Boro Park, Brooklyn, on a Saturday morning: An old, ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman in a heavy black dress flags me down in the street. “Sir, sir,” she yells, waving her cane at me, “could you press my elevator button? It’s my Sabbath. I can’t press the button.”
I’ve never seen her before but I follow her across the street to her building, through the vestibule, and past a circle of Hasidic boys throwing a ball around. I’m the only guy not wearing a yarmulke. I’m in blue jeans and they’re in black suits. It’s 10 a.m.
I pull open the elevator door. She steps in and faces me, both hands resting on her cane. She’s the shape of a nesting doll.
“Four please,” she says with a thick Yiddish accent. I press four, she thanks me, and I send her up to home.
How long had she been waiting outside for someone to work the elevator? Did her family watch helplessly from the window? Were her grandchildren asking themselves why did God say no elevators on Saturday?
The Sabbath, or Shabbos – sundown Friday to sundown Saturday -- prohibits the real old world stuff like plowing earth, slaughtering and building a fire, but has since evolved to include no cars, no phones, no handling of cash, no electricity and more. So only a non-Jew could flip a light switch for the Sabbath-observing Jews, or turn on a stove, or work an elevator.
Boro Park hosts the largest community of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel. Sixty percent of the people speak Yiddish. As devout as they are, they’ve found loopholes around the laws of the Old Testament. Especially when it comes to the Sabbath, the time to honor the day God rested, according to the book of Genesis, after God created the universe.
One loophole is the Shabbos Goy. A Shabbos Goy is a non-Jew that Jews can rely on, someone who can operate outside the rules of the Sabbath. A teenage Elvis Presley was once a Shabbos Goy for his Jewish neighbors, the Fruchters, who lived above his family in their two-story flat in Memphis.
Technically I am not a Shabbos Goy. I just look like one to the ultra-Orthodox. I am technically a Jew. I was born to a Jewish mother and according to Jewish law there is no loophole around that. In the small town where I grew up I was the only Jewish kid. We were Reform Jews – which in the pyramid of Judaism is at the bottom. My mom keeps Matzo in the house not just to observe Passover but also because she thinks the giant tasteless, unleavened crackers are slimming. My sister went “kosher” in third grade just so she could get out of having to drink milk with our meat dinners. Now in Boro Park I observe my own small Judaism, in as much as I take advantage of the suspended alternate side parking rules that go in effect every Jewish holiday.
Now my mother has selective amnesia when it comes to my agnosticism – though I’m not entirely divorced from some of the values I learned in Hebrew school. The idea of a mitzvah is still something I think anyone who wants to be a good human being should subscribe to. Mitzvah in Hebrew means “commandment” – but it also means to perform a good deed.
When I first moved to Boro Park I noticed how the small community was weary of strangers such as myself. My goal was to perform a mitzvah in front of my new neighborhood so that I could be accepted as a trusted neighbor.
One day there was an old man struggling with his bicycle that was chained to a No Parking sign. His long beard looked older than me. I saw an opportunity to prove myself to the community – because everyone, I assumed, would be peering out their windows keeping score of any mitzvahs performed by strangers.
The old man pushed a lead pipe through the heavy bike chain, struggling to snap it in half by twisting tight. I asked if he needed help. “I lost my key,” he said and asked me to hold the pipe and twist as hard as I could. As I tried to snap the chain, I was thinking about how mitzvahs are not typically supposed to be selfless, but at the same time hoped people were watching me help this old man in need.
Five Hasidic men ran out of their apartments and screamed, “That’s not your bike!” I dropped the pipe and ran. They chased us down the block. I took the long way back home, afraid the elders would banish me from Boro Park.
I was in middle school when I began exploiting the God of my mother. I went to synagogue often only because they had cable TV. We didn’t have cable at home. So I’d dip into the library where the TV was hidden in the corner, past the ancient Torah and documents saved from the Holocaust, and I’d get my dose of Cash Money and Blink 182 and Marilyn Manson on MTV. I learned to drink at the synagogue when I’d steal the small cups of blessed wine every Friday night from behind the rabbi’s back.
It was Christmastime when I sang a song I'd made up at the top of my lungs on the school lunch line: Joy to the world – your God is dead. Even though, at home, my Catholic father had placed a Star of David atop our Christmas tree. In fourth grade one of the lunch monitors retaliated when I told her I was fasting for Yom Kippur. She threatened to send me to the principal if I didn’t eat my lunch. She stood over me and watched me take every last bite of that peanut butter and jelly. I was more afraid of the principal than of God.
