Clash of the Bearded Ones

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.

The distrust reached its apogee in 2004, after developer Martin Wydra bought the Gretsch Building—a former musical-instrument factory on the south side of Broadway—and turned it into the neighborhood’s first condo complex targeted to well-heeled hipsters. Pashkevil (pamphlets) demonizing the development blanketed the neighborhood. Wydra did all he could to tamp down the animosity: He scotched the plan to add balconies, tinted windows to protect the Satmars’ modest sensibilities from a glimpse of flesh, and canceled an indoor swimming pool lest a tenant walk outside in a swimsuit. Unappeased, the Hasids staged protests at Wydra’s own house in Flatbush. The developer was a religious Jew but not a Satmar, so he couldn’t be shunned. Instead, the community turned its anger to the local man who had sold the building to Wydra, who promptly found himself ostracized.

After the Gretsch affair, things quieted down for a time. The Artisten spread eastward into Bushwick and northward to Greenpoint, making them seem less like an immediate threat. Tempers would occasionally flare at things like a risqué billboard over the BQE. But the new and old Williamsburg had found, it seemed, a way to peacefully coexist.

Then, in 2007, came the bike lane, part of a citywide push to make streets more cycling-friendly. As bike lanes go, it wasn’t as plush as the ones springing up in Manhattan these days; it wasn’t even as nice as the one on neighboring Kent Avenue. But Bedford is Williamsburg’s main thoroughfare, and the pathway immediately found a thriving clientele. Morning to night, boys and girls whipped by Hasid minivans on their fixed-gears, hoods and hems flapping, thoughtful produce rattling in the baskets. It’s not that people didn’t bike down Bedford before, but the lane threw them into relief, marked them as a category.

The Satmars were incensed. Hasids are prohibited from looking at improperly dressed members of the opposite sex, and some complained that the women cycling through their neighborhood were an affront. “It’s a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code,” Simon Weiser, a Hasidic member of Community Board 1, told the Post. “Most Hasids have acclimated to living in New York,” says Sholom Deen, a semi-lapsed Hasid who, since 2003, has been publishing a blog called Hasidic Rebel. But each fresh bit of modernism—the Gretsch Building, the bus ads for Sex and the City—tends to touch off an uproar, he says, and the bikes were something new altogether: “It’s a direct intrusion.” The city, having spent $11,000 on the bike lane, appeared to encourage that intrusion, and the cyclists themselves seemed, if not improper, impudent. It felt like a seniority issue. “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?” Abraham says. “You just got here. You either offer to help and do as the Romans do, or …”—and here Abraham goes into a spirited, if odd, impression of a spoiled young man—“ ‘I live here now. I lived here for ten years, and now I’m going to make rules for the entire community!’ ”

“It is the undercurrent of thwarted lust beneath the Satmars’ pious exterior that’s causing the tension with the ‘Artisten,’ ’’ says Baruch Herzfeld, owner of the Traif Bike Gesheft, a.k.a. Unclean Bike Business.

For a full year, the city seemed to ignore the hipster-Hasid war. Then, on December 1, 2009, came a sudden announcement. The Department of Transportation—under Janette Sadik-Khan, the bike-friendliest commissioner it’s ever had—was going to rip up “a small portion” of the lane between Flushing and Division Avenues, fourteen blocks in all. The deal to remove the lane is said to have been quietly brokered as far back as last April. Just about everyone’s assumption, including that of more than a few Hasids, is that Michael Bloomberg had needed the Satmars—who tend to vote enthusiastically and in a single block—in the upcoming election and that this was an easy bone to throw them.

On December 1, a crew of municipal workers descended on Bedford, sandblasting the lane and its stenciled biker figures off the asphalt. The next day, a group of three bike activists—Quinn Hechtropf, Katherine Piccochi, and a man we’ll call Ben—had an idea. That Friday night, around 3 a.m., they hit the street with aerosol cans and handmade stencils. According to Ben, more than a few Satmars saw them paint. “As they walked by, I made sure I said hello, explained to them that we’re not vandalizing the street, and asked if they wanted to help,” he says. “At first, they were a little standoffish, but a couple of guys had a sense of humor about it.” But by Saturday, fresh snow covered the group’s efforts, and the painters, encouraged by the adventure’s relative ease and cheered on by myriad bike blogs, decided to finish the job Sunday night.

