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Clash of the Bearded Ones


Lee Avenue near Hewes Street, Williamsburg.  

Around 4 a.m. on Monday, Ben was kneeling near the corner of Bedford and Division, putting the finishing touches on a stencil of a bicyclist figure. The can hissed and sputtered in his hand. Hechtropf and Piccochi were working in the opposite direction, painting near Williamsburg Street East. Suddenly, Ben’s cell phone went off: “The Hasidic police are here,” yelled Hechtropf. “This is getting ugly.” Ben dropped the stencil and ran toward the action, along the freshly painted line, to see if he could intercede. The scene he found on the corner of Williamsburg East was exactly what he’d feared. A tight circle of Hasids gathered around the crouching Hechtropf and Piccochi, pointing fingers and screaming that they were in big trouble. At least two siren-topped minivans of the Shomrim Patrol—the Hasidic volunteer police—were parked nearby.

The Shomrim held the three until the NYPD showed up and took over. “We were touching up the bike lane,” Ben told the police, not exactly lying if not telling the truth either. “It was in disrepair.” Unable to figure out the offense—freshening up a road marking is not graffiti—the officers let the painters go.

Hours later, on Monday morning, a boastful video went up on YouTube. “Repainting the Bike Lane on Bedford Avenue,” scored to a triumphantly grinding guitar riff, has received more than 135,000 views to date. By the end of the day, the police figured out they’d been sort of had and gave Hechtropf and Piccochi 24 hours to turn themselves in (Ben hasn’t been identified by police; hence the pseudonym). Protests were staged, one after another. A New Orleans–style “funeral group ride” down Bedford on December 13. The aborted underwear ride on December 19, downgraded to angry toasts at the Wreck Room bar. The bikers were now seemingly determined to shove their entitlement in the Satmars’ faces, and the Satmars were more disgusted with the hipster circus than ever. The two worlds had never seemed so far apart.

Gottlieb’s, a kosher deli on Roebling, offers a pastrami egg roll, a tongue sandwich, and a bowl of chicken soup filled to the rim with twisty, delicious bird stomachs. It also serves as one of the main marketplaces for Hasidic gossip in town. Right now, on a slow Thursday afternoon, the talk of the deli is Rachel, an 18-year-old Hasidic girl who “went off”—the local term for breaking with tradition.

“She got a huge tattoo,” reports Baruch Herzfeld to a gangly copper-haired cook in full beard and payess.

“No way,” says the cook, ecstatic. “No. Way.”

“Seriously. She shows it if you ask, too. Right here”—Herzfeld points at his thigh. “So fucking hot.”

The cook just grins.

“What, you don’t believe me?”

Herzfeld grabs his iPhone and opens Facebook, searching for photos of Rachel. The Hasidic Facebook is its own phenomenon, a parallel universe where the prim girls you see on the street in turban hats and snub-nosed forties shoes post their bikini snapshots and glamorously lit studio pictures. Herzfeld enthusiastically scrolls through his four-figure friend list, picking out the hotties for us to look at. “Esther. Hot girl. Her father is super-religious. The interesting part is how many friends they have. Look: 273 friends. Most of them are Hasidic guys.”

Baruch Herzfeld, 38, is a classic macher and motormouth with a foot in both the Hasid and hipster worlds. He is an Orthodox Jew with close ties to the Satmars who also calls the Satmar leaders “Talibanowitz” and says things like “There is no community more homoerotic than the Hasidim, they’re so fucking gay.” Within minutes of our acquaintance, he offers me a hookup with a lapsed-Hasid girl and invites me to the Dominican Republic to report on a business dispute of his currently making its way through the rabbinical court. He is dressed in a denim jacket that looks slept in, and a flannel cap that he can’t stop turning backward, forward, and to the side. His real bread and butter is some sort of telephone-card business, which finances his largely nonprofit bike shop with the awesome name Traif Bike Gesheft—Unclean Bike Business.

For South Williamsburg’s Hasids, Traif Bike Gesheft functions as a semi-secret window onto the larger world and a clubhouse of mild transgressions. Herzfeld rents bikes to Hasids at no cost, just to get them to venture beyond the neighborhood. (Among Satmars, bicycles are not specifically disallowed but are considered taboo nonetheless.) Inside the shop, otherwise righteous men let down their guard. Tongues loosen. “The men, they don’t know how to have a conversation with a woman,” Herzfeld explains, talking a mile a minute. “Whenever they come to the bike shop, the first thing they ask me to find them a prostitute. I tell them, look, you’re searching for answers. You’re not going to find them in the vagina of a woman you’re paying $200 an hour. If you want to meet somebody, you need to step outside of the community, you need to get a hobby. Come over, and I’ll teach you how to fix a bike. So the bike shop is a kind of outreach program.” A friend of Herzfeld’s also uses the shop to slip Hasids traif books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby.

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