Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Superfly Hasidim of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn

As we were wandering around Williamsburg, Brooklyn yesterday, we were struck by the huge number of Hasidic Jews walking around (it was their sabbath, so they were really decked out, and also traveling in family-packs.) Living in LA and New York, we've seen tons of orthodox Jews before. But the specific flavor we saw yesterday begged much more inquiry.

I had read about the conflict in Williamsburg between the 60-year-old Hasidic community there and the fast-encroaching artists and yuppies, but I didn't realize how huge and hardcore this particular Jewish community was.

It seems that the Jews of South Williamsburg are a sect known as Satmars. They are Hungarian in origin, and the community began just after WWII, comprised mainly of newly-arrived Holocaust survivors. The sect stresses re-population of their decimated ranks, and we saw several families with 7 or 8 kids. There are about 200,000 Satmar worldwide, and about a third of that number lives in this little area in South Williamsburg. Due to the high birthrate, this community doubles in size every decade. I won't go into more detail here, because there is way too much to write about and I could never do it justice. If you're interested, I found a couple of blog entries- here and here- that are really excellent and detailed (lots of photos, too!)

[Side note: it's ironic that this conservative sect, which tries sooooo hard to stay isolated and apart from mainstream America, is now getting up-close-and-personal attention by the blogging community, probably as a result of all the hipsters moving into their neighborhood in recent years and coming into (at least visual) contact with them.]

Since my goal is to entertain (and not really to educate), I'll be shallow and drill down on the most immediately-curious thing about the Satmars: their SWEET HATS. These are not your ordinary-run-of-the-mill-Hasidic-guy hats. No, boring wide-brimmed fedoras they are not. These babies are TREMENDOUS. John described them as "mink cat beds." They are called shtreimel (or "ex-SHTREIM-el!!!" as John called them.)

Turns out, the Satmars are the only group that still wears these traditional hats, which are made of beaver and cost- ready? ready? are you SURE?- $5,000!!!! They are worn by married men, and traditionally given by the father of the bride. Tack THAT onto "miscellaneous wedding expenses." They are so pricey that they have become the object of theft and also, it seems, competition. Sort of the Satmar version of "bling," if you will. There is even a movement to cap their cost (get it? "cap"? ha!)

The Satmar wear other types of clothing that are definitely unique (why do all the girls and women have flowers on their black dresses?) The men wear black silk (something about a prohibition on wearing wool) robes that looked to me EXACTLY like Hugh Hefner's, along with some very sweet white socks and black slippers. If it weren't 80 degrees out, these Satmar outfits would be downright PIMP.

(Is that a lightening bolt I see headed my way???)

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