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.

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!”

By these standards, Zazza, Williamsburg’s newest luxury rental high-rise, which began renting apartments this February, is traif ten times over. It sits not on the border of the Hasidic territory, like Gretsch, but smack dab in the middle of it, between South 8th and South 9th Streets. Five years ago, in its place was a fully functional knish factory, Gabila’s, in business since 1921 and famous for “The Original Coney Island Square Knish.” The developer, Michael Zazza, says he bought it in 2005 at a fantastically low $85 per square foot. “I’m Italian and Syrian, and I went down into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood and knocked down a knish factory,” Zazza says. “As you can imagine, they were overwhelmed with joy!” The Hasids hung signs and staged protests; in a collaboration with Hispanic activists, they recruited the help of Queens councilman Tony Avella and pushed to landmark the factory.

Zazza knew how to make amends. His high-rise would be facing a synagogue, and he had bought a piece of land directly abutting it; if he built on it, he would rob the existing building of many of its windows. So he sold that lot to the synagogue. At market rate, of course. “I helped them preserve the character of the shul,” he says. “It was my peace offering.” He also shaded the bathroom windows on the side of the high-rise that would face the shul. He hired “indigenous people,” as he unironically calls Hasids, for kitchen cabinetry and plumbing fixtures. He gave locals first crack at renting, a completely pointless gesture because Zazza’s apartments don’t have the baths required by Hasidic tradition.

The resulting glassy tower epitomizes the weird armistice between the Satmars and the arrivistes. It has all the hipster amenities, from a fire pit to bike storage to a “resident gardening area.” But the grounds it occupies are protected by a fence—highly unusual for New York—and only accessible via an intercom-equipped metal gate. It looks like a fortress within an already fortified neighborhood: an enclave, like Andorra or Lesotho. “The fence is not that tall,” Zazza insists when I ask him about it. “I mean, it doesn’t look like Rikers Island or anything.”

The Saturday the building’s 66 units went on the market, remembers one young female apartment hunter, “was kind of a madhouse.” Corcoran brokers were shuffling frowzled hipster couples and postgrad roommate groups through the property, jabbering about the perks and the fixtures. All around this axis of crazed activity, the neighborhood was dead deserted, with shutters drawn and streets empty: Shabbos. Checking out the view from a handsome tenth-floor corner unit, the hunter looked down and saw fifteen or twenty Hasidic men gathered on the other side of the fence, immobile, looking up. When she got downstairs, they were still there, forming a kind of silent gauntlet for the folks flitting in and out. The message was unspoken but clear.

Zazza’s online gallery of alluring “neighborhood” photos—boutique, wineshop, brunch—features a shot of a comely female dressed in sunglasses and red shorts on a sun-dappled summer morning. She is pedaling along on her fixed-gear.

Back at the panel meeting at Pete’s Candy Store, the Satmars-versus-cyclists debate rages on. The discussion is devolving into chaos. Isaac Abraham offers odd, ad hoc claims that bicycles are dangerous in general, none of which has anything to do with the topic at hand, but each of which manages to infuriate the bike activists a little more. Heather gets stuck in a super-sarcastic spiral (“Well, maybe, if some people did their job,” etc). Only a naïf would have expected a resolution of any sort tonight. But the common blindness to facts and reason is beginning to look like, well, a plague.

After about an hour of this, I step outside, where the two Hasids from Abraham’s entourage are exchanging bemused quips. Near them, a bicycle is chained to a tree with a large NO BIKES sign. Two gunless NYPD officers, both Hispanic, hang around in yellow windbreakers that say COMMUNITY AFFAIRS.

“Are you here in case a fight breaks out?” I ask.

“Yeah, just in case,” answers one with a wide grin.

“No problems so far?”

“These people are not going to do anything. But damn, they can talk.”

Clash of the Bearded Ones