CROWN HEIGHTS — It was Saturday afternoon, and all through Crown Heights, sleepy heads were nodding. But deep in the basement of a foreclosed row house on Empire Boulevard, a stone’s throw from the seat of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism from which they hail, a group of unorthodox rockers were giving Black Sabbath a new meaning.
Rocking through the Jewish day of rest is just another way that the Crown Heights death metal outfit Streimel Viking, whose tongue-in-cheek name is a mashup of the traditional fur hat worn by some religious men on holidays and the metal stock character of the Nordic warrior, mesh their distinctly non-Hasidic sound and their deeply Hasdic roots.
If the scull-cap crowd at Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn is any indication, they’ve struck a cord in the Orthodox world.
“Some of them like metal, some of them don’t like metal,” bassist Getzy Edelman, 27, said of the audience, which included one of his younger sisters (he's one of eight siblings) and innumerable friends from the neighborhood. “But they definitely like us.”
Technically, Edelman is a rabbi, from an old-line Lubavitch family with deep roots in Russia. In Crown Heights, they call someone with his pious lineage ghezhe — Lubavitch slang for Hasidic nobility— though thrashing through a death metal breakdown onstage at Hank’s on a recent Saturday night, it was hard to imagine Rabbi Edelman and his bandmates could look less ghezhe if they tried.
“I have a rabbinical degree, but it means jack,” Edelman said. “I haven’t really been religious since I was 15, but my dad’s a rabbi, so it seemed like the thing to do.”
Just a few years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a death metal band — any death metal band — building a following in Crown Heights, a neighborhood long dominated by Caribbean immigrants and Orthodox Jews. But cheap rents and a growing cadre of new young residents make their presence here less alien than it might have once seemed.
“The truth is, I love Brooklyn,” said drummer Shmuelie Lowenstein, sounding more like a hip young transplant than the dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker he is. “I don’t really care for Crown Heights, but the rent here is cheaper.”
On Empire Boulevard, they don’t pay rent at all. The basement's ceilings are low, and Lowenstein (who sometimes goes by Sam, but who will also introduce himself as Louie) has to bend double to reach his drumset in the corner. At 24, he’s the baby of the group. He is also its lone native.
Lowenstein grew up in Crown Heights, the son of baalei teshuva, secular Jews who “returned” to Orthodoxy en masse in the 1970s and continue to trickle in. Bruck, 28, shares a similar family history, though he spread his childhood between Montreal and Miami. Edelman grew up in Springfield Mass., but came to Crown Heights for school as a teenager.
Although they didn’t know each other then, all three discovered metal at about the same age, around the time of their bar mitzvahs. Before long, they were rocking out to bands like Cannibal Corpse and Children of Bodom in the back of the bus to yeshiva.
"Like most communities, they have a few kids that are smoking pot or drinking and they listen to secular music," Lowenstein said. "I got into thrash, and it got heavier and heavier. We were pretty hell-bent on playing metal."
Unlike his bandmates, frontman Connor McCrate never had to hide his passion for hardcore music. He grew up in a secular home in Cincinnati, the heart of the scene, before discovering Lubavitch in college. By the time he met Bruck at a party in Crown Heights, he was “over metal,” edging his way into religious life.
"I think when we met you for the first time, we were like, ‘you used to be in a metal band?’" Lowenstein said. "We were just laughing it up."
Then they heard him scream.
“When I heard you do your first death metal growl, I was like, ‘Oh wait, you’re serious,’” Bruck said. They started jamming, and soon McCrate had left Orthodoxy for good.
Though not quite. Although avowedly irreligious, the group still toes the line between the Crown Heights they grew up in and the new one growing up around them. They spend holidays with religious relatives, and share a plates of homemade Jewish food at band practice. Lowenstein even played his first hardcore shows at community open-mic for Lubavitch kids, flailing through sets of religious Jewish melodies called niggunim he and a pal had reworked into metal songs.
“I think it just goes to show you the lengths that we went to have some kind of metal outlet,” Lowenstein said. “Here was this stupid f—ing open mic, and we would show up with two guitars, no bass, no drums, no vocals, and we would just play.”
What's more, all four of them still live in Crown Heights, if not in the Crown Heights of their childhood.
“This is just the only part of New York I’ve seen New York through," Bruck explained of his bandmates’ decision to stay in the geographic nerve-center of a community they’d otherwise rejected. "Since I was six years old and came here for the first time to see the Rebbe” — the sect’s late spiritual leader — “and he told me I’m going to grow up to be a very hasidishe yid...”
“...Ah-meyn!” The others exclaimed in unison — half ironically, since Bruck is far from the community’s ideal of a pious Jew, and half out of habit.
“When you’re from Lubavitch, you’re never really far from Crown Heights,” Edelman agreed. “The first time I came here, I felt like I was home already.”