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!

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.

This was or first ever food tour on Chanukah and we had a wonderful time! We learned how to play dreidle and we tasted various of the newest iterations of donuts. The dairy donuts are now all the rage, and we tried some that sell for $8.50 a piece! They’re filled with delicious cream-cheesy fillings and come in a mad collection of varieties. It’s a lot of fun for me to keep up with the food trends in Williamsburg. The creative energy that goes into the food – incredible!

Photos credit: Rossana Casale Garner.

 

 

A very nice Hasidic gentleman who works at one of the delis I take my tours to, told us a story today. He offered the story to me and some of my tourists just as we were wrapping up and heading out, ahead of this pouring rain.

“I have a story for you. You can use it on your tours.” he said.

He likes to tell me what to say on my tours. He isn’t the only one. Hasidim with whom I interact on my tours regularly scold me for not saying this or that. “speak to the charity, speak to the ambulate, the help for the sick, the organizations like Shomrim and Chaveyrim, etc.” It cracks me up; I laugh and say ‘yeah, yeah’ and don’t take it too personally that nothing I will say will ever placate these harsh critics.

Unless I tell the story I was told today, which I will.

Mr. G tells it so:

The other day a non-Jewish gentleman was driving outside of Monroe – maybe route 32 if I heard correctly – when he got a flat tire. It was late at night, he was distraught, and along drives a Hasidic person, pulls over, asks what the matter is. This Hasidic person was from the Hasidic organizations like Chaveyrim who will change your flat for free. (They changed mine several times while I had a car).  The Hasid said “let me fix the flat for you. We do it for free.” The gentile was stunned; “but I’m not even Jewish.” The Hasid didn’t blink. Helping a gentile can result in a kiddush hashem, raising the honor of God, and was a good deed in its own way. So he rolled up his sleeve, got hold of a  fantastic new tire — (Mr. G here told of an incident where he got a new tire from Chaveyrim after mid-night) –and changed it for him. As the two got ready to get back into their cars, the gentile said:

“I want to send a note to your wife to thank her for what you did. Is that okay?”

The Hasid said of course it was! Who wouldn’t want a bit of buttering the marriage.

“And this address you gave me for the note, is that your home?”

“It’s my home, yes, why?”

“Nothing, just curious – you own it? Rent? Just curious.”

The Hasid said he owned, gave his address, bid farewell, and off he went.

A week later the Hasid got a call from the bank. “Mr. So-and-so; we want to notify you that your mortgage has been paid in full.” Yes, kids. The recipient of the act of kindness had sent a check to pay off the entire mortgage. And who was this stranger? None other than Donald Trump!

Some tourists and I gasped. It was an unexpected twist. Trump?

“Yes” said Mr. G. “True story. It was in the Daily News- check it! Trump – I tell you, he’s not as bad as you think.”

And then Mr. G told us some more stories of Trump’s acts of kindness. The stories so emphasized Trump’s miracle making for ordinary people, I had to stop myself from pointing out the resemblance between the Trump stories and the apocryphal miracle stories of Hasidic Zadikkim. In fact, the Trump elevation to Zadik is almost not totally absurd. On Yiddish language forums Hasidic men regularly describe themselves as Hasidim of Trump. They use the term Hasid colloquially as “fans of”, but the similarities to veneration of secular and religious leader is not as different as you’d think.

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So on the train ride home, I looked for the Daily News story, and two seconds of googling led me to a number of variations of this same tale. None of them seemed to involve Hasidim, but all involve Trump rewarding a Good Samaritan tenfold for their act of kindness. According to Snopes, this saga is an urban legend. According to Trump, on the other hand, it is true. Matzav.com addressed the story in 2016 with the version in which the Good Samaritan in a Jew, and said it is fake. This story has apparently been attributed to so many celebrities, it is listed in Jan Brunvand’s Encyclopedia of Urban Legend’s, under “Celebrity Car Breakdown“. I find it fascinating that this follows the same pattern of how miracle stories of Hasidic Zadikim spread. One store gets attributed to many different persons of note, almost as if it didn’t matter who it happened with, but rather, that it could have happened with the person it is attributed to.

So there. I told the story but I ruined it too. Fact-checking sure gets all the air out of good old fashioned story telling…

As a tour guide, I’ve learned about some of the most fantastic tours in New York City. I was never one to consider tours, but I’ve come to understand that tours provide not only an opening to learning and exploring, but also a way to connect with people from all over the world. I’m so glad Fodor’s put this together, and that the tours of Hasidic Brooklyn made the list!

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“Leave the bus tours behind for a real behind-the-scenes look at New York City.

Time spent in the bright lights and busy streets of New York City doesn’t have to be limited to the top ten list of things to see and do. Go beyond the usual suspects of a Big Apple visit by venturing on a more in-depth exploration of the quirky sights, sounds, and tastes of New York City’s five boroughs. Whether you’re looking to enjoy amazing hole-in-the-wall Chinese dumplings, spit a hot 16 in Harlem, or shine on a Broadway stage, check out our picks for the 22 most unique tours of New York City.

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Hasidic Williamsburg Tour