South Williamsburg

Will NEW intro

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…


and, action!

and, action!





pram city - Lee Avenue

pram city – Lee Avenue





Jewish school buses by the truck load

Jewish school buses by the truck load





mum and her boys

mum and her boys





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…



the bike lane wars

the cause of the bike lane wars





neighbours :: 1

black and white





neighbours ::  2






neighbours :: 3


















head gear :: 1

head gear :: 1





head gear :: 2

head gear :: 2

















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?



hats not helmets

hats not helmets





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…









once the ring goes on, the head is shaved and the wig and hat go on

once the ring goes on, the head is shaved and the wig and hat go on





the turban is worn around or near the house - Rachel

the turban is worn around or near the house – Rachel





the everyday hat

the everyday hat





or the shtreimel on Saturdays - Meyer

Saturday’s hat, the shtreimel – Meyer





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.



all dressed up - wearing the bekishe

all dressed up – wearing the bekishe





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.



matching :: 1

matching :: 1





matching :: 1

matching :: 2





matching :: 3

matching :: 3





matching :: 4

matching :: 4





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”.



they may dress like me but they don't even know who I am

they may dress like me but they don’t even know who I am





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.



learning about the Jewish emergency services

learning about the Jewish emergency services





fire chiefs in the making

fire chiefs in the making





On another visit we saw trucks filled with boxes – the boys had been to summer camp and were unloading their stuff.



unloading after summer camp

unloading after summer camp





taking a break

taking a break





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.



at the office :: 1

at the office :: 1





at the office :: 2

at the office :: 2



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?



on the all-Jewish general bus - men at the front, women at the back

on the all-Jewish general bus – men at the front, women at the back





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.



at last

at last :: 1





at last :: 2

at last :: 2




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.



it's not that black and white :: 2

it’s not that black and white :: 2





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.



the writing's on the Williamsburg Bridge

the writing’s on the Williamsburg Bridge











The Wrap

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.




NYC is a world in itself so hop on that M train and go see it!

NYC is a world in itself so hop on that M train and go see it!




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.


  1. Nicole says:

    Love the Donald Duck comment. Well done.

  2. sally says:

    thanks for the cultural insight – fantastic

  3. di says:

    O dear! do you think that the woman wearing the skin coloured stockings exacerbated bike lane demise?

  4. Jo Kaupe says:

    This I loved for the difficulty and the break through.

  5. lisa says:

    More on the Hasidic bus thing: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/nyregion/bus-segregation-of-jewish-women-prompts-review.html . It was kind of a big deal last year.

    (I’m surprised you got as much pushback from the women as from the men.)

  6. Clare says:

    A fabulous new spin on the Hipster or Hobo game; Hipster or Hasidic?! LOVE this one!

  7. Pip says:

    I loved this Louise, as hard as it clearly was. The photo of Gitty with her sons almost made me cry.

  8. Sarah says:

    Yay! Welcome back (second check today and SUCCESS!). I love judaism – was in Israel for a week last year, and then to NYC. Loved everything you taught me so much, and loved the closing photo with the train and the little people!!

  9. Catharine says:

    LOVE this one. One of my favorites so far! You’ve set me on a path to learn more about Judaism

  10. John Ellis says:


  11. Uta says:

    Absolutely fascinating! But can’t help thinking – Bad Hair Days….lol

  12. Wendy says:

    Fantastic read, very insightful and not to mention great photos.

  13. Jemima says:

    A fantastic read! And oh those photos!
    Thank you for the insight, the courage and the wisdom :-)

  14. Nirah says:

    Love love this post…fascinating stuff!! Even though it was more of a challenge I think you still managed to capture perfectly the people and the “suburb”…love it :) glad to hear Coco is having fun too :)

  15. ellen says:

    i did wonder where u were monday then i relised i need to remember as many charge mums tell me MANY TIMES you are a day behind me LOL so i guess i should start wondering tuesday good idea great suburb and im thinking this place reminds me a bit of bondi what do you think i LOVE bondi but step out of the beach or westfields and go to say where my lovely firend lives her unit is FULL OF JEWISH PPL and not only that they hate her they used to be so rude to my taxi driver when he parked there to pick her up for cpp i mean pinkeville street busy street block of units a driveway where else do you park and her mum wasnt even allowed to use the disabled spot i soemtiems said why have one then she doesnt go to my programme anymore but i stil see her but we dont park the driveway in the taxi we go by dads car and he goes round the block while mum drops me off well should i say sed to he doesnt drive anymore but still its crazy

  16. Louise says:

    Dear all – This week was a challenging one so I’m thrilled you all got so much out of it. I did wonder a few times if I should abandon ship but I’m not good at doing that – stubborn maybe?! Anyway, all your wonderful comments have made me very glad I didn’t. Many thanks to you all.

