Issue 14

The Hasidim of Brooklyn

By Alexandra Breznaÿ

Bedford avenue and South 9th Street, Brooklyn: the frontier of two opposite worlds. Where trendy Williamsburg meets the Hasidic Jewish community.

The Hasidic Jews first moved to Brooklyn in the years prior to World War II to escape the difficult living conditions on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area received a large number of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe.

Williamsburg often saw tension between its Hasidic population and other communities living near them. First, with African-American and Hispanic groups, the Hasidim even created a patrol organisation to keep an eye out for crime, leading them being accused of racism. But with the gentrification of the area since the early 1990s, the Jewish community has had to deal with the arrival of a new group: the hipsters, young white Americans in their twenties and thirties, coming to Brooklyn. The Hasidim have fought to retain the character of their neighbourhood, battling against what they sometimes refer to as a 'plague.' Tensions have risen over housing costs, loud nightlife, and the introduction of bike lanes along the Hasidic part of Bedford Avenue.

I lived in between these two worlds for a year, and the experience was interesting to say the least. I shared a swimming pool with Jewish women, went for a dinner of Ukrainian mashed potato salad in a male-only Kosher restaurant, then headed two blocks north to get beers and listen to indie bands playing in a bar.

Isolationism has allowed for the cultural preservation of the Orthodox district: when I first moved to the neighbourhood, its inhabitants were very reluctant to have their photos taken, but eventually I got a job working for a Hasidic journalist, which allowed me to see into the everyday lives of the community I lived beside. 

I quickly understood that traditions revolve around key religious celebrations and decided to focus on those as my subjects. Their calendar is divided into a very specific rythm.

Purim, in March, celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the Haman in the days of Queen Esther of Persia. For this event, the usually austere-looking inhabitants and children turn into colourful clowns full of fantasy and invention. The Hasidic community of Williamsburg has one of the highest birthrates in the country, with an average of eight children per family, and a high unemployment rate, mostly due to women being housewives. The streets are thus full of children often left to their own devices.

Passover at the beginning of April celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. I attended the baking of Matzah, the unleavened flatbread made solely from flour and water and the burning of all chametz. Then came Shavuot in June, marking the gift of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Despite the world, and their neighbourhood, changing around them, in many ways, life has barely altered since the 1940s for the community.


























Alexandra Breznaÿ is a French documentary photographer who graduated from the International Center of Photography in 2010. After having lived three years in New York, she is currently based in Paris. Find her at www.alexandrabreznay.com

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