Culture, Identity, Religion

Shtreimel Envy

I have shtreimel envy. Those voluptuous fur hats that Hasidic men earn just for getting married have held a certain fascination for me my whole life. Just by perching those thirteen tails that make up a perfect circle of fur atop their heads, Hasidic men become part of a two-hundred-year-old tradition and gain an intimate connection with the world of our grandparents. How could I not envy them their shtreimels? As a woman in the Hasidic world, there’s no equilvalent for me, and now that I’ve left the fold, I’ve forsaken my only chance to even get near one legitimately by marrying a Hasidic man. So instead, I covet. I’ve replaced traditional Jewish guilt with green envy.
In the meantime, I appease my longing for the world I’ve left behind by wearing the rest of the Hasidic male outfit (the three-quarter-length black jackets, the black pants, the loafers). I guess my clothing could easily be seen as an abomination analogous to the way I treat my Hasidic heritage, but I don’t see it that way. Why can’t I turn the patriarchal clothes and role of the rebbe, the leader of the Hasidic communities, into my own adapted form of matriarchy? In some way, what I wear symbolizes my struggle. I live between two worlds, and constantly try to find the place I can be true to myself and true to my heritage. I am as much an artist and filmmaker who is inspired by feminism and modernity as I am the daughter of a Hasidic Jew who is utterly bewildered by the life his only daughter leads.
On this particular spring morning, out of respect, I wear a long skirt and keep my blouse buttoned above the collarbone. I am sitting in the back of a bus filled with Hasidic men, including my father, speeding over the highways of Eastern and Central Europe in search of rebbes’ graves. We are on a pilgrimage to find the gravesites of the founding fathers of Hasidism.
Hasidism was born out of the need for a passionate approach to Judaism, one that wasn’t entirely based on scholarship and study. Hasidim are known for accepting singing and dancing as a form of prayer. In its early years, some Hasidic rebbes disappeared into the woods for days to show their devotion through contemplation and respect for nature. Two hundred years later, Hasidim are considered the “old school” of Ultraorthodox Jews, known for their fundamental observance of Jewish law. They are divided into sects, and each one is based on the town from the alte heym, the “old home” of their founder, the rebbe. The sect I grew up in stems from Satmar, hails from a town in Transylvania. Three generations later, long after the Holocaust drove so many of our families to America, pilgrims still return to visit the remnants of what their grandparents left behind.
How I came to be on the back of this bus is a study in compromise. The deal was that I would be welcome to join on this pilgrimage, to ful- fill my undisputed passion for the rebbes and visit the graves of my folk heroes, but only if I took the goal of prayer more seriously and asked for a husband at the rebbes’ graves. I agreed to forgo my usual lifestyle of trousers and late-night bars, and my father agreed to bend the rules and let me come along.
I feel a little like a Jewish Rosa Parks as we swerve along the highway. The women (well, both of us) have been allotted the back row of seats on the bus as we are not allowed to mix with the men. I expected this, but what I did not plan for is that the food would be stored in the front of the bus. We have to wait to be offered sustenance before we can eat, lest we shamefully mix with the men and defy the deliberate segregation. Our tour guide, Shimon Feld, announces in Yiddish that we will need to include prayers for the children who have left the Hasidic world. “They are slippery souls and fall from the nicest homes,” he says over the bus microphone as we continue north. Back in Brooklyn, where he (and everyone else on the bus) lives, his job is to take care of the boys who slip from Orthodoxy, while his wife takes care of the girls. “Their mothers have wet pillows because they cry from having lost their kids—we must pray for them at this next grave,” Feld says, pulling out the list so we know these kids by name. “Please add these names to your kvitlekh.” Like the little slips of paper tucked into the stones at the Western Wall, we are to write the names down and tuck the kvitl under a rock at the graves of our forefathers as a means of requesting a special word with God.
