Oral histories are intimate conversations between and among people who have generously agreed to share these recordings with BHS’s archives and researchers. Please listen in the spirit with which these were shared. BHS abides by the General Principles & Best Practices for Oral History as agreed upon by the Oral History Association and expects that use of this material will be done with respect for these professional ethics.
Every oral history relies on the memories, views, and opinions of the narrator. Because of the personal nature of oral history, listeners may find some viewpoints or language of the recorded participants to be objectionable. In keeping with its mission of preservation and unfettered access whenever possible, BHS presents these views as recorded.
The audio recording should be considered the primary source for each interview. Where provided, transcripts created prior to 2008 or commissioned by a third party other than BHS, serve as a guide to the interview and are not considered verbatim. More recent transcripts commissioned by BHS are nearly verbatim copies of the recorded interview, and as such may contain the natural false starts, verbal stumbles, misspeaks, and repetitions that are common in conversation. The decision for their inclusion was made because BHS gives primacy to the audible voice and also because some researchers do find useful information in these verbal patterns. Unless these verbal patterns are germane to your scholarly work, when quoting from this material researchers are encouraged to correct the grammar and make other modifications maintaining the flavor of the narrator’s speech while editing the material for the standards of print.
All citations must be attributed to Brooklyn Historical Society:
[Last name, First name], Oral history interview conducted by [Interviewer’s First name Last name], [Month DD, YYYY], [Title of Collection], [Call #]; Brooklyn Historical Society.
These interviews are made available for research purposes only. For more information about other kinds of usage and permissions, see BHS’s rights and reproductions policy.
Oral history interview conducted by Aviva Segall
October 17, 1993
Call number: 1994.006.12
AVIVA SEGALL: May I please have your full name, including your maiden name?
BAILA KAMMAN: Baila Weingrad Kamman.
AVIVA SEGALL: Were you born here?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yes, in New York City.
AVIVA SEGALL: Do you own this building?
BAILA KAMMAN: No.
AVIVA SEGALL: Can you tell me what type of education you've had, your highest degree?
BAILA KAMMAN: I graduated from Cardoza Law School. I also did some graduate workin education. I have a master's in education. 1:00
AVIVA SEGALL: Where were you educated?
BAILA KAMMAN: In New York City, in public school.
AVIVA SEGALL: What do you do now?
BAILA KAMMAN: I'm a housewife.
AVIVA SEGALL: Your husband's name?
BAILA KAMMAN: [inaudible]
AVIVA SEGALL: And was he born here?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yes.
AVIVA SEGALL: His education?
BAILA KAMMAN: He finished college and then he did some graduate work ineducation, but he didn't have any degrees past college.
AVIVA SEGALL: How many children do you have? You know what, give me the names ofthe boys and the girls and then their ages.
BAILA KAMMAN: Tafarah Raiah is six. Yitzie is 16, Harry is 15, Chaim is 11 and2:00Yassi is 2.
AVIVA SEGALL: Where were you born?
BAILA KAMMAN: In the Bronx.
AVIVA SEGALL: Were your parents American citizens?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yes.
AVIVA SEGALL: What type of work did your father do?
BAILA KAMMAN: My father was a small businessman. He was part of a family ownedbusiness his whole life.
AVIVA SEGALL: And your mother?
BAILA KAMMAN: She did a lot of work in sales, and the portion of her life when3:00she was raising her two daughters, she was home.
AVIVA SEGALL: Did you have any kind of religious identification in your home?
BAILA KAMMAN: My parents were very uneducated Jews, but I lived in atremendously Jewish environment. It was filled with all different types of Jewish people: practicing, non-practicing… There wasn't such a dichotomy in those days of religious people living in enclaves and non-religious people living in different enclaves. Everyone lived together and the neighborhood was teaming with different types of synagogues of all denominations so culturally, there was a lot going on and I absorbed it, but I had no formal education.
AVIVA SEGALL: What about camps?
BAILA KAMMAN: My parents usually went away for the summer up to the bungalowsand I didn't go to camp, even though I was begging my mother, I didn't make it 4:00until I was 13. Then I went to a Jewish camp that had an emphasis on Jewish culture.
AVIVA SEGALL: What was the name of the camp?
BAILA KAMMAN: It was called Surprise Lake. That was it, so I basically grew upwith absolutely no formal Jewish education. I didn't know how to write Hebrew or to read Hebrew--
AVIVA SEGALL: Were most of your friends Jewish?5:00
BAILA KAMMAN: Yes, exclusively.
AVIVA SEGALL: What high school did you go to?
BAILA KAMMAN: I went to James Monroe High School and just before I graduated, wemoved to Queens and I finished one term at Jamaica High School and then I went right into Queens College. I was 16. I started college early.
AVIVA SEGALL: When you were going through your adolescent years, you said thatyou had been involved exclusively with Jewish people. Did your parents give you any idea of expectations that they had that you would marry a Jewish person?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yeah, it was actually the only time I ever saw my mother have anykind of force in anything Jewish. There was once a little misunderstanding. When we were about 16 or 17, my best friend was going out with someone and he had a 6:00non-Jewish friend named Tom, and we would just go around together, the four of us. My mother went crazy. She said, "Tom is not a Jewish man," and she really went crazy. In truth, I really was not having any type of relationship with him, but there was definitely that message sent, that this would be a big crossing over. 7:00
AVIVA SEGALL: Was Tom your first encounter with a non-Jewish person on anintimate level?
BAILA KAMMAN: You know, he actually might have been one of my first non-Jewishfriends. I don't recall any person coming before that. I guess in college, I started to run into an occasional non-Jewish person, but Queens College was a very Jewish school. The teachers were largely Jewish. The students were largely Jewish. So I still had very limited exposure to non-Jewish people.
AVIVA SEGALL: And the exposure that you did have to non-Jewish people, did itcome as any kind of-- Did you have any innate kind of problems with non-Jewish people? 8:00
BAILA KAMMAN: In college, I really stayed in very Jewish circles. I reallydidn't have any friendships with non-Jewish people. One thing I do remember though, in college, I took a lot of sociology courses, because they were very mentally untaxing. I was not really terribly interested in academics at that point, so I just fell into this thing of taking a lot of different sociology courses. One summer, I was in school and I was taking a course about Black history. I remember starting to have a lot of feelings aroused, having a lot of empathy for Black people after learning a lot of the specifics about slavery. I remember also learning about disadvantaged people in sociology courses, and I 9:00started to have a little bit of an awakening about people other than myself and a sense of conscience towards people of color or people who were disadvantaged. That was definitely one of the results of the very liberal education I was getting at Queens College. I didn't have a chance to practice it and I didn't have any relationships with non-Jewish people.
AVIVA SEGALL: So what happened when you graduated?
BAILA KAMMAN: When I graduated, I was 20 and I started teaching in an inner cityelementary school in Brooklyn. That was called P.S. 113. It no longer exists. 10:00
AVIVA SEGALL: Where was it?
