Bridging Brooklyn’s Jewish Divide

Borough’s Community Has a Split Personality, But the Two Sides Might Not Be as Far Apart as They Appear

By Nacha Cattan

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
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Occasionally, I walk out of my present apartment and come face to face with my past. She’s wearing a long skirt and an I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-natural wig. If she’s a childhood friend, we probably chat politely about her kids and my job as a journalist. If I’m wearing pants, she’ll try not to look down (even if her children can’t seem to look anywhere else). There was a time when I’d wear a skirt to put her at ease; now I appreciate her inelegant attempt to make me feel comfortable.

Seven months ago, I moved back to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was raised there as a Lubavitch chasidic Jew until I left the Orthodox lifestyle in my early 20s. After living for several years in Park Slope — a part of the same borough only a few miles away, but worlds apart — this return to the neighborhood of my youth has given me a new perspective on the two universes I inhabit.

From a pigeon’s-eye view, there are two Jewish Brooklyns. One comprises the Orthodox and Russian immigrant enclaves that over the past decades gradually squeezed out most Reform and Conservative elements from their midst. Those are based in Williamsburg, Borough Park, Crown Heights, Midwood and Brighton Beach. The other Jewish Brooklyn is a growing minority of tangentially connected individuals, many from the creative community, who have eschewed the old shtetl model, opting for newer, more ethnically ambiguous territory — often lacking established Jewish institutions. They usually live in ethnically mixed, gentrified areas such as Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Carroll Gardens and Greenpoint.

One would think there is no common ground between these two groups, but the lines are blurrier than you think.

For the first time, the Brooklyn Academy of Music is celebrating Brooklyn Jewish Heritage Month, in April, to be followed by the fourth annual Brooklyn Jewish Film Festival from April 28 to May 2. Located at the crossroads of several brownstone neighborhoods and a hairsbreadth away from the Atlantic Avenue subway station, BAM is attempting to bridge both Jewish Brooklyns. The lineup of performers for this special series includes such downtown Manhattan scenesters as Jewcy and its Seder-Matzochism Tango on April 10 and chasidic reggae artist Matisyahu, a bearded Lubavitcher from Crown Heights, on April 17 (see article below).

Before I moved back to Crown Heights, bringing the two Brooklyns together would have seemed to me a fool’s errand. I had trouble enough envisioning how I could square my own secular routine with even the most superficial rituals of my Crown Heights neighbors. I worried about how I would be received, not so much by my family and friends, but by the casual acquaintances, old classmates and storekeepers I would pass on my way to work. Before I had moved out of Crown Heights, I used to spend an enormous amount of mental energy plotting my walks home from the office on Friday evenings to avoid being seen carrying my purse by the congregants filtering out of synagogue. The task proved almost impossible because of the two brick-house shtiebls located on either side of my street corner, and a third one five doors from my house. From inside my walled city of shtiebls the only way out was a full withdrawal, from Judaism, old friends and, to some extent, my family. A neighborhood like Park Slope — with a Chinese takeout for every one of Crown Heights’s synagogues — seemed like a cultural Jew’s paradise.

Once I made it to the other side, I discovered a new brand of Brooklyn Jew. They are mostly younger and unaffiliated, many of them émigrés from suburbia. They may show up for a night of cultural Judaism at BAM, but don’t expect them to join a synagogue. Many in this growing group of post-shtetl Jews are nostalgic for the tenements of their grandparents, but they are more ambivalent about making a strong claim to institutional Judaism and often times do not identify with a religious denomination. The proof is in the pew. Only approximately a dozen non-chasidic synagogues exist in the brownstone belt to serve more than 30,000 Jews. In all of Brooklyn, according to one recent study, only 37 of the 256 synagogues are non-Orthodox.

