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Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong
April 25, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.16
STRONG: So, today is Wednesday, April 25th, 2018. My name is Liz Strong. This is
for the Brooklyn Historical Society's Muslims in Brooklyn Oral History Project.
Alyssa, just introduce yourself, say who you are, when and where you were born,
and maybe a little bit about your life growing up.
HAUGHWOUT: Okay. I'm Alyssa Haughwout, maiden name Alyssa Ratkewitch, and I am a
-- I'm the vice president of the board here, as well as the caretaker of the
mosque building, and was born December 24th, 1984, in Queens, New York. Yeah.
STRONG: Okay, tell me about your childhood, your brother, your parents, anything1:00
HAUGHWOUT: Okay. I have a brother and parents. [laughter]
STRONG: That's good.2:00
HAUGHWOUT: So yeah, so I have an older brother, Dan, and my parents, Steve and
Aisha, and my aunt Marion, who you met earlier. She lived above us always,
growing up, back in Middle Village in Queens and then all together, when we
moved to Long Island when I was about four years old, three years old. Yeah,
we've been coming to the mosque my whole life, my mom's whole life, and most of
my grandmother's whole life -- my grandparents' whole life.
Yeah, my parents are entrepreneurs, they started -- when I was born, they were3:00
running a stationery store and then they sold that and then they ran a deli and
then now they're -- we came to Long Island and they, they run an insurance
agency. My brother runs his own insurance agency as well. I did not follow that
path. I got a degree in art education from SUNY [State University of New York]
New Paltz, graduated in 2007, and then a masters in art and design education
from Pratt Institute in 2010, and now I'm currently working for Avenues: The
World School in Chelsea, as the ah, the head of extended learning, so that's
running the after school and summer camp program there.
STRONG: Okay. Tell me about your, your family's relationship to the mosque.
Maybe start with your family history a little bit.
STRONG: As you told me before.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. So we are of Tatar heritage, so and that's both of my -- both
sides of my family, my mom and my dad's side. My mom's parents came from Poland
and Russia. My dad's parents, well, my dad's dad was born in Bayonne but before
that, his family came from Belarus, and my dad's mom came from Belarus, I
believe, or what's now Lithuania. These places, I think the borders have moved a
little bit here and there, but that's what they would say, they would say I'm
from Russia, pretty much.4:00
So they each independently kind of immigrated in the early 1900s, yeah. My mom's
mom, I know came over in, I think 1910, thereabouts, yeah thereabouts. And I
know that she in particular, came over with her mother and her siblings and one
of her cousins. Like so many people, they sent her -- her father, my great
grandfather, came over to America by himself, to try and establish himself and
get some money, and he would send money home to his wife and kids so they could5:00
gather up enough to come join him in America. And I think they -- that he had to
do that for something like seven to ten years, something like that. It took, it
took a long time to be able to you know, bring the rest of the family over. And
yeah, they -- I know they had to travel quite a ways, they were quite inland, so
finding a ship was -- took -- was a long trek. I don't really know much about
that journey, but I know they finally, you know, finally found a ship that they
were able to get out on and they came over around, I think it was around 1910, I
could be wrong. Maybe that was the year she was born, I should probably check
these things. [laughter]
STRONG: How old was she when she came over?
HAUGHWOUT: She was nine.6:00
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. That should be easy to check.
HAUGHWOUT: I'll let you know. [laughter]
STRONG: Okay. Well, there will be time.
STRONG: When, when you get the transcript, just to double check dates and stuff.
STRONG: So that's fine. So she was pretty young when she came. Not many memories
of life before?
STRONG: Not many stories of life before.
HAUGHWOUT: No. Really, she, I think she, what she remembered she was told
probably, but she was also, she had a younger cousin with her. So she wasn't
even the youngest one on that journey. She had two older siblings and her mom,
and I know that when they did come, they came through Ellis Island and there
was, there was a bit of a scare there because her sister was sick, she got sick
on the boat and there was like a moment of like oh God, they're not going to9:00
accept her. And I don't know what, what moved them, but they, they kind of like
either she snuck off the line [laugher] or somebody just, you know smiled on
her, but they were, they were held there for a little while and there was like a
panic of like whether or not they were all just going to be sent home, on
account of, you know? But they, they let them in and they joined some friends
and some family.10:00
I think around here, in Williamsburg, there was a very small community of
Tatars, like establishing themselves. It was a primarily, I believe Jewish
neighborhood. It was not a great neighborhood at the time, it was like a poor
Jewish neighborhood, very like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn kind of a scene, and
that's where they -- this is, this was like their like touchstone. So they knew
when they came here, they had other people, they spoke the language and you
know, ate the same foods, and they probably knew somebody who knew somebody who
knew them, you know? But this is where they, they connected to and, and also
found jobs from, because my great grandfather was a furrier, so he would work in
a fur coat factory, that's what he did back in the old country. He would like
trap animals for coats, so he did something similar, like that, here, and then I
know that my grandmother worked in that factory as well. Probably her siblings
too, but I know my grandmother for certain, would like sew fur coats when she11:00
came here. And I have one or two of those still. [laughter]
STRONG: That's awesome.
HAUGHWOUT: Like politically, I don't want to wear them because it's like oh,
fur, but I'm like oh, but my nana made it. [laughter] So, it's a little bit of a
struggle but they're real pretty, I've got to say that. [laughter]
STRONG: That's fantastic.
STRONG: So, her family came to Williamsburg before this building existed, or was
established as a mosque.12:00
STRONG: About like maybe 20-ish years before? We're going to double check.
STRONG: So that would have happened when she was a kid or a young adult. How did
they get connected with this religious community?
HAUGHWOUT: Well, it's all the same people who came from that -- from those
little towns, you know, in, in Eastern Europe. There's a couple of towns that
are like major, known for their Tatar roots, heritage, so, and they're not14:00
terribly large cities, you know? Iwye and Navahrudak are like really small
places, with tight-knit communities, because even, even back then, they were
minorities, so they kind of like stuck together. So when they came here, it
would be like oh, I know that last name, you know there's only like two dozen
last names that people recycle, you know cycle through, and they're like oh
yeah, yeah, yeah, I know your aunt knows my mom, that kind of thing. So they15:00
knew that this was the place to be, and I think, I believe at the time, they
were, they were meeting for religious prayers and celebrations, like just in
people's houses, you know, in, in backyards, in basements, wherever they could
find space, before they were able to save up, as a community, to buy this
building. So, I never really spoke to her about that in particular, about her
having been here for the premiere, I guess. She passed when I was in high
school, so that was before really, I was involved in, in a real way, with the16:00
goings on of the mosque, so it wasn't something I'd even really thought to ask
her about. But yeah I mean it's, it's interesting, she was you know, certainly
among the founders, or her family was.
STRONG: And your grandfather or grandfathers, were involved in teaching classes?
STRONG: Yeah. So tell me about your, your parents and your grandparents'
involvement in running this community.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. So actually both of my grandfathers were, were teaching classes
here, which is how my parents met, so cute. [laughter]18:00
STRONG: Oh my God, tell me that story.
HAUGHWOUT: Well, it's basically, my, my dad's dad was the imam here, so he would
you know, he was the one who led prayers and he was really, the religious leader
of the community in a lot of ways. And then my mom's dad taught Friday evening19:00
classes. So there's a couple of pictures of the two of them kind of at the front
of the, the room, right over here, where they're you know, leading classes and,
and you know it was definitely old school. So there's you know, the boys up
front and the girls somewhere else, out of the shot, you know? But they had, you
know, like all of my dad and my uncles and all their friends, all together, as20:00
kids and yeah, that's how they, they -- my parents really met through all of the
social things that used to happen here. There was a lot of like social
activities and you know, you were kind of just, it's a little bit of a -- it's
funny because it's like everyone's family, but also, you're expected to marry
one of those people, you know? [laughter] So like, I didn't have that pressure21:00
but I know it was very prevalent for my parents, it was like very much like this
is -- these should be your friends, these are the people you should hang out
with, you're going to marry one of these people.
That really dissipated, thankfully, by the time I grew up, but that's how my,
yeah, that's how my parents met, because it was just like a group of kids that
all grew up together and did all these social functions together, and even if
you didn't necessarily live in Brooklyn or in Queens, you always came out for
Friday classes and you always came out for these big events. So with my two
grandfathers, kind of always having -- you know, always being a part of that, I
believe that they were both on the board and they were both like involved in the
direction the mosque was going on, you know my parents got dragged along as
little children, and then you know, kind of did it on their own as, as adults as
STRONG: So, what are your memories of this place as a little kid?
HAUGHWOUT: It's funny now, because I think my memories are a little bit22:00
changing, because I'm, it's now I'm here so much, [laughter] that like if you
had asked me that five years ago it would be different, because it, it's very
much nostalgic and it very much feels like coming home every time, but now, I'm
here so much more often that it really, really literally is like coming home.
[laughter] But it, it always has a very warm, comforting feeling, to be here,23:00
and we did a lot of you know, celebrations. I think that there's -- it's hard to
say that there's like a, a connotation, but there's like a feeling, because I
know that this is also where pretty much every funeral I've ever been to has
been here as well. So it's kind of, you know, you have those memories in here as
well, but it, it's definitely a peaceful place and it's always someplace that I
liked coming to, we would do prayers. When I was little, I remember thinking
that they went on for so long, but I'm pretty sure anybody who goes to church
[laughter] or goes to any kind of religious ceremony, thinks that that's the
same, thinks that's the case.
But from what I hear, I think they really did go on quite a bit longer when I
was little, because I know that there were -- there are certain holy days where
you pray well into the night, and I, I do have memories of like going upstairs,
where the prayer room is, and like sitting on the rug and then getting sleepy,
and then kind of laying on the rug, and then kind of dozing off and then you
know, and my mom kind of being like if you make it through this, we're going to
have a feast, [laughter] we're going to go downstairs, we get to eat when we go24:00
downstairs. You know?
But yeah, I remember when I was little, we really couldn't see the imam, because
the women would sit behind this big green curtain, that was sheer, but it was
like, it was kind of like pulled off to the side. So like I would say, when I
was in elementary school, we -- it would be like you might get a spot behind the
curtain or you might get a spot where they had opened it. My mom and my aunt
Marion were kind of at the forefront of that. You know, they would probably be
the last people to call themselves feminists, but honestly, that's what it is.
