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Escape From the Holy Shtetl


Gitty at home in Brooklyn.  

In the parking lot, the passage of child from parent to parent took place almost without comment. Gitty handed over the Play-Doh. Esther Miriam got out of the car. Gitty wanted to get out, too, give her daughter one more kiss, but she couldn’t. She was wearing pants. For a KJ man to see a KJ woman wearing pants is a terrible thing, one more violation of tznius. In a moment, Yoely had the little girl in his arms and was making his way to his car.

“I love you, Esther Miriam. Mommy loves you,” Gitty shouted as the waving child and father disappeared into the crowd of Satmars scurrying through the rain.

Gitty sat staring at the rise and fall of the windshield wipers, “more or less numb.” She had been raised to be a Satmar woman, and she remains one to a large degree. Satmar women are supposed to be tough. You couldn’t expect some delicate flower to have eight or nine babies by the time she turned 30. Several of Gitty’s classmates are already on their fourth kid.

Gitty was tough. Through the depressing court appearances, each time Yoely’s mother hung up on her when she called to talk to Esther Miriam, Gitty kept it together. But like the KJ women Gitty says were quietly going crazy bearing all those children, she found there was a time when toughness became numbness. It was something you had to fight against.

“Leaving KJ cost me a lot. It cost me my daughter,” Gitty finally said, the rain beating down on the car roof. “But I’m going to get her back.”

Right then, Gitty’s eyes fell to a container of Pringles on the car floor. Gitty bought the chips for Esther Miriam in Wal-Mart, noting the OUD on the label, which means the Orthodox Union had certified the product as “kosher dairy.” During their marriage, Gitty and Yoely fought about whether OUD was kosher enough. Yoely said no, because OUD did not positively guarantee that any milk used was obtained by Jewish hands. When he saw the OUD on the Pringles can, Yoely dropped it like it was hot.

Gitty looked mournfully at the chips. “Esther Miriam really wanted those Pringles,” she said.

“They’re looking at me like I’m a goy,” says Gitty. “Worse than a goy, because I’m trying to take a Jewish girl away from the religion.”

If you call Gitty’s grandparents, Matty and Carol Feinman, New York Jews, they do not object. “We’re Jews. We live in New York. What else should we be?” asks Carol Feinman, still wry and sassy in her eighties as she sits in the Feinmans’ typically rambling Washington Heights apartment.

The Feinmans’ secular, intellectual, liberal, mordantly humorous New York Jew pedigree is pure, with a bohemian tilt. Matty, also in his eighties, got kicked out of Brooklyn Tech, joined the Navy, came back to New York, got his teacher’s license, and taught at Music and Art high school when it used to be on Convent Avenue in Harlem and was, as any early-sixties boy will tell you, home to the coolest (Jewish and otherwise) girls in the city. Now legally blind, Matty still paints every day—he’s especially interested in Photoshopping abstract images—in his studio that juts out over Riverside Drive. “Trying to make something to look at, every day, that’s it, for me,” Matty says.

For years, Carol Feinman did PR work downtown for “big-shot musicians,” including Ella Fitzgerald. A singer herself, Carol still dresses up to perform at open-mike nights on Bleecker Street, doing mostly Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan standards.

Cut from a similar cloth of New York Jew–dom, I recognize, and embrace, people like Matty and Carol Feinman. And, like the Feinmans, I remember when it was an event to see a Hasid, even in Brooklyn.

Back in the middle to late fifties, as my parents and I drove up Eastern Parkway to visit my grandparents, should a Hasid pass by, my mother rarely failed to comment. “What is with these getups, aren’t they hot? … Don’t they know this isn’t Poland? It’s enough to make you plotz,” she’d say.

“What business is it of yours what they do?” rejoined my father, never one for extended conversations.

This was barely a decade after the war, before the word Holocaust, with the big H, had become commonplace. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge, he was in Patton’s Third Army, which later liberated Buchenwald. He knew. But it wasn’t anything you wanted to talk about, especially to your snot-nose son. Better he should roam carefree in the vacant lots of Flushing, a little pisher with a Ted Kluszewski mitt, unfettered by memory’s chokehold. Who needed these musty Kafka characters, dragging behind them the heavy chains of history?

But there was also a pride—a civic/ethnic/fuck-the-Nazis pride—in the presence of these ragtag scholars, clutching their prayer books in front of the Loew’s Kameo Theatre. Here in New York—our New York!—a Jew would always be safe. So what if they screwed like bunnies through a hole in a sheet? Wasn’t the world a little short of Jews at the moment? Besides, someone had to think about G-d all the time, even here, in this new land of two-car garages, baseball, and Reform temples.


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