BAILA KAMMAN: It was in the Bushwick section. This was really a departurebecause now, I really had an entree into a whole other type of world, even though the teachers were predominantly Jewish, there were some non-Jewish people on staff and there were a lot of Black people on staff and the children were mostly Black and Hispanic.
AVIVA SEGALL: What age groups were you teaching?
BAILA KAMMAN: I taught mostly 4th grade, about 9 or 10, but I had otherexperiences in some other grades. 11:00
AVIVA SEGALL: What year was this?
BAILA KAMMAN: 1970.
AVIVA SEGALL: How long did you teach at this school?
BAILA KAMMAN: I was there for around 7 years.
AVIVA SEGALL: Did you experience any kind of anti-Semitism when you were there?
BAILA KAMMAN: I have to say that I did not. I found the children, since I hadyounger children, they were almost color blind. You were their teacher and it's a certain relationship and at that point, it was a different era and they were still young. They liked you or they didn't like you. It really didn't have anything to do with your color or your religion. Amongst the staff, it was a very good school and there was a lot of feeling of unity and everyone was 12:00pulling together for a common goal. I never felt anything negative from the staff because basically, I was doing a really good job for a while and the mothers appreciated it, people on staff appreciated it, so they had nothing to lace into me for. It was very cordial for a while. The other interesting thing to not in the school was the teachers were all White and the para professionals were with us, but not on the same level -- they weren't getting paid the same or 13:00having the same status -- they were all minorities.
AVIVA SEGALL: You said that for a while it was cordial--
BAILA KAMMAN: I got disillusioned and I got kind of burned out. The detailsreally aren't relevant, but I started to take my job a lot less seriously and then I was less liked by everyone --white and black [laughter].When you really care and you're a great teacher it comes through, when you start just slipping 14:00and sliding it shows. In the end period, I really was there just for the paycheck. That's why I didn't stay.
AVIVA SEGALL: What did you do afterwards?
BAILA KAMMAN: After that, I worked for about 3/4 of a year doing somecommunity-based work in Crown Heights, working with Jewish seniors and then I had my first child. After that, I never really had any full time occupation. I did teaching and I went to school until much later.
AVIVA SEGALL: When did you become involved with Chabad?
BAILA KAMMAN: It had to do with my teaching lifestyle. The upside of this joband why I really liked it and was able to keep it, even though it was a very 15:00turbulent time in the early '70s-- We had a lot of vacation and notably, the summers were really wonderful for a young person who's single. You would be handed a paycheck when you left in June for July, and you'd get a paycheck after you came back -- after Labor Day when you're totally broke -- for August. So it was really nice. At that time, it was really popular for young people to travel -to backpack to Europe and just stumble into the Middle East and Asia. I was really able to indulge and still keep my job. I started travelling, and that really opened up my eyes. I was in Europe and I travelled across America and Canada, and all of a sudden, you leave your little Queens and Manhattan belt, and there was a whole world out there as they say, "West of the Hudson and East 16:00of the Atlantic." So I ended up in Crown Heights by travelling. That was the seed. It was during a trip to Israel. It was a point where I got very disillusioned with teaching and I was having some difficulties in my personal life.
AVIVA SEGALL: What year was that?
BAILA KAMMAN: This was in 1973. I took a leave of absence for the fall semester,and I decided to go on not just a summer trip, but extend it into the fall. By 17:00September, I had left Geneva and I went to Israel. In Israel, I spent a lot of time in Jerusalem. Then I travelled down to the Sinai Desert. On the edge of the Dead Sea, there was some development along the water, called Nueva. They had a 18:00lot of young people living there in the desert. It was beautiful, it was like a beach. The desert was right behind you, with mountains. It was very awesome there. The Red Sea was there and you could kind of see Jordan across the water twinkling at night. The desert stars… I ended up there and I was there for a couple of weeks. It turned out that Rash Hashanah happened while I was at Nueva. You could tell, because all the Israelis came to the beach. The non-religious Israelis would come down to the border area, and I guess if they weren't in 19:00shul, they had two beach days. It was packed like the Fourth of July. After Rosh Hashanah, I stayed a few more days and in between the ten days of Teshuvah -- you know Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur - a German friend of mine… with the situation there, everyone started to take off for other places. I'll never forget, this friend of mine said, "You must leave now, you must leave here," and I was really kind of directionless, so I said, "Alright, if that's the way the wind is blowing." So I decided to go back to Jerusalem. I don't remember the 20:00exact date, but it was right before Yom Kippur, a few days, and then the war broke out.
AVIVA SEGALL: You were friends with non-Jews, wow…
BAILA KAMMAN: He was a Yid who had a German Gentile father -- his mother was a Jew.
AVIVA SEGALL: You were in Israel for the 1973 War?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yeah… it was pretty intense.
AVIVA SEGALL: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
BAILA KAMMAN: I was in Jerusalem and I had met an American woman from theMidwest and we started to travel together. Actually, at the time the Yom Kippur War broke out, we were living in a little Arab -- not an Arab hotel -- a little hotel in the Christian quarter of the old city. I was from the era of the anti-war movement. I would never call myself an activist. I really was fairly apolitical, but I was against the war. It was very in vogue to be anti-war in those days. Then all of a sudden, to be in a country where you're under attack-- 21:00There was a blackout. There could be no lights at night and it was around the time Yom Kippur comes out -- it's around the middle of the month, nearing the full moon -- so the Yerushalayim was just lit up by moonlight and it was also extremely awesome to be in Jerusalem with no lights at night. Then there were some very scary parts. We didn't have T.V.s. There's a very big news blackout that happens during the war. They don't list casualties, they don't show you anything. They kind of have to keep people insulated from it. It's nothing like what goes on in America, where you're watching soldiers on the front. In fact, 22:00they were seeing more pictures of what was going on in America than I was there, but all the men were gone from the streets. The only men around were some older men because everyone was called up to fight. They just leave a very small percentage of reserve units around. That was very eerie and then it's also very scary that you realize you're in this little place, the size of New Jersey and they're fighting, and you see planes going overhead. But then there was this other side. I had a friend there who was from North African descent, and I spoke to the person in French, because they didn't know any English, and the person said to me something like… they used the plural "we," like "we're under attack," something like that. It was very interesting at that moment, when this 23:00person - he didn't say, "I'm under attack," or "Israel is under attack, and you're really American. You're not here. This is like a fantasy. You're gonna go home." He said, "We," and I got the sense that I was really part of Israel, and I was part of what was going on there. It was just a very rude awakening about war and the first time, I had these feelings of not being a pacifist anymore, understanding that in certain times, passivity has no place. This was war. 24:00Israel was attacked, and they had to defend themselves. One other thing that was very scary, but this is really an aside, was that since I was living in the old city and we some Christian Arab acquaintances, and actually I heard about the Yom Kippur war from one of these Arab acquaintances that we had met there. I'll never forget his face when he said it. He was like very upbeat when he said that Egypt had attacked Israel. He was very happy. It was scary, meeting Arab people and seeing the level of hate that they had towards Jewish people, which was 25:00another thing. I had never encountered any real anti-Jewish hatred or bigotry personally. I'd heard about it. I knew about the Holocaust. I knew that sometimes things happen down south, that the southerners didn't like Black people or Jewish people, but I'd never really seen the face of real hatred of Jews until I saw the faces and the eyes of some of these Arab people. At that point, I realized we really better get out of the old city. We like ran and got into West Jerusalem. Then I came back to New York, after stopping off in Europe. I did leave Israel. At that point, I came home and this new Zionist passion had 26:00awakened in me. One thing that I knew right away was that I realized I knew nothing about anything Jewish. I really started to feel that if I might be killed for being Jewish, I really have an obligation to learn what is this? What does it mean about being Jewish. What does it mean beyond you're in some big family, because I knew about it in a sense of a family, a neighborhood, certain foods, certain customs, certain days, but I had no understanding of what is the 27:00enormity of this thing that people are willing to kill you for. So I guess I was really profoundly shaken by the experience. From there, it was like a free for all into Chabad.
