Brooklyn Jewish History

Guide to Brooklyn Jewish Archival Material at the Othmer Library

Compiled and written by Jeff Edelstein

Click here for a PDF of the Brooklyn Jewish Subject Guide

This guide is intended as an aid to researchers interested in archival material at the Brooklyn Historical Society that relates to Jews and Jewish communities in Brooklyn. The collections include organizational and institutional records, personal recollections and correspondence, family photographs, newspaper clippings, sheet music, and oral histories. The bulk of the material dates from the first half of the 20th century, although some 19th-century material is included.

Although this guide is extensive and is expected to satisfy many research needs in this subject, researchers should be aware that this guide is not necessarily comprehensive. The guide includes only those archival materials that were identified as relevant and were documented over time by archivists. In particular, other collections may include references to individuals (e.g., a soldier with a Jewish surname in a collection of Civil War material), but they are not included in this guide. Accordingly researchers may wish to review finding aids from collections not listed below to identify other materials potentially useful to their research. Access to the “finding aid portal” for such searches is available from this page: http://www.brooklynhistory.og/library/search/html. Those conducting family history and other genealogical research may wish to consult the Family History and Genealogy Research Guide at http://www.brooklynhistory.org/library/wp/research-guides/family-history/.

In addition to the archival material detailed in this guide, there are other resources at BHS useful to researching Brooklyn Jewish history. First, you can search BHS’s online catalog, Bobcat, for books and other print matter available in the library. The principal keywords to search are Jews and Jewish. You can also search for specific subjects and neighborhoods, such as Hasidism or Brownsville. Other relevant keywords include Sephardim and synagogues. A brief bibliography of selected books in the BHS library is provided at the end of this guide.

BHS has several other resources that are useful for many areas of research. These include city directories, historical newspapers, and online access to U.S. Census and New York State Census Records ; maps and atlases; and almanacs. These resources include references to Jewish individuals, institutions, neighborhoods, businesses, etc. As just one example, the volumes of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac in the BHS’s collection, which span the years 1886-1929, list Jewish synagogues, charitable organizations, and educational institutions, with addresses and names of officers and religious leaders. Another useful collection is the Brooklyn & Long Island Scrapbook collection of newspaper clippings, available on microfiche. A card index is available; relevant subject headings include Jews, Jewish, and specific items under Congregation and Temple.

For visual material, you can search a database in BHS’s library for images, such as photographs, postcards, and posters. This database includes digital images of individual items in the collections listed in section 2, below, as well as many more photographs of neighborhoods with large Jewish populations either in the past or present from other collections. An appointment is not necessary to access the image database. Assistance with searching, as well as printing, citation, and reproduction information, is available upon arrival.

Material found in Bobcat, the microfiched scrapbooks, maps, and the image database are available for users in the library without an appointment. The archival collections listed in sections 1, 3, and 4 below, however, are only available by appointment for viewing in the library. To schedule an appointment or for further information about these collections, please contact the library via the form available online at: http://www.brooklynhistory.org/library/ask.html.
Each entry below follows the format:

Collection name, date range of the collection
Call number
Extent in linear feet of collection. Link to more information about the collection (if available).
Brief description of content.

1.  Text-based collections

Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities collection, 1910 – 1927
Call number: 1985.097
0.25 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities collection documents philanthropy and social aid work in Brooklyn’s Jewish community during the early 20th century. It is comprised primarily of copies of the Federation’s annual report spanning the years 1910 to 1920. Also included are a copy of the Federation’s membership roster, dated 1921; a list of subscribers, dated 1926-1927; and several informational pamphlets that highlight the Federation’s work and make appeals for donations.

Daniel J. Kern recollections of Brooklyn, 1908 – 1939
Call number: 1992.024
Extent: 0.1 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The writings included in this collection were submitted by Daniel J. Kern to the Brooklyn Historical Society over a course of nearly two years. They cover a wide array of topics pertaining to Brooklyn history, including some Jewish history and ethnic relations, as experienced and observed through Kern’s eyes.

Hasidic community of Williamsburg collection, 1987
Call number: 1992.005
Extent: 0.2 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
This collection consists of children’s books, flyers, pamphlets, and wedding invitations from the Hasidic community of the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. Most materials are in Hebrew, with several in both English and Hebrew.

Recreation Rooms and Settlement collection, 1905-1991
Call number: ARC.088
Extent: 1.67 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Recreation Rooms and Settlement collection documents the work of the settlement, originally established to provide educational and recreational opportunities for Jewish immigrant women, from its early years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan through its recent activity in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Canarsie. The bulk of the records are from the period 1953 to 1991.

