You can learn a lot about what a society values and prioritizes based on how it makes stories and entertainment out of historic events. Take the Titanic for example.

I will sometimes ask my tour participants this question: When you think of the story of the Titanic, what do you think of first? Invariably, I hear, “a love story.” Or people will call out “Kate Winslet” and “Leonardo DiCaprio.” Of course, neither Winslet nor DiCaprio had anything to do with the infamous wreckage of 1912, and they are mere Hollywood celebrities. The reason people associate the Titanic with these people is obvious: They starred in the classic movie based on the crash.

It’s very telling that the memory of this event is embedded in the secular mind as a tragic love story. It reflects a cultural emphasis on the individual, but more so, society’s focus on romantic love above all. Let’s remember that the concept of romantic intimacy is a fairly new one and was only made possible by technology and increases in wealth that allowed for marriages to evolve from arrangements between families for loyalty and convenience. But in our secular minds, romance is the central relationship in life, and we can’t imagine a world in which love stories aren’t the central stories.

On one of my tours, I explained that in the Hasidic community, the genre of romance doesn’t exist. Not in music, not in books, not in stories. A tourist from Siberia, who’d been wrapping himself around his girlfriend for the entire tour and was clearly so in love that there were constant stolen kisses, asked plainly: “What’s the entertainment without romance?”

I tried to explain that topics might include personal development, interpersonal relationships, faith, stories of miraculous recoveries, and surviving hardships, but I felt like the people on my tour thought my answer was a big “meh.” I feel like a little old babushke as I think to myself: “Now they are in luf, so they tink it’s everytink!”

I don’t know if my cynicism comes from not having been socialized from such a young age to believe that every happy ending involves a heterosexual couple kissing and laughing and being in luf. I think it’s partially my natural rebellion against dogmatic norms, and partially that I wasn’t trained in this hierarchy of importance. I didn’t watch the movie with DiCaprio until I was well into my twenties, maybe even later. But I did watch our own version of the Titanic, a Hasidic entertainment classic, a well known production by the same name. It was a dramatic slide show of old fashioned slides, with a separate cassette that had to be turned on for the sound. It was a story whose values were a far cry from the hedonistic romance arc. I remember watching the riveting film on the wall of our school’s large dining hall, the lights out, a projector in the middle of the aisle with all those little slides in the ring on the projector, going round and round.

The slide show was recently being shown again, so I took a picture of the “movie poster.” The Yiddish above says, “Live along with a historic event on the sea and be amazed like never before!” and also, “Dear mothers, give your daughters an opportunity to see, hear and appreciate what God wants of us of during these days, to overcome temptation along the way, to appreciate the privilege, to be drawn closer throughout the voyage.” Very different from, “The action-packed romance set against the ill-fated maiden voyage!”

Here was the story the Hasidic Titanic tells (cue the dramatic music): Scientists said they would build an unsinkable boat. They believed themselves now wiser and smarter than god. They reveled in their creation, boasted about its luxury. But alas, as we say in Yiddish, Di mensch tracht un di bashefer lachtMan thinks and god laughs. The boat approached an iceberg, could not be diverted, and went down.

The lesson was simple: We cannot control the world or become masters of nature. We must accept that in the end, God’s directives trump all. In other words, the theme is faith, or humility toward higher powers. This is a distinctly Pre-Enlightenment way of thinking, because it denies that engineering can answer everything. It rejects science or reason and the power of humans to know it all. A Tower of Babel story.

Of course this view is now considered absurdly backward—and mostly it is. But if we consider the message, we can see how this type of moral tale has value and why the theme can be found in other old cultural legends. Some humility is not a bad thing. We do overestimate how much we know, how much we understand, and our human capacity to defy nature. We are exploiting the planet’s finite resources in order to overcome the discomfort, uncertainty, and tragedies of nature. We say that we can easily take on icebergs. We drill into them and drive big ships through them and melt them away. Ignoring these lessons isn’t going well.