AVIVA SEGALL: How did you first encounter Chabad?
BAILA KAMMAN: It was very soon after I came back from Israel. I really startedto search for some connection to Israel and I wanted to-- There were certain feelings that became aroused in Israel and I wanted to figure out how to develop them. I mean now, of course, I see it in a whole different light. At that point, 28:00I just thought about Israel and Zionism, and I acknowledged my ignorance about Judaism. I didn't think of it in any more sophisticated terms of what had happened to me. Basically, it was kind of a very simple path. I came back to Brooklyn. I was living with a woman who was separated from her husband. Her husband was in California and he was hobnobbing with all the Chabad rabbis out there. They decided to reconcile. He came back from the west coast with a package to give to Meir Abehsera from someone on the west coast. The three of us went on a little jaunt to meet Meir Abehsera. This was late in the spring already. I had come back to New York in the early winter. So I met Meir Abehsera 29:00and I was very impressed with him.
AVIVA SEGALL: Who was Meir Abehsera?
BAILA KAMMAN: Meir Abehsera is a man of Sephardic origin. His family comes fromMorocco and they were in Paris. I know he was in Paris for a while. It's hard to describe what Meyer does, but Meyer lectures, he teaches, he was earlier in his life, very involved in health foods, macrobiotic cooking. He was a cookbook author, and that's how most people knew him. His big fame came from macrobiotic cookbooks that he wrote - In fact in those days you could walk into any 30:00reputable health food store and find a Michel Abehsera macrobiotic cookbook. Meir just broke all my stereotypes of what an Orthodox religious person would look like. I guess I was just reacting on a very superficial level as well, and he was very challenging intellectually. First of all, I had spent a lot of time in Europe, and Meir was very European, very cosmopolitan, and he also just had a certain flair and a quality that I never expected to find in an Orthodox Jewish person. I had never met an Orthodox Jewish person… live [laughter]. I saw them actually earlier on, the last period I was working in Brooklyn, I started to drive through Williamsburg, and I started to actually see Hasidic people for the first time in my life, and I was really interested. Other than that, like kind 31:00of from afar, I had never met anyone. So Meir really opened my eyes to a certain-- This was just an afternoon encounter, but it broke a lot of stereotypes that of lot of ignorant Jewish people have about more religious Jewish people, that they're somehow like the Amish. He was nothing like I had expected. He actually encouraged me. He heard a little bit about my life and he said that he knew I was going to travel in the summer. It was June. It was getting very near the cut loose time when I was ready to travel, and I was thinking about going to California, but I wasn't really a hundred percent settled. I was thinking maybe I would just meet Lenny and Cheryl out on the West Coast and hang out there a little and see what was doing. So Meir was very clever. He said to me, "Why don't you stop off at Bais Chana. It's on the way." So I said, "Oh that sounds so interesting." I was open to anything. In those 32:00days, I was very loose. So what happened was I decided this sounded like a really good idea, to go to Minnesota and study a little bit about Judaism. He actually was really smart because he had given me Rabbi Feller's phone number. So I just kind of left his house and within the next few days, had called Rabbi Feller, gotten plane tickets, and I was on my way to Minnesota. It was very casual, but really you could see the fate, how it really worked out, that I landed in Minnesota in the institute there.
AVIVA SEGALL: Could you tell me what the institute is?33:00
BAILA KAMMAN: Bais Chana is a women's living and learning school, where it wasgeared for kind of older, unmarried women, younger women-- They say college age, but there were people who were younger than college age, plus college age and middle age and beyond. They had everyone there. It's basically for people who are new, who want to have a very intense living and learning experience and, of course, the focus is Chabad and Hasidis. At that point, I had no idea that there 34:00were any differentiations between different Orthodox groups. At that time, there was nothing in America. This was it. If you wanted to study about Judaism and you were beyond elementary school age, this was it. Bais Chana. So I went.
AVIVA SEGALL: How did it affect you?
BAILA KAMMAN: I remember that I went there and I was very overwhelmed by thelevel of intellectual stimulation. It was incredible. There were classes from morning until night. There were very mind expanding and lofty concepts. We learned the basics. There were young women there who were teaching us the Bible, 35:00and different basic stories about Moshe leaving Egypt. We started learning Schmos and then there were Rabbeum teaching us very high concepts in Hasidic philosophy and of course there was Rabbi Freidman, who was really doing mind manipulation [laugher].
AVIVA SEGALL: Do you feel as though you were brainwashed while you were there?36:00
BAILA KAMMAN: No. It really wasn't brainwashing. I never had that feeling. Iremember the exact thing that went through my mind. I felt like I had been let into some very unbelievable secrets of how the world worked and what the purpose of life was, and I just felt like I would never get out, that now that I knew these secrets, and I knew this other layer of existence, that I would never get out. I said it in terms of something, just because I didn't know any better. At the time, I said I felt like I was in a coven of witches, because I just didn't 37:00have any other thing to attach it to, and that I was learning these deep secrets, and that once I knew it, I would never be able to leave the cove [laughter]. I didn't have the right names. That's all about black magic and this is about holiness, but I was right. I just never got out.
AVIVA SEGALL: How long were you in Minnesota for?
BAILA KAMMAN: I was there for five weeks. I was living in Brooklyn at the time.
AVIVA SEGALL: Where in Brooklyn?
BAILA KAMMAN: In Brooklyn Heights… close but a million years away. I leftMinnesota with this resolve that I would continue to eat kosher food, that I 38:00would attempt to remain Shomer Shabbos, and that I would continue my studies. That was it. I made no more or no less commitment, but I knew right away that I could not survive in Brooklyn Heights. It was tempting to think, "Well, I don't live so far from Crown Heights," but basically, toward the end of the summer, a lot of women decided they were moving to Crown Heights.
AVIVA SEGALL: I take it that these women were from all kinds of walks of life,and not only from New York. There must have been women from other places, and they decided to come to Crown Heights in Brooklyn to settle. Do you have any clue why they would want to come here?
