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Too Cool

Seduced by lower rents and edgy bars, a former Hasid moves to hipster Brooklyn. But what he gains in nightlife, he loses in camaraderie. What happened to nosy neighbors?

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Bushwick, Brooklyn. (Thibaut Branger/Flickr)

What I wouldn’t give these days for one nosy neighbor. For someone to chat me up in the hallway, ask where I’m from, what I do for a living, and how much I earn per week. Or at least for someone to knock on my door early one morning looking to borrow some milk, a cup of sugar, a few eggs for breakfast.

I’m not a lonely old man living alone in the middle of nowhere. I am a 36-year-old New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn, and I have many friends scattered throughout the five boroughs. It’s just that I’m not used to meeting neighbors and sharing no more than vague and grudgingly polite pleasantries with them. Where I come from—the Hasidic communities of Borough Park, Brooklyn, and New Square and Monsey, N.Y., northwest of the city—the neighborly indifference that most New Yorkers are used to doesn’t exist.

In the past, each time I moved to a new home my fellow Hasidic neighbors came knocking. They brought piping hot pans of potato kugel, plates of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and rolls of cinnamon cake. Then they would ask for my name and occupation and spend a few minutes trying to place me within an appropriate sphere of mutual friends, relatives, and acquaintances. In my case it was usually, “Deen? I don’t know any Deens, but I know a Deem. You sure your name’s not Deem.” I was sure it wasn’t.

Several years ago, I decided to discard religious observance and the austere lifestyle with which I was raised. I left my long black coat and black hat to gather dust in the storage room of a friend’s basement along with a small collection of religious texts and audio-cassettes of old Talmud lectures. My ex-wife and five children moved to an apartment in New Square, and I rented a small apartment not far from them, on the outskirts of Monsey. I wanted to live close to my children and my siblings and their families. I also found it comforting to remain living among Hasidim, even though I no longer lived like them. If others thought them freakishly stuck in 18th-century Poland, I thought visiting 18th-century Poland was just fine as long as the kugel was hot and the neighbors lent a hand when my car battery needed a boost.

However, seduced by lower rents, cool bars, and the prospect of being closer to friends in Brooklyn, I decided two years ago to move to Bushwick—Brooklyn’s newest bastion of hipster faux-bohemianism. There are many many differences here, of course, but I was most struck by the standoffishness of my new neighbors. It started the first day, after I parked my rented U-Haul in front of my new apartment and unloaded the last items from the truck. I was sitting on the stoop for a quick cigarette, and just as I crushed the butt underfoot, three of my upstairs neighbors stepped out of the building, two of them outfitted in vintage sneakers and plaid shirts, with scraggly bed-head hairdos. The third had long bleached-blond hair and black leggings and carried a beat-up guitar case.

I smiled and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Shulem. Just moved in.”

They gave me limp handshakes, mumbled their names—the bleach blond, I remember, was, Brian—and took off.

Later that night, I was kept awake until 4 a.m. by the guitar-playing in their apartment, which was directly above mine. I wasn’t disturbed by the music. Instead, I wondered how I might join their jam session. But these people and their ways were strange to me, and I imagined a conversation stunted by our lack of common interests. The more prudent approach, I decided, would be to make their slow and steady acquaintance.

Two months passed, however, and the hipsters on the third floor had yet to make another appearance. Weren’t they curious, I wondered, who I was, or if we had any mutual friends or relatives? Granted, it was unlikely, but how did they know?

One day, I sat on the front stoop and ached for some casual neighborly conversation. From the corner came two young guys in white shirts wearing backpacks, who, for a moment—and I don’t know why—I imagined were lovers. As they came within earshot, they gave me friendly smiles. One of them offered a cheery “Hi.” They turned out to be Mormon elders. Whatever, I thought, and decided to engage in a theological debate. But the elders didn’t know why one should take the Bible as the word of God other than the fact that they fervently believed that one should. Then they offered me some pamphlets and went on their missioning way.

