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The Giglio Feast

Jun 30, 2015 10:00 AM | 2 comments

Every July a few typically sleepy residential streets in Williamsburg erupt into a festival of lights, food, music, and parades.  This is, of course, the annual celebration sponsored by Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, also known as the Giglio Feast. Since so many of us have enjoyed the sights and sounds (and funnel cakes) of this week-long event, it is only prudent that we take a moment to look into the origin and history of this Italian-American tradition.

The Giglio Feast celebrates a selfless act of bravery by Bishop Paolino, who lived in the small Italian city of Nola in the early 5th century. The city was invaded by pirates in 410 AD, and although the Bishop escaped, he returned to find that many of the city’s young men had been sold into slavery. The Bishop offered himself to the pirates in exchange for the release of one of the men, the son of a local widow. The pirates accepted and took the Bishop prisoner instead. The tale of his courage reached the ears of a Turkish ruler, who was so moved by his sacrifice that he arranged for the Bishop’s freedom. 

When he returned to Nola he was greeted by the townspeople carrying lilies. Gigli, Italian for lily, traditionally represented love and purity and came to symbolize the Bishop’s selflessness. The procession of lilies became an annual event in Nola, with local merchants competing for the most elaborate display. 

Giglio Feast, mid 19th century. Brooklyn Daily Eagle photo.

Centuries later, the Nolani began immigrating to the United States, many settling in Williamsburg. The Giglio Feast was one of the many traditions brought across the Atlantic, celebrated for the first time in 1903. The Feast was organized by the local mutual aid society, Società M.S. San Paolino until 1954, at which point it was taken over by a local church, The Shrine Church Of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. 

Giglio Feast attendees, 1989. Photograph by Anders Goldfarb.

Since 1954 the Feast has been combined with a second traditional feast honoring Our Lady of Saint Carmel. Celebrated in July, the feast lasts for 12 days and includes religious ceremonies, a street fair, games, food and fundraising for the church. 

One of the important activities of the Feast is the “Questua” a tradition that begins at 5am, when loaves of bread are picked up from a local bakery. Over the next twelve hours volunteers walk for miles through the street, distributing bread to local families. The following day is Giglio Sunday, which begins with another procession to pick up important Feast participants and ends at the church for a special Giglio Mass. After a breakfast, it’s time for the lifting and procession of the Giglio. 

Lifting the Giglio, 1989. Photograph by Anders Goldfarb.

Over the years the Giglio has evolved into a 4 ton, 65 foot high pyramid of papier-mâché, styrofoam and flowers depicting saints, angels and on the top, Saint Paolino. The Giglio rests on a platform that also supports several musicians and their instruments. In front of a cheering crowd, 112 men lift and “dance” the Giglio to music provided by the band, including the Feast’s traditional song, “O' Giglio 'e Paradiso.” In addition to cheering on the lifters, Giglio Sunday attendees can expect a street fair with games, rides and food. 

This is a time for tradition, community and fun; a time for people who have moved away from Williamsburg to come home. This year’s festivities will kick off on Wednesday, July 8th with an opening night coronation Mass at the church followed by a candlelight procession. For a full schedule of the Feast events, check out their official website.  

Official Poster, 2015

If you have memories and mementos of Giglio festivals past, we hope you'll join us at the Leonard Branch Library in Williamsburg on the evening of Tuesday, July 14th or the afternoon of Saturday, July 18th.  We're inviting community members to contribute their photographs, newsletters, fliers, brochures -- anything that documents life in our borough -- to these scanning events so that we can add these pieces of our shared heritage to the historical record.  You don't have to limit yourself to items about the Giglio -- anything that reflects your life in Brooklyn is valuable for future historians!  Participants will receive a flashdrive with digital copies of the items they've shared.  You can learn more about the project on our blog, or visit our website for more information about how the project works.

Brooklyn Connections 2014-2015 Wrap-Up

Jun 23, 2015 10:10 AM | 0 comments

The 2014-2015 school year has proven to be yet another great year for Brooklyn Connections.  We're pleased to have served nearly 2,000 students in 76 classes from 33 schools in Queens, Manhattan and, of course, Brooklyn.

Throughout the year, the Brooklyn Connections staff continued to support students by teaching 21st century learning skills and aligning our skill-based lessons with the Common Core Standards. After students learned and understood the research skills, they completed a project that had a visual, oral and written component.  Students also visited the Brooklyn Collection at least once throughout the year.

Two Brooklyn Connections students. We're pleased to have Sydney (right) as our intern this summer!

