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Friday, April 23, 2010

Any Given Hasid

This morning I got an email from my friend Dugans (of the awesome band Dreams in Static) asking, "Hey, isn't that you on some random person's blog?"

tess lynch

Yep! Turns out it is. Tess Lynch, a writer and actor in LA, weighed in on the Hasidim-vs.-hipsters debacle in Williamsburg. I guess she was scrambling for a picture of Williamsburg folks, and even though my memoir about becoming a Hasid took place in San Francisco and the photo was taken in Jerusalem, I looked the part.

Her observations about the bike-lane controversy are actually pretty astute and non-one-sided. To wit:

Obviously religious beliefs, particularly ones that have their roots in the way-back-in-the-day, aren’t what one would call “flexible” or “evolutionary” or “susceptible to the charms of trends like the sort sold at American Apparel.”
Because you are doing something great for the environment, you bikers can have my respect (1 point for you); but because you ignore traffic rules so much of the time, I am going to award one point to the Satmars.

I've never wrote about the issue, although a bunch of people (including the editor of, where, coincidentally, the photo of me was lifted from) have asked. But, for about five minutes, I'm going to let it fly. Hasidim, hipsters, hold onto your outdated hats: All of you are kind of wrong.

So: I've always believed that one person's autonomy stops where another person's starts. Bikers (and bike lanes) are inevitable when you live in the city -- the same way billboards in your face and taxi drivers honking at 6 A.M. are inevitable when you live in the city -- but I think what's really an issue, as you astutely pointed out, isn't the *actual* bike-riding; it's the in-your-face-ness of both the Hasidim and the hipsters.

No one lives in Williamsburg because of convenience. It's expensive, it's crowded, pretty much every wall in the entire borough leaks; it's actually pretty gnarly. My cool-kid friends who live in Williamsburg keep saying they live there because it's cheap. (It's not. A few years ago, I was paying $800 a month for a closet; now that closet is something like $1200.) My Hasidic friends live there because it's where their families have lived there forever. But the kids are drawn to Williamsburg because of the scene and their friends, yes, but also because of the ambiance of living among the Hasidim and the abandoned-warehouse aesthetic. The Hasidim living there don't move out to Monsey or Kiryas Yoel because of family and friends and because they've lived there forever, but also because living in Brooklyn is special -- as one of my cousins put it, "we like to be around a little diversity."

(And yes, there will always be the creepy outsiders, like all those Craigslist stories of a Hasidic guy who proposition a random woman for sex -- but they're a huge minority. I mean, I've met Hasidic pervs, but in a microscopic amount compared to the amount of non-Hasidic pervs I've met; even proportionally.) Again, that's the price of living in New York City -- there are several million people in a very small space, and you will come into contact with most of them.

That said, there's one thing I've learned from living in a very cramped Brooklyn apartment with a wildly copulating couple on one side and someone with every major sneezing disease on the other: You learn to ignore things. You learn to let people have their privacy, to avert your eyes when immodesty rears its naked head, and to politely turn your music up to cover up the mucous and the "Yeah, baby, just like that!"s. You also learn to respect other people: You give your seat to a pregnant woman on the subway. You step out of the way of a person with a cane. And whether you're a dude in Spandex shorts or a chick in Spandex anything (or vice versa), you don't shove yourself in front of people who have never in their lives wished to see that much of you.

Ms. Lynch herself gets it. As she writes:

By the way, in case you didn’t know, as the hipster in the NYMag article seemed to not know: don’t go around damning God in front of a Hasidic jew. It is a bad idea and makes you look like a real idiot. I can do it here because I’m posting a blog and there is no one around to make uncomfortable but myself.

That said, it's also kind of creepy that she lifted a random photo of me and my rabbi and plastered it to an article talking about Hasidim at their worst. I'd hate for one of my kid's friends to be reading about Hasidic protesters and Hasidic perverts and then they look up and think, hey!, I know that guy. We can talk about autonomy, but it's important to remember that it's not "the Hasidim" or "the hipsters" we're hating on -- it's a bunch of individuals who happen to live in the same neighborhood.

Ms. Lynch ends the article with a great proposal: that a cross-cultural barbershop should open, specializing in beards. The idea is a great one, but sadly, it'll never happen. We don't cut or trim our beards. That's why they're all bushy and upside-down Jew-fro-y. But maybe we can all sit out on the stoops and drink Manischewitz together out of brown paper bags some time?

1 comment:

Tess Lynch said...

I just e-mailed you, but I am so sorry your photo ended up on the post without your consent! My mistake. It's gone now, and Baruch is in its place. I'm so glad that you posted this, though, because it's such an interesting debate.

In LA, we're so often able to avoid talking about the conflicts of displacement that happen when one culture butts heads with another; we have so much space that maybe it often seems easier just to spread in an alternate direction. I wonder what would happen if we didn't have so much geographic space, if our city weren't so large -- would we find a better way to incorporate other people's cultures with our own? Would we talk about what we've gained from sharing common ground and appreciating the things that make us different, as opposed to just asserting our own lifestyles?

Anyway, apologies to you for the photo flub, and thanks for weighing in! I loved what you wrote.

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