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Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway: Languages within the Crown Heights Hasidic Community

Rachil Landis and Schantel Williams

     "The purpose of clothing is to cover, conceal and obscure - not G-d forbid, the opposite!" reads a sign in the window of a women's clothing store on Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights. Another sign reads "Tight clothing emphasizes and draws attention." A predominately Hasidic neighborhood, all women in the area are requested to dress "modestly." Women are required to wear skirts or dresses, their legs, necks, and elbows cannot be showed in public. Married women must keep their hair covered at all times. Modesty in the Hasidic community may seem a bit extreme to an outsider, but it is because of their strict laws that this small group of Jews have preserved their heritage so successfully.

     Many Jews living in the United States do not speak or understand Hebrew, the core language of the religion. For most contemporary Jews, Judaism has become more cultural than religious. Although the Talmud, or bible, was originally written in Aramaic, it was later translated into the language of the "chosen people;" the Jews. Jews are part of a Diaspora, a group exiled from their ancestral homeland-Israel. The Hebrew language is vital to the survival of Judaism. The small Hasidic communities scattered throughout the country, are preserving the religion and prolonging its existence.

What does it mean to be "Hasidic?"

     According to Encarta's Online Encyclopedia, the Hasidim, or "pious ones," was established in the mid eighteenth century by Baal Shem Tov. Rabbinical leaders of the time were firmly opposed to Baal Shem Tov's proposal of a separate Jewish community, where Jews did not have to answer to rabbinic scholars, but only to themselves. The leader, Zaddick, or "righteous one," was the center of all Hasidic life at that time. They encouraged "emotional piety," rather than "disciplined study" and religious rituals. Chabad, a Brooklyn-based community of Lubavitcher Hasidim, is the loudest and most influential Hasidic group. They travel all over the world, encouraging less observant Jews to become more religious.

Setting out

     The blooming social scientists Schantel Williams and Rachel Landis had very different expectations going in to the field. Their objective was to collect first-hand-data regarding the languages spoken by Hasidic Jews in New York City. Schantel had originally hoped to study the large West Indian community based in Brooklyn, but had generously given up her space and joined a neglected group: Hasidim. She was reluctant at first, but came in to the group with an open mind. In contrast, Rachel Landis, a Reform Jew, had always hoped to study the Hasidic population. Raised in a liberal, unorthodox household, Rachel wanted to witness strict Jews in their own element.

     In early October, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a festival commemorating the forty-year period that the Jews wandered through the desert in search of the holy land, Schantel and Rachel set out for the Crown Heights community in Brooklyn. The subway dropped them off at Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway. There were Hasidic men everywhere. The girls were directed to the Community Council, the only organization of that kind in the area. The Community Council works with groups from neighboring synagogues and schools, encouraging outreach programs, and providing information for visitors, and the residents with information services. It was closed.

     Schantel and Rachel, determined to make their excursion a success approached their first victim....

Language in Schools

     A court hearing held in 1989, The Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School v. Grumet, dealt with the serious issue of government funded secular education. Taxpayers sued the Board of Education for over-accommodating the children of the large Hasidic community in the area. The court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a school to give special considerations to a specific group. The continuing conflict may be a factor in a Hasidic parent's decision to send their children to private Jewish schools.

     Every single person who was interviewed had attended private Jewish schools, or Yeshiva. In addition to the standard math, science, arts, and English classes, students are instructed in Hebrew and Yiddish. Hebrew, the traditional spoken and written language of the Jews, is taught in the classroom and studied in synagogue. Yiddish is spoken in the classroom, the home, and in synagogue. It is also studied as a written language, though less formally than Hebrew or English.

     Beth Rivkah is the most prominent Jewish School in the Crown Heights community. It was established as an all-girls-school in 1942 by the rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. Beth Rivkah tries to instill its students with a deep love of Judaism, in addition to a secular curriculum. English as a Second Language classes are provided for foreign students. Private tutors, counselors, and a student aid program are also available.

