Do Beards a Biker Make?

Environmental group Times Up! has been promoting bicycles as a cleaner mode of transportation in New York City for the past 25 years. But their newest target group – the Hasidic Jewish community – sees bicycles in a very different light.

“It’s a children’s toy,” said Saul, a Hasidic man who lives across from Times Up!’s bike co-op in Williamsburg on South 6th Street. “If you’re a prestigious person it’s a no-no. Even if you’re a boy older than 14, 15, it’s almost a no-no,” he explained. 

But that hasn’t stopped Times Up! founder Bill Di Paola from renewing the organization’s free bike loan program aimed specifically at the Hasidic community. Starting on Earth Day, April 22, Hasidic Jews will be able to borrow bicycles from 5 to 8 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, “just to get the feel of them for free,” said Di Paola. The program is expected to last until July and is not available to other members of the general public who can rent bicycles only through the co-op’s long-term policy.

Mechanics at the Williamsburg co-op said most of the bike loans from last year’s program went to Hasidic children and Saul says there are a number of reasons why cycling is unlikely to catch on among adults.

“It’s considered immodest,” he said, explaining that Hasidic Jews see bicycles as a form of entertainment rather than as an alternative mode of transport. “If it’s a toy, it’s okay. If it’s a means of traveling, that’s not common,” said Saul.

Although bicycles are popular presents for children during Hanukkah, young boys and girls are expected to stop cycling around age 13. Saul’s 8-year-old nephew and 12-year-old brother will be expected to give up their bicycles in the next few years.

What’s more, cycling may conflict with the Hasidic dress code. Helmets can interfere with hair coverings such as hats and wigs. Pedaling can disrupt the hemlines of skirts and dresses, which must be below the knee.

“It would call attention to women which, within our community, is not what you’re supposed to do,” Saul explained. Saul asked not to use his last name for fear that speaking with a non-Hasidic female reporter would get him in trouble with his peers.

Although a seeming penchant for beards amongst the Hasidic and so-called hipster communities has served as the basis for bridge-building efforts – most notably via the Tumblr account Hasid or Hipster and Rabbi Manis Friedman’s Unite the Beards lecture – fashion remains a contentious issue.

A proposed bike lane along Bedford Avenue, one of the main streets in Hasidic Williamsburg, was prevented by local residents over concerns that non-Hasidic cyclists would not adhere to the religion’s codes of modesty.  

“I have worn anything from short shorts with ripped up fishnet stockings – nearly naked as a mermaid heading to Coney Island – to ball gowns hiking my dress up,” said Monica Hunken, an actress and biking activist of her cycles through Brooklyn.

“We’re trying to protect our children from this,” said Saul, speaking of non-Hasidic fashion trends.

But many like Rebekah Schiller, who heads a mechanics class for women at Times Up!, often ride through Bedford Avenue in order to connect with the bike lane on the other side.

“I would not consider wearing different clothing just to go through a few blocks on a public street,” said Schiller. “In the same way, I would not expect people from a different culture to change their mode of dress when traveling past my home,” she said.

Non-Hasidic Jews who wish to rent bicycles from Times Up! can do so through the co-op’s long-term rental program. The cost of the program is equal to the selling price of the bicycle — an average of $100 to $150 — minus $50, which users receive on returning the bicycle.

 Áine Pennello is a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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