The Bike Project Why Do Haredim Put the Brakes on Pedaling?

There's no Jewish legal problem with bikes (so long it's not on Shabbes or holidays), but the relationship between ultra-Orthodox Jews and bikes still hasn't blossomed.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

New York's Satmar Hasidim got Mayor Bloomberg to block a bicycle path through their neighborhood. In Israel, pashkavilim warn against the dangers of riding. The Ultra-Orthodox recoil from bicycles, in their eyes a children's game or outright permissiveness.

Two years ago, Satmar Hasidim returned to their Brooklyn base flushed with victory. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had acceded to their request and canceled a bicycle path that bisected their Williamsburg neighborhood, shortly after it had been marked off for New York cyclists.

Bloomberg got rid of the path, enraging New York environmentalists and bike riders (including Jews, naturally) who had been waiting two long years for a bicycle path master plan. While it still existed, it provided the shortest, cheapest and most environmentally friendly access to studies, jobs and nightlife in Manhattan. But the liberal (and Jewish) mayor bought into the Hasidim's two central arguments: bicycle traffic endangered pedestrians in Williamsburg (and there are plenty), and would cause a loss of parking places for automobiles (of which there are also plenty) along busy Bedford Avenue. Whatever. The real reason is the special relationship that exists between the ultra-Orthodox and the bicycle, and in particular of extremist groups like the Satmar to two-wheeled traffic.

Internally, the Satmar activity reaped adulation because it came in defense of the sacred Jewish turf, ergo the holy of holies Williamsburg, from an external threat. That's just what the neighborhood didn't need – a main thoroughfare to Manhattan, with shikses pedalling through in shorts or lycra outfits. God forbid!

But what about the holy flock itself? Is pedaling permitted for the ultra-Orthodox? In essence the answer is yes, but it depends, maybe in essence it's no. In retrospect, a shidduch between ultra-Orthodox and bikes (or motorbikes) should be a winner: an inexpensive, low-maintenance means of transport that's ideal for short distances, suitable for every family. There's no Jewish law problem with bikes (so long it's not on Shabbes or holidays), everything seems simple enough. So why doesn't the relationship blossom?

In order to understand it's necessary to return to the fringes. Every so often, before the summer months begin, an anonymous paskhavil wall poster pops up, railing against bicycles. “Teachers and parents, look at the plague of bicycles that is present in our environs,” the poster says, apparently fighting last year's war at a time when an estimated quarter of ultra-Orthodox homes have hooked up to the Internet.

The writer of the poster complains that bicycles are a game, and that kids ride them around and have contests on them in public. This “pleasure,” the writer says, “steals a large part of the holy Torah from them, a similar portion of respect, and destroys all the future purity of the soul,” adding that children's contests clearly break through the barrier of holy modesty. The pashkavil is unsigned, probably because there is no rabbi who supports it.

Are bicycles dangerous because of girls? Because of a loss of the Torah, or, Heaven forbid, a loss of respect? It's not clear. But the poster represents a position that can also be found in the internal regulations of the Satmar or Shuvu Banim in Jerusalem, which forbid bike riding for children as well.

The majority of the ultra-Orthodox world, including some of its most conservative groups, has never banned bicycles. The biggest rap against them is that they're thought of as a children's game. A grown-up ultra-Orthodox man, even if he recognizes the potential advantages of the bicycle, will think twice before he mounts a device that is stained with a childish or hooliganish image. Of course, there are ultra-Orthodox who do ride bicycles – but they can usually be found a substantial distance from the ultra-Orthodox heartlands of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, in small communities, or are newly religious.

Everywhere else, bicycle riding by grown-up men (not to speak of women!) is still not a legitimate option, not as a way of getting from place to place and not as sport or exercise. Bike-riding is not specifically forbidden, but it is in the realm of not done, spashnisht in Yiddish, an unwritten code of behavior. Just as a youth above a certain age will not walk the streets with a colored item of clothing, just as an ultra-Orthodox won't eat in the street. Why? It's part of the code.

All this before we even get to bicycles and modesty, of men and women alike. Perspiration in public, especially in the presence of the other gender, isn't acceptable. Therefore a man who wants to get from place to place will get into a packed bus. And if he wants to ride for sport, it will preferably be between four walls on an exercise bike, in his home or a gym.

Some Haredim put spokes in the wheels of bike enthusiasts.Credit: Gil Cohen Magen



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