Hasids vs. Hipsters

Williamsburg biker. From heeb.com.

This essay first appeared in our small book What Was the Hipster?, published in October 2010.

The figure of the woman assumes its most seductive aspect as a cyclist. . . . In the clothing of cyclists the sporting expression still wrestles with the inherited pattern of elegance, and the fruit of this struggle is the grim sadistic touch which made this ideal image of elegance so incomparably provocative to the male world.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

This is our shtetl, and our walls must go high.
—Grand Rebbe Zalmen Teitelbaum, Satmar Hasidic leader

Near the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, after Roger, Jessica, and Eddie are captured by weasels and delivered to the Acme factory, Judge Doom, the film’s malefactor, reveals his plan to exterminate the inhabitants of Toontown. His objective, expressed in contemporary terms, is nation-building. And his means of ethnic cleansing? “Several months ago,” Doom declares, “I had the good providence to stumble upon this plan of the City Council’s. A construction plan of epic proportions! They’re calling it a freeway.” In 1988, when the film came out, public works had lost their power to awe, but Doom, speaking in a fictionalized 1947, was right to get caught up in reverie. Toontown would be rubble, its infrastructure swapped for “eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena.”

The Bloomberg administration’s 2008 commitment to build a 14-mile greenway connecting Bay Ridge and Greenpoint in Brooklyn — roughly the distance between Pasadena and West Hollywood — differed from Judge Doom’s plan in some particulars. Instead of the gas stations, motels, fast-food hubs, and “wonderful, wonderful billboards!” that Doom giddily anticipates, the Mayor’s cycling agenda envisaged an urban arcadia punctuated by sleek commutes, elfin waistlines, and extravagant landscaping. Just as in Paris, where a fashion-forward bike-lending program enlivened the presidential prospects of the sprightly Bertrand Delanoë, so, in New York, would the dwarfish Michael Bloomberg ride the two-wheeled wonder to the summits of environmental stardom.

By the summer of 2009, Bloomberg’s transport chief, Janette Sadik-Khan, was already crowing, somewhat implausibly, that New York City had become “the bicycling capital of the United States.” If the administration’s ecotopian hard-liners got their way, the city would soon boast a cycling culture to rival even the extremist enclaves of northern Europe — Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen — where cowed locals live in terror of importuning bike bells, the streets hostage to biker autocracy.

But first Bloomberg had to win reelection. In the months before the vote, Chinatown residents started complaining about a bike lane installed on Grand Street, asserting that speeding bicyclists posed a danger to ambulating oldsters. Truckers in Staten Island responded even more furiously, clinging to their vanishing parking spaces and chasing down any bikers who got in their way. The most intractable objections came from South Williamsburg, where the Satmars, a sect of Hasidic Jews, complained that a freshly consecrated bike lane on Bedford Avenue drew in a bad element: irresponsibles who flouted traffic laws and imperiled the neighborhood’s many schoolchildren, who had to ford a river of cyclists when descending from the district’s Hebrew-lettered school buses. The Yiddish-speaking Satmars referred to these unruly passers-through as “Artisten.” The rest of the city called them hipsters.

Hipsters had their own ideas about what was rankling the Satmars. As early as 2003, Williamsburg’s Hasidic population had protested against a wave of so-called “yuppies,” Manhattan transplants who brought high rents and loose morals. At a community board meeting, Hasidic participants denounced an expensive development on Broadway, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, as “an extension of the East Village,” and a 21-year-old Hasidic attendee warned of “a very liberal lifestyle.” “We have Jewish housing, synagogues, a Jewish medical center,” he pointed out. The newcomers favored “bars and swimming pools. We don’t like these things.” A rabbi cast doubt on the new residents’ “morality,” deeming them “dangerous to our children.”

Four years later, as land prices crept upward amid upper-middle-class youth migration, bike lanes came to South Williamsburg. At another board meeting on September 8, 2008, Hasids called on the city to remove new bike lanes on Wythe and Bedford Avenues and to postpone construction on a planned lane for Kent Avenue. Although the Hasid opposition presented several rationales for opposing the lanes, including, once again, the safety of children exiting school buses and the loss of parking spaces, the most explosive motive was articulated by board member Simon Weisser, who told the New York Post that he was perturbed by clothing. “I have to admit, it’s a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code,” he said. “It bothers me, and it bothers a lot of people.” To hipsters, this showed the Satmars’ true colors — they were oppressors! That very summer, the Satmars had complained about a billboard visible from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway featuring the swim-suited cast of 90210. Earlier in the decade, the community had been similarly aggrieved by a billboard for Sex and the City. The Satmars weren’t worried about safety, they were worried about erotic danger. And if the Satmars wanted to make this about sex, then sex was what they’d get!

