The Angry Hasidim
The first time I visited New York City as an adult was March 1999. I had been to the city several times before as a kid, visiting They Who Must Not Be Named, aka the Rogan side of the family, so I had seen all the touristy sights. But this was the first time where I got to choose between the Statue of Liberty and a bar in the Meatpacking District called Hogs & Heifers.
It was a strange time to be in NYC, and strange circumstances. This was the very height of the dot-com boom, and I was visiting a conference thrown by the now-defunct Jupiter Communications, which had seemingly cornered the market in getting stupid people to throw stupid money after stupid consulting ideas. At this conference, I learned many, many fascinating things that I was completely unable to put into practice when everything went straight to hell one year later.
Still, I had a great time.
I mean, other than almost being killed by a crowd of Hasidic Jews.
You wouldn’t think they’d be the fearsome type.
You’d be wrong.
Let’s look at some evidence.
But, back to Frank’s Excellent Adventure in New York.
Myself and a colleague from work named Jill flew into New York late on a Saturday night. Jill and I had a great time when we weren’t listening to freshly-minted billionaires talk about online heavyweights like Lycos, AltaVista and Pets.com. (cough, cough)
Jill had a definite agenda for her New York visit, so I played Flava Flav to her Chuck D.
- A bouncer barred us from one club because we lacked the proper fetish gear, so we went into Hogs & Heifers next door.
- Jill took me to Meow Mix, a lesbian bar in the East Village — the place was featured in the movie Chasing Amy. I was literally the only guy in the room; I just did my best Ben Affleck. It didn’t work.
- We hit Bar d’O in Greenwich Village, a showcase lounge for the greatest drag talent in the city.
The first day, Sunday, Jill’s agenda had her taking in a Broadway matinee, which gave me the entire day in the city to fart around. While Jill had an agenda, I had no plan. I walked around Greenwich Village, got lost, and had some lunch. I hailed a cab and told him to to drop me off at the World Trade Center.
I get a little sad thinking about that. I was one of those little kid nerds with the Guinness Book of World Records, so as a kid, I was in awe of a twin pair of buildings that were the tallest buildings in the world.
That’s when I noticed the Hasidim.
Small groups, emerging from subway exits and parking garages. All walking in the same direction. A family here. A couple of men there. All headed … somewhere.
Intrigued, I followed them. Pretty soon, I was mid-stream in a torrent, as more and more appeared from around corners. A few turned to dozens, and there was a buzz in the air. Dozens turned into hundreds. OK, I thought, this isn’t just anything. It’s something. They had a purpose. But I still had no idea what.
The stream of Jews + Frank turned a final corner and we emerged onto Wall Street. Hundreds of Jews? Try thousands. The women and children had peeled off from the crowd, and where first I had seemed to be the odd duck in a massive family outing of rather formally dressed people, I was now just a lone gentile adrift in a sea of burly dudes, all dressed in black.
The NYPD was waiting for us, herding everyone into manageable groups, using the same blue barricades I saw every New Year’s Eve with Dick Clark.
Bing. A light went on in my head. Oh, I get it. I’m in the middle of a demonstration. Something political. I guess I’m just a little slow on the uptake…
And then, from the distance, a voice on a loudspeaker started speaking in Hebrew …
… and SHAZAM I’m the only one not shuckling.
Mind you, I’m not mocking the Hasidim for the shuckling. I was raised Catholic. Entire generations of Catholic school children have one bad knee and one huge thigh. Turn to the right! Kneel! Genuflect!
Regardless, I don’t have the black suit, I don’t speak the language and I’m not bowing and swaying. Saying I was sticking out like a sore thumb is an insult to sore thumbs worldwide. Religious garb? Umm, no. I was even sporting a jacket emblazoned with the logo of a videogame developer whose most significant contribution to the world was a game called TOTAL ANNIHILATION.
A particularly wizened old coot was moving through the crowd, handing out a flyers … or perhaps prayers, since Hebrew is Greek to me. Get it? Hebrew … is … Greek. OK, moving on.
Anyway, the old coot looked me up and down, muttered something under his breath and moved on. No prayer for you!
I was being buffeted from all sides by the shuckling. Just imagine a very, very religious mosh pit. Or perhaps a rugby scrum with hats and tefillin.
I briefly considered trying to crowd surf.
Despite my delusions of achieving instant immortality among the younger Hasidim (because you know they’d still be telling the story about the time the crazy guy went all Lollapalooza on their religious demonstration) the shuckling scrum went from “Hah-hah, very funny, you’re not one of us” to “Beat it, asshole; can’t you see we’re praying here?” I started getting shoved around. Then I started getting elbowed and slapped upside the head.
I looked for an exit and I KID YOU NOT an NYPD cop named O’Malley waved me over.
“Hey, man, can I step under this sawhorse?”
“Beat it, asshole. Can’t you see they’re praying here?”
Never let it be said that Irish cops in New York aren’t sensitive to the values of the religious community.
I took Officer O’Malley’s advice and indeed, beat it. I stepped into a bodega, where my multicultural New York experience went briefly Dominican.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked.
“No se,” said the guy behind the counter.
I found one guy standing on the sidelines who, while Orthodox, was not Hasidic and seemed willing to talk. He explained that what I was seeing had nothing whatsoever to do with the U.S., but was instead a demonstration in support of a segment of Israeli politics.
I walked. It was several blocks before I found the “end” of the demonstration and I could move safely around it. I wandered down to the South Street Seaport and its tourist-friendly view of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Three Hasidic teenage boys had peeled off from the crowd, doing what teenagers always do — hang out. Take off the black suits and throw them some Chuck Taylors, and they’d be just like me and every other dude in the world. Hanging out at the mall. They probably played videogames when their parents weren’t watching.