Tuesday, October 24, 2006

hebrew school dropout

Is it Sukkoth? I dropped out of Hebrew school so I don't know these things, but I think I heard something on NPR about it. Because parking rules are suspended! Hoorah. This calls for the story of me getting picked up by a Hasidic Jew. At least I like to think so.

It was Rosh Hashana. I had just parked the Camry in front of my building and hauled my daughter, in her car seat, into the ugly and unfashionable Universal stroller frame. An even uglier minivan pulled up and a Hasidic fellow leaned across the filthy front seat and asked me where the nearest gas station was. Sexy. I looked down the street. Was he headed toward Bay Ridge or Park Slope? There were gas stations either way. I was stumped, and told him so.

"Well, which one's closest?" he asked, engine idling.
"Turn right," I decided.
As he started to drive off, I shouted coyly, "L'shana tova!"
He screeched to a stop. "Are you Jewish?" He sounded excited.
"Yeah. Are you surprised?" I was excited too. I'd never had the opportunity to talk to a Hasidic person until now. Their foreignness fascinates me to no end, and I had questions. This guy looked like Santa Claus. He looked kind. He was the one.

Maybe he asked me what temple I belonged to. If he did, I would have told him that I was a Hebrew school drop-out, that religion slides off me as if I'm made of Teflon.

He asked me to guess how many kids he has. I guessed eight. He has nine. I looked in the back of the van. It was strewn with papers and boxes and filth. Was that where the kids sat or did they have a second car, even more beat up than this one? I told him his wife deserves a medal for giving birth that many times. Really she deserves a mental institution. Which can be very spa-like I suspect. But that would have been rude to say.

He told me that as a little boy, his mother made him look at the ground whenever they passed a woman on the street.

"Maybe you should turn off your car," I said. He pulled in front of the fire hydrant so the Fed Ex truck could get by.

M___ was taught that women are evil and he resented it. He said, "I think women are the most beautiful creatures on earth!" and I flinched. He admitted his choice of words might be wrong. I said something about objectification. I wanted him to see how educated I am. I'm one of those sucky approval-seekers and I think of these guys in their black coats and long beards as uber-intellectual, but the only book they really study is the Torah, and I was learning that M___ was as naive as a child. I mentioned the word 'oppressive' to describe his situation, for example and he lit up like a menorah on the eighth day, as if he'd finally heard just the right word to describe his hell on earth. But it was so plain to me, so plain to everyone I know that M___'s people, and the Amish for that matter, are oppressed groups. How else would they agree to live like that? With the heavy coats and donut hats in July. With no television.
I explained Rumspringa to him, the Amish tradition of letting their sixteen year olds go free in the "outside world" to see if they wanted to remain Amish or leave the community. I teased him by mentioning that I learned this from a documentary I'd seen, believing that he wasn't allowed to watch movies. I told him how if the teenagers chose to live in the outside world, their families would disown them, and what kind of choice is that? M___ asked if the girls were allowed to go too. I said yes.

I told him I had a bris for Hamish and explained why, and M___ was pleased. I told him that I had a Hebrew naming ceremony for Stella and he asked, "What's that?" which didn't surprise me. But he kept bringing the conversation back to his warm heart.

"Some people are born with warm hearts. Some are born with cold hearts. Do you know what I'm saying?" I did. He said this again and again. He was talking about his wife. They were in an arranged marriage and M___ wished it were not so.

When he asked me if I was going to wait until he turns three to cut Hamish's hair I knew this guy had no clue what Jews did on the other side, that hair is a fashion accessory to non-practicing Jews like me, not a symbol of worship.

I asked if they were allowed to use the internet.
"Only if it has to do with work. You wouldn't believe what goes on on the internet."
I thought he'd start talking about porn, but he said, "Meetings."
"People talk to each other on the internet."
"You mean like chat rooms?"
"Yes. And then they meet."
"In person?"
"Yes." He was shocked. This sort of thing happens all the time.

I itched to ask him if it's really true that Hasidic men frequent prostitutes more than any other group. I don't remember where I heard this. But I didn't want to open a can of worms I couldn't close again and I didn't want to give this guy any sort of sexual mental picture. Or out him as a sex-crazed crazy. It was bad enough that I was standing there in a T-shirt and jeans with long hair. How mean did I have to be?
At one point he took a look at Stella and pronounced, "Yes. She's Jewish all right." It was validating. But even more validating in that 'Daddy love me' sort of way was when M___ said, "We need more people like you."

But I was confused. Would they just welcome me into the fold in Boro Park? A newbie Jewbie? All the women with their wigs and loafers and litters of children would just invite me in for coffee and challah, just like that?

I finally said I had to go, and M___ rumbled down the street to fill up his van. As proud and smug as I felt I realized I'd been naive too, to think that every one of those Hasidic people loved their lot in life, that they chose to live like that.

1 comment:

amelia's plum said...

I'm ashamed to reveal that I know this much about Madonna's life, but do you think that's why she waited until her son Rocco was 3 to cut his hair?

Love the post. I wanted to see that documentary on the Amish but we've had Tsotsi from Netflix gathering dust on our shelf for the past two months. I might have to unsubscribe with how hectic things are here as of late.