BAILA KAMMAN: It was basically to continue studying. This is really not a39:00lightweight crowd. Everyone was really into studying. The women I was friendly with, we were like kind of the older set, we were the post college group, and everyone was just very serious about learning. And everyone was kind of in a very similar situation in their lives, very in between. I was actually one of the most settled people. I had this job for a long time. I was already into my fifth year - I had been teaching quite a few years already. No one had stable jobs. Everyone was going from one thing to another and everyone was just very loose. I guess for these women-- There was a whole contingent coming from California, I had a friend coming from London… These were women who were geographically, very removed from where they lived. If they were going to come to New York, there was only one place, Crown Heights, and only one reason to 40:00continue to learn and pursue a Jewish lifestyle.
AVIVA SEGALL: I just want to know if that's because in Crown Heights is the seator home of the Lubavitch community?
BAILA KAMMAN: Right, of course. I'm sorry to keep leaving these basics out…Basically, at this point, since we were learning in a Chabad school and the whole focus was -- aside from the basic meats and potatoes of learning about Jewish studies, the gravy was Hasidis. No one really encouraged us. It was funny. No one pressured us. Rabbi Feller had a lot of women around and his wife. They were really busy with the institute. There was no pressure from anyone.
AVIVA SEGALL: Why would someone choose to be here then let's say, go to Israel?
BAILA KAMMAN: At that point, there was nothing set up for women to learn. Ithink had they had the institute that later developed in Schvas, L'Chayim Alta - which is really a cousin of Bais Chana in terms of its function, I think people would have opted to do that. In the early 1970s, New York had less of a tarnished image. I think for out of town people, it wasn't so scary. Today, it would be different. I think today people do choose to go elsewhere, and there 41:00are also a lot of different opportunities through other Orthodox groups. You don't really have to be Chabad. I moved to Crown Heights because I really was right in that. I knew that I would never survive in a non-religious environment, trying to keep Shabbos alone and trying to get Kosher products - it seemed like a waste of time if you backslide. I figured I would backslide because you can't do it in a vacuum. You need a community. You need support. You need friends. So 42:00I moved to Crown Heights and I went back to teaching and a lot of my friends - my Bais Chana - did, in fact, come to Crown Heights. It was an amazing period in Crown Heights.
AVIVA SEGALL: Why?
BAILA KAMMAN: It was unbelievably exciting. There were all these people coming43:00from all over, different parts of the world, different parts of America. But at that point, I'd have to say, the people who were being attracted to Lubavitch really were American. There was a really big American wave and the kind of people that were coming were very interesting people, people who had had very good educations, and came from very nice homes, they were very bright. It was a tremendous type of person was being drawn here, and I personally found a lot of interesting people. Everyone had a story. Everyone had another return story of how they ended up back in Crown Heights. Everyone had a very interesting life 44:00before. People were musicians and poets and scientists and scholars and PHD students, from wealthy homes, from middle class homes, from this suburb, from that suburb. They were all around my age group. There were a lot of singles. There was the excitement of meeting all these new young people - men, women. There were some very interesting young couples. There was this interesting fusion of meeting a lot of people and there was a very vibrant social scene, mixed with this growth in a spiritual side. At least myself, that's what I was feeling. Here I was flexing muscles that had never been used. I didn't know I had a spiritual side. One thing that was very nice about my background, that I always felt very happy with, was that because I had no Jewish background, I was very virginal. I came to this experience of when I was really finally exposed to very serious Yiddishkeit and all kinds of different concepts in Judaism, I was a 45:00blank slate. I didn't have any negative experience with Rabbis I didn't like and congregations where there was back stabbing and pettiness. I had rejected nothing. I was really ignorant and that turned out to be a big advantage, because I had no fight. I had no bones to pick with any kind of orthodox or organized religion and I was like a sponge.
AVIVA SEGALL: You yourself, and the group which you have just described had come46:00to not live here individually or as a collective yourselves, but had come here to live amongst people who were somewhat established in their own lifestyles, that didn't include PHDs, travelers, poets, - perhaps poets and travelers - but of a different sort. So could you talk about how you made that fusion into that community, the difficulties, etc.
BAILA KAMMAN: There were some very rough edges with that. It started just on abasic level of clothes. Everything I possessed was the wrong thing to wear. I usually only dressed in pants and according to Jewish law, you can't wear pants. My tops were very often too skimpy. There's also a lot requirements about the 47:00top portion of your dress. So I had no clothes and that was one of the most painful things, to be a young woman with no clothes [laughter] and I just didn't get it at first. It's very hard to figure out how to get the right kind of clothes where I didn't feel like I was losing a part of my identity. I remember buying some horrible little polyester dress on Kingston Avenue. It's long gone. It was that, and then there were all of the faux pas of Jewish life. I remember the first Purim I was here. My sister and I were living in an apartment together 48:00in Crown Heights and we had just learned all about the laws relating to Purim, and we learned that you're supposed to give two kinds of food to a friend for the gifts of Purim Mishloach Manos and my sister and I, I think we bought like dates and raisins. There were two things, but they were the same kind of food and we didn't realize you have to give out two things of different species, like a bottle of wine, a cake, a fruit, two things from those different categories. There was this endless sense of feeling stupid and gauche, always doing the wrong thing. One thing was we were very quiet, and we would gauche quietly. There was a feeling of reserve in the face of all these different customs and 49:00what was very nice was that we did meet a few families and a few individuals that were particularly friendly and helpful. They would make their homes open to us to come for a meal on Shabbos or a meal on Yontif, and that was very helpful, going to different peoples' homes. Some people made themselves available for advice or friendship. We were also attending the Machon Chana, which is the 50:00women's school in Crown Heights and the faculty there was also a very good source of information and help and guidance and people were basically very gentle with us, but clearly the rules had changed once we got to Crown Heights. In Bais Chana I would characterize the learning as very intense, but the lifestyle as very laid back. There were women walking around smoking. There were women that just had to wear pants. There was really no lifestyle pressure other than the very basic things. But of course in Crown Heights, it was an established community with more rigid structures and rules. I had actually been smoking cigarettes before that, and it was obvious right from the start that it was very difficult to light up a cigarette in any kind of social situation in Crown Heights. It just wasn't done. There was absolutely no place that you could 51:00walk around in pants, as some of the die hards would do in Minnesota. There were just a lot of outward manifestations of the Orthodox that you had to keep in order to be accepted.
AVIVA SEGALL: Were you anxious to be accepted?
BAILA KAMMAN: I guess everyone wants to be accepted. Everyone wants to feel likethey fit in, so I guess that was part of it that we wanted to feel like we fit in, so I obliged. I did eventually get my clothes together. The way I resolved the cigarette thing was that I did over the course of time stop smoking.
AVIVA SEGALL: What about your encounters? You mentioned that there were a fewfamilies who did take you in and show you the ropes. Did you ever experience 52:00anything other than that, any negative kinds of things about people coming into the community?
