This post is about a walking tour of the Hasidic area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn – given by a former member of the community – on WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 22nd. The tour will begin in Williamsburg at 10am for approximately two-and-a half hours at which time the group will go to a local Hasidic restaurant for lunch. Capacity will be limited; tickets are $35. per person not including lunch.
THE HIPSTERS and the HASIDIM: There’s a common saying about New York: “It’s all about real estate.” And one of the most extreme manifestations of this statement is the juxtaposition in Williamsburg, Brooklyn of the city’s cooler-than-cool and a group of the City’s most devout. For many years before the neighborhood was “discovered” by the city’s creative classes, Williamsburg had long been home to a religious group, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect of Satmar Jews.
The Williamsburg Satmar sect was created in New York in 1946 by the then newly-arrived Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum whose original group from Satu-Mare (Yiddish: Satmar), Romania had been destroyed in the Holocaust. Teitelbaum believed strongly in the separation of religion and state and the establishment of an independent, largely self-regulated, community which could be, as much as possible, isolated from the outside world. He advocated that only Yiddish be spoken in the community, that they have their own education system and newspaper and book publishing concerns. Women are restricted with respect to dress (covered heads, long sleeves and opaque stockings), education (women are not allowed to read the Torah in Hebrew) and behavior (arranged marriages and the expectation of having children early and as often as possible). The men are no less restricted. The Satmars are distinctly different from another large, ultra-Orthodox Jewish group also based in Brooklyn, the Chabad Lubavitchers in a number of ways – one of which is their strong opposition to Zionism (the modern establishment of a Jewish state) because of their belief that Israel is a secular state, not a religious one created by the Messiah. Not surprisingly, post-World War II, after the horrors of the Holocaust were fully revealed and the modern state of Israel was created in 1948, this was often regarded as a contrarian position.
So, given the extreme nature of these views, what better place to settle in 1946 than in a largely forgotten, largely industrial neighborhood of Brooklyn which was being abandoned by the middle-class in their post-war white flight to the suburbs? For almost 50 years, this worked very well with relatively few non-Jews settling in Williamsburg and the Satmars maintaining it as a stable, albeit isolated, neighborhood. Today, the Satmars are the world’s largest Hasidic group (with estimates ranging from 70,000-120,000+members); in addition to Williamsburg, in 1974 the group purchased land and developed a community in upstate Orange County called Kiryas Joel.
But starting in the 1970’s and picking up a head of steam in the mid-1990’s, artists and other creatives started moving to Williamsburg as housing costs in both Soho and the East Village were rapidly rising – and because the neighborhood was one subway stop from Manhattan on the then little-used “L” train. After the artists came other gentrifiers and real estate developers who created a wealth of restaurants, events and sites to make the neighborhood one of the City’s most popular destinations. The “L” train is now NYC’s most-travelled subway line. This has been hugely unsettling to the Hasidim who sought isolation and regard the influx of non-Jews as a plague. Bitter tensions have arisen over housing costs, boisterous events and also the dress and decorum of the newer residents and visitors. Political issues have revolved around the City bike lane which ran down the main artery, Bedford Avenue, into the Hasidic area with it being painted, blacked out and repainted. Other issues are the largely Hasidim-used but public B110 bus and also the lack of public prosecution for crimes committed by Hasidim. Boy, just your average NYC gentrification-financial-political-socio mess, no?
It is exceedingly difficult for non-Jews to understand the nature of this area and its inherent conflicts. If ever there was a unique New York neighborhood which required a guide, this is it and the MWC is fortunate to have the insight of Frieda Vizel, herself a former Hasid born and raised in Kiryas Joel who is a NYC licensed tour guide and also a graduate student in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. At a time when the Hasidim’s reclusive nature increasingly butts up against the modern world, Ms. Vizel offers unique insight into not just the community’s past, but also its present tensions. “My goal,” she said, “is to bring the culture down from this exotic place to a human level.”
Ms. Vizel will take the MWC through the core of Hasidic Williamsburg, roughly outlined by Broadway, Division Avenue, Heyward Street and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The MWC will be led through the neighborhood of shops, eateries, synagogues, schools and historical sites. More importantly, we will learn about the faith and value system of contemporary Hasidism, the history of Jewish Williamsburg, and the origin of Hasidism and its major sects, including Satmar. The traditions of Hasidic marriage and family, the cultures of Hasidic women, men and children, dress, language and education will be explored with an emphasis on understanding and learning.