As the only Jew in school my mom pimped me out to my classes – the chosen boy to stand before his class and retell the Hanukkah story every year. Every year I had to fry latkes for the school. I became the voice of a whole religion and culture. The de facto Jew. I fielded all Jewish questions year-round. If I didn’t know the answer, sometimes I’d make one up, because I knew no one would know any better. Every Hanukkah my teachers would gift us a new menorah, so now my mother has a closet filled with menorahs. The Hanukkah presentations stopped in sixth grade when the born-again mother of one of my classmates claimed that I was trying to convert my homeroom to Judaism. The last thing I wanted was everyone to be Jewish. I pretty much had the synagogue to myself. My young atheism hiccupped when I thanked God for the born-again who put an end to my annual Hanukkah presentations.
I had to maintain my Jewishness throughout middle school so I could keep up the charade of ditching school for services and cable TV. I learned to read and write Hebrew so I could dance with girls in tight dresses from my eighth grade class at my bar mitzvah. "This Is How We Do It" on the DJ speakers. I hoped, maybe, that I sounded semi-exotic to the Catholic girls from class. I was an enigma in my spiked hair and baggy pants – the mouthpiece of the Hebrew God.
After years of retelling the story of Hanukkah to my classmates, I always believed Hanukkah was a big deal, as big as Passover and Yom Kippur. There weren’t other Jews around to tell me otherwise. It wasn’t until I moved to Boro Park that I realized Hanukkah was as Hallmark as Valentine’s Day. Hanukkah went mainstream to compete with Christmas. It was the holidays I knew little about that were the ones celebrated passionately in the streets of Boro Park – like Purim.
Whenever people asked me what Purim was my answer was just Jewish Halloween. It was a costume party with pastries. We ate triangle-shaped cookies called hamantaschen. Hamantaschen means Haman’s pockets. The cookies have three corners to symbolize Haman’s hat. Hamantaschen are also known as Oznei Haman or Haman’s Ears. As in Haman the Evil. The story of Purim goes that Haman was the Persian King’s minister. Haman was the Persian king’s right-hand man. He also wanted to kill all the Jews. Mordecai and Princess Esther saved the Jews by reminding the forgetful king that years prior Mordecai had actually saved the king’s life. When the king remembered this he told the Jews to hang Haman and his co-conspirators. I’d say Haman’s our Voldemort, but most Jewish holidays have a Voldemort. However, Purim is the only one where we engage in revenge cannibalism via pastries. Christians eat the body of the man they love. Jews eat the ears of a man they killed.
Purim in Boro Park is the one day a year you can see the ultra-Orthodox spill into the streets, in costume, singing, dancing, trashed. A much different sight from their typical black on black suits, with black hats, walking sullen, as though they are always having a conversation with their God.
Last year’s blizzard didn’t stop Purim. I don’t think anything could. I saw a kid-astronaut stand against the wind and snow outside Le Bon Loungewear and Lingerie. A small Hasidic boy in the crosswalk wore a rubber President Obama mask. There were pirates with painted-on beards waving swords. Their fathers, large Hasidic men, dressed as clowns and FBI agents and Lego men, their black robes stuck out from beneath. Red-faced Orthodox teens staggered up the street, falling over parked cars, their wine bottles in their hands anchoring them to the sidewalk. Every other day everyone in the neighborhood was sober, laughless and buttoned-up traditional.
A Jewish werewolf ran past me, 3 feet tall on 12th Avenue. That’s where I found the effigies hanging from their necks from the telephone wire above the street like Christmas lights. I figured it must have been Haman the Evil, but didn’t know who the other bodies represented.
I felt like I had trespassed, wondering if any of these men were the same men who chased me down the street when they thought I was trying to steal a bicycle. Even though tiny President Obamas and werewolves were running around, I still felt out of place in my blue jeans. I had never felt so un-Jewish. Since my dad is Catholic and my mom is Jewish, I’ve developed this stigma of either feeling too Jewish or not Jewish enough depending on the crowd I’m in. This fractured Jewish self has been present even within my own family since I was a kid. My grandma says that when I was 5 she showed her cousin Dottie a photo of me dressed up as Mordecai for Purim. “Oh, he goes to Hebrew school?” Dottie asked, twisting the knife of guilt into my grandmother’s side, reminding her that my mom married out of the religion. But my grandma said yes, he goes to Hebrew school with a smile. “And what does he wear when he goes to church?” Dottie asked. “I never spoke to her again,” my grandma said.
