SEE UPDATE ON THIS SAGA AT THE BOTTOM!

—-

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!

This happened in Hasidic Williamsburg: playboy model Marisa Papen traipsed through the neighborhood, in the heart of its busiest areas, in the nude. For a photoshoot. There are a bunch of pictures on her website of this orchestrated photoshoot stroll.

According to this photographer’s post:

“Marisa’s goal is to raise awareness about the global suppression of women by the hand of religion.

“Inspired by the suppressed souls that we witnessed in the ‘One Of Us’ documentary on Netflix we decided to move forward on producing a fine art series about the community.”

I am trying to wrap my head around this. I’m not much interested in the drama that went down with this photoshoot. There is a video of Marisa and company getting chased by Hasidic men who are screaming hysterically and panting and reporting that she was walking around the streets nakkit (lol!!??) and we see the cops during the last few minutes. It’s a bad film with little to see, just a predictable clash between a provocateur and shocked-aroused Hasidic men. We hear that someone says titties with a Hasidic accent. It’s a panic. You can imagine, surreal if ever. Does life get more absurd?

What I cannot understand is how this is doing anything about the suppression of women by the hand of religion. I am trying to follow here. The lady playboy goes out with a camera crew and flashes the expertly trimmed down-there to young Hasidic men who are shocked and traumatized. Okay. So she did that. Now what? How do we get from this moment of pornographic sacrilege in March 2019 to the great liberation, wherein all Hasidic women proudly go about shopping on Lee Avenue with the bosom airing out? What’s the plan, pray tell? How will the cure come of this peculiar treatment involving a photoshoot, a good hat and fancy shoes, and presumably, pickles from Flaum’s?

Nutty people exist. But Marisa’s stunt isn’t the act of a crazed lunatic who forgot to get dressed before going out for appetizing. She is doing it to get attention and approval, and she’ll get it. Because there is an implicit okayness to such behavior when it is dressed up (ha ha) as concerned with women. It’s gets a sort of cultural stamp of approval. Or at least she won’t be criticized a la cancel culture. Because her cause is against the suppression of women.

Suppression of women my dressed-ass. She is concerned with selling her own photos and her own vanity. It’s faux, self-serving activism that is totally transparent//. We don’t dare say that we see right through it. We give tacit permission, because supposedly the cause is good.

Walking naked in Williamsburg for the liberation of women is the absurd example of a much more banal genre of profitable enterprises under the cloak of concern for women. There is a whole genre stories of the woman who “escapes”. Western culture loves these stories. In books, movies, tv shows, podcast, you name it. This includes the Netflix documentary ‘One of Us’, which is as skewed and dishonest and as concerned with women as an evangelical anti-abortion documentary. And the many books about religious women who heroically self-determined by throwing off the shackles and leaving. I’m thinking titles like ‘The Marrying of Chani Kaufman’, the Naomi Ragen series, Deborah Feldman’s self-flattering ‘Unorthodox’, Leah Vincent’s poorly told ‘Cut me Loose’, and probably a few others in my library. Even Judge Ruchy Frier, the ultra-Orthodox judge and something of a media favorite, is in this category. Her story is celebrated by the New York Times not because she is Orthodox, but because while she is Orthodox, she’s also bought into the modern idea that a woman’s value is found in her career accomplishments. In essence, the judge escaped while staying. Hurrah – we love her story.

What all these stories have in common is a complete and total disrespect for the life of the everyday religious woman as she values it. It tells us that the Hasidic woman is living life wrong. She isn’t living until she Escapes for the utopia (I kid) of twenty-first-century capitalist striving. In this narrative the secular culture is always by definition liberating, the religious culture always oppressive. The girl who leaves her faith and roots is always brave, the woman who gives her all to her children a sufferer of the patriarchy. Those who escape are accomplished, those who stay are nothings.

