When Gitty Katz learned she was pregnant with twins earlier this winter, she was overcome with despair. The Williamsburg housewife, a devout Satmar, began to fantasize that that the babies would never be born. So, when Mrs. Katz miscarried, it was less a sense of grief than a strange and awful relief.
Mrs. Katz already cares for four children in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in a housing project. Her 18-month-old toddler sleeps in a crib he’s rapidly outgrowing in the bedroom she shares with her husband. Two more young children, a brother and sister, sleep side by side on pull-out day beds next to the dining room table. Then there is her fourth child, a daughter named Yitty, at 5, the oldest and the prettiest, who sleeps in the bathtub.
“That in 1996, a child should live in a bathtub, I know is horrifying,” says Mrs. Katz. “This is very embarrassing and depressing, but it is my life,” the 26-year-old mother adds plaintively. “I cannot afford a larger apartment.” That is why, she whispers, she prayed her pregnancy would not come to term — even though the main precept of her Orthodox beliefs is that she should have as many children as possible.
Yitty, whose makeshift bed consists of a couple of blankets lining the tub, covered by a small plastic mattress, and a thick, flowered quilt, doesn’t seem to mind a living arrangement that her own mother concedes is intolerable. The family wants to move to a bigger apartment in public housing, but can’t do so because of a legal battle that is, in effect, preventing Jews from moving into the projects and those who are in them from transferring to better domiciles.
Poverty is so prevalent among the Chasidic Jews of Williamsburg that many families live in conditions at least as dire as those of Mrs. Katz. Theirs is a bleak terrain bounded by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Williamsburg, say Jewish communal leaders, has a population whose poverty rivals that of the most needy residents of Harlem or Brownsville, where the median family income exceeds that of the Jews of Williamsburg. While there are no crack dens and few boarded-up buildings, the absence of affordable housing and the fact that large families are headed by men who bring home meager earnings has left the community reeling.
The plight of Williamsburg Jewry is the subject of a legal battle between the city’s Housing Authority and Brooklyn Legal Services, which has fought to limit the Chasidim’s access to public housing in deference to the needs of Hispanics in the area.
It is a fight that has raged for more than 20 years. It may be coming to a head now as the Chasidim struggle to regain the momentum they lost over the years, when attorneys for Brooklyn Legal Services charged that the Jews had obtained preferential access to the projects of Williamsburg over needier Hispanic and black families. As a result of the maneuvers by Legal Services, virtually no new Jewish families have moved into the projects for the past six years, and few who reside there — like Mrs. Katz — have been able to move into larger apartments. Now, with Legal Services fending off charges that it has pitted one group against another, the Jewish Community Relations Council is gearing up for a fight. It has an unlikely ally in a Queens assemblywoman, Nettie Mayersohn, who is seeking to halt funding to Legal Services in New York State because of the activities of its lawyers in Williamsburg.
Perched on the other side of the Williamsburg bridge, the community is replete with families living on the edge of squalor. Most of the women are less outspoken than Mrs. Katz. They appear to be devoted mothers, raising as many as 14 children in clean surroundings. Though many families subsist on paltry incomes and bits of public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid, they do not complain. They only quietly acknowledge how much they suffer.
“It is a tragedy that children should have to be brought up in such unbearable conditions,” says Rabbi David Niederman, a Williamsburg Satmar activist. Rabbi Niederman, who is leading the efforts to reopen public housing to the Chasidim, believes his community is at a breaking point, enduring poverty as well as the stress that comes from living in cramped quarters.
“I have been into many of the apartments in Williamsburg, and there are people — people who get assistance — living there under conditions that would appall even poor people in other communities,” says William Rapfogel of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. According to Mr. Rapfogel, nearly half the Jewish population of Williamsburg lives at or below the Federal poverty line, which is defined as an income of 20,000 for a family of four. The federal government, he notes, does not even offer poverty guidelines for families of 10 or 14, a not atypical size for that community.
Zelda Stein, her husband and their 11 children live on the top floor of a ramshackle building on Penn Street. One must climb a steep set of stairs to get to the minuscule, shabby apartment. She is more cheerful about her living conditions,and possibly more creative, than Mrs. Katz. Subsisting on her husband’s salary — he is a schoolteacher in the local yeshiva — she has squeezed nine of the children into one small room. Two more are in the dining room. A couple of the children double up.
But this is Williamsburg, and for a child to have his or her own bed is a luxury. Clothes shopping is out of the question: Mrs. Stein hires a dressmaker whom she pays $1 an hour to help make dresses and coats. She relies on friends for hand-me-downs to clothe her children. “My daughters are upset — they call me a shnorrer,” she says with a smile.
In another vagary of the law, Mrs. Stein cannot qualify for housing assistance benefits — federal law decrees that there may not be more than two children to a single room, and that the room can’t be shared by a brother and a sister. The fact that poverty forces Mrs. Stein to squeeze in eight brothers and sisters in a small room disqualifies her from help.
Chavie Freund has nine children in a one-bedroom apartment. They range in age from 15 to a 5-week-old baby. She keeps the 5-year-old in a crib because there is no room to fit another bed. A couple of the children share a single mattress. The oldest is away in yeshiva. When he calls to announce he is coming home for the weekend, it sparks a small crisis. “Where am I going to put him?” Mrs. Freund asks her husband.
In a society where boys go away to learn and girls marry young, there is eventual relief for large families. For young couples, however, the conditions are taking a toll. Some Satmar housewives will go on Prozac and consult therapists to soothe frayed nerves. Hope for these women may lie, however, not on the therapist’s couch but in the courtroom, where the battle over housing will ultimately be resolved.
Attorneys for Legal Services are standing firm. Under the leadership of Martin Needelman, director of Brooklyn Legal Services, lawyers insist that for too many years the Orthodox Jews exploited the system and betrayed their Hispanic neighbors. They whisper that rich Chasidim have moved into the projects, property-owners who have no business there.
Supporters of the Chasidim counter that while instances of corruption may exist, they are not the norm. Trapped in the middle of the squabbles are women like Mrs. Katz, who cannot obtain a larger apartment within the Williamsburg projects. Some view the projects as a Camelot in this industrial neighborhood; they cannot move in because of Brooklyn Legal Services. The community struggles on, coping by way of a network of private charities, including food packages that are left on the doorsteps of poor families every Thursday.
The fault lines may be showing — as Mrs. Katz’s whispered confession about her lost pregnancy suggests. “The pressures are 24 hours a day,” she says, describing how if someone uses the bathroom in the middle of the night, he or she is not permitted to flush the toilet for fear of waking up the little girl. Nightly, she recounts, her husband must unscrew the faucet so the younger children won’t risk splashing Yitty.
Mrs. Katz believes that she is a good mother. She does not want her little girl, or any of her children, to suffer. She does not want her child to sleep in the bathtub. She simply doesn’t know what to do: “Should I give her up for adoption?”
This article was originally published on March 1, 1996
Satmar Child Sleeps in a Bathtub as Lawyers Fiddle in Williamsburg