When you enter a Hasidic neighborhood, it can feel like you're stepping into another world or time. As soon as you cross a street or turn a corner, the hipsters, trendy cafes, and expensive boutiques melt away into men with long sidelocks, kosher butchers, and a glaring absence of cellphones. The change is so abrupt and all-encompassing that you momentarily forget you're still in Brooklyn.
While gentrification and new arrivals are changing the landscape of New York City, the Brooklyn neighborhoods of South Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park have maintained their historic enclaves of Hasidic Jews for over a century.
Visitors to New York—both Jewish and Gentile—often flock to Brooklyn to witness in person the different social norms and exotic dress of the Hasidic community, and while the people watching may be interesting, remember that you are not visiting a zoo. It's rude to gawk at another person and even more so at an entire culture. But if you have a genuine interest in the community and you're willing to read up on Hasidic customs before you go, there are ways to be a responsible tourist.
The most immersive—and respectful—way to visit the neighborhood is to do so with a tour guide who knows the community. Hasidic Jews have so many unique traditions and customs, and a guided tour of the neighborhood is really the way to learn about the culture.
Tours by Frieda are led by a licensed tour guide who grew up and married in the Hasidic community, so she has an intimate relationship with the culture. You can sign up for a "culture tour" or "Jewish food tour," the latter of which includes several stops to the tastiest spots of Borough Park. NY Like a Native primarily gives private tours, so you can request a personalized tour of one or more of Brooklyn's Jewish neighborhoods.
For a kid-friendly tour of the Jewish world, plan a trip to the Jewish Children's Museum, located on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, which hosts many events and activities. However, you don't need a special occasion to visit this museum. There are many educational exhibits to teach your child about the various aspects of the region and culture, and they can even crawl through an enormous challah roll.
The best way to experience a culture is often through the stomach, and Jewish cuisine in New York is truly a melting pot of flavors. Foods that are kosher follow Jewish dietary regulations, such as the separation of meat from dairy and no shellfish, for example.
For those in search of Jewish culture and a place where you can enjoy many meals in kosher restaurants, take the subway to Midwood. The stretch of Coney Island Avenue near Avenue J has numerous kosher restaurants and is also home to a gourmet kosher supermarket, Pomegranate, which is similar to a kosher Whole Foods. Other spots include incredible bakeries with delicious pastries like rugelach, a doughy cookie filled with jam, chocolate, or poppy seed paste. Enjoy an overstuffed sandwich in one of New York's few remaining Jewish delis at Essen New York Deli.
Clothing and Appearance
Most of the people you may encounter in Brooklyn's Hasidic neighborhoods will be dressed in the garb typical of their communities, and it's also the most obvious indicator that you've entered into a Hasidic neighborhood. The dress is conservative, with dark suits for the men and long skirts and a covered neckline for women. Both genders cover their head, men using a traditional yamulke or a heavy fur hat, while women wear wigs or a headscarf. Men and boys typically have long sidelocks, called payot, and the men have long beards.
While visitors aren't expected to observe Hasidic dress code, it's considerate to dress modestly if you're visiting the neighborhood. That means no shorts, no sleeveless shirts, and no low-cut tops for women.
Store Hours and Lifestyle
You will not find any bars in these neighborhoods unless they are on the outskirts and owned by non-Hasidic people. Also note that all establishments are closed two hours before sunset on Friday, all day Saturday, and on Jewish holidays.
Be aware that adult men and women do not wait in stores for each other to try on and model clothing since there is a strict separation of genders.
Tips for Visitors
People in these communities are generally open and friendly to outsiders. However, it helps to understand a little of the rules they live by, in order to avoid any uncomfortable faux pas. As a matter of courtesy:
- Do not eat or bring any food that is not kosher into a food establishment.
- It's best not to photograph people without their permission.
- Women visitors should, if possible, avoid low cut or tight-fitting tops.
- Women visitors should not try to shake hands with local Orthodox men. They are not permitted to respond, and the particularly pious may even avoid eye contact.