The East London borough of Hackney is one of the most diverse in the city. It has grand Victorian townhouses sitting next to drab-looking blocks of social housing. Trendy cafes are full of young and beautiful hipsters in oversized glasses and circulation-restricting jeans sipping flat whites. Former warehouses are being converted into bohemian lofts at eye-watering prices. Next to all this women in burkhas pass by like shadows.
In the heart of Hackney, at Stamford Hill, lives one of the most secretive and closely-knit communities in London: the Hasidic Haredi Jews. Around 20,000 people inhabit an area just over one square mile, where you can find as many as 74 synagogues and 32 Orthodox Jewish schools. Their way of life bears no resemblance to the 21st century – they are permanently suspended sometime in the 19th century, somewhere in Eastern Europe.
One fine Sunday afternoon I cycle to Springfield Park, a beautiful green area perched on a hill overlooking the river Lea. I sit on a bench and watch Haredi families taking their Sunday stroll. A father dressed in a black frock coat, a tall hat and long white socks is walking with his seven children in tow. The little girls are wearing identical long dresses and the boys are all displaying curly locks bobbing up and down from under their yarmulke (also called kippah – a skull cap). When they pass me by, I can hear a language that sounds very much like German – it is Yiddish, used by most Haredi families, alongside Hebrew.
In Springfield Park one can observe the different dress styles of Hasidic Haredi men. Those less Orthodox wear a yarmulke and modern clothes. Some others are dressed in black, with a yarmulke and curls. Those most Orthodox opt for tall hats and long black coats, or fur hats. Women and girls tend to wear black, sometimes white, always with a skirt reaching well below the knee and a head cover.
As I make my way out of the park and into the street, I notice that some men are followed by their wives and children, rather than walk side by side. A bit of research done when I’m back home reveals that many Haredi men don’t talk or even look at women in public, and that includes their own wife.
I cycle around the quiet, sunny neighbourhood. I pass by kosher shops and religious schools, synagogues and other places marked with Hebrew inscriptions I cannot read. I stare in astonishment at the name of one of the streets – it spells ‘West Bank’.
Slowly, my head starts spinning. My only link to the year 2015 is my iPhone that I clutch in my hand and use to take secretive (and very blurry) photos.
As I find out more and more about this community, I can only admire their resilience in the face of change, and their community spirit. Stamford Hill has virtually no crime. The community has its own schools, its own media and its own medical services. Nobody works outside the community and most people reject all links to the outside world, including TV, radio, internet, and newspapers.
Left alone, this community could persist for centuries more. Or could it? Every now and then the British public is made aware of the existence of the Haredi community of Stamford Hill, and the picture is rather disturbing. Lately, the case that stirred much media controversy was when women were banned by the community from driving their children to school.
What casts a shadow over the Jews of Stamford Hill is arranged marriages, which take teenage girls out of school and forever into the household. Having eight children is common. Hardly anybody in the community completes secondary education. Most children attend private religious schools where they study the Torah all day long, and graduate with no qualifications and no skills for the modern-day job market.
As a result, the formerly independent and resilient community is increasingly relying on public handouts to maintain their way of life. As many as 70% of the families live off benefits in publicly funded social housing. With such big families, they constantly need more space, and there simply isn’t any in that single square mile of land.
As a keen traveller and amateur anthropologist, I’m thrilled to discover and observe this ‘exotic tribe’ in the middle of Europe’s biggest city. But as a British taxpayer, I feel dubious about public money supporting someone’s choice to have eight children and not educate them, and to prevent women from making a living.
As I cross the street, my eyes lock with the eyes of a young woman dressed in the obligatory black. She quickly turns her gaze away. I wonder what she is thinking.