BAILA KAMMAN: Personally, no. What I saw was that there were certain families, avery small amount of families of all the families that were living here, that really took to heart the fact that the Rebbe had encouraged people to learn Torrah and take on mitzvahs and he was the force behind the starting of these 53:00schools - it was his idea. He wanted this to happen and then when these people started to come to Crown Heights, there were certain people that understood the Rebbe wanted these people to be further helped along the road back to Yiddishkeit. That was the goal, for these people to help. I'm not going to say I 54:00was happy. There were some negative things. I think initially, I was really scared to come to Crown Heights. I was from New York City and one hallmark of life in New York City was that New York City really had been kind of segregated. There were different pockets for different ethnic groups, and I felt really funny about moving to Crown Heights, because it was basically a Black neighborhood. Jewish people didn't do that. I don't think many White people do that. White people live in the White neighborhoods, like it's okay to move to Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope… those kind of neighborhoods for people in my situation, but to cross over and to go to the Black section, there was a lot of anxiety. I was really nervous and I remember not sleeping before I moved in. Then there were certain nervous feelings about being with the Jewish community. 55:00It's a very strict lifestyle and I was living very differently. I have to say the outward changes came much more easily than the inward changes. But it's a city and no one's looking in your house or your kitchen, so I was still who I was inside. I just learned that there was a certain veneer and certain expectations to just be accepted. My mind was not completely given over [laugher].
AVIVA SEGALL: So biographically, what started happening in your life?
BAILA KAMMAN: I continued teaching that first year in Crown Heights. I went toMachon Chana at night. I continued my friendships with the families that I had met here and the women that I met at Bais Chana. Around Purim time, I was 56:00approached about starting to date.
AVIVA SEGALL: Had you wanted to get married?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yeah, I had had different relationships before I got involvedhere, and I just felt that it was something I would like to accomplish. My relationships weren't working out too well. I felt when I saw the Jewish families, they really seemed very different. I was very affected by Rabbi Freidman, I think. Rabbi Freidman was about the age of the men that I used to date, but the men I used to date were real adolescent, just very immature, and 57:00here Rabbi Freidman was in his mid-20s and he had a family and he seemed really mature and old - much older than us. Here's someone who chronologically is in the same sphere, the same world as the people you're socializing with and the stature and what he had accomplished, and where he was in his life, he was so grown up and we were such… babies. I saw that and I thought well, this looks like an interesting mode, to raise a family, because I was a little disillusioned. I was really wondering if relationships could really work and how 58:00you raise kids without them being crazy, and somehow this seemed to be an interesting structure. So I was very receptive, and it just happened very quickly. I went out with one person and it didn't work out, and then right after, I was introduced to the second person and it was very impulsive and very quickly, we decided we were going to get married. And by June, I got married.
AVIVA SEGALL: How long did you go out with your husband before you got married?
BAILA KAMMAN: Not very long. It was several weeks. But not terribly long. It'stoo embarrassing [laughs]. But there was some misunderstanding in the baal teshuva community, the returning community about how this process was supposed 59:00to happen, and my story was like many of the other… strange courtship tales. Someone introduced us - a mutual friend - and by the fourth date we were talking about marriage.
AVIVA SEGALL: Could you describe a typical date?
BAILA KAMMAN: The first date I remember very vividly. We met in the home of ayoung married couple who introduced us and we sat in their living room and had tea and cake and we spoke. Another date, I remember we went to Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and we also continued to speak. Then I remember on one date, I think we went to Manhattan and went to some place where they have might have 60:00served alcoholic beverages [laughter].
AVIVA SEGALL: Did you feel as if you you each had a good grip on the other's background?
BAILA KAMMAN: No [laugher]. You didn't know who the other person was. It couldhave been an axe murderer. It was just a mazel that the person you ended up with was any semblance of normal or respectable. I did know a little bit about his background because he had been around the community for a year or two and he was learning at the men's' institute for learning. They knew he had worked with a handicapped adolescent and the rabbi said whose child it was thought quite highly of him. I knew that about his background. I knew that there was something 61:00in him that he was a helper type of a person, a person that could take on this job and be well liked by the parents, that he really had a nurturing quality, which was definitely the case. He had a good educational background. I knew he was interesting in writing and poetry.
AVIVA SEGALL: What kinds of plans did you have for yourselves?62:00
BAILA KAMMAN: Early on, we had some differences of opinion. My husband felt thathe wanted to teach and he was interested in becoming a shaliach of the Rebbe, which is an emissary who basically goes into a community and teaches and provides different educational services under the auspices of Chabad. He wanted to go to Amherst, Massachusetts, and I didn't really-- We resolved our differences but my husband was advised to work. We decided to stay in Crown 63:00Heights, because I just felt there was a kind of foundation we could get being in Crown Heights that we couldn't get out of town, and I perceived that left Crown Heights and went out of town came from a much different kind of background. I really continued to feel that the support of the community was really vital in further establishing ourselves in the lifestyle. Also, I was really new to things here. My first year of marriage was only my second year living in Crown Heights and my second year of being religious. I just didn't know things. I really felt there was no way I could leave Crown Heights and 64:00continue this. I felt like I would probably just end up becoming non-religious. I would never remember to cover my hair, to not wear pants - all these things were very big laws for me. So we stayed here and we had a child. Then we had another child and we purchased a home.
AVIVA SEGALL: What was your husband doing?
BAILA KAMMAN: He ended up working in computers. At this point, he is managing anelectronic mail system for a bank. 65:00
AVIVA SEGALL: Where was your home?
BAILA KAMMAN: We were living on Crown Street, between Brooklyn and New York. Wepurchased a one family row house.
AVIVA SEGALL: Was it difficult to purchase the house?
BAILA KAMMAN: No, in those days, prices were very low. There wasn't such a bigdesire for people to live in Crown Heights. The community was much smaller. We were like one of the first people in our set to purchase a house. We were young. We hadn't been married that long, and there were several homes around.
AVIVA SEGALL: What made you choose that block?
BAILA KAMMAN: We were at that point renting a home on that block, and it wasreally a lovely block. It seemed to be that people were living a different 66:00lifestyle than where I had come from before. When we got married, we were living on the now infamous block of President, between Schenectady and Utica. It just had a much more rough, ghetto kind of feel to the neighborhood. There were some very nice neighbors. I didn't have much to do with the Black people who were there. There were a lot of Black people in that part of town.
AVIVA SEGALL: Was that one of the reasons you chose to live on Crown?
BAILA KAMMAN: At that point, probably it did have something to do with it. Atthat point, it probably did have something to do with it. I was teaching and I 67:00didn't have the sense that I was living in a real Jewish community. I felt like I was living in a Black neighborhood. I was working all day with Black and Hispanic kids, and I just felt I really wanted to live in a more Jewish environment, and be with Jewish people. I was really returning to my original roots of living in a very Jewish neighborhood. Sometimes I just felt too far away from that feeling of why I came to Crown Heights. It was always an outpost over there. 68:00
AVIVA SEGALL: I see from your bio that you were in law school. At what point andwhy did you decide to go to law school.