There was a time when I thought the Hasidic and secular cultural stories would be opposites, that where the Hasidim tell stories of blind faith, the westerners tell stories of human reason. What’s been so shocking to me is that it’s usually not this way at all. Consider again the Titanic. The dominant story that we westerners associate with it is a romantic fictional tragedy about two people and some side characters. Sure, we made more than the one Hollywood moviethere are documentaries and riveting books and a long Wikipedia page on the Titanic. But what’s lodged in our collective minds as the story is one of feelings and luf. Not a very intellectual approach at all. That being said, the Hasidic version will never ever ever be as sexy as Kate Winslet, so I don’t think we’ll be throwing shade on the classic anytime soon.

The Post has a story today about the crazy tourism situation in Williamsburg. Let me make it clear that this is related to the bus tours, not my own small, eleven person group walking tour. I wish people wouldn’t conflate the two! The people on my groups are so thoughtful, open minded and respectful. I think tourism is always going to be on an ethical grey line at best (you are invading the locals, always) but the stereotypical bus tours with their cameras and mockery are no good.

These bus tours have been going on for a while, but things have gotten a lot more unbearable with time. Every day, a circulating cast of huge charter busses pull up on Lee Avenue, drop their tourists off for a bit of gawking, staring, photography and selfie-stick work, and then quickly take the tourists away to their next “sensational” stop. These buses are part of a type of tour called Contrasts of New York (or Contrastes de Nueva York in Spanish), or it might be called the TriBoro Tour. It’s a tour type that is popular with Spaniards and is offered by a lot of different tour companies. They are designed to show these bus-bound people the bold differences of New York City – all in a half-day bus ride from the Bronx to the Brooklyn Bridge. As a part of that, they stop in the “Jewish Quarters”, where they are told various stereotypes and sensational stuff, like that the bars on the windows are meant to keep the Jewish money safe or that Hasidic couples have sex with a hole in the sheet.

Two weeks ago on Sunday, I was on Lee Avenue where the tours stop and in one hour, it seems eight big charter buses pulled up and spilled people out for this routine. Since many Hasidim were still away for the summer, the streets were fairly empty, so about eight tourists gathered around a tourist with a camera, and encouraged the photographer as he filmed a Hasid walking towards them. I felt so angry at the basic disregard for this person’s right to walk the street without being someone’s project, I felt so furious for his helplessness, that I couldn’t hold it in. I asked them “aren’t you ashamed?” They shrugged, said no English. I said again, with mostly gestures, and then they got it, and scuttled off.

Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on me that I should be the one reprimanding the tourists, when I am after all also a tour guide in this neighborhood. But see, as a tour guide, I would never allow my tourists to behave this way. I know that I am going to be lumped together with the bad actors of tours in Williamsburg, especially to the Hasidim. In fact, because I am the only result when anyone googles “Hasidic Williamsburg Tours”, I’ve often been the target of the Hasidic frustrations about tourism. Some time ago I read a conversation on a Yiddish forum where a few men plainly decided to do something about tourism by organizing to leave me bad reviews, and I still have some bad reviews on my products because I couldn’t get Google and TripAdvisor to remove it.

But my anger is mostly with the tourists, who make respectful tourism near impossible with their absurd circus. It’s worth trying to understand people different from us. I maintain that there is value in learning about other communities. But bad give us all (especially me!) a really really bad reputation.

I’m partial to blogs. It seems much of my life has evolved with a blog following at my heels, like a good dog. My first meaningful encounter with the outside world was on a a primitive blogspot blog where I wrote under the pseudonym “Shpitzle Shtrimpkind”. I was twenty one. That one was semi-autobiographical, authored from my ground level condo in the village of Kiryas Joel, and life changing. After I left Kiryas Joel, I blogged on oyveycartoons, where I didn’t just write, I also drew New Yorker style single panel cartoons! Ooo la la! I didn’t have many readers, but I’m still quite proud of that. I’ve done faster-to-fizzle blogs along the way, and then there’s this one since 2015.

This blog is borne out of my work as a tour guide in Hasidic Brooklyn. If I had to classify it, I’d say It’s part niche subject blog, part larger cultural criticism, part just me being me. It is a place to document and pontificate on Hasidim in Brooklyn and through the specifics look at the larger picture of human behavior as shaped by societies.

I’m not here to make value judgements about the Hasidic customs in isolation. I don’t feel like getting angry about Hasidic education or how women’s value is defined or other hot button topics. That just isn’t where my heart is.

