Williamsburg, NY – Free Bicycle for Yiddish-Speaking Satmar Hasidim, Just to Make it Acceptable


    Williamsburg, NY – An unusual sign appeared in the neighborhood. On it is a large Star of David constructed out of 50 or so rubber chickens. In the middle of the star, Yiddish text offers a free bike loan to any of the Yiddish-speaking Satmar Hasidim who live in the area.

    “You can come borrow a bike to ride around and have fun,” the sign reads.

    Baruch Herzfeld, a neighborhood gadfly/clown/activist/businessman who owns a small bicycle repair shop below the offices of his cell phone company (the shop’s name: Traif Bike Geschaft), put up the sign. Herzfeld, 37, already has sent some of his Hasidic friends down to the Brooklyn waterfront on the beat-up bikes he has in his repair shop. He just received 500 used bikes from Japan that will allow him to expand his program.

    “These guys always complain to me. They say: ‘Baruch, what can I do? I’m miserable. Help me out,’” Herzfeld said. “I said, come to me. I’ll give you a bicycle on the side.”

    Herzfeld’s office is smack in the middle of the divided territory of Williamsburg, a neighborhood that has long been inhabited by Satmar Hasidim but has recently become a favorite of young secular New York hipsters. These two communities have little in common, but they have been particularly divided over the past year by proposed bike lanes through the neighborhood — which the Hasidim have opposed and the hipsters have generally supported. Herzfeld thinks that if he can get a few Hasidim riding bikes, it could ease some of the tension.

    “The goal is just to make it acceptable. I’m not doing it because I want to change the world — I just think it would be a healthy thing for the whole city if some of these guys got on bicycles,” he said.

    Or put differently, in Herzfeld’s rapid-patter style: “For the love of God — I’m Jewish, you’re Jewish, borrow a bicycle. Who are we hurting?”

    It’s an improbable plan with a number of barriers to overcome. On a recent afternoon, a black-hatted Satmar man walked by and noticed the sign; Herzfeld told him to come by for a bike, but the man just laughed.

    “Usually over here, the adults don’t ride. Over here nobody takes two wheels,” said the man, who declined to give his name.

    If anybody can break these barriers, though, it’s probably Herzfeld. Though not a Hasid, he is a Sabbath-observant Modern Orthodox Jew. Both of his brothers are rabbis — one at the National Synagogue in Washington. But he also is a classic Brooklyn bon vivant: Next to the rubber-chicken bike loan sign is a graffitied picture of Che Guevara, and in back, with the bikes, is a chicken coop, where Herzfeld gets eggs for his wife. He wears a fedora, tilted forward, ironically, and an open-necked shirt — and he shows no fear in challenging the local rabbinic authorities who might look down on his program.

    “Both of my brothers are rabbis. They’re probably smarter than your rabbis,” Herzfeld told one skeptic who cited religious restrictions. “My brother’s the rabbi at the National Synagogue. He lets me ride a bicycle. You should ride one, too. You got the wrong rabbi.”

    The roots of the local resistance to Herzfeld’s thinking run deep. There are some Hasidic communities in which grown men do ride bicycles, but the Satmar world of Williamsburg is not one of them. Simon Weiser, a Hasidic member of the local community board who fought hard against the proposed bike lanes, said that it is simply a matter of tradition.

    “It’s very uncommon here, so it looks awkward to ride a bike,” Weiser said. “That’s how it is. I don’t know how or why, but that’s how it became.”

    The local attitudes surfaced last fall when the city proposed putting new bike lanes through Williamsburg to accommodate the many young, secular residents who use bicycles to get around. The Hasidic community immediately opposed the lanes, citing the reduced parking they would cause; some religious leaders also mentioned the immodestly dressed women who would come pedaling through the neighborhood.

    The community meetings at which the bike lanes were discussed turned bitter and acrimonious. Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the group Transportation Alternatives, which lobbied for the lanes, said the battles over bikes were “a sort of stand-in battle for the anxieties people have about neighborhood change.”

    Norvell was excited to hear about Herzfeld’s plans. “It’s definitely the kind of bridge building that north Brooklyn could really use right now. It’s been a tough year — there’s no doubt about that. This is the sort of thing that could help us get back to a much more civil place.”

    Like his meandering patter, Herzfeld’s approach to this problem has not been a linear one. He says it really began last summer, when his bike was stolen near his home on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He went online to find a new bike, and he found a police auction site. He ended up buying 500 bicycles at around $8 a pop. Once he had the bikes, he needed somewhere to store and sell them, so he transformed his Williamsburg backyard into the bike shop and brought in one of his many neighborhood friends to run it.