Completed Projects
In July 2013, we were awarded a two-year grant for the creation of the David and Paula Weiner Social Movements Curriculum.  We researched and wrote an eight-module curriculum that focused on social movements in Brooklyn and New York City, ranging from child labor and labor unions to environmentalism and LGBT rights.  We piloted the modules in several classrooms and we’re looking forward to continuing to use the curriculum for years to come.  All eight modules are on our website.

We had the honor of working with the Department of Education this year on its new project, Teen Thursdays.  In collaboration with Brooklyn Public Library’s Youth and Family Services department, we hosted dozens of students in two of BPL’s branches -- Canarsie and Crown Heights -- where we taught research skills in an after-school setting.  Students researched filmaking in the 1920s and the Crown Heights Race Riots. You can see one of the completed projects here.

We’re continuing to add lesson plans, project packets and other resources to our website.  Check back soon for new material!

National History Day
National History Day (NHD) is a national competition for 6-12 grades focusing on American history.  We worked with three schools who entered the NHD competition at the Museum of the City of New York where Brendan and I were judges (note - we did not and were not allowed to judge our students’ projects).  While we didn’t have any winners this year, we are not defeated.  Our competitiveness is ever so heightened and we will see a winner next year!

NHD project about Walt Whitman: The Bard of Democracy

Celebration and Exhibition
This year we held two convocation ceremonies in the Central Library's Stevan Dweck Auditorium.  On May 8th we were honored to host two of our funders, the New York Life Foundation, which last year awarded us a two-year $400,000 grant, and Jon and Belle Weiner, who awarded us a two-year $100,000 grant to complete the David and Paula Weiner Social Movements Curriculum.  Our second convocation was held on May 22nd.  In total, we welcomed over 350 teachers, students, parents, and honored guests to the convocations.  Projects were put on display in the Dweck lobby and students presented their work on the Dweck stage. 

Students from St. Savior Catholic School presenting their Civil Rights projects at the convocation

This year’s exhibition “Our Brooklyn” showcases a sampling of our students’ work.  Research topics included neighborhood history, famous Brooklyn residents, landmarks, social movements, and more.  Students produced exhibit boards, models, plays, research papers, slideshows, movies, and scrapbooks.  The exhibition will be on display until September 5, 2015. 

Brooklyn Connections 2014-2015 exhibition

A few select student projects are also available on our website, including projects completed by students from Pratt Institute. 

Professional Development
This year we hosted seven teacher professional learning (PL) events.  Topics included immigration, LGBT, food, and the civil rights movement.  Over 180 teachers, paraprofessionals, coaches, and administrators attended our sessions. Next year we will once again host at least seven PL events, check back soon for our full calendar of events. In addition to our school year PL events, this summer -- along with BPL's Youth and Family Services department -- we will be offering teachers a two-week long professional learning seminar called "Teacher Lab."  This NYC DOE-approved, credit-bearing course will meet for 24 hours and carry two credits that can be applied toward a teachers' 30-and-above salary differential.

Attending and presenting at conferences continues to be crucial for our professional development and also informs the public and our colleagues about the Brooklyn Connections program.  We attended several conferences this year, including the National Council for History Education in St. Augustine where we informed our audience on how to conduct local history projects using archives and libraries. We also presented at the Museum of the City of New York’s Social Activism Conference and New York City Museum Educator Roundtable Annual Conference.

In the Media
In October, Brendan, our Education Coordinator, was featured on CUNY TV's Brian Lehrer Show where he spoke about one of our lesser-known collections, The Brooklyn Digest magazine, the Brooklyn Collection and Brooklyn Connections.


Finally, we’re pleased to debut our new Brooklyn Connections promotional video which was produced by Meerkat Media.

We're currently accepting partner school applications for the 2014-2015 school year. If you are or know a teacher, librarian or administrator in an elementary, middle or high school, please consider applying or forwarding the application. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @BKLYNconnect

The Garden of Damascus in the Heart of Brooklyn

Jun 16, 2015 11:00 AM | 0 comments

June is Immigrant Heritage Month and Brooklyn has long been a destination for new Americans. Shaped by historic waves of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews, Brooklyn grew from a smattering of Dutch hamlets to a bustling industrial center rich in cultural heritage. Today, Brooklyn remains a hub of immigrant life; home to communities of more recent immigrants from places such as China, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. BPL is doing storytelling workshops and art discussions at the end of the month, so come see us and celebrate our collective heritage! (Oh, and we have a great booklist up, too!)

New York City's Arab-American community is a culturally rich immigrant community that is sometimes overlooked, specifically the first waves arriving at the turn of the twentieth-century from Syria and Lebanon. Both Brooklyn and Manhattan boasted bustling neighborhoods full of food and clothes foreign to American audiences. Manhattan's neighborhood was called "Little Syria."