My heart is in a sort of sociological inquiry; it’s in trying to understand us, us humanoids, Hasidim, Hipsters, Yidden, Goyim, Brooklynites, New Yorkers, Americans, Global Citizens, Humans of the Anthropocene, Etc. If you salivate at the anthropological gold mine of two completely different communities then Hasidism within twenty first century New York is your study. There are differences between my old world and new one everywhere. It’s in everything. Everywhere! Education. Architecture. Economics. Language. Dress. Food. Parties. Weddings. Sex and romance. Technology. Entertainment. Leadership. Values. One and on. What other community in the melting pot that is New York City is so physically close yet so distinct? I don’t think there is competition.

My views and values inevitably shape my posts. I try to leave my opinions out of my tours and I have yet to bring soapboxes and lecture on “the medium is the message“ during one. But this is a blog. It is just my own hobby. I am giving myself permission to be a bit more outspoken. I hope I won’t chase away all my customers. Don’t go! I agree with everything you say!

Here’s where I come from: my worldview is secular, leftist, humanitarian, a bit luddite. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I get pretty heady. I use words like nuance and empathy and out-of-the-box until ears bleed. I read a lot on climate change, the struggle for gender and social equity, education, social media, consumerism. (So much conspicuous consumption!) I’m inspired by people with big hearts who don’t just run with the herd, from Helen Keller to Bill Watterson to the creator Rebecca Sugar to Lisa Simpsons (she is a people!) to Neil Postman. I worry a lot about where the world is headed. This blog helps me. By fiddling around under the hood of how we work as social and individual animals, I feel less like a lost child in an incoherent world.

I also learn so much from meeting all sorts of people. I’ve led groups along the entire religious and political spectrum and I value all experiences. So come on my tour. I will behave myself 😉

School ended for New York City’s public middle school yesterday, and my son brought home his report card. I won’t go into that rascal and his grades, but I was struck by how different his report card looks from what mine looked like as a student in the Hasidic school system.

______

Here’s a sample New York City Middle School report card. Students are assigned courses, and each course gets one grade per period.

My son was graded on:

  1. Library
  2. ELA (English Language Arts / Reading Comprehension in Hasidic Schools)
  3. French
  4. Physical Education / Gym
  5. Math
  6. Science
  7. Social Studies
  8. Arts
  9. Band

There are no behavior grades, although I assume those are calculated into the grade. I know that a student gets penalized in their grade if they forget their stuff because I once got an angry call from the gym teacher about proper gym equipment. She made it clear to me that the risk of grade penalty is high and dire and almost life threatening. Ha. But from my view as a parent required to sign off on the report card, all I see are grades ranging from 0-100%.

_____

Hasidic girls schools have two “schools” within the system: Yiddish and English (called “aynglish” by the girls). The Yiddish department teaches religious subjects, the English the secular subjects like math, science, history, and yes, reading comprehension.

Before I moved to Brooklyn I threw out almost everything I had in my endless suburban garage, but I found this scan of my 2001 Yiddish report card – among a few similar scans. I don’t have any English report cards – although they are fairly similar. That picture on there is of our school, which by the way doubled as a wedding venue and was where I got married. (This factoid will be on the test and calculated into your GPA :).)

I believe this is the corresponding inside.

The report card had two parts: Studies and Character.

Here is what I got graded on.

Studies:

  1. Prayers
  2. Translation of prayers
  3. LAWS:
    • blessings
    • laws of shabbat
    • something-something-something. I obviously didn’t always pay attention because I don’t know what this is.
    • meat and dairy
    • Challah
    • Candle-lighting
    • Yichud (the study of men and women being alone in a room, which is generally forbidden but the rules can get complicated.)
  4.  Morality
    • History of various periods of Jewish history
    • Again something-something-something.
    • The study of the book of Koheles (I think?). Apparently according to Wikipedia that’s Ecclesiastes. Who knew.
    • The study of the book of Mishlei, which again, I am now informed by my friends at Wikipedia is the book of Proverbs. We learnt all these morality tales orally and out of order, so I can’t be blamed for my ignorance. Anyway, I got a 98 and 99 respectively.
    • The history of the Jewish Prophets – this period alone was always a subject. Why oh why did they insist of teaching various periods of history at the same time and totally confusing the chronology!
    • Pirkei Avot, prophets of the sages. This was a different kind of prophets from the book of prophets and different from the history of prophets. Are you starting to get numb with the minutia yet?
    • The prayers “Ani Mammin”
    • Truth and Faith
    • Composition
    • Yiddish
    • Wonders of the World

