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Bronya Shaffer

Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto

June 07, 2017

Call number: 2016.027.1.21

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KITTO: Today is Wednesday, June 7, 2017. And I'm Svetlana Kitto from the Brooklyn Historical Society. I'm with Bronya Shaffer.

SHAFFER: Shaffer.

KITTO: Shaffer. And we are here at her home on Montgomery and Kingston. This oral history interview is for Brooklyn Historical Society's Voices of Crown Heights project. Now, if you would, please introduce yourself, giving your full name, birthdate, and when you were born.

SHAFFER: OK. My name is Bronya Shaffer. Bronya Slavin Shaffer. Slavin is my maiden name. I was born on [date redacted for privacy], 1948.

KITTO: OK. And can you just start by telling me a little bit about your early life?

SHAFFER: Well, I was three years old when my parents emigrated from Russia-- 1:00from then the Soviet Union-- to Montreal, Canada via France. I was actually born in France. My parents were there for about two years until they got papers, until they got emigration papers to come to Canada. I grew up in Montreal, where I attended Bais Yaakov School for Girls. It was the only Orthodox Jewish girl's school in Montreal at the time. My early childhood -- Svetlana, tell me what you want to know. What --?

KITTO: OK, yeah, sure. So maybe you could tell me just a little bit about, say, like early memories of your mother?

SHAFFER: All right. OK. Well, one of the things was I knew from the earliest time that my parents grew up under communism and escaped that. It wasn't, 2:00wasn't that they were able to legally leave. They -- they fled Russia. It was after World War II. My own history, my parents' history was Stalinist Russia. But we of course got to know there was a generation of Holocaust survivors, people who had fled the Holocaust. So, growing up, most of my family's friends, most of the people I got to know were both Russians, and the language of my home was Russian. Although my parents didn't speak it to us children, they communicated with each other and with their peer group in Russian. So I grew up with Russian, but we always spoke to my parents in English. So that was -- that was one part of the social group that I kind of grew up in. And the other was my school, where most of those students were children of survivors, of Holocaust survivors. So my early memories of my parents; working very hard -- they came 3:00to Montreal with literally nothing. I -- here and there I heard about HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society that helped them. I never felt that we were living uncomfortably. I never felt in any way-- You know, I always knew that we had to be very circumspect about spending money, but I never felt that -- I never didn't have what we needed. You know, never experienced hunger, never experienced cold, as I know many people did. So I didn't have that experience at all. My father was an educator. He was a teacher at the Hebrew teacher's seminary in Montreal, at [unintelligible] high school in Montreal. My mother always worked doing, really, factory work. At some point, she had her own 4:00little, very little factory. But they were designing and making women's and children's clothing and selling it, not terribly successfully, I have to say. Never really made it --

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: -- in business, but somehow managed. My -- I come from a family of six siblings. My brother is close in age to me. There's a year and a half between my brother and myself. And then six years later, my sister was born, and then I had four younger sisters. So my brother and myself are very close, and then there's this little gap. I was seven when my sister was born.

KITTO: And what's the story of your parents? So your parents were survivors?


SHAFFER: Survivors of Stalinist Russia.

KITTO: Oh, Stalinist Russia.

SHAFFER: Not of the Holocaust.

KITTO: So -- but their parents--

SHAFFER: So -- also, they were Russian.

KITTO: They were Russian. So, they were in Russia --


KITTO: -- during the war.

SHAFFER: Yeah. Yeah, during the war. Not really -- they said at that time, they really didn't know what was going on in Eastern Europe.


SHAFFER: They had no idea. They would hear reports here and there of the Jews being hunted, Jews being rounded up and exterminated. But --

KITTO: Yeah. It was --

SHAFFER: -- they almost didn't believe it.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Although living under a Stalinist regime, they had to really hide their religion. But that had to do with --

KITTO: Marx.

SHAFFER: -- religious observance altogether.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: You know, Stalin didn't just --

KITTO: Target Jews.

SHAFFER: -- not want Jews. To -- he didn't just target Jews.

KITTO: Yeah, so it was different in Russia.

SHAFFER: And for him, it was about religion. It wasn't about -- it wasn't about just a national, about identity.

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: Although, this is the stories I grew up with, and my parents like hiding their Jewish identity.

KITTO: Yeah. What -- so what kind of -- what kind of community were they a 6:00part of, and do -- do -- do did they tell you much about it?

SHAFFER: They talked about their personal life, but not so much -- it wasn't so much community life. It was -- it was actually hard to imagine. They lived -- the Jews kind of knew each other. The Jews that kept Shabbat and kosher kind of knew each other. Very fearful always, very fearful of being found out. Not trusting. Well, with good reason, absolutely distrusting their government, any kind of government official, because they knew they had to hide from them. In fact, I remember -- and that never left them. That fear never left. When I was -- when I was married and living here, my parents came to visit once. So, this was 25 years after they left the Soviet Union. And it was a Shabbat morning. 7:00My father noticed that his license plates were, were stolen from his car. And everyone said, you better report this to the police. I remember walking with him to the 71st Precinct, and we were going to go in for him to make the report. And he said, he just couldn't do it. He couldn't -- I remember the words he said. He couldn't voluntarily walk into a police station.


SHAFFER: After experiencing two and a half decades of freedom. So very much of that was still, like, very ingrained.

KITTO: Suspicion.

SHAFFER: Some -- suspicion of, of government.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But interestingly, that didn't translate into our living. I didn't grow up feeling that. So it was just like what they -- what was ingrained in them, and then the residue of fear is what remained, but growing up in Montreal and then moving to the states.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: They certainly didn't -- they cert-- certainly didn't raise us to be 8:00fearful of, of authority, or of government. No, quite the contrary.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So, it was interesting too.

KITTO: So then -- so going back to Montreal. So what -- what -- what was your home like? Was it--? It was a religiously observant home, right?

SHAFFER: Yeah. Yeah. Both my parents --

KITTO: So, yeah.

SHAFFER: -- were observant. Yeah, Shabbat, kosher was very -- yeah, that was my home. Together with that was the history and ideology. So I remember having many discussions with my parents about being Jewish and keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat. And what I kind of got, I can't -- I can't even express it in a specific -- I -- I remember some conversations, I guess, that impacted me. But the basic idea was that they -- they weren't going to give up their 9:00religious observance for anything. And I remember my mother once describing how when she lit candles for Shabbat, and then somebody knocked on the door, and how frightened she was, because what if a neighbor came in and saw the candles burning, and how could she explain it? Because she certainly couldn't say, these are Shabbat candles. So I remember her describing that and my father describing to me when he was -- he was actually a teacher of languages at a military academy, at a university, and -- in Moscow. And he said he had to hide the fact that he was Jewish. And he described how Yom Kippur fell on a, on a Wednesday once. And he had long before that told them that he had some doctor's appointment set up that he wouldn't be -- his superiors, basically in the school -- that he wouldn't be teaching the classes then. And he described to me, he -- 10:00he was telling me how, that one Yom Kippur, one of the heads of the departments came to him, and said, "I hope you're not going to be absent on Wednesday. I hope you'll be teaching your class on Wednesday." And my father said, he responded -- was saying that he said long ago that he had this appointment, which was in another city or something.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I don't remember what he made up. And he said how this man said to him, "Cancel your appointment and be in your classroom teaching."

KITTO: So, he knew.

SHAFFER: He knew.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And afterwards, my father found out that there was an inspection that day. He said -- this man who is known as an anti-Semite. That was the part I left out.

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: My father said he was always afraid of him. And he realized afterwards that he had actually saved him from being found out, that he did know -- know my father was Jewish, and let him know that he'd better be there. So that's what I grew up with. But the, you know, the flip side of that was this 11:00is what they did. And I used -- I remember, I used to ask my parents, "Didn't you ever just want to not do any of this?" Like, why would you risk your life? Why would you -- ?

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- risk prison and your life? And their response was, "This was our life. We couldn't -- we couldn't not do it. We couldn't -- we couldn't give up Shabbat, we couldn't give up who we were. This was our life." But that was always followed by -- like, you know, "And this is who you are, but you're growing up in Canada." Like, in other words, the flip side of the fear and the risk was the complete freedom --

KITTO: Freedom, right.

SHAFFER: -- to just really blossom in this, that this becomes a core of your life. It enhances your life. It's what -- it's what empowers you in your identity. It's like, sort of, just the opposite. So that was sort of the ideology that I grew up with very much.

KITTO: And how was that sort of -- that's a good sort of segue into like how you were negotiating your, your family, your cultural traditions, and sort of 12:00like your interactions with the outside world, and also just speaking more broadly about your relationship to Judaism as a young, as a young girl.

SHAFFER: As a young girl -- I guess I have to take it to -- I mean, before we're teenagers, we don't think about these things, right?

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: There's a certain age when you start thinking, like who am I, and what am I doing? What does all this mean? And yeah, my social group with my friends -- I mean, I lived on a block where we were the only Jewish family. So my friends were all non-Jews. I guess some of them may have been Jewish. I don't know, but on our block, we were the only family that kept Shabbat or kept kosher. So I knew I couldn't eat in their homes. Like -- and -- and it was sort of -- as a child, like not question-- because we keep kosher. They don't keep 13:00kosher, so I can't --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: If they offer me something to eat, I just have to say no, thank you. But I could offer them. Like, it wasn't -- it wasn't -- there was no reciprocity there. Shabbat, I couldn't do certain things. So Shabbat was a day that, that I didn't go to their homes. We'd play outside. They'd come over to my house. So I knew that there was different -- but there wasn't -- there was no negotiating. It just was that way.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: And I kind of took it. By the time I was in high school -- by the time I was in high school, I guess -- well, I came of age in the '60s.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: That was my high school years, sort of. And it was a very exciting time. It was a very, very exciting time. And that's, you know, thinking a lot about the, kind of, the vibe. It was about making this world a better place and there was the Vietnam War that people are, you know, and, you know, the slogans 14:00-- make love, not war, and eradicating poverty, and recognizing that there was a whole generation that grew up sort of post-war in comfort and affluence. That -- is that my sister? I -- OK. And who were rejecting materialism and looking for spirituality. There was a lot of that happening. So it was -- it was very heady and it was very exciting.

KITTO: Your sister's there.

SHAFFER: Yeah, I -- I can hear my mother talking to her.

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: And a very -- a very thoughtful time. Can we pause this for a second, Svetlana?

KITTO: Sure.

SHAFFER: OK. [Interview interrupted.] Very exciting time, really. It was high school, and then just post high school when I started at university. OK, 15:00it was also a time of drugs --

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: -- rampant in university, doing things with your head, you know, mind-blowing experiences. So, what happened with me-- And --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And all of this, I was kind of vicariously involved. Not -- there was the Civil Rights Movement. I remember -- I think that was the first thing in high school, when I started like looking around the world, and I really have to say it was the Civil Rights Movement that grabbed my attention as a young girl, more than other news events, and recognizing that this is going on like right now, just, you know, a few hours' drive away from me. It was like a train ride from-- it wasn't stuff of, you know, the ancient times.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And that's when I started looking at, you know, what are my values? What's my value system? Being Jewish isn't just about doing certain things. It's about a whole perspective on life and on the world. And as -- as a Jew, 16:00what does that mean to me, that there's segregation? And -- and don't forget, at that time, growing up in Montreal, I don't think I ever saw a Black man or woman. So it was all experienced vicariously. And then at some point when I -- at some point when I was going to college, there were some students in the class who were Black. There was on teacher who was Black. So--

KITTO: Well, where did you go to college?

SHAFFER: In Montreal. In George Williams.

KITTO: George Williams.


KITTO: So were you --?

SHAFFER: So that's when I really started to qu-- like, that's when I started, like, these were the questions that sort of came up for me. And of course, being 16 and 17, sort of challenging my parents, you know? What if I fell in love with and wanted to marry a man who was Black? I mean, this was completely -- and Jewish of course.