    This quickly made his two-story building a hangout for local hipsters, as did his decision to donate space on the ground floor to the group Time’s Up, an activist bike collective. Once he had the hipsters, Herzfeld saw the possibility of bringing them together with the Hasidim whom he meets on the street and in the local kosher restaurants. Earlier this summer, Herzfeld got a permit to close off his block and hold an event in which the Time’s Up folks fixed up some of the police auction bikes for Hasidic kids. He has decided to call his lending program a “Bike Gemach,” playing off the Hebrew word for a free loan society.

    The gemach is part of a broader Herzfeldian vision to set up a bike-loan program like the ones that Paris and Amsterdam have, and in which most of the bicycles will not be free. “I don’t want to be in the business of lending bicycles to every shmeyl that wants one,” he said. His charity toward the Hasidim also knows bounds: “If someone does it all the time, I’ll say, ‘Listen, Khazer — go buy a bike.’”

    On a recent Sunday, a Hasidic friend of Herzfeld’s, Yoel Buchinger, came by and was taught how to ride a bike by some of the Time’s Up activists. They recorded it on video for posterity. Buchinger said that he has many friends who would be willing to ride, as long as they are not doing so in the middle of the community.

    “I have a lot of friends riding bikes every day — every night. They ride around the water,” Buchinger said.

    Weiser said that Herzfeld might have some luck if he finds Hasidim who want to borrow bicycles and ride them outside Williamsburg. A passing Hasidic man said that no one could do it in the neighborhood because of “tznius,” or modesty, and told Herzfeld, “You see the problem.”

    Herzfeld shot back: “Yeah, you see, you go with the two wheels, then you start enjoying yourself. It’s no good.”

    He still got a parting “Zay gesunt,” or “Be well,” from the man as he walked away. Herzfeld gave him a “Zay gesunt” in return, with a smirk.

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    1. “There are some Hasidic communities in which grown men do ride bicycles, but the Satmar world of Williamsburg is not one of them. Simon Weiser, a Hasidic member of the local community board who fought hard against the proposed bike lanes, said that it is simply a matter of tradition. It’s very uncommon here, so it looks awkward to ride a bike,” Weiser said. “That’s how it is. I don’t know how or why, but that’s how it became.”

      The best excuse he could come up with against biking is “it looks awkward”. Welcome to the 21 century reb Weiser. Who cares what it “looks like”. Biking(and other forms of exercise) is one of the best forms of cardiac disease prevention (which is one of the biggest problems in the Satmar community), is much cheaper than driving and reduces traffic and polution. There is NO reason in logic or halacha not to bike. Just because some narrow minded individuals in the Satmar community are worried about nothing, why do they hold the rest of the community captive to their prejudices. Get over your concerns what it “looks like”. Get out and bike because there will be more bike lanes all over WB an BP within the newt few years.

    2. Hey, I live in Boro Park. I bought a new bike 3 years ago. I can use a new one. Can you please expand your program to Boro Park… Will be very much appreciated.

    3. as a cyclist who rides often please wear a helmet.

      Every else can be fixed, mended a brain cannot.

      falling of a bike even not moving and if the frist thing that hits the ground is your head you can crack a skull

      my 2 cents

    4. In BP I know at least the Viznitz chasidim ride bikes with the blessings of their Rabbi from Monsey, there probably are more.

      However in Williamsburg the entire issue is taboo. In my many conversations with some Satmer know it all’s I haven’t succeded to find out why this is so, supposedly the 1st Satmer Rabbi was against these bikes, however besides the Menahalim refering to them as “the shaigets bikes…” No one ever was able to quote any mention of the Rabbi saying so, what IS confirmed is that in the initial stages of the Satmer Yeshiva most students used to bike their way to Yeshive.

      Bottom line:
      Its all a myth or a hoax!!!

    5. I fall off a tricycle, I have zero balance, but i think this is great! Maybe I’ll send my boys over, they love to ride bikes. Sure, it’ll look weird to see 3 Chassidishe guys with their beards & tzitzis flying in the wind, but they could use the exercise. Renting for an afternoon seems fair – all our bikes get stolen even when they are chained to a street sign.

      We need some light relief in this miserable world. And i like the idea of the rubber chickens also! Time to have some kosher fun! Mr. Herzfeld, you must be a great neighbor!

    6. Like many so called “minhagim” and “chumrahs” that no living soul can remember why they follow it, who originated it or what purpose it serves, the issur against biking is another chassideshe version of an urban legend. There is no such issur; it was invented by a bunch of overweight, lazy and out-of-shape ehrleche yidden whose wives were kvetching that they needed to get off the couch and exercise.