I went back to thinking about my upstairs neighbors. I craved for a more substantial engagement with them, but they always flitted by, and the opportunity seemed maddeningly elusive. A friend, another ex-Hasid who lived several blocks away, suggested they might just be very quiet hipsters, that he knew plenty of hipsters who were perfectly friendly, and besides, there was no such thing as a hipster. “Call it what you will,” I said, “but I’ve got some pretty strange neighbors. And Mormons they’re not.”

Several more months passed. My upstairs neighbors appeared rarely, and when they did we exchanged the briefest and most reticent of pleasantries. I couldn’t explain why I thought about them; it wasn’t that I needed friends. I just wanted some of the old inappropriate nosiness, dammit.

Of course, I could’ve initiated some nosiness of my own. I could’ve discarded the advice a secular friend once gave me regarding the non-Hasidim of New York: You’re allowed only two questions for every one statement. Secular people, I was told, don’t take kindly to interrogations. Unlike Hasidim, who will ask a dozen or more deeply personal questions within 60 seconds of meeting you—including, among other things, your amount of credit card debt and the amount you receive in food stamps—non-Hasidim, I was told, prefer small talk on topics of no real concern to anyone: the long line at the bagel shop, the odd smell on the subway platform, annoying Park Slope mothers.

Eventually I gave up. I’d hear my neighbors on the staircase in the hallway, or I’d see them chaining their bicycles to the second-floor guardrail, and if I said, “Hi,” I got a “Hi” in return, but never more. If I made a remark about the weather, they said, “Yeah.” If I said their party the other night sounded like fun, they said, “Yeah. It was pretty dope.” (Dope? Where were these people from?) If I remarked that someone really ought to stop keeping the outside door open, I got an odd look followed by another “Yeah.”

Halloween came around, and a friend and I were leaving for a party when one of the neighbors passed in the hallway wearing an assortment of odd garments in a variety of colors.

“Are you a hamburger?” my friend asked.

The neighbor suddenly turned. “Yes!” she said. “You realized! That’s so cool!”

My jaw hung open. It wasn’t exactly a conversation, but it was certainly more than the usual monosyllabic response. But before I could say anything she was down the stairs and out the door.

The next day, outside on the front stoop, the girl appeared again, this time sans costume.

“Hey,” I said. “You’re the girl with the hamburger costume.”

“Yeah,” she said, and walked off.

Shulem Deen, a former Skver Hasid, is the founding editor of Unpious.com.

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Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

You walked away from five children for a cheaper apartment? Shame on you!

Rebecca Rubin says:

I totally understand what you mean. When I visit my relatives in Boro Park, I love/hate, but more love, the heightened nosy neighbor attitude of the residents. Once I dropped off a silk blouse to be cleaned at the corner dry cleaner and when I came back 2 days later the guy glanced up from the far end of the store and located my blouse while I still had the ticket in my hand. When I asked how on earth he remembered me he said “We don’t get many strangers’ As opposed to the Korean run dry cleaner in Chicago where they never recognize me, no matter how many times I walk through the door. thanks for the confirmation.

Aaron says:

Shulam – thank you for your story! Touching, funny, and honest. I have a similar story, just that I left the litvish world. Like you, I have a DEEP desire to make a kesher with all the non-Jews I meet. They, unfortunately, don’t know from community and kesher making. Although I am not frum anymore, I hold by tikkun olam and one way I see my mission in life is to inspire “connectivity” in people by outreaching to them as a human and being friendly and kind – EVEN if they aren’t!

One critique for you Shulam – I can tell you didn’t simply leave your family for a cheaper apt – but you insinuated that’s why you left them – I crave to hear a more honest sharing about why you left your family.

Dovid says:

Aaron,

You may already know this, but outside NYC, most non-Jews DO know from community and kesher-making, particularly in the South, but elsewhere, as well.

