Originally uploaded by pwilnyc.
When we used to live in Brooklyn, we were quite near a big Hasidic community.
It was really neat. I can't pretend my interest was anything other than ignorant cultural voyeurism, let's just admit that right away. I thought it was wild to see these guys in the big flat round hats and little boys wearing 3-piece suits every day.
And sometimes at the museum where I worked it would seem to be, like, Orthodox Day - huge families piloting double and triple strollers, the moms in wigs and plaid skirts, the squads of kids identically dressed.
As these families became a more familiar sight, I began to notice certain themes. The plaid skirts. Tam o'shanters. If a boy wore glasses, they had gold-colored aviator-style frames. And the family car was almost without exception an 8-year-old Bonneville station wagon. We used to kind of joke that along with dietary restrictions, the book of Leviticus must lay down guidelines for transportation and eyewear.
A few weeks ago I had a few minutes to kill with Barbara, a friend at work. She's Orthodox, or conservative, or observant or whatever. Look, I'm aware that there are varieties of Judaism, just like I'm aware that there are different types of sins in the Catholic church - mortal, venal, original, extra-crispy - hey, I'm on it.
But I'm a second-generation atheist on my father's side and a cultural Presbyterian from my mother. Any religion that involves more ritual than a handshake after the service is a mystery to me. Like, don't ask me to say grace. We never said grace. I'm always thrown when all of a sudden everybody gets quiet and bows their heads. What happened?! Nerve gas? Oh, Christ, they're praying.
You ask me to do it, you are more than likely to get the old "God is great god is good let us thank him for our food." Single syllables and a sight rhyme - nice.
Maybe I could come up with a limerick:
Look at these plates on the table
Left by the Almighty Creator
"How'd He get in?"
Mom asked with a grin,
And Dad said, "Shut up," then he ate her.
Well I could probably do better. Ok, a bottle of aftershave could do better. But look what happened: I start out acknowledging the gift, and in 5 lines it's domestic violence even unto cannibalism. I just don't got the chops for it.
So I get up the nerve and I ask my co-worker, "Say, Barb, you're a Jew..."
"Yes," she says, arching an eyebrow. "I am a Jew."
"Well I have a rather flippant question." And I ask her why every Hasidic family in Brooklyn drove an old Pontiac Bonneville station wagon.
Giving me a lot more credit than I deserve, she considers the question, corrects my pronunciation - twice - and says, "Well, those are big families, and they have huge tuitions to pay. It may be that a used Bonneville wagon is just consistently the best deal they can get on a car that will seat that many people."
Barb is wise, Barb is knowledgeable. Mystery cleared up. She confirms that nowhere in the Torah does Yahweh exhort His chosen people to "Buy American!".
The other day, I picked the Big Man up from camp. He climbed into our AWD Subaru Legacy Outback wagon and said, "Mom, guess what? The car in front of ours was a Subaru too!"
I said, "Isn't that a coincidence. There are a lot of Subarus at this school, aren't there?" As I spoke, another car identical to ours pulled into the pick-up line.
It's odd, but I don't remember reading the page in the overeducated liberal handbook (the New York Times Magazine I guess, or maybe Consumer Reports) that dictates we use a Subaru wagon to bring home the organic milk and hiking sandals, and to ferry our kids to and from Friends School.