Last time I was in NY four years ago I spent an afternoon wandering around the orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn. It blew my mind and ever since I’ve been keen to go back. But this time around, instead of Borough Park I chose another Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn in south Williamsburg.
Not only was it meant to be even more Hasidic than Borough Park. It also happened to sit right alongside a group of people with similarly strong but almost opposite beliefs – the hipsters. This I had to see.
Only one problem – Hasidic Jews aren’t exactly crazy about having their photos taken. Would I even get a single shot? And hipsters, well, they can be tricky too.
Turns out the hipsters were a pushover. The Hasidim, not. Like really not.
More of that later. First up, some facts … Way back in 1638 the Dutch West India Company bought the area from the local Native Americans. Fast forward to post-WWII when Hungarian and Romanian Hasidic Jewish Holocaust survivors arrived to escape Europe and start again, by building a shtetl of their own in South Williamsburg. They succeeded and the area is now almost exclusively ultra-orthodox Hasidic, and growing all the time – the average number of children is eight.
Part 1: To set the scene
They shoot a lot of movies in NY so you could be forgiven for thinking, as you head down from North Williamsburg and cross Broadway onto Lee Avenue, that you must’ve stumbled onto a movie set. A period piece with bearded men in black hats and long coats, and women, all looking strikingly the same with well-groomed hair, thick pale stockings and flat heels, pushing prams. Lots of prams.
But no. The sudden change of scene – from diverse, ‘whatever goes’ NYC to The Old World – is merely a sign you’ve hit the otherworldly world of South Williamsburg’s Hasidic Jews.
A few images to set the scene…
Part 2: The Hasidim and the hipsters
Okay, so that’s the south of Williamsburg. A monoculture of modestly dressed, extremely pious Hasidic Jews who are attempting to live in a world of their own it seems. Problem is, they’re actually living in one of the most densely populated and diverse cities in the world. Their neighbours to the north, for example, have a very different set of beliefs. At the core of them are two highly regarded tenets – wear as little as possible when the humidity and heat of a NY summer start to bite, and ride bikes whenever and wherever possible. Yes, I’m talking about the hipsters of course.
Just those two beliefs alone were enough to cause the Bike Lane Wars not so long ago, when the Hasidim could no longer turn a blind eye, or any eye for that matter, to the scantily clad female hipster whizzing through their part of Williamsburg on her fixed-gear. The Hasidim managed to get the bike lanes removed and in the process piss the hipsters off big time.
That was a while back but I can’t imagine these two groups get on very well nowadays. They don’t appear to stray into eachother’s territory but around Broadway there’s a section where they can’t help overlap. It feels like one big social experiment…
As annoying as it must have been to the hipsters to have part of the bike lanes disappear, can you picture them flying along, all bare limbed and tattooed, alongside the long coats and opaque tights?
Part 3: A learning curve – or not
If you’ve been following my project(s) for a while you’ll know that while I’m not religious, I am fascinated by different religions and cultures. And a large part of both my Sydney project and this one is about learning more about these religions and cultures.
The way I do this is simple – I stop people in the street, have a chat and often end up photographing them.
Normally, if someone says, no thanks I don’t want to talk or be photographed, that’s absolutely fine. I just move on.
But when practically everyone I meet says, no thanks to either one or both requests, it becomes a problem – especially when it’s the photograph they’re refusing, my main ‘tool’ being a camera and this being largely a photographic project.
And that’s exactly what happened in South Williamsburg. 80% of the people I stopped refused to talk and 99%, to be photographed.
Yes, of course they had every right to do that. It’s a free country.
But on the other hand, their ancient religion and lifestyle is so fascinating, I found it very frustrating that they didn’t want to share.
I was told it was because they don’t like to “advertise” and that they worried where the photos would end up. But the more I learnt about the Hasidim – from the few who were happy to share and from researching their religion wherever I could – I can’t help feel it’s more about shunning those in the outside world.
A grave pity given that their culture and religion is one of the oldest and most interesting in the world.
But as I said, there were some who agreed to be photographed – and a handful who let me photograph them on the condition that I not show their faces.
With these limitations in place, I proceeded to try and learn a little about their world, starting with the basic stuff – what they wore…
One of the most distinctive features of the male Hasidim of course is the peyote or side-curl…
Moving on from the head to the long coats that the men wear (and start wearing at age 13). Aside from the everyday coat there’s the glossy bekishe that they wear on Shabbat, their day of rest on Saturday, and for other special occasions.
Now to the kids. Aside from there being a lot of them – as I mentioned earlier, the average number of children in a family is eight – siblings are almost all dressed the same. Not just twins or similarly aged kids but everyone.
While on the subject of kids, apparently they’re not allowed to watch any TV or internet (not such a bad thing in many ways). And they play with a lot of toys manufactured especially for the orthodox Jewish market. I asked one woman whether the kids would know Dora – “Who’s Dora?” she said. Mickey Mouse? Yes, “He’s on the nappy packaging”. Donald Duck? “Probably not”.