I guess its less expensive for shulem to write in the Tablet than go to a shrink

suzie says:

Is no one going to point out that the choices you have made have been incredibly selfish? Leaving your wife and kids, then moving farther away from them so you could live closer to your friends? What about your wife getting to hang out with her friends? Your priorities are upside down and you’ll probably wind up a lonely old man living alone. Weren’t you a child? how do you not remember how important fathers are to their children? Sad sad sad!

stef says:

as Bob Marley said “you’re runnin’ and you’re runnin’ and you’re runnin’ away, but you can’t run away from yourself”. Shame how people who come from extreme childhoods can’t find a middle path.

dvoyre says:

So the secularim don’t want to know your credit rating during the first 60 seconds or how many kids you have, but neither do they ask “Are you JewISH?????” like total assholes, going around trying to identify people in racial, physiognomic ways … or if they can make b’al tchuvah of you or why you’re wearing sleeveless instead of long sleeve if you’re female, or God forbid, your own hair instead of a sheitl. You’ve left a close-knit community and also a stultifying, fundamentalist one that wants to know all that stuff in the first 60 seconds because it’s watching and disciplining at all times. Welcome to the trade off. Good luck.

Glenda says:

Hello please read this clearly: “My ex-wife and five children moved to an apartment in New Square, and I rented a small apartment not far from them, on the outskirts of Monsey. I wanted to live close to my children and my siblings and their families.”

Now read further: “…seduced by lower rents, cool bars, …closer to friends in Brooklyn, I decided two years ago to move to Bushwick”

In the fly-over states (Michigan) where I live, Jews and non-Jews, all know from community. It’s NYC.

Marc Kay says:

Gleda,
thanx for clarifying. its clear to me that the judgmental comments came from the few who didnt read the article carefully. They sum up a person’s life and decisions from a few paragraphs.

Mordy & S. says:

To all you nice people out there who also happen to be judgemental: I live in the Chasidic community with a wife and five kids, just like the author had. The only difference is I don’t have his balls.

Not everyone is cut out to live in an oppressive, suppressive, depressive, xenophobic, homophobic cult. And you can’t blame them for that. Of course, some people, like me, distract themselves with potato kugel, local gossip, and prayer chants. But can you blame a truth-seeker who isn’t seduced by the plethora of earthly pleasures available only in Chasidic culture? Some people go out and follow their destiny and higher calling.

Judgementalists aren’t any better than the mean-spirited rabbinical powers who actively discourage the author’s children from having a relationship with their father, solely because their father doesn’t believe in invisible spirits, the ritual uncleanliness of menstrual blood, and in the whacking of willow twigs.

philip mann says:

It`s a real pity that almost all chassism who go off do a 180,with no middle ground. This guy sounds like he traded in a kingdom for some fool`s gold.
Yes,the chassidim can be nosey and intrusive. But they also care about people,and they form a very strong community. maybe they should spend five minutes each month minding their own business,but you never feel isolated with them.
In this case,months pass between even casual contact. For all their `hipsterness ( is there some time warp here?) tey are still cold and standoff-ish. Any bets on whether shulem goes back to his former life ?

Rebbecca says:

Philip –
I just want to bring your attention to the fact that a “kingdom” and “fool’s gold” is completely subjective. This is not a discussion about the pros and cons of an Hasidic community versus any other community, nor is the moving to Bushwick the punchline. The article is simply an observation of life in a community and that’s the way it should be taken. No need to latch onto the one controversial topic in the article, especially when you don’t know personal details or general facts of how insular communities such as New Square operate.

philip mann says:

@ Rebbecca

I am very aware of life in a chasidic community- I live in one,even though I`m modern-sort of. I`m also very aware of New Skver,and its foibles.

I won`t lecture anybody about their choice of belief,as long as they respect my own choice. My point was that many of those who do leave seem to have taken for granted the friendship they had in their old community,and they miss it deeply.

justayid says:

“It`s a real pity that almost all chassism who go off do a 180,with no middle ground.”

actually this is relevant, to the particular concerns raised in shulem’s piece. Its not only the south that would have a tad more neighborliness and intrusiveness. Many non-hasidic Jewish communities would have it – some more (many modern Orthodox communities) some much less – (more westernized secular and Reform J communities) but even those with less would have some. Yet so many OTD do seem to leave the Jewish community behind completely. I don’t blame them – they leave for their own reasons, not for the reasons “our” grandparents and great grandparents did – some of those reasons may preclude identification with “mainstream” Jewish communities. And even when they do not, they are not necessarily equipped to fit into our communities – nor are our communities, with so many other pressing concerns, oriented for outreach to them.

