Jewish Williamsburg

Not so long ago I moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg – specifically to its very end, known its supposedly „lesser part”. (I will write more about Williamsburg and its divisions in an upcoming post; for now, you will have to take my word for it). I live in a high-rise building and as I take the elevator, I meet many Polish people, but also Black, Latino, and – most often – Asian people. A similar mix is quite common in the surrounding buildings. Right from my first day in this neighborhood, I noticed that my close neighbors are also Orthodox Jews.

There’s a subway station right next to my building, so I don’t really have to move that often on foot within my neighborhood (since there’s not much to see here anyway – or so I thought). It happens, though, that I choose to walk the Williamsburg bridge. So far I always moved along one main avenue, which is Broadway. That changed on the first day of the New Year.

In order to start 2014 with something truly new for me, I decided to take an evening walk, the bridge, this time choosing a different route. I passed the subway and I went one more block further than usual. I don’t know how to describe it to you, but I suddenly felt I entered a different reality. Few hundred feet away from my building there’s another world. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by Jews wearing long black coats and with their heads covered with yarmulke or elaborate hats. Women passing me on the street wore wigs or scarfs on their heads, as well as skirts and coats reaching below their knees and usually flat shoes. Most of them had at least one child at their side (the Orthodox Jewish families are known for having at least several children). I was walking down the streets, feeling a bit like an intruder, violating someone else’s privacy. I tried to take pictures, but again: I felt I invaded someone’s intimate sphere and I wasn’t sure if I was entitled to it.

Since it was very cold, my walk didn’t last more than an hour. Still, I felt hungry for more, so I returned two days later (right after the so-called „big winter strike upon NYC”). It was Saturday, the day after it’s Shabbat, which is celebrated every week with great respect. I don’t pretend to know much about Judaism, but I’m more and more intrigued by it. Even though I suspect that many elements of it wouldn’t suit me, I still have great reverence for this specific form of spirituality and the restrictive following of religious rituals. Next day after my visit, as I was awaiting my train at the station which I passed the day before, a Jewish woman sat next to me. As I was scrolling down my Facebook on my phone, she pulled out a prayer book in Hebrew and started reading. I thought to myself that our worlds couldn’t have been different from each other at this moment.

If you plan to wander around Jewish Williamsburg, I suggest you take the M or J train and get off at the Marcy Av. Station, just past the Williamsburg bridge in Brooklyn. With your back to the bridge, don’t go left towards the hipster part of Williamsburg, but to your right. I was walking down Division Avenue and the adjacent streets. Sometimes it pays off to go one extra block to discover something that will astonish you and make your heart beat faster from excitement. I felt once again that I keep discovering this city and it continues to discover me in turn.