Incredibly diverse, this neighborhood, called "the Mother Colony” by many inside it, was a mix of people from all acorss the Arabic speaking world. Much like all immigrant communities, the early Arab-American community was identified as a single entity - Syrian. Yet, there was an incredible amount of regional diversity within the community. Ship manifests and census records listed residents as Turk, Arab, Syrian, Armenian, Assyrian, and sometimes Asian. Little Syria fit right in, as Lower Manhattan was also home to communities of Jews, Italians, and the vestiges of slowly dispersing Germans. 

"Food and Foreigners in New York." Harper's Weekly, 1900. Courtesy of NYPL. Captions read: A Sausage Factory on the East Side, Habib Assi the Syrian Chef, Where the Polish Jews do their Shopping

A large number of immigrants from the Arab world were coming to the United State seeking wealth and fortune, with the intention of returning to their homelands happy, wealthy, and wise. Many others had heard stories of the grandeur of the United States from those who exhibited their wares or culture (or from those who were exhibited) at World’s Fairs in Philadelphia (1976), Chicago (1893), and St. Louis (1904). Regardless of place of origin or reason for immigration, the newcomers created a vibrant neighborhood that was the talk of many a tourist.

In 1892, the New York Tribune reported: “It was a buzzing trading center and middle eastern bazaar transplanted to the first ward where the North and East rivers meet… it was the wellspring of Syrian peddling in America.” The colony, a mix of both American and Syrian costume and food, became not only a cultural center but a commercial one as well. Merchants would rent row houses and fill them with imported fabrics and furniture, while sending out peddlers with carts to entice the shoppers who were both immigrants and Americans.  

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 Oct 1905.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter also took a stroll through Little Syria and, in October of 1905, reported on the wonders of foreign fruit: "Stands piled high with melons and onions, tomatoes and okra and cucumbers and queer looking vegetables that one never sees in American markets occupy a large portion of the sidewalk to nobody's discomfiture, apparently, the dark skinned Syrians to whom they belong smoking placidly in the doorways." The Syrian Business Directory was created to help catalog all of the commerce in the area. And it wasn't only English-language papers that reported on Little Syria, as Arabic newspapers also began pop up, the first being Kawkab Amerika, published in 1892. Kawkab Amerika was the first Arabic newspaper in the country. The Kawkab Amerika was closely followed by Al-Hoda, which would move from Manhattan to Brooklyn and then back to Manhattan and be one of the most read Arabic dailies in the country during the early 1900s. 

The community also had smaller, local papers like The Caravan, which the Brooklyn Collection has on microfilm. This paper, focusing on Bay Ridge in the 1950s and 1960s, ran both international stories and local happenings. The Caravan is a fantastic place to look for information about the day to day life of the community.

The Caravan, 15 July 1953.

As this is the Brooklyn Collection, let's go to Brooklyn. There were folks who moved across the river early on, but large development projects (the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, for one) spurred greater numbers to leave the neighborhood. What’s more, many of the Mother Colony’s residents had, for two or three decades, been growing steadily wealthy. It was time for a new promised land across the East River. The Mother Colony was not left unoccupied, however. Until the latter half of the twentieth century one could still find shops and restaurants harkening back to a time when the streets bustled with the newly arrived.

The Arab American National Museum (located in Michigan) has a traveling exhibit about Manhattan's Little Syria that will soon be a part of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The exhibit will run from October 1st of this year until the 9th of January, 2017. You've got a lot of time, so go see it!

Brooklyn’s community settled in Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights with Atlantic Avenue (between Court and Hicks Streets) as the main thoroughfare. Restaurants, butcher shops, and places selling exotic merchandise lined the street. In the 1950s and 1960s, Atlantic Avenue was said to be “the Syrian shopping center of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey.” As of 1939, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a popular destination for Arabic films and various radio stations had programs in Arabic. 

Most of the early Arab-American immigrants were Christian and Catholic. Brooklyn, the "Borough of Homes and Churches," had many Syrian and Lebanese houses of worship, including Our Lady of Lebanon. Our Lady of Lebanon was founded in a brownstone on Hicks street and is now located in the old Church of the Pilgrims on Remsen and Henry. The congregation is Maronite, an eastern sect of Catholicism. Our Lady of Lebanon was designated a cathedral in 1977 and is the seat of the Diocese of St. Maron of Brooklyn (which covers the entire eastern seaboard). And, as a fun aside, Our Lady of Lebanon will be the temporary home of the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library during its time of transition.

Our Lady of Lebanon R.C. Church. Brooklyn Eagle, 1951. 

