Warming Up to Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish Community

The long weekend of the 4th of July couldn’t have come at a better time. I could feel my adrenaline surging through my body as I finally had a good reason to cross the Hudson River than just to sit by the Brooklyn Dumbo park and galavanting at the beamy structure of Manhattan Bridge.

As the train moved further away from Manhattan, the other face of New York sprouted out; dull-coloured minimalist flats, street graffitis, and the gradual background change of world-reknowned skyscrapers with residential areas of Brooklyn.

The train finally came to a stop at Macey St, the closest station to the second-largest Hasidic community; Williamsburg. I had walked over 500 metres from the Macey St station when it began to be apparent of me finally reaching its Hasidic Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood.

“Wow…America, you had never failed to surprise me!” screamed my inner self as my brisk walks came to a sudden halt.

Orthodox Jewish kids in kippah and cute sidecurls.

Orthodox Jewish kids in kippah and cute sidecurls.

I was dumbstrucked by the sudden demographic change of the neighbourhood as small boys in kippah over their head with long sidecurls cycled pass by me. Their blue-eyed mothers were pushing the baby stroller along the pedestrian walkway while keeping a close watch on their hullahooping young Jewish daughters.

As the children were busy enjoying their summer joys, one after another of gentlemen in long black coats whizzed by me, albeit without the typically-American friendly gesture of “Good morning!” or “How is it going?”.

Their expressions were grim, if not appearing to mutter something almost-whisper-like; which I presumed to be verses from the Torah.

Some of the ladies were covering their heads in the eerily-similar way the Muslim women and nuns of the Catholic Christians would do.

It strucked me that this must have been how some Westerners perceive veiled Muslim migrants in Europe and other parts of North America, particularly in highly-homogenous areas due to this broken link of social empathy, thanks to their ignorance. Similar thing can be said of certain Malay-Muslims in the Peninsular who are always in the paranoia of Christianisation—as though their children can’t think on their own feet.

The 'Jewish-like' words which I initially thought was Hebrew.

The ‘Jewish-like’ words which I initially thought was Hebrew.

It was not long before I then discovered that Williamsburg’s Orthodox Jewish have their own schools with school buses bearing Jewish-like (I had seen it on TV before) words on their striking-yellow body, clothing stores to cater to their special religious needs, taylor outlets, bookstores, kosher meat stores and cafeterias, public halls, and of course, their place of worship—the synagogues. As a ‘minority within minority’ community in New York City, it was mindblowing for them to even have several newspapers, magazines, and textbooks–in their own language!

Newspaper, magazines and textbooks are available in Yiddish in Williamburg and Borough Park

Newspaper, magazines and textbooks are available in Yiddish in Williamburg and Borough Park

The scorching heat was beginning to take its toll on me, and so I took shade from the nearby building with large Jewish-like signboards atop, before a gentleman walked out of the building to light up his cigarette.

“Shalom”, as I extended my right arm for a handshake.

He didn’t reply, nor that he shook my hand.

“Erm…I am new to this area, and I am fascinated by the happenings around here. Do you have a moment for a brief chat?”

In his rather unfriendly intonation, he replied: “What do you want to know?” while continuing to smoke his second cigarette stick.

I looked into his eyes and started explaining my brief encounter with an Orthodox Jewish near the United Nations building in Manhattan, protesting against the existence of the state of Israel.

Shia Schwatz, as he then later introduced himself, pulled a meek smile before responding:

“The Hasidic community had been here ever since the end of World War II. Mostly came from Eastern and Central Europe…many from the Nazi’s concentration camps too. We devote ourselves to God and live our life the same way as did our ancestors from thousands of years ago.”

“Even the long black coats and fancy hats?” I chipped in.

“Yes, this is what my father, grandfather, great grandfather, and my ancestors have been wearing. I don’t know when and how it began. The women too, have to cover their hair. I don’t know what you call it in English…(paused momentarily)…wig?”

“Wig? Maybe he meant head scarf. Why would the Jewish women wear wigs?” I re-assured myself.

“Oh yes, I realised some of the women here wear headscarves, just like the Muslim women do. We are after all part of the Abrahamic faith.”

Schwatz quickly put out his cigarette and step on its amber end with his shining black shoes before adding:

“No-no, not the head scarf. Married Jewish women put on the wigs as they normally shave their head bald as their husbands can’t see their hair after getting married. Some chose to wear headscarves, but mostly have their wigs on.”

Schwatz didn’t seem like he was joking.

After all, he identified himself as a pious and practicing Orthodox Jewish. It did however seem like the Jewish women have similar, perfectly-combed hairdo, although I couldn’t be bothered to speculate if their hairs were authentic or not.

Not wanting to pursue the subject further, I started to veer the conversation to the context of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian lands.

“The Orthodox Jewish does not approve of Israel. The Torah and Bible had stated that there shouldn’t be any Jewish states until the coming of Messiah. God had placed us in places where we are today for reasons only known to Him. In fact, we don’t even speak Hebrew like how the Israelis do,” stressed Schwatz as he began to be more energised from his afternoon slumber.

