To call New York City a melting pot has always been disingenuous. Its neighborhoods aren't homogenous cross-sections of the city's populace, as the famous cliché seems to imply. Each one is a fractured jumble of disparate communities stacked on top of each other. Little Ukraine is interspersed with the East Village of Lou Reed, and the boundary between Morningside Heights and Harlem is porous enough to put Columbia students on edge. Nowhere is this fact clearer than the current turf war between Hasidim and hipsters in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.
While the two groups generally stay out of each other's way, their vast cultural and costume differences recently collided when the city decided to remove some bike lanes in the area. After biking advocates alleged the deletion was the result of shady politicking, some hipsters embarked on a late-night repainting of the lanes in a particularly busy intersection, and even a planned topless protest through the heart of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.
"I am barely successful and make the most minimal of impacts; giving advice to Hasidim is only a hobby, not a vocation."
Through it all, one man has worked with both sides. Well, sort of. Baruch Herzfeld, a modern Jew with an Orthodox background, runs a gemach, a free bike rental program for Williamsburg's Hasidim to use. But his first-hand observation of this community has soured him on its leadership, whom he refers to as "Talibanowitz Rabbis." He also has some equally harsh opinions of Mayor Bloomberg and his handling of the bike lane situation.
In the following interview, conducted over email and edited for clarity, the 37-year-old macher tells Gelf why the Hasidim don't ride bikes, how the dispute has corrupted the political process, and where his place is in all of this.
Gelf Magazine: What is the issue that Hasidim have with biking in Williamsburg?
Baruch Herzfeld: The issue in Williamsburg is that some rabbi banned bike riding 50 years ago and they take away kids' bikes when they are 13 years old. Nobody knows why and it is not prohibited anywhere besides Williamsburg or Monroe. It's idiotic.Gelf Magazine: Is there a specific halachik restriction they point to, or is it just a cultural one?
Baruch Herzfeld: The hard-line rabbis want to keep outside cultural influences out of their neighborhood so they can keep the women getting pregnant at 18 and the men without educational options. The issue is that Michael Bloomberg, in order to get elected to his illegal third term, appeased these hardliners at the expense of bicyclist safety and smart public policy of the city of New York.
Gelf Magazine: Is the problem only with the Satmar, or other sects as well?
Baruch Herzfeld: The problem is not the Satmar, but the hard-line Talibanowitz Rabbis who want strict separation by sexes, and the pussy politicians who sell out to them to get their votes.
Gelf Magazine: What is your place in the dispute?
Baruch Herzfeld: My place in the dispute, is that as someone who was raised as an Orthodox Jew, I can criticize without being accused of being anti-Semitic.
Gelf Magazine: Is there a Modern Orthodox community in Williamsburg?
Baruch Herzfeld: In order for there to be a traditional Modern Orthodox community, there has to be children and a Yeshiva. As of yet, there is no modern orthodox community in that respect. However in Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg there are numerous 20- to 40-year old Israelis and other Jews who went to Yeshiva day school or Jewish camps, but are more artistic and unconventional than you would find in the Upper East Side, Upper West Side or other established Jewish communities. Traditional middle-class, suburban-raised Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Jews have nothing in common with the urban Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg. There is almost no cultural similarity besides them perhaps sharing a last name.
Gelf Magazine: Do the ultra-Orthodox consider you as something of a mediator, or simply as an outsider?
Baruch Herzfeld: I consider myself an entertainer, an interloper, and a protector. Many, many Hasidim in Williamsburg are miserable and trapped by their upbringing and do not want their lives controlled by medieval rabbis. There are also many who are embarrassed about how they are being portrayed and I try and speak for these more moderate Hasidim. I try to give advice to people breaking away, or those who stay in their community how to deal with overcoming the disadvantage of being raised by a hardline cult. I am barely successful and make the most minimal of impacts; it is only a hobby, not a vocation.
Gelf Magazine: Is there much of a support group for former Hasidim, or ultra-Orthodox who are looking to move beyond the community?
Baruch Herzfeld: There are groups that try to support Hasidim who are looking to move away, but there are extremely limited options for Hasidim who leave. They have no family support, no education and worse, if they are women above the age of 20, they usually have children in tow.
Gelf Magazine: Bike lanes notwithstanding, is there much tension between the hipster and Hasidic groups in Williamsburg?
Baruch Herzfeld: Hipster is a label put on people who are not necessarily organized. There might be individual tensions between Hasidic landlords and non-Hasidic tenants but there traditionally has not been major conflict between the newer residents of Williamsburg and the Hasidic community.
Gelf Magazine: How has your bike gemach been received?
Baruch Herzfeld: Bike gemach has been received positively, mainly because it has yet to have a real influence. If we are able to expand it into other parts of Williamsburg and it starts to take off, we can cause a real internal discussion of whether they should switch from minivans to bikes. Hopefully I can get a hard-line rabbi to ban it, which would lead to a good controversy.
Gelf Magazine: With regards to the Williamsburg bike lanesis the core issue the religious restriction against biking, the presence of un-tzniut outsiders passing through the neighborhood, or as some claim, parking?
Baruch Herzfeld: The core issue is that this is stupid public policy that benefits negatively, even dangerously, the rest of their constituents. Michael Bloomberg, in this regard, has shown himself to be the worst kind of hypocritical panderer. Going back on his ordinary public policy, solely to get re-elected. Nakedly cynical behavior by politicians has the worst type of effect because it leads to a disconnect between citizens and government. The government depends on citizens to act within the law, not just because of fear of punishment, but because they feel connected to the city and have a vested interest in making sure they assist the government in maintaining order. When politicians pander nakedly and unfairly, it sends this horrible message to the people of New York: "Your politicians don't care about you. They only care about themselves. Get away with as much as possible."
Gelf Magazine: Do you see a day when Hasidim will be biking all over Williamsburg?
Baruch Herzfeld: The Hasidim will soon be biking all over Williamsburg. My prediction is that in two years every Hasid without hemorrhoids will be commuting via bicycle in the warmer months.