  17. Chris says:

    Loved this Louise. Learned more than I have in 25 years of living in NYC about the Hasidim. Your hard work paid off with a great post.

    • Louise says:

      Chris – Thank you, comments like yours make every moment of doubt and frustration, as well as the hours and hours of traipsing around, absolutely worth it.

  18. sim0ne says:

    Such a nostalgia trip to have you capture my old hood Louise.. I almost cried. Used to love biking/ walking those streets, and the bridge. That was 2005.. the days before the hipsters moved South in earnest. The young Hassidic men would rumble with the Pueto Rican boys from time to time.. Just like a modern version of the Wild West, or Romeo & Juliet.. Endlessly fascinating. Thank you for capturing my memories so exquisitely! sx

    • Louise says:

      Simone – Very happy that I could take you for a walk down memory lane. I love the Romeo & Juliet image/Wild West image. Wild indeed.

  19. Nick says:

    Great post, but just wanted to make clear (especially in the light of Ellen’s comment) that Hasidic Jews are by no means representative of Jewish people as a whole. I’m not a religious Jew, but it really scares me that less worldly people than you might think that their insular ways and unfriendly attitude is somehow representative of the Jewish religion as a whole. Given the history of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Jewish people, there is more danger that people see the Hasidim as a representation of Jewish culture than, say, they would see the Amish as being representative of Christian culture.

    • Louise says:

      Nick – That’s a great point. But I’d hope that no one would get the two confused – they are visibly so different let alone anything else. Still, as you say, there’s been so much misrepresentation that it’s definitely worth making the point, thank you.

  20. vince hunt says:

    how privileged indeed Coco is to have attended the ‘school of life’ in twenty12
    with her upstate playmates and Brooklyn buddies, how blessed you both are to really BE in NYC
    savour every bite of the Big Apple Louise ….. dandy days are yours, cheers and big congrats ,Vinnie Valdez

    • Louise says:

      Vince – I agree, Coco is a lucky kid, but she may think otherwise when she’s struggling next year with the stuff that you do learn in school (maths comes to mind). Still, I hope she never holds that against me – a lot of what she’s learned this year has entered her consciousness in a kind of osmotic way and is undefinable, maybe unteachable. And maybe not all good. But I still can’t help think it’s ultimately a positive experience for a kid.

  21. TRENT COLLINS says:

    Great post Louise. Loving the NewYork leg of the trip- absolutely amazing.

    • Louise says:

      Trent – Oh, very glad you’re enjoying it!

  22. Gay says:

    Hi Louise,
    Very interesting and revealing. Nick has a good point and good he pointed it out. Tis really something I know nothing about. Thanks for explaining. Train and toys great shot.
    Wonder if those men have a heated curling wand each at home…must do and what about the furry hat, splendid!! But in the heat of NYC. Hmm!

  23. Kalinda says:

    Good on you for being stubborn Lou. Loved seeing such a different culture. Wonderful work. K

  24. goldie says:

    As a hassidic jew i should just point out that there are many types of Jews and Hassidic Jews. As you probably saw when you went to Crown Heights – they are also hassidic jews.

    It is about being insular to protect the culture and there are many lovely ones – you just need to find them. :)

    • Louise says:

      Goldie – I’m so glad you stopped by and of course, you’re right – as you know, when I visited Crown Heights, I was blown away by how friendly and welcoming and open the Hasidic Chabad Jews were.

  25. Sunshine says:

    This was such an awesome read. I truly admire your work. It was a pleasure to meet you and Coco. She’s a wonderful girl, and is being shown an awesome experience. Stay blessed. :)
    P.S Thank you for the compliment. We are very friendly at Shiloh SDA, and welcome you guys back with open arms, if you are ever in the neighborhood again.

    • Louise says:

      Sunshine – Many thanks! If we’re ever in CH again, we’ll drop in and see you all. Please say hi to everyone from Coco and I.

  26. Rob Steer says:

    Another set of beautiful images and accompanying words.

  27. Elizabeth says:

    Just catching up on the past few weeks and was pleasantly surprised to find Mitch and I brought the world this post.
    While not Hassidim or even practicing I an American-Jewish-Australia (who even lived in NYC for a short time) who loves bicycles and bike lanes – so it seemed strangely appropriate.
    Loving your work as always!

    • Louise says:

      Elizabeth – Meant to be! How funny. Glad you liked it.

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