I scratched my head in confusion before continuing:

“Wait, so what foreign language was it when I heard the people here conversing? It was definitely not in English. And isn’t the language of Torah, Hebrew?”.

I felt terrible for now that I began to sound like those ignorant rednecks from my former high school in rural Iowa who once thought that Japan was part of America.

“We speak in Yiddish as how our forefathers did before the Holocaust happened. Only the Israelis or the Jewish families whom had migrated to Israel speak in Hebrew. The Torah we have here are in Yiddish, unlike theirs. That was why I didn’t respond to you when u bade ‘Shalom‘ to me, for I don’t speak in Hebrew,” chided the grey-bearded Schwatz in his crooked-teeth smile.

He then excused himself to make his way to the three-story building to pray—which apparently was a synagogue. Unlike churches or mosques here in New York, the synagogue was not distinguishable from any other buildings save for its Yiddish signboard, one which I obviously couldn’t understand.

Before he left, I asked Schwatz if the Orthodox Jewish women here are open to conversations with a stranger in Yankees cap and Bermuda shorts. He simple shrugged his shoulders and took his palm-sized Torah out of his long black coat before walking away.

Orthodox Jewish man in long black coat, and tall hat.

Orthodox Jewish man in long black coat, and tall hat.

Cheeky Schwatz…!”

I should have known better from the Orthodox reference itself; in whose right mind would one think that conservative women would say yes to a conversation with strangers?

This is a close-knit, family-oriented Hasidic neighbourhood, so much so that my presence along the pedestrian walkway stood out from the rest as I was the only guy without sidecurls nor kippah, save for the occasional sights of the Latino workers.

As I was rejected for the third time by the Jewish ladies that day, a mid-age retiree in his Lacoste polo shirt patted me on the back and said: “Strange people aren’t they?”

I noticed that he was a campaign volunteer for one of the local politicians vying for the Hasidic support in the upcoming council election. I felt rather uncomfortable as he didn’t mince his words in his hatred of ‘feeling ostracised in his own borough.‘

Deep down, I could tell that Josh (with his nametag pinned to his right chest) was uncomfortable; not for the fact that they are Orthodox Jewish, but more so for their outwardly religious expression—including the overzealous efforts of ensuring that the younger generations are not forgetting their Orthodox way of life by enrolling them into self-founded Orthodox Jewish schools.

“You see, they don’t put any American flags for the July 4th. I was just walking down the Italian…I mean the American-Italian, and the Latinos (note how he didn’t consider them American enough to be called as one), and they all took out their American flags out…but not these Orthodox Jewish,” lamented the narcissistic Josh.

I guess this was the kind of attitude that the Orthodox Jewish community tend to avoid from—the inability of people like Josh to understand their identity.

I left home feeling more confused than ever.

Is there only one way of being ‘American’, one that’s basically a pop-culture oriented and predominantly Western?

Is one less ‘American‘ for wearing his religion up the sleeves?

Is there space for multi-culturalism and religious pluralism in this Land of the Free?

These lingering questions didn’t stop despite the magnificent fireworks display celebrating the 4th of July from Lower Manhattan, and so I went back to Brooklyn to seek for answers—this time in the largest Orthodox Jewish community in New York City, the Borough Park.

My inner consciousness pulled me back several times from approaching the local Orthodox Jewish for I began to realise that they shouldn’t be treated any differently—such as by being asked difficult questions by an outsider like me—just because they are practicing their religious freedom.

Perhaps already accustomed to being put under such scrutiny; men, women and little kids alike didn’t even bother to look at me in the eyes as they walked away from my sincere greetings. A young lad by the name of Elli though, wilfully entertained my overt friendliness despite being in a rush to perform his afternoon prayer.

“It is not true that the Hasidic people are less of an American. In fact, we are more American than everyone else for we are exercising our rights as guaranteed by the Constitution—there’s nowhere else the Orthodox Jewish can live this way but in America.

If we can tolerate people who are different from us, so should the rest,” explained the strangely red-haired Elli in his thick Yiddish accent.

Elli then echoed my view that the key to living harmoniously is to bridge the divide by respecting each other’s differences while cherishing our similarities.

He then spoke of the destruction of The First Holy Temple and The Second Holy Temple in the past as a sign of punishments by God for our failures to avoid antagonising people of different values and beliefs.

I then asked him if it’s true that the Orthodox Jewish women are often restrained by the more dominant Orthodox Jewish men in their daily household, so much so that none of the six Jewish women that I had approach dared to speak to me.

Elli’s response reeked of what a conservative Malay Imam would say :

“I can’t answer on behalf of them. But the community here is just playing our role to protect the our women from the unnecessary and unwanted attention of ill-intentioned men.”

I walked Elli all the way to his corner house near the New Utrech Avenue, which is conveniently-located near the Metro station for me to head back to Manhattan. Before we parted ways, Elli shot me a genuine, innocent question.

“Malaysia is in Africa right? I heard majority of the people there are Buddhists.”

I could only afford to smile.


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