Miranda Levy

The virus has prompted a backlash against New York Cıty’s Charedim communıty

Miranda Levy reflects on what she saw in Brooklyn during a brief weekend visit to the US before the country entered lockdown

March 25, 2020 13:30

On Monday 16 March, as New York City shut down in our wake, my boyfriend drove me to JFK airport.

The streets by that point were pretty clear of people, as government edicts were telling people to stay home and “socially distance” themselves.

But as we drove across Brooklyn and into Queens, we saw a long line of pale, black-hatted Charedi men standing at a bus stop, in close proximity to one another. In an apartment complex a little further along the route, Strictly Orthodox women were milling around as if business were usual.

My boyfriend explained that these Jews were part of the Satmar dynasty, largely based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we had been staying.

Apparently, they were flouting urgent warnings about avoiding large gatherings during the coronavirus outbreak, and were congregating in shuls, yeshivahs and at funerals and bar mitzvahs.

On Wednesday last week, the Fire Department were forced to break up a wedding party of 200. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York State, had banned meetings of more than 50 people just two days earlier.

Seeing the Strictly Orthodox out and about was especially surprising to me, as I had witnessed the rest of the City strongly react — over-react, it seemed at the time — to fears around the virus. In hindsight, of course, I was wrong.

My Norwegian Airlines flight had landed on the afternoon of Friday 13 March. This was after the ban on flights arriving from Europe, but just before the closure of UK flights. US Immigration was surprisingly empty, and there was fear in the eyes of workers, many of whom were wearing protective masks. Hardly anyone was in arrivals; my boyfriend insisted on meeting me in the car.

It felt like a regular (secular) Friday night at the hipster Hoxton Hotel, a few blocks from the Strictly Orthodox area of Wiliamsburg. However, by Saturday afternoon, the City was starting to feel strange.

Miranda Levy was in New York earlier this month, before the city's lockdown (Photo: Miranda Levy)


Despite the flight restrictions, there were no other rules in place at this point. My boyfriend and I went to Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side — a huge, new mall full of designer shops and fancy restaurants — but it was practically empty. We had an urge to skateboard through the gleaming concourse.

In the gadget shop B8a there were 10 unemployed college-age kids (no customers) dancing to the Village People. We joined in — it felt like an End-Of-The-World Party.

When we went out for breakfast on Sunday morning, alternative tables were laid to ensure distancing: the waitress told us about a new rule that restaurants could only operate at half-occupancy.

Sure enough, at an Italian restaurant that night, the cops came in and counted how many diners there were. It felt like being in a city under martial law.

As the weekend progressed, there were fewer and fewer pedestrians on the street. Many of the voices I heard had British accents — or were speaking in French or Spanish — as it seemed Americans were taking the initiative and already staying indoors.

Left to my own devices for a few hours on Sunday afternoon, I went to a restaurant, ordered a cocktail and sat at the bar, keen to chat.

But as soon as the waitress heard my English accent, she backed away and refused to serve me.

I was becoming increasingly anxious there would be no flight home, but Norwegian sent me reassuring texts all weekend. So, after a farewell bagel and lox at Russ and Daughters, my boyfriend and I left for the airport, passing the gathered frummers.

Outside the initial outbreak in Seattle nursing homes, New York City is the hardest hit area of America, with around 18,000 positive coronavirus tests and at least 70 deaths. Reports about how many Charedim have tested positive vary from 250 to over 500, mostly in the Strictly Orthodox Brooklyn neighbourhoods.

But one thing is for sure: a backlash has started against the community, particularly the communal Asisia Urgent Care Clinic in Borough Park, which is being accused of spreading infection.

There is also criticism for the failure of many Charedim to follow the mainstream and internet news for fear of immoral images, and for continuing to dance arm-in-arm.

“The Torah protects us and saves us. We’re not scared,” said one unidentified young man this week. But, to save as many as possible, this ancient religious community really needs to move into the modern world for a bit. And soon.

March 25, 2020 13:30

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