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Sometimes people stare at this young Hasid wandering at night, but he doesn’t seem to mind. I was curious about this Hasidic guy—dressed in a black suit, modest but elegant, with his below a black-rimmed hat.
He freely gives passing girls a once over, looking back as they walk past him. I told him that I was surprised to see a Hasidic man wandering in this part of town, and I wanted to learn more about him.
“I can walk for miles,” Joseph tells me, in his thick Yiddish accent. I was a graduate student at the time and he agreed to be my subject, under certain conditions: We could never be seen together, we could only speak sporadically, and if we passed on the street, he would ignore me and I must ignore him.
Throughout several months spent documenting rebellious Hasidim in New York in 2005, and follow-up interviews since then, I was always reminded of the ground rules: No sitting near windows or walking together, no revealing names.
There is rarely redemption for a rebellious Hasidic Jew; Joseph believes that the likely punishment would be banishment.
So when Joseph called me that spring night in 2005, ready to talk about Hasidism and his curiosity about the secular world, I suggested that we meet at a friend’s apartment.
His section of Williamsburg (he pronounces it Satmar is a sect of Hasidism (alternately spelled Hassidism or Chasidism) composed mainly of Romanian and Hungarian Hasidim founded in the Hungarian town of Szatmar in the twentieth century.
I will call him Joseph; because of the consequences, his real name cannot be revealed here.* * * He pours himself a large glass of vodka—straight up—takes off his satin coat and slips off his prayer shawl.“There was a man in Williamsburg whose wife found him to be cheating,” Joseph tells me. “I won’t let myself get caught.” Joseph keeps a kosher home, sends his children to a yeshiva, or religious school, and studies the Talmud, one of the holiest texts in Judaism. ” At sixteen, he hid with a group of friends around a small television set in a windowless basement room to watch his first movie—a forbidden activity.* * * When Joseph’s grandparents emigrated from Hungary to New York in the 1950s, they were joined by hundreds of other Hasidim from Hungary and Romania fleeing post-War Europe.Only fifteen percent of all Polish Jews had survived the Holocaust, and even a smaller percentage of Hasidim had.
With one arm around a strange girl’s waist, he will whisper into her ear, and then kiss her on the lips.