In October 2007, my husband and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We’d seen too many to count and none worth the price, so when a one-bedroom just off Prospect Park popped up for $1200 we jumped. On the way to the appointment, the broker gave us the news: The man who lived in the apartment until last month had committed suicide there.
We took it anyway and when I went to sign the lease at the landlord’s office in Borough Park, I could tell he was pleased to have unloaded the apartment.
“He was a very sick man,” said the landlord. “He stopped taking his medication. His family was devastated.”
After about a week, the woman in the apartment next door came to introduce herself. I asked if she knew the man who’d lived here and she said yes.
“His name was David,” she said. “He was a teacher. And he was really nice.”
I told her what the landlord said about him, and she had a different story.
“He was Hasidic,” she said. “And he was gay. His family abandoned him.”
Then she peered into the apartment and said: “They did a good job of cleaning it up.”
The first piece of mail addressed to him arrived about a month later. It was a post card from Spain. Judging by the handwriting, the note was from a woman. More letters arrived over the next few months: a flyer with a photograph of a man in lipstick advertising a performance in the Greenwich Village; something official from the Teacher’s Retirement System; a check-up reminder from the local hospital.
I didn’t open any of the letters, but I kept all the mail in a folder in my desk. As a reform Jew who grew up in Central California, I had only recently realized that communities of ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S., and, I have to admit, the people who lived in this world fascinated me. I saw them on the train, dressed in clothing that seemed from another time; clothing that separated them, that screamed, I am Jewish.
I started to read about their community, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know David. I listened for him, but never saw signs of a ghost. For a while I toyed with the idea of tracking down his family and bringing them the thick folder of mail. But I realized that that would be an exercise in selfishness. If they hadn’t wanted to hear from him, they certainly wouldn’t want to hear from me.
So, because I could only imagine him, I did what writers do when we get curious: I started to write about him. Well, not him exactly (although you’ll find a reference to him in my novel, Invisible City), but the world he came from.
And I still have his unopened mail.
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The recent Pew survey on Jewish America released earlier this month seems to confirm what many already believe: those of us outside of the Orthodox community are finding ourselves increasingly outnumbered, due to our own apparently suicidal commitment to liberal American values. It seems that the tradition of cultural Judaism in American life will soon be as endangered as Orthodoxy was in the 1940s, and that Orthodoxy, in a stunning reversal that nobody saw coming, will soon take from us the power to define what it means to be Jewish in America.
But the answer, as I see it, is not to abandon cultural Judaism, even if it means intermarrying our way into oblivion. Through my work on Jews of Today, I came to know some Hasidim and had several opportunities to hear their thoughts on the future of Jewish life in America. What an insight that gave. They—”they,” the handful of New York Hasidic men I spoke with at any length—are as scared of the collapse of their communities as we are of ours.
Where we have a crisis of numbers, they have a crisis of faith. The old leaders, the rabbonim that built Hasidus in America, are almost all dead. Their heirs have taken up arms against the internet, seeing in it the potential undoing of their earlier victory over television, radio, and other forms of mass-media hostile to traditional life. Yet the internet, at least in the form of a smartphone, is needed for most to make a living.
I nightly see Hasidim sitting in their parked minivans, well after hours, their faces lit up blue. Yiddish internet forums are proliferating, allowing Hasidim to connect with each other on a whole spectrum of topics, including that of dissatisfaction with the mores and strictures of the community. Before, they say, if you were unhappy, a misfit, you assumed you were the only one. No one would talk openly about such feelings. Now, a whole underground of malcontents has formed anonymously and pseudonymously online. How long before that underground makes itself felt above ground?
Back to us cultural Jews. Demographically, we are already defeated. As the Hasidim have 10 kids, we have 1.5, and its likely that not even the 0.5 will be halachically Jewish. So we, the descendants of Jewish immigrants who embrace, rather than reject the treyfe medina, who raise Larry David over the Baal Shem Tov, who break the fast without ever fasting, are disappearing.
But it seems our numbers might soon be replenished by a new wave of Jews hungry for the larger America, again refugees from the old world, only this time not needing to cross an ocean. We, the cultural Jews, must leave them something to inherit, a tradition of reconciling Jewishness with the demands and offerings of American life. So make art, Jews! Make art about being Jewish in this country, in all its forms. Not as apologetics, not as nostalgia, but as a real, hard-thought, heartfelt legacy, so that whoever finds themselves in our position in the future, won’t feel like they are the first to inhabit it.
