In Hipster Williamsburg, Hasidic Jews Are the Real Counterculture


Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood is known as a center of gentrification and a gathering place for the cool young hipsters of New York City. A short walk from the Lower East Side over the Williamsburg Bridge, it’s also home to one of the most concentrated Hasidic Jewish communities in New York. 

In their new book, “A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg” (Yale University Press), Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper unpack the history of Jewish Williamsburg and the collision of its pious Jewish community with the forces of commerce and urban development.

They show how the Satmar and other Hasidic movements represented an alternative version of the “New York Jew” — the assimilated cohort that was already heading to the suburbs when Williamsburg began to fill with strictly Orthodox refugees from Hitler’s Europe. Moreover, while their fellow Jews were largely joining the professional class, the Hasidim had more in common with their Puerto Rican and African-American residents as proponents for and beneficiaries of federal and state aid to the poor.

“Rather than an Eastern European shtetl miraculously transported to Brooklyn, the Hasidic enclave in Williamsburg is a distinctly American creation, and its journey from the 1940s to the present is a classic New York City story,” they write.

We spoke to Deutsch, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Caspar, a writer with a Ph.D. in history from UCLA, about their book in an event at the American Jewish Historical Society on May 23. This conversation has been edited and condensed from a transcript of that discussion.

Shira Hanau: How did you decide to write this book?

Michael Casper: Nathaniel and I were both living in or near Williamsburg over 10 years ago, and separately had been spending time in the Hasidic community. We had made contacts there. I really loved to walk around there and buy Yiddish newspapers and speak a little Yiddish. When Nathaniel and I met, it was at the time of the [economic] crash and huge wave of foreclosures in and around Williamsburg. Some of those Zip codes had the highest rate of foreclosures in the city. That whole neighborhood went through a massive transformation, which we watched in real time. I think we both had sort of separate interests in various aspects of the neighborhood, religious aspects, social dynamics, and gentrification. And how the Hasidim themselves were expanding into other neighborhoods like Bed Stuy really interested us.

Nathaniel Deutsch: I had lived in Williamsburg since the 1990s, but in the hipster part of Williamsburg, a few blocks away from the Hasidic part. I became friends with a Hasidic community member and he and I would learn together in a shtiebel, a small synagogue, that actually became part of the epicenter for those Hasidim who really ended up opposing gentrification. He used to take me around to different places in the neighborhood and introduce me to people.

And the second thing was that when my wife was pregnant with our second daughter, she had a midwife who was in the Hasidic part of the neighborhood who had delivered 3,000 babies to Hasidic women, including one woman who had 17 babies. And so that was another entree and made me curious about a totally different aspect of the community

Getting access into Hasidic communities can be very difficult. How did you build those relationships and get people to trust you and to speak candidly, especially with women?

MC: Some people were willing to answer, some not, some women answered, some didn’t. We also interviewed some major Hasidic real estate developers, and we came to them in different ways. Some through contacts, in one case, through a Hasidic, contact. In another case, my friend’s brother happened to live in a building that was developed by someone we were already writing about and interested in. I found that people spoke candidly to us.

ND: In the case of a number of the women that I interviewed, some of them I met through male relatives, and others I just met independently. There were some differences in terms of where the interviews would take place. Learning was a way that I can gain entree into the male [community]. It’s a very gender-segregated community. When it came to women, most of the interviews I conducted were in people’s homes, or in a coffee shop outside of Hasidic Williamsburg, or even more typically in lower Manhattan. But people actually were very willing to talk in general. They were kind of curious about us. People would often ask, what’s your family name? Where do they come from? And what’s your family status? Like, are you married, do you have kids, those kinds of things. It’s interesting always when you interview people to also see how they’re situating you.

The relationships between the Hasidic community in Williamsburg and non-Jewish community leaders or politicians were often better than relationships with Jewish but non-Hasidic elected officials. Can you say a little more about that and why that is?