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: But what if he were Black? And I mean, today -- when I tell this to 17:00my kids today, it's like what? Like, how -- why is that even a question? And I think, yeah, well, in those days it was. It would have been like, pretty shocking for a White. I used to visit New York often because we had family here; both my mother and father had siblings living in New York. And I remember like, you know, my cousin pointing out to me a couple walking down the street holding hands, and they were, you know, Black and White. And it was like shocking to see. So my kids say, like, just don't get that. And I think, but, it really -- it really happened. It really -- there was a time when very fine people thought that Black and Whites shouldn't mix. It's almost hard to say. So this was -- this was when I first started trying to make sense of my identity as a Jew, my value system as a Jew, and other -- and other stuff. Like, it was no longer just part of who I'm living with. Like, I'm living with my parents, 18:00living in my family, and I -- I meet my friends Shabbat morning when we go to the services. And that was sort of what got me out of that a little bit. How do I relate to the world as a, as a Jew?

KITTO: And what did your -- what was your parents' reaction to those types of questions?

SHAFFER: Interesting. Sort of pushback. Where are you getting your idea -- like, what are these ideas? And I remember having a discussion; very, very passionate discussion with my mother, who is-- still is and always was-- very bright and very, very open and very well-educated. And -- and her saying, "It's not a good idea. These marriages are never good. People suffer from them. Children in these marriages suffer." And of course, there I was. You know, Martin Luther King was my -- listening to his speeches over and over again. So 19:00it was -- it was int-- it was an interesting clash of generations, and that's what -- I don't know that we ever resolved it.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But -- but, you know, just -- just coming to understand then that -- that people are formed by their culture and past. And -- although I don't think I could have articulated it in this way at that time, but I began to recognize then, like, looking back now. I realize that when I started looking at, OK, so if we're talking about Jewish values, what are real Jewish values? And what are values that a lot of Jews hold, but not necessarily those Jewish values? Those might be cultural. Those might be, you know, ethnic or -- so again, as I said, I 20:00couldn't have -- I -- I didn't think of it in those terms then. But looking back, I realize that's what I was doing -- looking to see how -- basically, how my life would take shape as a Jew. It was going to be very different from my parents' life.

KITTO: You knew that, yeah.

SHAFFER: Although with the same Shabbat -- well, yes. Because our experiences were different. I wasn't afraid to light candles for Shabbat. I wasn't afraid. I remember my first job working for J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency. And I came home and told my parents that, they're really so nice there, and, you know, every morning they bring coffee and cakes and -- and my mother said, "Oh, so, like, what do you say? What are you going to say?" And she was referring of course to the fact that I couldn't eat it, because it wasn't kosher. But how would I explain, like, it was unthinkable to her that I would say, "I keep kosher, I'm sorry. I won't eat this." So she was still thinking in terms of, you have a special diet, if your doctor doesn't let -- you have a stomachache, 21:00you -- so that's where I realized how different we were.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And when I said, "I'll just tell them I keep kosher" --

KITTO: And how did that go?

SHAFFER: And my mother still didn't -- it was not, not a problem.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: At that time and that place, they didn't know what it meant. So it was, someone says something about an Israeli diet; that they only eat, eat Israeli food or something. I kind of let it go with that, but --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- they didn't. I mean, it was -- it was before the days of, also like sort of, Jewish pride. And there just wasn't a lot of interaction. People just didn't know about Jewish practices or -- but that's what I remember, my mother saying, "What are you going to say?"

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I said, "I'll tell them I eat, I eat kosher." And when they'll say, "What's that?", I'll tell them.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I'm Jewish, and this is what we eat.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So it was very different.

KITTO: So it always the case that you were going to keep kosher and -- and --


SHAFFER: Yeah. It became -- it always was, because when I started thinking about it, I realized, there wasn't anything I wanted to replace that with. It wasn't that there was any reason, and -- and there was something about, well, history, that this is my identity. It's who I am. I also grew up in a home where my parents made it clear to me that there was nothing that wasn't available to me. I could be and do anything I wanted. Of course, they wanted me to get married and have a family, but not be a housewife and do--

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Both my parents were intellectuals.


SHAFFER: Educated. And I remember my mother sometimes would sort of speak disparagingly about girls who, all they want to do is get married. Like, you know, don't -- do something with your life.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So that was -- I sort of had that. It was a certain bias that my mother had, certainly, because again, growing up in Russia, everybody, like, you 23:00know, when -- when I started meeting people, women here who were in engineering, and it was so not that common. And my mother said, "Women engineers were a dime a dozen in Russia." I mean, that was her, her schooling. Her education was in engineering, science and engineering. She said, "Of course," you know, "Every girl learns that." So that was very different from --

KITTO: So that's one good thing about --

SHAFFER: From the American.

KITTO: -- Russia, right?

SHAFFER: Yeah, it was one good thing.

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: We certainly -- they certainly didn't have an issue of women's equality in terms of education.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: Because all -- all girls went to university and became professionals.

KITTO: So what did you want to be? What were you -- what were your sort of -- yeah, what did you want to do?

SHAFFER: Before I decided what I wanted to do, I met my husband. And -- and then I was a kept woman, I have to say. I was very interested in literature. 24:00That's what I was studying. Started studying psychology, but I was interested in literature. And as I said, by the time -- I am a college dropout. I'm embarrassed to say, by the time I had-- that we got married, I had two children, and it was when I was expecting my third child. And I took -- and I tell my children this all the, all the time. I took off one semester, and that was it.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Plan was one semester. But I did. I found that I loved what I was doing. I did love what I was doing. [inaudible]

KITTO: So when you were in college, were you involved in, like, campus activism and stuff like that?

SHAFFER: Not really. There wasn't a whole lot of it. Yeah, a couple of civil rights -- not so much protests. No, it was, there was lectures. It was, you 25:00know, things that were happening in [inaudible]. I used to attend to that. The -- raising consciousness of the plight of Soviet Jews. So that was at that time very important on college campus. Elie Wiesel; I remember when I first -- when he first came to Montreal, and the first time I ever encountered him, heard him speak. And he had a tremendous impact on this young, impressionable little girl. And that was interesting also.

KITTO: What did he say that you remember?

SHAFFER: He had visited Russia. Now --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- his account of visiting Russia -- a lot of what he said was so familiar to me, because I grew up with it. What was interesting about that was, he talked about going to Russia and meeting the Jews there. And he wrote a book 26:00about this called The Jews of Silence. It's -- think he wrote it the -- in the mid -- mid-'60s. It was the mid-'60s that he wrote it. At that time, of course, there wasn't -- people weren't touring. We weren't allowed in and out. So a lot of what he said was very familiar to me. But he talked about the oppression of the Jews there. And he talked about the Simchat Torah; when they all gathered in front of the main synagogue, the white synagogue, dancing in the streets, knowing that they would be arrested, which is something I experienced a few years later when I went back to visit. I remember hearing him speak, and I remember his saying that they're silent because they're made to be silent. We don't hear their voices. But where are our voices, those of us that are free? I'm paraphrasing, of course.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: It wasn't exactly these words.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But I remember that being very -- so he -- he was one of the founders of the, of SSSJ, Soviet Struggle -- I'm sorry. Student Struggle for Soviet 27:00Jewry. And for me, it was something I was very, very passionate about. Now, interestingly, my parents of course were Lubavitch. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe was Russian. I mean, Lubavitch is Russian in history. And the Lubavitcher Rebbe very much discouraged protest. And he kept saying, that's not the way to get things done. And I remember my parents saying Amer-- Americans don't get the Russian mentality -- that you could never force Russians to do something; not by protesting, by shaming, by blaming, by making noise. They said, "It'll never happen." The only way things happen in Russia is under the table. You do 28:00it with bribes. You do it with -- and this is what they -- is there somebody there?

KITTO: Mm-hmm.

SHAFFER: Oh, my daughter?

KITTO: Maybe.

SHAFFER: [inaudible] Please come in. I'm sorry. Am I interrupting you? To introduce her as my baby. I think like, whoa. That's my baby.

KITTO: How old is she?

SHAFFER: She's 26.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Twenty-six, yeah, Brooklyn College now. Right, so this was -- this was in, and I remember -- and we don't often hear this from our parents, you know? Americans, Americans think that they're going to make nice with Russia, and like, it's a whole different mentality. So at that time, while I was in college, and the, you know, Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was something that I was very -- it certainly touched me very deeply, and there was all this activism. But at the same time, I was -- It wasn't a commitment, it was -- the Lubavitcher Rebbe was somebody that I looked up to a great deal, and certainly 29:00had a great impact on my life and the way I lived my life. And he -- he was very strongly opposed to these demonstrations, and asked people to not do it. And he kept saying it's-- "It causes more harm than good." And it was interesting, because what would happen is there'd be -- and -- and the movement grew. And as the protests grew, there were results. People started getting their mail that they didn't have before. Every so often, somebody would get a visa. So it seemed as if there was like all of this publicity -- and going through, you know, the, the politicians who were involved -- that all of it actually was working. And then I went in 1981, I went to Russia under the 30:00direction of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I went with another woman, and we were meant then to -- what is that sound?

KITTO: What is the -- what are those beeping noises?

SHAFFER: Not in my house -- Mihaly on her phone, is that what it is? Because it sounds like--

KITTO: It's like dialing, but --


KITTO: -- it stopped now.

SHAFFER: It could be Mihaly was on her phone. I don't even hear it anymore.

KITTO: Yeah, me neither.

SHAFFER: [laughs]


SHAFFER: So I was meeting then, again, secretly meeting Jews. I was doing classes, teaching Jewish women and men who were interested in learning about Judaism, getting a little bit of history, just like a generation later. And they were telling me -- at that time, Natan Sharanksy was imprisoned still. Are you familiar with him? Sharansky -- his story is fascinating. Svetlana, look it up.

KITTO: Can you just tell me the brief version?

SHAFFER: He's now the minister -- yeah, he's now minister of -- I forget what 31:00in Israel. But he was imprisoned for many years for being an activist, a Refusenik in Russia and insisting that Jews get visas to leave to go to Israel. And -- and there were many people. There's a whole group of Jews in Russia called Refuseniks.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Those are the ones who applied for visas and were refused. But in the meantime, they lost their jobs. I remember meeting somebody when I was there, who introduced me to her father who worked in a lab. And she said -- he was head of research in this lab, and then he applied for a visa. Now, he works at night. He cleans the tables. And that's what happened. His -- the research was taken away from him, and of course they couldn't let him leave, because he had these secrets that he was doing the research on. And they were state secrets, and he couldn't leave, and it was some sort of genetic research. I don't remember what it was. So Natan Sharansky was a Refusenik who was, who was 32:00imprisoned. And he was in jail for -- I don't remember how many years. Until finally, doing some exchanges, the Soviet Union let him go. But when I was there, he was in prison. And I got to meet a very close friend of his who subsequently also was allowed to leave. But, oh my gosh, that -- the 10 days there, that's a whole story by itself. But I remember Sharansky's friend telling me, he said, "Tell them to stop making so much noise." And he said these words. He said, "They name a street for him in Washington, and they take away his blanket in his cell." He said, "That's a direct result." He said, "One family gets mail, their mail is resumed, and they get letters from America, 10 families get their mail stopped." And that's when I kind of saw with my own eyes exactly what the Rebbe was opposed to. And having -- having come, grown up 33:00in Russia himself, and this is, you know, Lubavitch is Russian. He recognized, and -- and this is what he always said. He said, "There will be some surface concessions made, but people will suffer for it. And when the spotlight is on them is when you can't make underhand deals." And I remember my parents always saying, you know, the only way you can do anything with Russians is, you know, with bribery, underhand deals, basically. So, not when there's a spotlight shining on them. Wait, how did we get to this? [laughter] Oh, this is my high school, right?

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: High school and college.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: You asked if I was an activist.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So, this is one thing. Otherwise, no. I wasn't an activist. I mean, I loved the music of the activists. I loved the, the time then.

