South Williamsburg is bundled up in wool pants and black jackets. The umami of sweat smell, like leaded gasoline, fogs the sidewalk, humid and dense. The Hasidim must suffer from New York summers—but you will never hear a complaint. The men just drip, tight-lipped behind tangled beards, and the women are speechless despite the discomfiture of bottlebrush wigs. I regularly run through the neighborhood, cross country shorts flapping high on my thighs, sweat soaking through a mesh t-shirt. We pass on the sidewalk without eye contact. There is a palpable hostility that dissolves in the air like a bitter lozenge. Then again, the hatred and fear do not only circulate between the Hasidim and intruders: smiling and casual conversation are discouraged. Men walk side-by-side, heads bent together, beards growing together, twining like vines and tree limbs forced together from lack of light, whispering, peyes bobbing like synchronized springs. Their wives keep a watchful eye on children from balconies, or push strollers and scold their babies, or conduct serious tribunals on their stoops. Surveillance is reciprocal; purity is maintained within a system of implicit discipline. Gangs of children, all toddlers and adolescents, roam untethered, but never fear, no Clockwork Orange shit here. Chaos boils inside a latex bubble, elastic and capable of absorbing violence. The occasional rupture—child molestation, a kidnapping, race riots—is incorporated back into the membrane and dampened into a silent ripple. History becomes the stuff of nightmares, never discussed or remembered during the day, but a constant threat when the ladies let their real hair down—or run their fingers through air, because many shave their skulls short.
To ease the shock of immersion, my brother and I imitated our Orthodox Jewish cousins. We wore button-down shirts, khakis, sneakers, and baseball hats. A George Clinton look-alike asked whether we were Jews on the hike down Classon Avenue. He banged his djembe when we called yes. Indeed, most of the Hasidim we met seemed uncertain about our status in the community. A man named Martin, very fat in the face and red under wiry gray whiskers, thought we lived in the neighborhood. But he was Chabad Lubavitch, more openly evangelical than the isolationist and ultra-conservative and anti-Zionist Satmar sect. The Satmars we met, or rather brushed against, preferred to avert their faces or sneak a furtive peak, lips curling in curious sneers. Masquerading as Modern Orthodox, we did not face outright opposition. Instead, we were treated with ambivalent indifference. I am more used to the ends, not the middle, of the spectrum of ethnographic interaction. Either enthusiastic welcome or angry rejection, not that unresponsiveness, that coldness, that leaves the target less than human, unworthy of respect or attention or acknowledgment. It is a Victorian cut to an extreme, because it is rehearsed between strangers, people whose relationships have not yet precipitated anywhere except the imagination. When everyone ignores your presence, you feel like a spirit floating among the living or flesh gliding through dead ether. Skin slips into transparency. Bones become traces of calcium suspended in skeletal grooves. The real world of marriage, dinner, prayers, sex, school buses, synagogues, gas stations, and grocery stores recedes into somnolence. You are a sleepwalker unsure when or if you will ever awaken.
For journeys to alienating and alienated lands, the traveler must find the focal length of his lens. Examined too closely, the world dissolves into detritus. Everything falls into discombobulation and disconnection. Trash day never quite comes. But situated too far away, the subject becomes minute, obscured, and inscrutable. Reality reduces to a diorama held captive under museum glass. As you acclimate to your surroundings, you will slide along, navigating between observation and participation until you reach the perfect viewing position. There, the subject and yourself are rendered in near absolute clarity, twinned around a mysterious and unknowable center. In Hasidic Williamsburg, achieving ambivalence, indifference, and hybridity offers the best resolution.
The Bunny Hop Restaurant: The name faded into obscurity and recoverable only by rubbing a photographic plate, which picks up old brushstrokes of painter’s enamel. Roving eyes skip. Crossing the Brooklyn Queens Expressway by foot, visitors might spot a one story building in a traffic island, lodged between Keap and Williamsburg Streets. Only a health department poster (“A”) and a broken sign (____Restaurant) betray its identity. Inside, men daven, beards threatening to dip into hummus. We order at the cafeteria-style counter. Falafel and pita stuffed with everything: sauerkraut, pickles, hummus, hot sauce, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce. Never before had I bitten through kraut to find a falafel ball on the other side. I enjoyed the surprise. Other diners did not socialize or even speak, save for their murmured prayers. We drank pineapple soda, contemplative, just sitting in the dark restaurant catching static from analog television sets.
Oneg Heimishe: Famous for chocolate babka. “K-nosed,” a rubbery plump bubbe said, nodding at the empty racks. “What?” “Knosed.” “They’re closed,” my brother said, pulling me out into traffic.
Sander’s Bakery: Located underneath Sander’s Furniture. A cluttered cabinet compared to Oneg Heimishe’s barren shelves. We took our purchases to
Kaff’s Bakery (where we met Martin)
and then to Roebling Playground. Empty except for one kid riding his bike in circles. A truck drives past every half-hour abouts, blaring prayers from megaphones mounted on the roof. Sander’s double-peaked chocolate striped puffy horns had me melting. As did their black and white cookie, spongy and lemon scented, encrusted with oily icing. The apple strudel from Kaff’s was nice, too, but I focused my attention on Sander’s bitter chocolate.
We camped on the steps of a synagogue.
We sought landmarks Manhattan-side from a dock.
We drank Diet Coke, returned to the apartment for a familiar bathroom, and walked two miles for a meal at
Gottlieb’s Restaurant: Hasidic Williamsburg is a raped body. The community encloses itself against invaders like a vulnerable, living organism. It cannot plug all orifices, though. Bedford Avenue runs through its central cavity, bringing foreign objects into sacred space. The outside world interpenetrates the cloisters, violating sanctity and community standards. Gloved fingers poke sensitive membranes, black double-ended dildos raise hackles, all inevitable, inexcusable, unavoidable, and accepted as extraordinary. A sensitive visitor can detect the neighborhood’s distress as a hormonal flux. Fear is flung wide on the sea wind. It is terrible and painful to exist within such embattled grounds; it is traumatizing. Dinner at Gottlieb’s begins with sour pickles, fizzy with ferment, and stale bread. Half a sandwich for me, half for him, and switch! Cornbeef, slick and pinker than integument, and more pickles, and brisket, dry and thin, beefy but thirsty for sauce, and more pickles, and a side of kishka, a hint of lung perhaps? and a side of foul, mildewed potato kugel, an abomination to bubbes everwhere. Hasidim congregated around the counter and a few families ate in back. Two children watched an old conservative Jewish couple finish chicken soup, mesmerized. Gottlieb’s was out of chicken livers. Our server had curly red hair and braces, was a giant of a man, like many Hasidim, who are either skinny or obese (the middle is either excluded or engorged), and dimwitted.
At a supermarket, I bought three mangos and peeled them with my fingers.