February 7, 2020 Why you should visit the Hasidic community in February
February is the slowest month for New York walking tours. It’s a cold and dreary month, the last bastion of the harsh winter, when all the January holiday travel is finished. The last of the winter tourism has gone into a bit of a lull before the spring season, as if to let us catch our breath before the fresh weather brings an onslaught of bookings and walks and umbrellas under the spring rain.
But all year round, I joke with my tourists that they should come to the Hasidic community especially in February. Sure, I’ve got goods to sell, I’m biased, and sure, it’s good to visit when our groups are small. Small groups feel like visiting town with acquaintances and having a good shmooze. But that’s not the main draw.
The really special thing about February in Williamsburg’s Jewish South Side is the blissful, beautiful, magical, romantic, absolutely enchanting absence of Valentines Day junk from the scene. There is no clamor of white-and-red gift bags, not a shelf packed with white bears clutching red hearts, not a Cupid with his matchmaking and over-promising, not an “I-love-you” or “Be-mine” preprinted on a helium balloon by a cheap Chinese manufacturer.
No consumerist agenda throws Valentine’s Day into your face again and again, that only he who shall pay the shekels to the corporations that churn out an unmanageable mountain of waste, only he is deserving of love. That’s because Valentine’s Day is forbidden in Williamsburg. The holiday is seen as doubly bad: It’s at once a gentile holiday and is also a holiday about sex and desire and carnal pleasure. (Should it only be this raunchy!) I don’t think I even knew of the holiday until I was an adult. Then I tried the big whop and got tired of it quickly. Now I’ve fallen in love with the absence of Valentine’s Day in Williamsburg, so I come to Williamsburg to buy myself kosher cherry balls and my tongue gets terrifically red, which happens to be the color of true love.
The Hasidic candy shop is, to an adult with an interest in cultures, a sociological candy shop, really. The things that aren’t sold are as telling as those that are. There are no products that express romantic love, there are no sexualized candy displays (think candy underwear, which seems terribly uncomfortable and best to tell the kids not to share that treat!). There are no Trumps and Elsas and Minions and political cults of personality (no rebbes either, thankfully), and also no scatological humor, like poop, toilet, flush candy, and other candy that is designed to steal your appetite and save you the cavities.
Instead, there is an assortment of loose candy, nuts, rows of fancy cut-your-own-fresh sesame halva, many many gift baskets for newborns. Lots of baby pinks and baby blues. There is some mazel tov paraphernalia: greeting cards and congratulations balloons and keychains. Many barrels of good nuts. There are even non-dairy chocolate bars that come in fancy wrapping that read “#1 husband” or “Keep calm and you’re the best wife,” or something very unsexy like that. There are even a rare few “I-Love-Yous” on the specialized lollipops, but I doubt those are even meant to be romantic.
The toy stores and pharmacies likewise are without any such junk. I found one exception: an oversized teddy bear on display in one of the big toy stores holds up a heart that says “XOXO.” But that’s innocent: who says that doesn’t mean “play tic-tac-toe with me?” Such misunderstanding of symbolism crops up here and there in the shops, like one shoe store that has an Easter Bunny on display down to the eggs in his basket, or a designer clothing store that decorated its windows in rainbow flags and purple-and-blue flags, the very same flags you see waved around by tattooed and pierced gender fluid half-naked goyim at the Pride parade. Besides the unintentional, nothing.
But there is more: This year in February, the candy stores are busy with a different holiday that falls mid-month. It’s the minor holiday Tu B’shvat, or as it’s locally called, Chamish Assar B’shvat. It’s an occasion to celebrate, listen to this — the trees! It almost feels woke! Once a year in the Jewish calendar, there’s a New Year for trees with convening, eating, singing and praying for our fellow planet dwellers. To honor the trees, we eat their fruits, including exotic fruits and dried fruits and nuts.
So now the candy shops are transformed into a party of all sorts of dried fruits, including beautiful flower arrangements molded out of the fruits, wrapped in cellophane, topped with a bow. Let’s be honest, it’s much better to celebrate the trees by eating a dangerous amount of prunes and sugar-packed dried apricots than by depending on your relationship status to be allowed to partake in any fun. Sure, all holidays are opportunities for businesses to push their goods, and the Hasidic community is also increasingly consumerist, but at least the holiday stands for something. The contrast between candy shops here and there made me think about how our ancient holidays were often mindful of something larger than ourselves, because humans felt so vulnerable next to the powers of nature. We might have moved beyond unscientific myths and we might have found ways to deal with some of nature’s destruction (might!) but we are still at the mercy of nature. I don’t think humility for the power of the world can co-exist with the intense individualism that has come to define Valentines Day. So I’m in Williamsburg with my small groups, enjoying the assorted nuts, having the best of both worlds.