KITTO: Yeah.


SHAFFER: The -- OK, I'm just going to ramble, Svetlana, unless you --

KITTO: Yeah, that's good. Yeah, yeah, go -- yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I was going to ask you a question.

SHAFFER: Go ahead. Ask.

KITTO: But I can also let you finish your --

SHAFFER: No, no.

KITTO: -- thought if you were going to say something.

SHAFFER: No, no, I wasn't. I just --


SHAFFER: -- realized I had no direction, so--

KITTO: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that's fine. I try and just let you talk, like, not interrupt you.


KITTO: So just -- if there's pauses, it's OK. Like, pauses are to be ex--

SHAFFER: OK, but it's better to direct me.

KITTO: Yeah, OK, yeah.


KITTO: I'm -- but I'm just letting you know that pauses are sort of part of it. Like, it's not -- this is not for a newspaper or something, you know?

SHAFFER: Right, I understand. I understand.

KITTO: Anyway, yeah, so what -- on, at your college, like how did you meet your husband, and what -- what was -- what did the Lubavitch community that you were interacting with at that time look like, and how was that, like, interacting --?

SHAFFER: It was -- right.

KITTO: Yeah, with college.

SHAFFER: Yeah, the community was very small. It was completely separate. I mean, college --


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- is what I was doing.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I was working part-time, going to school. I mean, there wasn't really interaction. There wasn't intersection. I met my husband through a mutual friend. It was actually my father's very best friend who met my husband first, and then called my father and said, "I just met Bronya's husband."

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: Exactly those words. I was living in Montreal. My father's friend was living here in New York, in Crown Heights. And my husband was a student at Princeton. He was doing his graduate work at Princeton then. And my husband would come to Crown Heights for Shabbat. There was no Jewish life in Princeton then. So he would come -- he would spend Shabbat here in, in Crown Heights. And my father's friend, Heska Geinsburg was his name. He's no longer alive. 36:00Heska would sometimes go to Princeton for Shabbat, where they'd have a small shabbaton. So one Shabbat, he was there, and he was assigned -- and -- and he would sleep in some of the students' rooms, the students who were away. This was done -- there was a Jewish club or something and they did this. And -- and he was assigned to this one student's room. And he perused the shelves of books and found--thought, this person was really an interesting person. And he invited him, you know, found out who lived there, invited him to his home for Shabbat. And that's how he met, Heska met my husband. And then he called my father, right? As soon as Shabbat was over, he said, "Get Bronya here. I just met her husband." That's how I met him. I came to New York, we met, and that 37:00was that.


SHAFFER: And it really -- but -- but then I -- I had met a number of other men. I mean, he wasn't the first man I ever met.

KITTO: He wasn't?

SHAFFER: No, no. He was the last man I met.

KITTO: Did you like --


KITTO: -- date in --


KITTO: You were dating in college?

SHAFFER: We were dating, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Oh, you mean my husband? Or when I was in college?

KITTO: Yeah, when you were in college, yeah.

SHAFFER: When I was in college, no, because I pretty much -- the men I dated were -- were -- I was introduced to them either through friends or through a matchmaker. It was like, about getting married.

KITTO: It was about getting married.

SHAFFER: It wasn't --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Yeah. So I -- yeah. The dating party college scene I was not part of.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: I wasn't.

KITTO: What did you think about it?

SHAFFER: It wasn't my life.

KITTO: Did you feel sorry for people --


KITTO: -- who had to do it? [laughter]

SHAFFER: No. Yeah, who had to do it. It -- you know, I guess I didn't feel -- 38:00it just wasn't my life.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Yeah, it wasn't. Yeah, that's what it was.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I didn't -- I didn't think about it that much.

KITTO: Yeah. So -- unless you have something else to say? No? So at that point, you said you met your husband, and then -- I mean, so you heard that your husband was alive in Crown Heights.

SHAFFER: Yeah. [laughter]

KITTO: And --

SHAFFER: No, so some --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: At some point later, my family was making a trip to New York anyway. So that's when we arranged to meet. And then we dated long distance. I would come here for a weekend, and he'd come up to Montreal for a weekend. And we'd spend a long time on the phone, and so we -- we decided to get married about, about six months after we first met. And so he was doing his graduate work at Princeton. I -- we decided to live in Crown Heights, because there was no 39:00Jewish community there, and I had family here in Crown Heights. He was from Boston; he wasn't from here. So both of us established right away that we hated New York and we would never live in New York. So, we had that in common right away. Yeah.

KITTO: Why did you hate it?

SHAFFER: Oh, it was loud, and it was --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- vulgar. And it was just not my scene. You know, he was in Boston. It was also much different from, from New York. So the plan was that we'd move here for a year until he finished his, his thesis. And then we'd move out to whatever campus he would be working on.

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: Oh, life happened.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And before he finished this thesis, my father died. My father was killed in a car accident. And my mother and sisters moved here. And that kind 40:00of altered things. We -- we never made the decision that he wouldn't live here, but it just was -- he -- he didn't finish his thesis because he went to work. And at that time, it -- we were living -- until then, we were basically being supported by the National Science Foundation, a grant from N-- NSF. Which, by the 19 -- by 1970, '71, there was no more funding for theoretical research. It was kind of all military funding. So that grant dried up, because he wasn't -- he wasn't doing -- as he said, it was nothing practical. It was purely theoretical. Elementary particle physics, whatever that is.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: By now, maybe it's more practical, but then, it was very -- so he taught himself computers, got a job in computers. And we kind of -- I don't 41:00know. I think we never made the decision that we would stay here, but then by then, we had children. Our children were in school here. We moved into this house together with my mother, and my mother lived downstairs with my siblings. And my husband and I lived upstairs.

KITTO: And so --

SHAFFER: And [inaudible].

KITTO: Yeah, just going back a little bit. Like, so did your husband share a lot of the same values as --


KITTO: -- you did? Or why did you --


KITTO: -- decide to marry him?

SHAFFER: Yeah, we did. We -- we shared a lot of the same values. He was very committed to Jewish observance. He came from a family that's known in American sociology as a lost generation. His grandparents were religious, and his parents who grew in the Depression had let go of everything. So he grew up as a 42:00sort of classic; he grew up in a family where Shabbat was the grandparents. But his parents didn't keep Shabbat, but his mother always lit candles. And they kept kosher, at least nominally, so that their parents could eat in their home. And the one advantage my husband and his siblings had was that although his parents weren't religiously observant at all, his grandparents insisted that they send the children to Jewish schools, and not the public school. So my husband had the advantage of a Jewish school education. And he -- yeah. So that was his -- and then in other things -- what were our other values?

KITTO: Well, what were some of those early conversations that you had?

SHAFFER: Oh, gosh.

KITTO: And --

SHAFFER: It was about everything.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: He was -- he was being trained in the sciences. That was -- as he said, his first love was physics. So although his degrees were in mathematics 43:00and physics, but he was -- look, this is his library.

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: Everything, theology and history and music and literature and art. And he -- he really was a renaissance man.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Not -- not in a hokey way, but there was nothing that he wasn't interested in, and nothing that he wasn't knowledgeable about. He was a tremendous scholar, so I just loved that. Not only the intellectual curiosity, but the -- the profound knowledge of -- I guess history, human history and --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- all of it.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And to him -- and of course, very, very -- became a tremendous scholar in, in Jewish literature --


SHAFFER: -- and Talmud, and -- and for him, there was -- it was all one world. It was all one life. It was all, you know, the perfect integration of all of it. There was no -- actually, it was one of my daughters said this -- the one 44:00who lives in Switzerland. So she -- she was studying to be a speech pathologist at this point in time that I'm talking about. She was, you know, she was just get -- she already just got or was getting her master's in speech pathology, was also a very accomplished musician, and spent her days -- what she loved doing was going to museums and art, and -- and one Friday night, for Shabbat dinner we had a guest who also -- I think she was an art therapist, if I'm not mistaken. But they spent the entire dinner talking, basically talking shop, talking about therapy and talking about art and music and -- and after the meal, my daughter offered for her, offered her to study something from the, from the Torah portion, and she said, "Sure." So they sat down and my daughter took out some books -- and they sat down. And then I heard her say at one point, "One minute, 45:00Devori. I have to ask you something." She said, "How do you live in these two worlds?" And I just heard my daughter say, "There's only one world." And I thought, that's exactly it. It's not there's this world, this world. She lives in one world. And as a religious, Jewish woman, she lives in this world and she loves art and history, and she's a pathol-- and she's a speech pathologist, and she's a musician and -- it's all part of this one world. So I think this is also what very much attracted me to my husband, was very much the way I grew up. Not these divisions, here, you're Jewish, here, you're not. This is Jewish world; this is not. It's all -- it's all part of -- so that's --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: We shared that.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: He shared my love of literature and poetry. All I could bring to his love of science was complete ignorance. So--

KITTO: So he taught you?

SHAFFER: He tolerated me. No, not science.

KITTO: No? No? You weren't interested?

SHAFFER: No, I was interested, but --


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: You know, I wasn't -- I mean, he'd have to start teaching me like A, B, C and--

KITTO: So when did you get married?

SHAFFER: We got married in the Septem-- in September of 1968, when I moved here.

KITTO: So also, like, you're coming of age in the '60s, and then also there's like feminism and like women's --

SHAFFER: So that was a little bit later.

KITTO: A little bit later in the '70s.


KITTO: OK, so let's start --

SHAFFER: The '70s. OK.

KITTO: -- in '68. So --

SHAFFER: So, we got married at the end of '68.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

SHAFFER: Yeah. Yeah, at that time, the -- the passion was the anti-war movement, Civil Rights Movement, Black Power sort of coming to the fore, so recognizing the evils of segregation, and sort of the, the backlash to that of being Black Power, of course, a lot of violence and rioting. There was a lot of that. Trying to make sense of it for myself, and my husband, trying to stay 47:00balanced. You know, like one of the things that we both knew -- I mean, moving to New York, we also encountered a lot of racism. And among the Jewish community, there was a lot of -- a lot of very, very deep racism. We also got -- and -- it was just like very abhorrent to both of us. We couldn't -- and then we recognized-- He grew up in Boston, I grew up in Montreal. We -- we didn't encounter any of the real-life difficulties that people -- and people living here in this community lived with tremendous fear, a lot of crime. And it was always -- the crime was always either black on black or black on white. But there was no white on black crime. It just -- it wasn't, you know? It's not a matter of political correctness. There just wasn't. So that -- that 48:00certainly fostered a great deal of fear and -- and -- and racism. Yeah. We had to kind of balance our own values about the reality of living here and knowing that I wasn't going to walk at night from, you know, Troy Avenue to, to Kingston Avenue, because it was dangerous. And if I saw a bunch of Black kids standing across the street, I would look at where, you know, the closest porch was, to -- and that was just a matter of being safe, I think. Not being stupid about it, but at the same time, being very uncomfortable with this idea that just because they're Black, I'm going to go across the street? So my rational mind was telling me, that's right, because you're here in Crown Heights. But at the same time, not -- not wanting that to become a way that I thought or felt. Well -- 49:00well I knew it wouldn't for me, but that was something we struggled with our children.


SHAFFER: Once -- once we -- once we were raising children --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- we knew, like, somebody once asked me, I remember, you know, what's one of the hardest things about living in Crown Heights? And I said, "Just raising children to not be racist." Because that -- and this is in the '70s and '80s where there was a lot of fear and a lot of crime. Around the corner from me, I remember when I heard someone that I didn't know her well, but knew her, was brutally raped and murdered. And that was like just so shocking in Crown Heights. Down the street, a friend of mine -- well, it was actually a friend of my mother's, an older woman. When I was -- was waiting for her 15-year-old son -- 17-year-old son to come home from Yeshiva, and instead, two hours later, the police came and said they found him in a telephone booth stabbed to death. 50:00These were the kinds of things that happened, people were living with.