You know, they were like it's ridiculous, we want to see him, you know, we want
to see the prayers and we want to see the imam, and there's no reason why we
shouldn't. So they would pull, pull it open a little bit and all the older, my
older aunts and the older community members would always kind of stay behind the25:00
traditional part of the curtain, but I remember sometimes we would get a good
spot, sometimes we wouldn't, sometimes we'd have to sit way, way, way in the
back, which was nice, because that meant there was a lot of people here at that time
Now, that's not the case, so it's just, you know, there's only a handful of
people who come to even the biggest holidays now, but yeah, and, and it's still26:00
kind of the case, because even though we got rid of the curtain and the whole
divider, there's like a little fold-y accordion wall, temporary structure that
we have, basically so a couple of my elderly aunts can sit behind there in their
respectful manner, the way they, they seem proper. But they don't, you know,
they don't yell at us for not doing that, it's just like that's how they were --
always wanted to pray, that's how they were raised to pray and that's how
they're going to continue doing it. So it's, you know, it's still up there.
But yeah, I think as, as I grow older, fewer and fewer people attended the
events; not just the prayers but like the, the celebrations that we would have
and things like that. So it's kind of, you know there's a bit of sadness, to27:00
kind of like watch that dwindle, but also being part of a board and things are a
way to bring it back to that, hopefully anyway.
STRONG: What kind of services do you guys do now? Is it just high holidays?
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, yeah.28:00
HAUGHWOUT: It's just holidays. We would like -- we're trying to do more social
events, so we did a couple of like cooking classes for like traditional Tatar
dishes that everybody loves, that everyone is like oh, my grandmother used to
make this and oh, I never learned how to make that. So it's, there's a lot of
people, particularly I think my parents' age, who kind of lost the recipes and,
and/or haven't used -- done them in a long time, who kind of bring it back. And
then there's people like my generation, who are like oh, this is just a fun
thing to do, or like oh that's a weird food, let's try, [laughter] let's try and
do that. We made kishke, I think, the first one, that's the first one I went to,
which is like stuffing sausages with, I think it was lamb, I want to say, and
like herbs and stuff. I'm like okay, this is an experience, this is just a funny
thing to do, let's do this. I think there's a lot of something for everybody.
[laughter] But yeah, it was -- there were a lot of fun things. For those we get
probably a good 40 people, so that's probably the most lively we'll see the
building, is when we do one of those classes.
And there's a couple of other initiatives that we're trying and that we're,
we're going to experiment with, just as -- not just to have people come in, but
to like raise awareness about the building and the history of our community in
the, in the neighborhood, because people who live in Williamsburg don't even
know really, what we are, what we're about, because we're open so rarely. Like
they don't see people coming in and out, so they don't know who utilizes this
building. You know, they'll see the crescent moon on the roof and that will give
you an idea, but there's nowhere on the front does it say mosque, nowhere does
it say the oldest mosque in America certainly, you know nowhere does it say
we've been here since 19 -- in this building since 1927, or something like that,
and we've been established since 1907.
And I understand, there's a lot of people who are hesitant about doing that, but
I think the direction we're trying to go in, in the future, is to cautiously put
ourselves out there, so that we can be that voice of like hey, look, we're
Muslims and Americans, go figure. You know, we are peaceful and we've been here29:00
a long time and we want the best for this community too. And I think the more
that we are vocal about things like that, the more people are like oh yeah, no,
I know Muslims, they're cool people, you know? [laughter] You know?
It's nice, because there's a lot of people -- now, Williamsburg, this particular
part, is a lot of hipsters and old Italian people, [laughter] so I think we get30:00
along well with both of them, with both of those groups, and it's from things
like that, just like getting to know our neighbors and getting to know the
people of the community, people who have been here for several generations and
literally didn't know who we were, and we're like oh, we've also been here
several generations. So there's a couple of things that we're trying to do, to
like invite more people in and tell them about ourselves. Last year, or maybe it31:00
was two years ago, we had a barbecue for holiday, Kurban Bayram, and I think
that was really the first time that we had ever opened our doors to the people
in the community. Like I was handing out flyers to be like hey, we're going to
go roast a lamb in the backyard, that's a lot of food, come eat, [laughter] you
know come find out what this holiday is all about. You know it's not just for
us, it's not just for the dozen and a half people who come to the, you know, to32:00
the prayers, it's for everybody who lives in Williamsburg, you know? And it's
nice, the churches around here do that a lot too.
There's a lot of interfaith things that the -- I can't think of the name right33:00
now, San something, the church not far from here, they do a lot of interfaith
things and a lot of feasts and celebrations, and you know. I know there's a day,
I forget which holiday, someone's saint's day, where they like come down the
street in a parade and bang drums and hand out bread to people, and they're
like, "Come, we're going to have a feast!" Like okay, [laughter] that sounds
good, let's go, and they were like yeah, just join the parade, just come on
over. And I'm like, I want to do that, I want to like just go tell people around34:00
the community that we're here and like come, come party with us, [laughter] come
celebrate this wonderful, joyful holiday that we have and you know, be a part of
it, because we're here anyway.
STRONG: Tell me a little bit about like the, the history of that insular
culture, or anonymity. Was it always that way or do you think this was always
kind of an anonymous space?
HAUGHWOUT: I think that we've always been that way. I think there's always been
this mentality of keep your head down and no one will bother you. Especially
for, for like my grandparents' generation, there was a lot of like pressure to
assimilate as quickly as possible, to be accepted as American as quickly as
possible, and I think that they wanted to identify as American as quickly as
possible, as a community, because even without you know the modern kind of view
of you know, this Islam phobia, like even before there was even a word for it, I
think they were very cautious of the fact that we're kind of different and
people don't like different stuff, and we should you know, not necessarily
pretend we're not who we are, but not advertise, that we could be a target for something.35:00
You know if someone is in the mood to be hateful, or someone needs an excuse for
something, that's an easy, that's an easy one, you know pick on the different
guy. So I think that they wanted to showcase how similar we are, so there's that
similarity I guess, you know there's that, that thing that we have in common
with the people who founded the, the organization, but it grew into such a fear,
it grew into such an inhibiting factor, that it really came to our detriment
because when people stopped immigrating, like when the big rush of Eastern36:00
European immigrants kind of slowed down and the people who came here were
established and started like moving away, like okay, they got on their feet,
they don't need this crutch of being in this community any more, you know they
moved to Massachusetts or Jersey or wherever, it really hurt us, because we're
not reaching out to anybody new, we're not reaching out to anybody at all,
except for those people who came from the same little towns, and once those same
little towns stopped sending people, there's nobody new coming at all and the,
the next generation of people are living all across America, you know?
So that, that fear really stuck with them, and I think that every now and then,
whenever there was like a targeted, like Muslim, you know something, something37:00
went wrong, someone put a swastika on, on a synagogue, or something stupid like
that, it would almost vindicate them and say like see, see, they don't know what
we are, so they can't do anything, you know? And obviously, 9/11 had a huge
impact on that as well, because obviously, we -- it was horrible, you know we
would never identify with anybody that was even like close to that, but like
the, the backlash of like people's reactions to Muslims in general was so scary38:00
that you know, it was just like they doubled down on efforts to like bring it
all inside and like hold your cards even closer to your chest, because it's,
it's scary out there. You know?
I think that with a little bit of time and with a little bit of seeing New York
change and New York kind of growing, we do take that -- hmm, how do I say it?
We, I think we kind of came to the conclusion that showing people who we are, as
opposed to hiding who we aren't, is the best course of action. Yeah. So, showing
people that we are, you know, Americans, good, wholesome people just like you
and you know, everybody else, contributing to society and contributing to the
community and not hiding, is, is the best way to be. And I know that that was,
you know that was part of it, when they, when they first came over here, because
a lot of the people like my grandfather and my uncles, my great uncles, took on
jobs that were like union jobs and like service, public service jobs, you know
things that were very like American, I guess. You know all the, all the boys
joined the baseball team and all the girls did, you know, I don't know, they
didn't do Girl Scouts, but you know that [laughter] kind of thing. Girl Scouts
was a little too, too much of a Christian organization, to join, but you know
that, that sort of, that sort of idea, that like we're going to be that Norman
Rockwell painting, you know, [laughter] that's us too.
But yeah, you know, and they, they did it, they enlisted in the armed forces,
you know I have lots of family who fought for America in World War II, and I
think that was the most, the biggest show of like no, no, no, this is exactly
who we are, this is -- we're not anybody else, we're not looking to be anybody
else, like you can't, [laughter] you can't say it any more clearly than that.
Like yeah, I'm going to go die for this country.
STRONG: A couple generations later, do you think, like your generation, still
feels like you have anything to prove in terms of your American identity, or do
you think you have a little more freedom to experiment with what this community
can, can be and show as its identity?
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, I think we, we definitely -- it's kind of both, I think. We do
want to -- I think the feeling that we need to prove ourselves is not an
internal pressure, it's -- like, I feel it as an external pressure, like the39:00
more we go out there, the more we have to say, like this is who we are and this
is who we've been. It's definitely different -- it wouldn't be right to
acknowledge the fact that we don't look Muslim to a lot of people, you know. And
that's something that people -- I remember people saying to me, when I was in
like high school and college, they're like oh, you don't look Muslim. I'm like
don't say it like a compliment, [laughter] like that's, like that's -- are you
complimenting me, that I don't look Muslim, because that's a weird thing to say.
And so I think that that's -- that definitely changes our experience of the
whole thing, of coming to America, of proving ourselves as A, Americans and not
just like you know, every, every culture got pooped on [laughter] when they came
to America, you know? So, being White definitely helped with that.40:00
I think that we are, we -- and it almost puts us in a way to, obviously
demonstrate how diverse Islam can be, because there's a very set image of what
people think a Muslim man and woman look like, you know, like head scarf, beard,
dark skin, like that's what, that's what is conjured up when you say you know, a
Muslim family. Not being that, I think kind of opens people's eyes up and if, as
you know, as crummy as that is, if that helps people's perception, I'm going to
use that racism for good. [laughter] You know, it's like a really terrible way
to put it, but like if that's -- if someone is going to be -- I'm trying really
hard not to curse right now but [laughter] if someone is going to be terrible,
then you know, I want to help them be less terrible. Yes, that's how I'm going
to phrase it. [laughter]
STRONG: That was expertly done, only cuss words were coming to my mind as well. [laughter]
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, yeah. So but yeah, so there is, there is a bit of a pressure
to, to like prove ourselves, but less so because of our ethnicity, because the
Tatars are less -- we, we don't look like a target so much. Yeah.41:00
STRONG: So that almost makes the insular nature of the community easier.
