What I wouldn’t give these days for one nosy neighbor. For someone to chat me up in the hallway, ask where I’m from, what I do for a living, and how much I earn per week. Or at least for someone to knock on my door early one morning looking to borrow some milk, a cup of sugar, a few eggs for breakfast.
I’m not a lonely old man living alone in the middle of nowhere. I am a 36-year-old New Yorker, born and raised in Brooklyn, and I have many friends scattered throughout the five boroughs. It’s just that I’m not used to meeting neighbors and sharing no more than vague and grudgingly polite pleasantries with them. Where I come from—the Hasidic communities of Borough Park, Brooklyn, and New Square and Monsey, N.Y., northwest of the city—the neighborly indifference that most New Yorkers are used to doesn’t exist.
In the past, each time I moved to a new home my fellow Hasidic neighbors came knocking. They brought piping hot pans of potato kugel, plates of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, and rolls of cinnamon cake. Then they would ask for my name and occupation and spend a few minutes trying to place me within an appropriate sphere of mutual friends, relatives, and acquaintances. In my case it was usually, “Deen? I don’t know any Deens, but I know a Deem. You sure your name’s not Deem.” I was sure it wasn’t.
Several years ago, I decided to discard religious observance and the austere lifestyle with which I was raised. I left my long black coat and black hat to gather dust in the storage room of a friend’s basement along with a small collection of religious texts and audio-cassettes of old Talmud lectures. My ex-wife and five children moved to an apartment in New Square, and I rented a small apartment not far from them, on the outskirts of Monsey. I wanted to live close to my children and my siblings and their families. I also found it comforting to remain living among Hasidim, even though I no longer lived like them. If others thought them freakishly stuck in 18th-century Poland, I thought visiting 18th-century Poland was just fine as long as the kugel was hot and the neighbors lent a hand when my car battery needed a boost.
However, seduced by lower rents, cool bars, and the prospect of being closer to friends in Brooklyn, I decided two years ago to move to Bushwick—Brooklyn’s newest bastion of hipster faux-bohemianism. There are many many differences here, of course, but I was most struck by the standoffishness of my new neighbors. It started the first day, after I parked my rented U-Haul in front of my new apartment and unloaded the last items from the truck. I was sitting on the stoop for a quick cigarette, and just as I crushed the butt underfoot, three of my upstairs neighbors stepped out of the building, two of them outfitted in vintage sneakers and plaid shirts, with scraggly bed-head hairdos. The third had long bleached-blond hair and black leggings and carried a beat-up guitar case.
I smiled and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Shulem. Just moved in.”
They gave me limp handshakes, mumbled their names—the bleach blond, I remember, was, Brian—and took off.
Later that night, I was kept awake until 4 a.m. by the guitar-playing in their apartment, which was directly above mine. I wasn’t disturbed by the music. Instead, I wondered how I might join their jam session. But these people and their ways were strange to me, and I imagined a conversation stunted by our lack of common interests. The more prudent approach, I decided, would be to make their slow and steady acquaintance.
Two months passed, however, and the hipsters on the third floor had yet to make another appearance. Weren’t they curious, I wondered, who I was, or if we had any mutual friends or relatives? Granted, it was unlikely, but how did they know?
One day, I sat on the front stoop and ached for some casual neighborly conversation. From the corner came two young guys in white shirts wearing backpacks, who, for a moment—and I don’t know why—I imagined were lovers. As they came within earshot, they gave me friendly smiles. One of them offered a cheery “Hi.” They turned out to be Mormon elders. Whatever, I thought, and decided to engage in a theological debate. But the elders didn’t know why one should take the Bible as the word of God other than the fact that they fervently believed that one should. Then they offered me some pamphlets and went on their missioning way.
I went back to thinking about my upstairs neighbors. I craved for a more substantial engagement with them, but they always flitted by, and the opportunity seemed maddeningly elusive. A friend, another ex-Hasid who lived several blocks away, suggested they might just be very quiet hipsters, that he knew plenty of hipsters who were perfectly friendly, and besides, there was no such thing as a hipster. “Call it what you will,” I said, “but I’ve got some pretty strange neighbors. And Mormons they’re not.”
Several more months passed. My upstairs neighbors appeared rarely, and when they did we exchanged the briefest and most reticent of pleasantries. I couldn’t explain why I thought about them; it wasn’t that I needed friends. I just wanted some of the old inappropriate nosiness, dammit.
Of course, I could’ve initiated some nosiness of my own. I could’ve discarded the advice a secular friend once gave me regarding the non-Hasidim of New York: You’re allowed only two questions for every one statement. Secular people, I was told, don’t take kindly to interrogations. Unlike Hasidim, who will ask a dozen or more deeply personal questions within 60 seconds of meeting you—including, among other things, your amount of credit card debt and the amount you receive in food stamps—non-Hasidim, I was told, prefer small talk on topics of no real concern to anyone: the long line at the bagel shop, the odd smell on the subway platform, annoying Park Slope mothers.
Eventually I gave up. I’d hear my neighbors on the staircase in the hallway, or I’d see them chaining their bicycles to the second-floor guardrail, and if I said, “Hi,” I got a “Hi” in return, but never more. If I made a remark about the weather, they said, “Yeah.” If I said their party the other night sounded like fun, they said, “Yeah. It was pretty dope.” (Dope? Where were these people from?) If I remarked that someone really ought to stop keeping the outside door open, I got an odd look followed by another “Yeah.”
Halloween came around, and a friend and I were leaving for a party when one of the neighbors passed in the hallway wearing an assortment of odd garments in a variety of colors.
“Are you a hamburger?” my friend asked.
The neighbor suddenly turned. “Yes!” she said. “You realized! That’s so cool!”
My jaw hung open. It wasn’t exactly a conversation, but it was certainly more than the usual monosyllabic response. But before I could say anything she was down the stairs and out the door.
The next day, outside on the front stoop, the girl appeared again, this time sans costume.
“Hey,” I said. “You’re the girl with the hamburger costume.”
“Yeah,” she said, and walked off.
Shulem Deen, a former Skver Hasid, is the founding editor of Unpious.com.
Shulem Deen is the editor of Unpious.com. He is currently at work on a memoir, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2015.