The story never considers that some women might not share in this hierarchy of importance. The hierarchy is already established. Up on the pyramid of valuable things is to walk with the cooter hanging about (forgive me) and self-congratulate yourself on a kind of zealous proselytizing of your beliefs. It’s March and you’re cold? Well, all the more heroic fight for the cause! The more you suffer to prove your feminist liberation, the more the suffering oppressed will be liberated. Everyone suffers, sure. But your suffering is noble. The suffering of women who live differently is not.

The “Her Escape” story arc is not feminist. It is the total erasure of women’s lives when they don’t match our modern values. It is to impose meaning on someone else’s life. It is to tell them what makes their lives worth living. That’s — er, that’s oppressive. Real support for women is to try to understand the nuances of the challenges and triumphs of a religious woman and to respect what she wants, not what we want.

The genre is profitable though. There is always an audience for a coming of age tale of heroic self-determination. It’s no surprise that Deborah Feldman’s book is being adapted as a TV show by Netflix. The story stells. And as long as it sells, there will be half-talents regaling them.

Audiences know that the motive behind these self proclaimed activists are bullshit, but they shrug, because — well, the story is still good. It makes secular society feel better and right. It makes secular society feel like it is emboldened, powerful, attractive, sure of itself. Look at us secular woman, strutting so free. Strutting so proud. Meanwhile, no one is aloud to say the obvious: that the empress has no clothes, and it’s goddamn crazy.

Yes, this playboy woman’s motives are baloney. But they are also not neutral. Pulling such stunts can do real harm. I feel sorry for these naive teenage boys. I know many people would comment about how lucky they are, (yuk) but I really think this could be traumatic. I also am bemused that we should further the liberation of women by introducing men on first occasion to the most unlikely female body — one that very few women will see in the mirror even at their best, nevermind after many children. Hasidic men and women very rarely get to see what normal female bodies look like. They see models and celebrities and porn personalities, but they don’t see the vibrant diversity of boobs and butts that make up my Orange Theory gym dressing room. It pains me that Hasidic people don’t realize what normal bodies look like. So to show as a model of female sexuality a body that is so unrealistic and creates so many insecurities among the rest of us plain-bodied… my feminism meteromator just went so high up, it exploded.

When I still lived in Kiryas Joel, I once got this unsigned notice in the mail. It is an anonymous warning that I had been immodest. The letter is only signed “from a good friend”. What so bemused me about this letter is not that it is pretty out there – there are always people in very insular Hasidic communities who are more out of touch and obsessed with modesty and policing others. But rather, that someone had brought efficiency to the process. Now all you need to do in order to inform someone that you don’t approve of their crock-wearing is fill out a brief form and drop it in the mail. Does it work? I can’t promise results… 🙂

Here is the translation:

Dear Ms. F. Vizel,

As it is the obligation of every Jew to be responsible for the well-being of the other, therefore I need to make you aware of the following thing:

The __ (2 piece duster – dark color) __ of the: 1) dress, 2) housecoat, 3) skirt, 4) blouse, 5) socks, 6) turban, that you work last __(week)__ is not permitted according to Halacha (law) because: ____________(by every step we sadly no-nonsense saw your back. Please be careful not to trigger the public! Thank you!)

short
narrow
bold
open at the neck
see-through
wasn’t properly buttoned
long robe outside of the home
red turban
spoke or laughed loudly in the street, bus, store…
the scarf or turban wasn’t properly covered
the wig was long
white sneakers (crocks)
went with “babby socks

May the efforts to behave with modesty and reserve as is fitting for a Jewish woman God will bless you with plenty of money, joy and pride from the children, health and it will bring God’s spirit in your home and the remedy of modesty will hopefully do its work to rid us of illnesses god forbid, as is written in the books, until the messiah will come, amen.

Of course the people who busy themselves with such zealous policing of others are a minority, but they wield a kind of power. Because no matter how absurd I found this letter, I also felt a rush of self loathing when I first read it…

I don’t live in Germany, but I am a tour guide in the Hasidic community in New York, and Germans are definitely my biggest customer demographic.