STRONG: You can fly under the radar in most situations.
STRONG: How did, you know, your life personally, being Muslim, living in areas
where you may have been the only Muslim family, how did that, how did that go
for you in the different phases of your life? Were you living out and proud,
were you talking to your friends about it? What did you decide to do?
HAUGHWOUT: Well, when I was little, like in elementary school, I didn't know
that it was a thing, like I didn't even know there was a different thing. When I
was in like kindergarten -- I would say probably, the community that I grew up42:00
in was probably -- like my friends were half Christian and half Jewish, and that
was always the question around December, was like are you going to celebrate
Christmas or Hanukkah, and I'd be like I'm not going to celebrate either, huh,
and I thought that made me cool, like that made me special and different, and I
suppose it did. But like, I was like, we have a holiday called Ramadan, because
it happened to land in December, around there, or in the wintertime anyway,43:00
around that time, so I'm like I get to not listen to music or eat for 30 days,
but afterwards, there's a party. [laughter]
But yeah, so my friends and my friends' families, were all very accepting. There
was never -- it was never even weird, it was never a thing. Like I remember as
kids, like my parents would like abridge what Ramadan is for us, so we didn't44:00
listen to music for 30 days, that was the thing that, that was our fasting, so
to speak. So, I remember being in, I think it was like third grade, and we were
watching a movie in class and I like excused myself, I'm like there's -- I think
it was like Sound of Music or something like that, I'm like "I can't, I can't
watch this." And my teacher was like, she felt so bad because she didn't -- she45:00
was like, "I didn't know that was part of it." And I'm like, "Oh it's okay." And
she's like, "Okay, come," and I just like hung out in the teacher's lounge and
like sat on the couch and like ate cookies [laughter] because she felt so bad
that she like wanted to be sensitive to our needs, you know, and she's like oh,
I didn't even know that was a part of being, you know, part of Ramadan. I didn't46:00
even know to tell her, I'm like it's not, my parents just made it up. [laughter]
It was just like that's how we're going to do it because, you know, I wasn't
going to fast as a third grader, and they wanted me to do something, you know?
So, but yeah, everybody was, was -- I'm really lucky because it could have gone47:00
-- now, in retrospect, I see it could have gone a much worse route, you know,
and I think it, it was good because people got to know us before they knew we
were Muslim, you know like oh, yeah, Steve and Aisha, they're great, like yeah,
Aisha is kind of a weird name but whatever, you know, just like look past it.
And then it would come out, like, as like a nonchalant thing, like oh yeah, it's
a Muslim holiday or it's like one of my holidays is you know, I'm like, I'll be
coming -- I'm going to come in late today because it's a, it's a holiday, I have
-- what did I used to say? I don't know -- I remember, I remember we used to
say, there was like some phrase, it was like I have prayers, or something like
that, you know, and be like, one of my holidays I have to go do. And, and yeah,
I think, I think that also goes back to the fact that we don't look like what48:00
people think Muslim people look like. So, we did, we got that like first step in
of like oh, you get to meet us and know that we're nice, and then this other
piece of what should be irrelevant information comes in, as opposed to like oh,
the first thing you know about me is my religion. You know? So I think that's --
that was definitely again -- helped, helped us integrate as a community.
As I got older, it really didn't -- it, it was a pretty -- not so bad. I mean
there's always like stupid high school people, you know, but I think there's
just dumb boys in high -- in every high school, [laughter] who will say stupid
things, and nobody ever said anything to me, like ever threatening or ever, you
know, in any way like that. They would be like oh, yeah, Muslim, you're a49:00
terrorist, not, none of that, but it was like, it would be like some Muslim joke
and be like, hey moron. Is that what you think of me? And they're like oh, I'm
sorry, I didn't -- not you, not you, not you. Like, yeah. [laughter] So it, it's
that kind of conversation where it's like not directed, but like just a stupid
thing, and the more that I, you know, talk, and the more people I meet, then
you're like oh, not you, and I'm like no, not, that's not just it's not me,
[laughter] you're just wrong. It's not anybody.
So you know, I think that overall, it was not a bad experience in my little
suburban Long Island high school. And you know, it -- I think with everything,
kind of my own interest in religion, kind of ebbs and flows. So like there
wasn't a lot of -- like I wasn't, I wouldn't call myself terribly religious
through high school, and then like, and I didn't even really know much about
Muslim -- other Muslims, or being Muslim, or anything like that. Like, if I were
to look back on like ninth grade me, it would probably be embarrassing, by how50:00
little I knew, because I never went to religious classes. They had stopped
before, you know before I was a child, and whatever I knew, you know my parents
had passed on to me, but never any kind of formal education. So it was just kind
of like stories and what I had picked up from conversation. The prayers were all
in Arabic, so it's not a language I understand, so like even if there was a
sermon, I wouldn't know what they were saying.
But you know, after 9/11, it was kind of like how can these people have anything
in common with me, like how, how is there any similarity here? What, what am I
doing wrong if these people say they're the same thing that I am? So that kind
of inspired me to actually learn anything about Islam and being Muslim. It was
interesting, because like again, it was, it was out of like this, like that51:00
can't be me, and then like the more I read I'm like no but that's -- they're
not, they're not doing it right. Why are they saying they're Muslim, because
everything I'm seeing here does not coincide with what they're doing. So you
know, that kind of was like an interesting part of finding out about extremism
for one, you know about how you could take one phrase and build a whole ideology
around it, but also, you know, kind of reinforced my own beliefs, because I did
like what I was reading, you know, like I did. It was, it was good information,
it was like good stuff, so.
STRONG: What did you learn and how did you learn? Did you just --
HAUGHWOUT: Google mostly. [laughter] Yeah, yeah, Google mostly. Like, that's,52:00
that's, honestly what it boils down to, is like -- I don't really remember what
I -- like, the order of things that I looked up, or I mean like I know we owned
a Qur'an and I read it.
STRONG: In English?
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And a Bible, and I read the Bible at that time too,
most of it anyway. And there was like, I, I really don't remember. Like I54:00
remember like, because also, it was college essay time for me, [laughter] so I'm
like okay, this is what I'm going to write my college essay about, like me
figuring out how to be Muslim, you know, in this very weird and sensitive time.
So, I, I don't remember, like part of the, you know, it was research, like
school research and personal research, and I don't know what order it came in
but whatever it is, a kind of piecemeal together of, you know? And asking my
family and being like hey, why do we do it this way or why do we do this or what
does that mean, and whenever they didn't know something, then go look it up and
kind of figure it out.
I don't know, I don't know that my parents understood how little we knew about
the religion until that time, because they had grown up with it as such a part
of their, you know childhood, that when we didn't know like -- my brother and I.
When we didn't know, like really basic things, there was like oh, yeah, I
probably should have told you about that. You know? Not in a bad way, not in a
blamey way, but it's like certain things don't come up unless you're living it,55:00
you know, unless you're in a situation where you're like teaching a class or
going to a class. So it wasn't something that like naturally came up for them.
STRONG: Like what? Could you give me an example?
HAUGHWOUT: Well, like so when we have prayers, we have sataga, which is this
like food that we have at the end, afterwards, and the imam will come and he'll,
he'll pray, like basically over the food or you know, adjacent to the food, and
we always would bring 41 of whatever we brought. So if we were to bring, like if
we were to bring something, it had to be like 41 apples or 41 pieces of
chocolate, or something like that, to share with the rest of the community.
So I'm like that seems really arbitrary, why 41? And -- or like what is this
whole, the whole idea of it about, and that was one of those things that like,
that's not something that every Muslim does by any means, that's like a very
Tatar thing that we kind of borrowed from like our Jewish neighbors also, like
it's kind of an amalgamation of like when we lived in these Jewish neighborhoods
back in the old country and when Williamsburg was largely Jewish as well.56:00
And it's like you know, they're sharing with your community, honestly the 41 is
like escaping me right now, but [laughter] it's a theme that keeps coming up
because, like when you pass away, I know that your soul hangs out for 41 days,
to like do like a victory lap, [laughter] you know like say a farewell tour to
everybody. So you have 41 days after you pass, to like say your final goodbyes.
So it's a number that, that is significant and keeps coming up. But like -- and
then the imam would pray and we would dedicate certain things to be like okay.
My dad will be like okay, I'm bringing the apples for my mom, who passed, and
we're going to bring this for, for your parents who passed, and this one for
that, and so we would bring things like in memory and it would be to share with
And the idea would be that like I think back in the day it would be like
everyone can come, and if you didn't have enough food, you'd come and we're
praying anyway and you know, it's just share with the community. Now, because
there's so few people who come, it's just like we're going to take doggie bags
back and you know, have this later. But you know, it's that kind of a, that kind
of a thing, like I don't -- I don't even know how to spell sataga, like what,58:00
what is this thing that we're doing and I can't find any you know, trace of it anywhere.
But that, that's the kind of thing where it's like separating also, the history
of our own congregation that evolved from a minority, that evolved from
something else, because it's just its own brand at this point. It's definitely
rooted in Islam, obviously, but I think of it as like you know how animals
evolve differently if like -- and if there's like an animal on, on an island
with no other predators, it evolves differently than an animal on the mainland.
We were like that one little tribe that went somewhere else and we evolved in a
really different way, even from -- you know, we're going to go have a trip to
Eastern Europe in September, to all these communities, and like I know there's59:00
going to be differences, because we're even different from that because we're so
Brooklyn-y. [laughter] You know, they're probably not going to have bagels and
lox after their, after their meetings, you know? It's, it's very much borrowed
from, and it was an interesting educational journey, to figure out what is
Tatar, what is Brooklyn-y about us, you know what is, what is our certain little
congregation's own mark on it, what is Tatar and what is greater Islam.
