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Escape From the Holy Shtetl


Gitty's mother tightens her shirt with a pin.  

Beelining through the toy department, Gitty halted in front of the towering Play-Doh display, hastily tossing three packages of the faux clay into the steel-mesh cart. The $30 cost, added to the $20 price of the already picked-out Barbie, would clean out Gitty for the week, but there was little choice. She was desperate to get Esther Miriam something. Gitty hadn’t seen her daughter for almost three weeks, and the way things were going, she didn’t know when she’d see her again.

Turning from the Play-Doh, Esther Miriam began admiring a pair of pink ballet slippers. This was a problem, since in KJ pink ballet slippers are not considered appropriate for little girls, who wear navy-blue or black flats. Such shoes are in keeping with the community’s idea of tznius, or modesty. In KJ, where it is considered a disaster for a man to see a woman’s uncovered hair, Esther Miriam’s wearing pink ballet slippers could be tantamount to a chilul hashem, an affront to G-d.

“Know what Esther Miriam told me?” Gitty railed. “If G-d sees you with your legs uncovered, you go to hell. She’s 4 years old, worrying about hell! My own daughter!”

This was how it was in KJ, Gitty said, where even your parents would turn on you if you weren’t religious enough. Gitty points to what happened when she went to the beth din, the Satmar rabbinical court, trying to win custody of Esther Miriam.

“Big chance I had,” Gitty declared. “My mother and stepfather wouldn’t support me. So there I am, this silly little irreligious girl, all by myself. I’d been brought up to revere these rabbis. And they’re looking at me like I’m a goy. Worse than a goy, because I’m trying to take a Jewish girl away from the religion. In KJ, they think I’ll turn Esther Miriam into a prostitute. They tell her I’m dead.”

Still, it didn’t pay to give Yoely any more ammunition. So, no: Esther Miriam would not get her ballet slippers. “Tateh,” Gitty said to Esther Miriam, using the Yiddish familiar term for daddy, as she placed the slippers back on the shelf, “wouldn’t like it.”

After Wal-Mart, the plan was for Gitty to drop Esther Miriam at Hershey’s Auto, where Yoely Grunwald sells many of KJ’s ubiquitous minivans and SUVs. Gitty was due by 6:30 but was running late. This was a problem because it was Friday afternoon. At sunset, an hour away now, a siren would sound throughout the town announcing the arrival of Shabbos. At this point, all everyday activity in KJ would cease.

By KJ’s main shopping center, spring rain falling, the urgency was obvious. Rushing to prepare for the holiday, dozens of vans jockeyed for position amid the puddles in the parking lot, taillights flashing wildly, horns permanently engaged.

“Shit. They’re making us late,” Gitty said, offering a running commentary on Satmar driving etiquette, which, like all Hasidic social skills, she believes, is nonexistent.

The fact is KJ is simply too crowded for two-lane roads and dinky parking lots. As anyone driving in Midwood or Kew Gardens knows, the exploding haredi population has extended far beyond the familiar boundaries of Crown Heights and Williamsburg. Everywhere you look is a black hat, the various sects named for their town of origin, the Bobov from Bobowa in the former Galicia, the Belz from Belz in Ukraine—and the Satmars from Satu Mare, in present-day Romania—each group with their dynastically determined rebbe and variation on basic Hasidic dress.

Still, Kiryas Joel stands alone. Over the past six years, this self-contained village, where families with ten children are not unusual, has been one of the fastest-growing communities of its size in New York State, with one of the youngest median ages (15). Rebbe Teitelbaum’s vision of a bucolic retreat has dissolved in the boomtown sprawl of nearly identical four-story aluminum-sided condos off the north end of the 208 exit off Route 17. Every day, buses make the run to Williamsburg, a curtain down the middle aisle to separate the men from the women.

By the time Gitty reached Hershey’s Auto, it was pouring. Yoely, a bearded, vaguely paunchy man in his middle twenties, was pacing the car lot, his white shirt soaked and sticking to his stomach. When he saw Gitty, he jabbed his finger toward his watch.

Gitty will never forget the moment she first laid eyes on Yoely Grunwald.

She was past her 17th birthday when her parents told her they had arranged for her marriage. “Can’t I see him first?” Gitty asked. “Sure,” they said, “look out the window.”

“He was walking down the street with a rabbi beside him. He was looking down, so I couldn’t see his face. He walked around a minute, then turned around and walked away. Everyone said, ‘Okay, you saw him.’ ”


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