I lived in Kiryas Joel the first twenty five years of my life. I was born and raised there, educated there, married there, became a mother there, got divorced there, and left there with the kid in tow. Every time I return to visit my family I am stunned by how quickly the village is changing, how fast it is growing. But visiting also brings back a flood of memories, because in essence, it’s still the same.
Kiryas Joel is a village of Satmar Hasidim. It’s called Kiryas Joel; meaning the Village of Joel, Joel being the Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum who died before I was born, when the village was in its infancy. The village was founded in the 1970s and by today, 2018, is at about a 30K population. In 2020 the village will secede from the town of Monroe, under which it has been until now, and become a town in its own right, Palm Tree (named for the Teitelbaum dynasty). It is being incorporate as its own town because of its growth.
To live in Kiryas Joel is to live in one of the most child-centric communities. Because women have many children and usually don’t work, their entire lives are dedicated to raising the kids. The streets of suburbanish condos are filled with Little Tykes bikes and Bigwheels and wagons and scooters, and during summer afternoons the outdoors is swarming with children and the sounds of screeching and crying and having fun and mothers on patio chairs gossiping with each other while feeding the youngest dinner out of a plastic plate. When there is an event for women, like a fundraiser for a charity, it usually has entertainment for the kids. When a kid gets hurt, any adult will take the kid and make sure he or she is okay. Kids are always surrounded by peers and they are always busying themselves with each other. Boys schools start at age 2.6 and attend it six days a week, all year round, with few off days. All of the boys teachers, for all ages, are men. In other words, everyone is busy with the children. The entire community is an institution revolving around the kids. Town or village, it lives by the motto ‘it takes a village’.
If you are the curious kind of kid, as I was, then you know that there is a world of forbidden things out there beyond your shtetl. You know it from the billboard you pass on the way to Williamsburg to visit your grandparents; you know it from the Yellow Pages that get dropped at the big mailbox of your cul-de-sac; oh – all the strange ads in there — law firms with people in American suits and services for pregnant women; oh man, what is pregnancy, you must read the tiny letters, obstetrics and gynecology, what does it mean, how can you find out, who would be able to tell you, this all feels so naughty and titillating and you must know but you won’t… You also go to the hospital once for an emergency when you break your leg while sledding down the hill of a house near your school, and you can’t stop your eyes from wandering to the waiting room TV and its seductive blue light, even though your mother keeps warning you not to look at this “not nice” stuff. Kik nisht; but how much your eyes want to kik. At the dentist you stare at the gentile patrons and you keep wishing you could pick up a Highlights Magazine, because one modern girl in your class gets the Highlights, and you wish you were her. You go to Brooklyn for a cousin’s wedding and you slip out with five dollars and buy bubble gum, because gum is forbidden and it is not sold in Kiryas Joel (by now it is). Your teachers and parents say that gum is like a cow chewing the cud, that it is not appropriate, but that’s exactly why you must have gum. You will chew it with the most exaggerated chump chumps, talking funny, so fancy. You will be like that fancy girl in the class who told you that if you leave your gum out overnight, the flavor comes back and you can start on it all over again. And like the neighbor who put a sour ball in her mouth alongside a gum, and told you that it is how everyone who knows gum does it, because it is how you make cherry flavor. You want to do all that so badly, so you buy the whole box at a Williamsburg grocery. You imagine that you will be a huge deal in school for weeks to come. But the wedding ends late and you fall asleep in the fifteen passenger van on the two hour ride home, and you forget the whole box of Bubble Gum, and for weeks afterwards you are terrified and anticipating consequences. Luckily, you get away with this one. You won’t always be so lucky.
The fear Hasidim have of the outside world influence means that anything seen as “Goyish”, gentile-ish, is not allowed. So you don’t know of the public library. So you don’t know what radio is; when your father surprises the family with a new stereo for Chanukah, the radio antenna gets chops off. So no movies or English books or magazines or pop music.