But with plenty of alternatives to traditional religious practice, residents, myself included, can sample a deeply committed Judaism without having to commit. Many have likened today’s Brooklyn to Israel, where residents feel Jewish just by planting themselves there. Those exploring Brooklyn’s brand of Judaism can seek out Yiddish Purimspiels in the shtiebls of Borough Park, eat herring at Georgian-Jewish restaurants in Brighton Beach, catch a chasidic minyan in Williamsburg, and for the intrepid seeker, take a weekend retreat to Crown Heights — and still catch a subway back to their funky, diverse and secular neighborhoods afterward.

This ethnic globetrotting swings both ways. While living in Park Slope, I often bumped into my now-married former schoolmates hurrying out of nail salons to make it home in time for Shabbes. Beauty salons on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope have grown so overcrowded on Friday afternoons that Lubavitch women have deftly mastered the quest for the undiscovered manicurist — a pursuit not unlike one undertaken by their hip Brooklyn sisters who scramble to dig up the most obscure bar or restaurant.

At a party in Williamsburg for Orthodox Jewish participants of Rainbow Gatherings — a series of nature festivals for hippie-types — I stumbled upon a colorful crew of bearded hippies sipping kosher wine and smoking marijuana. Enjoying the summer breeze while swinging in a hammock, I gazed at the Manhattan skyline with a young man and woman who had just met at the party. A few months later I heard about their marriage in a Crown Heights wedding hall. In Fort Greene, at a Chanukah party, chasidim and formerly Orthodox Jews (often indistinguishable to the untrained eye) hummed wordless chasidic melodies.

There are certainly stark divides between the two Brooklyns: geography, modest dress versus the tank top — and, of course, belief systems. But the spirit of experimentation, a mirror of the ethnic exploration taking place in the larger Brooklyn, seems to be bringing the two closer together. Factor in what I see as a critical mass of Orthodox Jews leaving the fold and an equal number entering it, and perhaps precisely because the secular seekers are not tied down to any denomination, you have a Brooklyn-size gefilte fish.

When I returned to Crown Heights I noticed that there was a fascination about where I had been, even as there lurked in the background a judgment about who I had become. While I was aware of a kindness — and condescension — that is usually reserved for strangers, my Park Slope sojourn seemed to lend me shul-cred. The Slope has been the Mecca to many a Crown Heights youngster who sought a quick escape from Kingston Avenue in a café or bookstore — just three subway stops away. I have often been asked to talk about my hipster exploits or to recommend a Brooklyn hangout, as if I were a bridge to some other borough. My views of the community have also changed. Much of the bitterness I felt at being involuntarily caged has melted away; I am now a free agent. I have begun to appreciate the richness of my culture, even if that appreciation borders on a fascination one feels only as an outsider.

I have realized how much Brooklyn and I have grown up together. What was once a war between black and white, immigrant and slightly wealthier immigrant, Orthodox and secular Jew, was my struggle between religion and independence, community and privacy. These days I’m content with spending Seder night with extended family, followed by Passover day at the movies, chomping on forbidden buttered popcorn.

As I have matured, so has Brooklyn: While the County of Kings continues to have its fair share of paupers, and Crown Heights could always use more kumbaya, rigid cultural boundaries have been stretching with time. It is no longer just a borough of the immigrant, or as Alfred Kazin writes, a perch from which Manhattan appears a “foreign city.” Brooklyn has emerged as a playground of ethnic discovery, gentrification and the arts. It is a place from which many a literary character has fled in search of a less parochial life. But the authors who created them are now returning in droves. Jonathan Lethem and Phillip Lopate are just two writers who immediately come to mind.

Seven months after returning to Crown Heights, I am leaving again, embarking on an extended trip to Mexico. When I return, Brooklyn’s rare form of cross-pollination may no longer exist. The hipsters could pair off, have kids and join the denominational divide of synagogues. Or they may fall away altogether, unable to sustain a Jewish identity on a diet of Time Out New York event-driven Judaism. But whatever happens, the restless borough will continue to remain in flux, and I plan to be part of the mix.

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