Friction Among the Faithful
In Orthodox Jewish Midwood, two generations of the devout find themselves at odds over the future
By Mustafa Z. Mirza
To understand the tension in the insular and religious community of
Orthodox Jews in Midwood, a place where everyone shares the same deep
devotion to their faith, look no further than two liquor
stores that sit only three blocks from each other but are in fact
Orlanders, on Avenue M, is a family business whose present owner, Sol Orlander, took over the business from his father in the 1980s. He was then in his 40s. Now, well past retirement age — he declines to reveal his age — Orlander does much of the work himself, lifting boxes of wine, greeting his customers, lugging cases to their cars. On busy days, especially before Jewish holidays, his wife assists him although she needs to check with him on prices. The store is lit by harsh fluorescent lights. The shelves are stacked with bottles of Kosher wine. There is only one display in the window. If it were up to him, Orlander says, he would be content with just some white paint on the outside.
Orlander is a tall man with a gray beard and sidelocks tucked behind his ears. He dresses in a white shirt, black pants and black felt skullcap — as is customary among men in the neighborhood. He has six children who, unlike him, do not intend at this point to follow their father into the business. He has many grandchildren — he won’t say how many precisely, although he wishes there were more. He does not keep late hours. He packs up to leave at 5 p.m.
Orlander has never looked towards expanding his business
to the younger generation who he thinks have taken to whiskey more
than they should: “Jewish people already have enough on their
hands without having them to look for new ways to break out the mold.”
Breaking the mold, however, is precisely the experience of Liquors Galore, which opened five years ago on nearby Avenue J. There is music playing when you walk in — contemporary Jewish soft pop by such artists as Benny Friedman, who himself has been to the store. The floors are polished wood; Orlander’s are linoleum. There are antler chandeliers, hanging bronze spotlights, and a wooden wine cask for tastings.
The manager, Moshe Mayer, is 34, and though he also wears a black felt skullcap he wears fitted navy blue chinos and his glasses have stylishly translucent frames. “I think I’m a hipster in the way that I understand the community,” he said, “and can see where we’re going.”
Where it’s going depends on who is describing it. For Orlander, customers are people who have been coming to him and before him, his father, for generations. Slowly rocking on a worn office chair in a back office so cramped it can only fit a desk and chair, he said “I’m not going to change now, I’ll do it the old fashion way. Whatever is coming to me will come whether I put it on Instagram or keep my mouth shut.”
Mayer, on the other hand, is a talker, a joker, who keeps the banter going. All around him is a change that he feels himself a part of. In his world, being Orthodox does not mean his customers do not want the same wines — albeit Kosher — of their secular contemporaries.
On my Pakistani passport there is a block-lettered advisory warning me that I can travel to “all countries in the world except Israel.” I came to Midwood having never met a devout Jew, let alone entering a world that was exclusively Orthodox. I had expected a completely foreign experience, a journey to a religious enclave where people kept to themselves and were skeptical of the outside world.
On my first visit, I got off the subway at Avenue J, and as I descended the steps the first person I saw was a young woman with perhaps six children, the oldest of whom, a daughter almost her height, was helping her with the younger ones. There were families everywhere, with lots of children. The storefront signs were written in English and Hebrew lettering: Bagel Hole; Estihana Kosher Japanese restaurant; Isaac’s Bakery; KDX — Kosher Delight Express. The only outlier was DiFara’s, the decades-old and now-foodie-destination pizzeria where no one on the line outside wore a skullcap.
I was intimidated, sure that no one would talk to me. But that wasn’t case. People were happy to talk, even as I began to push beyond the surface, perhaps because I looked like a bearded Middle Eastern Jew, though without a skullcap and the sidelocks.
I was told by someone who had grown up in secular Jewish Midwood of the 1950s and 60s, that with the coming of the Orthodox in the 1980s, it had become in his words, a “perma-neighborhood” — built to accommodate the needs of religious Jews, and therefore to ensure that nothing would ever change. But things were changing. Among the older, and sometimes schleppy mom-and-pop stores were newer, sleeker fast-food joints and boutiques — stores that felt as if they had popped out of Manhattan. These new businesses were aiming for a younger clientele who knew the world outside of Midwood. Places like Liquors Galore or Chocolatte Espresso Bar, or Jus by Julie or Organic Circle — all Glatt Kosher, the most rigid standard.
