New York, New York

Cloaks and Daggers

When half of the world’s Hasidim live within a subway ride of each other, the disappearance of two teenage girls is big news, especially when they’ve run away to escape.

In September 2003, Frimcha Hirsch and Elky Stern, two 16-year-old Hasidic girls, were asked by a parent to go out for some smoked fish. They never went to the market. Instead, they fled Brooklyn’s Borough Park for a bus at the Port Authority. Frimcha and Elky were going to run as far away as they could.

In the newspapers’ pictures, they don’t even look 16. Frimcha is smiling. She has dark circles under her eyes, as if she had stayed up too late the night before. Her brows are sharp and striking. Elky’s smile is more demure. She wears wire glasses. A pair of small globes dangles from her ears. Her mousy brown hair is parted back in the safest, most reserved style possible.

I’ve tried to guess what went on in their minds. Did they take a long last look as their neighborhood disappeared behind them, or did they keep their eyes forward? Did their heads overflow with visions of Britney Spears and a show they’d heard of called The OC? On the road, they bought pop-music CDs and ate fast food. Riding the cross-country bus, they made it to Phoenix, where they rented an apartment in a decrepit part of town.


* * *

At night, in the glass atrium of an office building near my apartment in Manhattan, young Hasidic men and women come together in pairs to evaluate each other. They sit at the deserted café tables, never touching. They never fail to look as if they’re discussing grave matters; neither person looks straight at the other. They speak too low for me to eavesdrop, and even if I could hear them, I don’t speak Yiddish. The men, bearded, dress in all black. The women wear light-colored dresses cut to styles fit for a period movie. I find myself drawn to the anachronistic appearance put together without irony. I have always thought of Hasidic women as pretty, beautiful, even. They seem honest and solid. They’ve cultivated a veil of perfect, dark shoulder-length hair that, if everything goes smoothly, will soon be cut away when they are married.

The Hasidic strongholds of New York are all in Brooklyn: the Lubavitchers in Crown Heights, the Bobovers in Borough Park, and the Satmars, the sect most resistant to outside influence, in South Williamsburg. If estimates from the 1980s still hold true, about half the surviving Hasidim in the world live within a subway ride of each other. I often ride my bike through South Williamsburg, passing scarf-headed women walking quietly beside black-garbed men who have made a holy sport of pushing their strollers. The streets bubble with children. There is very little deviation from this scene, street after street.

The Satmar Hasidim came to South Williamsburg from Hungary and Poland. Going down Lee Avenue, the main drag of the neighborhood, it’s easy to see how thoroughly they’ve created their own world. The Hasidim have their own yeshivas to school their children. All the restaurants are kosher. There isn’t any commerce with tourists or outsiders, as there is in Chinatown or Little Italy. A protective force field buzzes at the edges of their streets.

Being Jewish in South Williamsburg or in Crown Heights means following hundreds of Torah commandments. To live as a Hasid is to negotiate a lifetime of technicalities. In some parts of the neighborhoods, the borders of sanctity are delineated by an eyruv, a wire strung high on poles. Not unlike gangland graffiti, it alerts those who are aware of it to the territory of sacred space. They carry distinctions of dress and language as shields against an encroaching world, and this, the neighborhood ruled by God’s wisdom, is where they swiftly return. Given the option, it’s a place most of them would never leave.

On that day, Frimcha and Elky decided to break out. With a sudden leap, they crossed the invisible barrier.


* * *

I spent a good part of my early life behind walls. I couldn’t see the walls, but I could feel them, and they were just as real. Outside our apartment building in Saudi Arabia was a dusty street, and beyond that, the desert. Most of the expatriates there lived like this, in compounds set apart from the rest the country. The oil-company Aramco built whole towns of cinder-block houses. Flat, expansive lots were paved to park mobile homes with carports. My building was a three-story box colonized by foreigners. An Indian couple lived upstairs and a westernized Syrian family lived below us. Islamic law meant my mom never went anywhere by herself, so if she ran out of an ingredient for dinner, I was dispatched to the Saudi-owned shop down the street. I ran all the way there and ran all the way back.

My dad drove me every day from Dammam to Al Khobar, to school at Dhahran Academy. The highway was a gray ribbon laid through yellow dunes. Through the sandblasted windows I watched lines of cars form as we approached the low rise of dull-colored buildings. I could see machine-gun turrets in the sand. An American guard swept his hand around the car, whacked at the seats, popped open the trunk, and stuck half his body into it. Then, after a day spent inside trailers substituting as elementary school classrooms and a sweaty hour of kickball in a dried-up reservoir, I got back in the car and was driven straight home.

When we did make it out to the Saudi areas, my family had to be observant. If we happened to be at a Thai restaurant during a time for prayer, the waiters drew the curtains shut. We ate quietly in the dark as a mosque blared outside. During the fast of Ramadan, all the restaurants had to appear closed; they’d only let us in after making sure we weren’t Saudi policemen. The police were known for violent raids, full of screaming and fists. Going out to eat was like going to a secret speakeasy, but the thrill got old quickly.

I watched as much TV as I could. Even though American shows were allowed, only cartoons or laugh tracked sitcoms like Benson made it on the air. The most exotic, coveted item was the VCR. With the VCR, I could watch anything. The VCR was also illegal and so were the tapes smuggled into American compounds. New movies were passed from house to house, apartment to apartment, a delayed pop-cultural transmission that moved by the speed of housewives.

The word escape comes from the Latin word excappare, which translates roughly into “to get out of one’s cape.” The idea is to leave the pursuer with just the cape to remember you by.

The best times happened inside. I didn’t want to leave the apartment. I looked forward to walls. Walls meant I could have fun and not worry about the rules outside. Beyond my apartment and the Westerners’ compounds, we had to be mindful of everything we did. To many of the Saudis, we were contagions that had to be contained. When we went into the streets that were wholly theirs, we were expected to abide by their methods of quarantine. We hid our distinctions of dress and language, because they were flags of unspoken belief. A Saudi could beat my mother in public for not dressing appropriately. Jails in the country had a bad reputation. The world outside walls was a brutal place. There were open-air beheadings.


* * *

In Arizona, Frimcha and Elky bought roller blades and jeans, and got an apartment for $400 a month. Even though it was in a bad neighborhood, it was a place they could afford. They paid for everything with money saved from working as counselors at a Hasidic summer camp. Lying about their age, they even began to apply for jobs in Phoenix. They swore they weren’t going back to where they’d come from.

But then Elky called her brother, who said their families were in a state of panic. Elky called a teacher at the yeshiva, who convinced her to call a detective in Brooklyn. They felt guilty for what they had put their parents through. They booked the next available flight home.

A Phoenix police cruiser took them to the airport. They were asked if they had any weapons on them. Frimcha and Elky shook their heads. At the airport, security officers pulled out a five-inch dagger and an eight-inch knife from their bags. I wonder why they lied about the knives. It’s possible they had made an innocent mistake. It’s also possible they were preparing for the worst.

The word escape comes from the Latin word excappare, which translates roughly into “to get out of one’s cape.” The idea is to leave the pursuer with just the cape to remember you by. Frimcha and Elky wanted a different cape, not the kind they’d worn for most of their lives but one like they saw other teenagers wearing on the subway or in the magazines they weren’t supposed to be reading.

In Saudi Arabia, my mom wore a large scarf around her head when we went outside. To reach the American areas of Al Khobar required a drive down the same highway I took to get to school. She took the scarf off as soon as we got to the Safeway or the Kentucky Fried Chicken. These outposts, with their large luminescent signs and relentless air conditioning and a taste of anywhere else, were the most comforting places in the world. I often flipped through American magazines. They looked as though a child had gone through them with a large black marker: An army of hands had blacked out all the advertisements with bare-armed women. Ronald Reagan stood by his blackened wife.

Recently, Al Khobar took center stage in the news when gunmen stormed a Western compound there. Before Saudi government forces could intervene, 22 people were killed. Photographs showed silver body bags lying in the road. I don’t recognize Oasis, the name of the compound, and it didn’t look like what I remembered of the places where we lived. The European-styled villas seemed much more opulent than the low rise of somber white buildings I remembered of most Westerners’ homes.

I remember going to a birthday party for a boy named Hans. Most of the kids were Swedish. We played on a dry yard beside the street. After the cake, someone suggested tag and an older kid was assigned as “it.” The children scattered and ran. We ran as far as the fence. Beyond the fence, there was nothing but flat land and a road dusted up by heavy trucks. We had to turn around. I imagine that Frimcha and Elky felt the same way.