Fifty years ago, in 1972 and 1973, Nathan Benn was sent by National Geographic to photograph Hasidic Jews. The story was published in the August 1975 issue (let’s take a moment to appreciate how publishing worked then — the photographer spent two years on a project and it was three more years before it was released!) and the text was written by Harvey Arden. The blurb for the story describes Williamsburg as a bit of Hungary in a tenement neighborhood.
“Harvey Arden and Nathan Benn explore the closed world of Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jews – – a bit of old Hungary transported to a tenement neighborhood in America’s largest city.”
Both author and photojournalist have passed on since, but not before Nathan’s great collection of published and unpublished pictures were uploaded to the web. You can buy them for a couple of hundred a pop, or you can do like me, and enjoy them watermark and all.
The cover for the 8/75 issue of National Geographic
The National Geographic story on Hasidic Williamsburg Jews
Below are some of his many photos. I’m struck by how much more diverse the Hasidic community still looks, but also how much poorer it looks than today. The children aren’t as stylishly dressed, the sukkah balconies are still tiny fire escapes, the wedding venues are low-ceiling modest little ballrooms.
There is a tremendous paradox where the community fifty years ago was at once more pious and yet more modern. It was not as homogeneous, but it was also not as ostentatious. It seems to me that time makes of the community a more capitalistic hustler culture on the hunt for the American dream of that perfect respectable family and its pleasures. There is also now the concept of the chill Hasid, the cool Hasid, who knows how to “live a little” without shedding the religious identity.
One thing is for sure: The women were really stylish!
Here are some pictures with their original captions:
Street scene of Hasidic Jewish women and children chat on Lee Avenue and admire each other’s babies. Hasidic families try to have many children.
Hasidic Jewish Streimel Macher can make by hand only 2 streimels in a week. There are 70 days a year to wear one, including all Shabboses and holidays, plus special occasions. Started 37 yrs ago in Hungary, learned from father, who was also a maker.
Observant Jewish worshippers wear a tallis aka tallit for praying looks out the window of a small synagogue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Williamsburg urban neighborhood is a center for pious Ashkenazi Judaism.
Hasidic Jewish man with beard and yarmulke examines with a magnifying glass a diamond that he is polishing in 47th Street workshop in Manhattan, New York on October 19, 1972….
United Talmudical Academy boys school, 6-15 yr old, where schoolday is divided between Yiddish and English studies. The religious studies taught by Hasidim, the English taught by Orthodox non-Hasidim. Boys are bussed into what was once a YMCA.
Landau’s Grocery on Lee Avenue, the center of commercial activity of Satmer Jewish Williamsburg. Mr. Landau receives fresh , kosher produce.
Hasidic Jewish women participate in a protest in Manhattan that is anti-Zionist relating to the treatment of Hasidic people, claiming police brutality, in Israel and other issues of Israel.
Hasidic Jewish woman with infants in a stroller crosses an intersection in Williamsburg at Lee Avenue, the heart of the Hasidic district. She wears a wig according to custom for Hasidic women.
Hasidic Jewish wedding with bride, groom, and families sitting under a crystal chandelier in a wedding hall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, a center of Orthodox Judaism, on October 25, 1972….
Hasidic Jewish man and an African American man share a bench at the Marcy Avenue MTA station in Williamsburg.
Hasidic Jews burn an Israel flag in anti-Zionist demonstration at an intersection in in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York during the Purim holiday celebration on March 8, 1974….
Aerial view of the Williamsburg urban neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York with Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan in background on November 16, 1972….
Hasidic Jewish family in a temporary booth or hut (sukkah) during the Feast of Tabernacles festival holiday (sukkot, succoth, sukkos) in Brooklyn, New York….
Hasidic Jewish boys smoke a cigarette in a phone booth while celebrating the Purim holiday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, a center of Orthodox Judaism, on March 8, 1973. This annual festival celebration often includes parodies of secular life outside the religious community.
In all, between 1972-1974, Benn shot inside a Sukkah, Purim festivities, Passover preparations — including a matzah bakery, anti-zionist protests, inside a boys’ school, inside the synagogue, at least two weddings, a few Hasidic workplaces including the Diamond District, a butcher, an old bookstore, a grocer, a shtreimel maker. He photographed the rebbe, a bris, and men learning. He visited a home and scoured the streets. And all of it clearly with the aid of the community, which clearly gave him the green light to spend the day in the boys school or at a wedding. That’s a very impressive job for a community that is so camera shy.