The first time I did a tour for Germans, I felt very torn about it. The Hasidic community is a community of Holocaust survivors. My grandparents had number tattoos, all four of them. My zeidy lost a whole family. Seven children murdered in the war. A whole family, wiped out, because of Germany. Was it okay to show Germans the current Hasidic community in an honest, humanizing way?

I tend to believe it is a good thing, but I felt terrible because I know many in the community would disagree.

We have had some interesting experiences.

The Germans whom I met have been my most thoughtful and sensitive customers. That’s the truth. They don’t delight in rushing to judgment and getting into an excited outrage over backwardness and injustice. I am sure there are people who hide terrible prejudices, but most people I meet seem to be really aware of the terrible danger of dehumanizing a whole group. The German education in recent years really tried to reckon with the Holocaust, and it shows. They come to the Hasidic community because they want to understand more. Because this issue is important to them. It’s like the German equivalent of America’s racism reckoning and reparations. Are there not still racists in America? Sure. And there are anti-semites in Germany. But those who bother to come to my tour seemed to be the ones who truly learned from history.

And it’s been an interesting experience to me. Especially because they are the one group that, ironically, can understand when I speak in my secret language, Yiddish.

We once went into a pastry shop to get some treats. I told all the folks to choose two pastries, on me. A Hasidic man came in and looked. I realized he was listening to the foreign speakers, listening to their language.

“Vere are you from?” he asked.

I held my breath. Here goes. Everyone was from Germany. “Deutschland.”

He nodded. Then said to the Hasidic man at the register: “dis whole group is on me.” and to us, “Take anything you want. I pay.”

He left.

Another time, we walked down Bedford Avenue and a slightly crazy-looking lady came up to us, huffing and puffing, her headgear off kilter, her coat too small, and said really fast because she swallowed her words: “Don’t come here. Your people come here and it’s not modest. Go somewhere else.”

Someone told her something, I don’t remember how it went down, but she suddenly picked up on the German.

She was suddenly all alert, shifted gear. “Whereareyoufrom? Whereiseveryonefrom?”

“Germany.”

“Germany?! You know we were all killed by you? Everyone here. Everyone here. Someone else’s family killed. You killed our grandfathers… they are still…”

She suddenly noticed an old hunkered down lady with a walker coming towards us. This Bubby was wearing a washed out pink turban and had a black woman aid. The reprimanding yenta grabbed bubby and pulled her over and asked “You were in Auschwitz, right?”

The bubby managed to croak out “yuh, yuh. Ich bin geveyn…”

“See!” the frazzled one said, red cheeked with passion.

When she left, some Germans were upset, which is to say a lot for Germans, because they aren’t as emotive as Americans. One woman said, “None of us were alive. You know, I was always so ashamed to be German. The first time I felt a hint of okay with being German was when Merkel welcomed all the Syrian refugees,” and she seemed very sad.

Then again, last Sunday, we had 13 people on a tour, and most were Germans. When we were in the bakery, a Hasidic man, about in his sixties, again showed interest, and I thought, “Uh oh. Here we go again.”

He was too pious to speak with women, so he spoke to the first man he saw, my little kiddo, not so man yet. He asked my son where we are from.

“Um…here, Brooklyn.”

Phew.

Then the Hasid asked a well-built German. “You? Vere?”

“Germany. And my vife is Poland.”

Suddenly the Hasid launched into a conversation in Polish, and they chatted like old buddies. They chatted so long that I had to pull the German guy away so we could move along. When he finally parted ways with his “new friend” the German said, “Dis man is… he speaks all languages. He spoke Polish. German. Hungarian. Russia. He talks everything. He’s… an amazing person, my new friend.”

A few other people who understood these languages nodded, nodded, wow.

A Hasidic language savant and a German tourist shakes hands in New York and call each other friends. It’s a fascinating world.

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-shushthe 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.