About two months ago I visited New York, to attend a friend’s wedding.
My friend lives in Brooklyn, and the wedding was held in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. So it made sense that I should stay in Brooklyn. Which was a bit of an adventure for me – although I have been to New York more times than I can remember, like most people visiting the Big Apple I have never once strayed beyond the island of Manhattan, into any of the city’s other four boroughs.
On the flight over from London, I sat next to a 76-year-old gentleman from the Dominican Republic. He was a small man with a white goatee and a spark in his eye, who kept his super-cool fedora hat on the whole time. We got chatting, and I learned he had lived in London for many years; he was going to New York to attend the funeral of his brother; he liked jazz; he was looking forward to the soccer World Cup and would be rooting for Costa Rica; and Paris was his favourite city.
Directly in front of us sat an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man, and his son. The man had a scraggly pale beard, long forelocks, and an over-sized fur hat which he placed carefully into a box before storing it in the overhead baggage compartment. His long white socks were tucked into black knee-length pants, and underneath his heavy black coat was a Jewish ritual vest (tzitzit), worn over his shirt, frills hanging down from each corner.
The man’s son was similarly attired, minus the beard and stuffed socks. Both father and son wore glasses with lenses as thick as the base of Coca-cola bottles. The two spoke to each other in Yiddish, the language of the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe, pre-World War II.
Children all around us were watching movies and playing on iPads, but the young lad in front of me was totally disinterested. Instead, he spent the entire seven hours of the flight reading a book (in Yiddish and Hebrew) detailing the religious laws pertaining to tefillin (phylacteries). He would occasionally look up to ask his dad a question, who would break away from his own intense religious studies to answer.
At meal-time, a flight attendant came over to tell them that their special kosher meals were ready. The man looked at her uncomfortably, said nothing, and then looked away. She tried a few more times to establish communication, but the man continued to blank her completely – not speaking to her and barely acknowledging her existence. She eventually gave up, I guess assuming that perhaps he didn’t understand English. But I suspect his odd conduct was more to do with the fact that she was a woman. Ultra-orthodox Jews maintain strict segregation of the sexes, and a man is not supposed to see a woman’s uncovered elbows, make any physical contact with a woman, or even hear a woman sing.
Certainly when a male flight attendant came over a few minutes later the man was suddenly quite communicative, and, as it turned out, perfectly fluent in English (albeit with a heavy accent). He insisted that the flight attendant bring him the pre-packaged kosher meals still in their protective wrappers. He proceeded to scrutinise the certificate attesting to its kosher credentials, and then carefully inspected the wrapper itself, to make sure it had not been opened or otherwise tampered with. Then, with some degree of ceremony, he took a small knife and cut open the wrapper, and thereafter refused to allow the flight attendant to take the food away and bring it back on a tray, least the flight attendant tried to slip something un-kosher into the meal along the way.
As I watched this performance, it occurred to me that despite me and this ultra-Orthodox Jew supposedly being part of the same “tribe”, I had less in common with him than I did with the fedora-wearing septuagenarian Dominican sitting alongside me.
We touched down in New York about an hour and thirty minutes late, owing to a delayed departure from London. When the plane reached the arrival gate and everyone stood up to begin gathering their belongings, the man turned to me and asked: “Excuse me, could I please use your phone? – I don’t have one and I need to call my wife”. I handed it over. For the next few minutes he spoke on it in rapid-fire Yiddish, with smatterings of Hebrew words thrown in.
Then he hung up, handed me the phone, and switching back to English said: “Thank you”. To which I responded in Hebrew: “B’vakasha” (“you’re welcome”). Not what he had been expecting, obviously, and he stared at me for a second. Then without another word he turned around and resumed talking to his son. It was amazing: no response; no recognition; not even the faintest flicker of acknowledgement that I too was obviously Jewish.
And while maybe it was completely innocent, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “As a Jew who spoke to him in Hebrew and thus is likely a secular heathen Israeli, I am probably lower in his world view than a female flight attendant. No wonder he blanked me, too”.
Brooklyn happens to be home to some of the world’s largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, of various denominations and sects. Piqued by the encounter I had on the plane, I decided to take an afternoon and visit an area where one of these communities is concentrated.
At first I thought to walk around Crown Heights, which is perhaps the best known of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, on account of it being where the headquarters of the Habad Hasidic movement is located. Not to mention also being where ethnic rioting between African-American and ultra-Orthodox Jews broke out in 1991, giving this Jewish community a brief (if not totally welcome) moment in the global spotlight.
