Thought Catalog

Culture Shopping

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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?”

Silence.

“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.  TC mark

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    • rachel

      -___- get over yourself. she’s probably just being open-minded, while you are being quite elitist…

    • AnnieGirl

      weren’t you that girl at one point? just because you’re a “senior outsider”‘ now doesn’t really give you the right to judge others who might be trying to open the same doors as you did. 

    • maybeemily

      ISN’T THAT WHAT TOURISTS DO. TAKE PICTURES OF OTHER CULTURES WHEN THEY TRAVEL. oh man, tell us more about how you’re better than them. hey, at least those tourists got to cross off ‘encounter with asshole new yorker being a jerk for no reason’ on their list too. 

    • Nichole

      I don’t understand why you grew so agitated with the “new guest” at dinner. So what if she met a guy of a different ethnic background than her own and was interested in learning more about his culture. Isn’t that how you yourself became “in” with the Hasidic Jews–your ex-boyfriend? How are her actions different than your own? Maybe you didn’t elaborate enough for me to understand your underlying message, but it seemed it offended you that she would attend a social event where the majority of attendees were a different ethnicity than her own. If only more people went out of their way on a more consistent basis to associate with members of different groups, this world would be a much more knowledgeable and loving place. I’m unclear as to how you were so offended by her attempt to learn more about another culture.  

      • Tickwi

        I think her annoyance stemmed from possessive feelings. You know, when you discover something new and great, how you want it to be yours?  Maybe I’m wrong but that is the feeling I got…now that she feels shes “in” she feels sort of territorial. This also manifested itself in her encounter with the photo-snapping tourists. 

    • Rishtopher

      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.

      You admit that you used to be like the tourists, like the aforementioned unnamed woman, that’s why I don’t understand why it’s a problem for other people to have that same curiosity. From what you wrote, it didn’t seem like the tourists were exploiting anyone. They saw some people that they thought were interesting, so they took a photo to remember them by. Maybe I need to reread your article again, but what price is there to pay here?

    • Anonymous

      Oi vey

    • Danaynay

      Are you advocating that Americans of different cultural backgrounds keep to themselves?  No mingling? Heaven forbid someone express interest in a culture other than their own, much less try to gain experiences & knowledge they may otherwise never understand. I would think we would want to applaud people for trying to become more culturally aware.

    • eatbooksforbreakfast

      1. you are culture shopping according to your own definition. 
      2. How did you give yourself permission to judge some one else what is doing what you are doing?
      3. When you say things like culture shopping you imply that you are the only one allowed to be curious because of longevity.
      4. This like almost all the posts on this site are just various young people’s reflection on their white privilege and the ways in which it seems to fascinate them, make them “better” people and put their experiences on the internet so people can be impressed by their shallow issues.
      5. BORING….

    • ALEXANDRIA ADAIR

      This positively REEKS of white privilege

    • Kailey

      Why is everyone judging Meagan? When have you not judged someone whose position you were once in? Last year of high school, you looked down on anyone younger than you? Promoted at work, get the Intern that you once were to do a coffee run? She’s being honest. I come from a reform Jewish family, and have become more religious overtime. Now, when I sit at a Shabbos table with a Hasidic family and a newcomer arrives, I judge their “ignorance” when they rip their napkin out of habit, or speak after washing hands. We all do it. We’re human. This is Meagan’s story. 

      • Stefan

        well maybe now that she’s done culture shopping she can afford to buy some self-awareness.

    • M. R.

      I’ve met girls like you before: foaming at the mouth before I could establish the really good reasons you should hate me.  She was nervous, what the hell was she supposed to say? “Naw, I’m not into Jewish guys per se, I just wanted to count on a circumsized dick.” What would the appropriate answer have been?

      Get over yourself.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=831404615 Miranda Edwards

        hahahahaha :)

    • ThePeoplesChamp

      You guys obviously are reading a different article than she wrote. She isn’t judging anyone. She’s merely making statements of what she went through. Of how she went from the “Culture Shopper” to understanding these are real people and then being confronted by that which once was. I thought it was well written.