BAILA KAMMAN: This is always a hard question. We were living in the house forquite a number of years. I had three children, and my youngest son was about four. One of the reasons I went to law school-- It's hard to explain. To this day I'm not sure why and I don't know if it was the right thing to do. My father had been sick and he subsequently died, and during his terminal illness, he had 69:00a lot of regrets in his life about all the things he didn't do in the very limited life he had led. Somehow, I just got very affected by that part of his illness. It was funny. When he was being buried, he was in a cemetery overlooking the CUNY Law School. Right from his burial place, I could see the sign. I got this idea, and this is really a little bit of the old feminist ideology coming to the fore. When I was teaching, I had a lot of men friends that were avoiding the draft in order not to go to Vietnam by getting deferments by teaching. That was one way out. They were all going to law school at night. I always had this frustrated feeling of maybe I should have gone to law school. I 70:00just had this old thing come into my mind of if not now, when? Why not me? Why can't I do everything? Which I don't really think was… You can't do it all, but I found that out later. It was kind of that sense of loss from my father's passing and some old baggage from the last portion of my pre-religious life, that I should have done something more with my life professionally. 71:00
AVIVA SEGALL: Is that very different from the general returnees' attitude inCrown Heights?
BAILA KAMMAN: I don't know… I would have to say it wasn't the usual thing. Itwasn't the usual course. I guess it was a certain maturation process. After you spent a number of years becoming comfortable in your Jewish lifestyle and you have mastered a certain amount of the customs and the doctrines and the 72:00teachings and you had assimilated a lot of the ideas, then you were ready to pick up maybe with the other part of your life, the secular side that a lot of us just kind of left dangling. There were people who had not finished college because they got involved with their Jewish studies and many people went back. It was a different era, like the second decade. I had other friends who went back to college, who felt that they had interrupted their studies. Certain people did pick up some threads of their secular life later on when they were more comfortable in their Orthodox lifestyle.
AVIVA SEGALL: Did you complete law school?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yes, I did.73:00
AVIVA SEGALL: Did you stay in Crown Heights during that time?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yes. We stayed in Crown Heights during law school. We actuallyended up leaving Crown Heights a few months after I finished school. We moved to Monsey, in upstate New York.
AVIVA SEGALL: How did you make that decision to leave?
BAILA KAMMAN: We had a summer house in Rockland for a number of years and myhusband was from Massachusetts. He was going through some kind of middle age crisis. He felt he wanted to return to a more country lifestyle. He didn't like having two homes and going back and forth. It was just a lot of details and nuisance. He felt it would be simpler. Our house was a little small in Crown Heights. We were kind of in a mode where we needed more space. The real estate 74:00prices were already much higher in Crown Heights and there weren't so many houses available. Usually to get a house in shape meant a lot of renovation and effort. We did look around in Crown Heights a little to see if we could find something larger, but I think the effort was a little halfhearted and we didn't go in that direction.
AVIVA SEGALL: What year was that?
BAILA KAMMAN: That was in 1989.
AVIVA SEGALL: Were you satisfied with everything else in Crown Heights?
BAILA KAMMAN: The things that were bothering me-- I was not thrilled with the75:00schooling, certain aspects of the school. Certain aspects I did like, but I was really getting concerned that my children weren't getting a good secular education. I think the years in law school made me revisit a lot of secular parts of… There was some unrest in the neighborhood that was a little 76:00disturbing. That period. I don't remember if this happened before we had decided to move or if it really but impacted what happened, but the year before we moved, that last spring, there were some unpleasant episodes. Al Sharpton was involved. There were some demonstrations. I witnessed some of them and it was really very scary. One Shabbos, Al Sharpton had demonstrated, I think at the police station on Empire Boulevard. I lived near there and you could hear what was going on. And then a few days later, these men… Now I remember it. This 77:00episode was precipitated by a fire that had happened on a block on Carroll Street, between Brooklyn and Kingston. Apparently, there were some rumors that a Hasidic man was seen leaving the alleyway, and it was totally unsubstantiated. No Jewish person was ever implicated in the fire, but all of a sudden Al Sharpton was in town leading demonstrations. I had a few friends living on the block where it happened. One Shabbos, I was visiting and these Black men with sticks - they were very menacing looking - were screaming things like, "Kill the Jews," really very bigoted and very frightening. I'm pretty sure because I had 78:00friends on that block and that seems to be where the scene of the action… I was at my friend's house on Shabbos and it was really monumentally scary. I don't remember what year it was. I remember these things happening in the spring. I'm not sure now if it had anything to do with that decision or we were already moving. I remember we left right before Pesach and I don't remember if it happened before or during. I just remember that for the first time since I had moved into Crown Heights, there were some really scary things going on. I mean there were murders and muggings and robberies and things like that. I 79:00remember being on my friend's block and 311, telling her that she better get her children inside, because these guys really looked very scary. There were no police around and they were saying really horrible things. A few days letter, there was kind of a mob-like group of men with sticks and bats, and they were walking down New York Avenue towards the police station, chanting. I never forgot I had this feeling in my heart, like coming into my throat, real fear. I never remember being so scared. Did I have some premonition about what happened in '91 with the riots? I don't know. There was definitely some seeds of that in this period. I don't remember if it had an effect on our decision to leave, but 80:00I know it had some subtle effect on our leaving. It was a sense of putting that part of life to rest for us, and feeling very positive that we wouldn't be involved in any racial strife. It was already starting to happen. It was definitely looming. I think that period of time was the antecedent for the riots that later happened.
AVIVA SEGALL: Did you sell your house in Crown Heights.
BAILA KAMMAN: Yes.
AVIVA SEGALL: When you were established in Monsey, did that affect yourrelations to the Lubavitch community at all?