      • Yes, that’s my concern. I go bike riding with my husband but I wish I can just do it as a normal daily routine.
        But I shouldn’t hope too much. Let’s just first hope it gets in style for the men. I see Chassidishe men in Monsey, Boro Park, and in Europe ride bikes. There is no reason why in Williamsburg they shouldn’t. Once it gets accepted the assur will suddenly turn Muttar.

    7. while working in willi i have been taught that young satmar children do not ride bikes, the bikes are called a shaigitz bikes like the store in the article. I was told that the satmar rebbi did not let his chasidim ride bikes for one does not know where they will go. so i guess the guy may not succede with his free bike rentals.

    8. Actually, the hipsters or Hispanics or whoever can sue for discrimination. I’m holding my breath.

      The “shaigetz bike” issue is only for Satmar kids, not men, so they shouldn’t venture out too far on their own. In today’s crazy world, I do see the point, although my son doesn’t learn in Satmar and is allowed to bike around the block.

    9. Maybe if they will ride bikes daily they will be able to get off beta blockers &glucophage for their high bloodpressure and high sugar and im sure they will be able to get off prozec as well which most of them are on anyway Thanks

    10. he is so right “we got the wrong rabbis”, what is wrong with biking, ball playing, dinning out, ?????????????

      it seems that enjoying life has become not appropiate does anyone know why its not appropiate to enjoy life ???????????

    11. There is absolutely no issur, chumrah, hidder or otherwise not to ride a bike. Neither by Chasidim, Litfaken, Sefardim nor Teymonim.

      Go to monsey where you’ll see plenty chasidisheh yingeleit, langeh reklach, sameteneh kapelitchen (not on the head, safely tucked away in the basket) driving bikes. Especially Vizhnitzer Chasidim, the Viznitzer rebbeh encourages his koilel yingeleit who live far out to ride bikes rather than buy a car.

      The same goes to Borough Park, albeit on a smaller scale.

    12. I wish I would be able to ride a bike. I live in BP where its not acceptable either and I have a car what costs me my pants the lease the insurance the gas and the biggest part the parking tickets because I never find parking in my area. All I need my car is local so a bicycle would be the perfect solution but what can I do…

    13. walking in Willi, i see lots of bycicles.. maybe its from other communitys.
      but, it doesnt seem that the Satmars banned it, only that just like its not approppiate for a adult to ride roller blaids, they feel the same applys for bycicles to.

      (I roller blaid..)

    14. Bike riding in WB would give some folks some much needed exercise and a great way to work off that extra piece of kishka eaten at the last wedding or party!!

    15. In Antwerp they all ride bikes, here in Manchester quite a few yungeleit ride bikes – not everyone can afford to run a car and walking takes time. As long as they wear their helmets, and most do, there is nothing wrong with riding bikes! (by the way, most of the Satmar boys round here own bikes and go out on them!)

    16. Hello Chevrah, allow me to ask: Why not Rollerblade?

      Rollerblades as you might know, are more compact than a bicycle. All you need to do is, tie the shoes one to another, swing them over your shoulder, put on the blades, and off you are to Mincha or shopping. Gevaldig!
      Once in shul, just hang’em Blades with the rest of the G&G coats and jackets.

      Don’t you give me that look! What? It’s Assur? No it’s not.
      ..and here’s the kicker: Neither the Satmar Rebbe, nor Reb Moishe Assered it. So what’s the problem? I’ts Goyish? not any more Goyish than a Bike.

      Ok, so in Willi-town the Chasidim will start training on the bicycles, and in other areas, the Oilem will hit the roads rollin’ on them blades!

      I can already imagine seeing the Heimishe Litvishe Oilem in the Bush-‘o-Flat and the Woods-‘o-Lake Zooming and Swishing up and down the roads while holding on to the Borsalino with one hand and Shlepping the Talis bag and groceries with the other…

      “Was that a pair of Roshe-Chivas flying by with the stylish Frak’s on blades?” young Chaim’l asks Tatty. ..”Beards flowing in the wind, smacking each ear on random, thumbs twisting outward?”
      “They’re probably discussing a Schverreh Rambam,” replies Tatty…

      Yeah! we’ll just put away the Mini-vans, and take the family around town on cute little Wheelie-Shoes.

      Question: If a Modern-Orthodox Yid was to open a Roller-blade store on say.. Clifton ave. ..Mamash at the border of the Hiemishe Neighborhood, with the noble intention of re-educating the backward thinking, unsophisticated Litvishe guys, would Vosizneias then serve as a podium for the Reformist Forward as well and publish the article?


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