Like there's, and also there's so many similarities of like things that we do,
that we honor, that everybody does, you know everybody who is Muslim will do.60:00
And it's cool to see those things because those are the times when you say like
whoa, every Muslim, every of the millions of people who practice Islam, we're
all doing this today, you know we're all doing this whole thing today, and
that's, that moving, that's a pretty cool feeling, that you're like part of
this, you know celebration that's happening in basically every country in the world.
So as different as we are from other Muslims, we're also, you know, got those
similarities. But also there's times when we've been told that we're not Muslim
enough because of these differences and these things that we've evolved. There's
people who -- I keep hearing this story. I don't remember it because I was too
little, but I've heard this story a dozen and a half times, where these61:00
gentlemen from, I want to say Saudi Arabia came, and they happened to be in
Brooklyn for some state visit thing or other and they came and visited in like
full regalia, like full decked out, and they came and they were like basically
yelling at our imam and our like family, being like you're doing it all wrong,
and we're like no we're not. We're doing it exactly the way we want to do it.
And he got -- things got very heated apparently, and it was very frightening I62:00
think, because it was like okay, we're not getting -- in, in the elder members'
minds, we're not really being accepted by the, the majority of folks in America,
and we're not being accepted by other Muslims, so we're like stuck in between
both of them. Really, they were just crazy people and we are being accepted by
other Americans, but it was like, it was like one of those things that they63:00
always go back to, where they're always like referencing this, this time that
they came and it was very, you know jarring, to be told that we're doing our
religion the wrong way.
STRONG: Do you remember any details, like what specific things they took issue with?64:00
HAUGHWOUT: I don't. I know one specific thing was that like, I think as you, as
you saw, there's a lot of women on our, on our board and our community leaders
are -- many of us are women, and that was true even at this time. And they came
in and my mom was actually by the door and she had greeted them. I don't know if
we were expecting them or not, but in any case, she greeted them and the dude
like straight, didn't make eye contact, brushed right past her, and like shook65:00
my dad's hand and she like no, no, no, no, no, that's not how we do things here.
[laughter] I don't know if she said it in those terms but it was very much like
they didn't make eye contact, they didn't face their body toward any woman, and
we're like we're going to have a problem with this, [laughter] this isn't going
to work for us. And this was like probably in the '90s, early '90s, so I think
that's probably at least one of the things, that there was like too much66:00
comingling, you know, men and women, but I don't really remember what the ah,
what the other things were.
STRONG: What about you? As you grew up, did you have you know visits or
relationships with other Muslim communities, and, and what did you see and what
did you learn?
HAUGHWOUT: Not so much. I didn't really venture out of here very much. I think67:00
one of the only times is I remember we were away on vacation in Florida as a
kid, at the end of Ramadan, so we found a mosque nearby to pray, and I think
that was the only time in my childhood that I had done that anywhere other than
here, and it was, it was different, it was very different. I remember, I
remember being like kind of struck by, A, how many people were there, because it68:00
was probably hundreds, and, B, because there was so, so many people, the women
were in a -- like, we were in the parking lot and the men were like in the
building, and or maybe we were upstairs and the men were downstairs, and we got
like speakers and like where are we supposed to look? Like there was just
speakers and we're all facing like a wall, like there's nothing to do.
It was, it was again, that cool feeling of like oh, I know the words to this
song, that kind of a feeling, being you know, like okay, I know what to do at
this point. But it was very, again, it was very weird, because it was so
segregated, and being like oh, this is not how we usually do it at home, you
know? But I didn't really check out other mosques until I was an adult, and even
that has been not, not as much as I would like to, more out of time restraint
than lack of ambition. [laughter] But --
STRONG: Tell me about those experiences as an adult, what did you learn?69:00
HAUGHWOUT: I learned that there is still a lot that I don't know about Islam,
that's for sure. And like while there are certain prayers that we -- I do know,
there's a lot that are just not in our repertoire, that I think that -- like
everybody else was like you know, you follow the motions, you do the thing. It's
like when you're -- I've probably been to more -- no, that's not true. I have70:00
one hundred percent been to more churches than mosques. [laughter] Because
again, I would go with my friends, you know, to their, to their events and
things like that, and I didn't have any Muslim friends, so every time there was
anything, we would be going there.71:00
But you know, it's the same feeling of like okay, I know this psalm or whatever,
you know, and they know when to stand up and sit down and kneel, and turn to
your neighbor and hug, and you know all that, that sort of thing, like they know
all those things and it was like the motions that I didn't know. Like oh, I
thought I, I had a grasp on this but apparently not, there's a lot that I still
don't know. So, it also would help knowing Arabic, which I don't. And I don't
think, I don't really -- I don't have the brain to grasp languages very easily,
that's not one of those things I pick up smoothly, so I don't think that I'm
probably going to ever really know Arabic, but I can get -- I can remember
enough to know my -- a couple of standard prayers, you know, that's about it.
STRONG: Talk to me about languages in this community, because I know there's
interesting crossroads there as well.72:00
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. Hold on, let me get water.
STRONG: Of course.73:00
HAUGHWOUT: Do you want some water?
STRONG: I'm still good, thank you.
HAUGHWOUT: So, languages.
HAUGHWOUT: There are many of them. There are -- we -- Arabic was never a
language that was like spoken as, in, in my memory, at all. Even my grandparents
didn't -- were never like fluent or anything. They could read and they could
probably write it. When -- I, I can only speak for my family, because I don't
know if other community -- other families in the community did the same, but I
know that when they came to America there was, with that push to become
Americanized, they picked up English pretty quickly and they basically stopped
speaking their home languages, even in the house. I know my uncle Sam went to
school and he actually had difficulty differentiating between Russian and
English, and then he was so embarrassed by that, that my grandparents were like
that's it, we're only speaking English from now on, in the house, because like
he had mixed something up in like first or second grade, or something like that,
and they were like yep, no more, and he was like horrified by it.
So it clearly had a big impact on them. But there's a mix of Russian, Polish,
even some Turkic languages, like kind of thrown in there. And then again,
because we are who we are, Yiddish for some reason, because [laughter] my, my
mom's mom, my nana, spoke probably as many Yiddish words, like peppered in her
language, as Russian words. So, I never knew, growing up, what language was
what, and I think there are still times where my parents are like is that Polish
or Russian, or something else entirely, because they, they, you know, can't
I took Russian in college, which was a mistake, because I thought that I would
recognize more but I didn't, [laughter] because a lot of what my grandparents
spoke was not Russian. I passed with a C, [laughter] I'm proud to say that. But75:00
like Tatar is a language in and of itself. It's, it's a dying language now, from
what I hear, but it's, it's a dialect that is all its own, and I suppose that's
what my grandparents were speaking, because it is kind of, it does kind of
borrow from a lot of other languages, but they, they were very liberal about
mixing their languages however they saw fit. If they felt like a word that
described something was best in Yiddish, they would use the Yiddish word. If
they, you know, if there was a word that described something in Polish, they
would use the Polish word. My grandfather was Polish and my grandmother was
Russian, and they both spoke English, but they would yell at each other,
[laughter] in their own language. So, we picked up a couple of curse words, that76:00
was about it.
And, and they, and like I said, they would just kind of mix and match how they
saw fit, which makes it really difficult to decipher documents that were
handwritten at the time, because there's some things that are in like okay, it's
a Cyrillic alphabet, cool, now what? And then, somebody who helped try to77:00
transcribe a few things, found that there had been like an outdated, like not
ancient but like an antique, I guess, I don't know what the word for it is, like
an old version of Turkish script, again, kind of just peppered in there. And
they're like these, these characters are from this language and these characters
don't exist in any language that I'm familiar with, so we're going to have to78:00
And then, just, just to like put the last layer of this confusing cake, there's
also things that were transliterated using an English alphabet from Arabic, or a
Cyrillic alphabet from Arabic and then try to make it English. I don't even --
it's almost impossible to figure out who was trying to make something79:00
understandable for another person, you know? They were trying to take the Arabic
and make it understandable in this Tatar language, by sounding it out.
[laughter] So if you only read English, you are completely at a loss for what is
trying to happen. You can just kind of look at the characters as sounds and, and
try and piece it together, but there's so many layers of like colloquial phrases
and transliteration and just deciding to switch into another language
arbitrarily, [laughter] that make it really, really difficult, and I could see
it being really exciting for a linguist, to try and figure that out. I am not80:00
that person. [laughter]
But you know we have, we have a wealth of documents, handwritten pieces, Qur'ans
and prayers, and then like liner notes that are in these languages that, that no
one really can understand, but they're like personal notes about probab-- I mean
one would guess commentary on the text or reminders, or shopping lists, I really
couldn't tell you. [laughter] But it's, you know it's all there and it's --81:00
hopefully, at some point, we can kind of get a glimpse into what, what was
trying to be conveyed. But, yeah, a lot of languages in here.
STRONG: Yeah. [laughter] Since we're talking about the documents, can you tell
me about your personal history with them and your, your evolution of snooping,
as you call it.
HAUGHWOUT: [laughter] Yeah, my snooping. Well as a kid, I definitely -- it's
such an old building and it was always fun to go into the closets and go around
in the office and kind of find nooks and crannies, because there's all these
little artifacts from the past hundred years of existing, even if it's just like82:00
a cool little bowling trophy or a cool little, you know antique pot, or
something like that, ashtrays, we've got cool ashtrays in the way back, you
know? So that would always be kind of my thing, because when my parents were on
the board, sometimes they would schlep us along and we'd kind of have to just
like occupy ourselves for a couple of hours, or you know if they were hanging83:00
out with their friends, you know, we would just kind of like hang out.
But I always, I -- that was always like a fun thing for me to do, is just kind
of treasure hunt and that evolved when I became the caretaker, because then, I
always felt like I was kind of doing something a little bit naughty as a kid
doing it, like I shouldn't be in here, but I'm going to like you know, poke
around just a little longer. But as a caretaker and as an adult, I had free84:00
rein. It was my job now, to go into the closets and clean them, and go in and
organize and sort, and that was a very -- that was kind of fun and exciting for
me, but also a little bit horrifying, because then we would [laughter] go into
these closets and find really important documents and really fascinating books
and things like that, in the weirdest places, like the back, you know, supply
closets, under sinks, and in, in a filing cabinet that had hammers in it, there
was also like someone's grandmother's passport, you know like that kind of, that
kind of level of like who, why did -- why, why is this here?