BAILA KAMMAN: In the end, how it really played out was that I really decided Ididn't want to leave Crown Heights, but things had gone too far in terms of the legal process. We had already made deals, and my husband was reluctant to start reneging on the deals. Since I had been in law school, now I was a little more sophisticated about the ramifications of breaking contracts [laughter]. Where 81:00before, if I didn't want to do it, I just wouldn't do it. Now I realize that we had gone too far, but at that point, my heart was not in it. I never really wanted to sell the house and I never wanted to go. So we went to Monsey, and the house was really very modern and very easy to get used to and like. What happened was at that point, I was working in Manhattan for a judge. The first year I was working and commuting up to Monsey was extremely grueling. It 82:00involved a long commute and my day was very long. I just was not able to socialize too much. So the first year, I didn't come to Crown Heights too often. We came for a Shabbos or two. I wasn't able to really cultivate too many friends. There are some Lubavitch families in Monsey, but I really wasn't able to cultivate too many outside friendships. My first year was kind of a year of disengagement. What subsequently happened was that my job was temporary. I stopped working and I was not re-employed. I became a housewife again. The next 83:00couple of years I got kind of reconnected with Chabad, in the sense that I started to become more active with the other Chabad families that lived in Monsey and tried to get some activities happening. Right from the minute that we moved, I was involved with Sibas Hashem, and I always ran groups for boys because I had a few boys in the house. I also started to come to Crown Heights more. Since I was relieved from my working and had more free time, I was coming in a lot. The Rebbe was giving out things a lot. I really started to get more 84:00engaged again, and it was interesting because being away, I got a much different perspective of the Jewish community here. While I was in Crown Heights, I was just living my life and it happened to be that I was in Crown Heights and there was a lot going on, and I kind of lived a private life. I had certain areas that of my life that I was involved in the community. But in a lot of points I wasn't 85:00so involved. I was here because my home was here. Now that I was away, I realized the value of a lot of the value of the things that existed in this community - certain people and certain institutions, the Rebbe is here, and there's certain unique people that live here who just weren't in Monsey. The people who lived in Monsey were very different. There were a lot of nice people, but they were different, more suburbanized, more Americanized, more bourgeois. You didn't run in to very interesting people in Monsey. I ran into a lot of professionals, a lot of people in the work world, nice people, very middle 86:00class, but I really missed Hasidis. I missed being near the Rebbe. I missed the excitement, the visitors coming from all over the world. There was a certain activity level that happens in Crown Heights, not all the time, but at certain periods that is just absent in a place like Monsey. It's quiet up there.
AVIVA SEGALL: How did your husband feel about coming back? When did you pop thequestion that maybe it might be good to come back?
BAILA KAMMAN: It's interesting. It was actually very multi-faceted. My husbandgot involved in a legal action up in Monsey, because we were having a lot of 87:00trouble trying to establish a small, in the house, place of worship. He saw a side of American life today that he found very revolting - so-called nice Americans using zoning laws to discriminate against Orthodox Jewish people. He was at some meetings - when they were trying to form this village - that were very confrontational and he was subject to a lot of anti-Semitic abuse and I guess he saw a side of American life that he had never seen before, and he was pretty horrified. As it progressed, the whole experience became really very 88:00painful, very unpleasant, and he lost a certain lightness about being there. There was this black cloud that was hovering over the neighborhood. I think it was his first experience of really being a neighborhood activist. The case was getting national attention because there was some woman who was getting involved and got it in the papers. People were hearing about this case all over.
AVIVA SEGALL: What year was it?
BAILA KAMMAN: I guess it was 1990-91.
AVIVA SEGALL: Is it over?
BAILA KAMMAN: No actually, there's a trial starting Monday. We don't even livethere anymore, but he's a plaintiff. You can't un-become a plaintiff. 89:00
AVIVA SEGALL: Were your neighbors speaking to you?
BAILA KAMMAN: It was a few Jewish people bringing this action against thevillage. This new village was started and we're claiming that they started this village basically to discriminate against Jewish people, to deny them the possibility of making a home synagogue, to keep them from worshiping. There were 90:00other things. My bigger boys didn't have schools to go to. They were not in schools up in Monsey. Basically, we were looking at coming into this new school year when my 15 and 16 years old boys had no school to go to. It just started to feel a little out of control. They had no place, no slot. I just felt that when 91:00you're teenagers. It's such an insecure period in your life, that it's really awful not to have a place for yourself. I kind of looked back at Brooklyn and said you know, in the past I saw some things in the schools that I did like and that I didn't like but they do seem to exist from year to year. A lot of the kids are still in the system and they're fine. Maybe they're better off, because 92:00when a kid is in the Chabad network and lives out of town, they have to leave home very early, and the level of the out of town schools aren't' so good. Yitzie, my big boy, had been out of town in Florida, and it didn't work, and it's also real expensive. We decided that we wanted them both back in Brooklyn because we weren't really up to moving yet. We were talking about it. We decided we were going to send them back to Brooklyn to go to school. All this was going on over a period of time and I saw an ad in a Yiddish newspaper. I started to 93:00spot a little house for rent in Crown Heights ad, and I right away figured out which house it was. I had been in the house years ago. This house is Freda Jacobsen Hecht's. I started calling Freda, and we struck up an over the phone 94:00relationship concerning her house. She was pretty non-committal. She had other people. She still had tenants in the house. In the interim, that summer before I called Freda, we had written to the Rebbe for a blessing about moving back to Crown Heights, and he gave us a blessing so we were kind of walking around from the summer onward with this. I wasn't quite sure how to do it, because there were a lot of real estate complications about selling our house. I realized 95:00there was no way we could sell our house at this time. So I couldn't figure out how we would actualize the Rebbe's blessing. Then one day, before I called Freda, it came to me like a flash of lightning - rent! It would skirt us around some of the difficulties that we would encounter if we were trying to sell it. So that's what's going on in Monsey. It was interesting because after that 96:00thought, it did kind of go. We found a couple people that wanted to rent our house and things escalated with Freda. We weren't at the top of the list and then somehow we got to the top of the list. We became first in line. So she called me and said, "You can have the house, but I have to know if you want it right away," and I felt that it was just too much to move. I said let's just 97:00send the boys down to Brooklyn and we'll stay here and have them come back for the weekend. Then I took my second son, the school he was going to and it was very nice being there and he was interviewed and he was accepted, and I had this second turn of heart. I thought, here it is. We have this possibility of a living space, which is not so easy to come by. It was a large space. I thought before I give it away, I really should write in to the Rebbe. We got back an 98:00answer that we should take the house. At that point, I really had very mixed feelings. I was really kind of shocked, because I somehow thought that maybe the Rebbe would tell us we shouldn't move. You always think you're somewhere, you have some job to do that you might now know it. I was finally used to where we were living. It was so radical to just pack our bags and leave again. I had 99:00second and third and fourth thoughts about the expense and the trouble and pulling the little kids out of school. But I had asked the Rebbe's advice, and the Rebbe said to do it. I thought well now I'm in this position that I've lost my free choice, because the Rebbe said do it. Finally, we said let's just do it. So he got all the paper together and finalized it and we moved.
AVIVA SEGALL: Are you looking for a permanent residence here?
BAILA KAMMAN: Right now, we've just got settled in here and I can't even think100:00about moving again.
AVIVA SEGALL: How do you feel about the racial tension that continued in thisneighborhood and culminated in 1991?
