Memory Lane: The Biegeleisens of Boro Park (I)
The legendary first family of mochrei seforim have now been engaged in this holy work of putting holy books into the hands of American Yidden for one hundred years—since their arrival in Boro Park in 1920—and is now carried on by the third and fourth generations of the family. But the family tradition goes back long before that, when their patriarch Reb Yosef Chaim, the exclusive supplier of seforim to his beloved Rebbe Yisachar Dov of Belz, zt”l—a connection that has not waned in the ensuing decades; the Biegeleisen’s are today one of the most prominent families in the Belzer chassidus.
Roots in Oświęcim
The roots of this illustrious family features extremely pious and learned chassidim in Galicia going back many generations. The father of Reb Yosef Chaim was Reb Moshe Yehuda, an ardent chossid of Rebbe Yossele of Dombrowa. When he born, in 1858, the Dombrower Rebbe advised him to give the name Yosef Chaim, so he would merit long years… which he did, passing away at the age of 82—not before establishing a legacy of unflinching Torah and chassidus in America of the 1920’s and 30’s.
A stir was caused when the Belzer Ruv asked Reb Yosef Chaim to procure for him a set of the Vilna Shas, a departure from the Slavuta Shas which was so prized among the Yidden of Galicia. He probably did not know that he, and his forthcoming generations would become the primary address for America’s talmidei Chachomim for a century and beyond.
When WWI broke out, the Biegeleisen’s—like many of Poland’s Jews—escaped to Vienna for the duration of the war.
Quenching the Thirst of America’s Scholars
The year 1920 was in the aftermath of WWI, a period that was particularly difficult for the Jews of Poland. Reb Yosef Chaim had lost his livelihood, many of the towns in Galicia were completely destroyed, and the Austrian authorities were particularly harsh toward their Polish guests.
A wealthy brother-in-law in Boro Park not only sponsored his family, but also sent first class tickets for their passage. Despite his extreme reticence to come to America, Reb Yosef Chaim acquiesced—with the firm intention of returning to Galicia as soon as possible. This how they came to land in America in the winter of 1920.
The family moved into a flat on top of a store on 13th Avenue, and from there to a home on 47th Street—generously provided to them by their aforementioned relative—where Reb Yosef Chaim would sit secluded in his learning—wanting nothing to do with America.
While their spiritual wealth was great, their financial state was less so… and Reb Yisroel Yaker sought to take on the role of breadwinner for the family. This is how the first location of Biegeleisen’s Seforim was launched at this 47th Street home. Immediately, word went out to the ge’onim of America—such as Rav Eliezer Silver, Rav Michoel Forshleger, and many others—that in Boro Park there was a pious family from Galicia who had the bibliographic knowledge, passion, and ability to put into their hands the precious volumes for which they thirsted.
The seforim business operated from their home, until Reb Yaker moved it to the Lower East Side in 1951 (the conspicuous sign in the window of the Boro Park store bears witness to those times: “J. Biegeleisen Hebrew Books, 83 [Division Street]). It was only natural, since at that time, the Lower East Side was a much more prominent Jewish metropolis than Boro Park, and customers would come from all over to those cramped streets for their Judaica needs.
Part two will focus on the legendary Reb Yaker Biegeleisen and his impact in Boro Park of yesteryear.