KITTO: This was when -- are you talking now about --?

SHAFFER: The '70s.

KITTO: '70s.

SHAFFER: After we got married, yeah.

KITTO: After you got married, yeah.


KITTO: Yeah, in the '70s.

SHAFFER: It was before the riots.

KITTO: Before the riots.

SHAFFER: The riots were horrendous.

KITTO: So, let's stay in the '70s a little bit.

SHAFFER: OK. All right, so at that time, also -- so -- OK, I got to this --

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

SHAFFER: -- because we're talking about Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, making sense of all of that, trying to maintain a value system that was an honest value system, and not just responding to things that were happening. It was a little before -- a little bit pre-feminism.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And in the feminist movement, which was also just incredible to -- so I wasn't a part of it. I wasn't involved in it, but watching this happening in my society -- finally hearing voices that weren't heard before, people saying things that -- that our culture had to listen to. And there was nothing new 51:00about feminism. I mean, been trying to, you know, the Equal Rights Amendment and what was going on at that time, and -- so by then, in 1975, I had my third child. It was my third daughter, and this was sort of the, the height of the feminist movement at that time.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And of course, listening to all of the rhetoric.

KITTO: The Year of the Woman.

SHAFFER: And I knew -- The Year of the Woman.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: That was when the National Organization of Women, I think declared -- The UN declared it The Year of the Woman. But they were -- no, they declared it the decade of the woman.

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: And they were really focused on third world countries, the plight of women there. But the National Organization of Women was talking about, you know, equal rights for women right here, in a progressive society. And what I remember is a lot of the rhetoric. There was the sometimes very strident 52:00feminist rhetoric of -- you can do anything you want; don't hold onto old traditional values. Being a housewife and a mother, that's not where -- you know, you can find a cure to cancer. You can -- so there was that, and then there was the pushback from I guess the whole conservative population. Was the religious right all religions, you know? What's going to happen to civilization if women go into the work force, and who is going to be home to watch your child's first step, and when your husband comes home from work, after a hard day's work -- there was -- there was all of that.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And I remember being very -- I knew for sure that all that, "Don't bother your pretty little head about things that your husband will take care of" 53:00-- that -- I wasn't raising my daughters with that.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I was absolutely not. On the other hand, there was -- I was -- I was very much in support of the values that the feminist movement was espousing in terms of that which was just -- but very put off by this stridency of wanting to kind of eradicate anything that was feminine. So -- so there I was, again. And interestingly, I was a Canadian citizen still, so I didn't have to commit either way, when people say, you know, what do you think about -- how are you going to vote on abortion rights? I'm not voting. So I didn't have to commit to a party or to ideology. I can just commit to my own values. I didn't have to -- so, like I knew for sure that there was no way that abortion could continue to be illegal. It couldn't be, illegal thing. So -- on the other hand, there was no 54:00way I was going to encourage my daughters to -- you don't need men, and you can do whatever you want, and forget about marriage and family, which was part of the stridency. No, they were -- they were little girls. I wanted them to be young women, and I wanted them to recognize their femininity and be feminine and all of that. I wanted them to get married and have children, because I knew what that was. I wanted them to be doctors and lawyers and union chiefs, and -- there was no -- there was no -- not to compromise in either way.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So interestingly, and when I said Lubavitcher Rebbe was somebody that I very much -- living here and the -- and the Rebbe was here. 1970 -- and he would -- he was constantly exhorting his Hasidim, I don't want to say followers, even. It was really people who looked up to him very much. His -- his mission 55:00was really making this world a godly world. And when I say godly, it means a human world, actually. Yeah, very altruistic. And with the various campaigns that he had -- and of course, he was also building up a Jewish population that was decimated after World War II, so bringing back Jewish education, insisting on Jewish, on Jewish -- insisting on Jewish education and Jewish schools being built. Because a lot of the survivors of the war who came here just had to survive. And it was like, the last thing they were thinking about was building educational institutions. They were busy putting together their push carts on the Lower East Side, so that their kids could go to high school and to college. So the Rebbe was very much focused on rebuilding Jewish education, and would 56:00come out with various campaigns. In 1975 -- this is really interesting -- was when he came out with a campaign for Jewish women and girls to light Shabbat candles. He kind of made that -- put the spotlight on lighting candles for Shabbat. And in retrospect, when I look back at that time, '75 was when the big burning question was like, what's the role of women? How do you define womens' roles? You know, what's the role of a woman in a modern society or a modern woman in a traditional society? All variations of that. And certainly, the Jewish world, like all the Jewish media, you know, what's the role of a modern Jewish woman, or a traditional Jewish woman in a modern society? Or, how do we define the role of women today? And the Rebbe's campaign about lighting Shabbat candles seemed to me to be a direct response to that question. Because what he said -- he just kept saying, "Jewish women and girls, light Shabbat candles. 57:00That's the role of Jewish women." And there was a lot of discussion about the legal requirements. And in fact, it turns out that Shabbat candles is obligatory for a Jewish home, but there's no law that says a man should or a woman should light the candles. Every Jewish home has to have Shabbat candles. Traditionally, we know it's always when there's a woman in the home, like, she lights the candles. Men living alone light the candles. That's -- and it became clear that the -- the symbolism of the Shabbat candles was about bringing clarity and light. And it had nothing to do with whether you were home baking cookies, or you were in the, you know, medical, in the, in the operating room, or -- whatever you did, you did. But what the Rebbe put the spotlight on was 58:00that women have the ability to create light, illumination, spiritual illumination. And I just -- I was very -- like, when I recognized that, it kind of re-grabbed me. And I realized, yeah, it's not either or.

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: It's not stay home and you know, kinder, kϋche, kirche. Or --

KITTO: Can you translate that?

SHAFFER: Oh, it's a German expression, children, church, and kitchen. So that's the role of women.

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: In American, I guess it's barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, or something like that.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

SHAFFER: But that's a woman's role. And -- I know like when the Rebbe -- so -- so then it was like -- it was all just so very clear. Yes, I wanted my daughters to -- whatever they chose to do. And I prayed for them to be married and have children. Didn't want them to, to not have that.

KITTO: Yeah.


SHAFFER: So that was sort of during the feminist movement. It was -- and it was -- it was a very important time. I was kind of following that very closely, very much, like, not involved in the movement, but talking about it a lot.

KITTO: Talking about it with, with your friends?

SHAFFER: Friends, and also doing a lot of teaching and lecturing on --


SHAFFER: -- what does Judaism say about that?

KITTO: So, when did you start doing that?

SHAFFER: Just, I don't know, it started then evolved. It started as conversation, and someone said, "I'm having a group of people over; would you come and talk about what it's like to be a Hasidic woman in this day and age?" And that kind of thing. About that time also -- it's also in '75 -- my husband and I quite by coincidence met some -- a group of people. They were -- they were all couples, Jewish couples, who really had no Jewish education and were fascinated by, like, wanted to learn about -- yeah, about Jewish observance. So 60:00we would meet with them regularly, became very close friends. So yeah, a lot about that. What does Judaism say about this? You know, what's women's role? Can women do this or can women do that? And of course, there was all the other stuff, you know? When the media spotlight came onto Jewish life, they were, how come women can't do -- Jewish women can't do this or can't do that was a lot of part -- part of it. You know, that women aren't counted in a minyan, that women -- sort of using western sensibilities to define value in Jewish life. So sort of navigating that, like, what does Judaism -- what does Judaism say about women? Or what does this mean, that women aren't required to wear tallit, tzitzit, et cetera. So that was like those years of the, of the women's movement, or [inaudible].


KITTO: Can you remember any specific talks you gave? Or, like, I'd love to just hear sort of about like what, like, like what the specific content was of what you were saying then.

SHAFFER: Oh, gosh.

KITTO: And like, how you think of it now, you know?


KITTO: Because you probably don't think the same way that you did, right?

SHAFFER: In very basic things, very much. Yeah, that hasn't changed, because once -- once I established for myself -- well, not what are cultural values; what are Jewish values? So of course, I heard a lot about, you know, Jewish women taking care of their families, staying home. Yeah, but I didn't grow up with a mother like that. It had nothing to do with ideology. It had to do with plain and simple dollars.

KITTO: Practical, yeah.

SHAFFER: Practical.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: My mother always, so -- so it couldn't be that the Jewish women were meant to -- and of course, you know, all the references to matriarchs and what 62:00they did, and how they just took care of their families. So -- so that's why, like -- that's when I -- sort of very early on in the feminist movement, so much of what the feminist movement was trying to do -- when I looked at it from a Jewish lens, well, 100 percent, that we supported. Equal pay for women, for example. Well, I remember -- I mean, I'm not that familiar with Jewish literature, Talmudic literature. My husband was a scholar. But I remember, you know, discussing it with him. And he said there's a whole body of law, of Jewish law that has to do with employer-employee relationships. The obligations of an employer to employee, an employee to employer. And there's no mention of gender. So clearly, by Jewish law, the Jewish value is if you're paying someone for the job, it doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman. So like that -- so in 63:00-- in those values, like what's changed? Really, not much. In other things, my thinking has changed, but not -- not with this. Because that's when I really had to --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- kind of delve into it, sort of ask myself what are -- what -- what -- what are the Jewish values, not what are our cultural values?

KITTO: But so people were asking you to talk and lecture for your specific point of view?

SHAFFER: Often, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Yeah, so all I remember, talking about mikvah, the experience of mikvah. Are you familiar with that?

KITTO: Kind of. Remind me, sorry.

SHAFFER: OK. Mikvah refers to the, the practice, by Jewish law, sexual intercourse isn't permitted between a woman and her husband during the time that 64:00she's menstruating, until she immerses in a mikvah, which is a body of water.


SHAFFER: And -- and it's all -- it's all very spiritual.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: It has nothing to do with physical anything. So at that time -- and this is one of those things where in translation, things kind of -- so basically, the translated works that define -- the -- the works that were translated into English that defined the concept of mikvah -- the concept of mikvah has to do with spiritual categories of taharah and tumah. Those are spiritual categories. Svetlana, we're going to have to spend a whole other day on this.

KITTO: No, no, keep going, please.

SHAFFER: I know. I know, but this is -- [laughter] OK, so two spiritual categories. And they denote only -- denote something spiritual called taharah and tumah. And there is no English equivalent. The way it's been translated -- 65:00and when I talk about it, I don't -- I don't use English terminology. I just try to describe what we know about these categories. For example, the most -- the most potent source of tumah is a lifeless body. So taharah sort of has to do with, of life, and tumah is that which is not of life. There's no judgment. Like, there's no judgement about it. So, for example, if a person is talking care of someone in medicine -- so I have a daughter and a son-in-law who are both doctors. And I have a son and a son-in-law who are EMTs involved in, in medicine, and often encountering death. So -- this is not within the scope of this.

KITTO: [laughter] No, but you're expl--


SHAFFER: It's a whole other thing.

KITTO: OK, fine. But you're saying -- so you're talking about --

SHAFFER: OK, so --

KITTO: -- your talks and, and what you were teaching women, and it is important.

SHAFFER: [laughter]


SHAFFER: All right, so basically, tumah is that which is somehow associated with death. And taharah is associated with not death, or the other way around. Taharah associated with life, and tumah associated with that which is not of life. And again, it has no physical manifestation. It's just spiritual. So for example, the most potent source of tumah being death, when we had the holy temple, services in the holy temple -- people who were attending services in the holy temple -- had to be in a state of taharah. It was like the holy temple was incompatible with tumah. What that meant practically, was if we had the holy temple today -- and here I have a son who works on an ambulance. This is his job. And every so often, he goes on a call and can't save the person. Or the person's already dead when he gets there. Once he's in contact with someone 67:00who's died, with the deceased, his own spiritual state becomes that of tumah. If we had the holy temple today, that would mean that if he wanted to visit the holy temple, he would have to go through, through the process of transforming that state of tumah to a state of taharah. If he weren't visiting the holy temple, it would be irrelevant. It has nothing to do -- today, we don't have the holy temple. And in fact, all discussion of the tumah of death, it's irrelevant. It's -- it's -- it's not practical in any way to our life, because we don't have the holy temple. Another source of tumah is menstruation, and I'm not going to go into all of that now. So that's what it says -- menstruation is through a confirmation of potential for life that wasn't realized.


