The recent snowfall reminded me that it was that season again, so I decided to visit one of those camera mega-stores in Manhattan that sells every kind of TV and camera equipment there is, plus electronic devices I’ve never heard of. The approaching holiday season made me think I should buy myself one of those tiny new video cameras that no longer has a reel of any sort, just one of those little cards you simply take out and insert in your computer, so you too can become the next Fellini.
Upon entering, I noticed that most of the sales force was made up of young men wearing white dress shirts with no ties, along with vests and little fringes peeking out from underneath. They had beards, wore their hair closely cropped and had long curls, payes, dangling from their temples. Most of the curls were black, some were brown, and a few were blonde and red. They scurried around speaking Yiddish with each another and answering those endless questions customers have. They were in uniform, so to speak, except for the different colors of their payes. I smiled, thinking, “We are a people of such variation.”
I was mainly interested in a camera, but instead of asking about smart video cards and mega pixels, I couldn’t resist asking a young man with reddish payes who was standing in front of me if he’d heard about the recent tire slashing and swastika graffiti that seems to be happening almost on a daily basis in Brooklyn. He hadn’t, he said.
That surprised me. I noticed he spoke English with a Yiddish accent, not as heavily as my father had, but my father had been raised in a small shtetl in eastern Poland almost 90 years ago and worked as a ladies handbag operator, far removed from 21st-century technology.
He seemed interested, so I continued to describe some of the incidents in Brooklyn while another young man came over, one with dark payes and a sweet smile. He wanted to know what I had asked his colleague, because he sensed it wasn’t about a camera. He was nosy, like me, and I immediately liked him.
I told him how concerned I was about the recent antisemitic incidents in Brooklyn. He looked bewildered, as well. He and his friend hadn’t heard anything about it. I felt like I was trapped inside a time warp, that these two young men dressed like chasidim from the 19th century were living on another planet not to have heard about these recent events.
“We live in New Jersey,” they said. They obviously didn’t spend their time obsessing about terrorism the way I did. I was jealous.
I was speaking Yiddish by now because it was easier for me to explain in the mameloshn the details as to what had taken place. Yiddish was well suited to descriptions of grief, and the young men continued to listen to my news. They were still so young and had none of my memories that were so intensely shaped during the summer of 1945, when parents busied with themselves trying to hide newspaper photographs of layered bodies. I could sense these young men wondering about me, and how someone who wasn’t dressed like one of their mothers could speak Yiddish the way I did.
One of them got a little brave and asked, “Do you make Shabbes?” There, it was out. He needed to learn more about this stranger.
“Yes,” I said, “I do when I can.”
“Do you know how to make like this with your hands?” he asked, and he circled both hands in front of him the way women do after lighting the Sabbath candles.
“Yes, I do, and then I make like this,” and covered my eyes with both hands the way women traditionally do toward the end of the blessing. By now they were really intrigued and I knew that more questions would follow.
“So,” one of them said jokingly. “You make Shabbes and then your husband takes you out for a drive in the car.”
“No,” I said, “That’s not something we usually do on Friday nights.” I didn’t feel like telling them the car was in the parking garage and it was too much trouble to take it out just to go for a spin. Besides we generally stayed home on Friday nights, especially in winter.
“Do you eat treyf?” the friendlier one asked. The dissection continued.
“No,” I said, “as a matter of fact, we don’t. We aren’t kosher, but we don’t eat shellfish or pork.”
The two of them were glancing at each other while another friend wandered over to see what was going on. “Your children, they don’t speak Yiddish?”
“No,” I answered, “Nor does my husband. I have no one to speak Yiddish with today, only you.”
“In fact,” I added, “We attended an Orthodox shul on Yom Kippur.” This, they had a hard time with. “Yes, there was a mechitza,” the lace curtain that separated the men from the women.
“Your husband is frum?” one of them asked.
“Not frum like you,” I answered, and they laughed. “He likes this particular shul we attend on occasion even though he doesn’t understand Hebrew and isn’t religious like you. He likes what he finds there.”
“What’s the name of this shul?” they asked. They were trying to understand how my husband, who was married to someone who wore pants and didn’t wear a sheytl could go to an Orthodox shul. “The name of the shul is ‘Darech Amuno,’” I told them. “It’s in Greenwich Village. Do you know where that is?” There was no answer.
I could feel how odd this was for them, even though plenty of secular Jews wandered in and out of their store all day long. I wondered how many of the salesmen bothered speaking to customers about something other than cameras or TVs. Speaking Yiddish again was making me feel friendly, too friendly to take them on and start arguing about how most Jews in the world weren’t like them — and yet, were still Jews.
I left knowing they would go home and tell their young wives about a woman who had wandered into the store earlier in the day and how she spoke Yiddish, but that her husband and children didn’t. They would go on to tell their wives how lost we were because we weren’t serious enough or willing enough to perform a sufficient number of the 613 mitzvot the Torah teaches are necessary for the messiah to arrive and, of course, to remain good Jews.
Once upon a time the little girl that still lives inside would never have lifted a pencil on Shabbat for fear of a slap from her mother. The little girl understood the world these young men live in, but was glad she had learned somewhere along the way that Jews come in different colors and traditions, and that each are blessed no differently, even if they no longer sing the song or walk the walk of centuries past.
Roseline Glazer is a writer living in New York.