I had seen members of the easily identified Hasidic community strolling in Central Park in Manhattan.A flight on El Al to Israel was filled with the faithful.Thousands live in Jerusalem where we tried to engage their children in play but were shooed aside.And in “The Chosen” and “The Promise”, well regarded author, Chaim Potok, revealed the inner life of this most private sect of Judiasm.I knew of them but had never met a member – until our “Visit Hasidim” tour of the Hasidic Community in Williamsburg, a part of Brooklyn.
Synagogue with Separate Entries for men and women
This branch of Orthodox Judaism was founded in the 18th Century by Baal Shem Tov in Poland and spread throughout Eastern Europe. Rebbe Tov was a sincere and simple man who believed that an ordinary person who prayed from his heart could be acceptable to God even without being versed in all the Jewish laws. His mystical approach appealed to the poor and was immediately embraced. Most of the followers were killed in the Holocaust of WWII but survivors immigrated to Israel and New York and have established a strong presence in various parts of Brooklyn and the New York environs.
Our guide, Freida Vizel, was the 5th of 15 children in her family. She grew up speaking Yiddish in Kiryas Joel, a thriving Hasidic community north of NYC. They would often visit her grandmother in Williamsburg . The family had no radio or TV and only a Yiddish newspaper to bring word of the outside world. She never saw the planes slamming into the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Toy store in Williamsburg
Today, Freida provides a walking tour through the Hasidic community of Williamsburg which appears rooted in the 1800s. As this branch of Judaism aged, rules set in again. Men must wear long black coats, white shirts, fur hats, large beards with side curls, and black shoes. The women have some more flexibility in dress but married women must shave their heads (so that not a strand of hair can be shown to the public) and wear a scarf, hat or wig. Since the rabbi must consent to the use of birth control, large families with eight children are common.
Internet Cafe in Williamsburg
As we walked, Freida revealed the nuances of this life. She pointed out the synagogue with separate entrances for men and women who sit apart, a linen store selling single bed covers as husband and wife must sleep separately, a men’s tailor shop with a selection of only white shirts, and a school bus with Hebrew lettering for transporting children to yeshivas or schools. Boys must study the Torah and only receive one-half day per week of secular studies that include science and math. Girls, surprisingly, get one-half every day in those studies. Behind one storefront door was an Internet Café with cubicles where the Orthodox could use properly filtered internet. Surprisingly, Email is allowed.
School bus to transport children to yeshivas
Freida’s story was most compelling. At 18, her parents paid a matchmaker $2,000 to find a husband. Matchmakers consider family compatibility, looks, economics, and personality. Both families will be given a name and they have an opportunity to “view” the prospective bride and groom. To accomplish this, Freida was taken to Wal-Mart by her mother who told her to look straight ahead. Suddenly, it was over when a person quickly walked past. With both parties liking what they saw, the couple met alone in a family living room for 20 minutes. When they exited the room, they had to say “yes” or “no”. Freida knew it wasn’t right but all she could say was “I can’t say no”. She couldn’t go against her father.
Freida always knew she was different. She had a typewriter and had written since a child. Thirst for knowledge and experiences eventually caused her to leave the community. Being an obedient wife and mother were no longer enough. When Freida withdrew four years ago, her husband did not join her and they divorced.
Gottlieb’s Restaurant in Williamsburg
During the tour, we stopped at two delicatessens. In the first, a low wall separated men from women and children. We had one man on the tour and no one seemed bothered by his presence on the women’s side. Freida chatted with the owner and brought us hot chocolate. At tour’s end, we visited Gottlieb’s restaurant where only men were eating. Working hard to maintain good relationships, Freida again visited with the owner who brought us an array of traditional Jewish dishes.
This was Freida’s opportunity to ask us questions. She wanted to know how we would have approached living in her community. Had we ever self-isolated ourselves? The women present were sure we wouldn’t have lasted long in such a restrictive environment. Yet, Freida clearly appreciated her family and respected her former community. It just wasn’t right for her. We were lucky to have such an articulate and knowledgeable guide and as my sister-in-law said, “Can’t wait for Freida’s book.”