Part 4: Other aspects of Hasidic life
The Hasidim have their own police and fire departments, as well as ambulance and bus service.
On one of our visits to South Williamsburg, Coco and I came across a group of school boys who were pretending to be firefighters and members of the Hatzolah Emergency Medical Service. Surprisingly the teacher on duty allowed me to take a few photos and the boys didn’t look at me like I was from outer space. Well, not much anyway.
On another visit we saw trucks filled with boxes – the boys had been to summer camp and were unloading their stuff.
Many summers later these same boys will very likely end up spending their lives not working as such but studying their religion – all over the neighbourhood there are men with their noses in prayer books.
It’s just one of the many differences between men and women in this community – the men study while the women look after their handful or two of kids. (They marry, by the way, as young as 19 years of age and start a family immediately – I didn’t realise this for a few days so I assumed to begin with that the flawless skinned teenagers pushing prams around must be nannies or baby-sitters. No. They’re mums.)
The other difference between men and women that I found fascinating/shocking is that the men sit in the front of the special all-Jewish buses, the women, in the back. I know it has to do with segregating the sexes because the men are forbidden to look at women but this is happening in NYC in 2012?
Part 5: At last
I did have some good talks with a few people in the neighbourhood. The bookshop guy was especially open and helpful and was determined to convince me that the Hasidim of Williamsburg weren’t unfriendly but merely guarded.
But by and large I found the closed and insular nature of the community to be hard to handle. Especially the way the kids have obviously be taught to shun outsiders – surely there are other good people in the world aside from Hasidic Jews?
Anyway, it’s complicated and this little ole blog ain’t the place to debate it all.
And guess what? Just as I was losing hope that I’d never come across any open-minded members of the community and was in fact leaving the neighbourhood for the last time, I met Gitty.
I’d bought some super-sized ‘black and white’ biscuits so typical of the area and I wanted to find a couple of Jewish kids to hold them while I photographed them. Of course I wouldn’t be able to photograph the kids, just their hands holding the biscuits.
So I wandered up to a woman with two boys and asked, would you mind if I got your boys to hold the cookies. “Of course, now smile boys!”, she said.
You what? You mean, I can photograph their faces? “Sure”, she said, “I’m a photographer too and I know you would’ve had a tough time here. I know I look like everyone else but I’m very open-minded”.
I could’ve kissed Gitty’s stockinged feet. The boys smiled, I smiled, Gitty smiled. Could I photograph her too? “Sure”.
It may not be the most interesting image in the world – but it’s one of my favourites.
After thanking her profusely we got talking and I discovered she wasn’t entirely happy in her closed community. Mostly she worried about her six kids, in particular her talented daughter. But she couldn’t leave. She was, as she put it, “stuck”.
Yet she’d single-handedly restored my faith in the community of South Williamsburg. As she said, “There are nice people here you know, you just haven’t met many of them.”
I wished Gitty well and for the last time that week, crossed the invisible line that separates the Old World from modern-day NYC.
Walking over the Williamsburg Bridge towards Manhatten I couldn’t help think that it’s too easy to accuse the Hasidic community of South Williamsburg of being either wonderfully family-oriented or crazily archaic and extremist – it’s just not that black and white.
On the bridge I noticed the Star of David with a love heart in the middle, surrounded by graffiti scrawls – Judaism in the midst of messy life. Now that’s totally kosher.
I found this week tough going from a photographic perspective but incredibly interesting. Many thanks to those who did agree to share a little about their lives as Hasidic Jews, especially those who were brave enough to let me photograph them. I just wished I had met more people like Gitty and her sons – but then I think I was lucky enough to meet anyone like them at all.
And how different are the hipsters and the Hasidim? Although having said that, they both wear a lot of black and the men on both sides seem to all have beards. If they could just agree on that bike lane issue, you never know, they could be friends. It is NY after all – weird stuff happens here all the time.
On the ‘home front’
What home front? Coco now has two sets of friends to play with, one lot upstate and the other based in Brooklyn. There’s been playdates, sleepovers, movies. She’s hardly been at home. Which is so lovely I have to say after months of hanging out with her aged mother. But it has meant that my determination to get stuck into home schooling has been delayed, yet again. I’m more relaxed about it now though – these last two weeks Coco seems to have learned so much via the School of Life method, first about Islam and now about Judaism and Hasidim. Even the ‘American Doll’ books that she forced me to buy her turned out to be quite educational. And anyway, there’s always the maths tutor right?
And me? Aside from forgetting to renew my domain name (woops) and the blog completely disappearing for a day, I’m just dandy. I’m in NY, how could I be otherwise?
This suburb has been brought to you by Elizabeth Cage & Mitch Arvidson
See you next Monday-ish.