I got in the habit of telling my grandma that living in Boro Park was the closest I’ll get to going on my Birth Rite to Israel. She was always a bit mad at me for never going on my free trip to Israel. She grew up in Brooklyn and her mother did all she could to make sure she met other Jews. Her mother enrolled her in a school in the basement of a four-family house on Georgia Avenue that taught Yiddish. It was December 1941. The Pearl Harbor attack was a week old. My grandma was 10.
“Now comes Hanukkah,” my grandma says. “We’re having a party. There was a piano in the basement. And my mother played piano beautifully. She sat down and played 'Hatikvah.'” The teacher ran over to my great-grandma Rose and scolded her in front of the whole party. “We don’t play that here!” My great-grandma asked why – “It’s the national anthem if Israel becomes a state.” The teacher again said, “We don’t play that here.” What my great-grandma didn’t realize is that the school in the basement was a communist school. It was called the Workman’s Circle. They were Jewish, but against the formation of Israel.
“That was the end of my Jewish education,” my grandma said.
I stood beneath the effigies on 12th Avenue – confetti coming down with the snow – as the ultra-Orthodox laughed and sang in the streets – thinking about what I had missed in Hebrew School about hanging effigies for Purim.
“Is that Haman?” I asked the next Hasidic man I saw. He pushed a baby stroller. “So you’ve heard of Purim?” he asked, impressed.
“My mom dressed me up as Mordecai for Purim when I was a kid. So I know about Haman,” I told him. It seemed like an easy way of telling him I was Jewish without saying it outright.
“You’re Jewish?” He squinted at me as if to inspect for any signs of Jewish. Maybe my blue jeans and winter coat were my costume hiding my more tradition attire.
“Yeah, I’m a bad Jew,” I said.
“It’s Haman and his 10 sons. We hanged them all,” he said, nonchalant, pointing to the effigies. An effigy never made me want a hamantaschen so bad.
I wished the man a Happy Purim. It didn’t feel right. Like there must be a better, more Yiddish way of saying it. He said it back as if he also said it for the first time, just trying to appease the bad Jew.
If someone asked me now what Purim was my new answer would be that Purim is more like Jewish Halloween meets St. Paddy’s Day meets Rumspringa. At least in Boro Park where it’s celebrated the way it’s meant to be. Everyone becomes something else for a day, escapes their routine, and sings old songs about not being destroyed – again.
As I stood amid the masquerading I felt more than ever like the outsider Jew even surrounded by more Jews than I’ve ever been surrounded by. But I am the descendant of outsider Jews – Jews who are Jewish in their own way, who have found their own loopholes to mitigate tradition with modernity. Like how the pope said he’ll baptize Martians if they come to Earth to receive the love of Jesus.
I learned a lot of my Jewish loopholes from my Jewish role model, my grandma. She was an outsider Jew from a young age – ever since she got thrown out of communist Yiddish school. She grew up to marry a Jewish guy in a bike gang who rode his Harley Davidson up Brooklyn Avenue on the Sabbath to pick up my grandma. She’d throw a leather jacket over her shoulders like a prayer shawl. Even when she was younger she made her own rules, spoke to God in her own way. Her mother tried again to get my grandma involved in more Jewish things. She sent her to a Jewish camp. It was a camp for poor Jews in the Catskills. The camp only served hot oatmeal for breakfast. My grandma hated oatmeal. She asked her counselor if she could have anything else. “You will eat your breakfast,” the counselor said. And when my young grandma refused, they force-fed her the oatmeal. “It was a horror. I cried and gagged,” she said.
Since the camp was kosher they couldn’t cook the oatmeal during the Sabbath. So everyone ate cold cereal that Saturday morning and my grandma thanked God.
“Now to this day I swear to God,” my grandma told me, her hand over her heart, “that the Sunday after that first Sabbath the kitchen burned down … and I had nothing to do with it. We had cold cereal forever more.”
Did you pray to God to burn the kitchen down? I asked.
“I might’ve,” she said. “God felt pity on me.”
And so too shall I have pity on those Jews more Jewish than me, roaming my neighborhood Saturday mornings, helpless, too old or too crippled to climb stairs, but too devout to work the elevator, praying someone kind enough will push their elevator button and send them up to home.