But it was, it was always really fun to, to do that, and once we kind of had a
rhyme and a reason for sorting things and like putting things in the library,
such as it is, you know our little bookshelf -- bookshelves -- you know putting
those things together that made sense and taking out the things that didn't make
sense. Or things that were repetitive or you know, not special, maybe it was
like a mailing, you know like a calendar from 1997 that was like with the
handwritten pieces, again, letters home from, from the old country. So kind of
going, having -- taking the time to go through all of these things, we were able
to find a lot of really interesting stories from past members and really
interesting pieces of our own history that could have potentially been forgotten
or lost. And we've gotten a lot of mail in the past -- I would probably -- you
know, I don't know how long it's been going on but certainly since I've been
here, we've gotten a couple of packages of people who have passed on, who were
members or former members of the, of the society, who were no longer religious
or their families weren't, weren't Muslim, and but they did have the forethought
to mail us things that looked important. So, a couple of times now, we've gotten
our, like handwritten Qur'ans or just the family's Qur'an back, and the family
was like this isn't significant to us but you might want it, you might want it
for whatever, for your records. And it's always appreciated, because they're
sending things back that are a part of our history and if they're not going to
value it or if they don't know what it is or if they don't know why it's
important, it's really lovely that, that they're sharing that back with us.
Sometimes it's like passports or prayers. Or like I know there was like a
landlord, maybe last year, two years ago, who I think found our address on an
envelope and you know, when her tenant, who was the member, passed away, he
didn't have any next of kin and she sent the things along and it was like these,
these look important and like if they're not, feel free. She's like I had to
throw things out but you know, please take these and -- and you know it was, it
was our blue book, that book that we publish, his copy of it. And a couple of
other religious texts. It was, it was nice to like have those things come back
and they can live in our little archive such as it is. But yeah, I feel like
there was more that I was going to say about that.
STRONG: Well tell me, when you say there were little bits of history that might
have been forgotten if you hadn't found these things, can you give me an example
of something you learned and were able to share?
HAUGHWOUT: I think among the like old phone books and receipts that were no
longer relevant, I think it was -- was it the deed to the building or the deed
to the cemetery? There was something that was really quite significant, that was
kind of shuffled in with other things, and that was, that was part of like one
of those oh my goodness moments, like what, what happened here, why, why did we
let it get to this point? But old, old newsletters, we had copies of old
newsletters that were sent out in the probably '70s or '50s, for a couple of
like random, because we've never really had a consistent run of newsletters.
Part of that is on me now, because I should be the one sending them. But you
know, we, we'll kind of have a start and stop a couple of times, so we'll get a
couple from the '50s and then we'll get a couple more in the '70s and then like
in 1992, and then like it will be quiet for a while, you know.
So we'll have, we'll have little things like that. And again, it's just like
okay, we'll put it in the -- this little folder or this file and keep it for
when we have, we can -- we have a time to put everything together, which is nice
because then like the 100th anniversary, the 110th, which we just had, are nice
little deadlines for us to [laughter] put these things together and really look
at what we have and look at our history. So it's, it's a nice way to organize
STRONG: Tell me how you became the caretaker, tell me that story.
HAUGHWOUT: Well, I was on the board. Should I got back to joining the board,
because that happened first.
STRONG: Yeah, go -- yes, go back even to, even to like college years.
STRONG: Because you had sort of a drifting, it sounds like, in high school, and
then kind of came back in your early career, that you were involved.
STRONG: So tell me all about that.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. Well, when I was working on my masters, I was working part-time
and going to school part-time. I had a very wacky schedule to say the least. But
I -- we came here for some holiday or other, I forget what it was, and this is
probably from one of my snooping things, that I had found these paintings, some
were hung and some were kind of shuffled about. They were of the -- some great
mosques, you know the Hagia Sophia and other really beautiful, like
architectural marvel, and it was like a shame because they were in these like
really crummy frames that were falling apart and broken, and they were getting
all tinted, or the ones that were hung were getting all tinted and you know,
certainly nothing archival, it was all like handmade janky frames put together.
So as the art student that I was, I'm like oh, I would love to try and you know,
put these -- show a little more love for these and put them in a nice frame, and
I bet you they would look really nice and cleaned up, and put them behind
archival glass so they can at least stop, like mitigate the damage that's being
done to them. I know that from a couple of them that were kind of falling out of
the frame. A lot of them were dated from 1929 and had, I think it was a great
uncle's name? Someone who's like distantly related to me, had painted at least
one or two of them. So it was kind of like, that was a cool thing, you know, an
interesting little tie, like oh, this has been hanging on this wall my whole
life and I didn't even know that you painted it.
So, I guess the next board meeting or you know, a couple months later, I put a
proposal together to ask the board, to say like I'd really like to spruce these
up and re-hang them and get them framed from a nice professional, can the board
give me some money to do that, because I'm a poor college student, [laughter]
and, and they were enthusiastic about it. I think they were really excited that
I was excited about it. And I was young, and I'm like oh, a young person is
excited about something that has to do with the mosque, great, go for it. So
they gave me, you know, I don't even remember how much it was, whatever I asked
for, I had a proposal.
So, I put it together, I put probably 12 pieces together and it was really nice,
because it did like really brighten up the upstairs room, because we hung them
and they were like -- everybody noticed them and everybody was like oh, yeah,
because you, you kind of forget that they're there. This building, this room,
the décor has literally not changed at all, at all, [laughter] for the past
probably 60 years, and if you were to be here, you could very easily imagine
this place looking almost exactly the same 60 years ago. So you kind of, every
-- you kind of become blind to the details when it looks the same as it always
has, so reframing that, I think brought attention to them that people just
hadn't paid before, or hadn't paid in decades. So, you know, it exalted them and
it was very -- it was really nice to see, it was nice to see that people were
excited about it.
And then that's when -- once that was, that project was over, that's when the
board kind of came to me and was like hey, why don't you join the board, we have
this opening for a recording secretary. And I'm like sure, why not, like I'm not
doing -- like I have the time, I have the energy, I can do it. So I started as
the recording secretary and then, in, I think in -- I'm not sure, I want to say
two years ago, three? No. I've been in the house three years, so about four
years ago, the president of the society, Alan Bonowitz passed away and Jack, who
is now the president, he was the vice president, he became the president, and so
they needed a vice president, so I was still on the board and I was still
active, so I took on that role when Jack stepped up to be the president.
Alan was also the caretaker of the building, so they were looking for that as
well. And my husband and I are pretty handy people, so I'm like we could do it.
There was a little bit of -- I mean it was a difficult transition because Alan
had been elderly, and so a lot of the physical tasks of taking care of a
hundred-plus-year-old building, had become too, you know, had become
understandably strenuous. So when we came in, there was initially a lot of work
to be done, a lot of cleaning and sorting and fixing and replacing, and
basically everything, to get it back to a clean and functioning place. It's
still kind of an ongoing process.
STRONG: Yeah. Just for the record, it's not just this building, which is the
STRONG: It's also the building next door, which, which is your home now.
STRONG: So tell me about both of those.
HAUGHWOUT: The caretaker's house, it's, it's lovely, it's a wonderful house. The
community purchased that house, I want to say about ten years after this
building, so they knew -- I don't know what their intentions were with it
initially, but I did find the paper. I think they, they bought it for like
$7,000 or something like that, it was some crazy thing, you know. It was like --
or maybe they took out a loan for $7,000, maybe that's what it was, but either
way, it was like a mind-blowingly low amount of money. I'm sure then it was like
a huge burden but it's just funny, to see that number on the piece of paper.
[laughter] But so yeah, so traditionally, the person who takes care of the, the
mosque, lives next door, and then this way we're always on call to do anything
that is required and kind of keep an eye on it, and that continues, you know, to today.
Even though there are fewer events, but like whenever there's any kind of event
or anything like that, we're always the first ones here, the last ones out. And
we're responsible for all of the grounds keeping that there is to do here. So
yeah. I, I love living here, it's like I said, it's always been a very peaceful
kind of a building and kind of a peaceful area, and I think that being here
helps us like chip away at all the things that need to be done for a hundred
some odd year old building, you know, because it's never, it's never over. It's
never like okay, we're done fixing, you know, it's always like okay, now that's
done, okay cool. Now we can start working on the toilets. Okay, now that's done,
okay now we can start fixing the floorboards. Okay now that's done, now let's
look at the heating.
You know and it's, it's an ongoing, always ongoing and hopefully improving,
because now that we've kind of fixed everything, now we're able to look at what
can we improve to make it like a more welcoming space. You know, we would like
there to be more events here, we'd like there to be more weddings here, and like
use it for celebrations, but you know, it's not quite there yet. We need a new
heating system, we need better lighting. These are things that we're just trying
to keep up with the time really.
STRONG: So, when you, when you started being the caretaker, you're at a point in
your life, you're about to have your first kid.
HAUGHWOUT: He was -- he had just -- when we moved in, he was four months old.
HAUGHWOUT: So we had a newborn. [laughter]
STRONG: And the house was in what state and what was the work there?
HAUGHWOUT: Not the state that you can bring a four month old in.
STRONG: Okay, tell me more. [laughter]
HAUGHWOUT: So, it was like I said, and I don't want to speak ill of the dead
obviously, they did -- Alan dedicated many, many decades of his life to
service to the mosque and I would never want to take away from that because
that's like his lasting impression is he had a wonderful impact on the
community. That being said, the house did, did fall into quite a bit of disarray
and it -- the smell, [laughter] there was, there was a lot of, there was a lot
of issues. So after his, his wife had, had moved in with their children, the
house was, was really left in kind of a rough state. So it took another probably
two months of, for my husband, full-time work, and for me, like nights and
weekends, of full-time taking stuff out. And like everybody we know in our whole
family, both sides of our family, had come in to like help take out rug and all
this flooring, and probably five dozen dishes that were just left in there, and,
and just a lot of, a lot of mess. It was a lot to, to do. I would say probably
it took at least six weeks before I felt comfortable bringing the baby in,
because of all the dust and asbestos and mold and everything that was going on.