The city’s Department of Transportation, observing events from its headquarters on Worth Street in lower Manhattan, suddenly found itself cast in the role of a colonial viceroy forced to adjudicate between warring indigenous tribes. Of course, neither of the Williamsburg disputants could be classed “indigenous” in any rigorous sense — the Satmars began to arrive in the late 1940s, the hipsters in the late 1990s; and, really, tribes at least usually share some common history, some deeper connection to a region. Maybe the hipsters and the Hasids started to seem more like cartoons.

A friend of mine, raised in a Reform Jewish household, likes to joke that the most transgressive thing she could do would not be to marry another woman, or get addicted to heroin, but to become a Hasid. Satmars don’t proselytize, but Lubavitchers famously do, and one of the reasons America’s Hasidic population has grown so dramatically in recent decades is that they’ve found converts among once-secular Jewish youth.

There’s a logic to this. At their most extreme, hipsters and Hasids present rival heresies, dueling rejections of bourgeois modernity. That each group selected Williamsburg as the terrain for carving out a secessionist utopia can only be blamed on the cunning of history, plus the L train.

The symmetry is powerful, if accidental. Both factions are marked by recognizable hairstyles and unusual modes of dress. Where the hipster wardrobe is ever-changing — one day it’s trucker hats, overalls, and chin straps, the next it’s fedoras, onesies, and bangs — the Satmar uniform has proven stable over 70 years: white shirts, pants, three-piece suits, shtreimel fur hats, and payes side braids for the men; shin-length dresses and sumptuous wigs for the women. Both groups are resented by their near relations (ordinary bourgeois youth, mainstream Jews) for their economic dependence on others — hipsters on their parents and/or arts and non-profit funding, and Hasidim on charity: despite pockets of wealth, one third of Hasidic families in Williamsburg receive some form of public assistance.

Both groups live in configurations unusual for the advanced capitalist west. Hipsters often live with multiple roommates, encouraging a wide variety of romantic, or worryingly platonic, entanglements. Hasids live in enormous families. The average size of a Satmar family is nine people. It would not be unusual to enter either a hipster or a Satmar apartment and see a cot in the kitchen.

For all its medieval costuming, Satmar Hasidism is a relatively recent phenomenon. The various Hasidic splinter groups — Lubavitcher, Satmar, Belz — trace their roots to the mid-18th century, when the mystic rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov gained a following for his anti-scholastic, kabbalistic revision of Orthodox Judaism. The Satmars, a large and particularly conscientious division of Hasidim, were founded only in the 20th century, by Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, who would have been murdered by the Nazis had his freedom not been purchased from Adolf Eichmann by the Zionist Rudolph Kastner. Nevertheless, Teitelbaum hated the Zionists, even blaming them for the Holocaust.

Teitelbaum arrived in New York with a small retinue on Rosh Hashanah in 1946 (5707, on the Jewish calendar), where he founded a synagogue and set for himself the task of recreating the cloistered world of Satu Mare, the Hungarian shtetl whence the Satmars sprang. Fur hats, Talmud study, and procreation were the order of the day. From an original colony with a reputed population of only ten after World War II, the Satmar population in Brooklyn, bolstered by immigration, grew by 2006 to more than 35,000. Although parts of the community are plagued by poverty, the Williamsburg Satmars are better off than the co-religionists in the upstate refuge of Kiryas Joel, which is often called the poorest place in the United States. The downstaters got into Brooklyn real estate before several rounds of booms, and they also entered the traditional diamond business.

The Satmars speak Yiddish to each other. Their major paper, Der Yid, has a circulation of 50,000, roughly on par with the London Review of Books (about half as many as Vice Deutschland). Hipsters, too, have long evinced an affection for Yiddish, especially when combined with accordions, as in Klezmer music. Franz Kafka, a significant hipster if not the original one, had a weakness for Yiddish theater.

