By Carrie Gottlieb
My husband and I have been watching them for several years, a small but growing Chasidic community living in one of the grittier parts of Jersey City. On the rare occasions when I pass Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in my car, I see young mothers pushing their strollers.
On mild days, I’ve seen young families enjoying the Hudson River walkway, which runs through my condominium complex and into Liberty State Park — the unmistakable black hat, payes, white shirt beneath a long black coat, worn regardless of the weather. They’re out enjoying the salty air and a view of the river as it presses against Manhattan, with Bowling Green and Battery Park on one side, and Jersey City and Hoboken on the other.
This is one of the pleasantries of living along the waterfront in this part of Jersey City, with its direct views of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Freedom Tower, and the Statue of Liberty. In the summer there are welcome breezes off the river. On Sunday afternoons, enormous cruise ships announce their departure from New York Harbor with the sound of low-pitched horns. From the walkway, you can see them moving down the river, under the Verazzano Bridge, out past Staten Island and Sandy Hook, and into the vast Atlantic Ocean.
The streets around Martin Luther King Jr. Drive have none of that open expanse. The neighborhood is dense, packed with tall, narrow, homes close to the sidewalk—many built in the late 1800s. Even with significant renovations the steep staircases and awkward layouts can seem uncomfortable by today’s bourgeois standards. But amid the age cracks in the plaster, there are high ceilings and large rooms, enough space to accommodate a growing family.
The best part of these homes is the price. Many homes can still be purchased for roughly $300,000, even though Orthodox Jewish speculators have been steadily driving up the prices. The government of Jersey City has invested some money in improving the main street where the JC Kosher Supermarket is located next to the yeshiva. There is a new City Hall Annex there.
Last Yom Kippur, as I was driving home from morning services at a struggling Conservative synagogue on the West Side of Jersey City, I saw a young Chasidic man running in the rain. He was covered from head to toe in clear plastic, starting from the top of his wide black hat. It was an unexpected sight, but an encouraging one. I assumed he was late for shul. Where would he be rushing off to on the holiest day of the year?
I felt an odd solidarity with this stranger — the same way I felt about the women with their strollers and the families meandering along the Hudson River Walkway. It was an odd solidarity that I felt several years ago, when my husband and I went to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive out of curiosity, looking for the shul and the budding yeshiva we had read about in NJ.com. We were surprised to learn that a community of Chasidic Jews had moved into the Greenville section of Jersey City — one of the least gentrified areas of the city — and close to the gated, security conscious community where we live.
There is a small produce market that sells fresh fruits and vegetables at good prices about a mile away from the Chasidic neighborhood. Sometimes, my husband, David, stops off there if he’s passing through that section of town. A couple of years ago he met a group of young Chasidic mothers in the store and started chatting with them. He told them he was Jewish too, but they might not consider him Jewish because he wasn’t religious and didn’t observe most customs. He was glad to hear them say that they did consider him Jewish. David did not share the irony of his lineage with them. But I am well aware of it.
About a month ago, David was excited to learn that he could trace his ancestry back to the 1300s on the Geni geneology website. That’s quite a feat for an Ashkenazi Jew. In David’s case, it’s the fact that he’s a Twersky, a direct descendent of the Ba’al Shem Tov—the founder of Chasidism—straight down his maternal line. The Geni website traces the Ba’al Shem Tov to the great rabbis of medieval Europe and Israel.
For David’s Twersky branch of the family, the break with orthodoxy came in the early 1930s on the Lower East Side, when his maternal grandmother, Lillian, fell in love with Harvey, a dynamic, assimilated Jew, whom her parents referred to as “the Italian.” Needless to say, when Lillian married Harvey her parents sat shiva. They later reconciled. My husband was named for his maternal great-grandfather, David Twersky, the rabbi who ultimately forgave his headstrong daughter.
The tragic events of December 10, 2019, will forever mark a dark day for Jews in America. Jersey City has been added to the list of cities — Pittsburgh, Poway, Crown Heights — that have been engraved in the Jewish collective memory for the targeted murders of our people.
As a Jew and a Jersey City resident, I felt anger that camouflaged my pain and utter helplessness. I thought of my Jewish friend who spent her childhood in Bahrain, but emigrated to New York in the mid-1970s after her father was targeted and killed in his factory by Arab terrorists. I thought of the young Iraqi men I had read about in the 1970s, the ones who were hanged in a public square simply because they were Jewish.
I thought of my trip to Auschwitz in April 1991, one year to the day before my first son was born. How I walked, stoically, from one site to another on that hallowed ground on a cold, gray day. I felt numb, frozen, despite my down jacket and leather boots. Then I came to the exhibit of children’s clothing. There, in a giant heap behind an enormous glass case were thousands of dolls, tiny shoes, carriages and yellowed baby clothes. The ultimate image of evil was laid out before me, and broke me.
Read Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD” and you will find one example after another of slaughter and inexplicable resilience. Today, we still can’t understand why hatred continues to follow us. Our history in Europe was one of almost constant annihilation. We mark our relationship to Jerusalem with two cataclysmic events — the destruction of the first and second temples. Now and then we read about populations in Brazil or elsewhere in the world that have discovered their Jewish roots. I have read that as many as 20 percent of Spanish men can trace their roots to Judaism.
Still, we persist. We are a stiff-necked people. There is so much beauty and brilliance in our religion, our philosophy, our respect for human dignity, our desire for peace, to repair the world for the good of humanity. The Torah teaches us how to live in this world.
I believe that if the murderers in Jersey City had not been intercepted, first in the cemetery by Detective Joseph Seals, and then a little while later by teams of police officers who swept onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, the Yeshiva students huddled upstairs from the supermarket would have been attacked as well. The murderers had enough fire power to continue their rampage and do much more damage.
I also believe that because Jersey City has a Jewish mayor, Steven Fulop, whose family members perished in the Holocaust, the world understood clearly within 24 hours that this was an act of anti-Semitism. Mr. Fulop spoke out early and decisively, days before the New Jersey Attorney General or law-enforcement officials would. He saw the situation for what it was and called it out. If it looks like anti-Semitism and smells like anti-Semitism, then it is.
Evil played its hand last week in my city and changed many lives forever. Four lives were lost in the midst of utter madness. Nine children lost a beloved parent. Three spouses lost their life partners. Parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors. Loss spreads out and ripples through our community—an undercover detective; a likeable man from Ecuador, Miguel Douglas Rodriguez, who came here for better opportunities; Moshe Deutsch, a young neighborhood organizer who was visiting his family; and Leah Mindel Ferencz, who was filling in for her husband in their kosher grocery store as he went to lunchtime prayers.
Mrs. Ferencz’s sisters say she was always smiling, always ready to help others. Every day, her kindness repaired the world. May their lives be a blessing.
Carrie Gottlieb is a professional writer in Jersey City, New Jersey. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the officers and boards of the Jewish Publishing Group, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia or the Jewish Exponent.
From a fellow Jersey City Jewish writer: bravo and well said!