Out the window, the tree trunks along the highway are painted white, and they flash as they catch the headlights of our bus. The cemeteries stream by like toothless grins, some aged with a few stones still standing, others rotted with barely a trace of the lives that were once buried and remembered there. We are now in Romania, and I wonder if my name is on a kvitl tucked into a rebbe’s grave. At least I know my mother isn’t crying in her pillow for me—she’s a ballroom dancer already deeply intermingled with the outside word since her divorce from my father twenty years ago. With her Sophia Loren eyes and her Cyd Charisse legs, her story is a novel unwritten. My father, the parent who is more likely to cry over the state of my unmarried, pants-wearing soul, is sitting in the front of the bus near the driver drinking a nice glass of kosher slivovitz.
My father has brought me on this trip because he sees me as one of those “slippery souls.” While sometimes I try it tries to find my way back, but it’s never quite in the way he hopes for—namely, giving up my current lifestyle and coming back into the fold. Still, I have always been devoted to the legacy and intricacies of the rabbinic families of the Hasidic world. If I had been a boy this obsession would have been embraced, though I doubt it would have affected my decision to leave the kingdom of Borough Park, Brooklyn. As a girl it was met with an amused curiosity. As it is, the legacy of the rebbes and my fascination with them remains a glimmering, delicate thread by which I am still connected to my father.
In our Hasidic world, we avoided all deliberate contact with American pop culture. We were considered the “insiders,” and everyone else was “outsiders.” Although I was born in the ’70s in New York City, as a child, I had no idea who John Lennon was, nor my accidental namesake Janis Joplin, who also went by Pearl. In Borough Park, we had other superstars. Instead of Peter Pan and Cinderella, my fairy tales were about the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founding father of Hasidism and the first Hasidic rebbe. He was the rebbe who who created magic, found love, cured diseases, and celebrated good deeds by the common man with miracles.
As a girl I went to school with gusto. I was devout. I believed in the Torah wholeheartedly. I even believed that our very own rebbe was as holy a man as the Ba’al Shem Tov and that he could perform miracles and grant blessings in the name of God. What’s more, because we were related to a rebbe, I believed that our family was special, sacred, part of the inner circle. I felt deep pity for those in the outside world who didn’t have the benefits of the spiritual elite I was born into. Hasidim are royalty.
We have the official clothes, customs, cuisine, and lineage. We were the chosen of the chosen people.
Until I was ten, I prayed every morning, and stood the longest during the shemoneh ésreh, a series of blessings thanking God for making us who we are, even if we’re not perfect and can still use divine guidance. My fantasy was to marry a Torah scholar and have ten kids. I had it all figured out. As soon as I was done with high school, I would get started. How was I to know that one day I would turn fifteen, try on my school uniform in the seamstress’s basement, and the room would start to spin? The basement suddenly turned into a trap, the uniform followed suit, and there I was stuck in a basement in Brooklyn. I wanted out. I could no longer believe that all people who weren’t Jewish, all the people I saw eating treyf, all the women wearing pants, and couples walking hand in hand were heathens. I became uncomfortable with the idea that all of the rules of my daily life were God-given: the color of my stockings, my hemline, the type of texts I was allowed to read. The “outside world,” as we called it, couldn’t possibly just be a conglomerate of peripheral garbage. There had to be some redeeming qualities.
From that day on, I had a dirty little secret. I began to think about life on the outside. I’d make up stories and create fantasies of having my own apartment, going to a place called college, and discovering a world I wasn’t sure existed. By ninth grade, I was sneaking into the principal’s office to find the science textbooks before the school ripped out the chapters named Reproduction and Evolution. The information was astounding, a sacrilege. Unsatiated, I went to the library wondering what else I wasn’t being taught. I read Our Bodies, Ourselves, someone named Darwin, and the ever-popular Sweet Valley High.
I cut school and escaped to the movies. I went from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to the sizzling on-screen romance of Rocky II. The Torah scholar of my childhood dreams dissipated into the fine ether of Sylvester Stallone. But when I saw Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were, I finally saw a glimmer of myself. Like Barbra, I wanted to be out there changing the world. But college wasn’t approved of for girls. And I was only fifteen. The world beyond my street gently expanded. I found a companion on my slippery decline, a friend who also had unanswered questions. One of us heard of a basketball game at a mixed school gym in Flatbush. Mixed! Boys and girls together! Hallelujah! We had to go. As far as we knew, the “outside world” was squeezed into stretch jeans and painted in bordello-red lipstick, and since we had neither of those two on hand for the evening, we had lots of preparation to do. I was in charge of the makeup and jewelry, she would take care of the denim jackets and miniskirts (we didn’t have the chutzpah to go as far as wearing the forbidden pants).
