B&H: Camera Shopping As a Religious Experience

We love B&H Photo & Video, the only midtown New York store that I actually have fun in that doesn’t sell comic books or Legos. It’s not just a massive electronics store. It’s not just a massive electronics store owned and operated by Hasidic Jews. And it’s not just a Hasidic electronics store with bowls of free sour candy all over the place and mysterious, amazing conveyor belts over your heads that move merchandise with seeming lightning speed. It’s unearthly. It’s unnatural. And yet, it seems to function with all the determination and efficiency of a synagogue service.

b&h photoEvery time I visit the store — whether it’s a 3-hour trip to pick out a new video camera or a quick run-in for some batteries — I come out with a new story. Sometimes it’s as simple as the Satmar Hasid at the checkout counter asking me what I think of the Sleater-Kinney album blasting from my earbuds. Sometimes it’s a little more complicated. Other times, I don’t even have to go inside the store to get a new B&H story. Here are three of my favorites:

Someone stops me on the street. He asks, in bad Hebrew with a bad put-on Israeli accent, “Ayfo B&H” — Do you know where B&H is? I start to answer — in my own equally bad Israeli accent — but then I stop. Something about the lilt of his Hebrew sounds familiar. “Are you Australian?” He is. He’s from Sydney. He ends up knowing not just my wife, but her entire family. As a matter of fact, he had lunch at my parents’-in-law’s house a few months ago. He apologizes to me for not wearing a yarmulke (I’m not clear on why) and wishing me a good Shabbos. It’s Wednesday afternoon. It makes me look forward to Shabbat. It makes me feel good.

Someone stops me on the street. He asks me the same question — in English, this time — laughing, like he knows it’s ironic. I answer, although I’m a little offended at the stereotype. I mean, does every Jew in midtown Manhattan with a beard and sidecurls have to b&h photobe affiliated with B&H? If he stopped to pay attention to the person I am, and not just the way I look, maybe he’d be a bit less stereotypical and bit more astounded. I’m a freakin’ Hasidic Jew who writes films, dude! I’m more than my payos! Just because I’m Hasidic, it doesn’t mean I know every other Orthodox Jew in New York. Or where they work.

I smile. Graciously, I give him directions. Fifteen minutes later, we bump into each other at B&H, where I’m buying equipment for a new short film. Sigh. Not so ironic.

I’m waiting in line for a refund. I thought we needed a .25″ microphone cord and we need a .125″. When I get to the front of the line, the guy — a clean-shaven Israeli guy who starts talking to me in Hebrew — asks me if everything’s inside. I tell him it’s all there; I didn’t even open it. He tells me, more as a by-the-way sort of thing than as criticism, that we all need to be very careful. People in the world distrust Orthodox Jews. They think we’re all out to get them. That’s why we need to be even nicer than the world, and more polite and more meticulous in all our dealings. Business. Personal. Life.

With that, he finishes scrutinizing the corners of the box — all undented — and drops it into the chute that takes it back home. He offers me a candy. In spite of myself, I accept. He smiles, seeing my momentary indulgence. And, as the others around him all chime in to add their two cents to the issue, he counts out one of each flavor candy from the bowl and gives it to me. When I protest, he tells me to give some to strangers. “They need it,” he insists.

Later that day, I speak to Frum Satire. Without telling him about it, he tells me about his B&H blog post — which talks about basically the same thing. And how B&H turns all that around. He asks: “How many instances can you think of when Charedi Jews make a good impression on non-Jews and irreligious Jews on a constant basis? It’s unfortunate, but much of the world only has negative experience and rarely see the beauty of the ultra-orthodox community.” Not at B&H, though.

This is a bonus — not that it’s an experience, just because it’s cool. My cousin Mendy works for B&H’s customer service phone line. The other day, someone called him Sammy. We asked what was up with that. He told us that (a) half the floor was named Menachem Mendel, and (b) no one can pronounce Menachem anyway.

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