In the past few years I’ve been spending much of my time outside of New York, but now I’m here and I find that coming back is a bit challenging.
When I’m in town I’m oblivious to the changes happening around me. Yes, I have eyes and I can see the changes but more often than not they don’t really register. It’s a totally different story when I get to experience the changes without living through them; the changes register fast and I get lost.
Some changes are small. TimeOut New York is now free. Not that I’ve read it in God-knows-how-many-years, but never has anybody shoved the magazine in my face, saying: “Take it, it’s free.”
In the old days, the Village Voice was free. Today it’s TimeOut NY.
I don’t even know if the Village Voice still exists.
Back then, I was the only white man; forget the only Jew.
In the old days we would wait at 2 a.m. near a newsstand on Astor Place, where the Voice was presumably first delivered, to be the first to buy the paper. Especially the artists amongst us. “I’m dying to read what Michael Feingold wrote about my play,” theater people would say, week after week. Those days are long gone, and Michael is not in the Voice anymore.
In the old days we also used to go to the New York Times building at its former address. We chatted with the guards and bribed them into giving us the just-printed culture section. A review in The Times meant life or death.
These Apple Watch days, a blog by a Moishe or a Christina often means more than any Times.
Well, yesterday was yesterday and today is today.
And today I’ve been invited by a bunch of European tourists to go with them to Williamsburg — a neighborhood I haven’t seen in ages.
Years ago, I lived in “the Spanish section” of Williamsburg, as they called it in those days. There was the Jewish section, the “Hasidic section,” and there was the Spanish one. A perfect place for me, wouldn’t you think? I did, and I moved in. I was the only white man; forget the only Jew. When I had just arrived, with my worldly goods in one little van, the locals who caught me carrying my goods from the van into my new apartment yelled at me: “Get the f—k outta here, white ass!” I didn’t. I liked the apartment, six rooms on the top floor, and that was enough for me. I didn’t know one word in Spanish, they didn’t know one word in Yiddish and somehow we communicated. For example: One day a Spanish guy brought me a day-old cat; he didn’t ask me and I didn’t object. I started teaching the cat some Yiddish songs and she loved me. We had a great relationship.
My old friends who came to visit me, nice Jews, ran away the moment after they approached my new abode. “What are you doing there?” they called to ask an hour or two later, once they had reached a safe distance. “Having a good time,” I said. “You are out of your mind. Can’t you see the gang signs all over?” they asked. No, I couldn’t. I saw people, playing loud music in a funny language on the street, with their huge boom boxes; my cat responded in Yiddish kvetches and I thought I lived in paradise.
Now I’m in Williamsburg again, for my little date with my history.
What a difference!
No gangs anywhere in sight, at least not that I can see.
What do I see?
Romantic-looking streets, expensive little stores, healthy restaurants, trendy cafés and many young people, mostly white, sipping vegan drinks while discussing how to help humanity, guide the disadvantaged, make peace world over and aid the poor wherever they are.
They call themselves “liberals.”
And I explode in a bitter laugh.
My old Spanish neighbors are long gone from this place. They, the poor, have been pushed away to make room for the rich, the very rich who talk about helping the poor.
While I was away, if I get this correctly, the very definition of “liberal” has gone through a huge change. In the old days, “liberals” demanded that the poor be given better chances, and be guaranteed a better living. Today’s liberals, as my eyes and ears testify, make the better living for themselves, feeling righteous in the very same dwellings from which the poor have been forced out.
If my cat were still alive to see this she’d meow a huge “Oy vey!”
How did this change happen?
Totally disappointed, I leave the Spanish section and go to the Hasidic one.
I used to know that place as well.
When I came to the US of A, years before my Spanish period, I lived with the Satmar Hasidim. Those, too, were interesting days. Some of the younger Hasidim would give me money to go to the newsstand and buy them the newest Playboy. They didn’t care for the Village Voice or The New York Times, but Playboy was a different story. “Tell the guy who sells you the paper to wrap it in brown paper,” they said. “Don’t give it to me without the bag!” I did what they asked me, and they taught me Yiddish in return. I knew a little bit before, but they taught me Yiddish with nuances.
Do you know what I mean?
Let me give you an example.
In Yiddish, the nuanced Yiddish, you don’t say, “East, west, north and south.” What you say is this: “Aroop and arif, ahin in aher” (Up and down, there and here).
I loved it.
Did Hasidic Williamsburg change?
Surprisingly, it’s almost exactly the same as I remember it. Yeah, if anyone wants Playboy today they wouldn’t wrap it in a bag but download it on an iPad, but other than this Hasidic Williamsburg is practically the same. Nothing changes here, it seems.
I’m not sure, but I have an idea. The Satmars never called themselves liberals or socialists, even though they always acted as if they indeed were. In their community, the rich and the poor go to the same shul, and in the shul they do the same: laugh a little, cry a little, do a little business here and a little business there, chat about who married who and who divorced who and then take a moment to talk to God in a Hungarian accent. That done, they go home and eat more or less the same thing: gefilte fish, kishke, kneidel, kugel and cholent. Nobody here’s vegan, no one plans to join a peace mission to Palestine, and everybody eats plenty of kneidels and kugels. Preparing these dishes, some of which are made of old bread, fits every budget — especially that of the poor.
What I still don’t know is how these Hasidic Jews relate to their new neighbors. In the old days the Hasidic parent would say to his or her child: “If you don’t study you will grow up to be Spanish!” That scared the little kids. What do they say to their children today? I guess something along the lines of “If you don’t study you’ll grow up to be a liberal and eat vegan.”
This would scare me.
I take the train into Manhattan, and I almost have a heart attack.
I can’t believe what I see and what I smell.
I never, ever, paid any attention to this before but now I can’t believe my eyes and my nose. The train stations in this city look like a horror story and they smell even worse. So dirty. So ugly. So stinky. And to complete the picture, mice and rats are running all over. God, Cairo looks nicer! Am I really in NYC? Is this one of the richest cities of our time?
How didn’t I see this before? This is the one thing that didn’t change, only I never paid any attention to it.
Oh, God: Save me!
If only my cat were here!
I desperately need something to distract me.
Give me a Playboy, unwrapped. Even give me the free TimeOut. Just put it in a brown bag, please!
Tuvia Tenenbom is the author of “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room” and “Catch the Jew!”
Why Satmar Hasidim Are More Liberal Than Liberals