That night, we got on the B11 bus out of Borough Park heading to Flatbush. We were a mix between Superman in the phone booth and Wonder Woman with her twirly magic, as we transformed ourselves at the back of the bus from our demure blue school uniforms into little Joyce Leslie harlots.
The bus pulled up to the school. We walked into the gym, done up like Cyndi Lauper and found, to our shock, that we were totally inappropriate. The boys and girls at the gym stared at us in their frumpy sweatsuits. Their ordinariness was sudden and horrifying. We spun on our pumpy heels and left the room with only a trace of our cheap perfume and exposed legs left behind. In that instant, the “outside world” lost its glamour and mystery and gained a whole new terrible reputation of disappointment. We knew for sure that we’d never really know it, nor would we ever fit in.
That was the year my parents divorced. I moved out of Borough Park with my mother; my three brothers remained Hasidic and stayed with my father. I transferred to a liberal Jewish school, a school my father would never approve of. Though the school was Orthodox, it was miles—if not movements—away from the life he had hoped I would create for myself and my unborn kids. It was the first of many disappointments for my father. I began what would become a litany of betrayals.
I didn’t turn into Barbra Streisand, but I did manage to go to college and turn into the heathen of my father’s worst nightmare. My intentions were pure. I even went to Brandeis, the mecca of Jewish universities. But Brandeis may as well have been Christ College to my dad as my exposure to secular poison took full blossom. I imagined my pursuit of education to be a comfortable fit into the Talmudic tradition of study. On the other hand, as a woman who wore sleeveless shirts, joined a feminist collective, and chose to write a full-blown thesis on autoeroticism in women’s texts, I was also turning that tradition inside out.
During my second year of college, my phone rang. It was my father. He wondered if I was okay, and wouldn’t it be nice to get back in touch. There could be nothing nicer, I thought, and relished the idea of a rediscovered relationship. The conversations continued periodically and included topics such as religious devotion, updates on the rebbes, and queries into when I was going to get serious about getting married. I was eighteen years old.
After I graduated, we celebrated in Brooklyn over a fancy kosher fish meal. The fact that I still wasn’t married at twenty-two hovered over the cooked carrots, the flaky pastry of dessert, and the long good-bye before my blemished soul and I finally got into a cab to Manhattan.
In my adult life, I’m still considered safe within the conventional bounds of being deemed a “good Jewish girl.” I’m not intermarried, not converted, not tattooed, and not pierced below or between my ears. But I am no longer the kind of “good” that grows in Borough Park. When I’m around my father’s table, all goes well until my four-year-old niece asks me if I’m married yet, and then my ninety-year-old great-aunt recites the Hungarian poem about building castles in the sky instead of walking on earth. They are implying, not so subtly, that my life as a filmmaker is a waste of time and that I am ignoring all the obligations to which I should be bound—such as moving back to Borough Park and raising a family within the community. But instead of defending my choices, I slide back into the quagmire of my self-imposed exile and have another slice of kugel.
I’m sandwiched between the two worlds. Just because I strayed from one world and could never live in it again doesn’t mean I feel its presence any less. Even at moments when I am surrounded by Bulgarian sailors at a late-night joint, the little Hasidic rebbe inside of me seems to pop out and sit staring at me across the bar. Or, when I’m eating, he perches himself on my table to watch me enjoy my Cajun shrimp. The world of sin I’ve created bubbles just outside the boundaries of my old neighborhood like a volcano. I am not married, not Orthodox, not with child, and not living in Brooklyn. I am not “good.”
Why have I given up a life of Hasidic bliss and domesticity? The crisp white tablecloths for the Sabbath, the ease with which one knows one’s life trajectory like one foot in front of the other, the clarity of faith and belief, the comfort of belonging. My great-aunt would say I’ve turned into the Hungarian poem’s dreamer—secular, and overeducated. I would say I’m more like Lot’s wife, turning back to the world I come from, but refusing to turn into a pillar of salt. I insist on finding a footbridge that connects both worlds.