ND: There was an earlier Jewish community in Williamsburg, it was one of the largest Jewish communities in New York City, and it was known as the most Orthodox Jewish community already in the 1920s and 1930s. That was one of the reasons that the Hasidim were initially attracted to it. And yet — there was tension. The Hasidic groups were very concerned that their followers would be influenced by the local Jews, even more than non-Jews, because the other Jews represented a different Jewish path. You would see accounts where children would call other Jews, including Orthodox Jews, “shkutzim,” which is a pejorative term for non-Jews. And these were other Jews!

At the same time, the Satmar [Hasidim] became very notorious for being profoundly anti-Zionist, at a time when Zionism was increasing in popularity among American Jews. So they were distanced from other Jews in the U.S. in that regard, too. So there’s a variety of reasons why they end up becoming distanced and they see it as a way of protecting themselves and their community from negative influences. And ironically or not, the most negative influences arguably were from other Jews, in their mind, not from non-Jews.

You write about how that sense of external danger to the community shifts over time, eventually shifting to artists, hipsters and gentrification, which brought rising housing costs and spiritual dangers. What’s the outsider threat in Williamsburg today?

MC: I think that the hipster threat is kind of in the past too, interestingly. But yes, for many decades Hasidim lived mostly with Latino and African-American neighbors. And when the artists and later college graduates and young gentrifiers started to move to the area, the Hasidim, similarly to the way they saw other non-Orthodox Jews in an earlier period, saw these tattooed people with dogs, who laugh loudly in the street as a potential threat for their children in particular….  It was a question of modesty, too, in a lot of cases, and they would write about how women would dress in the neighborhood, which was a kind of a threat to to the general, modest character that they tried to keep.

ND: The gentrification of Williamsburg occurred at the same time as other changes that were impacting the Hasidic community in the neighborhood as well as haredim [in general.] That was things like the internet and the exposure to all sorts of different influences and luxury goods and things that previously were not available to Hasidim — the general embourgeoisement of the community. So a certain segment of the community in particular became wealthier. If you look at Hasidic media, you start to see ads for things like vacations in Switzerland, or spend Pesach in Miami or foods that are photographed in these really food magazine ways.

Michael especially has studied this phenomenon from the 1950s and on. The Satmar in particular had this ideology of being opposed to luksus, luxury. They’re very ascetic as a kind of ideal, and the Satmar rebbe, [Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum], their leader, tried to live out that ideal. And yet you see over time, this weakening of that opposition, at least in some camps within Hasidic Williamsburg, and then you also see a resistance to it.

For the last several years, there’s been a conversation in the Jewish community about whether Jews count as white given their history of being a minority and being persecuted. Did you ask people if they considered themselves white? 

ND: Hasidim in Williamsburg, their experience especially in the ’50s until gentrification, is much more similar to their African-American and Puerto Rican neighbors than it is to, let’s say, Ashkenazi or Eastern European or German Jews, or for that matter Sephardi Jews, living in the suburbs in that same period.

They live in public housing projects at a time when whites are leaving public housing projects in New York City and elsewhere in droves. And that’s exactly when they move into these high rise public housing projects and almost all of their other neighbors in those projects are African Americans and Latinos. During the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, Hasidim distinguished themselves [from other Jews] for tapping into those government anti-poverty programs. They even at a certain point, under Reagan, are officially designated as a “disadvantaged minority” group by a government agency, and therefore gain benefits for that. And during the same period, they experienced the divestment of city services that happen to neighborhoods like Williamsburg, they also suffer from environmental pollution that has a strong racial and racist dimension in areas like Williamsburg in terms of putting things like incinerators there and so on.

So in those ways, are they or are they not white? They experienced a lot of the things that these definitely non-white groups experience now whether they see themselves as white or not.