At some point, as the liberal Jewish movements shrink, and the number of OTDs grow (if only with the demographic growth of the Haredi world) the liberal Jewish/OTF interface will become more important to liberal Judaism. It would be well to at least begin to think about possible strategies.

Shulem — I commend you on speaking about the important issues you raise in this article. At it’s core, what I hear you talking about is the desire to build relationships and community having come from a place where that was so valued. Keep on keeping on, there are places where people really do value community…maybe a bit less in hipster Williamsburg (but that’s coming from a Prospect Heights perspective — no offense meant to happy Williamsburg hipsters)

To others commenting…There are plenty of people out there who leave for various reasons — ask, listen, learn — be careful not to judge and accuse. That’s my two cents.

Aaron H says:

I love the story. Great ending.

Being an ex chusid I know exactly what you mean.

So, zug mir, where did you learn to write so well…

Genig Shoyn says:

I left as well – and one of the reasons was that I don’t need this yenteing and phony friendship. The friendships tend to end the moment you become more successful than your frum neighbors, or the moment they see you have some different interest.

Then, you hear the whispers in the mikve – Yankel got ahead because he stole money from the government (because it is the only way they ever get ahead), he’s always reading things you’re not supposed to, whatever.

Yahweh is a myth. There are no chosen people, no one runs the world, and it is all an anachronistic social club. You want camaraderie and ritual, become a Mason.

Yosef Goldstein says:

Didn”t really care for this artical, this guy is a wimp not a man. He should have stayed by his childeren. The sad thing that the kids will learn from this guy is how to run away. Shame on you sir…………

non judgemental says:

How can you people read a few paragraphs and think you know that person’s whole life story? How dare you judge him before you have walked a mile in his shoes? Why do you think you are qualified to give him mussar? Its people like you who alien ate potential balei teshuvas, who cause people to go otd.

Glenda says:

Another point: I’ve studied the chassidim and some of those who left, such as Mr Deen, from their various chassidik enclaves in and around Brooklyn.
I’d hate to jump the gun and judge anyone coming from any Ultra Orthodox community whether they are married or have children etc. As I understand most of the young men and woman are not given the choice, but only set up and decided into marriage by their parents. Some at the young age of 17 and 18 years old!

babawawa says:

I am a ba’al teshuva, so I’d like to weigh in here. I don’t judge anyone for walking away – our lives are very hard but the trade off in friendship and community is worth is. So is G-d. That said, both my older boys have walked away, but the difference between this generation and that of the Haskala is that my boys, and the many like them, never leave or give up Judaism. They redefine it for themselves. I love them dearly and always will. I accept the author’s decisions, and that of the respondents. In the end, I think all G-d wants is that we love and respect each other. If we don’t have achdus (unity) among ourselves, G-d will make it happen, and that often isn’t very pretty.

hipster says:

Looks like u can use a full time job…

Cultural Jew says:

Great article! This behavior of unfriendly un-neighborly behavior is not limited to NYC. What the author has described is exactly what Portland OR is like. And it isn’t limited to hipsters either. People with manners are neighborly & friendly, those without manners are just “friendly”. While I don’t really care for the yentanet approach, I do wish I had friends and neighbors that offered to help and were reliable. For the most part, since I live in mormon-land, it is the mormon’s who I can rely on, not the Jewish community

“It`s a real pity that almost all chassism who go off do a 180,with no middle ground.”

I didn’t. But let me tell you, the middle ground is a hard place to be. John Boehner and the president have nothing on me. I have learned that delicate dance and it’s quite a tightrope, let me tell you. It’s about finding your own truth and still maintaining connection to extended family. What it comes down to is this: I give 90 percent, they give ten. On a good day. And you’re always asking yourself if it’s worth it.

MC TRUTH says:

Shulem left the truly civilized world of Torah observance and good family people to hang out with empty, artsy bohemians so wrapped up in themselves that they don’t see passed their own two feet. I guarantee if you invited 15 of the Jews in Hipster brooklyn to a good gemara shiur, or for a good Shabbos lunch they would all look at you incredulously and say “What are you doing here, man”.