Because the truth is, I am still connected: I collect the rebbe cards, baseball cards filled with facts about the sages, like the best of the boys do. I know what each of the rebbes is known for, and I can tell most of their stories. I teach in Jewish schools. I make documentary films that include the teachings of my rebbes. In Pirkeh Avot, it is written “Godol hamaaseh yoseh min ha’oseh”—the person who causes someone to do good is greater than the one who performs the deed himself. I teach this lesson. That’s my defense, and I cling to it like a rope keeping me from slipping entirely into the abyss. The defense works for a while, until my father says that I should practice what I preach and act like a Hasidic rebbe, not just dress like one!
I tried many a spiritual placebo prior to this trip. I sat in a circle around the bonfire and threw blackened sesame seeds into the mouth of Buddha, hit pillows with tennis rackets to revive pre-nascent anger, and took vows of silence for three whole days to get in touch with the joy of an inner child. But the little Hasidic rebbe inside would never seem to join me at these events. Even my slippery soul is too Jewish. When the idea for this pilgrimage came up, this trip to the rebbe’s graves, I could feel the delicate, knotted thread of connection to my Hasidism and my father pulling. Though I was meant to pray for a husband, I approached it as perhaps the only opportunity I’d have in my life to make both my father and myself happy simultaneously.
And so here I sit, in the back of the bus, and much to my surprise it is a refuge. I can sing (though only quietly) with my companions, I can finish (though only to myself ) some of the stories the leader begins on the microphone. Here among the pilgrims, more than anywhere else, I am at home.
On the brink of the sixth day, at four in the morning, we arrive at the grave site of the holy Ba’al Shem Tov, the hero of so many of my childhood stories. A makeshift market emerges out of nowhere, and there it is. Sitting among the mamushka dolls, Ukrainian wooden puppets, and vodka flasks is a shtreimel: The proper hat, the married man’s chapeau, the hat my husband would have worn if I’d followed my intended path. Here, on the soil of the founder’s grave, I can finally live out my wildest dreams of Hasidic devotion on my own terms. I pay the woman and take the rabbit fur in my own hands.
We pile back on the bus and I take my seat in the back, holding my shtreimel. Somewhere deep inside the underbelly of the bus, with the muffler and the spare tire, is reality. This trip will not bring me a husband, nor will it cause my father to finally give me his approval. It might, however, bring the two worlds I will always be living between—my father’s and my own—one step closer. And that, for now, would have to be enough.
As I get off the bus one last time to board the plane back home, Shimon Feld says to me, “May you get what you prayed for.” And I reply, “Amen.”
Pearl Gluck is the director of Divan: The Couch and the narrator of Soundwalk’s Hasidic Walking-tour of Williamsburg for women.
Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. Copyright © 2005 by Ruth Andrew Ellenson.

7 thoughts on “Shtreimel Envy

  1. WOW. Rarely do I read anything so well thought through and so well written; that it was wrtitten about Yiddishkeit made it all the more delightful to consume! I don’t know what the future holds, but I do believe that everything happens for a reason. There was a reason that you found that shtreimel for purchase, and who is to say that your future husband mightn’t be similar in his outlook as you are? You are no doubt a deeply spiritual person, Pearl, and it takes a supremely confident and brave soul to live between two worlds. Taking comort from both but always the pain inherent in knowing that you don’ ‘belong’ in the truest sense to either. I’ve no doubt that there are others who feel very much the same way you do (myself, for instance) and kol ha’kavod for having the strength to say so. I look forward to reading more fanastic pieces from you in the future!

  2. Hello, I unexpectantly came across your blog on a search for ‘shtreimel’, luck it came to yours. My opinion of what you wrote is somewhat dismaying. You refer to yourself en qoute, “I’m sandwitched between two worlds. Just because I strayed from one world doesn’t mean I feel its presence any less” However you never explained what world you are in. In what do you live in? What values do you have now? You also never gave any intellectual reasoning for going off the derech. You did state the desire to broaden your horizons. Never a intellectial disagreement with Chassidus.
    Noson Fisher

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