Jews of Today could never have begun as a project had I not encountered the phenomenon of the Hasidic enclave. As a recent transplant to New York City in 2006, I wandered into Williamsburg like any other would-be gentrifier in search of cheap bars, good restaurants, and an “authentic” atmosphere. I did not expect to encounter such a dense population of Yiddish-speaking, black-frock-wearing Jews. I felt like I’d found my lost ancestors. I was awestruck and attracted. But my early efforts to make connections with Williamsburg’s Hasidim were met with the customary cold shoulder.
I quickly learned that their part of Williamsburg was a virtual fortress, meant to keep people like me (or rather, unlike them) at a safe distance. This of course only enchanted me further. Why? Who knows. I guess I felt like some secret of great importance was being hidden inside their castle walls. The Ethiopians claim to keep the Ark of the Covenant in a church in Addis Ababa, which, after all, no one is allowed to enter…
So how is a Hasidic enclave created? Jewish enclaves have a long history, full of important variations. Of course, they were usually imposed on Jews from the outside, rarely by Jews themselves, and even more rarely by Jews against other Jews. Williamsburg represents an important reversal of that trend. Philip Fishman, a non-Hasidic Jew who grew up in mid-century Williamsburg, has written a vivid memoir on the subject, titled A Sukkah is Burning.
This (somewhat aged) article from Matzav is an important artifact of my research and shows very specifically how my favorite Hasidic enclave is being maintained today.
Suffice to say that the sense of connection did not last forever, at least not in that unalloyed state. As time wore on, and I spent increasingly more time in the neighborhood, the epiphanic moments–I think of them now as moments of sheer electricity–became less common. Sometimes, they were replaced sometimes by more ordinary joys: Tours through rambling Crown Heights homes, evenings in the storefront shuls and grand temples, sprawling meals with gracious hosts, small gifts of kindness from strangers who have since become friends.
Sometimes, that initial electricity was replaced by fatigue, anger, and frustration. (Hasidim have never been particularly fond of the mainstream press, and I had more doors slammed in my face than I care to count.) And sometimes it was replaced by a deep and abiding sense of alienation.
By 2009, when I signed the contract to write Among Righteous Men, the scope of the project had expanded––I was no longer interested only in the Shmira, but also in the Shomrim, a rival group of Hasidic vigilantes competing for control of the same Crown Heights turf. The Shomrim and Shmira had once been united under a single shield, but in the late ‘90s, infighting consumed the organization, and the two groups had since set up shop on opposite ends of Crown Heights. In 2009, with the apparent help of one of the Shmira members, six Shomrim volunteers were charged with felony gang assault, in a case dating back to 2007.
According to the Brooklyn DA, the Shomrim, responding to a call of distress from a Crown Heights yeshiva dormitory, had punched, strangled, and kicked their way through a crowd of rabbinical students. The Shomrim, for their part, claimed to have been ambushed by the students, or bochurim.
The gang assault trial, which began in the fall of 2009, was a particularly painful experience for the Shomrim, who believed they had been stabbed in the back by members of their own community. Making matters worse was the fact that accusers and accused fell on opposite sides of a religious schism which had roiled Jewish Crown Heights for years.
The rabbinical students, I came to understand, were messianists, who believed that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had been the messiah––the Jew who would usher in the second coming of man. That Schneerson was dead, and buried in Queens, did not diminish their fervor: He could still come back, they reasoned; holy men had before.
The members of the Shomrim, on the other hand, considered themselves to be moderates, who loved their Rebbe, but were embarrassed and uncertain at the fevered pronouncements of the messianists. (I want to stress that I am working here in very broad strokes. Messianist beliefs in Crown Heights, or lack thereof, fall on a wide spectrum, which encompass outspoken messianists, passive messianists, passive moderates, outspoken anti-messianists, and every stripe in between. The distinctions are sometimes described as existing on a “sliding scale.”)
