"Just Outside the Eruv" will be my name and tag for an occasional series of posts to this blog about experiences I have living in such close proximity to these fellow Jews, interacting with them, or with others in the area when the interactions are inflected by their presence. ("Eruv" is a Talmudic term referring to the boundaries of an area which, on the Sabbath, an orthodox Jew can treat as an extension of his or her house. To live within Kiryas Yoel is to live within an Eruv. I am just outside the Eruv--close enough that some of the more prosperous members of the Satmar community can own or rent houses and walk the short distance to services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, but far enough that they cannot carry their keys with them.) This is the first entry in that series.
Today, my son and I paid our first visit to the Monroe Bakery. While it is not within Kiryas Yoel, it is Hasidic-owned, shomer shabbos, and has a good reputation for the quality of its challah and other baked goods. I entered the bakery a bit nervous.
Today was my first full day back home after a week-long trip to Florida, in which I briefly visited the bedside of my grandfather before his death, and comforted my mother and other relatives after it. My grandfather would have had no love and little sympathy for the Satmarim. His beliefs were no less atheistic and strongly held than my own, though not sharing the Marxist integument that holds my world view together. My grandfather was someone who through his life demonstrated that one could be ethical, upright, and consistent without any belief in a creator, though the ethics on which he acted were, too often, patriarchal and chauvinistic. His mother, whom he loved even to the point of cutting off all contact with his elder sister for what he regarded as her inadequate filial piety, was on the other hand the only one of my great-grandparents on the Jewish side of my family who adhered to any measure of orthodoxy. Thus I never met her, because she treated the day of my mother's marriage to my father as the day of her death. Given this background, it is not surprising that my grandfather had a greater impact on the beliefs of his descendants than his mother did, and so all the relatives present to remember him were about as secular as I am, and it showed in their attitudes toward my Satmar neighbors.
The attitudes of secular American Jews to the ultra-Orthodox (collectively referred to as haredim--all hasidim are haredi but not all haredim are hasidic) resemble the attitudes of elite, assimilated German Jews to the Ostjuden before the war, or of more Americanized cohorts to fresh-off-the-boat newcomers in generations past. Thus I had spent all week being the recipient of unsolicited warnings--"they're horrible people;" "they hate anyone who isn't one of them;" "they're the rudest people around, even worse than Israelis;" "greedy bastards;" "they stink;" and of course "they'll destroy the public schools around you once they get a chance."
Even if I know that these statements range from slanderously false to only partly true, having this be a recurrent coda for the week prior meant that I was on guard as I entered the bakery. I will report that the bakery smells like a bakery--delicious. The price on the chocolate babka was a bit high, but based on the smell it emitted as I cut slices for each of the kids, it is probably worth it. The challah we are saving for tonight's dinner, so I don't yet know if it is good, but the price is reasonable. The service could have been a bit nicer, but the conversation with the clerk changed tenor slightly when I took one of the three Yiddish newspapers in stock--from Der Blat, Di Tsaytung, and Der Yid, this time I decided to try Der Yid.
"You're interested in Jewish newspapers?"
"Ikh kon leyenen af yidish. I'm Jewish and I'm trying to keep my Yiddish up so I can translate things."
Then I meandered into some apologetic, grammatically dubious statement in Yiddish downplaying my Jewishness, and he replied with a rabbinical saying in Hebrew that I did not recognize at first. Then he gave an English translation summing it up as, from God's standpoint, all his children are on the same level. And I thought that was a pretty decent thing to say, and not at all reflective of "hating anyone who isn't one of them."
So I left the bakery feeling pretty well disposed toward the Satmarim... until the drive home. From the bakery, the quickest way home takes me through the fringes of Kiryas Yoel. And on a Friday afternoon, drivers around there get a little frantic. After all, one must arrive home and turn off the ignition of the car before sunset, preferably well before sunset. So the driver behind me seemed a bit hurried. Let me be frank: He was riding up my ass. And then, as I approached a crosswalk where a teenage boy--still beardless--waited to cross, and where State law and basic decency dictated that I should stop to allow him to cross and finish his walk home before sunset, I did in fact stop--and the driver behind me honked, directly at me and implicitly at the pedestrian.
It left me wondering, which was the greater respect to the Sabbath? To rush home frantically honking one's horn at anyone who gets in the way? Or to yield to others in deference to their eagerness to perform a mitzvah in which one does not believe? Another way to ask this question might be: Who was the better Jew, the great-grandmother who never met or spoke to me, or the grandfather who loved me always, through all our differences?