloths for being torn. Fish head pieces with round slices of cooked carrot on their top was near the steaming bowl of chicken soup with matzoth balls swimming in it.

But when Bock junior, Peter, presented horse-radish, and many around the Queens dining table were happy to have some with the fish, older Bock knew that this was an act unimaginable to happen in a religious home.

“At Rosh Hashana we are not supposed to have anything bitter to eat.” he said. “Tonight is about sweetness, which is for the good things to come in the New Year.”

At the end of the meal, while the Bocks call their friends to wish them Shana Tova, a Happy New Year, Blau and the estimated 70 percent of Borough Park’s religious Jews cut the profit of cell phone companies by keeping their phones switched off for the two days long holiday.

With the holiday advancing, differences between the secular and the religious holiday are growing.

The first day of Rosh Hashana fell on a Tuesday in 2008. Blau spent the bigger part of the day, from 7:30 a.m till 2:30 p.m., in the synagogue of B’Nai Israel on the Ninth Avenue in Brooklyn. He listened to the New Year’s sermon of Rabbi Gershon Tannelbaum and to the harsh sound of the shofar, which is blown about a hundred times in an average Rosh Hashana mess. At the end of the long service, 88-year-old Blau was praying aloud, bowing under a large white cloth covering his head.

“It is the time for God to decide about our fate for the next year and for us to stop and meditate on our deeds and losses.” said Blau, who buried his son in May.

Bock and Wallis, however, went to work on Tuesday and Wednesday just like any other day.

“It is tradition rather then God, which makes the holiday important for us and that the family is together.” said Bock, who like many secular Jews, visits the synagogue only at this time of the year.

Wallis in Manhattan missed the synagogue. “I did not go to services, but I did take a walk on the beach with a friend who is also Jewish but not religious. In keeping with one tradition we both like, we tossed some stones into the ocean as a symbol of casting away regrets and sins from the previous year. I happen to like a certain amount of ritual and tradition.”


If I were a poor man

By Mirjam Donath

November 26, 2008

The growing economic crisis has dumped more Americans than ever below the poverty line. Their number is estimated to jump to 47 million from 37.3 million. At the same time Jewish communities, like the Borough Park area in Brooklyn, offer examples of first-aid strategies.

“Jews are prosperous,” common prejudice has it, but the truth is that Jewish poverty has been increasing for the last 15 years. According to the latest report of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish poverty (2004) – Jewish poverty rate is the highest in Brooklyn: 30 percent of its Jews are poor. The main reason is the demographic changes in the community.

In Borough Park, home of the second-largest Orthodox Jewish community in the world, after Israel’s, families traditionally have seven to eight children who are raised in a kosher world (of food, private education, clothing that meets religious requirements, etc.), which makes their cost of living much higher than for a non-religious family.

“The mitzvah is commended.”

But Borough Park cares for its own. The community has more than 200 welfare organizations. All of them follow the command of the Torah, the founding legal and ethical religious texts of Judaism, that from each earned dollar a dime must go to charity. This proves to be a necessity at a time when the neighborhood’s Jewish Community Council has been receiving 20 percent more requests for food stamps since October.

Ava Moishe, program director of Borough Park’s Jewish community center, cooks four extra dinners every Monday, usually vegetables with chicken, for families she has never met. “We live on the concept of giving,” she said, “the good deed, the mitzvah is commended.” Moishe said that when someone has leftover or unnecessary objects, like clothes, shoes or household utensils, “we pass it on to someone who can use it.”

The units of the organization that helps this process are called Gemachs, a Hebrew abbreviation for acts of kindness, which collect donated objects and lend them to members of the community. The Torah calls for loans to be made interest-free and Gemach organizations also specialize in certain needs, such as lending items for weddings, babies, death, or services ranging from medical assistance to student tutoring or preparing the whole Sabbath for a family when the mother is unable to care for her family. Gemachs are one reason fewer people in need have to dig through the garbage, but residents also say that no one could possibly starve to death in Borough Park.

Masbia – the Hebrew word means satiate – which claims to be the only free kosher soup kitchen in the entire city, can also be found here at 41st Street and 14th Avenue. It is crowded with hungry people five hours a day, five days a week. They are closed on the weekends, but this is when the majority of their visitors make do with the Sabbath packages donated by other organizations.

Alex Rapaport, 30, co-founder and passionate community organizer, explained that unlike other soup kitchens, Masbia does not rely on government funding but buys its ingredients. “No one who walks in from the street is turned down because we have run out of the government stock,” he said.

Ninety percent of Masbia’s budget relies on private donations, and the kitchen needs $10,000 a week to stay open. “We need to raise that money from week to week,” Rapaport said. “We run the kitchen like a day-to-day household, but we never thought it was not going to be a challenge,” he said. In the last 10 weeks, Masbia has sent out extra appeals to 60,000 people in the area, hoping that their old supporters, who are holding their money back because of the uncertain economy, keep on donating.

“Part of charity is dignity.”