So it was, it was a big rehab. It's -- I wouldn't say it was like temporary
housing, but the caretaker -- like Alan and his wife had been there for the
longest, I think that any caretaker had been in this position. So generally,
they'll -- the people who are the caretakers will live there for a couple of
years and then move on, you know a couple of years and then move on. So, it's
been in so many people's hands that it's, it's -- no one, I think felt like it
was their forever home, so it was being treated as such. Aand then we would find
these like horrible decisions that people would make, design decisions.
[laughter] Like there's, I know there's a skylight in the hallways upstairs
that's been painted over. It was stained glass at one point.
HAUGHWOUT: [laughter] And it's like why would you do that? Why would you do
that? And they tarred over the roof, so right over the glass. So I'm like, you
didn't even give me a chance, I could have done something with this, but there's
tar on the other side of this now so it's just there forever. And other like
structural damage things that were, were like -- you know, again my husband,
he's handy. He's not like a professional carpenter by any stretch, but he would
look at these things and be like what happened here, who did this to you?
[laughter] You know? And like there's a, there's -- even now, we're like okay,
we want to fix this lighting unit, we're like okay, do we really want to look at
what kind of wires are in there though, or do you just live with this until it
dies, [laughter] because there was like a mix of modern wires with like, what's
it called the, the tube, like the old fabric wires and you be like oh God, what
do I even do with that. And there's -- I mean again, it's like fun snooping that
I would get to do in the house, that I would -- the same thing I would get to do
In the basement over there, there's like all of these like crazy weird
treasures, like -- well first parking signs from -- I think I've got six
different versions of the No Parking sign from the street, [laughter] you know,
because you can't park in front of the mosque doors, in case there's an event or
something like that. So I think I've got like six different versions of that
sign, found in the basement somewhere, which is just like oh, that's a fun, New
York-y bit of history, that's cool. There's some pieces -- there was a -- it's
over here now, but it was like a thing that would go on top of a flagpole, like
a crescent -- it was a really heavy crescent moon and star.
I don't even know what metal it was, but it was like something extraordinarily
heavy, and we, we dragged it back over here, but it was, it clearly was like the
top of a, of a flagpole. There was a machete for some reason, there was -- when
we were doing the kitchen, there was a full on rat skeleton, like the full, like
science class rat skeleton. Yeah, I'll have to show you pictures of that.
[laughter] Like perfectly preserved too, like it didn't die in a struggle. It
had laid down to die after living a good long life and it was not disrupted for,
I don't even know, how long does it take for a whole corpse to decompose? I
don't even know, but that's how long it had stayed there. Because it was just
skeleton. Yeah, horrifying, but you know.
STRONG: And these things appeal to your snooping sensibilities.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. [laughter] Exactly. Well that one less so because that one,
[laughter] I let my brother in-law handle that one. But it was one of those just
like -- every -- when we were doing the house, every couple of days or every
couple of hours sometimes, one of us would call out, "Babe, come look!" I'd be
like do I want to? Like no, no, no, come here, come here, come here, come here.
One really cool one was that when we were doing the living room, my -- we pulled
up the floor, because we were hoping for hardwood but we did not find it. So we
pulled up, there's carpet on top of laminate, I think, on top of more laminate,
and once we finally got to the board, there was, pasted to the original
flooring, was the Dodgers win the World Series, front page cover of the
newspaper, of the Brooklyn Star. And it was like very -- like I wanted to, I
wanted to like peel it up or something, but there was nothing we could do to
like make it not be part of the floor because it had been so permanently there
for so many decades.
So we took good pictures of it at least, but we weren't able to save that. But
that was like, that was a very cool thing. I forgot the date but that was one of
those things where we pulled up and pasted -- and it looked like it was like
pasted over something, like they happened to just use that paper, you know it
just happened to be this historic, [laughter] you know, newspaper cover, because
it was like haphazardly, like diagonally kind of slapped on there. But it was
like yep, the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series. [laughter]
STRONG: That is a treasure.
STRONG: So, tell me more about your role as VP now and how it's different from
maybe what that role would have been in the past and how you've sort of made it
HAUGHWOUT: Well I think that being the caretaker and the vice president together
-- and like I'm here the most -- also has me being the one who corresponds to
people who have inquiries the most. So people who will call, I'm checking the
machine, but also like I responded, when I first got on the board, or when I
first became the caretaker? No, it was when I first joined the board, I was
looking for pictures of the building for some reason, for something or other,
online, and I saw somebody posted a picture from the blog, the "Islamicana" and
she had posted this article of like, does anybody know anything about this
place, it's like such a mystery, it's been here forever. She's like, I just want
to know more about it.
And I commented on the blog post and it wasn't -- like, I had commented like two
years after she had posted it initially, or something, something like that, and
I'm like, "I do, email me, come find me," and I like put my email address in
the, in the comments sections. And I said, I'm like yeah, I would love to talk
to you, I'm like I'm on the board and you know, come visit. You know? And from
that was like I really think that that was like the first time that anyone had
ever publicly, online, said anything about the mosque, because I've gotten so
many inquiries of like oh, hey, are you still part of this congregation, because
I see your email address on the Islamicana. I'm like yeah, that's me, yeah,
we're still here, come on over. You know so journalists and just interested
people, or people who knew that their parents or grandparents had some kind of
history to this organization, have all reached out to say, you know like oh, I
saw your email address on this thing.
So, I kind of became the default history person, the history -- you know
historian, of the mosque, because I'm the one who's answering the emails and
answering the inquiries and the phone calls, and often the one who's explaining
what we are and what we do. And I think it, it started because when I was in
college, I just had that kind of time, you know I could answer them, but now,
it's just like I'm kind of becoming the go to person to reach out to if you have
a question about our history or anything, anything that is going on here because
I'm just the one that's here all the time. [laughter] I'm the one keeping an eye
on the email inbox. So, but it's something that I enjoy doing, it's something
that like, I know I can contribute in this way and I have the patience to do it,
so that's the main -- that's the key ingredient.
STRONG: And that's, that's very different from what we were talking about
before, with this kind of insular nature, and you're just kind of going out and
doing it on your own. Have you gotten any kind of weird comments from the board
about educating the public or conducting outreach? What are their thoughts at
HAUGHWOUT: Yes, but not in a terribly negative way. So yes, there's definitely
been some members who are like what are you doing, don't, don't tell anybody
where we are -- particularly elderly members. And then there's inevitably some
people who are like but then they'll be able to find you on Google, and I'm
like, um, they already can. And like I think that when we showed them what
Google Maps was, probably five years ago, and like that we're labeled, and we
were labeled as, we were still labeled as the American Mohammedan Society,
because that's what our name was decades ago, and like nobody had claimed the
business. I did, I've done that since then. But they're like, they're like,
"They have pictures of our building!" I'm like, "They have pictures of every
building, like in the, in the planet, on the whole planet." And that was a very
-- that was a bit of an awakening of like the Internet is not a -- I mean, yes,
it's a scary, horrible place, [laughter] but it doesn't have to be. It can be
used for good too. So I think that that was, it's -- they're slowly coming
around to understand that it's a tool that we can use to our favor, including
now, we have a website, which is amazing. It only took us until 2018. [laughter]
STRONG: Tell me about your website.
HAUGHWOUT: My husband made it, so definitely not like a professional programmer
or anything like that, but it's, it's modest. We're still tinkering with it,
just you know a calendar and our, like a history, and links to the articles that
we've been in, which is literally dozens at this point, because people are
actually interested in the history of Muslims in America, which we are it.
[laughter] We are actually, you know, we're at least a large part of it anyway,
a piece of it, let's say that, we're a piece of the history of Muslims in
America. And you know, there's probably, yeah, as I've said, there's probably a
dozen articles that mention us by name and like talk about our significance,
and, and I want to share that and history, in things that like the Brooklyn
Historical Society has shown us, that we didn't even know about our own history,
about the history of the building and about the history of you know, the noise
complaints [laughter] from before it was a mosque.
You know, it's a funny little tidbit that I think people really like, and I
think that as there's an interest, a growing interest in people's ancestry and
family history and things like that, and people want to find out more about
where their family comes from, we're going to be even more of a resource for
that, because we do have records of every member who has ever been a part of our
society since 1907, you know, pretty much, which is you know, amazing, that
we've been able to keep that sort of thing. Not that that would be on the
website, but they would be able to find us through that, you know? Like we're
not going to publish every birth certificate, marriage certificate or anything
like that, but we will be able to say like yes, we've been here since this date,
and if you think that you had a Muslim, or a Tatar ancestor come through
Brooklyn, they probably were here at some point. You know, like we probably knew
them, so come reach out, come, come visit. Come donate.
STRONG: [laughter] A new heating system, hint, hint.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, yeah, speaking of, [laughter] it kicks on right then, that's perfect.
STRONG: Yeah. Well this reminds me, I actually copied your email that you sent,
saying that you wanted to say a few words about like the future and you know,
how old this community is, your relationship in that line of history. Whatever
you would like to say would be great. I've got it here if you want to --
HAUGHWOUT: What did I say?
STRONG: -- freshen up on it. But I mean, not that you need to read it word for
word, I have the email for posterity.
HAUGHWOUT: Oh, yes.
STRONG: But that general idea, you said it was important for you to share.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. And this is something that kind of only dawned on me recently,
is that I, I joined, in my early twenties, and I know a lot of the elderly
members joined around the same time, because that's kind of like what you did,
you know it was expected.
STRONG: In their early twenties you mean, their early twenties.
HAUGHWOUT: Their early twenties, not the early -- yes. So, it was kind of just,
you know, expected that you take on these roles. And thinking of like my aunt
Rose, who came on, I want to say in the '40s, you know and she's -- well, I
won't name her -- she may not want her age to be known, but let's say she's well
up there. [laughter]
STRONG: She was here in the '40s, that says plenty.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, exactly, and she's still on the board, she's still an active
member of the board, God bless her, and if -- I, I want to be able to plan and,
and proceed in such a way that they did back in those days, where they had the,
the long game in mind, where they weren't just planning on the next six months
or five years, they were planning on 2018, which is probably a year they
couldn't even really comprehend. And I kind of put that in perspective for
myself, said okay, yeah, I also joined the board in my, my late twenties, and if
I'm going to stay here for like aunt Rose years, that means I'm staying here
until 2077, and that's an absurd thing to think about, but it's a really healthy
exercise, because it gets you out of that frame of just planning for right now
and thinking about like what are my grandkids going to get out of this place,
you know what, what, does a community 50 years from now, need from a mosque, or
from a historic structure, from a historic cultural center.
