May 26, 2018 Life in Kiryas Joel, New York
A reader asked: What is it like to live in Kiryas Joel, New York?
I lived in Kiryas Joel the first 25 years of my life. I was born and raised there, educated there, married there, became a mother there, got divorced there, and left there with the kid in tow. Every time I return to visit my family, I am stunned by how quickly the village is changing, how fast it is growing. But visiting also brings back a flood of memories, because in essence, it hasn’t changed at all.
Kiryas Joel is a village of Satmar Hasidim. Its name, meaning the Village of Joel, references the Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum who died before I was born, when the village was in its infancy. The village was founded in the 1970s, and by today, 2018, has a population of around 30 thousand. In 2020, the village will secede from the town of Monroe, under which it has been until now, and become a town in its own right called Palm Tree (named for the Teitelbaum dynasty). It is being incorporated as its own town due to its growth.*
To live in Kiryas Joel is to live in one of the most child-centric communities imaginable. Because women have many children and usually don’t work, their entire lives are dedicated to raising the kids. The streets of suburban-ish condos are filled with Little Tykes bikes and Bigwheels and wagons and scooters, and during summer afternoons the outdoors is swarming with children and the sounds of screeching and crying and having fun. Mothers sit on patio chairs gossiping with each other while feeding the youngest dinner off of a plastic plate. When there is an event for women, like a fundraiser for a charity, it usually has entertainment for the kids. When a kid gets hurt, any passing adult will make sure he or she is okay. Kids are always surrounded by peers, and they are always busying themselves with each other. Boys begin school at two and a half years old and attend it six days a week, all year round, with few off days. All of the boys’ teachers, for all ages, are men. In other words, everyone is busy with the children. The entire community is an institution revolving around the kids. Town or otherwise, it lives by the motto “it takes a village.”
If you are the curious kind of kid (as I was), then you know that there is a world of forbidden things out there beyond your shtetl. You know it from the billboard you pass on the way to Williamsburg to visit your grandparents; you know it from the Yellow Pages that get dropped at the big mailbox of your cul-de-sac. Oh all the strange ads in there—law firms with people in American suits and services for pregnant women; oh man, what is pregnancy, you must read the tiny letters, obstetrics and gynecology, what does it mean, how can you find out, who would be able to tell you, this all feels so naughty and titillating and you must know but you won’t… You also go to the hospital once for an emergency when you break your leg while sledding down a hill near your school, and you can’t stop your eyes from wandering to the waiting room TV and its seductive blue light, even though your mother keeps warning you not to look at this “not nice” stuff. Kik nisht; but how much your eyes want to kik!
At the dentist you stare at the gentile patrons and you keep wishing you could pick up a Highlights Magazine, because one modern girl in your class gets Highlights, and you wish you were her. You go to Brooklyn for a cousin’s wedding and you slip out with five dollars and buy bubble gum, because gum is forbidden and is not sold in Kiryas Joel (by now it is). Your teachers and parents say that gum is like a cow chewing the cud, that it is not appropriate, but that’s exactly why you must have gum. You will chew it with the most exaggerated chump chumps, talking funny, so fancy. You will be like that fancy girl in the class who told you that if you leave your gum out overnight, the flavor comes back and you can start on it all over again. Or you’ll be like the neighbor who put a sour ball in her mouth alongside a piece of gum, and told you that it is how everyone who knows gum does it, because it is how you make cherry flavor. You want to do all that so badly, so you buy the whole box at a Williamsburg grocery. You imagine that you will be a huge deal in school for weeks to come. But the wedding ends late, and you fall asleep in the 15-passenger van on the two hour ride home, and you forget the whole box of Bubble Gum, and for weeks afterward you are terrified and anticipating consequences. Luckily, you get away with this one. You won’t always be so lucky.
The fear Hasidim have of outside world influence means that anything seen as “goyish”, gentile-ish, is not allowed. So you don’t know of the public library. You don’t know what radio is; when your father surprises the family with a new stereo for Chanukah, the radio antenna gets chopped off. So no movies or English books or magazines or pop music.
