I’m partial to blogs. It seems much of my life has evolved with a blog following at my heels, like a good dog. My first meaningful encounter with the outside world was on a a primitive blogspot blog where I wrote under the pseudonym “Shpitzle Shtrimpkind”. I was twenty one. That one was semi-autobiographical, authored from my ground level condo in the village of Kiryas Joel, and life changing. After I left Kiryas Joel, I blogged on oyveycartoons, where I didn’t just write, I also drew New Yorker style single panel cartoons! Ooo la la! I didn’t have many readers, but I’m still quite proud of that. I’ve done faster-to-fizzle blogs along the way, and then there’s this one since 2015.

This blog is borne out of my work as a tour guide in Hasidic Brooklyn. If I had to classify it, I’d say It’s part niche subject blog, part larger cultural criticism, part just me being me. It is a place to document and pontificate on Hasidim in Brooklyn and through the specifics look at the larger picture of human behavior as shaped by societies.

I’m not here to make value judgements about the Hasidic customs in isolation. I don’t feel like getting angry about Hasidic education or how women’s value is defined or other hot button topics. That just isn’t where my heart is.

My heart is in a sort of sociological inquiry; it’s in trying to understand us, us humanoids, Hasidim, Hipsters, Yidden, Goyim, Brooklynites, New Yorkers, Americans, Global Citizens, Humans of the Anthropocene, Etc. If you salivate at the anthropological gold mine of two completely different communities then Hasidism within twenty first century New York is your study. There are differences between my old world and new one everywhere. It’s in everything. Everywhere! Education. Architecture. Economics. Language. Dress. Food. Parties. Weddings. Sex and romance. Technology. Entertainment. Leadership. Values. One and on. What other community in the melting pot that is New York City is so physically close yet so distinct? I don’t think there is competition.

My views and values inevitably shape my posts. I try to leave my opinions out of my tours and I have yet to bring soapboxes and lecture on “the medium is the message“ during one. But this is a blog. It is just my own hobby. I am giving myself permission to be a bit more outspoken. I hope I won’t chase away all my customers. Don’t go! I agree with everything you say!

Here’s where I come from: my worldview is secular, leftist, humanitarian, a bit luddite. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I get pretty heady. I use words like nuance and empathy and out-of-the-box until ears bleed. I read a lot on climate change, the struggle for gender and social equity, education, social media, consumerism. (So much conspicuous consumption!) I’m inspired by people with big hearts who don’t just run with the herd, from Helen Keller to Bill Watterson to the creator Rebecca Sugar to Lisa Simpsons (she is a people!) to Neil Postman. I worry a lot about where the world is headed. This blog helps me. By fiddling around under the hood of how we work as social and individual animals, I feel less like a lost child in an incoherent world.

I also learn so much from meeting all sorts of people. I’ve led groups along the entire religious and political spectrum and I value all experiences. So come on my tour. I will behave myself 😉

Oprah Magazine has a new story about Footsteps, the organization that helps people transition from the Ultra Orthodox world into the secular world.

On my tour, we often get to see why it is so hard. We discuss the many facets of economic life in the Hasidic community: the community growth rate means a lot of new internal jobs in specialized fields like the Hasidic schools, the kosher food, the modest clothing, the kosher technology, the censored entertainment, and on and on and on. I can list hundreds of economic opportunities that exist within the Hasidic community for its members: from matchmaker to sofer to hotline maker to music sensation to being hired by a sibling into real estate to B&H Photo — the list (which I’ll put together one day) goes on and on. Yet when you leave, you lose all of these opportunities. Pretty much all of them. But if you want to try to get in line for the opportunities in the secular world, good luck. You have very little of the “vocational training” (ie college) that we need to do anything in our degree inflated western world. So as a Hasidic Expat you are so far behind in the pipeline, you’ll never get a chance. I think this economic factor is the biggest reason people don’t leave.

There is a tremendous need for support. I cannot overstate it. I’m nine years since leaving and I still feel like the ice could crack and I could fall through into the freezing darkness any minute now. And when I first left, I thought that Footsteps would be the answer. In fact, in this video produced by Footsteps, you’ll see me tell about my experience — which was of course for the donors: we did this with the expressed understanding that we were helping the cause and that with our telling our stories, Footsteps will get the money to be able to make the journey for others easier.

By the way, that art piece on the wall of the pregnant woman is mine! It’s called The Scarlet Letter A, I believe. I made it for a Footsteps Art Show (another project I believed would somehow help the cause) and never picked it up afterwards.

Over the years, I got to know Footsteps really well. I came to understand how their funding model works and who their donors are and what the donors want to see. This was because I did quite a bit of the same speaking for them. In the first few years, I would take a babysitter and pay for the trip to the city and not get paid for the time and effort, but eventually I worked with them through my tours and then I’d be a contractor and send them an invoice. Over time I came to feel very frustrated with how concerned they were with impressing their donors, and how little it was about tangible assistance. I slowly started to hear less and less from them, and I haven’t given a tour for them in a long time. Last I spoke to Lani Santos (the executive director) she said something to the effect of “tours in Williamsburg is an extremely important component of our donor education and since you’re such a difficult and negative biatch and don’t fargin us our big fundraising dallas, we might just set up a competing tour shop in Williamsburg so we can take our gasping rich ladies through the street and show them how nutty it all is.” Hah! It wasn’t like that, but I think we both understood we had competing priorities in our work: I sought to educate, she sought to fundraise, and my tours were not working for them.