They were not in a mall, or in a hip part of town. They were clustered around a few avenue blocks where few go to visit. The shops were for the locals. When I told other New Yorkers about Midwood they assumed it was someplace out of town. When I mentioned Midwood to the eminent scholar of American Jewish life, Samuel Heilman, he asked me what kind of Jews lived there.
Midwood is ideal for traditionally large Orthodox families. The wide and shady side streets of the neighborhood are lined with brick and stucco, or wooden framed single-family houses. Driveways accommodate minivans large enough to transport children. Front porches are stacked with strollers. The strings of Eruvin hang above, marking the areas where religious Jews are permitted to carry objects outside their homes on Sabbath. There are large yeshivas where boys and girls learn separately and dozens of synagogues where on Saturdays bearded Orthodox men in black frock coats and fedoras congregate. Young mothers wearing long skirts and wigs shop at Glatt Mart and catch up with each other at Pizza Time and Bagels ‘n Greens. The new owners have embraced trendy-looking menus and an exposed brick Brooklyn aesthetic.
Midwood is what happens when the young start building their own
world upon a world that their parents created, knowing full well
that they will not or, given the need to stay to within walking of their religious institutions, cannot easily leave.
Moshe Mayer came to Midwood from Williamsburg. He is meticulous about how his shop looks and, unlike Sol Orlander, has a staff to stock the shelves at Liquors Galore. Not only does Meyer’s witty personality keep his customers engaged at the store, but he also keeps them updated through his social media; he live-streams wine tastings from his shop, and his more than 3,000 Instagram followers watch entertaining videos of him critiquing whiskeys. Unlike Orlanders, which was at times empty in the middle of the day, there are always customers at Liquors Galore.
Meanwhile, Barry Polinsky, the community outreach director of the Midwood Development Corporation, struggles to assist merchants who, despite their business woes, resist his suggestions to embrace change. Part of Polinsky’s job is to run the Merchants Association, a member-driven organization that
organizes promotion for small businesses through events such as
sidewalk sales, banner ads, and food tours.
Sitting at his cluttered desk heaped with files and papers, Polinksy
turns to his computer screen and lists the social media data from
the previous month, to show what’s been trending. He can’t seem to
understand why his members expect a print advertising campaign to
reach the entire neighborhood of about 65,000 people when the association doesn’t even have the budget to reach 2,000. He’s frustrated because there are those who despite their struggles won’t make use of the association’s online presence to promote their business. Nor do most have their own.
“They may not know the power of sharing online because they didn’t grow up with it,” he said.
Like Sol Orlander, Zeldi Lustig, the owner of Unique Boutique, does not see the need to embrace the new ways of reaching customers. Her shop on Coney Island Avenue has been selling women’s clothing for over 30 years. She is downsizing.
“I need five employees, and I only have one,” she said, as she instructed Gucci, her only employee, who frantically ran around the racks of dark shirts and modest tops to find a wax pencil skirt a customer wanted.
Lustig’s clientele is mostly conservative women, who want sniez, or modest clothing. “The young and hip stores don’t dress girls properly,” Lustig said. “No young Jewish girl should be wearing fitted Lycra or have their bra strap showing. I know how to do a younger look better than they do.”
Lustig, who is 58, wore a loose black dress and a traditional “snood” hair covering. Her anger was directed more towards the younger customers than at competing shops like My Mothers Armorie, a trendy vintage women’s clothing store where the clothes are stylish but sniez. Nobody is selling mini skirts or crop tops in Midwood.
“Everything is too high pace in Brooklyn with all the technology and
everything,” she said. “So I’m moving on. I could sit here and let
the world take over me but you know part of growing is change and
change is very hard.”
You can reach Mustafa Mirza at email@example.com and follow him at @MustafaZafar