Like other schismatic spin-offs, Satmars and hipsters have struggled to maintain unity in the face of generational succession. As Michael Powell reported for New York, the death of charismatic founder Rebbe Joel in 1981 left the Satmars looking to his nephew, Moses Teitelbaum, to take the top spot. Although Moses never matched Joel’s appeal, the community continued to grow and prosper. Moses’ eldest son, Aaron Teitelbaum, seemed the heir apparent, but in his last months of life Moses decided to annoint his third son instead, Zalmen. Aaron cried foul, triggering repeated convocations of the Beis Din, the Satmar religious court. In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals refused to help resolve the matter, calling the internal religious dispute “non-justiceable.” Though less litigious, hipsters in Williamsburg have also been riven by inter-cohort tensions, as the aging early pioneers have added baby boutiques to Bedford Avenue, attracting the derision of younger migrants.

Amid these fears of community dissolution,
 rumors of bike lane confrontation began to swirl on both sides. Hipsters, for their part, started to resent the increasingly bellicose tone of epithets hurled at them on Bedford Avenue by angry, black-hatted pedestrians. Although the insults were delivered in Yiddish — Yiddish commanding much hipster enthusiasm but little comprehension — the cyclists got the drift. One familiar tale repeated in online cycling forums warned of a club-wielding bus driver who would chase and threaten to maim any hipster who complained about his parking job. Was the neighborhood lurching toward an anti-hipster pogrom?

One particularly terrifying legend featured a character referred to as the Ginger Hasid rapist. This tale, a bizarre hipster refraction of the Hasids’ anxiety about over-sexed “artists,” turned predator into prey. In the story, a fresh-faced hipster ganymede returns to his rented room late at night and finds an obese, red-haired Orthodox visitor hiding in the closet. On discovery, the Hasid rapist attempts to kiss the boy, running away at the first show of resistance. That this shadowy figure was essentially non-violent, boy-friendly, and not actually a rapist at all, did nothing to reduce his fascination.

In the fall of 2009, Bloomberg squeaked into a third term with just over fifty percent of the vote. Four weeks later, the city announced its decision to remove fourteen blocks of bike lane from Bedford Avenue between Flushing and Division. Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, described the move as “part of ongoing bike network adjustments in the area.” Others described it as a quid-pro-quo, the fruit of a deal struck with Satmar leaders on the eve of the election. Solomonow encouraged bikers to use a new two-way lane on Kent Avenue and a barrier-protected connector lane on Williamsburg Street. A spokesman from the Mayor’s office called the replacement route “the Cadillac of bike paths.”

Initial hipster reaction was angry but peaceful. A group dressed as clowns led a funeral procession along Bedford to protest the decision, but failed to capture the public imagination since they lacked any vernacular of protest other than the language of a grant application. “Enforced, protected bike lanes save cyclist lives, improve the landscape and make better use of public space for most of the community,” said the clowns.

Others tried action: they would repaint the bike path. The first repainting attempt took place in two sessions, one on Friday, November 27th — the Sabbath — and the second on Sunday, November 29th. The painters posted a video on YouTube documenting their rolling, spraying, and stenciling exploits. The video mimics the DIY-charm of Trading Spaces. Its hipster protagonists look handy and youthful. The sequence ends with a service announcement printed in four installments in stark white letters. “We are New York City bicyclists, and our message is clear: Don’t take away our bike lanes./ We use this stretch of Bedford Avenue because it is a direct route to the Williamsburg Bridge./ We will continue to use it whether or not there is a bike lane there, but not having one puts us at greater risk from cars./ That’s why bike lanes exist — for safety. Do not try to remove them, or we will put them back for our own safety.”

Here the hipsters employed the unmistakable register of a teenager trying to “use reason” with adults. The strategy is to appeal first to safety concerns, then to the inevitability of transgression in the event of a ruling against the child.

Repainting was nearly complete when the hipsters met the Satmars’ neighborhood vigilante unit, the Shomrim, who “bear-hugged” the vandals until the NYPD arrived. Although the police made no arrests that night, after the video posting and Satmar complaints, repainters Quinn Hechtropf and Katherine Piccoci were eventually arrested for “criminal mischief’ and “defacing the street.” Hechtropf, defiant in defeat, proclaimed himself a “self-hating Jewish hipster.”

Escalating the conflict after the apprehension of Hechtropf and Piccoci, hipsters planned a naked bike ride along the old funeral route. Calling themselves “freedom riders,” a group organized by Heather Loop, a 27-year-old bike messenger, arranged to meet at the Wreck Room, a Flushing avenue hipster redoubt, and ride together to the Williamsburg Bridge in underwear, breasts exposed. “If you can’t handle scantily clad women,” Loop told reporters, you should “live in a place where you can have your own sanctuary, like upstate.” But Loop had the misfortune of selecting one of the coldest days of the winter. Attendance was low, and no one rode naked, though some riders pinned fake rubber breasts over their wool coats.