In this light, the brawl at the dormitory took on a different light. It was a not just a fist-fight. It was a religious struggle––a struggle for the soul of Crown Heights itself. This was drama, I thought. This was Shakespearian––that adjective of choice of editors and jacket copy writers. It was a house divided. It was the Hatfields and McCoys, the Hasidic edition.
In the fall of the 2009, I spent several weeks in Brooklyn Supreme Court, observing the criminal trial against the Shomrim. (Want to know how the whole fiasco ended? Well, you’ll have to read Among Righteous Men.) I knew the trial would be the backbone of my book, but I felt there was much of Crown Heights that remained out of reach to me, and in the afternoons, after the court sessions had ended, I took the 2 train out to Crown Heights, to chat with acquaintances or hunt down additional sources.
I was frequently forced to perform strange feats in order to obtain an interview. Once, for instance, I spent an evening in an underground matzos factory, waiting for an potential source to finish firing the bread––a scene I describe in a 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine. I strapped on tefillin, drank a lot of vodka, recited prayers. I accompanied a Lubavitch friend and Shomrim member to the Hunts Point Market, deep in the Bronx, at half past three in the morning, in order to hear a story about a fist-fight which my friend assured me I would find very interesting indeed. (He was right.)
I was almost always treated with respect, although there were exceptions. Because my book would deal with the rift between messianists and moderates, I needed to spend time talking with both groups. And yet Crown Heights is an exceptionally small place, geographically and otherwise, and since I was always dressed in “civilian” clothes—jeans and a fleece—my progress across the neighborhood was easy to track. I regularly received phone calls from moderates, who wanted to know what the hell I was doing talking to messianists; later, a messianist would call, and ask me what the hell I was doing with a moderate. Usually, these calls were friendly, but sometimes not. I can recall vividly one instance where I returned home to my apartment, in Park Slope, where my girlfriend had prepared dinner; no sooner had I sat down than my phone began to ring.
I recognized the number—the caller was a man I had interviewed two days before. I figured he had forgotten to tell me something. But when I picked up, he unleashed a barrage of profanities, beginning withmotherf**ker and ending with motherf**king traitor. As it turned out, he had assumed I was sympathetic to the messianist cause, but his cousin—“a man I trust and love, a good man”—had seen me “palling around” with a bunch of “no-good mossers,” or “rats.” Moderates, in other words.
“You should be very careful,” the man told me.
“Thank you,” I said. “I will.”
“Because,” he added, “there’s always someone watching. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” I said, and hung up. I must have blanched considerably, because my girlfriend eyed me worriedly, and reached across the table to take my hand. “Are you OK?” she said.
I was, but the whole incident helped take the sheen off the kinetic connection I had first felt to Crown Heights. Of course, as I should have known from the beginning, despite the religious and historical aura that surrounds the neighborhood, Crown Heights is really just a world like any other, full of terrible joys and also the usual bitterness and anger.
Yesterday, I put out a Twitter call: What should I write about? The always-dependable dlevy asked, in reply, “have you talked about responses to your work from non Jewish readers?” I haven’t, not yet — but I also haven’t really talked about my response from Jewish readers. (And, sort of on that subject, I could also puzzle why I’ve gotten such amazing Amazon reviews from readers I don’t know — because, as you know, all Jews know each other — but the one review that I know is from a friend is, well, nice, but so short.)
Weirdly, if you want to keep a scorecard, I’ve written two books that are about Orthodox Jews, my first two, and then two books (and a movie) that have nothing to do with Orthodox Jews. I say it’s weird because, as I’ve become more and more fundamentalistly Hasidic, I seem to be writing less overtly about Jews.
What does it mean? And why does my new book Automatic straddle the boundary, telling stories about me in high school, back when I had no idea I’d ever become Orthodox, but sticking in a blurb or two of wisdom from the Vilna Gaon and kabbalah? Here, let me show you:
Every day I remember I’m alive I feel guilty. Some days I sleepwalk through the day and don’t even remember that much. There are kids starving in Africa. There are kids starving a couple blocks from where I live.
The Vilna Gaon says that, if humans weren’t blessed with the power to forget, we would learn all there is to know in two or three years, and there would be no further reason for us to remain alive.