Still, I have seen people go through the organization in their transition and I remain concerned. Who is there to make sure that what they do with the money they fundraise is well-spent?

The members certainly cannot speak up. First of all, Hasidic charity is real and generous and it takes many years to unravel the faith in purported charity which is really modern philanthropy. Also, people don’t want to see the negative in Footsteps because they feel loyal to the side that is speaking up against the religious community. That, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to be critical about. There is a very blatant quid pro quo and members who praise them get attention, awards, jobs, media engagements. I have no doubt that if I kept saying the right thing then they’d connect me with so many tour opportunities, I’d never even have time to write these silly posts. I definitely believe I’ve been punished and suffered losses as a result of my asking hard questions about if Footsteps focuses its efforts more on impressing donors and building their brand than actually helping members.

Who else is to look under the hood? It won’t be the donors. Why would they care? And it obviously isn’t the media, which writes the same thing every time: the story of the oppressed person who fled, the before and after pictures, the Footsteps space. This is the closest the Oprah piece came to asking hard questions:

Footsteps is infamous among the hundreds of thousands of Haredim in the U.S., regarded by some as a dangerous influence, by others as an insidious evil. (When someone leaves the community, the ultra-Orthodox sometimes say the person “joined Footsteps.”) The organization has been accused of actively tempting people away from their comfortable Haredi lives. In fact, the group does no advertising or proselytizing in the community and doesn’t require members to renounce religion in order to use its services or participate in get-togethers. “We don’t care if people just come in for a scholarship,” says Friedlin. “We don’t care if they go back to Hasidism afterward. We don’t have an agenda. And contrary to the rumors, we don’t force men to cut off their peyes [curly sidelocks], nor do we feed anyone bacon as part of an initiation rite,” she says with a laugh. “We just want people to have choices.”

Essentially, it’s a preemptive defense, but a weak one at that. Footsteps has told a very dark story about Hasidim, and it’s branded itself as the panacea to the challenges of leaving, so Hasidim do think they are the link between worlds. Some resent the organization for it, true, but some — those who want to leave — put all their hopes on them too. This is a problem in its own right. Essentially, the organization tells donor facing stories without reckoning with how these stories impact those in the Hasidic community who hear it.

I think the important questions to ask are how the organization delivers. In 2017 it reported on its 990 to have raised 2.28 million dollars, and spent pretty much the bulk of it on salaries and compensations. $393,410 went to direct client compensation; a pittance.

My concern, at its core, is not so much in how the funding is spent as in what it means to be so completely donor facing. A lot of things the organization does seems to me to be for the purpose of impressing donors and brand building more so than helping people not sink in this horribly hard world.

A common theme we discuss on the tours often is how surprising it is that Hasidim don’t ask hard questions about why customs are practiced. For those of us who leave, asking hard questions is everything, and blind faith just won’t do. I think it’s important to keep asking hard questions, especially uncomfortable ones.

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!

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 so 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. Let’s follow the logic 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. Then what? How does she hope to 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 nothing but a Kate Spade bag and Bugaboo stroller? 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 mentally ill person who forgot to get dressed before going out for appetizing. She is doing it to get attention and approval. She’ll get it – the story has already been picked up by a handful of bemused media outlets. The stories often criticize Hasidim for their reaction, not her. Because there is an implicit okayness to behavior when it is dressed up (ha ha) as concerned with the rights of women. It is given a sort of cultural stamp of approval. Or at least the Internet and Twiterrati won’t descend on her. Because her motivation is noble. It’s against the suppression of women.

Yeah, only here’s the problem. About the suppression of women it is not. What an Orwellian, empty use of words. She just appropriates real causes for cynical personal gains. Outside of her calling it righteous, there is nothing to show that it is. From everything we can see, she is concerned with her own photos and vanity. It’s 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 industry of publication that appropriates real feminist causes for pop culture ends. It’s in all the 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. It makes sense that it inspired this nudity stunt. And there are 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 ‘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, Judge Frier escaped while staying. Her story has a fresh twist, but the same underlying problem.

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 scoffs at motherhood, domesticity, family and female friendships. It tells us that the Hasidic woman is living life wrong. That she isn’t living until she escapes for 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. It ignores that not everyone wants to walk around in the March cold with their cooter getting frostbite while mixing a confusion of personal ambition with zealous proselytizing.  It decides what kind of sacrifices are meaningful. It’s winter and you’re cold? Well, keep going, 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 secular-feminist 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. 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 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 insincere, 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 allowed to say the obvious: that it’s crazy. That the empress has no clothes, and it’s goddamn nuts.

Besides for feeling slightly nauseas about the way feminist causes are co-opted, I’m also so bothered by the nude provocation itself. 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 it can be so damaging. 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. It is so harmful to women. Oh the irony.

On a happier note: whenever someone on my tour tells me they feel terrible for Hasidic women, I can now suggest to them that they strut naked in Williamsburg in order to make a difference. If you see a sixty year old IRS employee from Chicago going about in the buff on Division, and a forty year old mother from Melbourne without clothes shopping on Flushing, know that they are liberating women and it’s all peachy from here.

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…