Rabbi Shaul Deutsch, 42, said now the city’s 311 helpline sends people directly to his pantry, Oneg Shabbos, which is in the basement of his home in Borough Park. Coming from a needy family himself, he promised himself that he would fight hunger.

The Oneg Shabbos food pantry distributes $5.5 million worth of food annually, the rabbi said. Each Thursday evening his team of Borough Park Jews and Hispanics provides boxes filled with vegetables, eggs and frozen chicken for more than 1,000 families.

Rabbi Deutsch and his wife, Pe’er, lobby and fundraise as much for financial support as for boxes, tapes and bags. Even though the rabbi’s porch, which is usually packed with boxes of food, is almost empty this week, they seem to be confident. After all, the $75,000 freezer the Deutsches received with a government grant, still holds some of thousands of leftover chickens from the Jewish New Year. That is when, according to an ancient tradition, people pray with a chicken that they will sacrifice but not eat. According to Mrs. Deutsch, the chickens will be all gone by Hanukkah, which this year begins at sundown on December 21.

Rabbi Deutsch also buys vouchers from a nearby deli and gives them to prominent rabbis. If food packages were delivered to them, they would feel embarrassed. But this enables them to shop for their own groceries. “Part of charity is dignity,” the rabbi said.

After Saturday prayers, the Deutsches also serve food in the rabbi’s sanctuary, and his wife often cooks for 10 people at a time. “I am the only organization in the world which says to the competitors: I give you 1,000 customers of mine if you want,” said rabbi Deutsch. “When I start a week I have no idea how I am going to do it. I live by faith.” He said his experience is that when people feel an organization is legitimate, more want to be part of it.

At the other end of the neighborhood, a smaller food pantry, an organization called Tomchei Shabbos (supporters of the Sabbath) packs about 600 boxes for the Sabbath for those in need. Jeno Herskowitz, an 83-year-old social worker, operates the pantry along with a dozen Russians, who work for food themselves. Herskowitz said he wants to help and at the same time motivate those who ask for help. “We give you two pieces of bread but if you need three, you have to find other ways too,” he said. The people who donate never see those they help. “Neither side wishes to meet,” said Herskowitz. “The boxes are delivered to the houses and the drivers leave before the people come out to pick the package up.”  As he said that, a woman walked in and without saying hello or filling out an application, picked up a box and rushed away. But no one would stop her anyway.

It is different from “standard New York society.”

The Sabbath is a special day for the Jewish community in terms of giving, too. Groceries, restaurants and bakeries package leftovers and fresh goods. Employees of Podrigal’s bakery on 13th Avenue give small brown packages to those who shyly stop outside at the bakery’s glass door. “Those who are in need,” clerk Aniko Klein said, “and believe me, people with seven to eight children in the Orthodox community, are in real need, those stay outside at the door.” People can make special requests, like extra bread, said Klein, and when they have more than what they need, they can exchange it with someone else for a grocery item or something else.

Few people are seen begging on the streets of Borough Park, and few are seen sleeping in bus shelters. Sheltering those without homes is a special case in Borough Park. People accommodate others. “It is common to expand hospitality,” said Isaac Schonfeld, a community organizer, who has friends living permanently in other people’s homes. “Here, people have 10 to 16 strangers for the Sabbath every single weekend.” he said. It is different from what he called “standard New York society.”

In the same building as his Oneg Shabbos pantry, Rabbi Deutsch has recently accommodated parents with eight children who lost their Crown Heights home in an electrical fire. During the last two weeks, people have donated a dining room set, beds, a refrigerator, electronics, a dryer, paper goods and clothes for the family. “I say to people, be my partner to do good. And people do.” Rabbi Deutsch said.

Jewish social and volunteer organizations claim without exception that they are open to anyone in need. Those who receive government funding are forbidden to discriminate. But many of the neighborhood’s non-Jews have never heard about these services, others say that they would not try to use them anyway.

Community organizer, Isaac Schonfeld, said that a strong self-selection works in the neighborhood. “These services were established by Jews, funded by Jews, and Jews are their target audience,” he said. “People might be uncomfortable by using them, just like Jews would feel uncomfortable going to a soup kitchen in the basement of a Christian church. People who run the services may be uncomfortable with non-Jews too, but they would not refuse.”


A Brooklyn gentleman

Leslie Blau

By Mirjam Donath

Published: December 8, 2008

In Nepszabadsag,

If there is a formula for how to survive hardship with optimism and dignity, Leslie Blau knows it. This fragile but energetic 87-year-old New Yorker started his life from the bottom twice. He and his wife Sarah faced the Holocaust then fled from communist Hungary in 1956. Blau put all of his memories in his book he wrote in English, which has been lately published in Hungary. The invitation back to their home town for the book release reawoke all their buried memories.

Leslie Blau sits at the dining table of his Brooklyn apartment in Borough Park, a tiny figure, always dressed elegantly. Meeting him is a trip back to the beginning of the previous century when it was stylish to be a gentleman. The trip to the present was not an easy one for him, though he says he has no regrets.

