Tuesday, August 04, 2009

In Which Chana Goes to Williamsburg (And Scandalizes Everyone)

After finishing class today, I realized that I wanted to use my Unlimited MetroCard to visit somewhere interesting. And since I had time, I decided on the spur of the moment that it'd be fun to go to Gottlieb's. In case you're curious as to what Gottlieb's is, it's a kosher-style deli that's existed since 1962. They serve really fantastic heimesh food like various kinds of kishke, meat, chicken soup, brisket, cherry soup, etc.

Now, under normal circumstances it is proper to dress oneself so as not to offend the residents of a neighborhood. Thus, under normal circumstances I would have Bais-Yaakofied in order to visit this wondrous enclave of Hasidic Jews. But since it would take much too long to go home to Washington Heights, change, and then go back, I figured I'd wing it and test the amount of tolerance the various sects had for Jews other than themselves. To explain what one ought to wear if one's a young maiden in Williamsburg, I'll give you a breakdown of what I was wearing:

I wore: Black shirt (form-fitting), jean skirt (tiered), long gold hoop earrings and open-toe sandals with toenails painted red. Fingernails are blue.

The girls wear: Button-down Oxford shirts (not form-fitting), black pleated skirts, stockings with seams or black stockings, closed-toe flat shoes and studs or preferably pearl earrings.

So I hopped on the 6 train, went to Canal Street, transferred to the M, got off at Marcy and walked over to Roebling. However, at that point I noticed what seemed to be a main street, Lee, and I was so fascinated by it that I decided to walk as far up and down that street as I could, which proved to be incredibly interesting. Firstly, there was the fact that none of the men look at you as you pass by. They all look at the ground. I think this is a pretty fantastic talent, since they're still able to get where they are going, although I fancy they must get tired of looking at the sidewalk. The women, in contrast, are all pushing strollers while wearing their tichels, hair pieces and suits. Everyone speaks Yiddish (which means I don't understand a word.) Also, despite the fact that I smiled at everyone I saw, I was the evil whore of Babylon to all who saw me. Every single woman or girl (and that includes little kids) looked me up and down, saw my red toes and gave me a withering look of disdain (as though I were some kind of insect.) While I deserved that, I do think it is somewhat amusing that if I were a Jew in a hospital bed they wouldn't mind at all and would be happy to help me; it's when I infiltrate the community in inappropriate garb that I am an evil influence. On the plus side, they didn't stone me or say anything to me in a language I could understand (though some old ladies muttered to themselves in Yiddish), and really that is remarkably impressive and speaks well of their tolerance.

The thing that really tripped me out was the amount of Hebrew and Yiddish everywhere. I'm used to seeing Hebrew displayed on a Sofer or Jewish bookstore's shop-window, but every single store has some kind of Yiddish or Hebrew advertisement. There are signs up advocating for the release of the three boys who are in Japanese jail currently. Every single schoolbus has its Hebrew name displayed alongside it- whether it's a Yeshiva or a Bais Yaakov. That tripped me out; can you imagine riding a school bus with Hebrew alongside it? That's cool! I entered one of the Jewish bookstores and was fascinated by the fact that everything was either in Yiddish or Hebrew. There was one tiny section with all the English books crammed together (but you got the impression that English is not a spoken or widely-read language.) The cool thing about the Yiddish books is that there was one entitled Chana'leh. (And Shloma'leh and Moshe'leh and Ayn Zechus Phun Tehillim and something about a tailor- with the word shneider.) I wanted to buy the one with my name but my father pointed out that I can't read Yiddish, so there wouldn't be much point, sadly. Oh! And the Jewish bookstores sell magazines like Binah and suchlike (no other sort of magazine is to be found.)

But perhaps one of the most fascinating things I noticed was when I entered the toystore. Every single doll sold in that toystore is tznius. Or, to modify that, some of the dolls have pants but they are not the sort of dolls that show off skin. There are no Barbies or Bratz. These dolls are imported from France and are very cute and modestly dressed. They range from $25 and up in price. And it was really fun to see the aisles and aisles of Jewish-themed toys and games. You can make a crown reading 'Abraham' to hang in your sukkah for $88. Or you can purchase the Gematriah game or Torah-Land and much, much more.

I also thought it was interesting that there's unofficial stroller parking outside every store. I easily passed plenty of stores that had 20 strollers taking in the sunlight; women milling around inside the shop. But I also saw the lady who had left her baby outside (her baby was communing with me) while she went inside; I was less happy about that. Or there was the lady who hit her son in the street. (But none of these things are unique to Hasidic Jews- there are plenty of people who do all these things.) It also cracked me up that the population of the streets I walked through was Jews and black people. So I would pass three black guys and then 50 Hasidic Jews. There was something amusing in that.