Like thinking of it in those terms is, is very humbling and I think that that's
probably -- that may be what they thought at the time, you know like they, they
definitely had a long-term view in mind, because when they purchased the
building, they also purchased acres and acres of land in a cemetery in Queens.
Well, two cemeteries, but a huge parcel of land in Queens that I don't even -- I
don't even know the number of how many graves it could fit. I don't know if they
knew at the time, how many graves it would fit, but they were planning for
hundreds of people to be part of this community and then ultimately, you know
pass away part of this community and all go to the same place.
So like that forethought is astounding, and I want to be able to live up to that
and like I want to be able to keep that tradition going, where something I do
now could possibly impact somebody 70 years from now, which is again, like a
crazy thing to wrap your head around. But if, if you know, God grants us the
ability to stay open through the next couple of years, if not decades, then I
want to be making the right decisions for the direction of you know, where this
whole congregation is going and what it's going to be used for. So, yeah.
STRONG: And at some point, you know, you, your generation, gets to decide. It's
wonderful that the older generations are still so involved but what do you think
will happen, what do you think will be different?
HAUGHWOUT: Well, we need more of the younger generation, aside from myself,
because I'm, I'm it, I'm the only one. So I think bringing -- there's -- there
is a lot of interest, not necessarily in physically coming here every month for
a board meeting, but like in the Tatar community globally, like Facebook is an
amazing tool, because like I'm part of this youth Tatar group of North America
and you know, like there's -- it's good to see that there's momentum elsewhere
throughout the country and, you know in the, in Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania
as well, of the younger generation, my generation, and hopefully even younger
generation, the generation that we're having. [laughter]
But like it's, it's good to see it, but I, I -- we've got to figure out how to
like leverage that and make it be part of the community and how it can help us
in a literal way, not just like an oh, that's interesting, like oh, you have a
mosque in Brooklyn, cool, you know, from across the country. But you know,
figuring out how to make that part of sustaining this place. I don't know how
yet but I think that going in a direction where we are a cultural center,
because even, even without the religious aspect, or if you downplay the
religious aspect, people are interested in the history. I'm religious but I'm
not picky about what people choose to use this place for. You know like that's
what I would get, that's what I get out of it, and that's what my family gets
out of it, but if somebody who doesn't identify as being Muslim any more, wants
to like come and visit and see the history, or come to a cultural event, a
cooking class or whatever kind of celebration we have, that's just as valid, you
know? I'm, I'm happy just to have them here.
STRONG: Tell me a little bit about the, the religious aspect at this point, you
know how are, how are services, who's the imam, how are practices evolving,
anything like that.
HAUGHWOUT: Well like I said, it's definitely dwindling for religious services,
and I think that that's part of an overall trend of like people not having
religion be as big a part of their life as it was 50 years ago. Our imam is a
wonderful guy named Imam Ahmet [Yuceturk 1:38:39]. I forget his last name. His
-- his day job is actually he's the imam at Terminal 4 at JFK [John F. Kennedy
International Airport], the international, you know flights, at JFK. So that's
what his like day gig is, and then when we have services or a funeral or
anything else like that, he'll come out to us. He's not Tatar but he's very much
adopted our ways, or at least is very good-natured about doing things the way
that we've been doing them.
He's very respectful about kind of like what we talked about before, where
somebody might come in and say you're doing it wrong, he's much more of like a
student of like oh, this is how you do it, that's really interesting, okay. We
do it this way but this is your mosque, so I'm going to do it that way. You
know, so he's very flexible and very understanding and respectful of the ways
that we've grown to do things. And he, he does he -- he'll like, he -- I enjoy
his sermons quite a bit, because also he does them in English and in Arabic,
where, whereas I know a lot of people won't, just won't do it in English, and
it's like oh, you should just understand Arabic. Like, so, you know that's
another, another thing where it's like refreshing and, and really nice, but
again, there's not that many people here to hear it, so again, bringing, trying
to bring more people around. What was the other part of the question?
STRONG: I think you got all of it.
STRONG: The follow-up was going to be, I'm curious about your, your family,
because you mentioned marriage within the community is no longer mandatory. How
did you meet your husband, what faith is he, how do you guys handle that with
HAUGHWOUT: We met in college. He is without religion, adamantly so, [laughter]
but good-natured about it you know. We agreed to raise the kids Muslim and he
will just give them alternatives should they, should they seek them. And I was
-- I mean I was never like pushed into religion, like I know some people are.
Like we didn't, like I said, we didn't have classes, we didn't have, you know,
any kind of compulsory education about it. I kind of found my way, my own way
here, and I'm not -- I don't feel like I was pressured into doing it. So, if
they feel like they want to do something else, I wouldn't be, you know
devastated by it, but I think just being part of the - like, they're, they're
part of the building at this point, because at least Dexter, the older one, you
know, we moved here when he was four months old, so he's basically at every
meeting and he's basically at every -- he's literally at every service. So
they've you know, watched him grow and watched -- he, he has it as part of his
regular life, you know as part of his routine, and if there were classes, I
would like to enroll him, I would like to have him to have that, what I didn't
have, but again it's, it's not something that I would push on him or anybody. [laughter]
And I know other members of my family who are not -- who have either completely
walked away and said like, you know, this isn't for me, and I would never hold
that against them. Maybe they think it's weird, how much I've gone into it, I
don't know, but it's you know, it's not -- like I said, it's not something that
was ever so forced that it like became a weird rebellion or anything like that
because it wasn't. It just wasn't an issue.
STRONG: How do you do your own holidays and unique family things at home? Are
they like when you were a kid, do you still have a birthday bush?
HAUGHWOUT: Oh yeah, the birthday bush. Yes. [laughter]
STRONG: What, what -- how do you make it your own?
HAUGHWOUT: So when we were little, my birthday is Christmas Eve and my parents
did -- and my brother's birthday is [date redacted for privacy]. And my parents,
I think felt a little bad that we didn't have, you know, a December holiday to
celebrate Christmas cheer, so we would always get a birthday bush and decorate
it. There's really, like inexplicably, Santa would come and probably give us a
present or two, but that --
STRONG: Birthday presents.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, exactly, a birthday present. He's just a nice guy like that.
[laughter] But it was a very, you know, it was like a, a cultural thing, and I
think -- I don't -- I think that my grandparents did that too. I really think
that my grandparents got Christmas decorations. I know they did. They had
Christmas decorations, and like got Christmas trees, because again it was like
American. It wasn't even like a Christian thing, because they wouldn't
participate in Christian things, they wouldn't actively -- you know, avoid the things.
Like my mom wasn't allowed to be in Girl Scouts because it was too Christian,
but they got a Christmas tree because that was American, that's what their
perception was anyway. So now, yes, we still do that, we still, we, we -- my
husband's family is not particularly Christian, but there's a hist-- hmm, I
guess they were a couple of generations ago, they were Christian, so there's
like a tradition of like you know, Christmas dinner, Christmas Eve dinner, that
we'll still do, and it's not -- I think that his family, my in-laws, have been
again, really loving and accepting of like the, the grandkids being raised
Muslim and not being weird about that, because they -- I'm lucky. They don't
really have strong feelings on religion, so it wasn't a fight. [laughter] I know
that's a really sticky situation in a lot of families, but they were kind of
just like oh, okay, yeah that makes sense. [laughter]
But yeah, I mean we kind of -- we don't -- we have -- we kind of downplay. I
don't think there's anything that's hugely like non-negotiable holiday, you
know, anything that's crazy like that, so I think we're, we're kind of lucky
about things like that. But yeah, they've been good about it and we'll see, kind
of how, as the kids get older, see what their classmates -- I'm curious to see
what their classmates' view of their religion is, if anything, you know. Growing
up in the city is going to be, you're going to meet Muslim kids, that's -- you
know it's not like -- it's not going to be an anomaly I don't think. So we'll
see how, we'll see how, how that goes.
STRONG: And I guess they're still pretty young, but like fasting, prayer,
Qur'anic studies, anything like that in their future?
HAUGHWOUT: I don't know. I mean like I, I observe Ramadan to a point, like I
always will make -- like we -- okay, backing up a second.
HAUGHWOUT: There's not so much a taboo about drinking in Tatar culture as there
is in other Islam, you know, in other cultures of Islam, because Russians like
vodka, I'm just going to say it. [laughter] So you know, okay, so that's, that's
again, a cultural difference. And even like the most religious people that I
know, like in my family, my grandparents were like the high bar of you know,
being religious, drank regularly, you know. So it's not something that like
we've ever even been made to feel bad about. You know like we would never drink
here in the mosque, we would never drink on a holiday, because that's like a
respectful line, but also, it's never been an expectation that we wouldn't drink ever.
So that being said, for Ramadan, I don't drink or you know, try and do
everything good, like extra, be extra good, you know giving alms and doing all
that stuff, and I would want to pass on that to my kids. And the idea that what
I get out of it now, as an adult, is like I cannot drink for 30 days and I can
do all these things, and that will show me that I can be a better person the
rest of the time. You know, like if I can be this good now, why aren't I this
good six months from now, or you know, I'm stronger than my vices, I'm stronger
than my inclinations or my habits, you know, so that's kind of the takeaway from it.
And then also there's of course, the aspect of see how people who are less
fortunate live, which I know is a -- it's a big part of the, the holiday in
general. But like fasting is very unhealthy and I've gotten sick the last two,
three times that I've tried. I've gotten like terribly sick from trying to, to
do it, so I stopped doing that.
STRONG: Certainly this year it would be --
HAUGHWOUT: Yes. Yeah, certainly. So, yeah, nursing and fasting don't work
together, so. But like I did -- I think my longest stretch was senior year of
high school, I went two weeks and then I like collapsed. Then the last time I
tried, I think it was the next year or two years after that, and like I was just
racked with migraines and I'm like this, this is not the way a body should work.
God bless you if you can do it, but this is not the way my body functions, so
I'm going to stop now. But withholding other, withholding other things can --
there are other ways to keep yourself humble without fasting, I think, and to
check yourself and remember that you are privileged and you should share your --
what you have.
