Planet Satmar (Long Walk Through Williamsburg)


I had time to kill the other week down by E. 23rd Street on the East River and decided to check out Williamsburg. I’ve never been, except for a quick drive through once. I got back on the FDR heading south for the Williamsburg Bridge. I figured I’d walk around, check out “the scene,” find a hipster cafe, sit down, and read. As luck had it, I crossed the Bridge and pulled right off the bridge looking for a place to park. This landed me in the middle of the Satmar part of town. With nary a hipster in sight, in I went, block after city block through commercial streets and residential ones. Wearing a light jacket, I felt exposed wearing sandals.  I was definitely not going to take pictures. It didn’t seem right, too much like a safari. But I immediately changed my mind standing before the big blue and yellow declaring “Our War Against the Impurity of Zionism.” It was too good to pass up. At this point I started taking pictures, surreptitiously, as it were, even if it still didn’t feel right.


As always here at the blog, I try not to photograph people. What this leaves out was the overwhelming impression of children. With no adult supervision, there were kids all over the main commercial street, completely out on their own and free. These were young kids, little kids with big sisters, more children per square foot than anywhere else I’ve ever been. I’m presenting here an index to the presence, namely the omnipresent form of cages surrounding the windows, no doubt to prevent the disaster of small children falling to their death.


About not photographing people, I’m making an exception for a large processional.  Nobody paid me any much mind when I took these pictures, and there were a few other non-Haredi people watching and doing the same. The first thing I heard was loud music, so I went to look. The first thing I saw was the first sound-truck going down the street, preceded by children marching in front. Following the truck were a brace of men, dressed of course in black, dancing in a back and forth wave, then followed by the second structure that looked like a chuppah with a decorated Torah scroll. I asked one of the local guys doing road security what was going on. It was like Simcha Torah in June. With some reservation, he told me that a new Torah scroll was being installed at a small local shul. I may have imagined it, but his attitude towards me seemed to relax a bit when I told him how much I liked the procession.


The whole scene struck me as having its own normality, except for the empty public places (i.e. property of the City of New York) and flyers on the streets, which felt very much like signs of a community under siege and in distress.


As always, I like looking at walls and into windows. There is a strong aesthetic sense to the entire place about which I am not adequately expert to identify except from an outsider’s position. It has to do with [1] two types of hardness, one crystal, and one brick and iron, [2] an animate, even soft black exhuberance set apart in the regal indifference of its own internal orbit, and [3] the pinch of economic poverty and the lived constraint of a certain metaphysical sadness adrift in the world. I say this understanding too that this is not for me to say one way or the other.


Time to go home, I crossed over to the other side of Willamsburg to get to the Bridge, passing through where the hipsters and young rich have settled. It was twilight. Crossing from over the East River into Manhattan with lights going on was unworldly, weird and interplanetary.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Planet Satmar (Long Walk Through Williamsburg)

  1. I haven’t been to Williamsburg, but your photos of Satmar Williamsburg remind me of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem, including the pashkevilim advertising mass prayer sessions and the personal plea of distress. I was also intrigued by the Yiddish sign – “Wer kan geben blut?” – Who can give blood?

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