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!

 

Hello There,
Over the years, I’ve read and collected many different resources on Hasidic Judaism. I’ve put together a selection of some of the most noteworthy ones for you to read, watch, eat, take in, and enjoy. You’ll find books, movies, tv shows, eateries, a whole virtual goodie-bag! I hope you’ll find in this list something interesting worth sinking your teeth into. I hope this will grow your curiosity.
Best,
PS: If you enjoy my resources, please tell your friends about my tour or consider supporting my work.

Shtisel / 2019 / Netflix, 2 Seasons

Shtisel is a brilliant, beautiful, gem. It is a lovely TV show and it does everything right in its treatment of its complex subject. It is the best way to learn about Hasidic Judaism. It’s hard to get into, but totally worth it.

Menasha / 2017 / Movie

The well-received movie about a Hasidic widower and his relationship with his son was filmed in Brooklyn, and features a storyline much more sensitive to the particularities of the Hasidic community. The main character is played by a Hasid, Menashe Lustig.

A Life Apart; Hasidism in America / 1997 / documentary

As far as documentaries go, this 1997 film is probably the best available primer on Hasidism in America with spectacular and intimate footage. Watch it especially for the way it tells the history, the stories of the rebbes and how the holocaust shaped American Hasidism. However, it gives only the surface story of modern Hasidic theology and belief.

One of Us / 2017 / Netflix

A documentary about three Hasidic New Yorkers who leave the faith. You can read some of my criticisms of the documentary here.

Fill the Void / 2012 / Movie

Before the niche fan-favorite Shtisel, I used to rant about this film. It’s among my favorite works set in the Hasidic world. A careful director brings the levitate marriage dilemma to life from the eye of someone inside, not the outside. Clearly, the good work on Hasidism is happening in Israel.

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof is timeless; it captures the intimate reality of generational differences and conflict between modernity and religion with all the pain, idealism, confusion that is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. The scene of Tevya rejecting his daughter will always cut to my soul. There is so much of Fiddler on the roof that captures the experience of sheltered Judaism today, so many years after its creation.

Mendy / Movie / 2003

Among former Hasidim we often joked that there are more movies about leaving Hasidism than there are people who leave. The movie Mendy is certainly not a perfect example of the leaving process, but rather a perfect example of how those in the community imagine the journey.

Felix and Meira / Movie / 2014

A recent movie about the common theme of leaving, but from the perspective of a woman with a child. The main male actor is Luzer Twersky, a former Hasid who bring the role to life with all the proper kvetches.

Unorthodox / 2020 / Netflix

Unorthodox will probably be the first recent major production set in Hasidic Williamsburg. The miniseries is based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman. Keep an eye out for when this title hits.

HASIDISM, A NEW HISTORY / 2017

Book by Benjamin Brown, David Assaf, David Biale, Gad Sagiv, Marcin Wodzinski, Samuel Heilman, and Uriel Gellman

The definitive, comprehensive, well-written introduction on Hasidism. This is an academic work and requires some work on the part of the reader. But for those interested in sharp insight, this book provides a modern history complete with analysis, a deep understanding of its subject and an ability to dissect the limits and problems of various ways Hasidic history has previously been understood. The book to be read by any student of Hasidism.

Goes like a couple in love with the Historical Atlas of Hasidism, by one of the above authors.

TEACHA! STORIES FROM A YESHIVA

Gerry Albarelli

This little, unknown gem was written by a former Hasidic English teacher, a community outsider, as he reports on the poignant and funny experiences of teaching secular studies to Hasidic boys who have little respect for what he has to teach. A rare glimpse.

My review of Teacha here.

ALL WHO GO DO NOT RETURN / Memoir / 2015

Shulem Deen

A recent memoir by Shulem Deen, a former Skver Hasid who left behind 5 children when leaving the Hasidic community. He doesn’t always pain a well rounded portrait, and at times the book is a little self serving, but it still remains the best memoir of the genre out to date.

My review here.

UNORTHODOX / Memoir / 2012

Deborah Feldman

A bestselling memoir by a Williamsburg woman who left the sect – soon to be a Netflix miniseries. Feldman’s views of Hasidic life are very influenced by her own rejection of the community, but her book gives us good insight into the process of leaving the community and feeling “different”. Interesting, she wrote a school essay about life in Williamsburg when she was still a member of it.

Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge: Memories of an American Youngster Growing Up With Chassidic Survivors of the Holocaust

Rabbi Eli Hecht

I found this book useful in understanding what life was like in the ten years after the holocaust, when surviving Hungarian Hasidim began to settle in Williamsburg. While Rabbi Hecht has a particular religious narrative which I find very limiting, the book is one of the few helpful English language resources in researching the story of this period.

A SUKKAH IS BURNING

Philip Fishman

Philip Fishman grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and his memoir helps us understand how the Williamsburg neighborhood changed from a diverse Jewish community to a singular Hasidic world.

My interview with the author here.

See many more titles on Hasidism, Satmar, Williamsburg-Brooklyn on my Goodreads bookshelf on the subject.

Here are sme food places to check out in Hasidic Williamsburg. Yum. I’m sharing some good places, but the spot for my favorite rugelech remains secret. To find out you have to either come to my tour or be the New Yorker food critic and come to me to apologize profusely for not even mentioning Hasidic bakeries in the piece A Search for Superior Rugelech, and the Harlem Baker who’s Making the Best in New York.

SANDER’S BAKERY  / 159 Lee Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / Divine pareve (neither meat nor dairy) and dairy Hasidic/Hungarian pastries.
LEVY’S DELICIOUS FOOD / 147 Division Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / Of meat deli products, this restaurant excels in combining modern setup with authentic homemade Hasidic food. Try the yapchik!
ONEG BAKERY / 188 Lee Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / A bit pricey and limited selection, but their pastries and challahs are the kind everyone’s mother makes. Try the rugelach!
CHOCOLATE WISE / 106 Lee Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211 / Handmade chocolate underrated and exquisitely crafted. This gem is mostly undiscovered by outsiders.
JEWISH LIFE IN MUNKATCH before the war. You see both the secular and very pious in one collage of footage of the time. Captures a conflict between secularism and piety that dates back before American Hasidism.
UPSHERIN CEREMONY in a boy’s school. The three year old boy just had his first haircut and got the traditional sidecurls and celebrates the start of a life dedicated to Torah studies.
HOLIDAY – PURIM. The holiday that falls on March is a time everyone wears costumes and men are obligated to drink alcohol until they “don’t know”.
INSIDE THE MEN’S SECTION OF SYNAGOGUE. This is what a men’s synagogue typically looks like. Note – the women’s section is not visible. It is above the gold-plated wall, and if it were visible, we’d see a heavily latticed partition covering that section.
INTERNET MEETING. This is a short clips of the masses of men who attended the 2012 “Internet Asifa” in the Citi Field stadium. It was an effort to unite all orthodox Jews in the fight against the internet.
THE CATSKILLS. A video capturing the energy and rush of the June exodus from Williamsburg to the Catskills, the mountainous north of the smoldering City. We also get to see some of life in the Catskills, but as with most videos, they are of the boys camps only.
EARLY HASIDIC MUSIC: This is YomTov Ehrlich’s Williamsburg, a Yiddish song published in the years after the Williamsburg Hasidic community settled there. It has Russian influences and is a tribute to the Hasidic survival in America’s New York.
MODERN HASIDIC MUSIC. A recent music video (not without internal controversies) clearly demonstrates outside influences. Note there are no women as men are not allowed to hear women sing.
LEAVING: A group of former Hasidim talk to NBC about their journeys, where they came from and what it was like to leave. They talk about Footsteps, an organization that was established to provide support to those who leave.
FROM MY OWN LIBRARY: Family bar mitzvah. My son on my father’s lap; my brother next to them. Both little boys have traditional sidecurls.
FROM MY OWN LIBRARY: My son and I. Many, many years ago.

PERSONAL ESSAYS

MY TINY UGLY WORLD: A confession written in 1910 by Rabbi Yitzhak Nahum Twersky of Shpikov (1888-1942), scion of a very prestigious Hasidic lineage of Chernobyl. In this exciting and moving text, he dramatically expresses his troubles, torn soul, and feelings of hatred toward the Hasidic world of his time.

WILLIZEN BLOG: An anonymous Hasidic man’s collection of community photo-essays. He has been photographing individuals for over a decade and discreetly captures life in its most intimate moments. I’ve heard from sources that he photographed many of the neighborhood’s holocaust survivors.

OY VEY CARTOONS: My collection of mixed media (essays and cartoons) in the years after I left the community.

SHPITZEL’S SECRET: An audio segment with the podcast The Longest Shortest Time in which I tell much of my life story, especially in relation to parenting.