Fred Hoyt family research collection, 1850 – 1974
Call number: ARC.043
Extent: 1.25 linear feet.Link to more information about the collection.
This collection contains papers and photographs, circa 1850 to 1974, collected during genealogical research by Fred Hoyt. The collection materials pertaining to the Aschner and Jacobson families of Brooklyn Heights and Montgomery, N.Y. Earlier letters from the Aschner family are written in German, and religious documents are written in Hebrew. The bulk of images in the collection are cabinet cards from the late 19th century.

Alfred and Lucille Kolkin papers, 1942 – 1965
Call number: ARC.048
Extent: 0.42 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Alfred and Lucille Kolkin papers span 1942 to 1965 and contain correspondence between Al and Lucy Kolkin, who grew up in the Brooklyn Jewish community of Bensonhurst and were married in 1943, during Alfred’s Navy training and active service in the Pacific in World War II. The collection also includes materials from Lucy’s employment at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a ship fitter.

Unity Club records, 1914 – 1966
Call number: ARC.102
Extent: 1.35 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
This collection consists of a bound volume containing a register of the members of the Unity Club, a Brooklyn Jewish men’s organization founded in 1896 that advocated social, philanthropic, and communal activities, for the period 1914 to 1944. Also included is a program from the Unity Club’s 70th anniversary dinner and a framed painting commemorating the club’s 50th anniversary in 1946, picturing the three clubhouses occupied by the club since its founding.

Brooklyn Bridge teleplay, 1991 – 1991
Call number: 1992.001
Extent: 0.1 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
A typewritten teleplay, dated 1991, for an episode of the television series Brooklyn Bridge,which aired on the CBS network from 1991 to 1993. The series depicted a Jewish family living in Brooklyn during the mid-1950s. The teleplay is for an episode titled“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” Included with the teleplay is a clipping of a 1991 article about the series from the New York Times.

Jacob Brenner papers, 1884 – 1921
Call number: 2006.023
Extent: 2.18 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
This collection contains documents and news clippings of Jacob A. Brenner (1857-1921), former Brooklyn magistrate and Kings County Commissioner of Jurors and prominent figure in Jewish communal and philanthropic activities. The collection chiefly relates to Brenner’s numerous appointments in the Kings County judicial system and his membership in the Republican Party.

2.  Photograph and ephemera collections

Viscount and Viscountess Halifax photographs of Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn, 1943 – 1943
Call number: V1974.017
Extent: 0.1 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Viscount and Viscountess Halifax photographs of Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn date from 1943 and contain 43 black-and-white publicity-style photographs of Viscount and Viscountess Halifax during two visits to the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn.

Eugenie Fribourg family photographs and ephemera, 1857 – 2007
Call number: 2011.002
Extent: 1.5 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Eugenie Fribourg family photographs and ephemera collection comprises materials relating to and documenting the family and professional life of physician Eugenie Merzbach Fribourg. The collection provides a rich visual document of Jewish-American family life in the early-20th century.

Rosenfeld and Ginsberg families photographs, circa 1935 to 1945
Call number: V1990.033
Extent: 0.04 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Rosenfeld and Ginsberg families photographs consist of 11 black-and-white photographic prints, dating from circa 1935 to 1945, that primarily depict Helen Ginsberg (nee Helen Rosenfeld), Sam Ginsberg, and other family and friends of Helen and Sam Ginsberg as well as street views of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville and Borough Park

Harry Kalmus papers and photographs, 1938 – 1987
Call number: ARC.046
Extent: 4.7 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Harry Kalmus papers and photographs include images Kalmus took during his career as a photographer. In addition to working for advertising agencies and corporate offices in Manhattan, Kalmus photographed events such as weddings and bar mitzvahs in Brooklyn, especially in Crown Heights. This collection includes many photographs of such events as well as a separate series of Kalmus’s papers.

