The other day, just as I was coming up from the subway at Manhattan’s Herald Square, a Hasidic man in full attire — long coat and broad-brimmed hat, in 95 degree heat — rode right past me on a blue CitiBike. I kicked myself for not having a camera at the ready; it was a perfect example of a Hasid doing his thing without concern for the petty politics of his leaders. It was only later that I realized the timeliness of it: I was on my way to see the play “Division Avenue,” which is set against the backdrop of Hasidim vs. bicyclists in Williamsburg, and the political circus that has sprung up in recent years over the issue.
“Division Avenue,” written by Miki Bone and directed by Dean Nolen and produced at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is about bicycles, but more importantly, it’s about a community that has lived more than a half century comfortably cloistered in its tiny New York City enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, only to be encroached upon, through the ‘90s and aughts, first physically, by hipsterdom and gentrification, and then virtually, by the Internet and DVDs and smartphones.
The play’s central character is Efraim (played by Jordan Feltner), a Satmar Hasidic widower in his 20s who is in the midst of leaving his community after a personal crisis of faith. He meets Sarah (Mary Rasmussen), a Texan transplant, avid cyclist and social worker. A romance develops, and Sarah soon takes on the role of coach, guiding Efraim’s tentative steps outside his sheltered world.
In the meantime, Efraim’s father, Moishe, played exceptionally by Mitch Greenberg, hires Dean (Colby Lane Chambers), a local civil rights attorney, to file a lawsuit against bicyclists who clandestinely repaint bike lanes along Williamsburg streets.
Dean, who is gay and Baptist and Texan (all of which Moishe knows: “I googled you”), had a boyfriend who died in a bicycle accident, and so is now hostile to cyclists, and sympathetic to the Satmars. He too thinks bicycles are dangerous, although the Satmars are opposed for different reasons: They fear the outside influences bike lanes bring — immodest attire and disruptions in traffic patterns and, most importantly, a reminder that they can no longer keep outsiders on the outside.
Moishe, who takes for granted that Williamsburg is a “sacred place,” cannot understand why others don’t see his point of view. “Do they have bike lanes at the Vatican?” he asks, because, of course, bike lanes must violate anyone’s sense of decorum for sacred places.
Unbeknownst to either Efraim or his father, Sarah the bicyclist and Dean the civil rights attorney are roommates. It doesn’t take long before all these different worlds collide within the space of Sarah and Dean’s apartment on Williamsburg’s eponymous Division Avenue, only a short distance from where Efraim and his family live. Screaming matches ensue, along with many bits of both hilarity and poignancy.
Bike lanes might be a strange backdrop to pick for this story, given that the issue has pitifully little to do with Hasidic life overall and is also unique to Williamsburg — certainly not the only Hasidic community in the world undergoing transformation, although, as far as I know, the only one to take a stance on bike lanes. Nothing in Jewish law forbids riding bicycles, and there are plenty of Hasidim who ride them, even if they’re a minority and not very visible. But the symbolism of the biking conflict works well for its purposes. Like much of Hasidic life, what’s important is not what the holy books say, but a subtext that says how to respond to changes unforeseen by the holy books. As Efraim tells his parents: “The world is changing, and Williamsburg must change with it.” His father sees it differently: “We don’t need to subject ourselves to these shkotzim.”
Efraim has a mother too, Gita (Joanna Gluskak), although her role sometimes seems reduced to the obligatory Jewish mother, overwrought with self-flagellation and desperate attempts to drag her son along on her guilt trip.
It needs to be said: This Satmar family, supposedly living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, circa 2013, looks anything but. The father looks like a Lubavitcher who, somewhat oddly, also wears long peyes. The mother looks vaguely like an Eastern European housewife from the 1920s, with her frumpy apron and a turban that might be true to its origins but nothing like the turbans Hasidic women wear.
The son, Efraim, looks like a hip Y.U. kid in a plaid, colorful button-down shirt, the only hint of religious affiliation being a rather unassuming suede yarmulke. He is in turns strangely wise about the world (regarding Sarah’s “modest-paying” work, he says: “Most meaningful professions are”) and also strangely puzzled by it. When Sarah tells him she lives with a gay man, he seems taken aback. “And this arrangement…this is good?” He’s a Y.U. kid with an accent like Borat and the sensitivity of a school librarian.
Which is to say: That might just be how some people see Hasidim, which maybe says more about the limits of outsiders’ perceptions than anything else.
