Hasidim in Brooklyn
Posted 21st November 2006
Who are the Hasidic Jews—those black-hatted, bearded and sidelock-wearing men who we often see behind the counter at 47th St Photo — and what sort of world have they shaped for themselves in New York City?
The first thing we should know is that Hasidism was founded on the Russian-Polish border in the mid- eighteenth century by Ba'al Shem Tov. It was conceived as an alternative to rabbinical Judaism, and the rabbis of the time were firmly opposed to Ba’al Shem Tov's vision of a revivalist-pietistic Jewish community, where Jews did not have to answer to rabbinic scholars, but only to themselves. Hasidism encouraged "emotional piety," and religious joy, rather than "disciplined study"—placing mysticism, dancing, singing, prayer, storytelling, and the consecration of the everyday on an equal footing with Talmudic scholarship. The leader of the Hasidim, the Zaddick, or "righteous one," was the charismatic center of all Hasidic life, and the movement continued to remain leader-centered to the present day (e.g., the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, who was regarded as a messiah by some of his adherents, and whose photos adorns many Hasidic shop windows).
The Hasidim came to America after WWII. They arrived after the Holocaust had destroyed four fifths of their number, and they reconstructed insular communities in Brooklyn’s Boro Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. These sealed communities have not only survived and preserved their culture, but have expanded into New York’s suburbs and into other cities, and now number 200,000 souls in North America. Hasidim are divided into sects that are more alike than dissimilar. Still, they can vary from style of dress to philosophical and political perspectives, and deep enmities have sometimes developed among them. Among the sects are the Lubavitcher, Satmar, Bobover, Belzer, Vishnitzers, Gerers, Klausenbergers, Skverers and Bratslavers.
Of all these, the Lubavitcher is the best-known and most influential Hasidic sect. Uniquely among Jewish groups thousands of their Chabad shlichim ("emissaries) travel all over the world, encouraging less observant Jews to become more religious, and establishing Jewish social services and educational programs. Their ultimate goal is to encourage Jews to learn more about their Jewish heritage and to practice Judaism, and to bring a semblance of unity to Jews worldwide.
The capital of Lubavitch Hasidism is Crown Heights—on the blocks south of one of Brooklyn’s grand streets, Eastern Parkway. This is where 15,000 members live in a once-tense proximity (e.g., the deadly riot of 1991) with the largest West Indian community in New York. Their worlds remain separated from each other, though discussion between groups over neighborhood issues takes place now. When I traveled with a friend there on a recent oppressively humid summer morning, the Hasidic shopping street on Kingston Avenue was filled with unfashionable, musty stores which resembled the ones I grew up with in the forties. There were stores selling religious articles like mezuzahs and shofars; others with racks of housedresses. ankle-length skirts, and long-sleeved blouses lining the sidewalk; and the Heimish Bakery with its delicate rugelach and richly textured challahs. Some of the side streets have sturdy, attached, turreted, bay windowed private homes, and President Street contains stately, large unattached homes with small front lawns, in a variety of architectural styles. Also, throughout the area there are a number of shtibls—small, unadorned synagogues in private houses. Walking on those boiling, clammy streets were a number of young women wearing sheitels (wigs) pushing large baby carriages, and bearded, perspiring young men in shirtsleeves.
Braving the heat, my friend and I decide to drive to Boro Park—a Southwest Brooklyn neighborhood— that has one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the United States. It’s also among the most Orthodox Jewish sections in the world, and includes members of a variety of Hasidic sects. On its vibrant, comfortable shopping street—13th Avenue—there are fruit stores, a wig shop, a record store selling Hasidic and Jewish music videos and CDs (with music ranging from klezmer, to the cantorial, to the spiritual songs of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach), and a sparkling clean kosher café with modern décor whose menu includes sushi and non-fat muffins.
What’s clear is that in an age when communal life is weak and families often fragmented, the two Yiddish-speaking Hasidic neighborhoods offer an ethos that grants the solace of spiritual certainty and the coherence of a hierarchal world. For those who accept Hasidic fundamentalism there are a great many rewards: tender family celebrations filled with joyous singing; men rapturously praying; and a sense of a community that provides aid, support, and identity.
However, if Hasidic belief can exhilarate, and many of the women speak with pride of their spiritual duty as mothers and domestic caretakers, there are a small number of sect members who ultimately find the Hasidic world too insular and the faith too prescriptive, and they leave. Among them are: women who want a life that goes beyond the domestic sphere; men who are much more interested in studying secular literature and art rather than the holy texts; and men and women who want to pursue romantic love rather than submit to arranged marriage.
These members all desire personal autonomy and the play of individuality, and that is not part of a tradition, which can provide fulfillment for its adherents but also becomes onerous and painful for those who don’t conform to its tenets.