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What smoked fish and Haredi Jews don’t have in common — and your weekend reads

This is an adaptation of our weekly Shabbat newsletter, sent by our editor-in-chief on Friday afternoons. Sign up here to get the Forward’s free newsletters delivered to your inbox. And click here to download and print a PDF of Your Weekend Reads.

Shortly after I first moved to New York City in 1998, my dad discovered Fish Friday. Dad is an old-school Jewish foodie who knows his way around a side of smoked salmon, knows the difference between delicious and actually special, knows the value of a bargain — and never minds going out of his way for both.

So then as now, he would try to arrange visits to me from his home in Boston to always include a Friday morning, when the ACME Smoked Fish Co. opens the doors of its Williamsburg factory to anyone willing to wait in a long line in a refrigerated room to get the good stuff at wholesale prices.

This morning, I made the pilgrimage with Dad for the first time. But when we got to the behemoth old building on Gem Street, things had changed.

There was a QR code posted on the wall under a sign urging social distance; all orders were to be made online, and brought out in boxes by guys in blue coats and masks.

Six feet of distance sign

Dad tried asking one of the fish guys to pick out a three-pound whitefish for him, but, alas, it was not to be. Only two-pounders at Fish Friday now, to keep the price ($18, less than half of what it would be retail) uniform. He couldn’t pick which piece of whole lox he’d take home to hand slice. There would be no little tastes like before. 

There was also no line. Most customers had pre-placed orders and came at the appointed time to find their treats wrapped and ready. A few — a Brooklyn hipster with a plant poking out of his backpack, three young Chinese women — came unprepared like us and stood in the autumn sunshine for maybe 15 minutes.

The guys in blue coats said Fish Friday only disappeared for about two weeks after the pandemic struck New York in March — and now was doing even more business than before.

Masked worker

Image by Unknown (Courtesy of Jodi Rudoren)

Just another example of a business or organization adapting creatively to the new normal and finding a silver lining: now Fish Friday works also for people with less time, less patience, less commitment than dear old Dad.

I see this everywhere around me, and across the Jewish world: Zoom-shiva and Zoom-Seders have their benefits; many synagogues saw record crowds for streaming high holiday services compared to a typical year’s ticket sales. Those ready to adapt are reaping benefits, those refusing to are in crisis. 

On the way home, we wove through Williamsburg’s Haredi neighborhood, where men and boys in black hats and sidecurls were walking with their lulavs to indoor gatherings for Hoshanah Rabah, the last day of sukkot.

Haredi men carrying lulav and etrog down the street

Image by Unknown (Courtesy of Jodi Rudoren)

All week, such Orthodox enclaves across New York have been in crisis over the government’s crackdown on coronavirus restrictions, with violent protests two nights running in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. All was quiet in Williamsburg on Friday morning, but while nearly all the hipsters walking their dogs in the gentrified neighborhoods around ACME wore masks, almost none of the Haredim a mile away did. 

This second spike of the virus among Haredi Jews, and the rejection of government restrictions by at least a very visible minority, is again straining their relations with the liberal streams of Judaism.

At a Zoom news conference on Friday, Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Cong. Beth Elohim, a large Reform shul in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, referred to Haredim as our “cousins” and expressed empathy about antisemitism they encounter “because they’re more visible,” but also called for the arrest of Heshy Tishcler, the leader of the Borough Park protests, for inciting violence against a Haredi journalist, Jacob Kornbluh.

“Partial compliance is not enough,” she said. “Total compliance is necessary, and it’s not antisemitic to call for it.” 

Two of the most defining characteristics of Haredi Jewish communities are resistance to adaptation, and insularity — and both are very difficult to abide in this coronavirus era.

Insularity is a fiction: there is no way to keep the virus from spreading between Williamsburg’s shtetl-like neighborhood dotted with balcony-sukkahs to its shiny new loft buildings a few blocks away; we actually are all in this together. And the resistance to adaptation that liberal Jews once found simply befuddling now feels dangerous.

So many rabbis, liberal and Orthodox and Haredi, too, have said clearly over the past months that the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, takes precedence over all other mitzvot. So why, men and boys on the streets of Williamsburg, won’t you put on a mask and wave your lulavs and etrogs outside with enough space between you to keep yourselves and everybody else safe? A little adaptation could go a long way — and maybe even yield a silver lining. 

Your Weekend Reads

Here are the stories I’ve selected for you to savor over Shabbat and Sunday. Click here if you’d like to download and print a PDF of them.

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