Hipsters then invited the Hasidic community to engage in a public debate. On January 25th, 2010, an open discussion was held at Pete’s Candy Store on Lorimer St. — hardly neutral territory, which may have accounted for the fact that only three Satmars showed up, the activist Isaac Abraham and two adjuncts. As Michael Idov reported in an article for New York, Abraham held his own in an overwhelmingly biker-friendly crowd, speaking with conviction against disrespectful speed-demons (he revealed in the course of the evening that his wife had been the victim of a biker hit-and-run). The hipsters parried with their own horror stories, including the one about a bus driver with a club. At one point, an exasperated Abraham asked, “So in other words, what you’re saying is I should go back to the community and say that I just got a message, it’s their way or the highway?” To which the officially impartial moderator responded, “Their way IS the highway!”

After the event, a blogger on FreeWilliamsburg.com conceded that Abraham had seemed genuinely concerned about the safety of pedestrians, paving the way for a return to hipster placidity. During the debate Caroline Samponaro, an activist with Transportation Alternatives, had pointed out that bikers and pedestrians were both “awesome,” and “should be working together, not against each other.” Her solution, or her attempt at one, was to call for the establishment of “Waving Wednesdays,” during which she would ride with a group of hipsters at rush hour through the zone of contention and wave at Hasidic pedestrians to “improve safety and morale” and foster a “positive, communal atmosphere.”

The Doña Marina figure in this drama, who spoke not only to the demands of hipster and Hasid, but also, and most emphatically, to the demands of the press, is Baruch Herzfeld, a 38-year-old lapsed Satmar who runs a used bike shop called Traif Bike Gesheft — “the unkosher bike shop.” Herzfed moderated the Pete’s Candy Store debate, a position won on the strength of his reputation as a go-between. His Gesheft offered bikes to Satmar patrons at reduced prices. But Herzfeld sided with the hipsters during the bike lane controversy. He has been referred to as the “unofficial spokesman” of the repainters, although the extent of his involvement is unclear.

A couple blocks from Herzfeld’s “Gesheft” is a pork-anchored restaurant also called “Traif” that caters to both hipsters and to Hasids on the down low. Predictably, real hipsters prefer Gottlieb’s, the kosher Hasidic deli around the corner. In a Wall Street Journal article examining hipster/Hasid commercial exchange, a 25-year-old motorcycle-racing trust funder explained that Gottlieb’s has “everything — good food, good prices, irony.”

Up and down Lee Avenue, the Satmar SoHo, men charge along in pairs and children scurry, stopping occasionally to tug at their beleaguered mothers. Scattered through the neighborhood are well-trafficked playgrounds. There, little Satmars, boys and girls, run, play, scream and ride — wheeling around with impunity on a wide range of scooters, wagons, bikes, and tricycles: the mayor’s cavalry-in-training.

Evidence of a thaw mounted throughout the spring. In May, the Sundance hit Holy Rollers premiered in New York, starring a side-curled Jesse Eisenberg as a young Hasid from Williamsburg who winds up working as an ecstasy mule in the transatlantic drug trade. Hipsters noted that Eisenberg’s role was difficult to distinguish from the Jewish adolescent he played in Noah Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale.

On June 27, 2010, the MTA enacted a package of alterations to New York subway routes with uncertain implications for the neighborhood depicted in Eisenberg’s Hasid debut. The once-sleepy M train, which had been widely rumored to be slated for elimination, instead emerged a winner, annexing the V line and with it a direct route from South Williamsburg through SoHo, the West Village, and Midtown. The now-vanished Bedford bike lane had been used by hundreds of people every day. The M train is used by a hundred thousand.

Historically, a certain caliber of hipster always preferred South Williamsburg to its modish northern cousin, anyway — much as a certain caliber of Manhattanite has only ever been to South Williamsburg to dine at Peter Luger, the century-old steak house. Now Williamsburg’s South-siders — hipster purists and Satmar worshippers accustomed to seclusion — will find themselves in one of the newly most convenient and underpriced neighborhoods in the one of the biggest and most covetous cities in the world. They should enjoy it while it lasts.

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