This is a sunny day in one of the world’s largest cities. It isn’t a legal holiday; there isn’t an emergency; the authorities haven’t evacuated the neighborhood. Yet the shops are shuttered, the businesses are closed and the streets are empty of traffic.
Question: What is going on and where is everybody?
Answer: It’s just another Friday afternoon in Borough Park.
Borough Park (also spelled Boro Park), a somewhat run-down, working-class area of Brooklyn, is home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the world. Many of the residents here follow the teachings of Yisrael Ben Eliezer, known as The Baal Shem Tov (The Master of the Good Name).
The Baal Shem Tov, who died in the Ukraine in 1760, was the founder of the Hassidic Jewish movement. He taught that God is best served and worshipped through singing and dancing, and instructed his followers to meditate, so they could connect with the “holy sparks of the Glory of God” that dwell in “all that is in the world.”
The male followers of The Baal Shem Tov are easily recognized by their distinctive appearance. Bearded, they wear garments modeled after those of their spiritual leader, including a beskeshe (a suit with long tailored jacket), a fringed prayer shawl called a tallit or talles, a skullcap known as a kippah or yarmulke and, on Shabbos and other holidays, a circular fur hat called a shtreimel. Hasidic women can dress in mainstream styles but are limited to suitably modest items. They are free to wear makeup, jewelry and other fashionable adornments, but once married, the women cover their hair with wigs, scarves or hats.
While they have always considered children a blessing, many modern Hasidim are committed to having as many children as possible, believing that they must replace the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Consequently, the neighborhood has the highest birth rate in the city.
On Friday afternoon, around 2:00 p.m., the entire neighborhood shuts down, allowing the Hasidim to go home and prepare for Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath. It is Erev Shabbos (the evening the Sabbath begins), when, dressed in their finest garb, large families hurry through the streets to the services where they welcome their day of rest. Come Sunday morning, the normal workweek will resume; the restaurants and stores will open again, the sidewalks will overflow with bustling shoppers and the streets will be filled with roaring, honking traffic.