Maybe you've had the chance to watch Unorthodox (if not, I recommend it), a Netflix series set precisely in this Jewish community, in which one of its members escapes to Berlin fleeing from the strict rules of her community.
1. Where is the Jewish quarter and how to get there?
My advice is to make the most of your visit to the most touristic part of Williamsburg and then discover the Jewish quarter. Get off at the Bedford Ave stop (L line) and walk to the Jewish Quarter, it will take you less than 30 minutes and you will be amazed by the contrast between blocks!
If you take the subway directly here, you can get off at Marcy Avenue (J, M, Z lines), Broadway (G line), or Hewes Street (J and M lines).
2. What will I find in the Jewish Quarter?
Compared to other areas of the neighborhood where street art, hip places, and designer residences abound, the streets of South Williamsburg are significantly austere, with buildings featuring weathered facades and most of them with bars on the windows.
In this area, much of the community lives on the threshold of poverty. In many homes, the men are engaged in Torah study and have not received sufficient secular education to qualify for skilled jobs that would allow them access to more earnings. Therefore, women are the only source of income in these families that usually have big offspring.
3. Is the Jewish quarter safe?
Yes, very much so. In fact, something that surprised me during my visit is that, unlike other modest neighborhoods in New York, in this one the crime rate is low. Everyone in the community knows each other and helps each other, so you can walk around and explore on your own without any problems.
4. How to visit the Jewish Quarter on your own
My main recommendation is that you take a leisurely stroll through its streets, noticing the local stores, its temples, its customs... During the walk through South Williamsburg, you will see that its restaurants and stores have signs in Hebrew as well as the typical yellow school buses. If you can, I recommend that you go into a kosher grocery store and buy some candy or bread.
But if there is something that you should no matter what do, is to carefully read about the way of life of this community to properly understand it. I will tell you everything you need to know before you get there.
5. What is the Jewish community of Williamsburg like?
Williamsburg's community of Orthodox Jews is the largest in the United States. Its inhabitants are Hasidic Jews (a branch within Orthodox Judaism) who came to the country from Hungary fleeing World War II and are characterized by strongly following the Halacha, that is, the compilation of the main Jewish laws.
In a cosmopolitan city like New York, where the cultural mix is constant, the hermeticism of this orthodox Jewish community is striking, since they practically do not mix with others. In the neighborhood of South Williamsburg, you will find absolutely anything you can think of: stores, banks, temples, schools, hospitals... as to make life in it without the need to leave. It's like a city within a city.
What are the families of the Orthodox Jewish community like?
Unlike the modern world in which most human beings exist, the Jewish community in Brooklyn is a collective very attached to its customs, so the roles that each member plays in the family are very defined.
In general, marriages are almost always agreed upon between the rabbi and the family of each spouse, who are usually quite young. In the families, the introduction of the boys is arranged and according to the characteristics of each one, the rabbi notes the name of the family member who could connect with the name of another.
Once married, the women must shave their heads, as they cannot show their hair in public. That is why during your visit to South Williamsburg you will see them wearing a scarf (tichel) or a wig to go out on the street. Their dress is very simple according to the modesty expected of them: dark clothes, long skirts, stockings, flat shoes, and no accessories.
As for the men, they have to wear a white shirt with a black jacket and pants. As an accessory they wear a hat, which can be of different kinds:
- The kippah: ritual beret with a sacred meaning that reminds that nothing is higher than God.
- The wide-brimmed hat: made of black felt as a sign of respect to God.
- The Shtreimel: a fox fur and velvet hat worn by married men on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.
Under the hat, men wear peiot, long ringlets on each side of the head as prescribed by the Torah. In this way, according to one of the mitvahs, they differentiated themselves from the idolaters who shaved their sides.
As for the beard that usually accompanies the peiot, it is allowed to grow to show that Jews are tied to a spiritual life and not to aesthetics or to the exterior world.
Roles in the home
For most of the time, men devote themselves to prayer and Torah study although some work as tradesmen. In most cases, however, it is the women who are responsible for working as teachers or sales clerks to maintain the household as well as raising the children, of which there are usually many since they do not use contraception methods.
The birth rate in Brooklyn's Jewish neighborhood is very prolific. Each family has an average of six children and it is common to see women on the street surrounded by children, pushing a stroller, or pregnant.
Most of their homes are located south of Division Avenue but stroll down any of the streets in the South Williamsburg neighborhood and you'll find yards and gardens where you'll see strollers parked and children playing under the watchful eyes of their mothers. You will only see fathers with their sons on the Sabbath, when they go together to pray at synagogue.
Despite their young age, children also have rules with which they must comply within the community:
- Circumcision: Male children are circumcised eight days after birth.
- Naming ceremony: This ceremony symbolizes the official entrance of girls into the Hasidic community.
On the other hand, it is customary that until the age of three, children in Orthodox Jewish families do not cut their hair. This ceremony is called upsherin and marks the passage to another stage of life where one ceases to be a baby and becomes a child with a certain degree of independence.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
Go to Sander's Bakery at 159 Lee Avenue! They have a great variety of fresh produce at great prices. The cupcakes are my favorite. Yummy!
6. What is it like to visit New York's Jewish Quarter on a Saturday?
Unlike Christians and Sundays, the holy day for Jews is the Sabbath. A solemn day of rest on which stores are closed, no work is allowed, no other activities such as cooking, washing, driving, or even writing.
That is why Friday is a day of much movement in the community because they have to leave everything ready so that on Saturday they do not have to do anything but read sacred texts, sing and spend the day with their families at the synagogue.
Since it is a holiday, if your visit to Brooklyn coincides with the Sabbath, you will be able to see firsthand how this special day is lived in South Williamsburg. You will see men and women on the streets dressed in their best clothes for the synagogue. In addition, the streets and parks are usually full of children playing. However, you will not have the opportunity to enter their stores as they will remain closed.
Eruv, the invisible thread
As I was saying, during the Sabbath Jews are not allowed to do a lot of things that involve work or physical effort so as not to contravene Jewish law.
For this reason, the community came up with an ingenious solution called eruv or free zone. It is a demarcation built with transparent wire to establish a perimeter where certain activities such as pushing a baby carriage or a wheelchair can be done without breaking the law.
In fact, just started Lee Avenue, if you look you can see a wire that encircles several areas of the neighborhood creating this safe space. It should be in perfect condition with no breaks in all the streets it runs through. In case it is not, on Friday morning a maintenance crew fixes it together with the supervision of a rabbi so that on Friday afternoon when Shabbat begins, everything is ready. And you may not believe it, but in Manhattan, there are 30 kilometers of the eruv.
7. Travel responsibly
Visitors don't pay too much attention to Jews and are used to seeing them pass through the neighborhood but it is advisable that during the route through South Williamsburg you act with consideration. The streets of Brooklyn's Jewish Quarter are no mere decoration for tourists.
Even if their clothing, hairstyles, or any other detail catches your eye, try not to make them feel uncomfortable by staring at them inquisitively. Be respectful when taking pictures because they don't like to be the constant focus of the cameras.
During the visit to South Williamsburg, I remember a great culture shock. It is surprising to see children and women walking on one side and men walking on the other in groups separated by different approaches.
In addition, the men never look directly into the eyes of the women as it would be a way of being incited to sin. They usually walk with their eyes glued to the ground. In fact, you will notice that when tourists pass through the neighborhood, the neighbors ignore them. It is not often that people from the Williamsburg Jewish community interact with others outside of the neighborhood.