Protecting the “Holy City”
Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper on Hasidic Fear
At first glance, 21st-century Williamsburg and 1st-century Judea would appear to have little in common. Yet the Jewish zealots who stubbornly resisted the Roman occupation against all odds 2,000 years ago, and the Hasidim who launched a zealous campaign against gentrification in the fall of 2003, were both participating in a millennia-long tradition of Jewish apocalypticism. Both groups saw themselves as the “righteous remnant” of a Jewish people under siege by invaders—Romans and gentrifiers—and threatened from within by Jewish collaborators. In the case of Williamsburg, these collaborators were willing to build luxury units for “artists” in the streets bordering the Hasidic enclave rather than affordable housing for members of their own community.
At stake in both cases was the future of the “holy city,” either Jerusalem or, as the Hasidic anti-gentrification activists frequently referred to their corner of Williamsburg, the “Jerusalem of America.” Hasidic anti-gentrification activists explicitly viewed their efforts to save Williamsburg through the heroic, ultimately tragic lens of ancient Jerusalem and its righteous defenders.
Between 2003 and 2004, Hasidic activists in Williamsburg waged an unprecedented war against gentrification. This struggle, which Hasidim referred to as the milkhemes artistn, or “war against the artists,” unfolded on the streets of the neighborhood, where anti-gentrification activists held large-scale demonstrations, hung banners on buildings, and posted broadsides. It was also waged in the pages of Yiddish-language newspapers, where Hasidim published fiery editorials and cynical cartoons; and in the community’s synagogues and schools, where they strategized, fired up supporters, led penitential prayers, and shunned members seen as collaborating with the gentrifiers.
On the one hand, the campaign was inspired and shaped by the specific socioeconomic conditions in Williamsburg and New York City at the turn of the second millennium. Yet, the Hasidic war against the artists also reflected deep-seated tendencies that have characterized the Satmar community since the pre–World War II period in Europe, as well as much older apocalyptic elements that have punctuated Jewish history during moments of crisis and communal rupture for more than 2,000 years.
For most of the 1980s and 1990s, gentrification in Williamsburg was concentrated on the north and east sides of the neighborhood, areas with few if any Hasidic residents—places where Hasidic landlords and developers could make money without impinging on their own community. By the end of the 1990s, however, the effects of gentrification were beginning to be felt in earnest in the streets bordering the Hasidic enclave. As gentrification spurred a dramatic increase in housing costs throughout Williamsburg, and as more and more property was developed into luxury condominiums rather than affordable housing, gentrifiers began to encroach physically on the Hasidic Triangle. Many Hasidim started to fear that the virtual walls they had carefully erected to prevent spiritual and moral contamination by outsiders were in danger of being breached and that this incursion, combined with rising real estate costs, might ultimately compel their community to abandon the “holy city of Williamsburg.”
In 2002, a little over half a century after Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and his followers first settled in Williamsburg, 52,700 Jews called the neighborhood home, out of a total population of 151,600 residents. Of these Jewish residents, 94 percent identified themselves as Orthodox, which, in the context of the area, meant that almost all were Hasidic. From 1991 to 2002, the percentage of Jewish households in Williamsburg as a proportion of the neighborhood’s total population increased dramatically, from 8 percent to 38 percent. Because of the large number of children in Hasidic families, an astounding 54 percent of people living in Jewish households in Williamsburg were age seventeen or younger, the highest percentage within any county in or around New York City. In addition to being overwhelmingly young, the Jewish population of Williamsburg had a strikingly high poverty rate: 61 percent of Jewish households earned less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level; 64 percent earned less than $35,000 a year; and only 5 percent earned $100,000 or more annually.
The high level of poverty in Williamsburg’s Hasidic community was also reflected in the fact that the neighborhood’s Jews had the lowest rate of home ownership (23 percent) versus renters (77 percent) of any Jewish community in the New York area, making it particularly vulnerable to the dramatic rise in rents associated with gentrification. One study of Williamsburg estimated that between 1991 and 2005, the average market rent rate in the neighborhood increased 43 percent. The study noted further that the highest levels of rent burden were in East and South Williamsburg, where Hasidim were concentrated, and that homeowners, too, were heavily affected in these areas, with approximately one-third of them spending “more than 60 percent of their income on housing.”
Within this environment of economic vulnerability and housing precariousness, some members of the Hasidic community began to liken gentrifiers in Williamsburg to the ancient Babylonian and Roman conquerors of Jerusalem and to the 9/11 terrorists. And who, in the minds of these Hasidic critics, were the gentrifiers? First, it is important to note that Hasidic sources from the early 2000s, including newspaper articles, broadsides (known as pashkevilin in Yiddish), billboards, and speeches, did not employ the terms “gentrification” or “gentrifiers” to describe the threat facing the Hasidic community. Instead, they all used the word artistn, which the Hasidim of Williamsburg employed to refer to hipsters or gentrifiers more generally (the typical word for “artist” in Yiddish is kinstler). Thus, artistn, the plural of artist, did not necessarily refer to working artists, but was likely inspired by contact between Hasidic landlords and actual artists during the first phase of the North Side’s gentrification and was later applied by Hasidim to members of subsequent waves of gentrifiers, whether they were working artists or, as was increasingly likely over time, not.
It is unclear when this use of artistn first became part of the Hasidic lexicon in Williamsburg, though it was in circulation in the late 1990s, when, for example, it appeared in a letter to the editor published in the December 11, 1998, edition of Der Yid. The author of the letter, identified as “M. Weiss of Williamsburg,” referred to a notice published several weeks earlier in the same newspaper that had decried the phenomenon of heymishe (that is, Hasidic) Jews renting apartments to artistn. Weiss took a more sanguine view of the artistn, however, noting that the lack of housing in the neighborhood was affecting them along with the Hasidim and that “in regard to the ‘artistn’ themselves, concerning whom I have a little personal knowledge, many are normal.” The answer to the real estate crisis, according to Weiss, was not to focus critically on the artistn but rather to “build Jewish housing.”
Unlike the local Latinos or the Hasidim, the artistn were not initially perceived as a politically coherent community, in the traditional sense of that idea in the neighborhood. As Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organizations put it to us when asked about the collective identity of the artistn, “I don’t even understand what that means. It’s not like they have a distinct community. There are a few thousand—I don’t even understand the relationship.” In certain key respects, however, artistn did represent a discrete and, in comparison with other groups that had settled in the neighborhood over the years, powerful community.
Largely white, middle or upper class, post-ethnic, and—at least overtly—nonreligious, these ambassadors of conspicuous consumption represented a phenomenon previously unknown to the gritty streets of Williamsburg. And yet it was precisely these characteristics that made the artistn intriguing to some members of the Hasidic community, especially those who had been exposed to the wider world, including via the Internet, despite the best efforts of Hasidic authorities to severely limit or even ban its use. For Hasidim dissatisfied with their community or just curious about the world across Broadway, the artistn represented an alternative lifestyle that could be embraced or merely experimented with.
Because of their relative wealth, perceived lack of religious affiliation, and post-ethnic whiteness—unlike, for example, the Polish immigrants of nearby Greenpoint or the Italian Americans of East Williamsburg—the artistn embodied a racially and economically privileged identity that was potentially accessible to younger Hasidim, in particular, if they were willing to give up the physical and behavioral markers that distinguished them from whites in general. Indeed, the physical proximity of artistn gave Hasidim the opportunity to observe, and even participate in, certain aspects of a white urban bourgeois lifestyle without having to leave Williamsburg. In this respect, the artistn represented a much bigger threat to the social fabric of Hasidic Williamsburg than Latinos or African Americans ever did, since those groups were similarly impoverished competitors for limited governmental resources whose explicitly nonwhite identity represented a racial “step down” for the racially ambiguous Hasidim.
Significantly, the arrival of the artistn and their lifestyle in Williamsburg coincided with the broader, though highly uneven and contested, embourgeoisement of Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and beyond. This phenomenon manifested itself in a variety of ways, including the opening of high-end food stores that resembled kosher versions of Whole Foods; the embrace of new cuisines (sushi, gourmet pizza) that were far afield of traditional eastern European Jewish fare; and the placement of glossy advertisements for luxury goods in Hasidic publications. Moreover, despite the vehement attempts of Hasidic leaders to limit or even ban the use of the Internet among community members except for business purposes, many Hasidim continued to surf the web, and in the process, they were increasingly exposed to a wide variety of consumer goods and lifestyle choices. By the turn of the 21st century, therefore, no Hasidic community, even the most conservative, could isolate itself from the material temptations of contemporary bourgeois culture.
In Williamsburg there had long been tension between, on one hand, the enduring legacy of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s fiery critique of luxury (luksus, in Yiddish), his personal asceticism, and his insistence on especially stringent norms of modesty, and, on the other, the reputation of Satmar and other Hungarian communities among their Hasidic peers for enjoying well-made food (much of it Jewish variations of traditional Hungarian favorites) and for appreciating certain material luxuries (fancy chandeliers, elegant women’s clothing and accessories), even as they were also more religiously conservative and had higher poverty rates than more moderate Hasidic groups such as Bobov in Borough Park. To a significant degree, this tension had a gendered dimension, as a Hasidic woman from Williamsburg noted to the authors: “It’s ironic that though Reb Yoelish did, indeed, condemn luksus, his wife [Rebbetsin Alta Faiga Teitelbaum] actually brought ‘balabatishkeit’—living well and dressing well—into the Satmar mindset. Well, it was already in the Hungarian mindset, but there’s no question that she encouraged it. She herself had a beautiful home, and the convalescent home she built for new mothers was a model in luxury. Her parties, too, were very fancy.”