Welcome to secular humanism Shulem. It has vibrant colors, great music and art but underneath the facade it is cold and empty. It is not sitting on 3000 years of love, hope and happiness of warm Jewish traditions, deep Torah values and kugel and kishka. It is sitting on an Andy Warhol soup can.

I wish you love peace and happiness. I just know that you will not find it on the side of the tracks you are living on. Perhaps its not too late to come back home…

Good Grief says:

So, MC TRUTH, why must only Jewish hipsters be invited? Why the insinuation that they alone would (eventually) understand the inferiority of the secular world?

You speak from self-righteous ignorance, and your claims about the hospitality and community of the Chassidim is utterly belied by your own tone and obvious xenophobia.

I cannot speak for Shulem, but given the choice, I would choose the freedom of the real world over the best Shabbos cholent this world has ever seen every time. But of course, even choice is an entity only available outside of the domineering, backward cult.

By the way, honestly, the absurdity of suggesting that Shabbos lunch and some antiquated lectures could win over art, reason, freedom, and independence shows your position’s ludicrousness all on its own; your entire argument is actually almost too ridiculous even to confront.

Feel free to babble on about that which you do not understand, and use as many “cold, empty” buzzwords as you like – the only person you are convincing is yourself. But clearly that is necessary, no?

MC TRUTH says:

The reason I specified hipsters is because like true Torah Jews, they live an alternative lifestyle. Similarly to observant Jews they are rebelling against the mainstream and swimming against the tide. Although baalei teshuva come from all walks of life, it is often those that already have found holes in the status quo and have started asking big question who come home to Torah life. I grew up in downtown NYC and lived the art/music life for my teens. I am a musician and writer. I have seen and experienced the world of the NY Hipster firsthand and later decided that it is totally simple compared to the endless depth of gemara and all Torah learning. Peace Bro.

I have no problem that I was born orthodox and the path for me was chosen before I even had the opportunity to do so on my own, I am 23 and married and I have 2 beautiful girls and yes bills but it is a 0 burden on me I love it I have spoken to many non religious people including Gentiles and they envied the fact that we have a meaning in life. For example in your article you view our lifestyle as a nuisance(we can’t drive in shabbos or what ever) but when in fact all those things are for our benefits , why would you want to run around with hipsters when you can get to relax 1 day a week I would never give this up.AND MY MAIN POINT IS: YES THERE IS A GOD AND HIS TORAH IS A USER MANUAL FOR SUCCESS AND WHOEVER FOLLOWS SEES SUCCESS INSTANTLY THE DA VINCI CODE WONT STAY A LEGENDARY BOOK FOREVER ! YET THE TORAH GODS BOOK STOOD BY WARS AND IN 2012 WHEN CHRISTIANS ARE ALL CONFUSED (OLD TESTAMENT NEW TESTAMENT) WE STILL HAVE THE SAME TORAH. YOU WANT TO HAVE YOUR EARTLY DESIRES NO PROBLEM BUT IT COMES WITH A PRICE DIVORCE, BROKEN HEARTS, HERPES,AIDS, AND THEN YOU’LL EVENTUALLY DIE HOW SAD ………

Le Newyorkais says:

Schulem, in my 40 years as an OTD, I read u. It is very hard to make friends in the “world.” Religious communities come with friends, but an OTD is alone out there. We maintain, without even noticing, our charedi habits and previous lifestyle. Usually our table manners take time to reverse. and, our background lacks a lot of things valuable to the world. Most Haredim grow up without playing real sports or a musical instrument. we r not fit. We have not traveled as much.
My advice, Schulem, u will get a bettter reception from Reformed and secular Jews. They r more tolerant and welcoming to an OTD than a random goy would be.

This is amazing! I am also dumbfounded by hipsters and their general lack of ability to enagge (though obviously this is a blanket statement – not all hipsters are like this… but most are, I swear…). I am friendly and Midwestern and get the craziest looks when I try to engage most young, hip NYers in conversation. What the hell? Well written! Thanks for sharing this piece :)

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Too Cool

Seduced by lower rents and edgy bars, a former Hasid moves to hipster Brooklyn. But what he gains in nightlife, he loses in camaraderie. What happened to nosy neighbors?

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