What a week. It started in the Caribbean and ended up in Russia…
This week’s neighbourhood, Crown Heights, was actually the very first one Coco and I stuck our noses in when we arrived in NY three weeks ago. I knew it was a West Indian enclave but what I didn’t know until I started talking to the locals there was that every year it hosts a huge carnival – the Labour Day Parade, a celebration of West Indian/Caribbean culture that stomps and shimmies its way down the main drag (Eastern Parkway) on the first Monday in September.
How could I miss that? I decided to put Crown Heights off until then and chose another neighbourhood for my first NY installment.
Which is how I ended up ‘in the Caribbean’ last Monday. And the Russia bit? We’ll get to that later.
First, some facts. Crown Heights is in Brooklyn. Was posh and white in the early 20th century, then became more working class and black, a mix of West Indian and African American – while at the same time housing a large Hasidic Jewish minority. This mix of such different cultures was the original reason I wanted to explore the neighbourhood – and after last week’s look at the South Williamsburg Jews, I was even more intrigued.
Let’s go Crown Heights!
Part 1: Before the parade
Before I decided to put Crown Heights on ice until the Labour Day Parade, I’d already taken quite a few snaps. It was a Saturday, and across Eastern Parkway I noticed smartly dressed women sitting on benches.
Turns out they were from the Seventh Day Adventist Church across the street and Saturday was their church day. Having found the black Africans a little chilly in Paris, I approached with caution – but I needn’t have. You couldn’t hope to meet a friendlier bunch of people than the congregation of Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church.
That church was just one of the many that we would find during our time in Crown Heights – and they come in all different shapes and sizes. From the Seventh Day Adventists to the Baptist churches and the Spiritual churches – and Mount Faith Zion Church, headed by Bishop Roach…
On the first wander in Crown Heights we also met some delightful local kids, all from a Jamaican background – Naomi and brother Fabian were having a ‘go’ of a stretch limo parked outside their house. They knew the driver and were testing it out.
Before leaving I took a quick shot of Naomi with a friend, hanging outside their homes on Eastern Parkway. It would be a very different scene when I returned three weeks later…
Part 2: The Labour Day Parade
Like I said, a very different Crown Heights greeted me as I hopped off the 3 train last Monday – wild, deafeningly loud and incredibly proud. This was the West Indies’ day – Jamaica, Grenada, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago et al – and they were making sure everyone knew it.
And the parade itself? Rhinestones, glitter, feathers and lots of skin – I was no longer in South Williamsburg…
For months, costume-makers have been hunched over hot glue-guns, applying copious amounts of rhinestones and feathers to outfits like Alana’s…
Days later Coco and I visited the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden – and all the memories of the Labour Day Parade came flooding back…
Part 3: The Chabad-Lubavitch Jews of Crown Heights
I did know before I visited the nighbourhood that the Hasidic Jews of Crown Heights – from the Chabad or Lubavitch sect – were known as the ‘friendly’ and more relaxed Hasidic Jews. But I still couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw some Chabad Jews wandering down the street during the Labour Day Parade. They weren’t exactly standing on the side-lines, cheering the marchers on, but they seemed pretty fine about it. One Jewish man, Stewart, told me it was a good thing. A young Jewish boy, Daniel, had set up a stall of his old toys outside his home with his grandfather and mum nearby. Maybe it wasn’t exactly kosher but it was clearly okay. (Oh, and yes, they were totally fine about me photographing them – hooray!)
The next time Coco and I visited the neighbourhood I noticed a large group of young male Chabad Jews outside a building across from their main synagogue, 770, on Eastern Parkway. We wandered over to find that the building was a dormitory for the men who were all overseas students, attending the school inside the synagogue. Because this was no ordinary synagogue – for Chabad Jews, 770 (known as that because of its address, 770 Eastern Parkway) is the most important synagogue in the world.
Amazing really, given the neighbourhood’s many churches and that earlier, just a few blocks west, we’d seen a Muslim family hit the tarmac to pray.
Crown Heights – neighbourhood of churches, synagogues and make-shift mosques.
Part 4: Three weddings in one day
On our last visit to the area, Coco and I stumbled on three weddings all happening on Eastern Parkway.
