We huddle next to Otha’s coffee shop to meet a cheery Hudson Valleyite with defiant long, brown hair. A thirty-something mum who was the fifth child of 15, she joined the outside world in 2010 after being pushed into marriage in her teens.
For the last four years, former insurance worker Frieda Vizel has made a living leading curious visitors through the streets of South Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Worlds away from the trendy North, the nostalgia-inducing neighbourhood on prime real estate turf contains an enclave of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews, cut off from New York City by aptly-named Division Avenue.
Hasidism is a Jewish revival movement which was born in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. Following the Second World War, its followers found sanctuary in Williamsburg. Now the area, which is officially one of the most impoverished in New York, is home to some 100,000 Hasidim.
As we wander, our group of around a dozen quickly attracts stares; some of intrigue, others hostility. First, a bearded man dressed in a traditional black coat and with his ear pressed to a rebbe-approved flip phone, loiters nearby as Frieda gestures towards the window of a judaica. Religious paraphernalia line the shelves and in the bottom right corner of the front display sits a boxed children’s Mitzvah Mobil, with branches featuring torahs and candelabras. “Everything you learn prepares you for this one way of life,” she admits: one which coaches women for motherhood and men to become breadwinners. Opposite, kippah-clad schoolboys race around a playground. There’s another one a few blocks away for the girls.
“Men and women are very segregated, but the sidewalks are shared,” Frieda tells me. If a man passes by, the woman steps aside and heads are bowed to avoid eye contact. She instructs us to keep out of the way: people feel uncomfortable if they’re forced to brush against someone of the opposite gender. We wind along roads cluttered with Hasidic school-buses. Long, dark jackets drape the shoulders of men, who sport payots (curly sidelocks) and top hats. Their wives, dressed in billowing calf-length skirts, pumps and tan pantyhose, juggle shopping bags and strollers. They glance over but seem mostly disinterested. Some wear pink blush, lipstick and have neatly-coiffed sheitels. Many wear them over shaved heads and the more pious also wear headscarves, leaving just a slither of fringe exposed. Frieda grew her hair out after turning her back on the fold.
One local takes an interest in us as we pause to cross a road. Many of the lampposts sport stickers prohibiting drugs, weapons and smartphones. Frieda points one out and the spectator, perhaps in his forties, begins to film us on his mobile. It’s an iPhone. If a disobedient mother was caught with one she could face severe punishment: her husband might report her to the local school, where teachers would refuse to let her child attend unless she agreed to give it up, Frieda says.
Rules penned by rebbes say technology is a corruptible influence. Households don’t have TVs, computers or radios and a watered-down version of the web is accessed only in internet cafe cubicles. Freda didn’t even know libraries existed until she was in her mid twenties, and many Hasidim never do. Bodegas don’t sell the New York Times; instead, residents dial a hotline for the daily bulletin. Meanwhile, sidewalk news racks are stocked with Tachlis, a weekly magazine which claims to get to “the heart of the matter”. Ads for wig stores, training courses for aspiring doulas and chocolate-filled sweetbreads decorate the pages. One article, ‘Each one of us’, declares that Hasidim have something in their DNA which makes them predisposed to kindness, empathy and selfishness. “We’re a family,” it states, “and it is incredibly tragic when some of our brethren grow unaware of where they come from and where they belong.”
A visibly-rattled Frieda continues to reel off facts but the man brusquely holds her gaze. We cross the road and he follows. His phone held aloft, he puffs his chest intimidatingly on the outskirts of our group. Frieda asks, in Yiddish, “Do you want something?” He mimics her, reciting the question back. Eventually he walks away but it’s enough to leave a lingering sense that some in the community don’t want us here.
We tuck ourselves into the warmth of a kosher bakery to escape the cold. Here, a goy (non-Jewish) cashier takes orders from men and women, doling out sweet pastries. Her voice laced with curiosity, a young mother pushing two baby girls asks: “Are you all Jews?” The answer is no; far from it. Most of the tourists in this group are Brooklyn dwellers who have only ever fleetingly encountered the Hasidim. As an NYC newcomer it’s easy to miss the entire settlement. Despite the fact it’s brimming with shopping streets, synagogues, parks and schools, many don’t have a digital footprint, so searching ‘bar’ or ‘cafe’ on Yelp is fruitless.
We finish the day eating noodle kugel at a bustling neighbourhood joint. Perched on a plastic chair, Frieda, who grew up in the upstate New York Hasidic settlement of Kiryas Joel before moving to Williamsburg to marry, poses a question: “Do you think women in the community are oppressed?” A strict dress code, separate schools and entrenched gender roles - which forbids women drivers and sees them shunted to the back of the bus while men recline up front - are all key parts of the culture here. So, yes - I think. And I get the impression Frieda must be of the same mindset. In her own words, she didn’t like the rules so divorced her husband, rented a flat and left, taking her son with her.
The price of that choice was that she was shunned, she says. She became the subject of raucous gossip and was bombarded by matchmakers hoping to make a quick buck by proffering suggestions of who could be hubby number two. She lost a support network and while her siblings now own houses overflowing with their young families, Frieda asked, “What do I have to show for it?” Her prize was freedom but for Hasidim, she adds, “the bar for happiness is so much lower”.