SITES FOR THE INSIDERS

KAVESHTIBEL: An online forum in Hasidic Yiddish frequented mostly by men in the community. Many contemporary views can be heard on kaveshtibel, but one might say most of its commentators are more liberal in their views and thinking than their counterparts.

IVELT: Simalarly, a forum in Yiddish – mostly conversations amongst men. Ivelt is more heavily moderated and considered more “in the box” than kaveshtibel.

VENISHMARTEM: Just one of many solutions to the internet and smartphone problem.

SECULAR MEDIA COVERING HASIDIM

THE UNCHANGING STREETS OF HASIDIC SOUTH WILLIAMSBURG: A Slate article on the unchanging landscape in 21st Century Williamsburg.

BROOKLYN PROJECT SHAKES HISPANIC HASIDIC PEACE: A 1990 examination of how housing shortages resulted in lawsuits and conflict between Hasidim and Hispanics.

CLASH OF THE BEARDED ONES: New York Magazine explored the clash between Hasidim and Hipsters as the neighborhood changed in 2010.

NYC STALLED CONSTRUCTION: How the Satmar feuding led to a construction on Bedford Avenue sitting unfinished “on the stalled site list longer than any other thatTRD survey”

THE HEIR UNAPPARENT: New York Times on the feud between the two Satmar brothers, which later led to the sect splitting in two.

GENDER SEGREGATED SWIMMING CUT BACK TO 2 HOURS: New York Times on the clash between Hasidic women’s need for women-only pool hours and North Williamsburg’s appeal to end discrimination.

CYCLISTS REDRAW THE LINE IN WILLIAMSBUR: When Hasidim removed the bike lanes because it brought indecency into its community. The bike lanes were ultimately moved one block over.

WIRE DIVIDES WILLIAMSBURG EASING SHABBAT RULES SPARKS FIGHT: The Daily News on the eruv, the line that allows women to carry and push strollers, that was controversial and mostly banned when first conceived in 2002/2003.

LEARNING AND EARNING: HASIDIC BROOKLYN’S REAL ESTATE MACHERS: The Real Deal piece that examined how Hasidim effect Brooklyn gentrification and real estate development.

ESCAPE FROM THE HOLY SHTETL: A New York Magazine cover story reported how woman lost custody when leaving the community. (she was in my class)

A YESHIVA GRADUATE FIGHTS FOR SECULAR STUDIES: On the recent legal action by ex-Hasidim to force Hasidic yeshivas to give a better secular education.

The measles virus continues to spread, and now the Mayor of New York City has ordered all Williamsburg kids to vaccinate or face a fine. I am set up to get Google Alerts for news about the Hasidic community, and I am getting floods of links to stories about the anti-vaxxers in the community. I am still trying to jive how the stories in the news, in which the measles epidemic seems to be fueled by anti-vaxxers, matches my on-the-ground experience of the Hasidic community.

Here is what I have come to understand. A community needs 95% vaccinated population in order for the community to have herd immunity and not to be vulnerable to the outbreak. In any community, you will have a population that is unable to vaccinate, either those too young or allergic or with compromised immune systems. But these unvaccinated people will be fine so long as there is herd immunity, which, for a very contagious disease like measles that can be spread by just coughing, needs to be very high. This leaves room for only about 5% to opt out before the her immunity is breached MMR. In a community where almost every home has a baby and many are too young for the vaccine, the 5% is much more easily reached. Herd immunity is so delicate.

It looks like the measles outbreak took off when the community dropped below herd immunity rates. It was the perfect recipe for disaster when a lot of scary information about vaccines made its way around the womenfolk, and people either hesitated or delayed vaccinations. On top of that, schools didn’t insist or stay on top of its students immunization status, and doctors and community leaders didn’t aggressively counter these scary ideas. I know my son would never be enrolled in Public School without being either up to date on his shots or an exemption, but Hasidic schools can be much more lax, especially when people already forgot how bad outbreaks can be.

While the community clearly dropped below immunity, we have to ask by what ratio. Notice that according to a pro-vaccine KJ publication titled “Tzim Gezint”, the main Satmar school has only 2% vaccine exemptions. In Williamsburg, where people consider themselves a bit more worldly and are more likely to deviate from community norms, there are probably more exemptions. According to CBS2, about 100 families in Williamsburg are against vaccines. Sure, the city estimated that 1,800 children in the Hasidic Williamsburg neighborhood hadn’t been vaccinated as of December 2018 – when we just started to hear about the measles outbreak. But there has been a huge uptick in vaccinations since.