Arthur I. Okanst scrapbooks, 1928-1965
Call number: ArMs 2004.023
Extent: 2.5 cubic feet. Link to more information about the collection.
Arthur I. Okanst (1886-1965) was a Jewish-American Brooklynite who lived with his wife and daughter in Flatbush and took an active interest in Jewish affairs. His scrapbooks contain clippings and published obituaries; theater and event programs and playbills; souvenirs, menus, leaflets and other printed ephemera; greeting cards, telegrams, and invitations to weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Raanan Geberer photographs of Brooklyn neighborhoods, 1988 – 1990
Call number: V1991.118
Extent: 0.05 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Raanan Geberer photographs of Brooklyn neighborhoods consist of 71 color photographic prints documenting various Brooklyn neighborhoods from 1988 to 1990, including Coney Island, Flatbush, Manhattan Beach, Midwood, Bay Ridge, and Brighton Beach, among others. The photographer places some emphasis on documenting Jewish life in Brooklyn.

3.  Relevant materials in larger mixed collections

Brooklyn hospitals and health services organizations collection, 1829 – 1998
Call number: ARC.141
Extent: 2.3 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Brooklyn hospitals and health services organizations collection spans the period 1829 to 1998 and contains records of various Brooklyn hospitals and health services organizations, many of which were affiliated with charitable organizations or religious denominations and provided care to Brooklyn’s disadvantaged and underserved citizenry. Jewish institutions represented in the collection are the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn and Maimonides Hospital of Brooklyn.

Religious organizations of Brooklyn collection, 1828 – 1986
Call number: ARC.242
Extent: 1.3 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The religious organizations of Brooklyn collection contains records and publications of several church-affiliated and interdenominational charities, shelters, schools, and missions established in Brooklyn in the 19th and 20th centuries. Materials chiefly consist of annual reports and manuals containing comprehensive information on organizations’ yearly activities and accomplishments. Jewish institutions represented in the collection are Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, Daughters of Israel Benefit Society, Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn sheet music collection, circa 1830-1930
Call number: ARC.226
Extent: 5.25 linear feet. Link to more information about the collection.
The Brooklyn sheet music collection contains several pieces of sheet music published in Brooklyn and, to a lesser extent, New York City, by various composers, arrangers, and lyricists during the period circa 1830 to 1930. A wide range of musical forms are represented in the collection, including waltzes, polkas, military marches, parade marches, religious hymns, popular songs, and other forms based upon or inspired by various musical traditions around the world. Though the majority of the song titles and lyrics are in English, some are written in French, German, Hebrew, and Italian.

4.  Oral History Collections

Congregation Beth Elohim Oral History, 2010
Call number: 2011.004
Extent: 6 digital audio WAV files (7hr, 14min). Link to more information about the collection.
In 2010, the Brooklyn Historical Society partnered with Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue founded in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1861, to conduct an oral history with longtime member George Harris on the occasion of the synagogue’s upcoming 150th anniversary (2011).

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue Oral History, 2010
Call number: 2011.005
Extent: 12 digital audio WAV files (16 hours). Link to more information about the collection.
In 2010, the Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, a Reform congregation, partnered to collect oral history interviews with 10 members of the congregation on the occasion of the synagogue’s 50thanniversary.

Crown Heights Oral History – Bridging Eastern Parkway, 1993-1994
Call number: ArMs 1994.006
Extent: 40 cassettes (90 minutes each). Link to more information about the collection.
In 1993-1994, the Brooklyn Historical Society collected interviews with 33 residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. The subtitle, Bridging Eastern Parkway, refers to racial tensions expressed during the 1991 Crown Heights riots.Narrators are of African American, Caribbean, Jewish, Polish, andRussiandescent and include members of the Lubavitch community.Transcripts of 24 interviews from this collection may be read in the library (pdfs available). Recordings are not currently available to researchers.

See also the Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations website at http://cbbg.brooklynhistory.org/. Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations is an oral history project and public programming series that examines the history and experiences of mixed-heritage people and families, cultural hybridity, race, ethnicity, and identity in the historically diverse borough of Brooklyn.
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Select Bibliography

The following list highlights a few of the books pertaining to Brooklyn Jewish history at the Othmer Library. The online catalog of the complete collection is available at http://www.bobcat.nyu.edu/brooklynhistory.

Abelow, Samuel P. History of Brooklyn Jewry (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Scheba Publishing Company; c1937).
Main collection: F129.B7 J5 A32 1937.
Although it is now 75 years since it was published, Abelow’s History of Brooklyn Jewry remains a valuable general survey, particularly for  the 19th century, including mention o many early synagogues and, for genealogical researchers, a wealth of names of individual community and business leaders.

