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Clash of the Bearded Ones

Hipsters, Hasids, and the Williamsburg street.

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Photo-illustration by Peter Rad  

On a windy Monday night, Pete’s Candy Store—a bar in Williamsburg with a railcar-shaped performance space in the back—is crammed to capacity with the thin and the bearded. Almost no one is drinking. The mood is pregame, expectant and nervous. We’re at one of the oddest New York City powwows in recent memory: a panel designed to quell a metastasizing dispute between bicyclists and Hasidic Jews. Except no Hasids are present. For a moment, it looks like the bicyclists will have to debate themselves.

At immediate issue is the Bedford Avenue bike lane. It’s the longest in Brooklyn and runs through every imaginable ethnic enclave—including the South Williamsburg redoubt of the Satmars, the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect. In December, after many complaints from the Satmars about “scantily clad” female riders, the city sandblasted off a small stretch of the lane; some enterprising bikers painted it back in protest; the city then painted over the unauthorized paint job. Now two activists are up on criminal-mischief charges, the lane is gone, and the two groups are glowering at each other with even less empathy than usual. Worse yet, each group finds itself standing in for a larger one in a larger fight: the Satmars for all Orthodox Jews and the bikers for all young secular Williamsburgers, i.e. hipsters.

Finally, the opponents are at the door. The Hasids are a group of three led by 59-year-old Isaac Abraham, an erstwhile candidate for the City Council and a self-appointed spokesman for the Satmars. The trio is bearded, too, of course, but differently so: These are authority beards. Heritage beards. Abraham finds his seat on the cramped stage and requests a glass of water, cracking, “Make sure it’s not spiked.” He’s attuned to the absurdity of the premise: Three Hasids and 120 cyclists walk into a bar.

The pro-bike side is represented by three women: Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group; Lyla Durden, a biker; and Heather Loop, an activist whose big idea after the lane erasure was to stage a topless bike ride through the neighborhood. It got snowed out.

The debate begins, such as it is. Abraham opens with an admission of bias: A bike knocked down his wife once. “Who was this guy?” he asks half-rhetorically. “And who do I sue?” Samponaro’s first sentence somehow packs in a nod to her birthday (“Whoo!”), Haiti, and Hurricane Katrina. Loop introduces herself as the author of the topless-ride initiative, “which God stopped with a blizzard,” she adds. “Damn him!”

Awkward giggles ricochet around the room. Abraham’s face turns to stone.

This is not going to be an easy evening.

The Satmar settlement was meant to be a place apart. The Satmars came to the neighborhood from Hungary and Romania after World War II, led by revered rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. The idea was to faithfully reproduce pious shtetl culture—in the sooty five-story brownstones, next to the clatter of the elevated train. The experiment succeeded beyond anyone’s expectation. The enclave is now home to the largest Hasidic sect in the world.

For years, the invisible border between South and North Williamsburg used to be, aptly enough, Division Avenue, which separated the Hasidim from the Hispanics. These days, the division runs along Broadway. The north side of the street brims with hipster retail, almost all of which painstakingly conjures an old-world feel; Marlow & Daughters is a retro butcher shop, Diner recontextualizes yet another railroad car, an antiques shop called Luddite sells Victorian coatracks for $350. On the south side of the street, just a few hundred feet down, the Old World is unironically alive. Bencraft Hatters sits next to a cobbler shop, next to Hatzloche Baby Furniture, next to Morson, another hat shop.

The hipster incursion began in the late nineties and was first written off as a fluke—some strangely dressed types poking around the abandoned warehouses and factories. The initial reaction, says Isaac Abraham, who has lived in the neighborhood for 58 years after emigrating from Austria (“Schwarzenegger country!”), was indifference. “Maybe the red carpet wasn’t out for them, but they came in masses and there was no objection from the community. Everybody went on with their daily lives.”

But after a while, says one Hasidic real-estate developer, “People started talking to the rabbis—‘Hey, something’s happening, all these young white people are moving in.’ ” When the Satmars realized that the Artisten—the Yiddish name they used for the bewildering newcomers—were there to stay, something like panic set in. Rabbis exhorted landlords not to rent to the Artisten, builders not to build for them. One flyer asked God to “please remove from upon us the plague of the artists, so that we shall not drown in evil waters, and so that they shall not come to our residence to ruin it.’’ Rabbi Zalman Leib Fulop announced that the Artisten were “a bitter decree from Heaven,” a biblical trial.


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