So, as long as you can keep that in mind, then I think you're doing Ramadan
okay, and that's what I would want to pass on to my kids, the sentiment of it,
not necessarily -- we won't all get to it the same route, but that's the end game.
STRONG: [laughter] I just, for the record, I realized, whoever listens to this
won't be able to see us. We are both eight months pregnant. [laughter]
STRONG: Enjoying cookies in the kitchen of this beautiful mosque, which does
indeed look like something out of the '30s, I would say.
STRONG: And you know, you've taken incredibly good care of this space, it really
looks in beautiful shape.
HAUGHWOUT: Thank you.
STRONG: But it does remind me of walking into my, my grandmother's --
HAUGHWOUT: That's always what I say, it looks like someone's grandmother's like
basement, or someone's grandmother's house.
HAUGHWOUT: That's very much, that's the, that's the vibe we're going for here. [laughter]
STRONG: To, to have preserved that, I think is really wonderful. So, I guess as
we come to a close of this interview, is there anything that I, that I should
have asked you? I know there's a lot of details we skipped over. I'll just take
a look at my notes, while you were thinking.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, please. Yeah, please.
STRONG: In case there's anything major. But you know, has anything come to mind
while we were talking, that you would really like to share, that maybe we didn't
even talk about over the phone a few days ago.
HAUGHWOUT: No, I don't think so. I think we talked, we covered a lot of ground.
STRONG: We covered a lot of ground. [laughter] You were very thorough today.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah. I don't know, I think sitting, sitting in here, my brain
automatically goes to like a to do list.
STRONG: So you have things to do.
HAUGHWOUT: Well, no it's like, like okay, what do we -- what do we need to do in
the kitchen, like okay, we need to fix the drop ceiling, we need to fix the
fluorescent lighting, we need to take down the wallpaper, which is peeling, and,
and we need a new coat of paint back here.
STRONG: I would miss the wallpaper.
HAUGHWOUT: Well you know what, the wallpaper actually hasn't even been here my
whole life, because I remember it used to be green in here. So this, this is
probably only 30 year-old wallpaper. [laughter]
STRONG: No need to get sentimental about it.
HAUGHWOUT: Yeah, yeah. Everything else, everything else is yeah. But --
STRONG: What's the to-do list for the prayer space upstairs, which is again, a
beautiful green space, lush carpet, and then the, the paintings of, I guess
former students, that you restored, up on the walls. But what, what's the future
of that space?
HAUGHWOUT: The, the main, the main ticket item is heat, air conditioning,
because the, the heating that we have right now, I call them the fire breathers.
They are these big gas, fire powered heaters, with a fan, which are scary and
loud, and we can't even keep them on in the winter because you can't hear the
imam over how loud they are. So you either freeze or you can't hear, so that
doesn't make the space very functional any longer. And then it's the opposite
problem in the summer, where we have the giant fan from 1934, literally, where
it's so loud -- there's no air conditioning -- so it's so loud that you have to
turn the fan off and keep the doors open, but if you go on too long then you're
either sweating or freezing. [laughter]
And that's not good for, you know, we're trying to archive things and keep
things -- you know, keep the integrity of the, the building. When you're
drastically changing the temperature every single year, things are going to get
a little wonky. So, some kind of temperature control throughout. There's no
heating or air conditioning in the office, there's no heating or air
conditioning in the back room over here, where the ladies room is. It's just
space heaters and hopes and dreams. You know, it's like -- so that's something
that has been a conversation for literally my whole life, because I remember
this conversation happening when my parents were on the board, before they quit
because it was too frustrating, to get anything through, that it's such a big
expense that no one can ever justify it, but we're just running out of money.
We're not bringing in the amount of money that we need to sustain forever, so
it's, it's getting harder to justify a huge purchase, a huge investment, when
you're like watching that, that number kind of go down and down and down. But
then we won't sustain if we can't have modern -- some degree of modernization to
the building. No one is going to use the space for anything if it's so
uncomfortable that you can't sit in here for any period of time, unless it's
like spring or fall and it happens to be nice out, like it is today, you know?
It's, it's a good temperature, so we're not you know, terribly uncomfortable in
here. But like, we have a coat rack of shawls because that's the solution that,
that was -- that we came up with. "Oh, is it too cold for you, here put more --
we're not going to fix the heat, put a shawl on." [laughter] You know?
Like, so, we're just trying to -- every year is a struggle to try to convince
the board that this is necessary for our survival. And I think we're getting --
I think we're getting closer, I hope we're getting closer, showing them all the
things that we can do, that we can offer other people if we were to make the
space a little more comfortable, I think is helpful. We've had a couple of
people, film crews, use the building for holding areas. Did you ever see that?
It was like they film on this block all the time, like people, TV shows, Blue
Bloods, and like all these NBC shows. We'll get random calls every couple of
months, that were like hey, we want to use your building because we're shooting
down the block, can we use your building for catering. I'm like yep, yep you
can, come on in.
STRONG: Funding, thank you.
HAUGHWOUT: Exactly. [laughter] So we've done, we've done that twice before, and
a couple -- we've had more inquiries but they haven't -- it hasn't worked out.
But like they filmed Elementary across the street, that like Sherlock Holmes
show, and it worked out because again, it was like in spring and people could
come in here and chill. But I'm like imagine if like it was the wintertime,
they'd go -- they keep going to Grace Church a couple of blocks away. I'm like
we're so much bigger than Grace Church, we can hold so many more people. If we
only had heat, they would want to be here. [laughter] You know? So, it's, I
think seeing that is like an, oh, yes, this is like an actual thing that can
show results. It was helpful, so hopefully. And then there's like a whole grant
road that we're all afraid to go down because it's so much work.
HAUGHWOUT: And so scary. But I think that's probably going to be another one of
those things where it's just like suck it up and figure it -- find somebody who
can help us write a grant for this, because aside from just the initial
installation and everything, like a lot of plumbers don't even want to touch
historic buildings. Like a lot of people don't -- it's like too big of a job
almost. They're like, you definitely have asbestos and I don't want to deal with
that. You definitely have structural issues. Not really but you know, like
there's going to be something and they don't want to deal with it, and I'm like
there's got to be somebody who does this, somewhere in Brooklyn.
HAUGHWOUT: And there are. They're just going to charge you your whole, your
whole -- all the money that you have. So, that's the, that's the, that's the
next big thing that we're working on and have been working on for a couple of
STRONG: Your parents quit the board because it was too frustrating?
STRONG: What's that story?
HAUGHWOUT: [laughter] Well, they were on the board for, I don't know how many
years -- a couple of years, when I was little, but they kind of came up against
that wall of the older generation saying like no, we shouldn't open our doors,
we shouldn't let anybody know we exist basically. And that, that argument,
because I think it got -- it definitely got very heated. Like I remember as a
kid, people like yelling at these board meetings, they got like heated; there's
a, you know, gavel and a podium, and they actually used it. You know now it's
just like collecting dust because Jack's like all right guys, calm down,
[laughter] and we're like okay.
But it's much, it's much more like civil now, but there were, there were times
where like my dad and these other people, you know older members, would go like
head to head about trying to sustain the mosque, and my dad, who is financially
minded, like he, he is very logistical and knows what we would need to do to
thrive, and they would just absolutely like nay say everything and be like no,
we can't, we're -- it's not safe, we can't do that. And my dad and mom
eventually were like no, I'm not going to lose my temper in the mosque, I'm not,
I'm not going to yell in the mosque any more, this isn't right. You are wasting
my time, if you want to drive this into the ground that's on you. I mean they
didn't, but I think that that was -- my, my dad is also kind of used to getting
his way, so. [laughter] So, I could see that being a bit of an issue.
STRONG: Do you think they loosened the jar for you? Because you're starting to
make progress in some of these issues now.
HAUGHWOUT: Maybe, yeah, I think that, and then I think also, that they just are
getting tired of fighting. So, they -- we -- our side sent in more troops and
they're just like I don't want to make this argument again, [laughter] you know?
But we are. And like, and like you said earlier, we're, we're starting to like
gather steam and you know, my aunt and I are kind of like a strong front, I
think, for that progressive idea of what it -- what we could be.
STRONG: Your aunt Marion?
STRONG: Yeah. There's a lot of aunts, so just thought I'd ask.
HAUGHWOUT: Sorry, yeah, no that's totally valid. [laughter] I think of everybody
as, I refer to as my aunt.
HAUGHWOUT: But yes, my aunt Marion and I, I think are, are pushing that forward
and hopefully can continue to do so and get more people on our side, and get
people, more people who are on our side, to come to the board meetings,
[laughter] you know? So.
STRONG: So, yeah. Unless there's anything else, I think that's a great place to
wrap up and --
STRONG: -- thank you so much for your time and, and your cookies. [laughter]
HAUGHWOUT: Of course. Of course, yeah, thank you for coming out.
STRONG: Of course.
Oral History Interview with Alyssa Haughwout
Alyssa Haughwout was born in 1984 in Queens and raised in Long Island. Her family frequently traveled into the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn throughout her childhood to attend their Tatar community's Brooklyn Moslem Mosque, which had been founded following the group's immigration from Eastern Europe throughout the early 1900s. She first served on the mosque's board with her aunt, Marion Sedorowitz (interviewed for this collection on April 11, 2018) while working toward a master's degree in art and design education from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She eventually became the board's vice president as well as the caretaker of the mosque.
In this interview, Alyssa Haughwout discusses her community's Tatar heritage and Muslim faith, especially regarding their founding of the Brooklyn Moslem Mosque in 1907, unique language and religious practices, concerns about assimilation, and recent shifts from their traditional handling of gender roles. She also talks about her own relationship with her Muslim identity, including her deeper exploration of Islam in college, work as caretaker of the mosque's building and historical artifacts, concerns about Islamophobia, and experiences as a white Muslim woman. In addition, she touches on generational friction within the board over modernization of the mosque, her family's deep roots in the community, and her appreciation of interfaith celebrations. Interview conducted by Liz H. Strong.
This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.
CitationHaughwout, Alyssa, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, April 25, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.16; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- American Mohammedan Society (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Brooklyn Moslem Mosque (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Haughwout, Alyssa
- Sedorowitz, Marion
- Building management
- Cultural pluralism
- Islamic education
- Muslim women
- Tatar Americans
- Tatar language
- Technology and older people
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Williamsburg (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories