Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Hasidic Williamsburg, Heard and Seen 

Depending on your point of view, last Tuesday was either one of the worst times or one of the best times to take an audio walking tour of Hasidic Williamsburg.

One of the worst because it was the holiday of Simchat Torah, which celebrates the Torah, and everything except the synagogues seemed to be closed.

One of the best because I'm more than a bit timid about entering places where I feel I don't belong, and the holiday gave me an excuse not to visit the stores and places of worship on my itinerary.

I was using an app called Detour, which launched in New York City last month. It offers local walking tours, including SoHo, Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge narrated by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and Hasidic Williamsburg—one version for men, the other for women.

"Of course, I don't want you talking to any women," the narrator, who introduces himself as Joseph, instructed me at the start of the tour. "In our community, the men and women don't chat to each other on the street like that."

Joseph also told me to use earbuds rather than headphones. "I want you to blend in like a real Jew," he said.

I am a real Jew, but there was no way I was going to blend in. For one thing, I was wearing sneakers, slacks and a North Face jacket. Every other man my age had on a frock coat and the traditional fur hat worn on the Sabbath and holidays.

There were hundreds of them on the street, coming and going to synagogue.

Our first stop was Green & Ackerman, at 216 Ross St. "Green's is the greatest restaurant in Williamsburg," Joseph informed me.

It was closed, not that I'd have taken his suggestion to try the gefilte fish. Once a year on Passover is sufficient.

Jewish music played in the background as Joseph instructed me to walk down Ross Street to our next stop, Premium Dry Goods. "We're going to go inside and buy a yarmulke," Joseph said. "Wearing a yarmulke is your passport to the community. Let's get you hooked up. We're going to make you a good Jew."

Premium Dry Goods was also closed, but I wouldn't have bought a yarmulke in any case, since I have several at home saved from weddings and bar mitzvahs.

I also have enough trouble preventing the skullcap from sliding off my head at Seder. There was no way it was going to stay put outside on a crisp autumn afternoon.

But even if I'd purchased a yarmulke, I would have gotten noticed. Not just because of my clothes, but because I was stopping and starting as I followed Joseph's directions, my behavior drawing strange looks from the men and more than a few of the conservatively dressed women pushing strollers.

"The night I got married," he said as we stopped in front of Tip Top, a wig store at 170 Ross St., "we were both virgins at the time. I remember her sitting in the bathroom and shaving off all her long, beautiful black hair that she loved so much.

"It was both a painful and a beautiful experience," Joseph added, "because at that time I knew she was choosing me over the rest of the world by shaving off her hair and covering her head, her beauty and her sensuality, and keeping it just for me."

It was stories such as these, plus the Hasidic Jews on the street and virtually no outsiders, that made me feel I'd been transported to a different time and place.

In fact, the only person who appeared not to notice me was a police officer stationed in front of 535 Bedford Ave., the home of a leader of the Satmar Hasidic sect, "the boss of all bosses," as Joseph described him.

I declined Joseph's offer to enter one of the few places on the itinerary that was open, Congregation Yetev Lev at 150 Rodney St., which seemed to be the entire community's destination. My tour guide said: "If anybody asks you, you're Jewish."

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