Jul 11, 2014

Hasidic Williamsburg, as Seen by One Who Left Sect

Julie Turkewitz
July 10, 2014
NY Times

On a recent sunny Monday, a bespectacled young woman stood at Broadway and Marcy Avenue, a Brooklyn crossing where hipsters, Hispanics and Hasidim mingle in a way that defines Williamsburg in 2014: a chic coffee shop near a Caribbean restaurant near a group of bearded men wearing black hats.

“We’re going into a really, really different part of New York City,” said the woman, Frieda Vizel, a microphone strapped to her head, “and I want us to be able to put that in a larger context.”

Ms. Vizel, 29, operates a tour business called Visit Hasidim and was about to lead her latest group of curiosity seekers on an educational perambulation through a section of Williamsburg roughly bounded by Broadway, Division Avenue, Heyward Street and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and populated largely by ultrareligious Jews.

While legions of tour guides have long shepherded the inquisitive through the city’s neighborhoods, Ms. Vizel said she offers something special: an insider’s look at a community that is famously difficult to penetrate, mostly because among those seeking to recreate the shtetl of yore, insularity is a core value.

Ms. Vizel is herself a former Hasid, born and raised in Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic village in Orange County, N.Y. At a time when the Hasidim’s reclusive nature increasingly butts up against the modern world, she claims unique insight into not just the community’s past, but also its present tensions. “My goal,” she said, “is to bring the culture down from this exotic place to a human level.”

Fearing criticism from local Hasidim who might view her tours as disrespectful, Ms. Vizel has not publicized her work widely. But after some consideration, she permitted a reporter to join a recent trip. “As we walk through the streets,” she told the roughly two dozen men and women with her, “I want you to try to see it through my eyes.” One of those on hand, 21-year-old Grace Idle, said she was “quite nervous about how the people in the community will see us.”

That community is made up of members of a highly ritualistic sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism who, as Ms. Vizel explained, began settling in Williamsburg in large numbers during and just after World War II as Hasidim fleeing Europe took refuge in the United States.

“These Jews are war-ravaged; families were destroyed,” she said. “When we walk into Williamsburg, we have to look at it through the lens of preservation and rebuilding. That can help us understand a lot of what drives this extreme sense of stopping time and resisting change. Because it’s: ‘Here we are. We have recaptured; let us not lose it again.’ ”

The group stopped at Cubicles Internet cafe on Division Avenue, which offers access to a vetted version of the web. Here, local residents take advantage of technology without being exposed to ideas deemed inappropriate. The conversation turned to education — how secular schoolbooks are censored in Hasidic circles and crayon-wielding auditors redact references to frowned-upon concepts.

“We would always spend a lot of time clawing the crayon markings off,” Ms. Vizel said. Offenders, she added, were obvious from the black wax on their fingernail tips.

Then it was on to Lee Avenue, “sort of the Main Street of Williamsburg,” she said, “where everyone sees everyone, where everyone checks everyone out.”

Ms. Vizel then shifted to describing the Hasidic life cycle. “Achieving a successful life is building a family that will continue to pass on the sacred traditions,” she explained. High achievers are those with big families. Marriages are arranged at age 18 by a shadchen who earns a check for every match made.

“What makes two families match?” Ms. Vizel asked rhetorically. A Hasidic girl stopped to listen. “Usually it is being on the same socioreligious platform in the Hasidic community. A lot of that can be based on a woman’s headgear.”

A woman wearing a wig is fairly liberal, Ms. Vizel said. A woman in a wig and a hat is a bit more religious. A scarf indicates extreme piety. “The term would be ‘a hat family,’ ” Ms. Vizel said. “The shadchen would say, ‘I have a great girl from a hat family.’ ”

Ms. Vizel is from a “scarf family.” Until she was 21, she lived a pious life. She married and gave birth to a son. In 2006, she began a blog under the pseudonym Shpitzle Shtrimpkind. At first, she wrote about marriage and family. “I thought: I’m going to defend the community,” she said.

As she gained a following, however, her online conversations changed her worldviews. “It destroyed my belief that the outside world is this chaotic, dangerous place,” she said. “And I started to think of it as a place of opportunity.”

By 2007, she had stopped blogging and begun “trying to put the genie back in the bottle.” She tried marriage counseling, unsuccessfully. In January 2010, her divorce became final.

Ms. Vizel, who lives in Pomona, N.Y., is pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Last summer, at a professor’s suggestion, she began leading the Williamsburg tours. Groups range from two to 45 people. She charges $500 per group or $50 per individual.

Ms. Vizel — who is not the only former Hasid giving Williamsburg tours; Jacob Gluck has a similar business — said she was aware that New Yorkers sometimes viewed visits like the ones she leads as unwanted incursions. Last year, for example, a company called Real Bronx Tours drew sharp criticism for inaccurately depicting the borough by advertising “a ride through a real New York City ‘GHETTO.’ ” As a result of the uproar, the company announced that it would cease giving tours of the Bronx.

Ms. Vizel said she aims to avoid similar criticism by guiding a fact-based visit. Still, she acknowledged, “I walk a very fine line between being welcome in Williamsburg and not.”

During the recent tour, local reaction was mixed. At Ross Street and Bedford Avenue, one woman pronounced loudly that she disagreed with a point Ms. Vizel was making about wigs.

“Is this needed?” the woman said later, declining to give her name. “I don’t know. Maybe an understanding does foster better relationships. On the other hand, what we’re not looking for is relationships with the outer world.”

Others seemed less bothered by the visitors. Josef Honig, 72, a Hasidic retiree, called the idea “wonderful.” “Ten tours a day would give us some problems,” he said. “One or two would be just enough.”