Admit it: We all want to know how the other half lives. If you’re like me, you’ve read books and articles on the cultures you’re curious about and thanks to amazon.com, you’re able to get your curiosity quenched. Clap your hands, say yeah.
But some of us experience a very different fascination, in particular with New York City’s indisputable “Other”: the Hasidim. You’ve seen them (how could you not?), you’ve gawked behind sunglasses, you’ve stared just a little too long at the headgear, you’ve dodged the strollers coming in and out of Macy’s. Hell, one of them is probably your landlord.
I entered the world of ex-Hasidim in 2009, when I met and started dating my ex-Hasidic boyfriend. Consequently I have met quite the cast of characters ever since and have had my eyes opened to a world that most wish to penetrate. I guess you can say I’m in.
I’ve sat at many a shabbos table over the past three years, opting for kugel and chulent over $5 well vodka drinks and shooting pool. I’ve shown up long after the shabbos siren has blown, snuck a few hand-grabs with my man under the white-linen clad table, and scooped myself several helpings of homemade food, the closest thing I’ve gotten to a family meal since moving 3,000 miles away from home. I’ve looked around the table at the wigs, the shpitzles, the beards, and even the lack of all of the above and thought, “These are my friends. They’re different, but I feel at home.” It’s when I have this moment of contented self-realization that my gaze shifts to the “new guest” at the table: a person (usually female), who has shown up at my friends’ apartment looking for something new. She met a guy, a Hasidic guy, and is so interested!
She’s culture shopping.
My eyes narrow as she shows up, much later than I did, with a Hasidic male guest — how they came into contact I can only imagine. Maybe she read his blog or met him at a party, consequently “found” him on Facebook, and now here she is, ready to get her hands dirty. She wants to try this new culture on for size, see if it fits. She’s bored.
As if by instinct, her hopeful eyes frequently glance at me, noticing a fellow secular girl, trying to gain some sort of kinship on her night of possible initiation. But on these nights she’s not totally alone: there’s an equal amount of curiosity on the Hasidim’s side. Who is she? Does she date? What does she do for a living? Is she Jewish? The interrogation begins and I pour myself a glass of kosher vodka and grape juice and let the girl talk. The conversation becomes unabashedly flirtatious and, after several drinks are consumed, usually goes as follows:
Hasidic man: “So, you like Jewish guys then?”
Random girl: “Um, I mean…” (fingers hair, looks up at ceiling) “I’ve always found them so, like, mysterious!” Giggles.
HJ: “Ever wanted a guy to speak some dirty Yiddish to you?”
Random girl: “Hm… I guess!”
Here’s where I can smell a rat. I take one last sip of drink; I know where this is going. I’ve become acquaintances with a few of the culture shoppers throughout their “stay” in the circle, but most of the journeys are packed with excitement, inquest, partying, and then disappointment. It’s an interest that can only go so far for most people, as the world of the ex-Hasidic Jew is an ever-evolving roller coaster of ups and downs which, if you are looking to go along for the ride, really is not for the faint of heart. I look around the table and I see an equal, yet highly sexual, fascination with the girl held by most of the guys. The girl looks backed into a corner, but she still wants to be there. She’ll post to Facebook about the experience in the morning.
Culture shopping, as per my own definition, is the eager attentiveness toward a group of people that overrides basic courtesy, respect, and tact. To a degree, we all have it, and by cohabiting with the Hasidim there are bound to be those who are too willing to cross the line. The kind of bold fascination I’ve encountered has shown its ugly face in several forms. Last summer, I was headed to my nearest banking location in South Williamsburg and came upon a small synagogue. It was near sundown on a Friday night, so Hasidic men and their sons were out in full force. I found myself walking behind a secular middle-aged couple, obviously tourists who were aptly decorated with their high-quality Nikons, backpacks, and MTA maps. The tourists stopped in their tracks and raised their cameras and snapped a few shots of the striemel-wearing men going in and out of the synagogue. I witnessed the whole thing, and my blood boiled. Sensing an audacity I never knew I had, I walked closer and confronted them.
“Excuse me,” I said. “What are you doing?”
Two blank stares.
“You just took pictures of those people, didn’t you?”
“You know, these are human beings, these are people in their neighborhood doing what they choose to do on a Friday night. They’re not animals in a zoo for you to exploit. You should be ashamed.”
Before they answered, I turned and quickly walked toward the bank and once inside, fumbling with my sweaty hands trying to get my check ready for deposit, I felt both ashamed and exhilarated. I, too, once had that curiosity. We all do, but it comes at a price that both sides of the culture shock have to pay.
Oftentimes I have found myself wondering where some of these culture shoppers end up. Did she sleep with the guy she discovered, hiding the relationship from the wife (if he’s still married) and gloating about it to friends? Is her thirst quenched? How’s that “mysterious” thing working out for her? I might never know.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”