There was a sign on a drugstore that I liked a lot. It read 'Are you trying to impress your shcheina (neighborhood) or the Shchina (God)?'

And then, after walking all the way back down Lee to Bedford and Divison, I decided to go to Gottlib's. Of course, just the fact that I walked in was scandalous because I was the only girl in a restaraunt filled with Chassidish men. Nonetheless, the person who was nicest to me out of everyone I'd met so far was the man behind the counter. Despite the fact that he could only speak English poorly and with a very thick accent, he made sure to give me everything I wanted. While I was eating my (delicious) food, a woman with her three daughters came in. The daughters (ages 3 and 5 and a bit younger than 3, probably) came and sat by my table; they liked me. The woman told them in Yiddish to leave me alone, but there was one little one who was particularly fascinated by me. I thought that was nice.

But it was the conversation I had with the nice man behind the counter that was the best.

Man Behind The Counter: You are from Flatbush?
Me: (sputter of laughter since I know that's an insult, but it makes sense- after all, I'm obviously not from here- look at my clothes!) No, I'm from Washington Heights.
MBTC: The subway, it goes there?
Me: Yup! The 1 train and the A train.
MBTC: But isn't it far?
Me: Yup.
MBTC: About an hour, yes?
Me: Yup, but that's okay. [he returns my credit card] Thanks so much!
MBTC: Have a good day.
Me: You too!

Some people trip out on drugs, alcohol or acid. I trip out by wandering through New York. (And then taking 5 trains in order to get back home- the M to the 6 to the 7 (Shuttle To Times Square) to the 2 to the 1). Also, apparently I'm from Flatbush. Huzzah for Williamsburg!


Gavi said...

When I was in yeshiva in yerushalayim, I used to go to Mea Shearim a lot - and had similar experiences of people sort of thinking that you're from another planet, but being really nice to you nonetheless.

Uri said...

Hey Anon 7:50 pm,
what exactly should Chana be ashamed of? It's a free country. Her money is as green as anyone else's and she was polite and courteous while in Williamsburg. The mem and women in this particular neighborhood are insular and judgemental and that,my pal,is what's at the root of their attitude! Thank G-d for a man behind the counter.

Enjoyed this post quite a bit!

RaggedyMom said...

You are an awesome explorer! We're in Williamsburg a couple of times a year on average for extended family weddings (separate entrances for men & women).

What I find interesting is that when we are there, the women walk around pushing strollers at 11 pm freely, which I wouldn't often feel comfortable doing elsewhere in NYC, including here. Also, most of the strollers are very high-end, costly models.

One possible correction - the sign on the drugstore - 'shcheina' means (female) neighbor - to say neighborhood the word would be 'shchUna' - guessing that the women should not focus on impressing one another as much as 'impressing' G-d.

Why not tell the food service counter person that you're from Chicago?

Thanks for this great account!

Anonymous said...

It might be a free country, but is it nice for me to visit though a black neighborhood wearing a confederate flag? Is it right for me to walk a gay neighborhood with anti-gay slogans on my tee shirt? It's not funny, and it's not nice, no matter what my personal beliefs may be. It's sad when a jew disrespects another jew's home and beliefs, but on the other hand they'll to out of their way to be over sensitive to any wacko-fringe minority. Why is laughing a other jews funny, but so much as not crying for every other freakjob heartless? Why are people who go out of their way to stay away from the evil of the world, less of a person than the people who all too often succumb to them?


Chana said...

Where did you see me laughing at other Jews? To the contrary, I'm aware that what I did wasn't right. I don't know where or how you decided that I think badly of the people there. I was just describing the way that I perceived everything and I said myself that I deserved their looks. As for referring to gay people as the wacko-fringe minority, I don't think that just because you're upset at me about this that justifies insulting the people that I love.

And if you care, that's precisely how I felt when I was there- ashamed, and aware that I don't have what it takes to be one of them. Make you feel better? Not like I wasn't made aware of that before, in ways that hurt me much worse and have left indelible marks, so don't worry...I feel ashamed. Be glad of it. Enjoy it- revel in it- be happy. I'll be glad someone is.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

just some advice — "kosher-style" means something else :-P

i once wandered around Williamsburg with a friend from Flatbush. we were particularly impressed with the yiddish signs that gave secret passcodes.

The Cousin said...