Character:

  1. Respect
  2. Behavior
  3. Attention during class
  4. Dedication and responsibility
  5. Interactions with friends
  6. Homework
  7. Modesty
  8. Sewing
  9. Behavior during sewing
  10. Dedication during sewing

Notice I didn’t do so great at sewing. But which of my classmates went on to transform their sewing binders into an internet blogspots, right? I’m not even sure if sewing is part of character or just squashed in there.

Here’s some thoughts. I’ll help myself to some editorializing because I have a lot of opinions.

When I look at my own report card and at my son’s, I have no warm regards for those endless morality lessons and the hard work involved. But I also see Hasidic report cards as much more innocent and harmless. We all wanted to get great grades and we competed with each other, but we weren’t constantly informed that a forgotten gym shirt would result in a point off, which would affect high school admissions and then college would be out of the question and then the future is over, finished, chances missed. That’s no joke: public school kids are indoctrinated in the inherent risk oa bad report card, to the point of inducing an insane amount of stress. This is especially true in New York City Public schools that serve predominantly low income students, like my son’s. At Ditmas Junior High the students many don’t have high odds of making it to an ivy league high school, because they come from many factors of background disadvantage. But there is a huge push in the city to level the playing field and create equal opportunity, or as I’d say in a more cynical moment, to provide wealthy elites with the illusion that they earned their seats in these top schools and positions, so these kids are constantly told to try to get into good high schools. The grades are the key to the door, and if your key doesn’t fit, you can spend life at the bottom of the ladder cupping your hands for crumbs and facing the worst of global warming. It’s a scary future for those who don’t figure out how to get a foot through the elite doors, so good grades is all these kids have. It’s a huge weight on their shoulders.

Would I rather my child study in a Hasidic school, where history is ahistorical and blind faith is a critical subject to master? Nah. But I’d like for him to bring home a report card that reflects an effort to raise more of a mentch than just a corporate wannabe, and it could borrow some ideas from the Hasidic report card.

Meanwhile, what not to borrow? This 9th grade Hasidic test on the dangers of “Mockery”.

Here are some quotes from my profoundly disturbing answers:

“We need to have faith in the sages and believe with simplicity in their words…”

“to rebel and sin by using mockery”

[the punishment for mockery] “suffering on this world. not to be able to join everyone when the Messiah arrives. Losing the piece of the afterlife”

[what a mockerer does] “He makes fun and makes everyone around him mock with him and laugh with him.”

“If it keeps someone from idol worship then mockery is allowed.”

I believe this is how I looked when I wrote these answers and proudly aced the test:

Oh, the mockery!

 

Oprah Magazine has a new story about Footsteps, the organization that helps people transition from the Ultra Orthodox world into the secular world.

On my tour, we often get to see why it is so hard. We discuss the many facets of economic life in the Hasidic community: the community growth rate means a lot of new internal jobs in specialized fields like the Hasidic schools, the kosher food, the modest clothing, the kosher technology, the censored entertainment, and on and on and on. I can list hundreds of economic opportunities that exist within the Hasidic community for its members: from matchmaker to sofer to hotline maker to music sensation to being hired by a sibling into real estate to B&H Photo — the list (which I’ll put together one day) goes on and on. Yet when you leave, you lose all of these opportunities. Pretty much all of them. But if you want to try to get in line for the opportunities in the secular world, good luck. You have very little of the “vocational training” (ie college) that we need to do anything in our degree inflated western world. So as a Hasidic Expat you are so far behind in the pipeline, you’ll never get a chance. I think this economic factor is the biggest reason people don’t leave.

There is a tremendous need for support. I cannot overstate it. I’m nine years since leaving and I still feel like the ice could crack and I could fall through into the freezing darkness any minute now. And when I first left, I thought that Footsteps would be the answer. In fact, in this video produced by Footsteps, you’ll see me tell about my experience — which was of course for the donors: we did this with the expressed understanding that we were helping the cause and that with our telling our stories, Footsteps will get the money to be able to make the journey for others easier.