Nearby Williamsburg has an even larger ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. But unlike the relatively moderate, outward-looking Habad of Crown Heights, In Williamsburg they are predominantly Satmar Hasidim, a Jewish sect that on the scale of religious extremism is right off the charts. I mean, these are Jews so seriously hard-core in their attitudes that they have been known to burn Israeli flags on Israel Independence Day. They believe that only the Messiah is entitled to return the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and so in having done exactly this in 1948, the Zionist movement became an ungodly aberration. So the entire nation-state of Israel should now cease to exist. Obviously. A view they share with other cheerful folks, like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. With friends like these …..
In the end though I decided on visiting Borough Park, in Brooklyn’s southwest. This area is home to probably the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish community anywhere in the world outside of Israel. Multiple Hasidic sects are represented here, and the Biblical directive to “go forth and multiply” is apparently one that the Jews of Borough Park Jews take seriously – the birth rate amongst the ultra-Orthodox here is a staggering seven children per family, and so the community is not only large, but growing rapidly.
Borough Park thus seemed the perfect place to glimpse for myself what the modern-day world of ultra-Orthodox Jewry is really like.
The main commercial thoroughfare of Borough Park is a roughly two kilometre long strip of stores down 13th Avenue. I began at one end, and slowly walked to the other.
The first thing I noticed as I strolled along was just how poor a neighbourhood this was. The streets were rutted and potholed and the buildings were run down, with a baked-in layer of grime and litter everywhere. Which is not surprising, I guess, if you consider that many ultra-Orthodox men do not work, instead spending their days studying Torah in Jewish seminaries, while the women have their hands full busy raising those seven kids per family. As a result, and contrary to the widely held stereotype of Jews being financially well off, ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are the exact opposite. One estimate I read claims that more than 60% of Borough Park Jews live in abject poverty.
The next thing I noticed was how in the space of two or three blocks, everything seemed to change from English to Yiddish or Hebrew. Walls posters were all entirely in Yiddish. Suddenly there were no more chain stores, replaced entirely by “mom-n-pop” type small businesses, all with Yiddish / Hebrew hoardings and signage in the windows.
I walked past a news stand. There was no New York Times on sale, or any other international paper for that matter. Instead, the only English news on offer was a paper called “The Jewish Report”, and alongside that a myriad of other religiously based publications, all in Yiddish or Hebrew.
The next store along was Jaffa Wigs, a store catering to those married ultra-Orthodox women who believe they should cover their natural hair with wigs, so that it will not be seen by any man other than their husband. A sign on the door said in Hebrew (and below that in English, one of the few English signs I saw) – “Men Must Knock Before Entering”. And next door to that was the Nigun Music Store. It looked exactly like any other CD shop, except that here the music on offer was exclusively Hasidic greatest hits.
The street was bustling with activity. Men in black coat and hats, almost all of whom sported forelocks and glasses, walked past me. Many of them were carrying prayer books, and I assumed they were en-route to either the yeshiva to study, or synagogue to pray. I was the only male without a beard or head covering, and I felt quite conspicuous for it, although no-one seemed to give me a second glance. I noticed one black-coated guy scurrying along in a pair of Adidas sneakers. As a result of which he too stood out from the crowd, like a sore thumb.
There were also flocks of young kids everywhere – boys in long pants and collared shirts, and girls in long skirts, thick stockings and shirts buttoned to the neck, even though the temperature was sweltering. Supervising them were lots and lots of women, all modestly dressed, and mostly wearing wigs. Almost every woman under the age of forty was pushing a pram (those seven kids per family again), wandering from store to store to pick up groceries and household necessities.
At a traffic light a young girl of about five, in a pretty dress with long blond hair, looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back. Then she turned to her mother, who was pushing a pram with two infants in it, tugged at her dress, and said something, in Yiddish. A simple little moment that really caught my attention. I mean, here was a language that my grandmother had spoken as a child in Lithuania, and that was once the common language of all Eastern European Jews. But which thanks to the Nazis I had thought was largely extinct. Except in modern-day New York, where it seems that Yiddish is still very much a living language, and the lingua franca of young kids all over Borough Park.
A school bus drove past. It was the same yellow American school bus you see in countless movies and television shows. Except this one had Hebrew writing along the side, telling me that it served the students of “Beit Sefer Banot Zion” (“the Girls of Zion School”).
