Over the weekend I went cycling in my area of Brooklyn. The weather was wonderful, 70 degrees and sunny, a light breeze floating through town. I took my bike down through Greenpoint and criscrossed Williamsburg from north to south, ending in Clinton Hill. On my way there and back, I entered the Hasidic neighborhoods of South Williamsburg a few times.
The Hasidim here seem to live in an enclave: one street I went on near Clinton Hill was a one way street flanked with matching apartment buildings, all belonging to Hasids. The kids played in the street, usual stuff, bikes and balls, while the parents watched them from their apartments. They almost all spoke in Hebrew, not English.
At one point, being my gregarious self, I passed a Hasid boy on a bicycle, and I said, "Hey there." He looked at me a bit like I was from outer space. This is a reaction I'm not unfamiliar with: there seems to always be a bit of distaste, resentment, or maybe fear when it comes to interacting with us goyim, especially the goyim in shorts and T-shirts riding through their enclave, breaking so many taboos of modesty in our dress.
That night after riding home, I watched a documentary from the 90s on Hasidic life in America, called "A Life Apart," which mostly looked at Brooklyn's Hasidic tribes. The doc noted about 5 main tribes in Brooklyn, the Lubavitch (many in Crown Heights), the Satmar, Bobov, Skver, and one other I can't recall...
From what I gathered, the Hasidim are separate from the rest of orthodox Judaism in that they have put study of the Torah above all other things in their lives, rejecting university and college studies because they would challenge and poison their spiritual practice. Hasidim can pursue careers in business, or in teaching at Orthodox schools, but not in any field that requires professionalization like medicine, law, or politics.
I don't know what the Hasidim think of Matisyahu, or Matthew Miller, the Orthodox Jew reggae singer from Crown Heights. Apparently, Matisyahu still makes his home there among the Hasidim with his wife and child even though he's confessed to feeling "boxed in" by Hasidic enclaves. In 2004, when asked about how he viewed his music in light of his religious practice, Matisyahu said, "The rabbi would like me to be in Crown Heights, sitting in yeshiva and learning more," Matisyahu confesses. "But right now my energy is in music. I have a way to affect people and uplift them. To give that up is to go against what God wants."
The funny thing is that the documentary talks about how joy is at the core of the Hasidic lifestyle, yet that joy is seldom evident when the Hasids see us goys. Whether it's their disgust at our lifestyle, fear that they'd be tained with interaction with us, there's very often a sense of just barely tolerating us. Yet if their lifestyle is all about joy, why shouldn't more of them be expressing their differences with us through joyous prayers, like the Hare Krishnas or the Mennonite choirs I see in Union Square? Strange that the Hasidim keep that joy locked inside the closed doors of their synagogues...the documentary reveals them in song and dance, loving their children, dancing like fools and madmen (in a good way), and yet in public life they seem all business.
I guess I wish the Hasidim didn't see me and the rest of America as part of the big "treyfe medina," a land of defilement, inhospitable to people of faith. Until then, I'll continue riding my bike through their neighborhoods, with a smile on my face, despite the blank stares and downcast faces that often greet me.