By the way, that art piece on the wall of the pregnant woman is mine! It’s called The Scarlet Letter A, I believe. I made it for a Footsteps Art Show (another project I believed would somehow help the cause) and never picked it up afterwards.

Over the years, I got to know Footsteps really well. I came to understand how their funding model works and who their donors are and what the donors want to see. This was because I did quite a bit of the same speaking for them. In the first few years, I would take a babysitter and pay for the trip to the city and not get paid for the time and effort, but eventually I worked with them through my tours and then I’d be a contractor and send them an invoice. Over time I came to feel very frustrated with how concerned they were with impressing their donors, and how little it was about tangible assistance. I slowly started to hear less and less from them, and I haven’t given a tour for them in a long time. Last I spoke to Lani Santos (the executive director) she said something to the effect of “tours in Williamsburg is an extremely important component of our donor education and since you’re such a difficult and negative biatch and don’t fargin us our big fundraising dallas, we might just set up a competing tour shop in Williamsburg so we can take our gasping rich ladies through the street and show them how nutty it all is.” Hah! It wasn’t like that, but I think we both understood we had competing priorities in our work: I sought to educate, she sought to fundraise, and my tours were not working for them.

Still, I have seen people go through the organization in their transition and I remain concerned. Who is there to make sure that what they do with the money they fundraise is well-spent?

The members certainly cannot speak up. First of all, Hasidic charity is real and generous and it takes many years to unravel the faith in purported charity which is really modern philanthropy. Also, people don’t want to see the negative in Footsteps because they feel loyal to the side that is speaking up against the religious community. That, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to be critical about. There is a very blatant quid pro quo and members who praise them get attention, awards, jobs, media engagements. I have no doubt that if I kept saying the right thing then they’d connect me with so many tour opportunities, I’d never even have time to write these silly posts. I definitely believe I’ve been punished and suffered losses as a result of my asking hard questions about if Footsteps focuses its efforts more on impressing donors and building their brand than actually helping members.

Who else is to look under the hood? It won’t be the donors. Why would they care? And it obviously isn’t the media, which writes the same thing every time: the story of the oppressed person who fled, the before and after pictures, the Footsteps space. This is the closest the Oprah piece came to asking hard questions:

Footsteps is infamous among the hundreds of thousands of Haredim in the U.S., regarded by some as a dangerous influence, by others as an insidious evil. (When someone leaves the community, the ultra-Orthodox sometimes say the person “joined Footsteps.”) The organization has been accused of actively tempting people away from their comfortable Haredi lives. In fact, the group does no advertising or proselytizing in the community and doesn’t require members to renounce religion in order to use its services or participate in get-togethers. “We don’t care if people just come in for a scholarship,” says Friedlin. “We don’t care if they go back to Hasidism afterward. We don’t have an agenda. And contrary to the rumors, we don’t force men to cut off their peyes [curly sidelocks], nor do we feed anyone bacon as part of an initiation rite,” she says with a laugh. “We just want people to have choices.”

Essentially, it’s a preemptive defense, but a weak one at that. Footsteps has told a very dark story about Hasidim, and it’s branded itself as the panacea to the challenges of leaving, so Hasidim do think they are the link between worlds. Some resent the organization for it, true, but some — those who want to leave — put all their hopes on them too. This is a problem in its own right. Essentially, the organization tells donor facing stories without reckoning with how these stories impact those in the Hasidic community who hear it.

I think the important questions to ask are how the organization delivers. In 2017 it reported on its 990 to have raised 2.28 million dollars, and spent pretty much the bulk of it on salaries and compensations. $393,410 went to direct client compensation; a pittance.

My concern, at its core, is not so much in how the funding is spent as in what it means to be so completely donor facing. A lot of things the organization does seems to me to be for the purpose of impressing donors and brand building more so than helping people not sink in this horribly hard world.

A common theme we discuss on the tours often is how surprising it is that Hasidim don’t ask hard questions about why customs are practiced. For those of us who leave, asking hard questions is everything, and blind faith just won’t do. I think it’s important to keep asking hard questions, especially uncomfortable ones.