In the news, the anti-vaxxers take center stage. Their continued absurd stance is painted as the key to the problem. For instance watch these two women, whose way of thinking and modeling for the Dunning Kruger effect makes me want to tear my hair out.

 

 

But do these women reflect mainstream views? Are they anomalies? Considering they showed up to the Brooklyn Library for the announcement by the mayor and were willing to be on camera, I’d say probably not. I am wondering if these folks are going to be the Naturei Karte of the measles issue. The Naturei Karte is a radical fringe anti-zionist group which loves media attention, and even though the people who subscribe to it are a minority, they are so vocal, they are lodged in the popular imagination as the example of a standard Hasidic Jew.

What’s important to realize that once herd immunity has been compromised, the virus can spread even if the population is now up to date. It spreads to the unvaccinated population. This from the Times: “Dr. Yakov Kiffel, a pediatrician in Monsey in Rockland County, said that he has both vaccinated children and treated about a half-dozen patients with measles since the fall. He said the majority of the sick were under 6 months old — the age at which a child can be given the first dose of the M.M.R. vaccine — and members of families that said they vaccinate.”

In other words, the cat is out of the bag. Now, even if the mayor gets everyone to comply, herd immunity is destroyed, and the 5% or so who shouldn’t be vaccinated are very, very vulnerable. Think a cancer patient. Think someone very ill. Think all those tiny babies coming down with measles. They are all now susceptible even if everyone complies after-the-fact. I think the community and health officials should learn, really learn, that if you don’t vaccinate before a problem comes to town, you can’t simply quickly run to get your shots and solve the problem. Contrary to what that lady proudly believes about the problems of vaccines, preventive measures like herd immunity do a lot of good. The old adage… an ounce of prevention is worth — a thousand dollar fine and terrible medical risks and babies with red splotchy rashes and a terrible health scare for everyone else.

I’ve been going through some old files to make room in the closet, and found my old folder from my eighth grade “Sewing Course”. Sewing was usually the only class that didn’t involve sitting at the desk and taking notes. I find it really interesting to contrast this “special” (as such classes would be called in my son’s public school) with my son’s sevenths grade “specials”, which are of course music, gym, French and library.

The introduction states that the goal of the course is to be able to fix clothing to make it fit better and more modest.

Our particular course was to learn the various different approaches to filling a skirt slit so as to ensure it was modest. We had to write down instructions plus mini samples.

The "Skirt Pleat Extension"
The "Kick Pleat"
The "Center Pleat"
The "Pleat Insert Slash"

I probably couldn’t pull off any of this if my life depended on it, but then again, who remembers their high school calculus either.

There are posters everywhere – huge ones that can wrap a fat streetpost twice – inviting all men in the community to a Night of Rescuing our Education. This is an event that promises to bring “activists, rabbis, legal experts” to discuss the “Edict Against Education year 5779”. (This is a reference to the long history of decrees against Jews, from massacres to expulsions to intervention in religious observance, which are often referred to by the year; ie, “The Edicts of 4856“)

“Residents of Williamsburg awake!”
“What is our responsibility during this hour?”
“Do for the sake of the children of the community”

 

“The Edict of Education 5779”
“We will not allow Jewish children to get a goyish education”
“Fiery speeches by rabbis, activists, legal experts.”

One of the posters (which I’ll post if I get a chance to photograph) shows modern-orthodox looking kids in the backdrop, an ominous warning almost. It also promises in bold letters not only fiery speeches, but flam-feyerdigeh drushes, that is, the extra-hot-beyond-the-scoville-scale spicy speeches. In other words, here is a promise that this won’t be a boring committee meeting, but something inspiring, fiery, emotional – a rally of sorts! I almost want to go!

This extremely strong reaction from the Hasidic community doesn’t surprise me; I’ve long said that this is a raw nerve and antagonizing the community will mobilize the zealots. But what remains to be seen is if this will also inspire a counter-movement within the community and create a conversation about education reforms sorely needed, especially vis a vis updating how discipline and curriculum is done. We already saw the publication of a very, very insightful book by Katle Kanye in Yiddish on the subject. There is so much talent inside the community because of the high retention rate, that there are always things changing from within in some ways. I wonder if some things will quietly change while most every other ploni is too busy attending extra-fiery speeches to notice.