The community organized socially and politically during WWI and WWII. During the WWI the community organized a Boy Scout Troop and a branch of the Red Cross, both sited as a way to support the United States and declare their status as proud Americans. The Syrian American Club, Syrian Ladies Association, and Syrian Young Men's Association all organized parties and gatherings throughout the early and mid-twentieth century. 

And then there is the food! The famous Brooklyn institution Sahadi's opened in Manhattan in 1898 and has been selling Middle Eastern foods in Brooklyn since 1948. In 1945, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle profiled a confectionary shop run by Muneer Alwan and his four brothers, all immigrants from Damascus.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 13 May 1945.

The brothers made candy and sent half of every batch to service men overseas. Muneer talked about the close knit neighborhood: "Moslem-Christian understanding has never been a problem on Atlantic Ave. The Alwans are friendly with their next door neighbor, John Rizk, a Christian Syrian who is proprietor of a restaurant on Atlantic Ave. where the specialty is sheeshkabab, lamb on skewers, some think like the American barbecue." Atlantic Avenue, between Court and Hicks Streets, was said to be the one of the "largest Syrian business sections in the East." Hard to imagine a time before sheeshkabab. 

Fresh From Bakery. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1948. 

Urban renewal and rising rents forced many Syrians out of their Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights homes. Bay Ridge was quickly becoming the new center of community life, as development projects in the late 1950s had created a wealth of housing options and travel was easy via subway.

In 1924, with the Johnson-Reed Act, the United States severely limited immigration from Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. Syria, Palestine, and Turkey were all given quotas of 100. Thus, all immigration drastically slowed during the 1930s - early 1960s. In 1965, with the Hart-Celler Act, the United States lifted its quota system based on race, which allowed new waves of Middle Eastern immigrants to enter the country. They moved to areas in which their language and culture was already rooted: Bay Ridge and the surrounding neighborhoods. A key difference was the bulk of the new arrivals were Muslim. Thus, a new community began to grow and prosper, just as the previous had. 

New York City is a city of immigrants. We are diverse in language, religion, cultural customs, and dress. This is the month to celebrate that diversity and relish in the global experience we have every time we walk out the door. 

Our Streets Our Stories: Community Scanning Events

Jun 11, 2015 11:00 AM | 0 comments


In collaboration with the Metropolitan New York Library Council and Queens Library, the Brooklyn Collection will spend the next year hosting an exciting new project. As a recent winner of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge, “Culture in Transit” will be working to democratize the cultural heritage of New York City. Here in Brooklyn, we will be operating under the name “Our Streets Our Stories,” working closely with Brooklyn Public Library's ongoing oral history project of the same name. 

Our Streets Our Stories has a simple objective: to provide community members with the tools and technology to share their Brooklyn memorabilia and culture heritage materials with the world. Many items that can help tell Brooklyn’s story are sitting forgotten in apartments and basements all over the borough, being lost due to improper storage conditions and neglect. We want to encourage patrons to dig out these items and bring them to the library. We're looking for materials like photographs, fliers and documents from Brooklyn families, businesses, block parties, community organizations, and anything else that tells the story of Brooklyn.

Our mobile ditization lab, all packed and ready to go!

What makes this project different is that we're not looking to keep your items, just a digital copy. Here's how the project will work: Focusing on one neighborhood each month, we bring a mobile digitization lab (scanner, laptop and camera) to library branches and invite neighbors to bring in these items. Patrons don’t need any technical background; all scanning will be handled by us and our volunteers. Once digitized, all items will be returned to the patron, including a flash drive with digital copies. Patrons will also be invited to share copies with the Digital Public Library of America and on BPL’s own digital catalog.

Our Streets Our Stories isn't just about digital preservation. We want community members to be active participants in the effort to shape Brooklyn's history. By contributing and sharing materials they are choosing how their neighborhood will be represented and remembered, playing an important role in the democratization of culture heritage. This is a great opportunity to meet neighbors, share stories and engage with local history in a unique way. 

Scanning at the Brooklyn Collection

Our first scanning event is scheduled to coincide with Williamsburg's annual Giglio Feast, a weeklong celebration hosted by Our Lady of Mount Carml that dates back to the neighborhood's first Italian immigrants. The Leonard Library will be hosting us from 6 - 8pm on Tuesday, July 14th and 11am - 3pm on Saturday, July 18th. In addition to scanning, we will offer our donors the opportunity to participate in the Our Streets Our Stories oral history project, sponsored by the Department of Outreach Services. 

In the coming months we will be hosting scanning events at braches all over the borough; here's what we have planned so far:

July 14th and 18th: Leonard Library

August 29th: New Lots Library

September 30th and October 3rd: Kings Bay Library

October 20th and 24th: Flatbush Library

We hope to see you there! Don’t forget to keep up with our progress by following us on Twitter.