I live in a border town. I’m on the southern edge of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the creeping hand of gentrification is clutching its fingers at the stalwart Hasidic neighborhood. Walk one block one direction, and it’s all Hasidic housing: uniformly depressing brick projects and smaller apartment buildings, with closed curtains or tiny barred-in balconies where children peer out, blinking at the sunlight. Walk one block the other direction and you’ve got a monstrous new condo complex; three blocks further, there’s a new yoga studio. Stand in the middle, and you’ve got my loft building, populated with artists and media types (rather than write that out for the rest of this piece, I shall call them by their street name: “hipster”), but owned by an older Hasidic man who owns several other buildings in Williamsburg. I’ve lived here for five years, and know very little about my landlord except that he hates when I keep my curtains open, something he mentions practically every time I see him. Actually I don’t know much about any of the Hasidim because the men won’t talk to me because I’m a woman, and the women won’t talk to me because, while I am Jewish, I’m not Hasidic. I would like to say I don’t care that they ignore me, but I do care. I’m from the Midwest. We like to know who our neighbors are.
The creators of Williamsburg! The Musical, which recently debuted at the Village Theater as part New York City’s annual Fringe Festival, are also fascinated with the divide between the Hasidim and the hipsters. The play is a campy little romp rife with stereotypes of Williamsburg residents: there’s the heroine, Piper Paris, a thirty-year-old trustfunder who’s just been cut off by her parents, her dippy hipster roommates (including a gay graphic designer, an environmental activist, and a wine-swilling fashion-plate retail worker, a heroic bodega owner, and a Polish landlady who keeps pulling pierogies out of her house dress). The performances are energetic and lusty, though the play does get waylaid a bit by a subplot involving an army of hipster zombies led by an evil British real estate agent. All of it is all well-mined territory (is there a more widely documented neighborhood than Williamsburg? The play quickly reminds us that The New York Times called it the “coolest neighborhood in America”), particularly the song about meeting strangers on Craigslist for sex, something I swear I have read on Gawker at least a dozen times. Still, the writing is mostly witty, and talking about anonymous hookups somehow sounds a little sweeter when it’s sung.
But the heart of Williamsburg! is in the role of Shlomo Zildenberg (portrayed sweetly by Evan Shyer) a Hasidic dry cleaner who wants more from his life than an arranged marriage.
When he saves a suicidal Piper from jumping off the bridge (he barely saves her, of course, as he is forbidden from actually touching a woman—let alone a non-Hasid—until he’s married), they fall in love, court, and then trouble ensues when their families and friends object to their relationship. In one of the sweeter moments of the play, Piper and Shlomo sing to each other, “We can’t look and we can’t touch.”
Shlomo is the best-written of all the characters, and consequently gets the most emotional and engaging speeches of the play. His fascination with sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge and counting all the points of light in Manhattan—“Even in that fraction of firmament—the household lamplights and office fluorescents…each light within this city houses its own questions and complications. Everybody is feeling low-wattage some time or other, ya? But each light is left on to feed a craving. A yearning for some answer”—rings true for anyone who has spent a night on a rooftop in Brooklyn, on the outside looking in. (I, for one, never felt like I truly understood Manhattan until I moved to Brooklyn and could see the scope of the city, the way the neighborhoods were laid out, and how it never stops pulsing, not even well after the sun has gone down.) While many of the other characters seem to be in a race to drop one-liners—not that there’s anything wrong with that, it is a musical after all, and there is much to laugh at—Shlomo speaks like a real person. Watching the play, whenever he spoke, I felt content to sit back and listen because I was seriously interested in what he had to say. His lecture on the historical origins of the word “hipster,” delivered to a stunned Piper, followed by a winking “I have the Internet too, Piper,” was particularly charming. Perhaps the creators of Williamsburg! The Musical knew something I didn’t.
I mean, I have tried with my landlord. For the first year I lived in my building, I greeted him every time I saw him, but unless he had something he needed to talk to me about, he ignored me. When he did talk to me, I always attempted to engage him in conversation beyond the usual landlord/tenant business. I made dumb jokes in the elevator that he never acknowledged. I asked him how his day was going when I handed him my rent check and never got a response. I always smiled. I knew he wasn’t a bad guy—he sponsored the girls’ yeshiva around the corner, and he hadn’t raised my rent in three years—so it bothered me even more that he didn’t want to interact with me. I suspected there was something underneath worth knowing, but I resigned myself to irrelevance. And just when I had given up on him, he smiled.
Two years ago I was traveling a lot for work and when I got back in the middle of the month, he stopped me in the hall and told me I hadn’t paid my rent. I argued with him at first. (I am not the kind of person to miss my rent, and often I pay in advance of the first just to make sure I don’t forget.)
“But I always pay my rent.” I said. “Have I never not paid my rent?”
“Yes, I know,” he said gently. “Maybe you just forgot to give it to me. Maybe the check is just sitting somewhere.”
“I’m certain I paid it. Three years I’ve lived here, I always paid my rent.”
“I know, I know,” he said.
“Let me go check my records,” I said.
“It’s probably just sitting somewhere on your desk,” he yelled after me.
I stormed into my apartment. I knew I had paid him. I distinctly remembered handing him that check. I visualized it for a moment, standing there in his office, giving it to him early even. So early, in fact, it was two months before. He was right; I had forgotten to pay him.
I called him on his cell and asked him if he was still in the building, then dashed off a check. I ran downstairs.
I apologized a few times. “I’m so embarrassed,” I told him. It had been a busy and stressful month, I explained, and I had simply not been myself.
“It’s fine, it’s fine. I know who pays me on the first always, that’s you. That’s why I was surprised, I know you just forgot.”
“Again, I’m sorry,” I said. I turned and walked halfway up the stairs.
“You know what it is?” he called, and I stopped.
“Time, it passes too quickly.” And then he smiled at me. Three years I had lived there, I paid my rent on time, I was a perfect tenant, and he had never smiled at me. But now, at last, a smile.
Throughout Williamsburg! The Musical Shlomo talks about how hard it is to resist his urges to see a world outside of his own, repeatedly reacting to various temptations by saying, “It is forbidden.” That, along with his inquisitiveness about the other inhabitants of Williamsburg (an extremely satisfying quality, though it made me wonder if this was just the playwright’s vanity—or my own—working) and his authentic chivalry toward women, transformed him into practically the only truly likable character in the play. I had to wonder if this was an accurate or romantic depiction of a young Hasidic man. (Certainly Piper wasn’t an accurate representation of anyone I knew, definitely not of myself.) Most likely, the playwrights are people like me, endlessly wondering about their dark-clad neighbors. Still, it helped me understand.
“I get it,” I thought, as I sat in third row of the theater a week and a half ago. “It’s not all about me.” For five years, I’ve tried to make nice with my neighbors—the strident young men in their dark suits waiting anxiously in line at the bank; the bewigged, rosy-cheeked cashier at the grocery store around corner from my house; and, of course, my landlord—and I’ve taken their silent rebuffs (even if it was ever so slightly) personally. But there’s no need to make it personal, I know now.
When I told people I was going to see a play about Williamsburg, I got a collective eye roll in response. “Like there’s anything left to say about where you live,” they laughed. But this is a real place where real people live. Despite the hype, Williamsburg remains an interesting place to live because we’re all on the edges of each other’s experiences forever looking in each other’s windows (or trying not to), wondering what’s going on inside. It’s the differences in people that help you realize who you are. Even if we silently pass each other on the street.