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.

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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%.

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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.

In November 2017 all major newspapers ran a top story like this one: Some Brooklyn Children Have Blood Levels Higher Than Kids in Flint. Specifically, the Brooklyn children found to have such high blood levels were the Hasidic kids. As WNYC reported: “The highest rate was found in South Williamsburg, in the tight-knit, ultra-orthodox Jewish Satmar community.” The second highest rate came in in Borough Park, another Hasidic enclave.

When I read this news, I was totally surprised. Hasidic women are almost all stay-at-home mothers, and their kids are the center of their worlds. The kids we see in the community are dressed to the nines and seem quite alright. I didn’t understand why there should be such high rates of lead poisoning. I wondered if there was a cultural issue that might contribute to the lead poisoning rates, but this is all the explanation the media offered:

“Several factors contribute: Old housing, built long before the city’s 1960 lead paint ban, now has peeling paint. Poverty rates are high. And many residents speak Yiddish as a first language, which can make it more difficult for city health workers to do outreach. “

This simplistic story doesn’t satisfy me at all. Because with regards to old housing, New York city is replete with old housing and Hasidic kids are hardly the exception. With regards to poverty rates — I have heard a million times from the media that the poverty rate in the Hasidic community is high, but I don’t understand why they take the reported incomes at face value and don’t account any for the variables that make the community poverty rates seem so stark. There is a whole book to write on the complexities of the Hasidic economy, but I touched on some factors here. I hope to one day be able to write more on that, but don’t expect to have the time or energy anytime in the next decade. But for now, without going into the many reasons why I dispute this simplistic assessment, I’ll say that Hasidic kids are not growing up in impoverished situations. They all are well fed, dressed, housed and cared for. Medical care is widely available through medicaid doctors, and kids don’t go without treatment. I don’t see any relationship between high lead levels and Hasidic financial challenges.

And as for the language barrier – nah. Yes, Yiddish is a first language, but adults understand English full well and get by with various degrees of teeth breaking, but all in all, just fine.

Whenever the city decides that they will use Yiddish to reach the Hasidic community the results are either mildly comical or absurd or strange. But most of all, they give away that the gap between Hasidic Jews and westerners is not language, but culture.

I took this picture yesterday in Bushwick: a poster from the City department of health, hung upside down.

I love when the park translates the rules to Yiddish. It’s just bizarre. This sign before a Williamsburg park tells Hasidim exactly how to comport themselves with their dogs, even though none of the Hasidim have dogs.

Back to the story of the lead poisoning, I tried to ask around and do some of my sleuthing, but no one could explain why Hasidim have such high rates of lead poisoning. I spoke to some health reporters back then and hoped they could explain, but they were content with these superficial narratives of “poverty” and “yiddish”. Which, by the way, one walk down the full length of Lee Avenue and you’d have a hard time accepting this narrative.

So I didn’t find out. And I still don’t know.

I did cut this story out of the paper a few weeks ago, and it tells people about a campaign to raise awareness about lead poisoning that could result of paint, but that didn’t answer anything either.

But — yesterday on my tour we were discussing superstitions, and I mentioned blei gissen, the process of pouring lead to ward off the evil eye . The evil eye is generally considered to be a kind of bad omen or karma that comes from the envy and ill-will of others. The evil eye could often afflict those with striking beauty, money, smarts, etc. No one ever thought I was afflicted with the evil eye, so I don’t have personal experience with the various voodoo treatments like blei gissen, but I regularly see classified ads in the local papers for this service:

These ads are all for experts who proclaim they could help you “remove the evil eye and breathe easily” and “extinguish the evil eye by pouring lead”. Usually, the “expert” is Israeli, a travelling healer of sorts, who makes the rounds through US neighborhoods collecting fees for various opaque cures. My mother has insisted for years now that a birthmark I have on my face could easily be removed for the quick transaction of $400 between me and some Yerushaleymer miracle worker, and I’ve insisted that I’d very much like to hold on to my birth mark and my four hundred measly dollars. But I know my mother will fork over the moola to these itinerant wielders of Bubbe Maysos (sorry, I’m a cynic, it’s the truth) even as she knows full well there’s more than half a chance that it’s some kind of sharp sabra’s ruse. My mother is an intelligent woman and a part of her faith in this witchcraftery is the faith in the placebo effect: the simple belief that if this man will make me think I’m cured, then I will be cured.

