Where the Religion Meets the Road

The peculiar turf war between Brooklyn's bicycle activists and Hasidic Jews

On a bright spring afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a small cluster of Hasidic Jews stood outside a corner grocery store watching bicycles speed down Bedford Avenue. "When I drive a car, I don't know where to look no more," complained the grocery store owner, Aron, waving his palms in an exaggerated shrug. "A bike? A bus? A stroller? It's so crammed up in this neighborhood. A bicycle lane--this is not a community that needs it!"

Until recently, the city of New York begged to differ. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on a mission to green all five boroughs, and in 2006 the city pledged to build 1,800 miles of bicycle lanes. Williamsburg seemed like a logical place to start: over the past decade, the neighborhood has become a magnet for young creative types who rely on bicycles to cross the bridge into Manhattan. But when the Department of Transportation arrived with white paint to mark the lanes, the Hasids were indignant. First, they complained about traffic and parking issues. Then a Hasidic community board member admitted that he was troubled by the "dress code" of female bikers. Local blogs and tabloids reported the story under such gleeful headlines as "Hasid Lust Cause" and "Hasids Say Cyclists Too Sexy for Bike Lanes." The cyclists snickered--until December 1, 2009, when orange DOT trucks pulled up on Bedford Avenue and sandblasted away 14 blocks of bicycle lanes.

The erasure was so sudden, and so carefully confined to Hasidic territory, that it led to plenty of speculation. The New York Post immediately linked the lane removal to a deal between the recently reelected mayor and the Hasidic voting bloc. When asked to comment, the DOT simply referred to "ongoing bike network adjustments in the area" and swerved around the question of secret election pacts. "We will continue to work with any community on ways we can make changes to our streets without compromising safety," wrote Seth Solomonow, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn commissioner's office, in a broadly worded email.

Meanwhile, the cyclists revolted. Time's Up, a bicycle advocacy group, planned a topless protest ride through the Hasidic neighborhood. But the weather was miserable that day and the cyclists rode clothed. Others decided the situation called for more radical measures. "It's not just about Williamsburg," explained a ponytailed man who asked to be identified as Murray. (The name actually belongs to his sheepdog.) "It's about sending a message to the whole city. Cars are aggressive, and without the lanes we're endangering our lives every day. So a friend of mine and I took it upon ourselves to start painting the lanes back."

Murray, who lives in an artists' commune inside a cavernous warehouse, easily found half a dozen friends who were willing to recreate the lane over the course of two nights. During the wee morning hours of Monday, December 7, Murray was rolling white paint into straight lines when he got a call: some cohorts up the street had been surrounded by men in black. "Apparently, the Hasids detained them in the softest possible way, almost like an embrace," Murray said. "But they couldn't get away, and meanwhile the guys were calling the cops." Later that day, DOT trucks tarred over the activists' handiwork and two police officers arrived at their homes, telling them they had 24 hours to turn themselves in.

Video: Activists repaint the Bedford Avenue bike lanes under cover of darkness

Fortunately for the cyclists, they had an unusual ally--a cell phone entrepreneur named Baruch Herzfeld who used his neighborhood connections to smooth the whole thing over. Herzfeld is not only an avid cyclist but a Modern Orthodox Jew: he graduated from Yeshiva University in the mid-1990s and covers his head with baseball caps. As a crossover figure in Williamsburg, Herzfeld has witnessed those rare zones where the two communities overlap. "I know Hasidic guys who call themselves atheists and worship Richard Dawkins," he said. "I've gone to hipster parties where some guy walks in wearing a shtreimel"--a traditional fur hat roughly the diameter of a bicycle wheel--"and puts it on the head of some hot girl. People try to create barriers, but there are no walls here."

When it comes to bicycles, Herzfeld believes the Hasidic antipathy is about something more than traffic patterns or scantily clad women. The Hasids of Williamsburg belong to the ultra-conservative Satmar sect. Their extra-long coats and sidecurls date back to 18th century Hungary. Their driving habits date back to 1940s Brooklyn. "That's when they got here, and that's where they want to freeze time so nothing else changes," Herzfeld theorized. Back then, respectable adults drove large sedans; only children scooted through the streets on two wheels. So in today's Williamsburg, Hasids stop riding bikes when they reach bar mitzvah age. "Imagine the poor kid," Herzfeld lamented. "He turns 13 and his dad takes his bicycle away. And nobody even knows why they're doing it."

Two years ago, Herzfeld bought 500 cheap bicycles from a police auction. Now he runs a shop called Treif Bike Gesheft--Yiddish for "non-kosher bike store"--on the first floor of his building off Bedford Avenue. The storefront attracts neighborhood cyclists who drop by to use the bicycle-parts vending machine or join repair classes taught by Time's Up. Many of them stare quizzically at the Hebrew characters painted on the wall in bright bubble letters. "Come borrow a bicycle," the sign offers in Yiddish, "and we'll lend it to you for free."

Herzfeld has had a few takers since he posted the Yiddish sign, mostly young Hasidic men who ride down by the water under cover of darkness. They come back with a variety of reactions. "They say, 'It's beautiful! It's wonderful!' They say, 'Baruch, you hurt my knees!' Sometimes they say, 'That's the best bike you got?' Nobody ever says, 'Baruch, what you're doing is wrong.' You give the guy a bicycle and it's a harmless thing. But what you're doing is you're reaching out across communities."

The Hasids outside the grocery store hadn't yet seen Herzfeld's offer for free bike rentals. None of them seemed eager to partake, but for a moment the store owner, Aron, looked reflective. "I do ride a bicycle," he admitted. "I ride when we go upstate in the summer. It's the most healthiest exercise there is! But never in the town. Who has the room? Who has the time?" He looked back at the street just in time to see a cyclist whisk past a doublewide baby stroller. Shaking his head, he turned toward his store and retreated to the small, familiar space inside.

(Photographs by John Healey)