Remember way back when I wrote about how the New York Times constantly glamorized/fetishized/stared at the world of Hasidic Brooklyn? Oh, wait — my mistake. It was two days ago.
Today, the Times has published another photo essay on Hasidim — only, just like the last one, this is a first-person narrative that doesn’t tell a story of someone who is Hasidic, but of another outsider looking into the Hasidic community. Rivka Karasik, a multimedia artist who grew up in Crown Heights and left the community several years ago.
Her monologue is pretty harrowing, and pretty powerful. I question the veracity of some of her statements, such as her portrayal of Lubavitch life as such that she didn’t know there was another world beyond her few blocks — I mean, even the most religious and close-minded people in my neighborhood take the subway. And our proper Hasidische maidel babysitter from last night who doesn’t watch TV or the Internet…uh, while we were out, my computer battery unexpectedly died, and when I plugged it back in, that episode of 24 on Hulu was still 10 minutes away from ending.
Granted, the Internet wasn’t as accessible back when the 34-year-old Karasik was growing up. Kids didn’t have as easy access to the world beyond their fingertips. But they always knew there was a world out there.
I think I’m more turned off by the Times’ metaphorical sepia-toning of the photographs, depicting the Hasidic community in a stark black-and-white that looks like it should be a mystical Brooklyn of several decades ago — but, once you study the a photograph for more than 10 seconds, you realize that the random Hasidic couple walking down Kingston Avenue was probably taken last week, with an ultra-modern stroller and the woman’s clothes hailing from some of-the-minute designer who just happens to make long skirts.
Even in the 1940s and ’50s, Lubavitchers were in touch with the modern world. Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wife, is always pictured in Audrey suits and stiletto heels. The Rebbe himself, when talking about sending young couples to do outreach, always emphasized dressing in tune with the world — granted, within the realm of traditional Jewish modesty, but modernly — a point emphasized by this great video that contrasts Susie Essman playing a butt-ugly Hasidic Jew on TV with real-life Hot Lubavitch Girls.
The most fascinating part of her narrative, I think, is toward the end, where she talks about meeting up with a bunch of other rebel Hasidic kids and starting a group house. I’d love to know how they all met up, what they thought of each other, where the house was and what happened there…but the easy-to-follow narrative of Orthodox Girl Drops Out prevails, and after a sentence, the slide show has moved on to another topic.
If nothing else, though, it’s pretty awesome that the Times is writing about artists whose work isn’t already hanging on every wall of the Met. Ben Atlas has a tiny blog about Karasik’s artwork (with an artist’s statement) today…which makes a way more illuminating viewing material than yet another series of Hasidxploitation.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.