He reminded me of myself, back when I’d never been inside a bar, hardly even to a restaurant. It was a spontaneous meetup. He’d been a fan for years, and we corresponded on and off. My identity was no longer a secret to him, and we’d gotten to passing regards to one another through mutual friends. But we’d never met. Until one day he dropped me an email out of the blue saying he’s in my neighborhood, would I like to have lunch.
He was ok with non-kosher, he said, which took me by surprise. I have many friends who play the game well, living the lifestyle without believing in it. But his wool talis katan fluttering beneath his open vest, clean and well-pressed though it was, would’ve fooled even me.
He didn’t know how to order from a menu, how to ask for a check, that a gratuity was pretty much required. But he was far from a Forrest Gump-like dunce. His comments on my blog posts were thoughtful and well-written. He could hold his own on many an intellectual topic. His awareness of the contemporary world was fairly advanced. But it was all theoretical, achieved from within the confining space of the shtetl-like community he came from.
It reminded me of when I first introduced the idea to my then-wife that we go to a restaurant on occasion. Alone time, away from the kids, nice ambience, good food. “What’s the point?” She was genuinely baffled. To her, restaurants were meant for exhausting shopping days or when taking the kids to after-school doctors’ appointments, when there’d be no time to prepare decent dinners. Restaurants with high-chairs for the babies, and tiny ice-cream cups gratis for the kids, personally delivered by the restaurant’s charming proprietor, a Chasidic gentleman with a flowing talis katan with bubbly, knotted fringes along the hemline.
“It’s just a waste of money,” she’d argue. “My cooking is just as good.” She’d look to me for reassurance, or look away lest I’d argue otherwise. But she came to appreciate restaurants eventually, the elegance of sparkling wine glasses and crisp white tablecloths, different dishes to try, exotic ones, different from the Jewish-Hungarian fare her mother taught her to prepare, expertly though she came to do them.
And I suppose all these things are matters to be cultivated, staples of our contemporary society done not necessarily for utilitarian reasons but as ends in themselves. But in truth, I too was a stranger to much of non-Chasidic society’s cultural habits, and remain so to this day.
“You have to check out this bar!” my friend Alex texted me excitedly one recent Friday night. “Two-dollar beers until midnight!” She was there with friends, and they discovered this hole in the wall in the Lower East Side. And I couldn’t help thinking, I “have to” check it out? What’s wrong with the two-dollar beers I can get from my corner deli and have it at home with a few friends? Alex laughed when I said it later that night, she already tipsy, tottering on her heels. “You have so much to learn about us goyim and our ways,” she said. The bar lends itself to socializing, meeting new people, being “out on the town.” But I never quite got the point.
A long time ago – during what now seems like an entirely different lifetime – I found myself wandering alone aimlessly around Greenwich Village on a cool evening, curious about the experience of having a drink in a bar, watching the NYU students with a mixture of envy and resentment for the ease with which they came and went, “bar-hopping,” a term I would only later learn but never came to really appreciate. But I let the matter go without even trying, too intimidated by the idea of something so foreign. A bar was for drinking, that seemed fairly obvious. But was there some protocol to be followed? I’d had plenty a glass of Johnny Walker or Whiskey and Amaretto at a kiddush or vach nacht, and the occasional beer at a shulem zucher. But did goyish bars serve those? Would I sound funny, amateurish, if I asked for the wrong thing? And what afterwards? Drink it and leave? Make conversation? Were there local customs to adhere to? I had no respite from my overly analytical, anxiety-inducing mind, so I gave up. What do I want from bars anyway? I asked myself. Nothing but a nagging curiosity that could just as well be left unsatisfied. I decided I’m not the bar type, and left it at that. And I never really did become one.
I watched him order a salad, chit-chat with the waitress, the folks at the table near us. He was more at ease than I’d been when I first began to socialize with non-Chasidim. But there was no mistaking the incongruity. A chasid with a long talis katan, he too with bubbly fringes along the hemline tied in elegant knots, hardly knowing how to order something off a menu, seated in a non-kosher establishment in the company of tattooed and heavily pierced hipsters. He wasn’t much of a restaurant type, he said. I understood. Even I never quite cared for a “nice” restaurant – save for those special evenings when they contribute to an amorous encounter – always pooh-pooh-ing when a friend would mention a place with elegant décor and wonderful ambience. Chasidim don’t take much to being waited on, signaling for an extra glass of water, condiments, asking for the check. A tip? He glanced at the check. It’s not included? He looked skeptical.
When I first started my journey into secular culture as it is actually lived – after having been immersed in secular readings and exposed to the culture – again, only theoretically – for years, I took it all in with a child-like fascination. My first movie as an adult (as a child I’d seen Dumbo and some other Disney fare on a neighbor’s old-fashioned movie projector) was Big Daddy, followed by Spartacus, the experience of being drawn into a complete world of make-believe positively intoxicating. My first movie theater attendance was Ocean’s Eleven; the large screen and surround-sound audio made me uncomfortably dizzy, while my brother, a veteran of movie theaters and hardly the bookish type that I was, grinned with amusement. My first club was with a group of Chasidic friends at Café Wha in the Village. My first Jazz bar: a smokey hole in the wall in same said Village with a $5 cover with my friend Pearl. My first tastings of bona-fide non-kosher food were Starbucks’s Turkey and Swiss sandwiches. The first bar I did eventually venture into was The Library on Avenue A, near Houston Street, a friend recommending it as a cool, unpretentious place, and he knew the bartenders. They were friendly, he said. Like it mattered. My first non-Kosher restaurant was a Mexican joint in the Upper West Side, which I was told served the very best frozen margaritas. Frozen margaritas? I wouldn’t know the best from the worst. My first rock concert was to see The Who at Nassau Colliseum, and my first sporting event was a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden (they lost narrowly to the Spurs).
These encounters – some more fulfilling than others – were taken tentatively, unsure of my interest in the specific event, but curious, oh so curious, as to what it was that secular people found meaningful and entertaining. But it wasn’t these cultural attractions that made me eventually discard my Chasidic garb and make a drastic lifestyle switch. I was, and remain, a more bookish type. “Geek,” a friend teases me still, and it’s a badge I wear, proudly or not, but it’s who I am.
And he too seemed the more bookish type, which was where we shared our common interest. “Would you ever leave?” I asked him. “What for?” he shrugged. The secular world contained matters to satisfy his intellectual and academic curiosities, but he only had to visit his local library for those. He was comfortably ensconced with family, friends, community, and career. His lack of belief was only an inconvenient matter of trivia, dealt with fair ease by keeping his mouth shut when appropriate. In many ways, I wished my former life had been as simple, gratifying – which in many ways it was, save some notable ways in which it wasn’t, private matters that pertained to me and me only.
Indeed, he had no reason, I agreed, and wistfully thought of all that I’d left behind, having to choose between having my cake and eating it. But while to an outsider – say the Israeli photographer hired by the restaurant for promotional work, who was intrigued by the Chasid and the secular guy having lunch – I might’ve seemed more in place in this world, we were both in many ways foreigners. And I suspect in many ways I’ll always be one, now fairly comfortable navigating the pathways of secular culture, even doing the occasional “bar-hopping,” however unenthusiastically, but always looking back to a world that would always be my only true comfort zone, exiled as I might be for choices made tossing and turning in the dark of night.Printable Version