SHAFFER: And with that comes tumah, all right? When a couple marries, what 68:00their sexual life revolves around is this concept of taharah and tumah, because during tumah, sexual intercourse is prohibited.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And that's -- that changes when she goes to the mikvah. It's approximately, for someone who is menstruating regularly -- and many women don't. I was just speaking to someone who said she hasn't had a period in three years, and she doesn't plan to have one. She's not ready. She's married, doesn't have -- doesn't plan to have children yet. When she does, as long as she doesn't have a period, there's no tumah in her life. It doesn't matter. But for someone who has a regular period -- and of course, this is something which is only now with, you know, today's medicine and technology.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But -- but, you know, going back to like sort of the norm of women getting their period every month -- so that meant that from the time she got her 69:00period, and the state of tumah ensued, until she immersed in the mikvah, which transforms the state of tumah to taharah, there's no sexual interaction between them. And this -- this is relevant solely to marriage, and solely to their sexual interaction. So, for example, my husband loved to travel. He would travel. I didn't like it so much. As our kids got older, he would take, you know, about three -- usually two to three weeks every summer to travel. He would take one of the kids with him. While he was away, it was completely irrelevant whether I was in a state of tumah or not. I think my period didn't matter. He was away, you know? I'm not sleeping with anybody else. But, if I was in a state of tumah, before he came home, I would want to transform that, so when he came home, I could greet him.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Well, I could greet him anyway, but, you know what I mean.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.


SHAFFER: OK, this is basically -- this is very, very basic, too. Now, in the -- in the English literature, when it's been translated, these two states, tumah and taharah, have been translated as spiritual purity and spiritual impurity, or spiritual cleanliness, spiritual uncleanliness. Those were the English translations.

KITTO: But it's not, you're saying?

SHAFFER: Well, I don't have to tell you what that --

KITTO: Yeah.


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: People forget the spiritual part.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I don't know what spiritual purity means. I don't know what spiritual cleanliness means. But when I hear cleanliness, I know what that means.

KITTO: Right, and that's a judgment, yeah.

SHAFFER: And that's a judgment. And that of course gave rise to, and this of course came to the fore during the feminist movement. You know, how does it feel to be unclean? You know, how does it feel to be considered impure?

KITTO: Who is saying those questions when you say that?

SHAFFER: People who are ignorant of what this really means. But, sort of the mythology of what Judaism says about women, that women are unclean when they get 71:00their period. So that's where -- so -- so I found that very often, this is what I was talking about, just relieving those misconceptions.

KITTO: Because you were talking to women who were like, hey, like, they were sort of having their kind of, like, consciousness awakening --

SHAFFER: Yeah, yeah.

KITTO: -- of things?

SHAFFER: Or -- or women who -- consciousness awakening in terms of seeking what they were entitled to in western society, in western culture, and then saying, wait a minute, but if I'm Jewish, and this is what Jewish says, this is what Jewish law says about me -- then that's not, you know, I don't agree with that, or I don't like that. So that came from just really the, the misunderstandings. I found that a lot of it was that kind of education. Because everybody, 72:00everybody comes with mythology -- my grandmother said, or my grandmother used to -- I say, "Yeah, but that -- that's not a Jewish thing." You know? I remember one woman said, "What's the thing with the red string? My grandmother never let me go out without a red string." Some sort of something, but it has nothing to do with Judaism. So do you know what I mean? Very often --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- they were -- yeah, they were some sort of superstition.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But just because there were a lot of Jewish grandmothers who did that. So that's what it is, separating Jewish values or Jewish customs from culture and tradition. So, I found there was a lot of that.

KITTO: So that's what --

SHAFFER: So mikvah was a big one. Mikvah was a big one, because people would hear about mikvah and read about mikvah, and -- what -- "What do you mean I'm unclean and I have to go to a bathhouse to take a bath?" kind of thing. No, no, that's not what it is. And I remember people would ask me, you know, "How do you feel when you're unclean?" I say, "Well, when the plumbing doesn't work and 73:00I haven't showered in three days, I feel pretty crummy. But that has nothing to do with Jewish law."

KITTO: Right.


KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: And it really was the, the tragic results of mistranslation.

KITTO: So, yeah.

SHAFFER: So during that time, and then of course --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- during the years of the feminist movement, there was a lot of discussion of women's roles. Aren't women subjugated, aren't women considered second-class citizens? Aren't -- doesn't Jewish law -- so there are like a lot of these, and kind of -- not so much navigating that, of trying to shed light on some of the misconceptions. Which, before the women's movement, nobody really was talking about, because nobody looked at women and said, wow, we're second class; let's not be anymore. We just kind of accepted that's the way it was.

KITTO: Right. Right, so it's sort of like clarifying, and --

SHAFFER: Clarifying Jewish --

KITTO: And also, but also something that's very interesting about it is like -- so before, no one said anything. So before, women weren't asked.


SHAFFER: That's right.

KITTO: So now, it's like women --

SHAFFER: Exactly.

KITTO: -- are like being brought the task to actually -- well, what do we really feel about this, and how do we --


KITTO: Are -- what are -- how can we -- what is -- what are our values, right?

SHAFFER: Exactly.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So very often, I --

KITTO: And where's the contradiction there, and like, you know?

SHAFFER: So again, so very often that would be it, you know, I remember once when I was asked to speak, and [inaudible], you know, "Well, why can't Jewish women be doctors?" "Who says they can't?" "I always thought--" There's a lot of misconception.

KITTO: This is what -- this is when you would go speak to, like, because I know that a lot of, you would do the -- probably you would do like a lot of outreach, right?

SHAFFER: Yeah. Yeah.

KITTO: To maybe like Jewish women who weren't observant, or --


SHAFFER: Yeah, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, so like where --

SHAFFER: Or wanted to know more --

KITTO: Or wanted to know more.

SHAFFER: -- about Judaism. Yeah.

KITTO: So, would that -- where would those sorts of things take place?

SHAFFER: Oh, all over.

KITTO: Oh, just all over the place?

SHAFFER: All over, yeah. Yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: What else do you want to know?

KITTO: Lots. OK, so -- I guess -- I mean, it's kind of like I want to go back in time a little bit.


KITTO: Just for a second, and then -- I guess I'm sort of wondering too about how -- like what -- when you -- when you were here -- when you were in Crown Heights, like, what sort of -- what were your affiliations, and what, like, were 76:00you working? You know, like what organizations --?

SHAFFER: I told you, I was a kept woman.

KITTO: I know, I know. But, like, were you working? Like who were you -- were -- because you were teaching and lecturing, were --


KITTO: -- you just like --

SHAFFER: So it was -- yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: It was all very independent, yeah.

KITTO: It was all independent? OK.


KITTO: Yeah. And -- but also, like, what was it like to come from the small community that you came from in Montreal to this community? I mean, you know, there's no reason for me to assume that you just like loved it and felt at home and, like da-da-da, so--

SHAFFER: Yeah, actually -- my husband used to say it's the long-- the longest case of culture shock on the books. [laughter] It took me a long time to acclimate, and -- I didn't -- I -- I'm not that sociable a person. So I didn't have -- I didn't grow up here, so I didn't have like childhood friends here. I didn't go to school here. So it wasn't really all that -- I didn't socialize 77:00all that much. Yeah. I was more -- my husband used to say, "We don't live in Crown Heights. We live in 7-Eleven."

KITTO: [laughter]

SHAFFER: So basically -- but that's where I found -- it's not that I, I didn't -- I certainly never felt like I was home bounded. And I had -- the other thing was I had a lot of family here.


SHAFFER: So, my -- my social group -- I mean, I was never -- I was never alone. I was --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But -- but I wasn't a part of organizations. And of course, once the kids were in school, I was not much involved in PTA, but -- yeah, that's sort of much more of a -- yeah.


KITTO: Yeah. So -- I'm just gathering my thoughts. But you would meet people when you were doing, when you started --


KITTO: -- teaching and talking and stuff.

SHAFFER: Yeah. No, and I was meeting people here also.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

SHAFFER: It wasn't that. (Oh, I'm touching it.)


SHAFFER: I guess it was that thing -- you know, I wasn't part of this or that organization.

KITTO: Yeah. But who were some of the friends that you made when you got here and stuff?

SHAFFER: It -- I don't even know how to answer that.

KITTO: Sorry. Like, I'm just trying to find --

SHAFFER: [unintelligible].

KITTO: I'm just trying to understand like -- just what your life was like. Like, your daily life was like.

SHAFFER: Oh, my daily life?

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

SHAFFER: A lot of laundry.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SHAFFER: No. I -- daily was -- yeah, it was. I was -- I mean, there were years when I had household help, and then there were years when I didn't. So 79:00that certainly altered. I was very much involved with my children, my children and my husband. So basically -- I always used to think like my day ended at 4:00. Whatever I wanted to do was until 4:00.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And then -- we were also -- like, I was very much involved [unintelligible] We were also always going places.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So it -- it wasn't -- it wasn't a regimented -- that is my -- I have no idea why that happens. Oh, Mihaly just left. She said she --

KITTO: What is it?

SHAFFER: It's my alarm system, my -- my son who does not live in New York, he moved to California. But before he moved, he set up this whole system, and today it just went haywire.

KITTO: Well it seems to have stopped.

SHAFFER: I don't know why it's doing that. I know. It's been doing this all day.


SHAFFER: Stopping and starting again.


SHAFFER: But it wasn't on for hours. I'm sorry about that.


KITTO: That's -- so what about your -- I'm just sort of staying in like the '70s and '80s.


KITTO: -- I guess. What about your, like, services and stuff? And where -- where did you go? And --

SHAFFER: I didn't very much.

KITTO: You didn't?



SHAFFER: I always liked to be -- my -- my davening was done at home.

KITTO: Oh, really?


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I mean, I would go. I shouldn't say -- it's not never, but it wasn't like a regular thing.

KITTO: It wasn't?

SHAFFER: My husband and kids would.

KITTO: Oh, they would?

SHAFFER: Yeah, yeah. And that was at 770. That was really --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: That was our shul. That was where the Rebbe was. Very strong attachment to the Rebbe as someone who was just an incredible teacher. I -- I can't even say leader, because he didn't exude that. It wasn't about having followers or --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- having -- but he -- just an inspirer, really.


KITTO: Did you see him around and stuff?

SHAFFER: Well, when he was in shul I would go.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah.

SHAFFER: But occasionally -- he didn't -- he didn't --


SHAFFER: He didn't stroll.

KITTO: Stroll, yeah.

SHAFFER: But people knew when he was going from home to 770, and, you know, I can remember a few times when my husband and I encountered him --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- on Shabbat at times. And he was -- you know, if you didn't know who he was, he was just this kind, sweet, very respectful gentleman.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: That's what he exuded, just gentleman.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: But that was certainly --

KITTO: So, he would speak at 770?


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So, I -- I did go on occasion.

KITTO: You'd go, yeah.

SHAFFER: I did go on occasion. Not that often.

KITTO: Did he ever talk about Crown Heights specifically?


SHAFFER: Yeah, but, you know, I'm not the person to ask about the different things he talked about, because I'm not that familiar. I didn't go that often. He did talk about Crown Heights. What I remember is there was a time -- this was probably mid-'70s to maybe mid-'80s, when -- what happened in Crown Heights -- well, it was earlier than the mid-'70s. I would say it was the early '70s to late '70s. But you can get this information better from people who had --

KITTO: Yeah, yeah, that doesn't matter.

SHAFFER: -- a better -- OK.

KITTO: Just what you remember, yeah.

