In Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community, a socially distant wedding

New York (AFP) –


Once a run-of-the-mill soundtrack to New York's streets, cars honking their horns is a way to throw a socially distanced wedding reception in the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

On the eve of a ban on all gatherings in the state battling the fast-spreading COVID-19, a handful of people gathered for a creative wedding in a pocket of Brooklyn populated by one of the borough's tight-knit Hasidic Jewish communities.

After an outdoor ceremony that saw close friends and family fanned out around a chuppah canopy covering the bride and groom, they scrapped the traditional large party in favor of a parade including a flashy, ornate "Torah Truck," cruising the Crown Heights neighborhood so residents could wave and celebrate from their apartments and stoops.

"It's been a crazy week," the groom, JJ Deitch, told AFP, hugging his new wife Fraida.

"Nothing that usually happens before your wedding, but this was sort of great energy for the whole community."

As the happy couple cocooned in a convertible, children danced, men smoked cigars and music rang out as the procession clamored past, with revelers cheering as they leaned out car windows, some wearing protective face masks.

"We were just giving a reason for everybody to be a little bit happier, and that was amazing," Deitch said. "It seems to have really uplifted a lot of people."

- 'No monkey business' -

The chaotic scene stood in stark contrast to an upended New York that's seen shops shut down, Times Square empty out and many of its more than eight million residents hole up at home.

Until days ago the Crown Heights neighborhood -- home to the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement -- still bustled, particularly during last week's Purim celebration, when people took to the streets en masse to fete the holiday that involves dressing up in Halloween-esque costumes.

But now seminaries, schools and synagogues have closed, with rabbis telling residents "no monkey business," said Baila Kievman, the groom's aunt, who sported a fur coat and medical gloves.

"Although it's challenging, we know that this is now a matter of life and death," Kievman said. "We are united in our souls and we trust in God that everything's going to be good in the end."

"We're going to appreciate things much more than we did before corona!"

The virus stripped her nephew's wedding of tradition, but Kievman said the night still brought tears of joy: "There's a silver lining in every cloud."

"What an amazing, amazing thing to be able to accomplish -- to include an entire neighborhood in a way of social distancing is just something unprecedented."

- 'Right balance' -

New York health authorities have voiced escalating concern that coronavirus quickly is spreading through Brooklyn's Hasidic communities, and are probing a spike in confirmed cases over the past week.

There are at least 7,102 total confirmed infections in New York state, with 38 deaths. Earlier this week The New York Times reported more than 100 people had tested positive in areas housing significant Hasidic populations.

In 2018 a measles outbreak began ravaging the population known for eschewing vaccines -- recent history that has augmented officials' anxiety over preparedness to weather a pandemic.

The relatively insular communities often host large-group prayers and gatherings for life events, holidays and Friday evening Shabbat observances.

"It took a little while for the Jewish community to realize, 'Hey guys, you gotta follow the rules!'" Kievman said. "But I think now... everybody understands the seriousness of it."

Zalman Friedman, a relative of the new couple, brought his keyboard outside to offer music as his daughters twirled during the parade.

But they skipped the more intimate ceremony to "celebrate in a safe way," he said, explaining that normally such a wedding would host 200-500 people.

"We don't want to get the virus, we don't want to spread the virus," Friedman said.

He called it "disheartening" that the party had to stay small, but said the parade "raises the spirits."

"Everyone should follow what the government says about limits in numbers, but celebrations must go on," he said "We have to find the right balance."

"To find a way to keep living life and stay normal and sane in this crazy time."