Saturday, February 21, 2009

Borough Park, Brooklyn

Sixteenth Avenue at Fortieth Street; here the borough’s devout “park” introduces itself to me. A steely crisp wintry quiet, passive and blue, tickles the air. The wind blows slightly, taking with it incantations of Yiddish then and now. Men on the avenue sport the ubiquitous black coat and black hat; women stroll by wearing long skirts, thick leggings, and dark, bulky shoes. This dressing custom lends a sense of severe order to the neighborhood; I become ever more aware of myself as a stranger.

But I’ve arranged to share the experience with a knowledgeable friend; he has a mission in Borough Park that brings him close to the community. “What are you looking for?” I say once we meet on a corner. “A special book on medieval European Hebrew grammar,” he says, not looking to me but rather probing up and down 16th Ave, unsure which way to go. This book is to be found at a very particular store nearby, a Jewish academic-religious materials hotspot.

Disrupting all observing thoughts: The bang of a large metal door against a brick wall; a gaggle of boys in yarmulkes and with side-curls bursts from a building. They flee in all conceivable directions, smiling, screaming, stomping. A tall man in black, this man hidden behind his black beard and under the brim of a black hat; this man with a youth’s eyes staring out from a costume of black walks after the children. He shows no reaction to the joviality and rambunctious, incorrigible excitement of the boys. But where he walks, they follow. This tall Hasid moves slowly, deliberately; the bopping kids go where he goes, revolving round him like moons and satellites.

We pass a “shomer shobbos” barber shop, crave the offerings in the window of “Shlomy’s Heimishe Bakery”, and arrive at “J. Biegeleisen Hebrew Books”, our destination at 44th Street and 16th Avenue. Inside, a murmuring pidgin reaches me: The speech of Yiddish and English blended into a distinct tongue that compliments musty shelves of earthy-colored tomes filled with the foreign wisdom of centuries, in Hebrew, in Aramaic, in Yiddish. Men wear black hats and delicate fringes hang below their waists. They skim the dense shelves. Hebrew academic books, bible commentaries; the owner asks a customer how he’s doing. “Baruch Hashem,” the customer says—“Blessed is God (that all’s well with me).” Books on assorted topics: marriage, the Sabbath, tracts on Torah commentary, and one that stands out to me. With an illustrated cover, it contrasts to the austere—though handsome—covers around it. The illustration depicts a flamboyant and enchanting image. My friend translates and explains. It’s the journal of a famous rabbi who excelled as a chief student of a major 15th-16th century mystic from Safed in the Galilee. The journal records his visions while studying under the Jewish mystic.

“Did you find the book?” I look up from the journal. My friend holds a volume, but looks around anxiously. Then he says, “This place is best if you know the guy presiding over it, then he’d help you find what you need.” “You should have spoken Yiddish,” I say. My friend smiles wryly. I scan the sea of tractates. A man dressed customarily in black rides by outside on a bicycle. Two women pass by. The door opens and a man who looks my age rolls in a wide cart piled high with new orders for “J. Biegeleisen Hebrew Books”.

With the book of medieval European Hebrew grammar in tow, my friend and I hit the street. I notice how many of the apartment houses have unusually extended terraces, and we suppose it’s so residents can build a
sukkah to celebrate the Jewish Autumn festival of Sukkot. A sukkah is a four-sided booth with branches, bamboo, or wooden slats for a roof. People in the sukkah must be able to gaze at the stars through the ceiling. That’s why these terraces aren’t stacked atop each other, but diagonally from the street to the roof, so that edifices have a zigzag pattern of generously deep terraces.

Often a normally structured house has a sign that promotes its abnormal use: “Beis Midrash”—a yeshiva or house of religious study. We’re not in any way surprised; this is the center of the Babover sect of Hasidism. We come to 18th Avenue. A large church straddles the road, and I’m thinking this is the cliff-edge of Borough Park’s Jewish enclave. But Hasidim walk by the church, some pulling suitcases on wheels. My friend says, “A church with Hasidim walking back and forth in front of it is more or less interesting.” But I’m in a wonder-trance: this Hasidic neighborhood now seems boundless. The city blocks continue, the Hasidic city blocks, swallowing up the churches, converting homes into yeshivas and little synagogues. Churches in Borough Park are ironic outposts of Christianity in a mass of Eastern European Jewry.

Hunger sets in, as it always does. “Lieberman’s Dairy Luncheonette” cries out for us, curious outsider patrons. It’s glatt kosher, which in this case means strictly dairy through and through. My friend gets a doughnut and coffee. This is a spot where regulars wear yarmulkes and fringes. Two such guys lounge at the counter, arguing loudly in Yiddish. The woman behind the counter asks them, “What do you boys do anyway?” Their talking halts immediately; they look at each other; they explode laughing; and one says to the woman, “What do we do? We look for jobs!”

Past the “Bobover Yeshiva” there’s the “Corner Café”. Everyone inside is in Hasidic dress—the patrons, the servers, those at the counter. Other than the clientele and management, the establishment wouldn’t fool the most discerning diner connoisseur. There’s the counter; there’re the hash browns; there’re the eggs, and the bottomless coffee, and the sandwiches, and French fries and soda and shakes. But this place is kosher. Hasidic families fill the tables because it’s brunch time, and all across New York City families and friends line diner tables, jittery from mug after mug of diner coffee.

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