Today, “Brooklyn” and “Jewish” go together like mustard on a Nathan’s Famous hot dog – but this wasn’t always the case. For a span of 50 years during the 19th century, Brooklyn was the third-largest city in the U.S. and was known as “The City of Churches.” Although there had been a growing Jewish community in nearby Manhattan since 1654, the Jewish population in Brooklyn remained sparse until the early part of the 20th century.
All of this changed dramatically with the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903. Dubbed “the Jews’ Highway,” this structure acted as a valve that channeled a vast influx of the overcrowded Jewish population of the Lower East Side into Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section and eventually to neighborhoods such as Brownsville, Borough Park and Crown Heights, among others. Between 1905 and 1930, the Jewish population in Brooklyn jumped from 100,000 to 800,000 – almost half the Jewish population in New York City.
Brooklyn’s Jewish neighborhoods became centers of energy and creativity, producing a breathtaking list of remarkable personalities that poured their diverse gifts into the larger American culture and left their mark there. Here are just a few of them:
Woody Allen (b.1935) began his life as Allen Stewart Konigsberg. This prolific Academy Award-winning filmmaker and comedian graduated from Midwood High School. He has built his career largely upon his memories of and commentary on New York Jewish life.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990), an American composer, is widely regarded as one of the foremost creative musical talents of the twentieth century. Dubbed “The Dean of American Music,” Copland was raised in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. In the 1930s and 1940s, he wrote such enduring masterpieces as Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man.
Beverly Sills (1929-2007), one of the premier operatic sopranos of her era, was born Belle Miriam Silverman in Brooklyn. Having performed on radio from the age of four, Sills went on to sing the greatest roles in opera all over the world. Upon her retirement as a singer in 1980, she became the general manager of the New York City Opera, going on to be the Chairman of Lincoln Center 1994 and later, from 2002-2005, of the Metropolitan Opera. Sills made frequent television appearances, and her warm personality gave opera a friendly face.
Barbra Streisand (b. 1942) was born in Williamsburg and is one of show business’ most successful performers in a career that has spanned five decades. She is one of only a handful of artists who has won the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards. Streisand is a versatile performer, but she is especially known for roles that emphasize her Jewish persona, particularly in films such as Funny Girl and Yentl.
Finally, a real Hall of Famer to complete our very incomplete list of the “Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame.”
Sandy Koufax (b.1935) was born in Borough Park and was the dominant baseball pitcher of his time. He played his entire career with the Dodgers, first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles, and drew national attention with his decision not to start the first game of the 1965 World Series against the New York Yankees because it fell on the Day of Atonement. His principled stand gained him respect among Jews and non-Jews alike. Forced into early retirement because of an arthritic elbow, Koufax became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame at age 36.
Many other Brooklyn Jews have helped to shape American culture, including United States Senator Barbara Boxer and high-profile attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Jay Sekulow. See how many you can think of yourself!
Source consulted: Jews of Brooklyn, edited by Ilana Abramovitch, Seán Galvin.