Antisemitism in Williamsburg During the 1950s and ’60s
My name is Yisroel Ephraim Hakohain Weiss. I am a Jew who grew up in a home where I was told at a very young age to never fear antisemitic hatred. I was told to embrace it, and to stand in its face with a giant, taunting smile — a smile that could never be broken by the evil spirit of those who wanted to see us eradicated. This ideology was instilled in me by my father.
My father is a man who endured a lot growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the 1950s, where crime infested everyday life, and one couldn’t walk down the street without the threat of being mugged or assaulted. And why was this? Because the targets were Jews — a group of assumed cowards that could not protect themselves. This went on for many, many years, until my father was the victim of an antisemitic attack that nearly killed him.
It was April 29,1969 — a typical night, until there was a commotion outside the Pupa Shul. A gang of violent men started to assault parishioners as they left the shul, and Jews scattered down Bedford, Penn, and Lee Avenues. My father was returning from Brooklyn College, and saw the commotion. He witnessed two men swinging chains and hitting an older man, knocking him unconscious. My father proceeded to chase both of the assailants, and eventually caught up to one of them. He placed the hoodlum in a headlock and brought him to the ground. What happened next was a total blur.
My father felt a cold, tingling sensation in his arm that ran from his shoulder all the way down to his fingers. He noticed his arm go limp, and then the assailant ran. As he looked down, my father realized he had been stabbed by a large knife that pierced his forearm through and through. Understanding that his life was in grave danger, he ripped off his jacket and created a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. He flagged down a vehicle and was driven to Cumberland Hospital, where — for the next two years — he endured a number of surgeries to repair his ulnar nerve that was severed. After much physical therapy, he was able to retain most of his arm function and feeling.
My father told me this story when I was a fairly young boy. And I remember asking him this very question: “Would you do it again if given the chance?” His response was simple and I’ll never forget it. He said, “We must protect our fellow Jews. While I wish I kicked something in the way of the assailants to knock them over, I’m still proud of standing up for what was right and just.” These words have been etched into my core. And they became a driving force within me to stand up for our people.
My son is all of three months old. He does not know of the hatred, bigotry, and nonsensical violence that perverts our society. All he understands is the need for food and sleep. He has much time to learn of the world we live in. It is my hope that by the time he is of age for comprehension, the world will be a better place. Sadly, I don’t see that happening. I just pray that he embodies resolve and resilience with the understanding that he has a mission — a mission to stand up for his fellow Jews. His daddy is proud of his father. I only hope Michael will be proud of me some day.
Am Yisroel Chai.
Yisroel Weiss is a husband, father, and fighter for Jewish rights. He is also the Community Liaison for Assemblyman Dov Hikind in Brooklyn, New York.