Obscured American: Noam the Straying Hasid

Last year in Leipzig, Germany, I met a young woman who had just returned from Chicago, where her family lived in tony Lincoln Park.  She had also studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, where tuition alone was near $50,000.  Germany was too white, she complained, and she was ashamed of the anti-immigrant attitude shown by many of her countrymen.  For Christmas, she went to Palm Springs, California.  Though only in her mid-twenties, she had traveled to dozens of countries.

The young woman loved American multiculturalism, and it’s easy to see why.  For those above a certain income level, diversity simply means variety, as in choosing between Mexican and Filipino for breakfast, Haitian, Cuban and Panamanian for lunch, then Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan for dinner.  One can decide between a Colombian and a Tibetan nanny, and as for paid penetration, why not a Ukrainian one week, then a Thai the next?  If one’s an employer, there are billions of reasons to underpay, so that’s nice too.  Just keep those borders open.

Below deck, in the windowless compartments, the dynamics aren’t quite the same.  Though one can also sample a huevos rancheros or a Jamaican beef patty, one may not be able to afford it if one can’t compete for a job against more desperate immigrants.  Those who don’t make their living as a busboy, dishwasher, line cook, hotel custodian, housepainter, drywaller or gardener, etc., will smirk at this scenario.  The unemployed may also be foreign-born, since relentless immigration hurts whomever is already here.  In Washington State, Thai farm workers have been brought in to replace Mexicans.

With lives of the working poor constantly threatened and disrupted by immigration, social turmoil is inevitable, for the masses can’t keep making and eating less, and moving into ever worse dwellings, if not onto a sidewalk.  The backlash against immigration in all multicultural societies is no last gasp convulsion from the past, but a portent of the future.  With nationalism and tribalism resurgent, we’re living through the last days of multiculturalism.

None of this tectonic shift is evident in chichi enclaves like the Upper East Side, where I had a reading recently at the Asia Society, or in Boerum Hill, where I also did my shtick.  In that rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, the average listed price for a house is only $3,328,983.  Let me see if I have some spare change.

Among those at the second event, there was a rather unusual young man, for it’s not every day you find a Hasidic Jew at a celebration of a Tokyo-based literary journal.  During the informal chatter afterwards, I got to meet 24-year-old Noam.

By bringing different modes of living and thinking into starker contrast, multiculturalism allows each man to reflect on his own upbringing, so that he can forge, step by step, an existence that’s more suitable to his soul.  From a diverse buffet, he may choose anything from tai chi, to Sufism, to chemsex.  Stepping outside the strictures of Hasidism just six months ago, Noam is at the beginning of this process.

Wearing a beige jacket and dark brown slacks, Noam was clean shaven, and his speech was deliberate and concise, even after he had had a few beers mixed with wine.  Thoroughly contained, Noam never got agitated nor laughed, though his face sometimes seemed bemused.  Our conversation started at the bookstore, continued at a restaurant, and ended on the street, just before I went underground to head back to the Lower East Side.  I never saw Noam again.

I like what you said about civilizational decline.  In the Talmud, it talks about this relentless decline, from generation to generation.  Mankind has been in decline for 4,000 years.

My father is dead.  I live at home with my mother and three siblings.  I have an older brother and an older sister who have moved out.

I stopped formal schooling at 13, and I’m just now trying to get the equivalent of a high school diploma.  I’d like to go to college.  I’ll probably take out a loan.  I don’t know what I want to study.

At the yeshiva, we spoke Yiddish.  I can also read and write Hebrew.

I feel embarrassed, because so many other people my age have done so much.

I haven’t been anywhere.  I spent six months in Israel, but only in an Orthodox community.  There are modern places in Israel, like Tel Aviv, but I wasn’t there.  Where I was, there was garbage in the middle of the street.  Being used to American standards, I didn’t feel comfortable.

I also spent a few weeks in Los Angeles, but, again, I was only among other Orthodox Jews.

I have never even been to New Jersey.

Sometimes I think of myself as a poet.  I’d like to publish at least one poem.  I need to express what I’ve gone through.

My heroes are Biblical, like King David.  I’m inspired by them.  Don’t laugh, but I’d like to be great like them.

I cannot have a conversation with my sister-in-law, not because I don’t like her, but because it’s not allowed.

Even in the home, only certain colors are allowed for decoration.  Everything is so bland.  Even the cooking.  Take the matzo ball, for example.

I understand that’s how it was in the ancient world, but I’m uncomfortable with the injunction to annihilate all of your enemy, every single man, woman and child.

The Talmud does teach you to respect all living beings, and even inanimate things.  At a normal meal, bread is always eaten first, but on the Shabbat, wine is drank before you break bread, and that’s why the bread must be covered by a piece of cloth, to not offend it.

In the Talmud, there’s a story about a rabbi who crawled beneath a bed, just so he could learn how his teacher had sex, and there’s another rabbi who hid in the outhouse, just so he could observe how his teacher wiped himself.  There is a correct way to do everything.

I’m watching television to learn about the world, because you can’t get everything from books.  I’m watching sit-coms and commercials.  The Twilight Zone is a show from the 60’s.  I notice the eyes of the people in it are more focused.  They don’t dart around like what you see today.  People could still focus then.

You’re right, many people can no longer hear you.  They purposely ignore or distort what you just said.

People who walk around with earphones might as well have a middle finger taped to their forehead.  They’re basically saying, “I don’t want to be here among you!”

Of course, we’re all tribal.  We have different belief systems.

In Capitalism, we no longer see people as people.  It’s always, What can I get out of this person?

I don’t understand why women put up with pornography.  It’s so insulting.  Men shouldn’t put up with it, either.  It’s so degrading to all of humanity.

No, I haven’t read Kafka or Bashevis Singer.  I will look them up.  I have never heard of Simone Weil.

I like the New Yorker because it’s so well-written.

I come to all the readings at this bookstore.  I don’t know anything about these writers.  I don’t even know your name.

Can you drink wine after beer?  I’ve never done it.

Of course, this wine is good.  It belongs to another universe!  I’ve only had Passover wine.

Just coming to the reading tonight was an act of rebellion, because it’s Passover, and I was supposed to be at the synagogue.  You have all these rich people come in, and they’re just mumbling the prayers.  There’s nothing spiritual about it.

My grandma criticized how I was dressed.  She said why aren’t you wearing the black coat and the hat?  She had a fall two months ago, but I haven’t visited her.  Maybe you’re right.  Maybe I’m retaliating against her.

I like what you said about the Muslim making Jewish sandwiches for black people.  Food brings us together.  You know where you can get great food?  The corner bodega!

I’d love to have my own space, but I must get a job first.  I’ve only had one job in my life.  I worked retail.  I dealt with other people.  I handled it.  It wasn’t easy.

You talked about the broken people, those who have no time or mental space to work through their problems, but I’m even more broken than they are.  I have no peace.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on May 12, 2016, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.

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