Tznius Envy

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There are deadlines, and then there are deadlines. I’m the Writer in Residence this month over at BrooklynTheBorough.com, and I was supposed to turn in my column Friday. How I feel about deadlines is best expressed in an email that my (other) editor (at Scholastic) just wrote me in the form of an epic poem beginning “O deadlines! How I hate thee” and spiraling from there.

But sometimes deadlines can be fun. Nicole, who runs BrooklynTheBorough, asked me to write “a piece just about being a Hasid in Brooklyn…you know, a slice-of-life sort of thing.” I know she wanted me to write about the conflict between Hasidic and hipster worlds, but I just couldn’t stomach it. (Sorry, Nicole.) It’s just that I live that way 24/7, and there really isn’t much of a conflict.

rabbi couture

Some people go to yechidus for love or financial decisions. I go for fashion advice.

The broken deadline got me writing about everyday life in Hasid-land, which I don’t often do — mainly because I hate getting too garish or showy about it. I can write fiction, and I can write about what I think about things, but if I started getting blog ideas from walking down the street? Well, (a) I’d be here till tomorrow, but also (b) I’d feel like I’m faking it among my family-in-law and my friends even more than I already feel.

Even so, a deadline is a deadline. And so I wrote, and this is the pastiche that came out. I’m actually sort of proud of it.

The bar mitzvah was a totally crazy affair, as might be expected. In one way, Hasidic Jews are unfailingly, unflinchingly conservative. In another way, it’s an anything-goes scenario. The party started at 9 pm, an hour away from Brooklyn, which isn’t crazy until you remind yourself that the target audience is 11-to-14-year-old kids …” and that these parties often go for four, five hours. The mechitza was in full force with a wall dividing men and women, which meant that I couldn’t even play arm-candy to my wife. Our cousin Shmop was there, who’s just about the nicest, most magnetic and fluid guy you could think of. He’s Orthodox but modern, clean-shaven and he wears a tie — both things that make him stand out in this crowd — but he’s got this lackadaisical, no-stick personality that makes him able to get along with anyone. Seamlessly. Five minutes after we hook up, he’s gliding through the crowd, shaking hands and kissing the hairy cheeks of every rabbi in the room, coasting straight to the women’s section as I struggle to keep up with him, dodging furry hats aimed at the level of my head as the crowd threatens to rip the umbilical cord by which I have attached myself to him.

Yeah: the women’s section.

Hasidic Jews are pretty strict about this stuff. And if you missed it right there, that’s the understatement of the century. Half of the family is pretty cool with these casual social interactions. The other half — well, there’s one Hasidic dynasty, of which many of this family are members, that has a custom of men and women eating in separate rooms. The mechitza is properly only for the dancing which will take place later that night, and so that men and women don’t sit at the same tables and, I don’t know, accidentally bump into each other or get into food fights or something, but when Shmop whizzes me across the floor to the other side, my anxiety squeezes a huge rubber band around my stomach and my eyes pop half out of my head. Not from looking at women. Possibly from watching Shmop’s overwhelming casualness. Mostly from the realization that, one way or another, I am probably about to be kicked out of the family, the social hall, or, possibly, Judaism.

Here. Read the whole thing on the BtB site.

Posted on March 15, 2010

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