All of this is to be expected, perhaps. Like most film and stage productions set in the Hasidic world, the costumes and accents and mannerisms are wildly and unfortunately inaccurate, and it makes suspension of disbelief a real problem for anyone who knows the Hasidic world in real life. If you can get past that, however (and one can, perhaps, with difficulty), “Division Avenue” does present some substantive points to ponder.
The plot has a hint of slapstick — the wrong person often appearing at the wrong time, sending characters scrambling for clothes and for awkward explanations, which is all fine and good if you like that sort of thing. The performances grabs you emotionally in several places, although not always predictably. Personally, I was as much intrigued by Sarah and Dean’s interactions than by the Hasidic characters; perhaps because they looked believably like two young professionals living in a shared apartment in Brooklyn, and so I could forget for a moment they were actors — which (at the risk of belaboring the point) was difficult with most of the other characters.
The play, somewhat ironically, shows a certain distrust of Hasidic ways that perhaps mirrors Hasidic distrust of outsiders. When, at the beginning of the play, Efraim and his father witness a medical emergency involving Sarah, Efraim yells to his father to call 911, adding peevishly: “And don’t call Hatzolah either.” As if the latter is just a bunch of guys who love their walkie-talkies, but clearly inadequate for real emergencies.
Similarly, when a police officer shows up at Gita’s door for a rather benign purpose, she looks at him suspiciously: “We have our own police,” she says, referring to the Shomrim, which the play presents as a group that handles all police matters, not only violent crime but also domestic dysfunction and the like, all in order to keep the real police out of the community. Sarah’s occupation as a social worker, too, is meant to give a glimpse of the hidden and sordid underside of Hasidic families which, the play not so subtly hints, only outsiders know how to properly address.
Where “Division Avenue” is remarkably astute, though, is when it gets to the heart of the tensions within contemporary Hasidic life in New York City. In several searing scenes, the dialogue between Efraim and his parents reveals some of the more overlooked aspects of what makes people unhappy within the Hasidic world. After Efraim decides to shave his beard and move outwardly towards a more open lifestyle, he tells his parents, “I will no longer be coerced to conform. The use of fear and shame — that is oppression.” With that, he speaks of a frustration that is simply a rebellion against the pressure to suppress individual desires for the sake of the greater good.
Efraim’s father responds not by denying the ethos of the Hasidic lifestyle but by summoning its historical context and the Jew’s precarious place in the world, both physically and spiritually. “Still there are seeds of hatred everywhere…. You leave and you lose everything.” As for Efraim’s complaints of oppression, his father can only mock his trivial notions. What do you know from oppression? he seems to be saying. “There are no sidewalks here paved with the desecrated gravestones of your ancestors! To me, Williamsburg is an oasis.”
But Moishe, too, recognizes the rigidness of Hasidic life, except that to him, maintaining outward appearances is important, even if he might tolerate private transgression. When Moishe suspects Efraim of sleeping with a prostitute, he assumes it was at the rabbi’s directive: “Did he instruct you on the Trojans?” he asks his son. Never mind that even if sleeping with a prostitute was allowed, doing so with Trojans would certainly not be. It is nonetheless, a rather insightful nod to the fact that Hasidic life, while restrictive, also has certain unspoken allowances for a lonely widower and his natural urges. The important thing is that facades are appropriately maintained.
The production is accompanied by cello, played by Callum Ingram, who, with his music and hauntingly austere vocals, sets the perfect tone for what is at the heart of this drama: the bleak world of the devout as they watch their fortress collapse and their loved ones cross the moat to the outside. Still, all the faithful can do is soldier on, because their own world, with all its problems, is not only one of ideology and belief but also history and suffering and death and the unique joy of finding refuge in a land that, while not Jewish, allows not only the religious freedom that Hasidim seek, and the prosperous economic milieu that allows them material comforts, but also the unique ability to court the halls of political power in historically unprecedented ways, giving them the illusion of being the masters not only of their souls but also their territory.
And therein lies the conceit, for Williamsburg does not belong to the Hasidim, and sovereignty of the land, as the anti-Zionist Satmars know only too well, is not possible without a Messiah. And so ultimately they must cede to what Efraim at one point calls “peaceful parallelism” with the world around them. That is, they can live distinctly as long as their lines are in parallel with the rest of society. Once the lines cross, however, the Hasidim must, if only because they will be forced to, afford others the kind of accommodation they so desperately and earnestly seek for themselves.
Watch a teaser for ‘Division Avenue’:
Williamsburg Bike Wars Provide Family Drama
Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid, and the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return” a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Salon, Haaretz, Tablet, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn.