There was a crazy Nor’easter over the weekend, and we had to go to Jersey – an activity rarely on any Brooklynite’s top ten list, and especially not on a rainy Saturday night. But there was a family bar mitzvah, and we are nothing if not devoted to the family.
I should note right off that it’s my wife’s family – they’ve been Hasidic Jews ever since Hasidim existed and I’m a late arrival. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell, but my in-laws have finely-developed senses this way. They look at the sharp thickness of my beard, the way I wear my tzitzis – aligned just a little too perfect, as if I’d learned how instead of simply being born with the fluency and fluidness that lets you wrap a scratchy wool sheet around your torso and have all 128 strands come out looking perfectly-draped, moving with every jut of your hips as if they were a part of your body, tentacles, perhaps, or maybe a variation on those organic hair extensions from Avatar – so, uh, yeah. I’ve been observant for ten years, but I still feel like I’m faking it, and even more so when I’m around her family. Like I said, they’ve been observant ever since Jews started being observant, and I’m only the second-ever person who wasn’t born this way to marry into the family.
It’s weird. Every time I write about observant Jews, they’re born observant. My first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, is about a 17-year-old punk-rock Orthodox girl who stars on a TV sitcom – she’s supposed to play a normal, docile Orthodox girl on the show, but she’s a raucous, stage-divey Orthodox girl, so containing herself is a problem. I guess there’s enough going around in that mix without adding the additional story to it. I mean, it’s hard enough to explain to people over the course of a three-hour conversation that you weren’t born this way, you’ve always thought something was missing from your life, and then when you decided to grow antennae and abstain from using electricity every Friday night and basically the only food you can eat is falafel, and not most falafel, even, because you’re a vegetarian and you keep kosher now, and you have two hours of prayers to say every day — it can kind of get to be a mouthful. Your conversations grow egotistical almost by default and you learn to shut yourself up.
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.
"Why are you standing there like that, Matthue?" my grandmother-in-law says. "Get food. Sit down. And, if you wouldn’t particularly mind, stop staring like that at everyone. People will fear for their children."
I open and close my mouth several times, not really sure what I’m supposed to say. Finally, it comes out in a single burst: "But this is the women’s section!"
My grandmother-in-law purses her lips.
"Well, of course it is. That’s why I get to say who sits here. Sit down. But first you must grab some food."
My grandmother-in-law is 74 years old. She marched through Siberia at the age of 9, got engaged at 16, and has singlehandedly told off heads of state. I dutifully obey.
There are several food stands around the room. Most of them — the meat-carving station, the hot-dog cart, the sashimi station (for some reason, the more religious Jews are, the more obsessed with sushi and Chinese food they become) – are off-limits to my vegetarian self. There is, blessedly, falafel and donuts and a few other things. But, really, all I want is French fries. So I grab a huge pyramid of them and make everyone slightly nervous as they chow down on their actual dinners.
Really, though, any potential intimidation they’re feeling by my fries-and-ketchup meal is totally matched, and magnified, by my own intimidation. The few glances I steal around reveal that we’re not the only dudes in chickland here. Another glimpse and I realize, we’re guests of my grandmother, a status which is kind of sacred.
And the more I sit with my wife and my grandmother-in-law and all the females, the more I feel a sort of entitledness. The more I feel like I’m getting away with something.
Women in Hasidic circles don’t dress in pillowcases – not always, anyway. I’ve actually always wished it was more socially acceptable for boys to wear dresses, because it always seemed to me that it would be like wearing a blanket. The dresses people were wearing tonight were clearly not those blankety kind of dresses. They were a uniquely Orthodox shade of bling: sequin-tastic, black and fabulous and sometimes tight in that modelly way and sometimes wavy and flowing in that royal way of having a train, or a flag, trailing after you. It will sound indecent to think and even more indecent to write, but the tznius laws, the laws of what men and women are allowed to wear in Judaism, are (on the letter-of-the-law level, anyway) about what should be covered and what shouldn’t, not about how glam, or how tight, you are allowed to dress.
And then I think to myself: Maybe this is why we have mechitzas. Not for the purposes of preventing people from checking each other out, but from being totally overwhelmed by how much effort people put into their outfit, and by how much these clothes must cost. I was wearing my three-piece pinstripe suit, which I’d gotten when I was a teenager and going to the punk-rock inaugural ball, $25 at a D.C. thrift store.
I’m about ready to retreat back to the furry hats on the beard side of the mechitza. Just as I stand, the speakers blare. Everyone else is standing up, too. The music is starting up.
The singer — one of the most popular Hasidic superstars, one who is known never to converse with a woman, is deep into the music. Eyes closed, his entire body sucked into the microphone. At the end of the verse, he opens his eyes, checking out the crowd, gauging their reactions.
He comes over to us.
My grandmother is gesturing to him. She has her finger arced in the air, beckoning. Remember, this is a woman you don’t say no to.
"Gut voch," she says. (It’s Yiddish. It means "good week," which sounds less weird in Yiddish than it does when I’m telling you now.) "I just wanted to tell you, you sound fabulous tonight. This is my grandson. He’s a writer. You should collaborate."
The singer’s eyebrows arch up.
"You write lyrics?" he says. "English lyrics?"
I gulp out something that sounds like a yes. I do write lyrics – I have a science-fiction hip-hop band – but that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you tell to a Hasidic vocal superstar. At least, not while he’s in the middle of a song.
"We’ll be in touch."
He vanishes back to the bandshell. My grandmother-in-law smiles at me as if she’s planned this the whole time.
"You see?" she says. "You might write lyrics for the superstar. He was drawn to you."
I want to tell her that I was the least part of it, but that doesn’t seem right. She might not even realize how magnetic she is. Or maybe it’s just the magic spell she casts…and I’d hate to be the one to break it.
Matthue Roth (pictured above, right) is our Reader in Residence for March 2010 and author of Yom Kippur A Go-Go and Losers. He is having a moving sale soon and says, "Please buy a bunch of my books, because they’re all really cheap, and because I won’t have to carry as many boxes if you do."