Against this complex backdrop, the gentrification of Williamsburg intensified the anxiety felt by some Hasidim—particularly men, who were already prone to taking zealous positions when it came to issues like women’s modesty, changes to the traditional educational system, or Internet use—that the holy community founded by Yoel Teitelbaum was being inundated with gashmiesdike zakhn (Yiddish, “material things”) that threatened to erode the elevated spiritual status that they had consistently worked hard to achieve in the years following World War II.
One of the first salvos fired in the Hasidic campaign against the artistn was an article published on November 7, 2003, in both Der Yid and Der Blatt, with the title “We Are Still on September 10.” It explicitly likened the danger posed by gentrifiers to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The article opened with a description of the sense of dread in the United States following 9/11 and then segued into a fictional account of a Hasidic father driving his family back to their home in Borough Park from a celebration in Kiryas Joel. Not long ago, the father had lived in Williamsburg, but now, as they passed the neighborhood, he observed the changes wrought by gentrification and “started to describe [them] with grief and longing; tears streaming from his eyes: Who could have believed that Williamsburg would be left a midbar shemama [desert wasteland] that no Jew can enter?”
For the anonymous author of the article, the existential threat posed by gentrification loomed on the horizon for Hasidic Williamsburg as ominously as the planes that had crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. To make this link more explicit, the article was accompanied in both newspapers by a cartoon with before, during, and after images of the plane attacks on the Twin Towers. Below this appeared a second cartoon depicting two planes crashing into the skyline of Williamsburg and its clearly labeled Jewish institutions. Finally, below that was an image of a pile of rubble where the Jewish community had once stood.
In the coming months, Hasidim who participated in demonstrations against gentrification in Williamsburg would return to this theme, circulating a Yiddish-language leaflet with a hand-drawn picture of the World Trade Center collapsing, accompanied by the warning “How long did it take the Twin Towers to fall? Eight seconds. How long will it take for Williamsburg??? God Forbid.” And yet the article in Der Yid ended on a hopeful note: “Dear Jewish brothers! We are still on September 10. We can still save everything. It will be extremely difficult but it is still possible. . . . Do not say that it cannot happen, because September 11 also seemed like an impossibility.”
Other Hasidic newspaper accounts from the fall of 2003 clarified why the artistn were so dangerous. On October 24, Der Blatt, a Yiddish newspaper established by Elimelech Deutsch in 2000 to serve the followers of Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum—by this point, Der Yid was seen as a media organ for Zalman’s disciples in Williamsburg—described an asife, or official gathering of leaders and religious authorities, convened to discuss threats then confronting the community. Haredi leaders had held such gatherings in response to perceived crises for more than a century, most famously in 1912, when they met in Katowice, Poland, to found the Haredi umbrella organization Agudas Yisroel. The practice continued when Hasidim and other Haredi Jews immigrated to the United States. In May 1961, for example, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum convened a kinus klali, or general assembly, of rabbinic leaders at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn to debate the problems then affecting the Haredi community in the United States, including the growing popularity of Zionism, a perceived decline in women’s modesty, and creeping materialism.
Now, in 2003, according to Der Blatt, the most serious threat facing the Hasidic community in Williamsburg was gentrification. “As is known, in the last few years, Williamsburg has become utterly plagued by ‘artistn,’ ” the newspaper noted, “whose presence has, lamentably, increased in the neighborhood day by day, via their purchase or rental of apartments in Williamsburg and also through shopping in the neighborhood’s stores with their lewd appearance and licentious clothing.” A week later, on October 31, Der Yid published an article covering the rabbinic assembly, providing its readers with some historical context for the gentrification of the neighborhood: “The gathering was convened on account of the problem that, in the last few years, has impacted the ‘city and mother in Israel,’ Williamsburg: the so-called artistn, who originally used to live in Manhattan, have begun to cross the Williamsburg Bridge and to settle on the Brooklyn side near the bridge, conquering neighborhood after neighborhood, and after conquering the ‘North Side’ and ‘Greenpoint’ they are now approaching the borders of the holy Jewish city of Williamsburg.”
In a theme that was repeated by Hasidim over and over in the coming months, Der Yid depicted gentrification as a hostile invasion by alien forces who threatened to cross the unofficial border of the enclave, breach its figurative walls, and destroy the “holy” community of Hasidic Williamsburg. The image of gentrifiers as invaders in Der Yid echoed numerous scholarly sources on the subject; for example, Peter Williams in 1986 described gentrification as the “remorseless march of invaders.” Hasidim in Williamsburg appear to have developed their own theory of gentrification—without ever employing that term—based on their experiences of the phenomenon on the ground as well as on their highly dualistic worldview.
Excerpted from A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg
by Nathaniel Deutsch and Michael Casper, new from Yale University Press.