A Person of Prominence
It started when my friend Mark asked me, “Would you mind speaking to my Hasidic boyfriend?”
Mark was straight, and it wasn’t really his boyfriend. Just a Hasidic gentleman who started calling Mark’s cell phone one day and had turned into a phone-pal of sorts. “What do you talk about?” I asked. “He doesn’t say much,” Mark said. “But when I tell him I have to go, he suddenly gets talkative.” He wouldn’t give Mark his name, so for lack of a better appellation, Mark referred to him as his “boyfriend.”
They’d never met. Mark and I were both born and raised Hasidic, but left several years ago to live secular lives. The “boyfriend” got Mark’s number somehow, and told him he was looking for ex-Hasidim to speak to. “I can’t leave this life,” the man said, “but I’d like to be in touch with others who’ve left.”
Now Mark was losing patience, and was trying to convince me to take over the role.
“Fine,” I said. “Give him my number.”
Ten minutes later, the guy called. He wouldn’t share much about himself except to say that he needed someone to talk to. He was lonely, he said.
“What about a therapist?” I asked.
“I’m a prominent person,” he said. “It would be unbecoming.” He wouldn’t tell me the nature of his prominence, and when I asked if he was a rabbi, he said, “Something like it.” Mostly, he wanted to talk about me.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Bedford Stuyvesant,” I said.
“I don’t hear you,” he said. “What?” I wasn’t sure if we had a bad connection or if he was hard of hearing, but before I could repeat myself he said, “Oh, you mean Williamsburg.”
“Um, no,” I said. “Bed-Stuy.”
“But don’t Hasidim live there these days?”
“They do. Right on my block.”
“That makes it Williamsburg,” he said with finality. “It’s the new Williamsburg. I guess you haven’t heard.”
I hadn’t. I guess I’d been away too long and didn’t realize that when the Hasidic neighborhood expanded from South Williamsburg into neighboring vicinities, the new neighborhood’s name changed to accommodate them.
“So you live with heimishe?” he asked. Heimishe. From the home. Hasidic folk.
Without waiting for an answer, he said, “I don’t hear you. What?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t live with heimishe.”
“So you live with goyim?”
“Can I come visit?”
I told him it would be best if we got to know each other first.
We had several conversations like this one, in which he asked things like how many women I’d slept with and if I thought any of them would sleep with him. I told him I didn’t think they were his type.
“I don’t hear you,” he said. “What?”
Finally I agreed to meet him. Arranging it, however, was a matter of complex logistics. I suggested a local coffee shop, but he said that wouldn’t do. Somebody might see him and, through a complex sequence of hypothetical events, would result in his wife divorcing him.
I suggested a Starbucks in Manhattan. He asked what Starbucks was. When I explained it was a chain of coffee shops, he asked, “Like McDonald’s?” I tried to explain how Starbucks and McDonald’s differed, but it only confused him more; both sold coffee, and both sold sandwiches of some sort. “Never mind,” I said.
We were still stuck, however, on the matter of our rendezvous. Starbucks, as it turned out, even in Manhattan, was too risky.
“Why can’t we go to Queens?” he asked in a whine.
Indeed, why can’t we? If only he’d mentioned it earlier.
“Queens sounds good,” I said.
“I don’t hear you. What?”
I waited for him outside the G train at the Bedford-Nostrand stop. He arrived in a long black faux-silk overcoat that indicated his membership in a rabbinic family, and the flat rabbit-fur hat worn by the ultra-devout. That explained his “prominence.” He had a full white beard, neatly gathered into a balled knot under his chin, and his upper teeth were decayed almost to non-existence. He looked to be at least 60.
“That’s you?” he said with a smile. All of a sudden he turned nervous. “Don’t talk to me here,” he said, anxiously looking around for passing Hasidim, “don’t talk to me here.”
I was about to step down into the subway station when he paused, looked me up and down, and grinned. “You look like a real sheigetz.” A sheigetz. Vermin. A non-Jewish hoodlum. I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
We got off the G train just over the Brooklyn-Queens border. It was a Sunday, a sweltering day at the end of summer, and we looked around for a place to cool off. But it looked like a commercial district, with not many stores open. I noticed a Chinese restaurant with an open door and a rusty oscillating fan on the wall, and we stepped inside. There was no one at the counter, but we could see an employee at the far end of the kitchen area.
He turned to me. “Where’s the bathroom?” As if I worked there.
