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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
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.
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
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.
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
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.