I’d like to think, in my self-assured way, that everyone (Orthodox people, non-Orthodox people, non-Jews) can float with my weird, Paulo Coelho-like digressions, and that they still understand what I’m saying in the first place. Back when I was going to poetry slams every night, people thought of me as “the Jewish guy,” even though this was Berkeley and half the room was Jewish — because I was the one who did poems about being Jewish. I talked about Judaism like the black kids talked about being black, and the Sri Lankan kids talked about being Sri Lankan, and the Palestinian kids talked about being Palestinian. And all my most popular poems were the ones that included the most weird things about religion, and the most Yiddish words:
One night I said to this gay Arab poet, who’d had to leave his country because they wanted to kill him, that we were both in exile, and he said back, Baby, the whole WORLD is in exile. It was the most Jewish thing I’d ever heard. And one of the truest.
Maybe that’s the meaning behind Automatic — it’s my little book about my friendship with my Christian best friend, and how Jewish the whole thing was. Or how Irish Catholic it was. Or maybe we’re all just talking about the same feelings, and using different metaphors to drive it home. And by “metaphors,” I don’t mean in that puzzling poetry way. I mean languages. And gods. And ways to digest the whole thing of our lives.
Here’s the thing about being both an author and a blogger: It makes you impatient. When I write a rant or draw a cartoon, I scan it in, click a few buttons, and — zoomba! — the world gets it. Or, you know, anyone who happens to be looking at my Twitter page at that moment. When I write a book, I send it to my agent, the editor, the publisher, the copy editor, and then, three years later, you can walk to a bookstore and pick it up.
I’m sure there’s some Jewish lesson I should be able to glean from this. Like, how Jerusalem wasn’t burned in a day or how over a thousand years passed between the time the Gemara was written and the time it was printed up in its first printed version, the Vilna Shas, the kind that we read today, with all the wacky columns and stuff.
Except, not really. Because the Talmud is called the oral Torah, and the essence of a story is in the telling, not when it’s written down and printed with a day-glo green cover and sent to a bookstore. There’s something about the immediacy of storytelling that the three-year publishing process, which is standard for the industry, has missed out on. And, weirdly, I think the Internet is bringing it back.
So, partly because I’m a naturally impatient person – and also partly because it’s 15,000 words, which is a weird length that’s way too long for a short story and way too short for a novel – I put out this new book, Automatic, and I did it myself.
I didn’t just write it in a day. I spent most of a year editing it. I’d probably still be editing it, except that it’s sort of about the band R.E.M. (it’s also sort of about my best friend dying) — and, one day a few weeks ago, R.E.M. broke up. It’s now or never, I told myself. In the space of half an hour, I’d signed up for a Kindle author account. And then I hit send, just like sending an email — and, zoomba. I’d published a book.
Amazon is sort of a double-edged sword — yes, it’s crazy that they own half the universe, but it’s an author’s dream because THEY ACTUALLY SELL BOOKS. People who never go to bookstores, people like most of my family, will click on Amazon and buy a book in a second. (I also put it on Smashwords as a pdf — also $2 — if you don’t have a Kindle.)
But I’m old-fashioned. I don’t own a Kindle and I don’t like reading long things online. Plus, I’m a design slut. I like things that look cool, and books that open like toys, and books that smell like books. So I designed a non-Kindle edition that does all the things ebooks will never do — it has hand lettering and easy-on-the-eyes layouts, and layouts on the page that (hopefully) make you feel like you’re luxuriating in something, not just squeezing the words out of a mass-market paperback. (But, I promise, no annoyingly coy stuff or Fun Fonts). I also made a die-cut front cover, because, dammit, books are meant to be touched.
I showed it to my friend/icon/if-I-wasn’t-a-Hasidic-Jew-I’d-say-”idol” Richard Nash, who said, “Oh, it’s a zine!” And I thought, Oh, yeah — that’s it exactly. Fifteen years after being a teenage zine-maker, using a copy machine at my summer job, I’ve reverted to being exactly where I started. It isn’t glamorous, but hopefully, the product is. And there are worse things in the world.
I know self-publishing is still a dirty word — it’s like Amanda Hocking said, authors shouldn’t have time to do all the stuff involved with publishing; we’re too busy being authors. And I’ve been really fortunate to have people like Scholastic and Soft Skull to take the foot-dragging stuff out of my hands for my big projects. But it’s also nice to finger this little handmade thing in my hand and say, dammit, this is mine.