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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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A shtetl in South Williamsburg

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Waves of immigrants have descended on Williamsburg, an ethnically diverse neighbourhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Situated on land bought from its original native American inhabitants by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, Williamsburg was subsequently home to British, German and Jewish settlers from Germany and eastern Europe.

By the last third of the 19th century, Williamsburg was a vibrant industrial centre, a financial hub rivalling Wall Street and an engine of a booming American economy.

Newly minted millionaires such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Charles Pfizer built grand mansions here, and the Kings County Savings Bank erected a magnificent building, designed in the flamboyant French Second Empire style, at the corner of Bedford and Broadway.

With the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, Jews from the tenements of the congested Lower East Side flocked to Williamsburg. Their children and grandchildren included the comedian Mel Brooks, the professional basketball coach Red Auerbach, the comic book artist Will Eisner, the songwriter Barry Manilow, the gangster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel and the chanteuse Barbra Streisand.

After World War II, when Williamsburg was already in a state of decline, Jewish Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Romania streamed into southern Williamsburg. The newcomers were chassidic Jews, mainly anti-Zionist Satmar haredim from the town of Satu Mare.

Profoundly traditional and insular, and disdainful of the secular world, the Satmar sect established an exotic, self-contained enclave in South Williamsburg, one of three neighbourhoods in New York City populated by deeply observant Jews from various chassidic sects. Aside from Williamsburg, these enclaves are Borough Park and Crown Heights.

While Crown Heights and Borough Park are bastions of the Chabad Lubavitch and the Bobov dynastic sects, both of which are led by charismatic leaders at the head of “courts,” South Williamsburg is generally regarded as the abode of the Satmars. Yet the Satmars do not “own” this gritty and somewhat dilapidated stretch of Brooklyn, which has undergone considerable gentrification in recent years.

Apart from being inhabited by Jews from other chassidic sects – Belz, Skver, Vien, Ger, Krasna, Vizhnitz, Puppa, Tzelem, to name but a few – Puerto Ricans and avant-garde artistic types, commonly known as hipsters, also live in South Williamsburg. By contrast, Poles and Italians drifted into North Williamsburg, while African and Spanish Americans gravitated to East Williamsburg.

South Williamsburg, served by the L subway line and bisected by such streets as Lee Avenue, Bedford Avenue and Rodney Street, resembles a shtetl.

Men and boys in sidelocks are a common sight, as are bewigged women pushing baby carriages.

The chassidic community has one of the highest birthrates in the United States, with an average of eight children per family.

Since many chassidim prefer to study religious texts rather than work, their unemployment rate is uncommonly high, with approximately half living below the poverty line and relying on federal government assistance and small loans and handouts from their community.

Chassidim, however, are hardly poverty-stricken. The gainfully employed among them are the proprietors of retail stores, import-export businesses and auto repair garages, according to Jacob Gluck, a former Satmar Chassid who conducts guided walking tours of this district (HasidicWilliamsburgTour.com) and knows all there is to know about it.

The signage in front of their shops are in Yiddish and English: Satmar Meat & Poultry Market. Mazel Typesetting & Printing. Kaufman’s Electricity. L’chaim Kosher Wines and Spirits.

Some shops, like Stuhl’s Mens & Boys Chasidishe Raincoats, are antediluvian. Dark, gloomy and almost claustrophobic, a priceless relic from a Charles Dickens novel, it is a one-man show run by Yitzhak Stuhl, a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor who declines to have his picture taken.

Many shops enforce dress codes, forbidding immodest shorts, sleeveless blouses and low-cut necklines.

There are a profusion of glatt kosher bakeries, including Kaff’s, whose cinnamon babkas and cherry cheese danishes are heavenly, as I can personally testify.

Flaum’s Appetizers, a clean, well-lit place, sells an assortment of treats and great sour pickles from a barrel. Its co-owner, Zev Rapaport, is a confident young man whose father works for the English-language edition of the Hamodia, whose slogan is “The newspaper of Torah Jewry.”

The foremost kosher restaurant in South Williamsburg, Gottlieb’s, is at 352 Roebling St. Offering a wide selection of appetizers, soups, main dishes, sandwiches, side dishes, salads and desserts, Gottlieb’s menu lists endless delicacies: spicy Buffalo wings, mushroom and barley soup, chicken paprikash, kishke, potato kugel, farfel, apple strudel and the like.

Throughout South Williamsburg, mansions have been converted into synagogues and yeshivas, while nooks and crannies have made way for countless shtiblach.

Long yellow school buses, emblazoned with Yiddish lettering, are parked in front of separate boys and girls schools.

The ragged Victorian building that was once the residence of the spiritual leader of the Satmar movement, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, who died in 1979, stands virtually empty.  Rabbi Teitelbaum was succeeded by his nephew, Moshe, whose death in 2006 touched off a bitter succession struggle between his two sons, Aaron and Zalmen. Their feud has polarized the Satmar community, having divided it into two distinct camps and leaving the construction of a huge synagogue unfinished.

This is not the only problem bedevilling South Willliamsburg.

Access to government-subsidized housing, complaints about loud music blaring from clubs and claims that Chassidim get special treatment from police have all caused friction with non-Jewish residents.

The introduction of bike lanes, favoured by scantily dressed cyclists in warm weather, has led to tensions, too. But the kind of traumatic violence that Crown Heights experienced two decades ago, when street riots broke out, has not occurred in South Williamsburg.

Against the backdrop of these tensions, the Chassidim have fought tooth and nail to maintain the unique character of their neighbourhood. But some have simply left Williamsburg altogether, having resettled in the suburban enclave of Kiryas Joel, which lies within the town of Monroe.

Come what may, the 70,000 Chassidim of South Williamsburg are determined to preserve their way of life. They have done so for centuries and intend to do so in the foreseeable future.

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