SHAFFER: Where -- what would happen in Crown Heights was what was happening everywhere else, the great white flight.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Just people -- and the Rebbe just maintaining, no we live with our neighbors.

KITTO: So that was his position?

SHAFFER: And all of the Crown Heights used to be -- when I got married and moved here, that's when it kind of started. But Crown Heights had the whole spectrum of Jewish life. And not just Jewish life, of White life. No, but the 83:00whole spectrum of Jewish life. There was, you know, the Reform temple down Eastern Parkway. There was a conservative synagogue, which is now a boys' school. And there was the Orthodox Young Israel, which no longer exists. And there were just a million little shtiblach, like all these -- there were all the different sects of, of, of Jewry were here.

KITTO: Is that why --?

SHAFFER: And it was really magnificent.

KITTO: Is that why --? I don't actually know why Crown Heights was selected.

SHAFFER: It wasn't selected; it just happened to be where it was a -- it was an upper class -- upper middle-class neighborhood. My relatives, when we used to come visit, lived in Brownsville. Crown Heights was where the fancy people lived. And Lincoln Terrace Park, which is at Rochester, it-- just past Utica-- is a huge, magnificent park. So when I was a kid, and when we used to go, on a Shabbat afternoon it was like being in Jerusalem. You saw like every, every 84:00flavor of Jew --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- was there. And then of course, when I was coming as a teenager, you couldn't go anywhere near there. It was rampant with drugs and crime, and nobody, like, people knew it was taking your life in your hands to walk through the park in the evening, and forget Shabbat afternoon. There was -- it -- it wasn't there anymore. There were the gangs, and drug dealers, and it was just -- and -- I didn't live here then, but I remember my cousins telling me the police wouldn't even go there. What was so dangerous about there, if something happened to you there and somebody called the cops, the police wouldn't even go there at that time. People started moving. People started moving, and the Rebbe kept exhorting people to stay, to not move. Crown Heights was a beautiful neighborhood. And what he kept saying was, "We will live with our neighbors, 85:00whoever our neighbors are." And he wasn't speaking just to the Chabad community. He was speaking to Crown Heights. He was, you know, one of the Rabbis. There were many, many Rabbis who had their -- and everybody -- everybody -- people just kept moving. And finally, the Rebbe said -- and some Chabad people started moving. Some Lubavitchers started moving. And then -- and the Rebbe just very strongly said he's not leaving. He said everybody else could do what they want, but he is not leaving. He's staying. And that's how Chabad be-- that's how Crown Heights became a Chabad community. And that's why during the riots -- like, when people talk -- it was -- it was Hasidim and Blacks. And it wasn't because this was a Hasidic neighborhood. It wasn't before that. But after everybody left, the only ones that remained were the Chabad Hasidim, with Lubavitchers. Wait, why were you asking me about that? How did we get to this?


KITTO: Oh, I was asking you -- I was asking you about 770, and I was asking you what things he talked about, and --


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: What he talked about, right.

KITTO: And --

SHAFFER: So, did he ever talk about Crown Heights?

KITTO: About Crown Heights, yeah.

SHAFFER: That's when he talked about Crown Heights a lot.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And -- and used very strong terms and say things like, "Here is where the blessing is," and "Here is where--" He would refer to a certain passage from the Torah, [in Hebrew]. I don't remember the context of that. I'll have to ask somebody. But, like, here's where, you know, G-d gives his blessings, or something like that.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And -- and was very adamant that people not run away.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So he spoke a lot about that.

KITTO: What did you think about that?

SHAFFER: Well, at that time, I wasn't sure where we were going to be.

KITTO: Yeah.


SHAFFER: We were still -- we still thought we may move away, not because of what was happening, but because we didn't want to be living in New York. Yeah, but that was it. It was -- it was a little bit scary, because people were very frightened. That's why we put the bars on our windows. I -- one of the things when I moved here, and I used to see bars on people's windows -- how does anybody live like this? And after living here for a decade more, we realized we better do it. We had, twice our home was broken into.

KITTO: Oh, really?

SHAFFER: Yeah. So, it was -- it -- it wasn't an easy time.

KITTO: Yeah.


KITTO: What other -- remember you were saying before that you had, you would hear stories of -- like what other stor-- hear stories about, like, people getting killed or --?

SHAFFER: No, there was -- every day you would hear about crime. And then there were the very simple crimes, like kids' bikes being taken away from them, or 88:00girls going to school, and their necklaces between grabbed. I mean, this -- this was almost daily you would hear this. Store owners paying protection, and I was in a store once, and I remember I was just like so taken aback where some -- I don't know if they were teenagers -- walked into the store, walked over the counter, and the guy looked up at them, store owner looked up at them -- this was a store on Utica Avenue -- took an envelope out, and then handed it to them, and they walked out. He looked at me, and said, "Protection. I pay for protection." And I didn't know what it meant at the time. And afterwards, I found that it meant that his windows wouldn't get smashed, and that it wouldn't get broken into. And this is what he was -- so it was a -- I mean, the stories we hear, like, yeah. There were stories every day. Very careful -- it's funny, because I don't think of it now, but coming home at night, where was I going to 89:00park? It was before the days of cell phones. I would stop in front of the house, ring the bell, tell my husband I'm here, like, I'm home and I'm looking for parking. So depending how far away I parked, I would be -- I'd be scared to walk the streets at night, at 11:00 at night, or after midnight.

KITTO: And you don't feel that way now?

SHAFFER: That was scary. No, I don't.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: But it was -- I mean, as I said, you know, we'd hear about robberies and break-ins, and it was almost like that was just part of life.

KITTO: And so you also heard like a lot of racism from people, you said?

SHAFFER: Well, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So that was -- that was there. And that's what my husband and I worked very -- we were very conscious of that, not letting that get to our children. And I have to say proudly, successfully. Well, you met one of my 90:00daughters, Mihaly, and we were just talking about this recently. And she said -- about being in school and hearing kids say things -- that she thought like, you know, "How could you say such a thing?" And realizing -- it took her a while to realize that, because we never did in our home. So, you know, so my children would all talk about at some point about how -- when they recognized that -- that they'd be so shocked to hear somebody say something, and then realize that, oh, not -- not everybody -- in other words, what they were told or the way they were taught, not everybody was taught that. And this was something that was very important to us. That -- and we used to talk a lot about -- you know, they would come home, but -- and of course, the kids would always come home with stories. Somebody's aunt, somebody's uncle, somebody's brother, some -- like, you know, they were always horrendous stories, and it was always the Blacks. So we would -- we would spend a lot of time, and we really did a lot of effort into what racism means when you say things like that. And it's true. 91:00This crime happened -- was -- you know, it -- it was a Black man or a Black woman who did it, but you can't say Blacks, or you can't say, you know, it was a time when it was before Blacks, it was -- negroes was actually past. That was my day. It was Blacks, and then African Americans was much later. But even the terminology, being careful how you speak and why how you speak is important. History of-- you know, starting from slav-- history of discrimination and segregation. So this was stuff that was very important for us, for them not to -- and of course, we always related it to anti-Semitism, like all kinds of bigotry.

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: So, recognizing that. So sometimes, you know, someone would say something, oh, one of her friends said that, something or other. And I said, "Well, you know, people say that about Jews." Not that, but people say about Jews that there's something, and, yeah, some Jews are like that. But when people say, "Jews are--," that's called racism. That's bigotry. That's 92:00anti-Semitism. And we don't do that.

KITTO: Right, yeah.

SHAFFER: So, it was --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: As I said, I'm pleased to say that we succeeded in that, because my children are decidedly, they're fine people.

KITTO: It was in the '80s that started creating these like private security patrols to --

SHAFFER: Yeah, it was around then.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: It was also after some horrendous crimes. So -- so they have it now. They're like community patrols.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: You know, I don't know. I don't know very much about that.

KITTO: Yeah, OK.

SHAFFER: I cannot--

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I just know that they're around.

KITTO: I just wondered if that like changed the temperature --

SHAFFER: Could be. I don't know.


KITTO: -- of, or just -- or even just how people feel, whether, you know? Or how you felt?

SHAFFER: I don't know. I think that there was a turning point during the riots, during and after the riots. I think that was -- there was a turning point then.

KITTO: I want to talk about the riots, but I want to make sure to talk about other things --


KITTO: -- first. One thing I just wanted to keep on, with talking to you about like the role of women, and I wondered -- so you told me about the mikvah thing, and I wondered, what were other concerns? What were sort of primary concerns that you heard women have, and --?

SHAFFER: Women here in Crown Heights?

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I didn't hear that so much. Well, there was a lot of discussion, of -- of course, the women's movement --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Generated a lot of discussion. I found early on also, my husband and I, that -- I think some of our guests recognized that certain kinds of jokes 94:00weren't funny at our table.

KITTO: Yeah, I actually meant -- I meant -- I meant like not to do with race. I meant --

SHAFFER: I'm talking about not race.

KITTO: Yeah. Oh. Oh, OK. Oh, OK, yeah.

SHAFFER: I'm talking about jokes about women, sexist jokes.

KITTO: Oh, sexist jokes, OK.

SHAFFER: Yeah, sexist jokes.

KITTO: OK, OK, OK. Yeah, OK.

SHAFFER: And it was interesting because I remember also watching my children through that. And there were times when my husband and I could barely contain our laughter, because some jokes are really, really funny. But at the same time, saying, it's not funny. It's very funny, but it's not funny. And some things you just don't joke about. So--

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: That was -- but I'm not sure -- I'm not sure what you're asking, Svetlana.

KITTO: Sorry, like, sorry.


KITTO: Sorry, like what -- what -- like, you had given the example of the mikvah before.


KITTO: I was wondering like, what other kinds of things do you talk and lecture about?


SHAFFER: Oh, you know, so a lot had to do with women's role. Well -- my gosh, I should go through -- women's, Jewish approach to, you know, just different values in Judaism. Identity in relation to the world, identity in terms of conferring identity unto children, what that means.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I don't know, it was always -- like, my talks were always about what was currently --

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: So I can't even remember back then. Yeah, it was the women's movement was a lot of that. And of course, I'd moved on to, you know, other things that evolved. Medical and medicine and technology and how Judaism views-- so-- 96:00surrogacy, assisted fertility, end-of-life issues.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Like all current issues.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: The questions, well, what's the Ju-- what's -- what's the Jewish response to this?

KITTO: Yeah. But how did you like determine what the Jewish response was to that?

SHAFFER: Well, studying it.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Studying it, find out -- finding out what's the --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And I would do organ donation, and that was big. So I remember talking about that a lot. You know, what does Judaism say about organ donation? And then, of course, the misconception that Jews aren't allowed to donate organs.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Which, you know, where does that come from, that misconception? And then, like, tracing that back to what it really means. How does one determine end of life, you know, assisted fertility issues? I mean, basically, whatever -- whatever was new and current, whatever society was dealing with at any time, it was always, OK, as a Jew, how do I approach this? What does this mean to me?


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So that was, you know, throughout the years, whatever, whatever era it happened to be.

KITTO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, so like skipping ahead a little bit. Let's talk about -- well, I had one more question too.


KITTO: So when you first moved here too, was -- was it mainly a Hasidic community?


KITTO: It was? By that time there had been the white flight?

SHAFFER: Yeah, yeah.

KITTO: And there -- it was mainly a Hasidic community?

SHAFFER: Yeah, mainly. It was still sort of the tail end of it. I mean, we bought this home from a White family, a White Jewish family, not Lubavitch, who couldn't wait to leave Crown Heights. And even when we bought it, I remember the woman who was selling it saying to me, "It's not a safe place." Like, she was selling her home. She said, "It's not safe to live here."


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And kind of questioned why the Rebbe would say that it was safe. Like, how does he take the responsibility of saying that? But -- but that was the reality.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah. Wow.


KITTO: I guess I didn't really know that, so it's really interesting to --


KITTO: -- hear about it.