I only hear stories about the other parts of Williamsburg from people I know (including some who live there).

One thing that your story made me think of, is the occasional experience I have in the building in which I work. There's a womens clothing store on two floors of the building, and on the occasion that I get to leave the office, I often hear women speaking Yiddish, while carrying bags from the store. My co-workers don't understand it at all.

At least the food was good

Anonymous said...

"As for referring to gay people as the wacko-fringe minority,"

Where did I say anything about gays? What I was referring to was the the extreme transsexual types.

"I don't think that just because you're upset at me about this that justifies insulting the people that I love."

Why do you love gays more than any persecuted group? Why not just person by person?

"And if you care, that's precisely how I felt when I was there- ashamed"

Why are you feeling inferior? All I said was, when in Rome be a Roman, the rest of the day be yourself. Don't be ashamed for not being them, but don't think it's funny to antagonize them.

Chana said...

Where did you decide that I found it funny? I didn't find it funny. And of course one can see people on a person-by-person basis; it just happens to be that the groups that are cast out (gay, trans) are the ones that I feel more connected to.

Ex 100-Gate Keeper said...

Ditto RaggedyMom about shcheina meaning female neighbor and not neighborhood.

About signs only in Yiddish & Hebrew - In Washington Heights, there are many Spanish signs, aren't there? In Chicago near Romanian (Clark, between Pratt & Touhy) there are many stores that only have Spanish signs in their windows. Stores cater to their clientele.

And if I'd walk there I'd be stared at too - I wear a kippah srugah.

Chana said...

What does Ex-100 Gate Keeper mean? I don't understand the title.

(Re: clientele- I know- but I found it so fascinating, you see...)

Originally From Brooklyn said...

I liked your observations. I had similar ones when I went there myself. I went to Gottliebs and the guy behind the counter was very helpful, he even helped me find out where the williamsburg bus was so that I could get back to boro park/flatbush. And asking if you are from flatbush is not an insult, it's just making light conversation. People are people wherever you go.

Aaron said...

Anon 9:41 pm,you need to heal the shame that binds you. Really. Statements like SHAME ON YOU and such are inappropriate ,insulting and uncalled for on this blog. Please dig deeper into your vocabulary and come with
more acceptable expressions. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

100 gates=Meas Shearim

Chana said...

Anon 12:08,

I always thought that came from the pasuk in Bereishis 26:12. It refers to 100 gates? What is that supposed to mean (as in, what are these 100 gates to?) Torah?

Anonymous said...

Just thought I would mention that I have been to Williamsburg many times and although not dressed in the manner of the neighborhood, I did not feel stared at or judged- simply saw people going on with their daily lives as do we all. Also, not sure why you would go with open toed shoes and painted nails knowing there was a chance it might offend. If you were going to a church or other venue with strict standards wouldn't you find the time to dress in the acceptable manner. I do believe that when you enter someone else's domain (home, neighborhood, shul)- their customs should be the focus, not your beliefs or experiments. Yes, kosher style in NY actually means not kosher.

M said...

I have to agree with the Anon above me. I don't like going to Williamsburg (or even Flatbush) and I can hardly say that residents there seem overly polite or friendly; but dressing in a manner that they would view as extremely un-tznius (by which I mean open-toed) would, I imagine, be seen as a neon sign that you were being disrespectful to them. This would, perhaps understandably, hardly initiate a respectful attitude on their part; I know, for example, that I would not be particularly inclined to be polite to someone who deliberately walked into my shul with a sleeveless top cut down to nowhere.

I'm not saying that your going without socks in Williamsburg is equivalent to this, of course, but in Williamsburg it is seen this way. As I'm sure you already know, if we are looking for courtesy from others, it helps to be courteous ourselves first.

Anonymous said...

It IS from Bereishis 26:12 but it means measures there - Yitzchak reaped 100 times what he thought he would, he was so blessed. Legend has it Meah Shearim was dedicated (I don't know if they started building it or finished it then) during the week of Parshas Toldos and took its name from that pasuk. It was one of the earliest neighborhoods (if not the first) in Yerushalayim outside the Old City.

But Shaar is also a gate.

Mishna/Gemara in Taanis uses "shearim" to refer to the food prices - if they would decree a fast to begin on Thursday (as opposed to Mon-Thurs-Mon), people would run out and buy food on Thursday, the storekeepers wouldn't knwo why there was such a rush on food & juck up the prices (shearim). Basic supply & Demand stuff.

Anon 12:08

Anonymous said...

oops, Chana, meant to write jack up the prices.