A young woman in shorts, biking down a city-designated lane. Liberated enthusiast of a healthy, environmentally-friendly transportation — or flagrant hussy? Well, it's complicated.
New York magazine has a hilarious portrait of what happens when a deeply traditional Hasidic community is overrun by young bourgeois bohemians. After a decade or so of uneasy coexistence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the situation blew up in December over a bike lane that ran through an area dominated by the Satmar Hasidic sect:
Hasids are prohibited from looking at improperly dressed members of the opposite sex, and some complained that the women cycling through their neighborhood were an affront. "It's a major issue, women passing through here in that dress code," Simon Weiser, a Hasidic member of Community Board 1, told the Post.
I remember the first time I saw a locker room full of abandoned wigs (Ultra-Orthodox women observe religious laws of modesty by wearing wigs or headcoverings, sometimes shaving their heads underneath). It was in Tel Aviv, at a public swimming pool that had been blocked off for exclusively female use. At the pool, women frolicked freely away from the male gaze, clad in bathing caps that hid their shaven heads. My brother, probably five or six at the time, had to wait outside.
As a teenager, this seemed utterly ridiculous, and we joked about somehow breaching this code of separation in an appropriately shocking way. As an adult, I'm better schooled in cultural sensitivity and a little bit more circumspect in respecting the choices people make about modesty. Unfortunately, the presumably-well-meaning bike activists in Williamsburg sound a little bit like rebellious teenagers themselves:
The pro-bike side is represented by three women: Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group; Lyla Durden, a biker; and Heather Loop, an activist whose big idea after the lane erasure was to stage a topless bike ride through the neighborhood. It got snowed out.
The debate begins, such as it is. [A Satmar man,] Abraham opens with an admission of bias: A bike knocked down his wife once. "Who was this guy?" he asks half-rhetorically. "And who do I sue?" Samponaro's first sentence somehow packs in a nod to her birthday ("Whoo!"), Haiti, and Hurricane Katrina. Loop introduces herself as the author of the topless-ride initiative, "which God stopped with a blizzard," she adds. "Damn him!"
Awkward giggles ricochet around the room. Abraham's face turns to stone.
In theory, the automatic sexualization of a woman's body and an external fiat to cover it up bothers me. But not as much as thinking that a topless bike ride through a religious community is a good idea for a political protest.
To be clear, this is not a simple gentrification story, where entitled newcomers barge in and ruin the community fabric. (Although many of them are certainly entitled.) It's more like an uneasy co-dependency, since the Satmar own rezoned warehouses that they rent to the Artisten, as they call them in Yiddish. There are some finely-drawn parallels between fauxhemian-type Old World (beards, butchery, $350 Victorian coat racks) and the time-capsule Hasidic brand (beards, kosher butchery, hatmakers) here. (Disclosure: the author is a friend.)
The uproar also points to a generational divide, between the elders of the Satmar community and a younger generation that may not be willing to break away entirely but is chafing against the focus on modesty. So much so that some of them have taken to Facebook for a secret outlet:
The Hasidic Facebook is its own phenomenon, a parallel universe where the prim girls you see on the street in turban hats and snub-nosed forties shoes post their bikini snapshots and glamorously lit studio pictures. Herzfeld enthusiastically scrolls through his four-figure friend list, picking out the hotties for us to look at. "Esther. Hot girl. Her father is super-religious."
There is also a charismatic, contradictory character who runs a bike shop, and who tries to redirect rebellion to more constructive outlets:
The men, they don't know how to have a conversation with a woman," Herzfeld explains, talking a mile a minute. "Whenever they come to the bike shop, the first thing they ask me to find them a prostitute. I tell them, look, you're searching for answers. You're not going to find them in the vagina of a woman you're paying $200 an hour. If you want to meet somebody, you need to step outside of the community, you need to get a hobby. Come over, and I'll teach you how to fix a bike. So the bike shop is a kind of outreach program."
On the one side, you have flagrant exercise of rights. On the other, you have young people clearly chafing at the strictures on their own rights. In the middle, a girl on a bike. In giant glasses and short-shorts.