Leslie Yitczhak Moshe Blau was born and raised in Hungary’s capital, Budapest. It was relatively the safest place to be during World War II., because the war ended before he could be deported to a labor camp or worse. Through a mixup, Blau never joined his classmates in labor service in the copper mines of Yugoslavia; they all died from the unbearable hardships. Blau was called into the Labor Service only later. Since the anti-Jewish laws forbade him to continue academic studies, he became a trained knitter at the age of 22, working in a large textile mill in the last year of the war.

But it was not Budapest that captivated Blau’s heart. It was his father’s hometown, which Blau visited often in the summers: Bonyhad.

“I am from Bonyhad, but he is the one mad about it.”

Bonyhad was a small town of 8,000 people in southwest Hungary. 1,200 Jews, who lived there, were dragged away and sent to concentration and labor camps in 1944, among them Blau’s father, his future wife Sara and her family. Only Sara was among the 170 who survived the Holocaust. The two met in Bonyhad, where Blau moved with his widowed mother after the war, after Sara came back from Auschwitz. They lived there for 11 years, having two children, Edit and Bela, and fled from the country for good in 1956 when the Hungarian revolution forced a pause in the communist terror.

“I am from Bonyhad, but he is the one mad about it,” says Sara, for whom the town brings nothing back but her worst memories. The first time they returned to Bonyhad was in 1989, the year of the regime’s change. They did not believe their eyes: a once-flourishing Jewish culture had disappeared, leaving two sad synagogues behind. Their windows were boarded up, the space used for storing furniture. “I could not even see the remains of the tradition,” said Blau, who would never forget the sight of those synagogues. “At that moment I decided to write the book, to tell about the story of the town,” and so he became the chronicler of Bonyhad.

Once back in Brooklyn, amid the modest furniture and photos of an army of grandchildren, Blau collected the personal memories of his and other Bonyhad families who ended up in New York. He spent five years on the book, “Bonyhad – A Destroyed Community,” which was published by Shengold Publishers in 1994 and sold 1,000 copies in New York. Fourteen years later, Bonyhad reacted: they wanted to publish the book in Hungarian.

“Life depends on nuances.”

The phone rings. It is Dr. Gyorgy Vidor, a Hungarian lawyer. Blau speaks in a hurry with his best friend. The call is expensive but important: it is about the last corrections of the manuscript of the Bonyhad book’s Hungarian translation.

Blau and Vidor waved goodbye on a December morning in 1956. Surviving the Holocaust and the hardest part of communism, the Blaus decided it was time to leave. They hired a truck to take them to the border, and it was soon stopped by a policeman who wanted a ride the next village. Luckily he did not notice the family members hiding in the back. Vidor, however, who was waiting for the truck with his family elsewhere, stepped back when he saw the policeman in the car and waved to the driver not to stop. He chose to stay. “Life depends on nuances like this,” says Blau with tears in his eyes. After 50 years of being a citizen of the United States, what he calls “our beloved new country,” he still misses the people he left behind.

“Who knows how far he might have gone?”

He has not forgotten his gentlemanly ways. He does not simply open his door but comes ahead to greet visitors in the narrow stairway of the building, where he lives above his sister-in-law’s family. Knowing photographs would be taken, he insisted on wearing a tie. Though he had little, he has a great deal more now. He has his family.

He could lack more. He could lack the chance of going to university, to become an academic or a music editor at a radio station, what he always dreamed to be. Instead, starting from the bottom for the second time when he moved to New York, he worked 12 hours in a night shift in a knitting factory for three years. For another 30 he was a garment salesman, until he retired. It is not the typical life for a graduate of the prominent Jewish High School in Budapest.

That education has lasted. In his room, where guests are usually forbidden to enter, there are books all around, on wall-to-wall shelves and on the floor. A quick look and you know what the host’s interests are: history, music and art. Start a conversation and he will soon come up with a line from a poem or a Latin saying. If asked, he whistles Bizet’s “Carmen” from the beginning to the end.

“So much was taken away from these people, but education cannot be stolen,” said Simonne Hirschhorn, program director of Borough Park’s club for Holocaust survivors, who said she admires Blau for not being bitter about his fate. “He is a chivalrous, old-school, Central European gentleman, who will go out of his way to hold the door for you,” she said. “He must have seen himself designated for another life and I feel for him even more. Who knows how far he might have gone?”

According to Blau, one of the main sources of his happiness has been ensuring his children a higher education. His daughter Edit, now a retired public school teacher was 6 when they arrived in New York. She still remembers the music and history quizzes her father gave during the Sabbaths. “My whole appreciation for music comes from him,” she said.

For Leslie Blau, feeling sorry for himself is an alien emotion. “I did not make the American dream but was happy to be a full citizen and that I was never looked down as a refugee,” he said. Holding the fresh manuscript of his translated book in his hands, the aging man’s eyes are watering again. He talks about a bumbling kid who became a great speaker and now has the chance to present his book to the people of today’s Bonyhad.

In the middle of December, his daughter and wife by his side, Blau is going to visit his former home once again. “It is an incredible feeling that my book is translated into my mother tongue,” he said, and his optimism is all of a sudden understandable. Bonyhad’s school students will learn about the history of their town from a New Yorker.


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