BAILA KAMMAN: It's really hard to call. Let me say from an optimistic point ofview, let's hope that certain lessons were learned, that if this mayor continues for another four years, that he learned certain lessons about allowing a group 101:00of people to be lawless and run through the streets and terrorize the populace. I have to feel that he learned something, and that if we had him as our mayor again, that it wouldn't happen again, and that if there was someone else involved-- Just from a pragmatic level I think the government has some interest, since they're elected officials and there was a lot of flak for letting the rioters run rampant. There was a price to pay. Just on a pragmatic level, I hope that the government officials learned a lesson. A practical application of that is that I took possession of the house August 1st. I had a key and we didn't move in yet, and I was fixing up the house and cleaning. One day, I had arranged to come in to Crown Heights to do some work, and I noticed on the calendar that 102:00it was the anniversary of Gavin Cato's death, and I didn't notice it because I had it marked on the calendar. People were already talking about it. So I said, how did I plan to come into Crown Heights on Gavin Cato's day, but somehow I couldn't reroute the day, because I didn't live here. I really couldn't come and go as I pleased at that point. I came into Crown Heights and it was very quiet. It was very tranquil. People were going about their business. There was a police person on every corner, every single corner. I felt like in two ways this is very good. In one way, just because it's calm and tranquil and this is the real Crown Heights. The real Crown Heights, with no agitators, with no yellow 103:00journalism has a certain tranquility. That's what came through. It was just a tranquil day in Crown Heights with people living their lives, Black and White, Jewish and non-Jewish. There were no ripples. The other lesson seemed to be that the officials had learned that they really have to sit on the community at certain moments. They took that ounce of precaution. I think lessons have been learned. Unfortunately, there are people who still hate Jewish people, are very 104:00anti-Semitic, have nothing much to do with their lives but arouse hatred and look for trouble. There always have been. There probably will be for a while until Moshiach comes and peoples' focus changes.
AVIVA SEGALL: Do you have Black neighbors on this block now?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yeah, this is predominantly a Black street. In all honesty, thatwas one of the reservations I had about moving here, because I was used to living in a much more Jewish neighborhood. Our proximity was 770, a Lubavitcher shul.
AVIVA SEGALL: Have you had any interactions with your Black neighbors?105:00
BAILA KAMMAN: Yeah, our neighbors are very quiet, but as soon as we tookpossession of the house - it was summer and our neighbors on the right side were outside the house - and we made a point of introducing ourselves and being neighborly. We couldn't live any other way. We wanted to show them that we're friendly. We certainly had a feeling that we wanted to come in a peaceful way.
AVIVA SEGALL: Was it reciprocated?
BAILA KAMMAN: Yeah, the neighbors were very very nice. On the left side of us,there is a doctor who is originally from the West Indies. I've never seen him. My husband did and he also was very cordial to him. My husband said that he 106:00received a little bit of a cool reception, but that the doctor kind of did reciprocate. Basically, the neighbors are very quiet. I felt a little bad because on the Jewish holiday, especially Succos, some of the days turn out to be midweek and sometimes it goes a little late, and there's a little more coming tumult from us, and I felt bad because I didn't want to bother them. I hope we didn't disturb them, but sometimes that is inevitable.
AVIVA SEGALL: Do your children interact with Black children?
BAILA KAMMAN: The time of year we moved was the time when people start to go107:00indoors, so when we moved here, the first couple of weeks there were some Black children playing on the street and now, no one is around anymore. So it just hasn't come up. I don't know. My bigger children don't play anymore. I really don't know that I envision that they'll be playing together, but I hope that we'll continue to be respectful of one another. You can live side by side in a peaceful way with god intentions toward each other even if you don't get very friendly.
AVIVA SEGALL: Is there something that you want to communicate to the other108:00inhabitants to Crown Heights?
BAILA KAMMAN: One thing that I feel badly about is the fact that there really isno way for Black and Jewish people to have some kind of normal interaction. I guess the closest that it happens would be in some of the shops on Kingston Avenue - I occasionally see Black people go in. There are some very fine Black people that live in the neighborhood, and they have values that are very akin to Jewish values, in terms of they have a high level of morality. They value family 109:00life, they value education, and they keep their homes really well and are very careful with the property. I think there is a common ground that could be established, but there's just no place for it. In the street, New Yorkers are kind of cold towards each other. I sometimes pass anyone - Black or Jewish - and they just kind of avert their face, that's just a very New York thing. It's just sad that the commonality is hard to find and sometimes relations between Jewish and Black people end up where the only confrontations are the bad ones.
AVIVA SEGALL: Are you familiar with the group that started here - I forgot thename, something for peace - kids who play basketball together, who hang out 110:00together. How do you feel about that?
BAILA KAMMAN: I don't know. I had heard about. I feel kind of neutral about it.It could be a focus for something positive. It's an interesting idea, taking a neutral activity and having Black and Jewish players come together and play sports. One would hope that something can come out of it, that Black kids could 111:00see that Jewish kids don't have horns, and Jewish kids could see that Black kids are just regular kids.
AVIVA SEGALL: So as far as you know, you're established in Crown Heights?
BAILA KAMMAN: Until the Moshiach comes.
Oral History Interview with Baila Kamman
Baila Kamman was born in The Bronx, New York to middle class, secular Jewish parents. While on a summer vacation during her stint as a New York City public school teacher, she found herself in Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The experience left Baila with a renewed interest in her religious heritage. Opting to relocate to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights along with a group of similarly worldly women seeking an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, Baila and her friends faced a steep learning curve in trying to navigate the traditions and mores of their new lifestyle and neighborhood. She married and managed to complete a law degree while raising five children. After relocating to Rockland County, New York from the late 1980s to early '90s, Baila and her husband were residing in Crown Heights in 1993.
Kamman, in her 40s, discusses her secular upbringing in a Bronx neighborhood filled with both Reform and Orthodox Jews, college in Queens, as well as her life as a young public elementary school teacher during the 1970s. She recounts the life-altering experience of finding herself in Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the steps leading up to her eventual entree into the world of Lubavitch Hasidism, as well as how this new conservative lifestyle contradicted many of her 1960s-era values. Baila also details the offbeat courtship that led to her marriage, remembers escalating racial tensions leading up to the Crown Heights neighborhood riot of 1991 and explains how her father's death inspired her to attain a law degree while raising five children. Interview conducted by Aviva Segall.
This collection contains oral history recordings and transcripts, as well as exhibit materials, from Brooklyn Historical Society's Crown Heights History Project, also known as "Bridging Eastern Parkway." Crown Heights History Project oral histories include audio and transcripts created and collected within the context of an exhibition project undertaken in part by BHS in 1993 and 1994. Three interviewers recorded conversations with over forty narrators. In addition to exhibition product value, the oral histories were conducted as life history and community anthropology interviews; topics of discussion include family and heritage, immigration and relocation, cultural and racial relations, occupations and professions, education and religion, housing and gentrification, civil unrest and reconciliation, media representation and portrayal, and activism. The series of exhibition research materials document the outreach efforts for interviews and materials from the community as well as exhibit scripts and curatorial notes.
CitationKamman, Baila, Oral history interview conducted by Aviva Segall, October 17, 1993, Crown Heights History Project collection, 1994.006.12; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Abehsera, Michel
- Cato, Gavin
- Congregation Lubavitch (Crown Heights, New York, N.Y.)
- Kamman, Baila
- Schneerson, Menachem Mendel, 1902-1994
- Sharpton, Al
- African Americans
- Arab-Israeli conflict
- Ethnic neighborhoods
- Jewish neighborhoods
- Reformed Judaism
- Bronx (New York, N.Y.)
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- Queens (New York, N.Y.)
- Rockland County (N.Y.)
- Saint Paul (Minn.)
Finding AidCrown Heights History Project collection