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.

Yes.

Okay, it wasn’t my hand he wasn’t shaking; it was that of the first lady of the United States. Laura Bush’s. My hand had nothing to do with it, but since my husband was the one making the scene, I was offended. Blushing-red offended.

This is what happened. Through some inexplicable chain of events, my Hasidic husband and I, at the ripe age of twenty four or so, got onto the invite list of the White House Chanukah Party.

I was probably invited because I was different and Hasidic, but I wanted so terribly, badly to fit in. If you judge me for being such a peer-pressure prone weasel, you are right. But do keep in mind that looking different ALL the time and being seen as odd ALL the time can leave you feeling not only judged, but also misunderstood.

So I agonized over the fitting-in thing for months in advance. I am sure it is obvious to everyone immediately that my scarf in this picture is ivory (not white!) as I’d used a box of Walmart yellow die in the washroom sink to make the scarf less overtly a weekend scarf and more… subtle, blended in…

Anyway.

At some point of the night, as I was going around eating, looking totally normal with a soft yellow scarf and a black-bearded, Yiddish-accented, excessively-friendly husband at my side (or not; he kept disappearing as he found someone else to run chat up) we got called to “meet the president”. We stood in line with decidedly boring-looking secular Jews who seemed almost on the brink of very dull. I guess normal does something to you. I remember how silent all the dolled-up, pearl-wearing ladies were, so that my husband’s loud chatter and my own mortification were the central event in the waiting line.

There was a large soldier in very intimidating uniform at the door, and my husband provided him with detailed warning that for the photo, we are not to stand as is customary, the woman on the side of the president and he on the side of Laura. Some other man in military costume and those shoulder pads and a deep voice announced us, and then a hand shaking fiasco ensued that could have competed with the worst sex scenes on Girls.

I, trying to be cool and normal (do not judge me! I am a coward) held out a hand to W as did my husband, but then he went on to explain to Laura that he has his hands in the back of his long suit jacket while hers stands like an erect teenager because of this whole religious thing, etc, etc, etc. I smiled wide from ear to ear, chuckled nervously, tried to smooth things over by exclaiming with far too much enthusiasm how nice everything was and then stood like a good girl at the side of Laura for the picture.

Later, to do something about the many humiliations of being coupled with a husband who made such a scene every time a woman offered her hand, I wolfed down all the potato pancakes stacked on silver trays. It felt like eating sawdust-pancakes and it looked like they were printed at the Mint.

I am one of fifteen. I’m the fifth. We have no twins.

I grew up with the cycle of the once in two years birth of a sibling creating a pattern in our lives as predictable, exciting, stressful and rythmic as the holidays. Every year in December our house was turned aglow with Chanukah, every year we built a Sukkah for the fall holiday, and every other year we took the cradle out and lined it with the white bunting with purple prayer words and birds stitched into it.

Every other year the eldest in the house got married, and left the house.

There were always reasons for beds to be passed around and rearranged as the older ones moved up to the more desirable window bed while the younger one labored to pull out the high riser.

We all were little parents, the more people you had authority over the more like a somebody you felt. At one point, it was my job as a teenager to get five boys to sleep. Every night, five boys in two sets of bunk beds, fresh pajamas and washed sidecurls. I ordered them around and felt like king.

(My brothers are now married and grown men – the youngest of them will marry this year. Since I left the faith, things are tense and awkward when I visit home but when someone mentions the bedtime stories I concocted for these wide eyed boys we all reminisce with warm nostalgia.)

When I think of large families I think…

… Of cities. How much more people share space, and yet how much less they know each other.

… Of my four year old brother in pajamas getting the two year old baby out of the crib, with the same seriousness as a toddler making himself a cup of coffee.

… Of independence. Kids who know how to take care of themselves.

…of many household chores.

… of the nights my older sister woke me because I disturbed her with my snoring. As she was older, her solution to this problem was straightforward: she was entitled to the better bargain due to seniority, so I was to sacrifice my sleep so she can save on the annoyance. It was resolved when my parents had my tonsils removed.

… liveliness.

I guess you can tell I remember it fondly. I always thought I would have my own brood like that, but things looked less joyous from the perspective of mothering all that much. I will always carry a bit of sadness for the large family of my childhood hopes.