THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents

 

Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies

New York


 

MELVIN H. KLINGHER--HAVERSTRAW, NEW YORK
 

Haverstraw is situated on the Hudson river about thirty-five miles from New York City. In the mid 1800s, because of clay in the area, brickyards were constructed. The first brickyards were built by descendants of the Dutch settlers. The Irish eventually dominated and took over the industry. Haverstraw became an Irish Catholic village.

Jews, primarily German Jews, settled as shopkeepers, saloon keepers, peddlers, etc., in the later part of the 1880s. A shul was founded in 1891. The plaque listing members had approximately fifty names. One of these was my maternal grandfather.

My grandfather settled in Haverstraw in the 1880s with his wife and four children. Two other children were born in Haverstraw. He started as a peddler, opened a notion store, and later a tire store.

His youngest son, my uncle Ben, after returning from France in 1919, convinced the family to start an oil business. They founded the first oil distribution center in Rockland County. The Jewish community was an integrated part of the community from 1890 on. Most of the stores were Jewish-owned. The shul was Orthodox and all Jews belonged, even though there were divergent views.

In 1906, the main business section collapsed. There was a "landslide" caused by the brick companies mining for clay under the streets. Many Jews were killed, including the rabbi. The rabbi's tombstone describes the landslide and is written in Hebrew, not Yiddish.

In the 1920s, Jewish clothing contractors and manufacturers opened factories in Haverstraw. This gave rise to other ethnic groups coming into the town. Italian, Polish, Slovish, etc., had come to work with the railroad many years before. Now the women had employment.

By 1920, the village was predominantly Irish and Italian, with a small group of Polish and Slovish. All were Catholic, and the two Catholic churches predominated. The Protestants, who had three churches, were in the minority.

By 1930, there were 5,00 people in the village and about 3,000 on the outskirts. The Depression hit the village very hard and Jews and non-Jews alike were affected. A number of stores closed and people moved away, went on relief, worked on WPA, etc. It wasn't until the 1940s, with the start of World War II, that a semblance of prosperity returned.

The Jewish Community

The first Jews to settle in Haverstraw were shopkeepers, saloon keepers, peddlers, etc. The descendants of many of these either intermarried or assimilated into the community. The second group of Jews to settle in Haverstraw were from eastern Europe and were more religious. Most of their descendants remain Jewish to this day.

The shul was Orthodox and run by a very learned, very poor man as the shamus. Pesach knew every yahrzeit, dates of births, deaths, etc. He also made sure that there were services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. He would round up the post-Bar Mitzvah boys for the minyan.

An afternoon cheder was maintained to teach the boys for their individual Bar Mitzvahs. The rabbis were mostly there for a short time before going on to other places. They attempted to teach us to read Hebrew; little of any other religion or Jewish history was taught. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a kosher butcher, a Jewish bakery, and a deli for the Jewish community.
 

Interaction With The General Community

Jews were individuals when it came to interaction with the general community. Some families never became involved with the community at large, others became integrated, and still others joined in political or semi-political activities. There was a Jewish village trustee (one of four) during the 1930s. The town attorneys from mid-1930 to 1970 were all Jewish.

My father was a member of the volunteer fire department and the Elks Club. He was named chief of the fire police when he became too old to fight fires.

My in-laws, who came from Brooklyn, were astonished at the interaction of my father with the community. Two items point out the difference between a small town and a large city. My parents had my in-laws over for a Sunday barbecue. In the mid-afternoon two half-drunk men came calling to see why my father had not been to the Elks Club. We introduced the mayor and sheriff.

Another time, the New York State Volunteer Fire Association held their annual convention and parade in Haverstraw. My father, as chief of the fire police, was designated the grand marshall and rode in the car that started the parades. Both of the above were unusual for a big city resident but not for small town people.

While there probably was inherent latent anti-Semitism within the community, it did not relate itself to the local Jewish population. Most Jews were accepted for what they were. During the 1930s, the German Bund held rallies in the Mt. Ivy section of Haverstraw. However, not once did they come into the village. They stayed in the outlying area that was rural.

Discrimination against the black population was prevalent. Blacks were integrated into the schools, factories, etc. They did live in their own section; however, there was a black church directly across the street from the house we lived in.

The street we lived on (Rockland Street) was an American dream. Next door to our house lived an Italian family and next to them was an Irish family. Across the street, in addition to the black church, there were a Polish family, a German family, and two Irish families. On the other side of our house lived a teacher who was half American Indian. Around the corner there were two Syrian families.

As you can see, there was no Jewish ghetto in Haverstraw. In general, we were aware of anti-Jewish feelings, but it was never fully expressed.


                                                                                         Holocaust

The Jewish community during the 1930s did not actively campaign against Germany. There was more of a passive complaint with families attempting to contact relatives and get them out of Europe.

I remember my father trying to get his family out of Rumania. He was the only member of his family to come to the United States. He was unable to do anything, as communication was very difficult and a $5,000 bond per person was required to initiate the process. The United States government required the bond to assure that the people would not become destitute.

My father's brother and a son were killed by the Nazis during 1943. The rest of the family survived and immigrated to Israel in the 1960s.

My Immediate Family

As previously stated, my mother's family settled in Haverstraw during the late 1880s. My father came to this country as a boy of fourteen or fifteen. He was sent to stay with his mother's brother. (His mother died and he did not get along with his stepmother.) He did not stay with this uncle very long but went out on his own. He worked in New York in the garment industry, peddled in Pennsylvania, and was a strike breaker in San Francisco on the trolleys, etc. He had the wanderlust then and until he died.

He finally settled in Haverstraw in 1922 when he married my mother. He opened a men's clothing store, which lasted until the Depression. He then worked at various jobs until he purchased a cigar store/pool hall, which he operated until World War II. During the war, he worked on the construction of Camp Shanks, an Army camp, and after the camp was built, he worked for the Army.

Most of my mother's activities were within the Jewish community. She worked with the Jewish organizations and was, for a time, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women chapter in Rockland County. During the war, she worked in a munitions factory and became more friendly with the non-Jewish women in the community.

My father's relation with the community was through his membership in the volunteer fire department and the Elks. He was not known as Morris Klingher but as "The Kingfish." To this day, thirty-five years after his death, people still remember "the Kingfish" when talking to me.

My life in Haverstraw revolved around school. While in grade school, I attended cheder three times a week. Between school and cheder, there wasn't much time for other activities. When I went to high school, I joined the Boy Scouts. I was also active in the high school dramatic group. Between these activities and helping in the store, there wasn't much time for anything else. Summers allowed time to explore the river and the mountains and to play some sports.

In June of 1941, I graduated from high school and in September went to college in New York City. From that time on, I never really lived in Haverstraw. College, Army, back to college--and work took me away from the Haverstraw community. The family lived there and I visited but I never again became active in the area. My work took me to Connecticut, Michigan, Delaware, and New Jersey, but when I finally decided to settle, I chose a house not too far from Haverstraw. The area chosen was about ten miles from where I was born and was Jewish in nature. Both my wife and I are Jewish-oriented, as were both of our families. I continued a family tradition of community service, having served as chairman of the Town of Ramapo Planning Board for twenty-six years and presently serving as Mayor of the Village of Pomona.

The area I now live in, while only six miles from where I was born, is entirely different from the village I grew up in. We are a suburban community depending on auto transportation for everything.

The Haverstraw village was a self-contained area of five square blocks for shopping, etc.; while it still exists, it is run down, with most of the stores now run by minority inhabitants.
 

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