Open and Shut Case

The lady on the Staten Island ferry the other day was clearly grunting for my ears.

With my unfashionable beard, dark suit and black hat, tagging me as an Orthodox Jew is pretty much a slam dunk. And, having commuted, along with my beard and hat, on those huge orange floating shuttlecocks four or five days a week for the better part of two decades, I have many memorable (at least to me) stories to tell. I’ve never gotten around to setting them down in writing (though choosing the imaginary collection’s title, “Ferry Tales,” was easy).

There was, for instance, the older lady, herself behatted, though hers was a broad-brimmed floral affair, who, standing next to me on the outside deck one glorious spring day, turned to me and beatifically emoted: “Can’t you just see him walking on the water?” (I told her, no, actually I couldn’t.) Or the young man sitting a row in front of me telling his young lady friend how he had read an article about genetic engineering on humans and that he planned on “gettin’ some of them Jew genes for my kid—he be takin’ over the world!”

The latest in my parade of memorables, the grunting lady, was clearly trying her hand at a similar one-way communication. She was middle-aged, perhaps a few years younger than I, looked Jewish—my Jewdar is in pretty good form— and was reading a book, a real one, with pages (remember them?). The volume she held was the latest in a series of aspiring exposés of Orthodox Jewish life that have become something of a cottage industry in a part of the Jewish world.

The book, about which I had read, was written by a young woman who turned her back on her somewhat Chassidish upbringing. It was subsequently demonstrated that the author seems to have had an uneasy relationship not only with her family but with truth—committing small errors like falsely accusing a father of having murdered his son. Calling the writer’s general view of Chassidishe life jaundiced, moreover, would be like calling Rush Limbaugh inelegant. Nevertheless, the book has been righteously embraced by people who wish to think poorly of the Orthodox world. And that’s, unfortunately, a lot of folks.

Including, I came to surmise, the lady on the ferry. She was standing near the doors that would soon open, after we docked, to disgorge the boat’s human cargo onto Staten Island at the end of a workday, and she seemed to be holding the book up so that I could see it. And—have I mentioned this?—she grunted. Repeatedly.

It wasn’t really the sort of sound one would associate with a burly dockworker. It was more like a subtle rumble, communicating disapproval.

I’m not terribly shy, and I considered acknowledging the lady’s nonverbal communication and asking her if she had any questions I might be able to address. I even readied a business card to hand her, in case she wanted to speak by phone at more length. But then I chickened out.

Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe had I made a polite offer, she would have shared some of her chagrin with me and I could have disabused her of some of the untruths that elicited it. Or explained how some Orthodox practices and attitudes are wrongly regarded in the dark ways in which they are sometimes presented. Or we may have had a civil discussion about some of the things that had ostensibly pushed the writer over the edge (of Williamsburg).

But, in the end, sensing raw anger, I was dissuaded. A more likely scenario, I feared, would have been the reader’s channeling the antagonism she felt for Chassidim at me. She might have loudly accused me of accosting her against her will, or made a scene by shouting out some of the more putrid passages from the volume she held aloft like a religious tract. That wouldn’t have been good. It would have only spread her ill will to the many bystanders. So I just went my way.

And so, to my ongoing regret, the doors opened and a mind stayed shut.


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