I don't know if 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 the strict rules of her community.
We have already said on numerous occasions that New York is much more than Manhattan, and this area is a great proof of that. In the heart of Brooklyn, south of Williamsburg, you'll find a movie neighborhood worth exploring.
1. Where is the Jewish quarter and how to get there?
My advice is to take advantage 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). Check out the New York subway guide here to get the most out of New York's subway life.
2. What will I find in the Jewish Quarter?
Compared to other areas of the neighborhood where urban art, flirty shops and designer residences abound, the streets of South Williamsburg are austere and the buildings are simple, with worn facades and most of them with bars on the windows.
In this area, much of the community lives on the poverty line. In many households, the men are engaged in Torah study and have not received sufficient secular education to qualify for skilled jobs that would allow them to access more earnings. Therefore, women are the only source of income in these families that may have many children.
3. Is the Jewish Quarter safe?
Yes, very much so. In fact something that surprised me is that, unlike other humble neighborhoods in New York, the crime rate in this one 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 store and buy some candy or bread.
But if there is something that I recommend 100% is that before visiting the area, you should be well informed of what their customs are, in order to understand their way of life. I'll tell you everything you need to know before you get there.
5. What is the Williamsburg Jewish community like?
The Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg 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 their firm adherence to Halacha, the compilation of the main Jewish laws.
In a cosmopolitan city like New York where the cultural mixture 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 they have absolutely everything: stores, banks, temples, schools, doctors... as to make life in it without the need to leave. It is 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 move, the Jewish community of Brooklyn is very attached to its customs, so that the roles played by each member of the family are very well defined.
In general, marriages are almost always arranged between the rabbi and the family of each spouse, who are usually quite young. In the families, the presentation of the children is organized and according to the characteristics of each one, the rabbi writes down the name of the member of the family that could be connected with another one.
What to Wear
Once married, the women must shave their heads, as they cannot show their hair in public. That is why during a stroll through South Williamsburg you will see them wearing a headscarf (tichel) or a wig to go out on the street. Their clothing 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 black pants. As an accessory they wear a hat, which can be of different kinds:
- The kippah: a ritual beret with a sacred meaning that reminds us that nothing is higher than God.
- The wide-brimmed black felt hat as a sign of respect to God.
- The Shtreimel: a fox fur and velvet hat worn by married men during Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.
Under the hat the men wear the peiot, long ringlets on each side of the head according to the Torah. In this way, according to one of the mitvahs, they differentiated themselves from the idolaters who shaved their sides.
About the beard that usually accompanies the peiot, this one is left to grow to show that the Jews are tied to a spiritual life and not to the aesthetic nor to the external world.
Roles in the home
During most of the time, the men devote themselves to prayer and Torah study, although there are some who work as merchants. However, in most cases it is the women who are responsible for working as teachers or sales clerks to maintain the household as well as to raise the children, which are usually many since they do not use contraceptive methods.
The birth rate in the Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn 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 baby carriage 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, the children also have rules to abide by in the community:
- Circumcision: This is performed on boys 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 stops being a baby to become 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. How is the visit to the Jewish quarter of New York on Sabbath?
Unlike Christians and Sunday, the holy day for Jews is the Sabbath. A solemn day of rest on which stores are closed, no work is allowed, and no other activities such as cooking, washing, driving or even writing are permitted.
That is why Fridays are a busy day in the community because they have to leave everything prepared so that on Saturday they do not have to do anything more than read sacred texts, sing and spend the day between the family and the synagogue.
As 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 to go to 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 be closed.
Eruv, the invisible thread
As I said, during the Sabbath Jews are not allowed to do a lot of things that involve work or physical exertion so as not to contravene Jewish law.
For this reason, the community came up with an ingenious solution called eruv or free zone, a demarcation built with transparent cable with the intention of establishing 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 surrounds 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 about 30 kilometers of eruv.
7. Travel responsibly
Visitors don't pay much attention to them and are used to seeing them pass through the neighborhood, but it is advisable to act with consideration during your tour of South Williamsburg. The streets of Brooklyn's Jewish Quarter are no mere decoration for tourists.
Even if their clothing, hairstyles or any other detail catches your attention, try not to make them feel uncomfortable and don't stare at them with curiosity. Be respectful when taking pictures because they do not like to be the constant focus of the cameras.
During the visit to South Williamsburg I remember that the culture shock was great. 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.
8. Other visiting tips
If you feel like touring Brooklyn with a guided tour you should know that there are some tours of New York in Spanish that go through this area, with the advantage that you can ask the guide all the questions and ask for all the recommendations you need. The New York contrasts tour, for example, runs through the city from north to south and ends the tour in Brooklyn.
It is a great way to explore the cultural contrasts of the city, putting them in a historical context that will help you understand how dozens of cultures coexist in this great city.