You might be allowed to get a piece of mail that comes to your mailbox. If it’s innocent. My father would hand out the mail to us kids if we stood nicely in line and waited for him to finish reading the important stuff. I’d get pieces like dental fliers and Charles Schwab notifications – my father would often accompany this with a discourse on Mutual Funds. I would use these for my art projects and poetry notebooks. But my father would tear up anything that wasn’t “nice”. Like pictures of a couple in bathing suits hugging by the pool, an immodest gift delivered to us courtesy of the Orange County company that builds oh-so-lavish in-ground pools. But here’s the thing, if the flier is torn up, in tatters inside the lined garbage can, how hard is it to just fish it out and piece it back together and ogle it in your bedroom under your blanket? You just need to hope no one piles mostly-eaten chicken into the trash before you have a chance to salvage it, and then the heist is on. The rush, ah, the rush of looking at that secular couple in their nighttime summer paradise and wandering what their lives were like. Oh!
And the hours and hours with friends. That was Kiryas Joel. There were so many intense interpersonal relationships. Without any electronics, without any TV, with very few trips out of the confines of our bubble, it was all about friendships. My best friend Masha and I — we spent hours and hours on the stairs to the basement; making arts and crafts and studying for exams on proper laws of Shabbes and copying notes and planning pranks on other girls. I would be sweating between my tights and dripping sweat from my ponytail and storming into our house to get another ice pop and quickly fly out the door again, before I got called in to do the dishes or help with the laundry.
In Kiryas Joel you walked a lot. You walked the hilly village sidewalks at night after the wedding of a sister or brother of a classmate’s. There was a thrill as we’d all stand under the streetlight deeply ensconced in the high drama and gossip of who wore what and which teacher showed up and who was right about why so-and-so got divorced, and did a matchmaker stare at us, was that why she stood there as we danced in the circled? And yoy, we would laugh so loudly, shush-shush, the village patrol would soon come around and we’d flee in hysterics.
And later at night yet, after the crowd dispersed, maybe one other girl would stay to walk home with me, and then we’d speculate on how pregnancies work, what really happened after marriage, if the man really did something somehow on someone, and promise me and swear to me this will be secret and that you won’t repeat a word of our conversation, and was it true that the baby came out of the — there-there? We’d be so confused; none the wiser by each others speculation. We’d bond over the confusion, the confidential mystery of do-you-know and do-you-think and do-you-believe-it and shush. We’d feel close; drawn together by breathless repressed sexual longing. I’d run a finger over my confidant’s hands without knowing why it felt good, only that all this talk of naughty stuff made our fingers intertwine, our breaths hot on each others faces as we stood close to whisper. We were a whole new degree of best friends. We knew that our parents would be mad if we didn’t get home before midnight, so bye bye, call me, bye, and I’d turn back to watch her ponytail and straight skirt suit disappear around the bend. I’d feel a rush as she disappeared and I took my high heel shoes off and walked in my stockings the rest of the way.
Kiryas Joel was a place of hunger. Hungered for more. Hunger to know. Sometimes the hunger hurt. Sometimes I couldn’t resist, and I stole to satiate myself. I stole a book from the Monroe Woodbury school. A Hasidic girls acting group had rented out their auditorium and we all were bused for a very rare play. I found a book near my chair in the audience seating. I took it. I read it in secrecy. I didn’t understand everything, but enough. My entire day in school felt like a walk on clouds, just knowing that I would get home and sneak a read of some more pages. Then my parents found it, and I got a nasty beating. I cried, screamed, apologized, self loathed, hated myself so much. It wasn’t the hunger that hurt. It was knowing that I was hungry while everyone else was content.
When I was grown up and my marriage was arranged, Kiryas Joel became a more oppressive place. I loved my husband and he indulged me in watching movies, but when we stepped out of our little bunker, I mean, basement apartment, we’d squint at the sunlight and I’d find myself out of touch with all the trends, the proper behavior, the harsh judgments. The school friends all got married and became mothers and serious women, they took the wigs to the wig maker regularly and wore sweet little hats, and they carried on with the charade dutifully. One friend scolded me in front of a group of women for not dressing up to shop at WalMart. It wasn’t normal to wear a housecoat in WalMart, no, it just wasn’t, no no no! I was so ashamed, yet so indignant. What’s it to you?, I wanted to say, but of course I didn’t. Because then I would seem even more off. Then I would be even more gossiped about. Then I’d be called even more crazy.
Kiryas Joel became smaller and harsher and lonelier with time, until I finally left. But when I return and hear the sounds of children playing kick-the-can and calling not-it and being called home by grown women on porches, I can remember a sweet side of it. A side that is innocent. A side that is connected.