You might be allowed to get a piece of mail that comes to your mailbox—if it is innocent. Your father will hand out the mail to the kids if you all stand nicely in line and wait for him to finish reading the important stuff. You’ll get pieces like dental fliers and Charles Schwab notifications, and your father will accompany these with a discourse on mutual funds. You will use these for art projects and poetry notebooks. But your father will tear up anything that isn’t “nice,” like pictures of a couple in bathing suits hugging by the pool, an immodest gift delivered courtesy of the Orange County company that builds oh-so-lavish in-ground pools. But here’s the thing: If the flier is torn up in tatters inside the lined garbage can, how hard is it to just fish it out and piece it back together and ogle it in your bedroom under your blanket? You just need to hope no one piles mostly-eaten chicken into the trash before you have a chance to salvage it, and then the heist is on. The rush, ah, the rush of looking at that secular couple in their nighttime summer paradise and wondering what their lives are like. Oh!
The hours and hours with friends. That was Kiryas Joel. There were so many intense interpersonal relationships. Without any electronics, without any TV, with very few trips out of the confines of our bubble, it was all about friendships. My best friend Masha and I, we spent hours and hours on the stairs to the basement. We made arts and crafts, studied for exams on proper laws of Shabbes, copied notes, and planned pranks on other girls. I would be sweating between my tights and dripping sweat from my ponytail, storming into our house to get another ice pop before quickly flying out the door again, before I got called in to do the dishes or help with the laundry.
In Kiryas Joel you walked a lot. You walked the hilly village sidewalks at night after the wedding of a sister or brother of a classmate’s. There was a thrill as we’d all stand under the streetlight deeply ensconced in the high drama and gossip of who wore what and which teacher showed up and who was right about why so-and-so got divorced; did a matchmaker stare at us, was that why she stood there as we danced in the circle? And yoy, we would laugh so loudly, shush-shush, the village patrol will soon come around, and we’d flee in hysterics.
And later at night yet, after the crowd dispersed, maybe one other girl would stay to walk home with me, and then we’d speculate on how pregnancies work, what really happened after marriage, if the man really did something somehow on someone, and promise me and swear to me this will be secret and that you won’t repeat a word of our conversation; was it true that the baby came out of the—there-there? We’d be so confused, none the wiser from each others’ speculation. We’d bond over the confusion, the confidential mystery of do-you-know and do-you-think and do-you-believe-it and shush. We’d feel close, drawn together by breathless repressed sexual longing. I’d run a finger over my confidant’s hands without knowing why it felt good, only that all this talk of naughty stuff made our fingers intertwine, our breaths hot on each others faces as we stood close to whisper. We were a whole new degree of best friends. We knew that our parents would be mad if we didn’t get home before midnight, so bye bye, call me, bye, and I’d turn back to watch her ponytail and straight skirt suit disappear around the bend. I’d feel a rush as she disappeared, then would take my high heels off and walk in my stockings the rest of the way.
Kiryas Joel was a place of hunger. Hunger for more. Hunger to know. Sometimes the hunger hurt. Sometimes I couldn’t resist, and I stole to satiate myself. I stole a book from the Monroe Woodbury school. A Hasidic girls acting group had rented out their auditorium, and we all were bused there for a very rare play. I found a book near my chair in the audience seating. I took it. I read in secrecy. I didn’t understand everything, but I understood enough. My entire day in school felt like a walk on clouds, just knowing that I would get home and sneak in a few more pages. Then my parents found it, and I got a nasty beating. I cried, screamed, apologized, self loathed, hated myself so much. It wasn’t the hunger that hurt. It was knowing that I was hungry while everyone else was content.
When I grew up and my marriage was arranged, Kiryas Joel became a more oppressive place. I loved my husband, and he indulged me in watching movies, but when we stepped out of our little bunker, I mean, basement apartment, we’d squint at the sunlight, and I’d find myself out of touch with all the trends, the proper behavior, the harsh judgments. My school friends all got married and became mothers and serious women. They took their wigs to the wig maker regularly and wore sweet little hats, and they carried on with the charade dutifully. One friend scolded me in front of a group of women for not dressing up to shop at WalMart. It wasn’t normal to wear a housecoat in WalMart, no, it just wasn’t—no no no! I was so ashamed, yet so indignant. What’s it to you?, I wanted to say, but of course I didn’t. Because then I would seem even more off. Then I would be even more gossiped about. Then I’d be called even crazier.
Kiryas Joel became smaller and harsher and lonelier with time, until I finally left. But when I return and hear the sounds of children playing kick-the-can and calling not-it and being called home by grown women on porches, I can remember a sweet side of it. A side that is innocent. A side that is connected.
*As of January 2020, Kiryas Joel is now its own town of Palm Tree.