     Yeshiva Chanoch Lenaar was founded in 1976 for high school age boys who lacked formal Jewish Education. Like Beth Rivkah, Chanoch Lenaar offers religious studies along with to a standard high school curriculum. The Yeshiva provides adult volunteers as a surrogate parent to those students who are far away from home

Language in Businesses

     There are many non-English speakers in Crown Heights, but they aren't the people one might expect. On entering The Latin Palace Beauty Salon, one of the few non-Jewish operated businesses on Kingston Avenue, the aspiring social scientists were surprised to encounter a line of voluptuous black women sitting in hair dryers, their hair in rollers. When they approached a Latina hair stylist, she shook her head saying "No comprende." A client of the salon, and resident of the neighborhood, said that she was mainly unaffected by living in a predominately Hasidic community. Her only complaints were, "You hear the sirens when its time for them to go in, in the evening. It is an official mark of sundown." And at night "everything is basically shut down." She also expressed her astonishment at finding a beauty salon in the area.

     At local store that primarily sold religious artifacts, every sign was written in Hebrew. Yakimas, menorahs, mezuzahs, and photographs of Lubavitcher Rebbe were on display. The employees were difficult to communicate with, speaking Yiddish to each other, and ignoring us. When we asked a salesman about Lubavitcher Rebbe, he merely shook his head and smiled at us, "There is too much to say." On further investigation we learned Menachem M. Schnerson was born in Russia, and came to the United States as a refugee during WWII. He joined Rabbi Yosef Yitchak, leader of the Lubavitch Movement, and took his place as head when Yitchak died. Schnerson, now referred to as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, founded a core group of emissaries who travel the world establishing Jewish social services and educational programs. Hasidic Jews regard this man as a savior, and religiously follow his teachings.

Religious Doctrine

     After seeing dozens of old women, bearded men, and small children, it was refreshing to speak with a college-age girl. Only nineteen years old and already teaching pre-school, Hindi was enthusiastic to share her thoughts on the community. She grew up in an even smaller Hasidic neighborhood in Seattle, went to private Jewish schools, and studied teaching at a University in Israel for two years. She openly discussed dress code, dancing, marriage, and other relevant topics relating to growing up Hasidic.

     "The laws of modesty...I grew up with it," said Hildi, "but there is room to be stylish within those standards." She pointed out her sheer nylons and said, "See, my legs are covered." When asked about health and sex education, she only shrugged, saying that it is not discussed before adulthood, "there's not an issue about it beforehand." The parents arrange all dating within the community. When asked if she could date more than one person at once she responded, "Well, you could, but what's the point?" Couples court for approximately three or four months before committing to marriage.

     Men and women dance separately at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. In fact men and women never dance together in public. "We don't really touch men before we get married." This took the interviewer by surprise. She exclaimed," Wait! When you're married and have nine children with the same husband, can you dance with him then?" Hildi looked at her coolly and said, "Well, in the house. You don't touch in public."

Services

     The Crown Heights Jewish Community Council provides a 24hour emergency hotline directed by a local rabbi. The hotline provides numbers of medical specialists, recommends doctors, and can arrange transportation to and from the hospital. The volunteer organization Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Bikur Choloim of Crown Heights provides support for the ill, elderly, and needy. They also offer services assisting mothers with their newborns.

     The Chassidic Art Institute is the first gallery to exclusively promote Hasidic artist. The institute supports local artists by providing supplies and materials, giving them exhibition space, and selling their work to the public. Mostly, however, it provides a meeting place where local artists and admirers can come together and share their love for art.

What Was Learned

     It is ironic that everyone interviewed insisted that all members of the surrounding community spoke English, yet when approached by two students with a tape-recorder, many Hasidim backed away saying "No English, sorry, no English." Most of the locals who agreed to be interviewed were between the ages of 18 and 35. The older people seemed suspicious of the foreign women in jeans and shied away from their questions. Younger children just blushed and looked at them wide-eyed, while they awaited their parent's approval to speak.

     After collecting first-hand-data regarding the languages spoken by Hasidic Jews in New York City, Schantel Williams and Rachel Landis came up with their own conclusions. Schantel realized that she could never live in such a structured society. A society where well-educated women were forced into passivity once they got married. However, she found that there is less pressure to assimilate to the status quo when living in such a close-knit community. Rachel came away from Brooklyn with a deep sense of admiration and skepticism. She has admiration for people who believe so strongly that they devote every moment of their lives to their God. She envied their ability to speak Yiddish, the language of her grandparents, and Hebrew, the language of her forefathers. On the other hand, even after walking the streets interviewing dozens of Hasidic Jews, Rachel felt skeptical that any righteous God would require so much piety of His/Her followers. She also felt immensely grateful to urban New York Culture, a place where jeans are acceptable attire for any gender.

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