I ducked inside of a supermarket to buy a pen and paper. Every single food item was kosher. The cash register was manned by a bearded Chasid in thick glasses. His forelocks reached almost to his waist. He was bantering (in Yiddish, of course) with a group of friends standing nearby. He broke off his conversation as I approached the register, and a flash of bemused confusion crossed his face. Maybe I was just imaging it, but it seemed very much like he wanted to ask me: “Was dy b’arn za’nan ir tan da?”(Rough translation: “what the heck are you doing here?”).
It was a blistering hot day, and so it was not surprising to see a soft-serve ice-cream van pull up on the next street corner. It was painted bright pink, and had Hebrew lettering on the side which, among other things, told me that only kosher ice-cream was available. Within seconds a swarm of young boys on bicycles, skullcaps and forelocks flying, had surrounded the van, eagerly waiting for the driver to open the window and start serving. Finally, I thought to myself, a familiar sight. Even ultra-Orthodox Jewish kids want ice-cream cones in summer.
Just then, the music started up. It was loud and blaring, just like any other ice-cream van anywhere else the world. Only here the music wasn’t the happy carnival type music you’d normally expect from an ice-cream van. Instead, it was what I can only describe as Hasidic techno – a high energy repetitive tune, the lyrics of which reminded all the assembled kids that not only should they wish for an ice-cream, but also the imminent arrival of the Messiah. And at the same time reminding me, least I was in any doubt, that in Brooklyn’s Borough Park even the familiar is very, very different indeed.
In short, my brief stroll through Borough Park was so completely opposite to everything going on in the rest of Brooklyn – from street signage to language to the way people were dressed and looked – that I felt immersed in a parallel universe of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy, in a way that is hard to describe. It was like I had somehow managed to hop on a magic carpet, left 2014, and landed in a Jewish shtetl in Poland, circa 1800.
Which, being perfectly honest, felt more than just a little bit disconcerting to me. I mean, here I was, wandering around amongst folks who are supposedly “my people”, and feeling like a complete and utter alien. I doubt I would have felt more out of place had I been parachuted into downtown Teheran.
Borough Park made for an incredibly interesting day out. But apart from being a spot of Jewish curiosity, seemed to be of little consequence or relevance to anything in “the real world”.
Except that some of these guys seem determined to bring their fundamentalist views into my world, and the world the rest of us live in. Like in Israel recently, where a national outrage erupted after a group of ultra-Orthodox zealots were caught spitting on an eight year-old girl. Her crime: walking to school in a dress considered immodest. Similarly in New York, ultra-Orthodox “modesty squads” have taken it upon themselves to enforce ultra-religious modesty standards in the community, and have been reported to use threats, stand-over Mafia tactics, and even violence to get their way (Any similarity to the modus operandi of the more well known Taliban being purely coincidental, of course….). Or like in April 2014 in Williamsburg, when five ultra-Orthodox community “guardians” were arrested after viciously attacking a gay African-American, for no reason other than him having walked home through their suburb.
And then last week, a bunch of equally cloistered ultra-Orthodox nut-jobs in Israel thought the best way to retaliate for the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers was to kidnap, then brutally torture and murder, a young Arab boy. Somehow, they justified all this in the name of a God they believe in, and the result of their unholy actions was entirely predictable. Like a spark cast onto on an already tinder-brush dry landscape, it caused an explosive bonfire of protests and escalating violence, provided the excuse for Hamas to step-up its rocket strikes on Israel, with the usual retaliation delivered from on high by Israeli jets. With dozens of deaths all round.
So right now my parents and many friends in Israel – secular, modern people who have nothing in common with the religious lunatic fringe and everything in common with you and me and moderate folks everywhere in the world, regardless of religious persuasion – are spending their nights huddled in bomb shelters. And my young cousins are being mobilised into military service, to risk their lives fighting against those Islamic-extremists who wish them dead, thanks at least in part to the actions of Jewish-extremists who very often also wish them dead.
Sometimes, it just makes no fucking sense at all.
I am currently in Australia on winter vacation with my kids. I was watching the news on television, to hear the latest about what was happening in Israel. My ten-year old daughter was sitting next to me, and she asked what was going on. I tried as best I could to explain things to her in terms that might make sense for a young child. I said that some Jewish people believe that the land of Israel belongs to them; and some Arab and Palestinian people believe that the land of Israel belongs to them, and they were fighting over it. She looked at me as if I was a bit stupid, and said: “Really, that’s it? So why can’t they just share?”
I didn’t have a response to that one.