Tuesday, 23 March 2010

#3 Bagel bagel bagel, I made you out of bread.

In the last post on diversity, I plain overlooked some two million - a quarter - of New York's inhabitants. The city houses by far the largest Jewish population outside Israel. (In fact, it isn't far off Tel Aviv, with 2.6 million Jews.)

Walking around most New York neighborhoods, this figure seems incredible. Of course, not every Jew wears a bekishe cloak and sideburns, but still. The reason is, of course, that much of the Jewish population is poor and slum-bound.

I went to Brooklyn for the first time today. To the west of Manhattan, Brooklyn is what many consider 'pure New York', with an incredibly rich cultural heritage. Bedford-Stuyvesant is the cradle of East Coast African-American culture - such luminaries at Jay-Z and the late Notorious B.I.G. have called it home. North Williamsburg is home to New York's richest art and music scene, following the gentrification of south Manhattan (though it is going the same way). And South Williamsburg, to go back to my original point, is home to a massive community of hasidic Jews.

I took a long walk through these neighborhoods this morning. For maybe half an hour I didn't see another pedestrian, delivery boys and postal workers excepted, who wasn't wearing hasidic clothing. I found it slightly disconcerting. No where else have I been confronted with such uniformity - or such ambivalence. Not one of the hundreds of people I walked past met my eye. The racial uniformity is also striking; the ambiguity in English between the Jewish faith and the Jewish race is telling.

Hasidic Judaism is an ultra-orthodox sect, and will, like all orthodox religion, seem hostile to outsiders. I am not trying to make a point here. But it is fascinating that such a massive community of such distinctive people can be so invisible.

I might be moving to North Williamsburg soon, incidentally; watch this space. Before I left, I picked up a bag of my absolute favourite Jewish things: BAGELS!

Photo is from The Gothamist, just to illustrate hasidic dress.

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