The first was being held in the Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist Church that we’d come across that very first day – it was a Sunday and I wondered why their door was open, given that Saturday was their church day. So we took a quick peek inside – to see a very nervous looking bride waiting for proceedings to begin.
Not wanting to add to her nerves, we quietly left and continued walking east along the Parkway – until we noticed a group of women sitting outside the Oholei Torah Center, not far from the 770 synagogue. By now I knew that the Chabad Jews were pretty cool about photography – and that their reputation for being friendly was well-earned – but these women were especially welcoming.
So welcoming in fact that it seemed perfectly normal to sidle up to one of them, Libby, and ask, “So is that a wig you’re wearing?”
(Yes, it was a wig. ‘Really?’ – ‘Really’. Libby explained that like the Williamsburg Jews, they have to wear them, but that they can wear any style of wig, they don’t have to wear hats and they certainly don’t have to shave their heads.)
After taking a few shots, Goldie, the woman in the purple outfit in the third to last image above, asked if Coco and I wanted to take a look inside.
I didn’t take a shot of the room – it was a fairly nondescript convention hall (although interestingly, the women were on one side of a screen, the men on the other). But I loved talking to Goldie – she’s a Rabbi’s wife and a million other things but this 48 year old mother of nine was the perfect person to quiz about all things Chabad. Having just experienced a little of the Williamsburg Jews, I was intrigued about the differences between them. Goldie explained that while they had the same Hasidic religion, they had very different philosophies. A major one was that the Chabads were actively encouraged to go into the outside world to make the world a better place, one good deed at a time.
I spent so long talking to Goldie that I missed the bride’s arrival outside in the better light – but I got one shot of her sitting on a special seat.
Feeling that we’d stayed long enough – what did these brides think of a complete stranger suddenly appearing? – I thanked Chaya, Goldie and the other women and headed back onto Eastern Parkway.
We’d only walked another minute when I spotted a large gathering across the street, right outside the 770 synagogue. Yes, it was another Chabad wedding, but this was the actual ceremony, when the bride and groom stand under a chuppah and various things happen.
I couldn’t see anything until it was too late – I just caught sight of the bride and groom disappearing into the synagogue for the next step in the ceremony, where they spend 10 minutes alone in the yichud room. They’ve had to fast the whole day so finally this is when they can eat something – and technically, this is the first time they’re allowed to be alone together. Oh, and also, they’ve had to spend the week before the wedding apart. Why, I asked someone? “Anticipation!” they answered gleefully.
By then I’d met the brother of the groom and his mother. I thought she looked quite exotic and when she talked I realised she was Russian, as were several others around her – and then I remembered, that was where Chabad Jews originated from, over 200 years ago. Standing there, waiting for the bride and groom to come back out, surrounded by Russian voices and the black hats, admiring the groom’s mother’s piercing blue eyes and pale unlined skin, I felt that I’d been transported – across the seas to a land of snow and ice and red wine. Red wine?! More like vodka – red wine was what I had to pick up for dinner – Coco and I had been invited to a friend’s house and we were late, we had to go!
For the last time that day we said our goodbyes and jumped into a taxi.
Part 5: Love and peace
Crown Heights has had its troubles – there were riots in 1991, a real low point in relations between the black and Jewish communities – but wandering around its quiet back streets or even along Eastern Parkway at sunset, it seems like a pretty chilled place, one that’s able to accommodate even the most different faiths and peoples.
Crown Heights knows how to throw a wild party – and apparently the Labour Day Parade used to be a lot wilder, in every respect. But even so, I absolutely loved it. I remember walking down the street, through the glitter and the feathers and the broad smiles, thinking, I know it’s cliched but I really LOVE New York! And that was before I felt the joy of being able to take photos of the wonderfully warm Chabad Jews, at their weddings no less. It’s a week that made me feel full of gratitude. Gawd. I think I’m going to have to go get my hanky now.
On the ‘home front’
All pretty quiet on the home front. Except for the usual arguments about Coco spending too long on that blooming iPad. But as I usually complain about it while chained to my own computer, it doesn’t really cut deep. She also got to see a whole load of creepy, crawly spiders this week at the American Museum Of Natural History. Not with me though – anyone who knows my story (an Australian White-Tail Spider basically decimated half a thumb of mine) knows I don’t do spiders.
This suburb has been brought to you by Nadine Lee
See you next Monday-ish.