I’m in New York training psychologists this week, and as I always do here, I visited a neighborhood with a professional guide.
On previous trips I’ve toured Harlem, Wall Street, Brooklyn Heights, Midtown, Upper Park Avenue, and several other neighborhoods. This year we went to Williamsburg, home to the most insular and religious community of Hasidic Jews in North America.
The group is called the Satmars, who came to this country from Eastern Europe after WWII. They dress meticulously like the nobility of 18th century Lithuania/Poland. Even in summer, the men wear long sleeve white shirts, black vests, long black coats, and black fur hats (along with thick religious underwear). Women cannot show their arms, legs, or collarbones, so they wear long dresses over thick flesh-colored stockings. Upon marriage they shave their heads and wear wigs, and often wear hats.
They speak Yiddish, a language brought to American from Eastern Europe in late 19th century. Working on Friday night or Saturday is strictly forbidden (and “working” includes driving, phoning, cooking, and turning electricity on or off). 100% of their children go to private religious schools. Every family is strictly kosher. Except for work, the internet is forbidden, and all internet usage (including passwords) must be logged with the head rabbi (I saw two different memos directing this. There are almost no smartphones here.
Marriage and all other social relations are strictly regulated; community matchmakers are used, and betrothal by age 17 is not uncommon. Childbearing begins immediately upon marriage. The average family has some ten children.
Formal learning is considered far more important for males than for females, and so many girls do not graduate high school. Math, science, logic, and languages are not stressed, as they are considered less important than homemaking and Jewish law. Few women have cellphones or computer access; they rarely own property, have limited right to divorce, and rarely leave the neighborhood (the main exceptions are well-organized shopping trips to a few select stores and visiting relatives or neighbors in the hospital). Satmar families don’t go out to eat very much, so food shopping and cooking are a full-time female occupation.
Which brings us to the women, the women who have no eyes.
I admit that I am not welcome in the Satmar neighborhood. As a tourist, I dressed modestly—long pants in 85-degree heat, with a broad-brimmed hat. I brought no camera, no notebook, no food or water. And I certainly didn’t come on a Saturday. If I had, I would have been encouraged (in Yiddish, with much gesticulation) to leave. And if I had insisted on my right to walk New York’s public streets, particularly if dressed as almost an ordinary American might on a hot day, I would have been forcefully encouraged to leave by the local neighborhood association.
So my guide and I quietly and respectfully spent 90 minutes walking Keap Street, Bedford Avenue, South 4th Street, and the rest of Old Williamsburg. I passed men talking on old internet-free flip-phones, and women pushing strollers. I passed groups of girls (all the boys were in school, studying Torah). I walked by bakeries and schools and wig shops.
The men either looked at me or ignored me. The women, however, had no eyes at all.
You know how you walk down the street, see a stranger come toward you, and you either nod, smile, or (more often) look away? Even the looking away is an acknowledgement of the other’s existence.
The Satmar women did none of these. As we approached and then passed each other, they all had the identical, studied look: chin tilted about 5 degrees down from horizontal, just enough so they didn’t have to see my face or body. Moreover, their eyes were completely unfocussed, a dead stare you’d expect from someone deeply autistic, profoundly depressed, or in total shock. Even when a pair of them were talking to each other normally as I approached (often with two strollers and 3 or 4 other young kids in tow), when we had to momentarily negotiate our en passant, their eyes died and I ceased to exist.
(And it’s not just because I’m a man. They relate to non-Satmar women the same way.)
For the first few blocks I was respectful, and even lowered my eyes once or twice. Then I smiled at a few. Of course, there was no change in their expressionless expression. Then I started to smile when I passed groups of girls, starting with adolescents: same dead eyes. Schoolgirls: same dead eyes. Six-year-olds: a few looked back at me, although always without smiling (a rather creepy experience). And almost immediately an older sister would intrude to fuss over the kid or pull her away. Finally I smiled at a few babies in strollers at red lights. When the babies laughed or smiled, they were quickly wheeled away or covered. They’re only a few years from learning to deaden their eyes.
The afternoon tour was fascinating in many ways—I even saw a crowd gathered (actually, two crowds, men on one side of the street, women on the other) watching a rabbi praying loudly over a coffin. According to a nearby Hispanic cop, a 12-year-old girl had died the night before.
But my enduring image of Williamsburg, the very last person I encountered before crossing Broadway and leaving the neighborhood, was an eight-year-old girl. She and two friends (cousins?) were standing on a street corner handing out yellow fliers. They were in Yiddish, and I obviously wasn’t going to participate in whatever they were announcing, but I was curious. And I thought I might actually have a momentary interaction with this young person.
So as I approached, I smiled warmly, and held out my hand, gesturing for a flier. And I didn’t get dead eyes. Instead, I got the most disdainful, disgusted, derisive look I have ever gotten from a human being. She was eight, and she’d already learned to look down on me.
Soon enough, she’ll learn to express this disgust with dead eyes. Meanwhile, I guess she forgot that I’m created in the image of her god, too.