In these magical men’s (or sometimes women’s) bags you’ll find various other treatments, like natural ointments or swinging pendants, palm reading and wrinkle reading, or reciting special prayers at specific sites. But the blei gissen seems to be especially popular, because not a week goes by that I don’t see an ad for it in the paper.

Here is a description of the procedure, which I found in a profile in the Jewish publication Five Towns:

To perform blei gissen, Rebbetzin Miller takes an ordinary looking pot, places a small bar of lead in it, and begins heating it on the kitchen stove. She gives out a laminated sheet with a tefilah on it to read while the lead melts. She does this in a typical kitchen with foods baking and children walking through. When the tefilah is finished and the lead has melted. Rebbetzin Miller casts a thick, off-white sheet of cloth like a tallis over the person. The molten lead is poured from the saucepan into a pot of cold water above the person’s head as the Rebbetzin speaks softly. The lead crackles and pops as it hits the cold water. The sheet is removed. The lead has fragmented into long pieces that look like silver twigs. If some of them have bulbous ends, the Rebbetzin explains, “Those are eyes. There is some ayin ha’ra. We have to do it over.”

Sometimes a curved piece can emerge that the Rebbetzin says is a “bird,” which signifies an imminent simcha. She repeats the process one more time to make sure all the ayin ha’ra is gone. Then, for good measure, she takes the names of a couple of the person’s family members and pours lead in their names. She concludes by pressing a few red strings from Kever Rachel on the subject along with a sprig of ruta in a tiny plastic bag.

Hmmm. Hum. I’m part intrigued, part scandalized– the entire procedure seems rather fascinating and I want to see a movie about it.

Well, I actually didn’t know any of how this Rebbetzin Miller or the other peddlers would do their work. I just mentioned blei gissen in conversation about unscientific “healing” and a German woman immediately offered to explain blei gissen – how it’s done and how you read the shape of the cooled lead as a way of diving what’s to come. Blei gissen is a very popular New Year’s custom in Germany. It’s written Bleigiessen but pronounced the same as in Yiddish. The full fancy word for the concept of pouring lead for learning special information is called Molybdomancy, a custom that can be found in “Finland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

The woman in our tour told us that one year, she hosted a New Years party in New York, and wanted to have a good time with the pouring of lead and the whole tradition. She couldn’t find the lead kits folks typically use (because it’s outlawed, I believe) so she ordered some lead pellets online. To their utter disappointment, the pellets wouldn’t melt. So we can assume the sign for their upcoming year to come was that of a pellet, which I assume is not a good prophecy. That’s just my thinking; I’m not an expert till someone offers to pay me $400 for my reading.

While I get a bitter kick out of the absurdity of such customs (they just don’t make sense to me, and border on exploitation), I also worry that this custom is simply not safe. On Wikipedia, you’ll see plainly in the first paragraph: “Some versions have been found to have potentially harmful effects on human health.” Specifically, the version that uses lead. There have been efforts in other cultures to replace the metal with tin, as described in the Telegraph:

Another charmingly suicidal German New Year’s tradition is molybdomancy – the posh word for divination using molten metal, or as the Germans call it, Bleigießen, pouring lead. Never heard of it? Quite rightly, since the British decided a long time ago that smelting was an activity best carried out in the open air – preferably somewhere very wet, like Wales. But in Germany, kits are sold with small burners and spoons and, in what looks to the untrained eye like a scene from Trainspotting, friends and families gather round to watch what form the molten metal makes as it hits the cold water, referring avidly to a checklist of shapes to see what the new year holds for the person who poured.

Given the toxicity of lead compounds, there have been efforts in recent years to convince the German Gypsy-Rose-Lee-wannabes of the virtues of tin, but largely in vain. 