    • joshie

      read his blog or met him at a party? hehe, so thats what theyre calling strip clubs and atlantic city these days:)

    • A Friend

      Maybe I’m misinterpreting things, but to me this whole piece just comes off as incredibly childish.  I’m reminded of middle school and high school lunch tables, with the author picturing herself as the “queen bee,” bestowing herself with the authority of selecting who is allowed “in.”  But the thing about those girls is that they constantly fear threats to their authority.  To me, it seems as though the author shuns, judges, and makes assumptions about “newcomers” in the same manner that she is accusing “outsiders” of doing in regards to the Ex-Frum Community. But, in my opinion, it seems to come from a selfish and somewhat trivial place – one more centered around the author’s adolescent dream of maintaining her perhaps imagined, but no-doubt carefully cultivated, “status” within the ex-Frum Community.  

      I feel if the author truly loves this community, and wishes to help its members succeed in either finding happiness, friendship, or simply becoming a more involved part of the secular world (assuming this is a goal, since they are “Ex”) she would welcome any outside interest and use her knowledge and familiarity about the community and those inside of it to educate “newcomers” and perhaps enlighten them as to why certain things are inappropriate.  (Though really, as an outsider herself, does she really have a right to get defensive?)  By viewing a seat at the shabbos table as an exclusive prize to be won or a club whose members must be approved by other outsiders, the author is certainly doing those that wish to understand or change the multitude of problems in the Hassidic Community any favors – regardless of whether those who advocate change grew up in the Satmar Sect or thumped Bibles at a Baptist Church. 

      Much like the more malicious recent press surrounding Deborah Feldman’s novel/memoir/thriller/paperback romance/expose (the list of classifications goes on), this just seems angry, and the jealousy here is as apparent in the author’s tone as it is in the comments of Feldman’s more furious “dissidents.”  But, as a correct but minuscule minority seem to feel in regards to Feldman’s book – and the same rings true here – it’s a real shame that people  are letting their personal insecurities, bitterness, and jealousies get in the way of educating people – particularly outsiders who DO, as both Feldman and this author point out, hold incorrect assumptions about the Frum and Ex-Frum Community. 

      If the author continues with her seemingly shallow quest to always sit at the head of the table (and I’m assuming, since she’s dating this guy, they’re probably having sex just like the newcomer she harbored so much bitterness towards) I have no doubt that, for as long as she continues to date the gentlemen in question, she will remain the “queen bee” in her social circle.  But I feel she would do well to remember exactly how much backstabbing there was at those high school lunch tables, and how nobody really much cared for the “Queen Bee,” and how all it took was for once person to speak up before everyone agreed she was just, well, kind of desperate and sad. 

      • Guest

        I couldn’t agree more! The thing you didn’t point out, though, was the transparency in which she eagerly shows her view of herself. Her attempt at presenting her viewpoint under the guise of bravado (albeit false) is lost in the overall tone of the “article”. Because at the end of the day, she has taken on her Ex-Hasidic boyfriend’s culture and identity and presented it as her own. She comes off as bitter, insecure and judgmental. Passing the buck of judgment to someone that is sitting in the same seat as you once were reeks of a despicable character. But let’s wish her good luck, because she’s definitely going to need it. When all is said and done– she’s just a “shiksa trying to make it”. 

    • Hasidic Looser

      I as a Hasid took my kids to Amish town and thousands of Hasidim go  there with cameras why would you be so hateful and see negativity in people who are fascinated with different cultures is beyond me i beg you to be more forgiving to those gentiles who love Hasids just like the Hasids love the Amish. – but if you simply want to warn the world that we Hasidim are a miserable bunch just like the whole world you got it right yes we are humane, thanks for that.

    • Yochi

      Oh my, this story really got on my nerves when I first read it and had an angry response with lots of adjectives like pompous, elitist, bully, ignorant etc but then I read all the preceding comments and looks like everything I had to say has been said. Seriously Ms. Dwyer we all have our pathetic mean and petty moments but thankfully most of us don’t let them stick around. Or worse write them down and publish them proudly for all to see.

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