Wednesday, June 09, 2021

In Hipster Williamsburg, Hasidic Jews Are the Real Counterculture 

Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood is known as a center of gentrification and a gathering place for the cool young hipsters of New York City. A short walk from the Lower East Side over the Williamsburg Bridge, it's also home to one of the most concentrated Hasidic Jewish communities in New York. 

In their new book, "A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg" (Yale University Press), Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper unpack the history of Jewish Williamsburg and the collision of its pious Jewish community with the forces of commerce and urban development.

They show how the Satmar and other Hasidic movements represented an alternative version of the "New York Jew" — the assimilated cohort that was already heading to the suburbs when Williamsburg began to fill with strictly Orthodox refugees from Hitler's Europe. Moreover, while their fellow Jews were largely joining the professional class, the Hasidim had more in common with their Puerto Rican and African-American residents as proponents for and beneficiaries of federal and state aid to the poor.

"Rather than an Eastern European shtetl miraculously transported to Brooklyn, the Hasidic enclave in Williamsburg is a distinctly American creation, and its journey from the 1940s to the present is a classic New York City story," they write.

We spoke to Deutsch, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Caspar, a writer with a Ph.D. in history from UCLA, about their book in an event at the American Jewish Historical Society on May 23. This conversation has been edited and condensed from a transcript of that discussion.


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