Hasidim, Hipsters, and the New Crown Heights

October, 22 2010

by Symi Rom-Rymer

Hasidim and Hipsters can’t be friends, so says conventional wisdom.  But maybe they can eat together.  At least that’s what Danny Branover, principal owner of Basil Pizza and Wine bar in Crown Heights is hoping.

Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood perhaps most infamously known for the 1991 riots that irrupted between the neighborhood’s Hasidic and black communities, is home to a mix of ethnic and religious groups including immigrants from the Caribbean, Lubavitcher Jews, and African-Americans.  In recent years, an influx of young, liberal professionals have moved in adding yet another cultural and social imprint on the neighborhood.

According to a New York Times piece about Basil by Frank Bruni, former food critic for the Times, the idea for the restaurant started when Branover, himself a member of the Lubavitch movement, moved from Jerusalem to Crown Heights in 2001 and was dismayed by the lack of interaction between the neighborhood groups.  In Crown Heights he said, “Jewish and black residents were more estranged than the Jews and Arabs in Israel, who, have more profound political differences and much more reason to distrust one another.”  By establishing a restaurant where everyone, despite their religious and cultural differences, can feel comfortable, he hopes to change that dynamic. And it seems that he is succeeding.  According to Bruni, on any given night, the dining room is filled with Hasidic men cheek by jowl with bare-armed women and African-American politicos.

From its trendy certified Kosher menu (individual pizza, pasta, raw fish) to the diversity of the wait staff (gay, straight, male, female, Catholic) to the welcoming environment (it has been home to baptism parties and Hasidic jazz bands), it’s clear that the restaurant is trying its hardest to appeal to everyone.  But their efforts to be inclusive for some have also stepped on the toes of others.  Because Hasidic men aren’t allowed to hear female voices singing, for instance, recordings of female singers are never played in the dining room and waitresses are not allowed to sing Happy Birthday, even to non-Hasidic clientele.  One young woman who was kissing her boyfriend during dinner was admonished by the restaurant manager and told that she was in the Lubavitcher’s backyard and needed to “respect their ways.”  But Basil is now in the hipsters’ backyard as well and that, too, ought to be acknowledged.

Minor quibbles aside, the success of Basil proves that a multi-cultural, multi-religious restaurant in the heart of a historically troubled neighborhood is possible.   And that’s exciting.  As Joanna White-Oldham, one of Basil’s frequent customers, said  in the article, “the place makes such a great statement, especially at such a volatile time right now in our world, with all this lack of religious tolerance. And it has motivated me.”

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.

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