#81: The romantic lives of Hipsidic Jews.
A peak inside Orthodox Jewish dating.
“I look pretty good for a grandpa, eh?” he says to me with a wink.
It’s true; but after all, he’s only 38 years old. F. got married at 18 in Brooklyn’s Yeshivish Orthodox Jewish community (they wear the furry hats), and so did his daughter. The math checks out and it’s not so unusual, at least within the confines of the religious community from which he happens to have defected.
It’s Friday night, deep-Pandemic, and I’m at a casual Shabbat dinner gathering in Brooklyn, apparently flirting with a grandpa.
Staring down the barrel of a dark lockdown winter, I’ve decided to get creative with my social life, and have immersed myself in what I’ve heard referred to as the “Hipsidic” community, a loose and informal circle of quasi-Orthodox Jewish Brooklynites with hipster or hippie proclivities.
Many of the members of this community were raised either Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox, and are looking for ways to maintain connection to their Jewish identity within an updated, less restrictive framework. Another major contingent are “ba’al teshuvah,” Jews who were raised secular but are now returning to the tribe through deeper religious observance.
The Hipsidic scene is in some ways a halfway house for Jews moving in either direction, either diving in deeper or searching for escape. I’m mostly there by default. As far as I’m aware, this is the only party in town.
Like F., many people here have former lives, some of them secret.
I heard L. speak movingly about discovering he was attracted to men while being raised in a home so religious that any non-liturgical music was forbidden. L. shaved his beard, bought some skinny jeans, and spent a wild rumspringa two years in Chelsea, sleeping with many men. Now, he’s looking for a wife. Though he does not deny his same-sex attraction, he wishes to follow God’s commandments and raise Jewish children. He feels that his connection to Judaism is deeper and more fundamental than his sexual orientation.
There’s something slippery about how easy it is to pass in either direction, just by switching up your clothes and hair. A casual observer would never guess that many of these folks never heard the Beatles before age twenty. For my part, I’ve started going by my Hebrew name, and dressing in a long skirt over yoga pants when attending more serious events. Looking in the mirror, I get a funny feeling that this ‘frum’ (“religious”) girl has always existed, that my secular, modern self is somewhere between a poorly-written fiction and a dream. The girl in the mirror has marched in a steady rhythm through centuries of prayer and persecution, cooking the meals, feeding the babies, fighting through the annual cycle of the festival-heavy Jewish calendar. She is time-tested and knows where she is going. Do I?
At least two nights a week, I make my way to Crown Heights, passing by the sculpture outside of the Brooklyn Museum that says either “OY” or “YO,” depending on which way you’re going down Eastern Parkway, a famously tense fault line between the African American and Jewish communities. I’ve come to see this sculpture as a portal to a different world, transmogrifying my secular identity into my frum alter-ego and back again.
I don’t always wear the long skirt. What I have found, though, is that wearing my regular tight pants seems to draw aggressive sexual advances in a way that my skirt repels. Every time I have worn jeans, someone has grabbed my thigh. In this world, it’s a signal, and they are responding.
My Hipsidic friend Z rolls his eyes when I complain. “That’s why there’s a mechitza,” he says, referring to the wall that separates men and women during religious services.
“Women are better than men, so you better keep your junk covered up. When frum men think about being the only ones that get to see their wives’ hair, they get massive boners. True female empowerment is going to the beach and wearing a bathing costume that’s so hideous you look like a seal.”
This is an eclectic crowd, and most people are funny and creative. I am deeply grateful to have found this oasis in a challenging time. I attend a weekly music jam and many shabbat dinners. I go to drum circles, costume parties, and a sharing circle with marijuana-laced cholent. The frequency of holidays and festivals gives one the sense that exciting things are always in motion. And everyone is looking for a spouse.
Those most urgently seeking are, big shocker, women over thirty. I have several female friends who became ba’al teshuva after somewhat wayward youths, and things are rough-going.
My friend T., a successful forty-year old lawyer, spent her teenage years at punk concerts with a shaved head. Now, her gut feeling is that she’d like to keep her hair, even after she gets married. This became a contentious point between her and her fiancé, a thirty-six year old Israeli yeshiva student, and they ultimately ended up breaking off their engagement. The matchmaker was disappointed.
