The Crown Heights of my ‘90s childhood imagining bears as little resemblance to the neighborhood today as it did to the early-20th-century Jewish enclave that was already in the process of uprooting for the suburbs when the Rebbe assumed leadership here in 1951. From that time until his death in 1994, the neighborhood became a magnet for spiritual seekers, part baale teshuva training camp, part devotional proving ground—but mostly your standard black-hat Brooklyn shtetl.
Once established, shtetls are slow to move. New York real estate is precious, particularly among those for whom geographic proximity is a function less of affinity than of religious law that dictates the devout must hoof it between almost every place they might reasonably want to go, at least on Shabbos. When the Rebbe died, the Jews stayed put. Two decades on, something else has taken root in their midst, something new. Or rather, a multitude of somethings.
If these somethings have one thing in common, it’s discord. Like Jerusalem, Crown Heights is contested land: Exactly what may be considered part of it and to whom it belongs remain bitterly divisive questions, no less so since people like us started showing up here half a decade ago. Our common ground is only what’s beneath our feet, this same stretch of pavement where seekers like us have been searching for meaning since the end of the Second World War. Only now, a lot of us aren’t quite sure what we’re looking for. The Rebbe has left the building. Crown Heights is a little like Neverland—to reach it you only have to believe, because whatever you believe is what you find here.
In many ways, creative chaos is the thing we came looking for. Our friends began moving to Crown Heights in 2009 because it was cheap; when we moved in 2011, it was because we wanted a wide swath of Jewish experience within walking distance—but also a wide variety of bars. Hipsters and Jews live cheek-by-jowl in Williamsburg, but not together. Here it’s different. Here we have Franklin Park.
Franklin Park, the neighborhood’s best-known bar, was very famously the place where our normally separate cultures—African American, Caribbean, Hasidic, and hipster—would mingle when it opened five years ago. But five years on, the bar is no longer singular. Crown Hill Crossfit has a special class for Orthodox women, and my favorite yoga teacher on Franklin Avenue also subs at the kosher studio on President Street.
Where other Brooklyn shtetls have revolted against the invasion, a small but significant number of Crown Heights Hasidim have embraced their new neighbors. The Hasidic hipster is now his own subset of the Brooklyn population: Yuda calls his artisanal kosher sandwich shop Hassid+Hipster, and Ben rolls under the Instagram handle @thehipsterrebbe; Mimi’s 5-year-old shoots her picture posing in front of graffiti murals in her and her sister-in-law Mushky’s designer “skirt leggings,” the ones that caused a minor social media war when @hipsterhijabis posed in them during Ramadan; and Chezzie … well, you’d hardly find a better word for Rabbi Chezzie if you scoured the OED.
It’s not kumbaya, exactly, but it’s more than comingling. Where once there were rebels, now there are rabbis. It’s they who’ve opened this to us.
If you really want to understand what is happening here, the best place to start is on Instagram. It’s where I start when I want to explain how I picked my shul and my community, what it means to me to be here, why I feel I belong here, or at the very least that I could belong somewhere at all.
This is us, I tell everybody. This is the Judaism you don’t see, the Orthodoxy you fail to recognize under all those black hats. The hashtags may be different, but Jewishly speaking all selfies are the same.
This essay is excerpted from ‘My Journey to the New Jerusalem,’ a story about one woman’s search for a new kind of Jewish community. The article, which Tablet will publish on September 22, was written and edited in collaboration with The Big Roundtable.
Sonja Sharp is a novelist and reporter of crime and culture in New York City. She teaches news writing at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and her stories have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, VICE, the New York Times, The New York Daily News, Mother Jones, and elsewhere.