SHAFFER: The -- the -- the demographics here, is --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I wonder if there's any place else where it is like this. Because when people -- it was actually like around the time of the riots, when people sort defined Crown Heights as a Black-Hasidic community. And not recognizing that it's not that -- it -- it didn't become that because a group of Lubavitchers decided to move here. It was by default that this became a Lubavitcher community. Before that, it wasn't.

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: So -- and that's I think what was really unusual about -- there's only one group that remained in a place, instead of fleeing like everybody else.


KITTO: Right, right, yeah. So, yeah, maybe you can just take me through the experience of being here during the riots.

SHAFFER: Well, they happened during the summer, so I was out of town. I was out of town. It was very scary.

KITTO: Where were you?

SHAFFER: Upstate.


SHAFFER: We had a place upstate. It was very scary hearing about it, and then hearing from people who were here. It was -- it was really a traumatic time. Well, what happened was that there was -- there was a car driven by a Lubavitcher that accidentally hit a Black kid, who died. And that was a tragedy. And subsequently -- and then rioting started. And subsequently, a young Lubavitcher student, who was visiting here from Australia, was murdered. So like, those were the two deaths that happened. Part of the trauma was not, 100:00not even that, you know, hearing afterwards that the police were kind of not getting too involved. It was like a day or two. I mean, it didn't last that long, but long enough. A day or two where people were saying -- and -- and when I was first hearing it, I couldn't believe it. But then, you know, I came back home, they said, this is what was happening. People were calling 911, and the police weren't coming. And afterwards, the mayor was accused-- pretty much-- of saying, you know, let them kind of vent; let it play itself out. This was part of the whole political whatever. Which, which was very scary, because people were saying, there were Jews under siege. People were afraid to go out of their homes. There were gangs of Black kids going through the streets saying, "Kill the Jews." So for people who were survivors of the Holocaust, this was traumatic. But [unintelligible] said the police weren't coming. So again, it didn't last all that long, but enough. But the biggest trauma for me, honestly, 101:00was, subsequent to that, the Children's Museum mounted an exhibit -- and that's actually a friend of mine curated that. I -- I mean, she became a friend of mine after curating, because that's when we met, when she came to Crown Heights to curate the, the exhibit. And, just, you know, Black life and, and Hasidic life trying to basically get to know each other better, so there'd be more tolerance. So a little bit -- I felt uncomfortable with that, because it wasn't about becoming more tolerant. Like I -- I sort of wanted to say, what am I supposed to be more tolerant of, more crime? Like there -- there was this attempt to kind of even things out, that there were Blacks and Hasidim, they're not getting along, they should understand each other better. And not a lot of people were willing to say, we have to get rid of the crime. It's unfortunate, but the crime is all Black. I mean, you look at police rosters. There weren't 102:00Hasidic kids ripping necklaces off little Black girls. And that was very -- it was really hard to say that, because it was so politically incorrect. So you couldn't say it, but that was the reality. So I said -- so what was even more traumatic for me is when they mounted this exhibit. And I was involved with it because my friend, who was the one who was supposed to be talking to the Jewish community -- that's how we met. She called me, and asked whether she could talk to me about -- and we were -- and we -- and we became very close friends. We talked for hours and days, and we remained friends since then. But -- but then the brochure came out. And I looked at the bro-- I was reading through the brochure, and I saw that one paragraph that said, after the death of Gavin Cato, 103:00and -- I can't believe I don't remember his name, the Lubavitcher kid. Rosenbaum. Norman Rosenbaum. After the death -- and I remember turning to my friend and I said -- after the death of? There was an accident and there was a murder. Like, what -- and she said -- I said, "How, how did they write this?" And because, I said if, if you really want to get to something, it has to be in honesty, not -- not by pretending. I think at that time I didn't even know the expression of political correctness. It was just -- and I said, "How can you write this? If we -- if we really want to try to make things better, it has to be done truthfully, and in honesty." And I remember her being very uncomfortable, and she said there were many, many discussions about this, and the project decided that in the interest of it, you know, promoting whatever, 104:00that they were going to write it this way. And I was -- that -- that was one of the times that I thought, I don't know. My husband called it my loss of innocence. I wasn't a child then. I just, I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't believe it. And I thought, really -- and I knew for sure the other way around it wouldn't have been that if it were -- so there was something about the politics of having to decriminalize behavior that was criminal, de-victimize situations where there were real victims. And I thought -- and I -- that's where I said there was a turning point, because I think a lot of people kind of recognized that sort of just, OK, it's not about reality, it's not about what really happened. It's about how this plays out, or how it sells, and what's -- 105:00what's the narrative going to be? And I remember thinking also, there aren't two narratives. There's only one narrative, and that's the truth. There was an accident, and there was a murder. And -- and those, like -- those are --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Those are the facts of the matter. So --

KITTO: But people interpreted the accident differently.

SHAFFER: Oh, it was -- well, they didn't interpret the -- nobody said it wasn't an accident. What they did interpret was that Hatzolah came. It was a Jewish ambulance company.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And the driver of that [unintelligible] ever, and they waited. And what actually happened, because then I was speaking to someone who was on the scene. And he said the cops came and said, "Get the Jews out of here. There's going to be a lot of violence. Get them out of here." So that wasn't reported. That wasn't reported. They didn't leave the scene of the accident because they just didn't care about this Black kid. I mean, that was so -- and then more to 106:00that was my very close friend who now lives in Israel was the next door ne-- was the Catos's next-door neighbor. And they were very close friends. And when he heard that this little boy -- he just went running over to them. I mean, they were close friends. This kid was in his house all the time. He was a public school teacher. This kid was also one of the students in the public school. And he said that -- and he described it to me. He said, "There was Gavin's father, my friend. And he just looked at me and shrugged his shoulders, while a whole bunch of other people told him to get the hell out of here." So, that happened too. The -- the re-- like, kind of the reality is distorted a little bit. And -- and I remember reading about none of the -- none of the Jewish neighbors came out to -- which was a blatant lie. So, that was very difficult. That was a very, very difficult time.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Having to come to terms with that. I remember, I couldn't go to that exhibit. It took me months before I could go. And it just felt like such a 107:00lie. And -- and again --

KITTO: What did the Rebbe say?

SHAFFER: -- because I was [inaudible]. He didn't. Oh, about the riots?

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I don't remember.

KITTO: Because it was related to him, right, where the car was going to --

SHAFFER: It was his -- it was -- it was his entourage, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: It was cars following, and the driver lost control of his car on, you know--

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But -- but these were the things that -- interesting, also -- you might find this interesting. Somebody else, Ari, gosh, Ari Friedman? I don't remember; one of the writers for The Times.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And -- and I am a Times subscriber, so not -- to me, this is where I get my news. And sometimes I know I have to take it a little bit with a grain of salt. Actually, I have to say that it was during these elections, for the first time, that I would read The Times, and I think, OK, let me see what Fox News is saying, you know? Just to give myself some balance. But -- anyway -- 108:00this is -- Ari, oh, gosh, what's his name?

KITTO: It doesn't matter.

SHAFFER: He was a writer for The Times. But --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- he, about 20 years later, he wrote an article saying about how, how it got spun in the media. And he described the telephone conversation calling into The Times, at that time, finding a phone booth and calling in, and I don't remember the details of what he wrote. But he said they, they didn't want to hear a lot of what they didn't want to hear. They w-- like, he said he realized then what the story had to be. And it wasn't reporting the facts. So that was hard for me to read also 20 years later. I felt like the trauma came back all over again. I think that was the hardest thing for me. The deaths were terrible tragedies, both of them, but the -- the political intervention.

KITTO: How did --

SHAFFER: I just couldn't believe --

KITTO: -- the streets feel after that? You said that things changed.


SHAFFER: Well, it calmed down, yeah.

KITTO: Yeah, you said --

SHAFFER: And I'm not sure what happened. I think there were a whole series of measures that were then -- you know, so I don't know --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- what community-wise what was done. But it never felt that bad again. Like, I -- I feel as if that was like a crisis time, and we somehow got past that crisis. And -- and I -- I may be deluded to be thinking this, but I think maybe for a lot of people that it was that kind of, oh my God, how could this have happened? Like, we're all decent, civilized people with criminals among us, but we're all decent, civilized people. How could this have happened, that it became so polarized, that it was Black and White instead of being law-abiding and criminals? So I think that narrative was, you know, the -- the kid or kids who went after -- who -- who went through the streets with a knife 110:00-- killed the Jews and found a Jew to kill, I don't think they were representative of the Black community living here. So -- but somehow, I don't know. I guess that's what it was. I felt that, how did that become -- the story became Black, White, instead of crime and victims of crime. And -- you know, the other thing that wasn't reported -- and I remember people saying that a lot of the rioting weren't Crown Heights-ers. And I remember this same friend who lived like right, right at that corner, he said there were buses. The next morning there were buses that came, and people pouring out of these buses. He said, "Where did these buses come from? These aren't Crown Heights residents." So that wasn't reported either, that a lot of it was just being stoked as a 111:00racist -- as a -- as a race issue. And it wasn't a race issue to start with. I mean, the actual events weren't about race. So it became that, and --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And that wasn't helped by --

KITTO: Well, it spoke to the tensions that preexisted, and the dynamics.

SHAFFER: It did.


SHAFFER: Well --

KITTO: Right?

SHAFFER: Yes and no. Because there was some tensions. You know, I remember speaking to a woman once, and she was telling me, "When my kids walk into a Jewish store," a Black woman -- and she -- and she said, "My kids are law-abiding citizens." They walk into a Jewish store, and they feel eyes following them. And I remember telling her, "It's heartbreaking to hear this. I can't imagine what that must be like." But if you speak to the store owners, they'll say, "Yeah, that's right. We don't know these are law-abiding kids. We just know that when stuff is being stolen, or when we're being held up, or being 112:00asked--" So, you know, racial profiling, which wasn't a term then -- but it's like, I certainly don't support it and don't believe in it. But it's kind of -- when somebody says, "Not once in the 15 years that I've been in the store has somebody White come in with a gun. Not once in 15 years. But about 10 times in 15 years, a Black kid has come in with a gun or with a knife or asking for protection." So -- I mean, to be paid protection money. So -- I mean, I get that then. I guess if I was a store owner, with all of my ideals of not being racist, yeah, I'd be kind of wary also. Like, you can't -- it -- it's sort of not -- you can't get away from that. But again, it was -- it was about -- it was about crime and criminals. It wasn't about colors. And that's what was so 113:00unfortunate. And for whatever reason -- oh gosh, I can't believe I'm speaking politically. But for whatever reason, this became like -- it -- it served people, someone. I mean, to this day, I can't get why the museum did that. I hear the explanation, but I -- I can't -- I just can't -- I can't buy it. Because it didn't serve anybody, and it certainly didn't serve the truth.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: And to try to bring people to a better place of more understanding, you can't -- you can't make up stories.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So -- now, I don't know who these killers were who killed Yankel Rosenbaum. Whatever their story was, that story may have been -- must -- might have been very important. Who were they? Why were they violent? Why did they insist? Who taught them to say, "Kill the Jews?" Like -- so that's a story 114:00that's a real -- it's a human story. But why does -- I think one of the best ads I've ever seen in my life was, you know, I was on the subways many years ago. Nobody's born a bigot. You -- you -- you're taught to be a bigot. So who are these kids who were taught that, that where they get to the point that when they're -- I don't know, teenagers -- I don't remember how old they were -- actually murder somebody? How do you get to that? That's a human tragedy.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Not the murdered, the murderer. That's a human tragedy. So why -- why are we just making that into a Black-White thing?

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: So I guess that's what -- like, all of that came up in me and was very -- I can't believe I'm saying all of this on tape. [laughter]

KITTO: It's OK. It's just going into an archive.

SHAFFER: I know, I know. I -- I never -- I never even -- well --

KITTO: Have you ever said it before?

SHAFFER: I guess I did. Like, it's not new, but it's just coming all back now.


KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Because I remember at that time, like, I was -- it was really hard. You know, my -- I was going through this with my husband a lot. I had a very hard time with my friend then. And I told her, I said, "It's just hard to--" And as I said, we were very close. We connected very much, and very different, our very different lives. But --

KITTO: Wait, sorry. So this was a friend of yours who was Black, is that what you're saying?

SHAFFER: No, she was White.

KITTO: Oh, she was --

SHAFFER: That's why she was -- she was Jewish.

KITTO: Oh, she was Jewish.

SHAFFER: So, she was sent to the Jewish community.


SHAFFER: And she came with a friend who was sent to the Black community. So I got to know him very well also. We -- we were cl-- we became close friends, except for he moved away, and we didn't keep up. No, but she and I just became personally very --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Very, very attached to each other. But that was one of the few times when I felt the fr-- and I told her. I said, "It's just, I don't want this to be there between us, but I can't--" And -- and I guess I couldn't hold her responsible for it. And then of course, you know, looking back then at all the Times articles about it, The New York Times also did that. Referring to -- 116:00refer to deaths, not to accidents or, or murders. And it was -- it was hard to see that. So I remember my husband kind of would say things like, "You know, grow up." You know this is, this is life. I was -- I was taken aback by that. And there again, how to talk to my children about it truthfully and honestly, this is what happened, and yet still maintain that racism is immoral and unethical and we don't do that.

KITTO: Did you have pushback from your kids?


KITTO: With -- about stuff?

SHAFFER: What -- what kind of stuff, this?

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: That -- what kind of stuff?

KITTO: Well, this, that -- yeah.




SHAFFER: No, because they -- yeah, they -- they got it.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: They got it.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: I think they really like integrated those values, because, you know I sometimes meet some of their classmates, and they'll say, "Oh, yeah--" We just recently -- somebody said, "Oh, yeah, I was in Shayna's class. She was the one that every time somebody said the word "schwartze," she would say, 'You cannot say that.' You know, 'You can't talk like that.'" Or somebody would say, say, "Shayna was always the one who was our conscience." This was seventh grade, so there was -- yeah, I remember my husband -- there was one particular teacher that we really -- and she'd suffered a lot. She was the victim of some bad stuff. But we couldn't -- we couldn't take things that she would occasionally say in class. And I said, "You can't say that to kids." So -- so no -- so I didn't get any pushback from my kids on that. They -- they kind of -- because 118:00it wasn't about me and my husband. It was just about values.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: The values. You know, how a decent person lives. You help old ladies across the street, you carry --

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: -- somebody else's bags, and you don't -- you don't think racist. That's all part of --

KITTO: I also wonder about just sort of traveling through New York like outside of, outside of Crown Heights. Like, just sort of, like, interactions with -- you know, because I'm sure that there's, like, a lot of judgement that, you know, maybe would have increased after the riots? I'm not sure, but --

SHAFFER: After the riots, it -- I don't know. I mean, I -- there were times. Every so often, we'd encounter, I'd encounter something about, yeah, what happened. I'm trying to remember. Well, I remember there were a couple of 119:00times a friend of mine was visiting, and she said something about, you know, having read about it, and -- also, she said something about maybe, maybe if the Jews weren't so showy with -- because they lived so comfortably, and it was this was Black population that was -- and -- and that was very hard to hear also. You know, this goes back to, you know, shades of -- it resonates of that, "Oh, yeah, the -- the rich Jews." I said, "No, there, there are African American families that are living affluently, and there are African Americans who are living in poverty." We find the same thing here. It's not -- I mean, the unfortunate thing was, of course, that the population that left, that fled, that 120:00-- and also a [unintelligible] that remained were middle class, a little bit upper middle class. Middle class and lower middle class, people here who were very poor, but for the most people here owned homes and were renting homes and were working. And then you had a population where it was a different -- it was a different class. So the unfortunate part is it became colored instead of class status. And I guess that's always the -- it shouldn't have been colored. In other words, it would have been nice if there was a population of poor white trash, because then it wouldn't be colored. And there were quite a number of 121:00Black Jewish families living here. They had a hard time. They had a very hard time.

KITTO: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: The kids were picked on on both sides.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: But yeah, maybe that was the answer. We should have imported some "trailer trash." [laughter] And then you get rid of the color thing.

KITTO: Right. So -- yeah. So we should start wrapping up.


KITTO: Because we've been talking for a while.

SHAFFER: For a long time.

KITTO: I know you're probably tired.


KITTO: Yeah, but I wondered just sort of like, you know, what your feeling about current Crown Heights is, and like what your favorite places are, and, you know, what it's like to live here?

SHAFFER: My favorite place is right here.

KITTO: In your home, yeah. Yeah.

SHAFFER: Oh, it's wonderful living in Crown Heights. There is -- I think it's a whole community that's really -- Look, it's next generation. It's not -- it's 122:00not a new community. And --

KITTO: Right.

SHAFFER: Yeah, not at all. It has changed very much.

KITTO: It seems very -- like it's thriving and very strong.

SHAFFER: It is thriving, right.

KITTO: Yeah. What are you --?

SHAFFER: And expanding.

KITTO: What is the reason for that, do you think?

SHAFFER: People are -- people grew up here.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: You know, went to school here, went away to school, came back here. A lot of professionals, a lot of businesses. So it's -- yeah, that -- oh, sorry. I keep forgetting.


SHAFFER: My nervous mannerisms.

KITTO: It's fine.

SHAFFER: Yeah, it is thriving. Like, I think, OK, my -- my children and their friends, some children live away from home, but I -- so I have one, one of my children, my -- one couple are a doctor and a lawyer, and another couple, he's in business, and she's a special education teacher. Another couple, he works for an ambulance. My son works for an ambulance company, and she's a speech therapist in public schools. So there's a lot of, you know, people who are 123:00expanding into -- like, every profession that there is, is -- is represented here in the Crown Heights community, after a tremendous amount of very vibrant talent and --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- just moving forward.

KITTO: Like, what do you think like something, someone from your mom's generation, like, what she would think of say, like, the role of women and how it's changed or not changed?

SHAFFER: Well, it's changed because there's no question that, for women to become professionals. That's not a discussion anymore.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: You know, some people do, some people don't. But there's no discussion about it. When my older daughter was in school, there was still some. Well, she went to school -- it was still sort of the, the tail end of the women's movement having, but she went to Long Island University here in pre-med, 124:00and then when she applied to medical school, there were still some schools where it was not that easy to get into. And some schools, where the fact that she was a woman really was -- that was -- that was still, when they were doing away with quotas for women, wanting more women in, in medical school. So that was interesting to watch, like, I -- I wasn't even that -- I didn't even know that much about the different schools. She ultimately attended medical school at Tulane University. But for my mother, yeah, it was great that her granddaughter is studying medicine. But to her, it was sort of ho-hum, of course. You know, she -- she thought the medicine was a great-- She thought it was very hard and very expensive. But, you know, very proud of her. So that was my eldest daughter. And then she wanted to know, like, what about the others? So her thing was, maybe it shouldn't be something so hard. Maybe they should go into 125:00something easier. What would my mother think of it? Well, from -- well, again, my mother was Russian.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Where women were educated. Women were professionals. So--

KITTO: Yeah. And how has the neighborhood changed like in the past few years? Because, you know, I mean, there's been a huge amount of gentrification --


KITTO: -- that's happened.

SHAFFER: It got much more expensive.

KITTO: And I've -- I wondered, like, what's the reach of it over here, and --

SHAFFER: It's -- it's reached. It's reached. I mean, of course, real estate has gone up tremendously, which means that my children who live here -- two -- one of them bought a house, but not here. A little bit further out; he's on East 91st. So that's just around the outskirts. But realizing that my other 126:00two children, who -- the married ones. Mihaly right now lives at home still, Mihaly whom you met. But buying a home here is probably out of reach for them, even though they're, you know -- you would think that they were in the market of, you know, professionals. But they said they just couldn't, couldn't afford to live, couldn't afford to buy a home here. Which is sad for me. I wish they could. So we'll see what happens.

KITTO: Yeah, I mean, it's just interesting to think about, because it's like such a sort of strong and thriving community.


KITTO: But it's like, once it ages out.

SHAFFER: Yup. So that's what's going to happen. A lot of -- a lot of young people are moving away because of that, and moving to Upstate New York, places in New Jersey.

KITTO: So it's just going to change the locale.

SHAFFER: Yeah, that's what's going to happen.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: That's going to -- well -- no, because not like a whole, but young 127:00people moving away. But there will always be, I guess -- I don't know, I -- I've often wondered about that.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: When the community ages out.

KITTO: Yeah, with the ho--

SHAFFER: What happens.

KITTO: The property owning.

SHAFFER: So there's -- there's like a segment of the population, like my older children's generation is like 20 years between my -- almost a generation between my --

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: -- oldest and youngest. But my older children's generation, those that settled in Crown Heights, many of them own homes here. So there will still be that generation. And my younger children's generation, many of them have moved away. So I really wonder what it -- what -- what will happen, what it'll be like to -- and yeah, 50 years from now.

KITTO: Yeah.

SHAFFER: Or not even 50.

KITTO: Maybe your kids will just all live in this house. [laughter]

SHAFFER: That would be a little bit hard. Visiting here would be nice, but--


KITTO: Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you so much. This has been so great.

SHAFFER: Svetlana, you're so welcome.

KITTO: Yeah, is there --


KITTO: -- anything else you wanted to say?

SHAFFER: Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding? I've been talking for so long.

KITTO: Oh, that's fine. I know. OK, well thank you.

SHAFFER: All right.

KITTO: I'm going to wrap it.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Bronya Shaffer

Bronya Shaffer has been a resident of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn since 1968. Born in 1948, she grew up in Montreal, where her parents settled after fleeing Soviet Russia. Her marriage to Rabbi Gedalia Shaffer brought her to Crown Heights, where she went on to have ten children. (Daughter Devora Shaffer was interviewed for the Crown Heights History Project in 1993.) Working as a stay at home mother, she also became a lecturer on Jewish life.

In this interview, Bronya Shaffer talks about her parents' experience of being religious Jews in Stalinist Russia. She recalls growing up in the 1960s and how the Civil Rights Movement really grabbed her attention. Shaffer remembers her college experience, courtship and marriage, moving to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, and encountering racism in the Jewish community as well as high crime in the area. Reflecting on the emergence of feminism in America, she discusses how those ideals affected how she raised her daughters and how this fit with the teachings by the Rebbe of the Lubavitcher Hasidim. Shaffer then relates her experience and some content from her time as an emerging, traveling lecturer on Jewish values, myths that grow out of Judaism, gender roles, and marriage dynamics. Focusing on living in Crown Heights, Shaffer describes the demographic turnover known as white flight and her feelings on security in a time of a rising crime rate. Exploring her memories of the lives lost and the unrest in August of 1991, Shaffer explains that city officials and the media distorted the events into a story of civil fracture based solely on race. She shares some frustration with how cultural institutions created further distortions in how they tried to mend the fabric of the Crown Heights community. In closing, Shaffer observes gentrification's effects and how rising housing costs make it prohibitive to raise a middle-class family in the neighborhood. Interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto.

This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.


Shaffer, Bronya, Oral history interview conducted by Svetlana Kitto, June 07, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.21; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Brooklyn Children's Museum
  • Cato, Gavin
  • Congregation Lubavitch (Crown Heights, New York, N.Y.)
  • Rosenbaum, Yankel
  • Schneerson, Menachem Mendel| Shaffer, Bronya
  • Shaffer, Gedalia


  • African Americans
  • Crime
  • Ethnic neighborhoods
  • Family life
  • Feminism
  • Gentrification
  • Hasidim
  • Housing
  • Jewish women
  • Judaism
  • Multiculturalism
  • Race relations
  • Religious identity
  • Riots
  • Sex role


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Canada
  • Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
  • Russia


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Voices of Crown Heights oral histories