Abramovitch, Ilana, and Seán Galvin. Jews of Brooklyn (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England; c2002).
Main collection: F129.B7 J49 2002.
A volume of more than 50 brief essays on aspects of Brooklyn Jewish life and history, many illustrated, organized into three themes: Coming to Brooklyn, Living in Brooklyn, and Leaving Brooklyn/Returning to Brooklyn. Essays range from the specific (e.g., The Early Years of the Hebrew Educational Society of Brooklyn; Danny Kaye: Brooklyn Tummler) to the general (Crown Heights in the 1950s; The Brooklyn-American Dream) and from the historical to the anecdotal. A rich source for cultural memory of the Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn in the mid-20th century, with useful bibliography of Brooklyn-specific works.

Mayer, Egon. Modern Jewish Orthodoxy in post-modern America : a case study of the Jewish community in Boro Park (PhD diss., Rutgers University; 1975).
Main collection: F128.9.J5 M39 1975p.
A sociological study that includes background on the origin and development of the Orthodox Jewish community of Boro Park.

Poll, Solomon. The Hasidic community of Williamsburg; a study in the sociology of religion (New York: Schocken Books; 1969).
Main collection: BM198 .P6 1969.
A basic introduction to the origins of Hasidism in Europe and the establishment of the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn, with emphasis on social and family structure and religious hierarchy. Interested readers may wish to supplement this work with more recent information available online.

Rosenbloom, Joseph R. A biographical dictionary of early American Jews: Colonial times through 1800 (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press; 1960).
Main collection: E184.J5 R63 1960.
Brief identifications of Jews known from available published literature and manuscript materials, with reference to those primary sources. Aimed primarily at historians and advanced genealogical researchers.

Rubin, Israel. Satmar; an island in the city (Chicago: Quadrangle Books; 1972).
Main collection: BM198 .R8 1972.
A study of one specific Brooklyn Hasidic community, the Satmar, that provides a description of Satmar life and discusses the internal structure of the community. Though academic in nature, it is accessible in tone.

Sutton, Joseph A. D. Magic carpet : Aleppo-in-Flatbush : the story of a unique ethnic Jewish community (New York: Thayer-Jacoby; c1979). Main collection: F129.B7 S93 1986.
A portrait of the Syrian Jewish community of Flatbush, with treatment of its history and customs; part II focuses on the history of this community when it still existed in Aleppo and Damascus.

Additional Resources and Organizations

American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). Founded in 1892, AJHS is the oldest national ethnic historical organization in the nation. Its collections, which include records of the nation’s leading Jewish communal organizations and important holdings in the fields of education, philanthropy, science, sports, business, and the arts, reflect the history of the Jewish presence in the United States from 1654 to the present. A particularly relevant collection in the AJHS archives is the Records of Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum, 1878-1972.

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Archives. Providing rescue, relief, and rehabilitation to Jews outside the United States from the early 20th century, the JDC was particularly active in its support of Soviet Jewry and the emigration movement, which has relevance for the history of Brooklyn’s modern Russian Jewish communities in Brighton Beach, Coney Island, and elsewhere.
American Sephardi Federation. The ASF represents the heritage of Sephardim—Jews tracing their origins to the Iberian Peninsula as well as the Balkans, North Africa, and other Muslim lands including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Bukhara. Brooklyn is home to a large community of Syrian Jews based particularly in Gravesend.

Brooklyn Jewish Center – Digital Archives. A digital archive of selected papers from the Brooklyn Jewish Center, the first all-encompassing Jewish “Community Center”, established in 1920.

Brooklyn Museum’s Collection Items Tagged “Jewish”. Link to image results for Judaica and Jewish objects and artworks in the Brooklyn Museum’s collections.

Brooklyn Public Library—Brooklyn Collection. Although not limited to materials of Jewish interest, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection is the library’s local history division, providing a range of information and services about anything and everything Brooklyn. The collection’s research materials and archival documents includes maps, historic Brooklyn photographs, ephemera, prints, and a complete run of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Center for Jewish History (CJH). The CJH represents a partnership of five resident organizations—American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Its library services includes the Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute. See also Items Tagged “Brooklyn” in its digital collections catalog.
JewishGen. Free website devoted to Jewish genealogy; allows searching by surname and town.

The Jewish Museum’s Collection Items Tagged “Brooklyn”. Link to image results, mostly of photographs but also including artworks and objects, in the online gallery of New York’s Jewish Museum.

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. An archive and library devoted to East European Jewish history and culture, YIVO is home to the archival records of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and other immigrant support groups, such as the American Jewish Congress, as well as numerous landsmanshaftn (mutual aid societies); see also its Milstein Family Jewish Communal Archive Online, which focuses on Jewish life in 20th-century New York.