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Unkosher Wheels, Friendly Faces

Unkosher Wheels, Friendly Faces

Williamsburg bike shop playfully flouts the antipathy of some area residents to cyclists.

Jammed between industrial brick buildings on the cusp of chasidic South Williamsburg and hipster North is a white canopy that reads the words “Traif Bike” – in bold block letters that sandwich the silk-screened head of a chasid clad in side curls. Traif is Yiddish for non-kosher.

Beneath the canopy, passersby can visit a large black vending machine labeled “Bike Shop,” whose rotating carousel features $55 U-locks, $5 handlebar grips and $2 tire patch kits, among other life necessities like a $33 used BlackBerry.

“I’m trying to take a lot of what’s good about the chasidim, which is how they help each other out as a community, and bring it across multiple communities – not just shared solely amongst the Jews but also reach out into the greater community of Williamsburg hipsters,” said proprietor Baruch Herzfeld, 38, an Orthodox Jew from Staten Island who runs a cell phone business in the neighborhood. “People can socialize around their bicycles.”

Behind the vending machine is the larger Traif Bike Gesheft storefront, decorated with a Magen David shaped out of adjoining rubber chickens, artistic graffiti and a Yiddish message reminding Satmar residents to come borrow bicycles. Next to the vending device is Herzfeld’s “slot machine” ATM, which doles out cash in $10 increments but sporadically dispenses a random $20 to lucky withdrawers.

The shop proper is home to the Time’s Up! cycling club, where neighborhood residents – both hipster and Satmar – come on Sundays and Wednesdays to take free bike repair classes with volunteer instructors.

“The bike shop I envisioned wasn’t even a shop, it’s more of a community building operation,” Herzfeld said.

The Time’s Up! organization was actually at the center of a December 2008 clash between clown-cloaked cyclists and angry Satmar residents, who objected to new city bike lanes that began routing scantily clad cyclists through their parking spaces and school bus paths. Even more recently – December 2009 – cyclists decided to repaint 14 blocks worth of bike lanes that the city had removed from Bedford Avenue, in response to Satmar complaints. Yet Herzfeld stresses that his bike shop has only brought residents closer together, and he sees no division between the two populations.

“I see them as one community,” he said. “The rabbis want to keep them separated because they want to preserve their traditions, and they’re worried that if people are exposed to a different tradition then they’re going to lose a tradition of the past.”

While Herzfeld is all for preserving traditions, he finds that many Satmar chasids do so at the expense of socialization and instead become “miserable.” But lately, Herzfeld and his staff members say that the Traif Bike Gesheft has seen increasing numbers of Satmar cyclists attending their biweekly classes in recent weeks. As additional incentive, Herzfeld offers free bike loans to the Satmar community members, and anyone else who might be interested.

“He’s surprisingly brought a lot of Satmars together and to meet with other Jews and non-Jews in a friendly environment. And the bikes are only part of his efforts,” said Yoel Weisshaus, a Satmar chasid who uses Herzfeld’s Traif Bike Gesheft regularly but also empathizes with community parking concerns. Weisshaus, who recommends the shop to friends, thinks that bike usage will increase gradually, as more and more people learn about Herzfeld’s venture.

“Every single chasid knows me, if I go around Williamsburg – they love me,” Herzfeld told The Jewish Week, after careening around the neighborhood in his silver convertible Mini Cooper and shouting “shalom aleichem” to onlookers.

And apparently his friendliness with the Satmar community has taken off, as at least 10 people had showed up at the clubhouse to test-ride bicycles by early evening that Thursday of chol hamoed.

“They were all asking for you today,” said Matthew Caputo, 25, who works for Herzfeld at Time’s Up! and worked with the chasidic cyclists all day. Caputo hopes to add an arcade gift grabber game to the shop’s “funhouse”-like exterior.

“I am the new rebbe of Williamsburg,” Herzfeld said, laughing.

“There are two brothers and they’re both fighting, and I don’t fight with either one,” he explained, referring to the followers of Aaron and Zalman Teitelbaum dueling for leadership of Satmar Williamsburg. “I want to bring them together, and that’s why they all look up to me in Williamsburg as the new rebbe.”

While Herzfeld is happy that he’s already brought together hipsters and a smattering of Satmar men from both the Aaronite and Zalmanite teams, he’d also like to see some chasidic women hopping on bikes in the near future.

“No rabbi has put out a ruling saying a woman can’t ride a bicycle, just like there’s no ruling that says women can’t drive cars,” Herzfeld said. “But they understand that this is something that nobody else does, so they don’t do it.”

And that’s an attitude he’s aiming to change.

“Will they get to it? Yes. Will it happen overnight? No. But will some rabbi come out and prohibit it expressly? No,” he said. “I’m explaining to the outside world how the chasidic phenomenon works in Williamsburg.”

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