Imagine you’re a Hasidic Jewish boy of perhaps five years old.
By this time, like other Hasidic boys, you’ve already been attending heder, primary school, for two years. Six days a week you rise early. Maybe you take the bus, if you live in the Hasidic community of Borough Park, or maybe you walk, if you live in Williamsburg and your heder is nearby.
There are no girls in your school. Mandatory sex segregation begins in the classroom. This segregation lay behind the unofficial signs that were posted along Bedford Avenue last month reading: “Precious Jewish daughter: Please move to the side when a man approaches.”
Many New Yorkers were appalled by the signs. But they don’t understand that Hasidic education, especially for males, is a world apart from the one most other Americans receive. Hasidic schools like yours focus on instruction in religion and Hasidic codes of conduct. By New York State and federal law, the schools are required to teach certain secular subjects, but those who have gone through the system say it’s questionable whether even this minimum standard is being met.
After morning prayer (tefilah), the rebbe leads you and your classmates through the weekly portion of Torah. In heder, the Torah—the first five books of Jewish scripture—is divided into 52 portions, one per week, and these portions are repeated throughout your school years, always in the same order, the only difference being that the rebbe teaches each passage with increasing sophistication as you grow older.
Instruction is in Yiddish, and you, like other Hasidic children, will grow up speaking Yiddish as your first language. Torah passages are read aloud—first in Hebrew, then in Yiddish.
“Mish oyf,” the rebbe might say to his young charges, “Kapitel dalet, Pusek zayin.” (“Open to chapter four, verse seven.”)
Each boy sits at his own desk, and the desks are arranged in the U-shape of the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The rebbe paces the inner arc of this horseshoe holding a cane that he uses like a conductor’s baton, chanting in a sing-song voice to aid the students’ memory.
You and your classmates repeat everything back to him, first in Hebrew, then in Yiddish. If a boy isn’t joining in, the rebbe might rap him smartly with the cane and ask, “Farvus zugsti nisht mit?” (“Why aren’t you saying along?”)
At five years old, you’re already in the third grade of the Hasidic system, but there’s still a long way to go. At 13, you become a man in the eyes of your community and enter yeshiva, secondary school. The religious instruction becomes so intense that many students choose to live in dormitories on campus, even if their families live nearby, in order to maximize their study time. And yet, in a school day that is far longer than the average New York public school student’s, only two hours are set aside for instruction in math, English and other secular subjects.
Few Hasidic men emerge from this education ready to embrace, or even to take part in, a modern society. And those who want to transition into a modern way of life after leaving the faith often find it extraordinarily difficult—not only because they aren’t equipped for most jobs, but also because, by this time, they already have a wife and children. Faced with these challenges, some ex-Hasids turn to entrepreneurialism, others to a precarious double life.
One who has found a way to profit from his old faith, and now makes a business of pulling back the curtain on the world he grew up in, is Jacob Gluck, who runs HasidicWilliamburgTour.com. Gluck was raised Hasidic in Borough Park and went to school in Williamsburg. Now an ex-Hasid, he takes paying customers on a walking tour of Hasidic Williamsburg, pointing out landmarks and explaining the history and customs of the European Jews who settled in Brooklyn after the Second World War. Today’s Hasids are descended from these immigrants who survived the Holocaust.
“I consider myself a historian,” Gluck says. “I’m not just interested in the way things are, but in the way things came to be.”
A handsome, lively man of 32 with a shaved head and intelligent dark eyes, Gluck is deeply knowledgeable about the Old World shtetl culture that modern Hasidim seek to preserve and extend.
Since renouncing his faith at age 20, Gluck has lived in Flatbush, away from the judging eyes of the Hasidic community.
Yakov Yosef doesn’t have that luxury. A married father of six, Yosef must remain, for the time being, in Williamsburg, and keep his anti-Hasidic sentiments quiet.
“I’m somewhat outcasted, but since I have six children, I have to keep up appearances,” he says. “My wife and I live like roommates.”
Where Gluck has his tours, Yosef’s outlet is writing. He blogs for Unpious, a website for what he calls “Hasidim on the fringe.”
Yosef is a pen name. The penalty for speaking openly and critically with an outsider is severe. If it became known that he had spoken to me, his children would be expelled from school and his wife would be humiliated. Yosef himself would be shunned, and become unable to take part in his children’s lives.
For now he leads a double life, participating in his sons’ mitzvahs and observing the High Holidays while harboring deeply felt heretical thoughts.
On Friday nights, under cover of darkness, he retrieves his car from an underground garage and heads out, casually dressed, and without his kippah, to meet secular friends. That he must do this in secret is a sign of just how antithetical Hasidism is to the modern world.
Yosef still remembers the first movie he watched, at the age of 16 in the backroom of a mom-and-pop video store: Steven Seagal’s Out for Justice. Movies of any kind, like most other forms of entertainment, are forbidden by Hasidic law.
When he was 34, Yosef says, a female friend took him to the mall to buy “outsider clothes” for the first time. At the food court, he ate his first non-kosher meal in public.
Gradually, through exposure to a world outside the narrow confines in which he had always felt awkard, he began first to accept, and then to savor, many elements of modern life.
Hasidim view outsiders as, at best, anathema to their way of life, and, at worst, outright antagonistic to it. But unlike the Amish and many other separatist communities, Hasidic Brooklynites choose to live in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world. Tension and even conflict with city officials and other citizens seems inevitable.
City workers soon took down the Yiddish signs that had been bolted to trees along Bedford Avenue.
Both Gluck and Yosef are critical of Hasidic education for males, the goal of which is to produce Talmudic scholars. Science and history, English-language reading and writing, training in modern technology, even the less savory parts of Scripture—all receive short shrift in heder and yeshiva.
“You bring people into the world and don’t give them the tools of living,” says Yosef.
In their own ways, Gluck and Yosef are proof of life after Hasidism. Forever marked by their education and upbringing, they are nevertheless making a place for themselves in a wider world.
“Once you leave the bubble of the community, you learn the world is not your enemy; the world is not immoral,” Gluck says. “It’s just a beautiful world out there!”