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Escape From the Holy Shtetl


Gitty with her grandparents, Carol and Matty Feinman, at their Washington Heights apartment.  

For Gitty, Far Rockaway was a turning point. “My stepfather told me not to chew gum because ‘only horses and goys chew gum.’ In Rockaway, I met Jews who weren’t religious, blacks, Catholics—they didn’t seem so bad. On my brother’s birthday, they gave him a party, sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ In KJ no one sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”

The hemmed skirt was like that, one more reason for rachmonus. Only a few weeks before, Gitty saw several of the drawings Deborah had done as a teenager. “They were so beautiful.” Her mother also had a fabulous singing voice.

Gitty says for a long time she tried to get her mother to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, one of Matty and Carol’s favorite films. For a while Gitty thought Deborah wouldn’t sing the song because “we were taught when a rainbow appears in the sky it meant G-d was angry with the Jews. G-d once destroyed the world with a flood but he promised never to do it again. So now, instead of a flood, he leaves a rainbow, as a warning. You see a rainbow, you’re supposed to repent. They always make me anxious.”

The real reason her mother is reluctant to sing, Gitty adds, is that in KJ a man is not supposed to hear a woman singing, especially if she has a beautiful voice. It distracts him from thinking about G-d.

With that, Gitty tossed the skirt into the backseat of the car. At the end of the day, it was just too ugly to wear.

“Great, huh? Some old rabbi looking at your panties with a magnifying glass?” Gitty says. “This was so embarrassing to me. I just wouldn’t do it anymore.”

Sometimes, primping her cut-short black hair, applying eyeliner, or staring into space, a curl of cigarette smoke slinking from her poutish mouth, Gitty will strike a pose reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor, in her Cat on a Hot Tin Roof phase.

Gitty, who, of course, has no idea who Elizabeth Taylor is, and who doesn’t know that the star once married that putz Eddie Fisher, which made her a little Jewish, before Richard Burton at least, asks, “Is that good?”

Told this was “good,” Gitty cocked her heart-shaped head and smiled with the knowingness of the great-looking girl. But more than that, tell her she looks hot in the high-waisted shorts she picked up at Fulton Street Mall for $14, and Gitty reveals, more than anything else, relief. For, if the mysterious gift of human beauty likely requires a lucky swerve in the DNA, Gitty’s father, the crazed Chaim, repository of dark and brooding Sephardic blood, did her a great favor, genetically speaking. He gave her a way out of KJ.

Gitty claims she had little hint she might be beautiful before her marriage. “You didn’t think about it. Some KJ houses don’t even have mirrors. Boys aren’t allowed to look in them. It’s vain.” The issue of Gitty’s attractiveness never came into play until Yoely Grunwald said his friends were congratulating him on scoring such a hot babe.

Gitty says she was happy enough to marry Yoely. “I wanted out of my parents’ house. Marriage meant more freedom.” Plus Yoely seemed relatively liberal. He kept his beard trimmed, wore his peyos behind his ears. In retrospect, however, Gitty says, her marriage was doomed from the start.

“In KJ, you’re supposed to screw on your wedding night,” says Gitty. “If you don’t, then the marriage isn’t consummated.” The night before, Gitty says, “they get you a kallah helper”—literally, a bride helper—“who tells you what you need to know about sex, because you know nothing. I was such an innocent virgin, you have no idea.”

While dispensing with the old story about the sheet with the hole as a myth, Gitty explains many other birds-and-bees facts of KJ life, “like how sleeping with your husband on Friday night is twice as good as any other night. But you can’t look at him. The room has to be pitch dark. There’s no foreplay. This is totally about reproduction. You’re supposed to be thinking about G-d the whole time.

“A lot of grooms faint on their wedding nights,” Gitty continues. “You see—before you get married, they keep you apart. You talk to the person once or twice. On your wedding night, you’re supposed to get it on with this total stranger. It is really bad for guys. Hasidic men are told all their lives if they masturbate they go to hell. Spilling the seed—that’s the biggest sin. At school, a lot of the boys had their pockets sewn up so couldn’t poke around with their hands. Then, all of a sudden, they’re with this naked woman and they think if they don’t screw her and produce more Jews, G-d is going to get really, really mad at them. That is a lot of pressure.


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