I don’t know if the Rebbetzin Millers and Rav Teitelbaum’s of the Hasidic world use lead or tin, but odds are high that the earnest smelting and pouring and divining why a gorgeous little Hasidic boy is always sickly is happening with lead. I also do not know if this contributes, in any way, to the high rate of lead in the blood among the Hasidic population. Obviously I’m in no position to make such claims, but also obviously — the weekly arrival of a new lead-pouring guru can’t help.

I think the blei gissen industry should be a part of the investigation and education campaign on Lead Poisoning. But the larger point is that blei-gissen is but one example of a hazard found in the Hasidic community that doesn’t (mostly) exist for their New York City neighbors. If we try to diagnose and address problems afflicting Hasidim – ie the measles – we cannot expect an effective outcome if we don’t understand the holistic cultural situation from which the problems arise. A lot of the measles crisis could have been dealt with more effectively had they investigated beyond plugging words into Google Translate.

SEE UPDATE ON THIS SAGA AT THE BOTTOM!

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I think I might write a bit about my tour experiences now and then. Because my tours can be full of surprises and drama – some good, some bad, some fattening. Always interesting.

I’ve been a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg for six years, and I’ve had occasional trouble with the local Hasidic residents, but never like now. One particular Hasidic man, bullish, large, broad, with a curly black beard and booming voice, has taken to coming up to me and launching into a Yiddish-language attack that goes on without interruption.

The first time he did it, he came from behind on Lee Avenue. He was like a mushroom: suddenly cropped up, suddenly talking to me, but always looking straight ahead. “Go away from here, pitz-oop fin doo, get the hell away from here, you disgusting which, you evil rishanta, go away from here, no one needs you, you hate us, she hates us, she wants us all to drop dead, she despises us, why are you coming here, every day, every day, d-d-day, ev-v-!…

As he got further in, his speech turned into frantic stammers and his fury rose. I tried to say something. “Antchuldigt, we’re in the middle of a tour… Please. This is very disre…”

But he just kept going. Rambling in a loop about how no one needed me, I wanted everyone to peger – die, why am I coming here because I go to the media and say things that I want to something something, on and on without interruption. He went on even as he started to walk on ahead of us. And then he was gone.

I was surprised, shaken. Said something to my group. Asked if everyone was okay. Someone said he thought this was the hired entertainment, and we had a laugh and let it go. I wasn’t very worried. I figured it was a one-time-thing and the twelve people on my tour might never come back to Williamsburg again, but that’s the end of it.

But this individual came over to give us his treatment again the next time, and again the next. I now see him at a distance and start to consider a plan to avoid the worst of it. (I’ve yet to call out “run!!!” and start to flee. Lol, nah, we are not wusses) . At some point, in a moment of explosive rage, this guy spit on the street near me in disgust. Another time as he passed me and ranted, he through in among his word vomit that I should go kill myself. Best of all, he once turned to my group of visitors and said in a stammer of excited and broken english “you… you… you… you… listen to her?? Dis.. Dis… dis… guide bitch?!”

I wasn’t sure if I heard right. I asked the tour people what he called me. It was Guide Bitch alright. We all agreed right then and there that this should be my new business name and website address and personal title. If I had money, I’d quickly grab the domain and change my legal name to Guide Bitch. Or at least get a cute little storefront in Williamsburg with the name on. Tell people “he messed with the Guide Bitch, that’s why.”

Well, one day a few months ago, he left me this voicemail on my business line:

          You disgusting rishanta (evil woman)…

          Leave alone the religious yidden…

          You crazy, you are oopgefuren (ex-faithful)…

          Leave, why do you have to come make money by us, you evil woman.

          Eh… listen… leave it.

          Leave it!

          Don’t come! No one needs you here.

          Stay where you are.

          And that’s it!

The next time he bothered me, I took a picture of him, and asked around if anyone could tell me who he is and how I might get him to cut it out. A few people at a shop knew him and thought “he has nothing to lose. He doesn’t have a business or status. So what can anyone do? He won’t listen to anyone.”

So I let it go. I figured I’d try not to engage and hope I don’t get spit on.