As hard as it is to pair off teenagers who come from identical backgrounds, it is exponentially harder to pair off sophisticated and complex middle-aged people who are following life paths that are in some ways unprecedented. Though she desperately wishes for children of her own, T. has accepted that she might end up having to adopt. A devout believer, she has faith that this too is part of God’s plan; “I hear it’s pretty unpleasant to part the red sea,’” she says with an anatomical gesture and a smirk.
T. wants a man who works out. A certified yoga instructor, fitness is important to her, and so is physical attraction.
“God makes it easy for you to know who you’re compatible with,” she says sagely.
“You just LOOK!” She’s at peace with the recent decision to break off her engagement, though she is disappointed that they won’t get to shag.
“I was excited to finish the wedding, and say, okay let’s shag!”
In retrospect, she recognizes that she may have overlooked red flags in her eagerness to get hitched. After all, they only went on four dates before she asked him to propose to her. She had heard of a friend for whom this had worked. But then again, that friend was younger, and had grown up Orthodox.
Though T., having had sexual relationships before she became ba’al teshuva, plans to wait until marriage, that isn’t true of everyone I talk to.
S., 32, expects that she would probably have sex before marriage, but only once she and her partner knew that they would last forever. She hated hook-up culture in college, and was drawn to the Orthodox community in large part for its emphasis on family values and wholesome community. I ask her how her search for a husband is going; she replies that she is praying.
We’re a village within a village. I’m terrible at guesstimating, but I would hazard that this is a scene of only a couple thousand people, if that. Every event that I go to, I recognize at least one person from a previous event.
I become a fixture pretty quickly, warmly offered a seemingly endless number of Shabbos invites. It’s nice.
“Crown Heights,” a comedian riffs at a cozy living room salon.
“Where most men have tasted a vagina, but no man has tasted a Snickers bar.”
That’s what I like about this community—the tension between open-minded acceptance and preservation of traditions seems to have struck a nice balance. It feels livable and come-as-you-are. Refugees from both the religious and secular worlds co-mingle and create. It’s organized chaos.
Is it sustainable?
“It’s a lot more Brooklyn than Bnei Brak,” notes my friend D. “There are benefits to being a traditional pocket within a larger liberal city. In a sense, you’re getting the best of both worlds.”
Decidedly un-Brooklyn, however, are the politics. This is likely one of the few party circuits in the borough in which supporting Trump isn’t social suicide.
Mayor De Blasio is widely despised for his failure to protect Orthodox Jews from a wave of violent assaults last year, and gender pronouns, cancel culture, and Black Lives Matter are all frequent subjects of mockery. When a rabbi visiting from Monsey mentions he’d hit traffic while crossing the George Washington Bridge, an NYU law student affects faux-concern: “Were there protesters, Rabbi? Please be safe, Rabbi!”
T. rolls her eyes at the COVID lockdowns, demanding, “Where’s the pandemic? Can you show me the pandemic?”
Though I’m well aware of the heavy death toll the Orthodox community faced in the early stages of the pandemic, to be honest, strolling through a thoroughly hopping Crown Heights on Friday night, I can’t see it either. What I see is crowds of young people laughing and singing as they stroll in large packs from one farbrengen (“joyous gathering”) to the next; it might look like Greek life on a college campus if everyone wasn’t wearing tzitzit.
For my own part, I’ve decided subconsciously that while I wouldn’t go to a maskless gathering of secular people, anything in the Orthodox community is fair game. Religious Jews have been unfairly and hypocritically targeted by the press and the government since the beginning of the pandemic, and there is an ideological consistency to their desire to maintain their religious lives without regard to government ordinances.
But the idea of going to a maskless party with secular Biden voters who would likely make excuses for their own risky behavior while clucking over the Hasidim makes me nauseous. Last summer, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva was in the news for disguising a children’s holiday gathering as a memorial event for George Floyd, hoping like generations of Jews before them that they might hide their true observance beneath the guise of the state-sanctioned religion.
Though I had initially anticipated moving on from the Hipsidic scene once the rest of the city reopened, as spring rolls in, I find myself looking forward to participating in the rituals and festivals that will mark the coming seasons. This heterodox and dynamic community has offered me possibilities that I had never imagined, and though I decide not to pursue dating a grandpa, I’m keeping an open mind.
@allthefrensy is a writer living in Brooklyn.