“You’ll have to ask,” I said. He raised the hinged section at the end of the counter and walked straight to the back, as if he owned the place.
Later he watched as I ate General Tso’s chicken while he sipped on a Coke, and we spoke some more about his problems. He was looking for social opportunities, he said. It didn’t matter if it was with men or women, although he seemed to have a distinct preference for the latter.
“You know any women who might be willing to speak to me?” he asked. “Don’t get me wrong,” he was quick to add. “I’m not looking for sex.” He gave me the look of a wizened philosopher. “People think women are only good for sex. But I enjoy the company of women in general. It’s bataamt, you know.” Bataamt can mean charming in Yiddish. But it can also mean tasty, as in a bataamte pickle. And the thought of comparing women to pickles struck me as funny, and I chuckled.
“I don’t hear you,” he said. “What? You think women are only good for sex?”
“No, no,” I said. “Of course not.” I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten myself into this.
He looked doubtful, then remained quiet for a few minutes. I was just about to get up to put my foam container in the trash when he looked at me and asked with the innocence of a five-year-old, “Hust amul ge-suckt cock?”
The interesting thing about his question was the way he phrased it, in a curious mixture of Yiddish and English. There are many Yiddish words for penis, but cock isn’t one of them. And there are several Yiddish words for sucked, but sucked isn’t one of them, either. His question, “Have you ever sucked cock?” struck me as a particularly inventive introduction of American slang into what Hasidim consider a sacred language.
“No,” I said. “I can’t say I have. Have you?”
He looked at me with a half smile, something like a smirk, although he seemed to be actually suppressing a grin.
“I have,” he said, almost proudly, like one who, with false modesty, proclaims an affinity for skydiving.
“How was it?” I asked.
“I should remember?” he said with a shrug. “It was a long time ago. I was a teenager in yeshiva, and the guy was like twice my age.” He thought for a while, then looked at me. “It was disgusting.” He made a face as he brought up the memory. “It was big and hairy. Ugh.”
The thing about Hasidim in New York City is that their exposure to secular culture is unpredictable and uneven. There are Hasidim who are “Desperate Housewives” aficionados, and others who can give you the stats on every Yankees or Jets player. I know a Hasidic woman who reads Balzac and Foucault and another who practices Jiu-jitsu. And then there are those who don’t know Starbucks from McDonald’s.
This guy, however, as I was to learn, was particularly lacking in what we might call well-rounded exposure. Which was why I was stunned when he told me of one particular interest of his: Jews for Jesus.
“Why you so surprised?” he asked when my lower jaw dropped. Of all the things I’ve heard deviant Hasidim engage in, an interest in Jews for Jesus was never one of them.
“I don’t hear you? What?” He looked at me defensively. “I was curious about them. Is there anything wrong with that?”
“No, not at all. Just surprising, is all.”
“Anyway,” he said, “it didn’t last long. I started going to their place in Manhattan, but they kicked me out after a few times. They said I wasn’t interested in the religious part, only in meeting new people.”
“Were you interested in the religious part?”
He shrugged. “Why not? I was willing to listen.”
Before we parted, we shook hands, and he took my hands in both of his and said with pleading eyes, “Please, Shulem, don’t drop me.” I gave a noncommittal response, something along the lines of, “Why would I?”
Several weeks went by, and he called me several more times. Each time he pleaded with me to introduce him to some of my female friends. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea.
“I don’t hear you.” he said. “What?”
I didn’t bother repeating myself, and after a moment’s pause, he asked, “Why? You think they won’t like me?” I was thinking how to respond, when he said, “It can’t be my looks, because I know I’m good looking.”
I remembered the puppy-dog look in his eyes when he said, Shulem, please don’t drop me. But I couldn’t take much more of him. The next few times he called I let it go to voicemail. He sent me several text messages, sometimes several dozen a day, but eventually he stopped when he realized I wasn’t responding.
Several more weeks went by. On the morning of Thanksgiving I woke up to the chime of a text message on my phone.
“Heppy tanksgiving,” it read. “I miss u.”
I wanted to respond, “I don’t hear you. What?” but then thought the humor would fail him and he’d ask me to explain. And I’d already had enough explaining Starbucks vs. McDonald’s.
SHULEM DEEN has been writing the Hasidic Rebel blog since 2003, and he's also the founder and editor of Unpious.com, a journal for writers on the Hasidic fringe.