Today, on the lovely and wonderful eve of Shavuos, when the streets are filled with little booths by this and that Ladies Auxiliary selling very elegant exotic flower arrangements, and I was in my best spirits, behold, there he was, across the street on Division from the Chocolicious candy store we were about to pop into for some pekelech treats. I told my tourists about him. I said “let’s rather keep walking” because there goes a man who could be trouble, and we were going to try to avoid the confrontation. But of course he saw me and soon wound his way through cars and across the street he came to bestow his charms upon the Guide-Bitch.

I just kept walking, but he asked someone where they were from, and when that person responded “Singapore”, he seemed to have hit a dead end and took off, his black rekel flying opn like a demon’s cape. I was so very glad, but all too soon. A few minutes later, he was on the top of the court-house style steps of the Viznitzer synagogue, screaming and ranting and making a huge scene, telling other Hasidim that I am a upgefooren (negative term for ex-hasidic) and as he went on he came straight for our group.

Maybe it’s that it gets so very hot in Williamsburg in the summer and I’m a bad sweater and my underarms pool and I’m wet like at a gym five minutes into leading my little ducklings down Broadway, or maybe it’s that we were stuck for like two minutes waiting for the Walk sign, but I stood there as he went on. And as I said nothing, I felt totally lost. A kind of dejavu voicelessness. All the passing Hasidic men that this individual engaged looked on with open curiosity, but not one objected to his loud, intimidating, violent slew that included recommendations that I should kill myself already and that I need to be killed. One totally normal -looking individual stopped to listen to him. I looked at this thirty-something Hasidic person hoping badly that he’d say something to cool the fire, but instead he got in on the action. He advised in Yiddish to the ranting lunatic “talk to them, them, the tourists… tell them not to buy anything from her, not to support her, tell them…” I just stood there – ugh, it was not a good situation. I think the “advice” from the normal person was the worst part. How could he encourage a six foot tall, broad shouldered beast of a man screaming at a 5”3 woman in front of all of us? It was the first time that a person yelled at me and other people, instead of saying “leave it”, fanned the flames.

I saw lovely old Mr. Roasted Chicken come out of his shop with a rug to clean or garbage or something. He’s a real old-timer, friendly and sweet, a little white beard, red flushed cheeks, often comes out of his store to ask me how it’s going. I looked away when I saw him come out, because it was all so awkward.

The individual didn’t leave us there. So I walked on and tried to resume the program. My good tour participants had a hard time following, what with the distraction behind us. “Pitz dich oop, get away from here, pitz dich up! Go! No one needs you! Go!” I tried to describe the previous life of the Viener Synagogue as the Wilson Theatre and the mom and pop shops on Lee Avenue, and meanwhile it’s go! go! go from here!

Then he was gone. The rest of the tour was nice. Hasidic folks were good to us in the shops we visited even though we are a clumsy group on a busy pre-holiday day. We had a lovely time at the deli around a single table and some good food. We had delkelech for Shavuot. It was so nice, I found myself welling up with relief. It’s strange, isn’t it? I’ve been doing this for six years, and I can still be so rattled that I can be surprised that I made it to the end without falling apart.

I wish I could get through a surprise like this as a Guide-Bitch; unfazeable and daring as hell. But I am not that kind of strong and I get affected and that’s okay too.

So now I’m trying to figure out how to go on from here. I am wondering if I should further pursue the idea of reaching out to people in his orbit. I can also mix up the route more. I can try to come up with a stinging comeback. Carry mace. Try to film him. Carry a bullhorn and out-loud him. Put on a white beard. I don’t know. I doubt any of it would help. But I’m not planning to cede my tour territory and neither do I enjoy death threats as part of my work experience. So. Anyone out there with ideas, please reach out.

 

UPDATE:

Last night, after the holiday ended, the man left me another message. He said he wanted to ask forgiveness because he was sometimes “overcome like… a dybbuk” and he takes it upon himself to not bother me anymore. He asked that in return I take off the link on Twitter. So I am taking his word in good faith and I removed the Twitter link and (most of, I think) identifying information on this post. I called him to tell him that I took the information off. I have no idea what brought about this contrition, but I hope that ends this saga. Phew!