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Clash of the Bearded Ones


It is the undercurrent of thwarted lust beneath the Satmars’ pious exterior that’s causing the tension with the Artisten, Herzfeld believes (“Orthodox is you don’t want to look at a girl in a bathing suit. Ultra-Orthodox is you want to close down a beach”). And it’s also what will bring about the sect’s downfall, he says.

Herzfeld is convinced there’s a massive generational split within the Hasidic community, one that explains Bloomberg’s dismal local showing in the last election (despite the alleged bike-lane-removal sop, the mayor’s formerly near-total Hasidic support dropped precipitously this time around, netting him only about half of the neighborhood’s votes). It’s not that the younger Hasids don’t trust Bloomberg; they don’t trust the community elders he courted and are loath to take their dictation. The messy succession battle between Joel Teitelbaum’s grandnephews, brother rabbis Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum, left many Satmars disgusted with both. And myriad maddening little things—like the elders’ tizzy every time a biker bares a knee—contribute to this frustration, Herzfeld says.

The bike-lane scandal has made Herzfeld a kind of unlikely spokesman for both communities. He represents, in fact, a burgeoning hybrid constituency—Hasidic hipsters. They are the ones you see banging their heads at the Reverend (Reverend!) Vince Anderson’s gospel-rock shows at Union Pool. They are the breed that gave us Curly Oxide (a Hasidic punk musician whose life may become a Sacha Baron Cohen movie), the Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, and writer Paula (actually Penina) Roth. In Herzfeld’s view, there’s less contradiction here than one may think. “Once a Hasid shaves his curls, he’s a hipster,” he says with a shrug, finishing his chicken soup and rising to greet yet another customer, a young Satmar in full regalia augmented by a giant Jacob the Jeweler–style wristwatch. “That’s it.”

If there is one reason the Hasid-hipster standoff runs deeper than the usual street-level urban tension, it is that both sides have a lot more to lose from parting. One needs living space, and the other needs to lease it. One likes exposed brick and inexpensive lofts, and the other has inherited a vast swath of factories unusable for their original purpose. According to one informal estimate, as many as one-third of the rental buildings in the Artisten-friendly North Williamsburg are owned by Hasids from South Williamsburg (the average two-bedroom rental in the Hasidic part of the neighborhood runs about $1,800. The exact same apartment across Broadway goes for $2,600). The Hasids and hipsters are shackled to each other in a co-dependent real-estate loop.

The Satmars’ original leader, Joel Teitelbaum, had brought with him from Hungary the idea of parnossa—“making livelihood.” One of his most famous sayings reads “If you’re walking with your kittel [a white garment] before Yom Kippur on your way to the shul, and someone offers you a kosher business deal, drop your kittel and go do it.” Supporting the community, in other words, comes first.

“How long have you lived in the community that you now want to make the rules and totally ignore my opinion, when I’ve lived here for 50 years?” Satmar spokesman Isaac Abraham says. “You just got here.”

Teitelbaum’s way has worked: The Satmars are a remarkably wealthy enclave. “But it’s pure entrepreneurship,” notes the same developer. “If you’re a Satmar, you’re either a businessman or blue collar. There are very few accountants, no lawyers, no doctors. Parnossa!

From their very first days in New York, the Satmars put down roots in Williamsburg by successfully lobbying for zoning changes—by turning an industrial area residential. This strategy paid off especially well when the real-estate prices started going wild in the late nineties. “We did what everyone was doing,” says Mayer Schwartz, who started a mini-empire by renovating his in-laws’ knitting factory on Bedford and North 5th. “Knitting was over. This is how most Hasids got into this, through manufacturing. And once they turned their family factory into condos, they got this know-how—‘Hey, let’s buy the building next door.’ Before you know it, you’re on this crazy real-estate roller coaster.”

If hipster Williamsburg has a social architect, it is Schwartz. His first project, in 1999, became the mini-mall that redefined Bedford Avenue. The retail collection he developed was both a parody of the American mall and a startling improvement on it. It housed an artisanal-cheese shop, a wine store, a bookseller with Guy Debord window displays, a Tibetan tchotchke store, a vinyl-heavy indie-record emporium, a Mac-friendly computer shop, and, of course, a coffeehouse. Many of these businesses later grew to take up their own storefronts on what became the hipster side of Bedford. Schwartz followed it up with Opera House Lofts, another ambitious development targeted squarely at the Artisten. His latest and largest project—Castle Braid, a 144-unit complex so named after the factory in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—is borderline hipster pandering. The game room has foosball and air hockey. On my arrival, the PA system in the lobby was softly playing Beck’s “Nobody’s Fault But My Own.” The building holds its own film festival (the first prize is six rent-free months) and a tenant-compiled library with Erotica and Gay-and-Lesbian sections. “It is totally kosher,” explains Schwartz, a devout Hasid. “I’ve been joking that I do this to make sure the Artisten stay on the other side!”

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