I did ask that very explicitly recently to a Hasidic guy I know. And he kind of said, that’s not exactly the right question, in the sense that for him, it’s much more important, the Jewish versus non-Jewish distinction, and the Hasidic versus non-Hasidic distinction. I think that the answer is probably “both, and.” Does he see himself as white in the same way that white people [might]? I would say no, but in recent years one of the things that I find interesting about the rightward shift politically among a lot of Hasidim is to what extent that will also ultimately involve a kind of greater identification with a kind of white identity than previously existed. I’ll leave that as kind of an open question. But I wonder whether that may even be happening now, as a result of supporting Trump in great numbers and so on.

You wrote about how the Hasidic community really spans the gamut of income, of dependence on welfare, dependence on public housing. You’ve got the developers with a lot of wealth on one end and people who are searching for affordable housing and often failing on the other. So how do you make sense of how this community falls under this umbrella of support for Trump?

I think there’s always been wealth inequality within the Hasidic community. And that was certainly exacerbated by the economic crash in 2008 and the subsequent rise of a class of extremely wealthy Hasidic real estate developers. So there have always been wealthy Hasidim and many more working class Hasidim, many of whom use the Section 8 housing voucher or live in public housing. I don’t know how much cognitive dissonance there is among Hasidim who, let’s say, use Section 8 and also vote for Republicans who would be ideologically opposed to welfare. I think that Hasidim vote really pragmatically, especially in local elections, and so they’ll vote for Republicans or Democrats. And even though there was a large swing towards Trump, there were some prominent Hasidic community members who supported Clinton [in 2016].

The Hasidic groups were very concerned that their followers would be influenced by the local Jews, even more than non-Jews, because the other Jews represented a different Jewish path.

ND: I wonder whether now though, in this current moment, we’re seeing a shift, among some at least, away from that pragmatism which has typically characterized Hasidic voting in Brooklyn. It’s been profoundly pragmatic, especially on bread and butter issues, like when it comes to education, when it comes to housing and so on. To some extent, you could see that in the support for Trump insofar as he made gestures towards support for private schools and that sort of thing but there’s also to me a stronger ideological component, as well as an almost personal affinity. One thing that I heard from a number of people is this idea that Trump is the first candidate, at least at that level, “who sees us as a community.” I don’t think that it’s negating the pragmatic. And you see, for example, in the current mayoral race in New York City, the pragmatic concerns are coming up a lot.

But at the same time, the Hasidic communities in New York City have largely coalesced around Andrew Yang in the mayoral race, rather than one of the more progressive candidates who might have been more interested in increasing public housing. I wonder if that surprised either of you?

ND: I talked to a bunch of people in recent days about this and in different specific communities, and everyone I talked to says it’s between Yang and [Brooklyn Borough president Eric] Adams in terms of their support. Adams has a long-standing relationship with different Hasidic communities in Williamsburg, in Borough Park, in Crown Heights, and has cultivated it for a long time. There’s also a long history going back at least to Shirley Chisholm of African-American politicians in North Brooklyn having support from Hasidim. The Hasidim in Crown Heights supported her different candidacies very strongly, for example.

And then Yang came in as a kind of wild card and he distinguished himself by basically saying more or less unequivocally that he was going to take a hands-off attitude towards [yeshiva] education. And there’s a big controversy right now, as to whether Hasidic schools will be compelled to comply with state standards regarding the curriculum and secular subjects. In fact, if you took all the students in the Hasidic schools, it would be the second largest public school district in the state of New York, bigger than Buffalo, the second largest after New York City. So it’s a lot of students and it also provides a lot of jobs for people teaching in the schools. And of course, educating Hasidic children is maybe the key to continuing the traditions and reconstituting the community and then recreating it with every generation. So I think that that’s why Yang’s gotten so much traction.

Why aren’t they supporting somebody who would be more progressive when it comes to public housing? It’s a good question in certain ways, and might be somewhat similar to  the whole “What’s the matter with Kansas?” argument, that certain people appear to vote against their interests. But then I think we should also expand the notion of what interests are. They might feel that the threat to education is more immediate and the likelihood that a New York City mayor will be able to deliver affordable housing, when that’s really done at the federal level, is much slimmer and more distant and so it’s better to focus on the more immediate threat.