Hasidim walk through Williamsburg / All photos courtesy of Mo Gelber
Pro tip for anyone considering a tour of Hasidic Williamsburg: It’s not that big a deal. You do not need to wear a hat, broad-brimmed or otherwise. You may visit during the week, and you may visit on weekends. You may bring along with you whatever food you like — nobody cares. And rest assured, there is no group of Hasidic thugs waiting to attack you at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Here, on the other hand, is one thing not to do — especially if you are a gray-haired gentleman of late-middle-age: attempt to engage with eight-year-old Hasidic girls on the street without their parents’ consent, and then throw a hissy fit when the girls seem suspicious of you and your motives.
Other things not to do: gawk, objectify, belittle, and otherwise bring your prejudices and misconceptions with you. Leave those at the edge of the Williamsburg bridge, if you must, and you might choose not to pick them up on your way out.
You would think these guidelines are common sense. To some, however, they are not.
Last month, Dr. Marty Klein, a nationally renowned psychologist and sexuality expert, took a 90-minute walk around the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. After his tour, which he wrote about on his blog, he declared the most notable thing about Williamsburg: the women “have no eyes” and the children are “creepy.”
That’s right. Of all the things Klein learned about the Satmars, it was the women and children who left him disappointed.
The good doctor walked along Keap Street, Bedford Avenue, and other parts of the neighborhood, and observed its residents with the keen eye of the trained scientist that he is, and noted that whenever women and young girls passed him, “their eyes died and I ceased to exist,” because they refused to acknowledge him in the precise manner he thought appropriate. Six-year-olds were “creepy” for not returning his smiles. Of an eight-year-old girl, with whom he tried to interact, he writes: “I got the most disdainful, disgusted, derisive look I have ever gotten from a human being.”
Dr. Klein assures us that none of this was his fault — he took all necessary precautions to avoid offending the natives. He wore a broad-brimmed hat, see. He brought along no food or drink. And, most of all, he writes: “I certainly didn’t come on a Saturday,” a sin for which he believes he “would have been forcefully removed by thugs from the local militia.”
It is unclear where Dr. Klein learned that these random acts were appropriate signs of respect (does he think the Satmars sustain themselves without food?), but whatever his source, it is clearly a questionable one, as is further evident from his attempts to convey his vast knowledge of Hasidic practices: “Betrothal by age 14 is not uncommon” (an utterly absurd notion — nobody is betrothed at 14, and betrothal before age18-19 is in fact quite rare); “girls rarely enter high school” (Williamsburg’s Hasidic girls all attend high school as a matter of course); and the entire neighborhood has only a single, men-only restaurant (I, only an occasional visitor, can name at least a dozen, well frequented by both sexes).
As a former Hasid who has spent considerable time in Williamsburg, both during my Hasidic years and after, I found Dr. Klein’s portrayal of Williamsburg’s Hasidim to be closed-minded and prejudicial, bordering on bigoted. Clearly, the man came with attitude, as if embarking on some great adventure among Brooklyn’s last savages. “I am not welcome in the Satmar neighborhood,” he tells us, an assertion for which he provides no source, but which clearly served as the lens through which he makes his observations.
Was he, in fact, unwelcome?
Not exactly, says Frieda Vizel, who runs VisitHasidim.com, and regularly brings large groups — anywhere between 15 and 50 people at a time — for a glimpse at Hasidic Williamsburg’s culture and history. Vizel is a former Satmar woman and now a licensed NYC tour guide, and she says that when she visits with her groups, she gets no trouble. “Most Hasidim simply tune us out,” she says, “the same way any New Yorker tunes out a large group of tourists.” Some, however, are perfectly friendly and engaging — and, in fact, find the visitors fascinating. “One woman couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that we were interested in her little world,” Vizel told me. “I could tell by the sparkle in her eyes that she was proud.”
Vizel, too, was dismayed by Klein’s characterization of the neighborhood and its people, and it is precisely such attitudes that worry her. “My biggest concern is for my visitors not to see Hasidim as caricatures, or gawk at people that way,” Vizel told me. “There is so much misinformation about Hasidim, they are so often dehumanized. It bothers me.”
Similarly, another woman, Sarah, a 32-year-old mother of four who was raised within Williamsburg’s Satmar community and lived there until 2010 (she asked that her last name not be published), told me that the community has no problem with visitors. “Most people see them as part-and-parcel of living in New York City,” she says. “The community doesn’t care about the cheeseburger in your bag, or the camera around your neck, or if you wear a hat.”
Sarah admits that the Satmars aren’t the friendliest bunch. “The fear and suspicion of outsiders run deep.” Still, it’s only when violating people’s privacy that things get knotty, especially when it comes to minors. “Children should never, ever be approached or otherwise engaged without a parent’s consent,” she says. “A man without a camera smiling at little girls? Oh, no. Not on any day of the week.”
And what about the thugs from the local militia? Presumably, Dr. Klein was referring to the Shomrim, an often-controversial neighborhood patrol group founded decades ago to help fight crime. But according to Vizel, the Shomrim are nowhere to be seen during any of her own visits. “Shomrim are Hollywood’s obsession,” Vizel says. “I’ve seen more of Shomrim in movies than on Williamsburg’s streets.”
In truth, though, Klein’s account of his visit bothered me not so much because of his snickering tone or his obvious prejudices, but because it highlights a greater problem that comes with critiquing the Hasidic world: drawing the line between hostility and legitimate criticism. That line can be easily blurred, and when that happens, the real issues get lost in the maelstrom of invective between critics and defenders. Hasidim are often under the impression that the world is out to get them, and articles like Klein’s, dripping with condescension and derision, only reinforce that belief. Well-intentioned agents of change then become indistinguishable from mean-spirited provocateurs, and the ones affected most — people within who bear the brunt of some of the community’s ill-conceived practices — are the ones who lose out.
There are certainly manyissuesfor which the Hasidic community deserves to be criticized, and I’ve been known to issue a harshremark or two in its direction. But women and children being wary of strange, gawking, middle-aged men certainly isn’t one of them.
Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid, and the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return” a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Salon, Haaretz, Tablet, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn.