the Jews in Williamsburg

Rode the backway through Williamsburg to meet R for lunch, and it was bleak and raining and there were no non-Jews for about 15 blocks. No trees, either, except for a few helpless scraggles. It felt like entering a different time, an older world.

The boys, preparing for Shabbat, were all carrying the same tallis bag. They can’t carry umbrellas, though, on the Sabbath, so their hats were wrapped in plastic bags. The girls went with their heads bare. A pregnant woman in the long, traditional black stood at the door of yet another rusty, tired apartment building, staring out into the grim street scene. It must be so safe, though, because I saw a girl who must’ve been only nine or something, pushing a baby in a carriage, alone. Probably not going far. No one seems to be going far—it is a universe in ten blocks, a cosmos in fifteen.

TB 110-B Black


A building had a plaque by a door that read “ladies’ entrance.” Some signs were in Hebrew. It struck me that I am living right next door to this community. I am within walking distance, though I never walk that way. I am Jewish. I am a married mother, too. My life looks nothing like this.

I sat in the car and stared and wondered what it is like to be a girl here, so close to my home. What is it like to be a woman? To be anyone?

“There are a lot of cities in this city,” Bear said, later, when I mentioned this. He said that NYC is a compilation of all of these little, insular communities. Ours is one, too. It’s strange to think about.

The parents in my neighborhood are always talking about preschools—which are prestigious, which are better, have I signed Eden up yet, for the wait list for the more exclusive wait list for this one down the street? It’s important because of the matriculation rate to Harvard. It’s important to have put her on the path to Harvard, now, at six months. It sounds like a joke, but it actually isn’t. I think I am supposed to have planned for her whole life, already. Or at least through twenty-two or so.


But I was JUST twenty-two, myself. I remember it so clearly. I was standing at the top of Morningside Park, looking over the sunset roofs of Spanish Harlem, the elegant crowns of the sycamores in between, feeling full of social theory and the enormous, cancerous unknown of the rest of my life and the intrigue of sleeping with witty, cultured men.

God, but I had a good childhood, as a homeschooler, running around in the woods, pretending to be magical. Writing books and painting portraits and composing a sound track for a story about a brave girl who has to save the world. I am always trying to get back there, in my imagination, to that wildly open place I lived in. Before college gave me smaller goals and all the rules that come with them. Before I learned the structure of adult dreams.

The downside: I probably learned all the wrong lessons, don’t you think? That’s always the argument. But how will they learn to put up with all the things they don’t like? How will they learn to get through the annoying, difficult, monotonous stuff that fills life? People say that to me. And I wonder if maybe I didn’t learn it. If I’m spoiled. If I expect too much.

I remember not caring about Harvard, not even a little.

I had so much fun, though.


(that’s me, in the yellow silk– silks were a thing)

It makes me think fun is essential.

It makes me want to give Eden that.

But does that mean homeschooling? I can’t tell. I’m intimidated, overwhelmed. I’m not ready to decide. I don’t even want to decide. I want to see what she’s like. I want to see what she likes. I’m just getting to know her. I’m just starting out myself, as a mother, as a grownup, as a city-person, as a writer and a wife. It feels too soon to choose an environment, self-contained, like a beautifully thought-out zoo-pen, to put her, and myself, in.  It feels too soon for so many rules.

R was waiting at a chipped wooden table with a jar of fresh-squeezed juice. I walked back in time to hug her. I was wearing a tight turtleneck dress that would be impossible to breastfeed in. It was like nothing had changed, like I wasn’t even a mother. It’d been a while. She looked more fragile than I remembered—thinner. It’s her personal paradox: She seems to gulp the world in, devouring the things around her—swallowing people whole, digesting the entire scene. But she’s also always starving. Her wrists are twigs, she teeters on her stilt heels, her cheekbones cut her skin, her eyes are fierce and enormous. She is obsessed with the next big thing. With finally figuring out the truth. She’s always digging. I guess she’s a true reporter.

Her mind, her life, races ahead. I can’t keep track or keep up. She is writing feature stories for big magazines, being flown all over the country, getting invited to secret, sexy events. She says she’s trying to slow down, but instead she finds herself posting compulsively on instagram.

“I know,” I said, “It’s so hard to stop.”

“You feel like you don’t exist, when you don’t exist on the internet,” she said.

“Sometimes, though,” I said, “I feel like I exist even more.”

“I feel like I am disappearing,” she said. “I have to keep taking pictures of my own face.”

eden on the laptop

(My face now appears behind Eden’s face as she stares at her own image on the computer screen)

I have always loved her honesty. It’s electrifying, making her brighter instead of weaker for exposing herself. Really, I’m surprised that I don’t feel more like her now, since I always have, in the past. I’m surprised to find myself wanting different things, almost as though it’s sacrilegious, I’m committing a sin against my holy former self.

All the tables around us were full of hipsters who looked like parodies. The same huge glasses and wool caps and ragged hair and tights and bulky grandma sweaters. Williamsburg, with its pale, squinting Jews and pale, unsmiling hipsters felt empty, dead-ended. What is everyone doing there? Why?

Sometimes I feel the smallness New York, like it’s closing in. Like there is only one way to do it. I used to look around and only see famous writers. The pockets of super successful, rich or respected people who all somehow know each other already. Or now, the put-together people who have already organized their children’s lives, who have pointed them, at two-years-old, like an arrow. All the way to here. All the way back here again, to what we imagine success always has to look like.

Sometimes the city feels suffocating.

unnamed (2)

I should know better. If I learned one thing from growing up on the outside of normal, it’s not that I have to homeschool Eden or not homeschool her or whatever. It’s that you don’t have to do the things that everyone thinks everyone has to do. You can create your own weird, magical world. You can even have fun a lot of the time—it’s OK.

“There are only two rules,” my mom said the other day. “Follow your heart and don’t make decisions based on fear.”

“I just want to do the right thing for her,” I told her, of Eden’s education and life.

“There are a lot of right things,” she said.

We stood outside after lunch, and my toes were freezing in my high-heeled velvety boots. We didn’t seem to know how to say goodbye and I think I lamed out. I miss R and hope that our friendship will open up enough to fit our newly different, opposite-pulling lives.

I was relieved to get home, though, and thaw my toes. I told Bear about the river of black-clad Jews on the sidewalks, which reminded me that it was Shabbat.

unnamed (5)

“Let’s light the candles,” I said. “Let’s say what we’re thankful for.” That’s how we observe Shabbat. We sing the blessing and we say what we’re thankful for, for the week. My mom did that with us kids, growing up. I think Eden likes to watch the flames.

I thought about all the other Jews in this city, in their apartments in different neighborhoods, so close together and so far apart, doing this now.

I am thankful, for the blurriness of my childhood. For not fitting into something neat and reasonable and regular. I am so thankful for the gift of never really having to be bored.

I don’t want to sit here and figure out Eden’s whole life. That’s her adventure. I want to trust that we’ll facilitate it as she gets older.

Maybe I’m more of a hippie than I thought.

Maybe you just never know how all of these worlds will overlap.

*  *  *

What community do you live in?

Unroast: Today I love the way I feel like I look when I’m cracking up with people I trust



32 Responses to “the Jews in Williamsburg”

  1. Kaisa responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 11:55 am #

    I know what you mean, about not fitting into something neat. I’ve always felt like I was part of multiple worlds, just because of the varied people I was lucky enough to know, and because of choosing to not belong to just one group. I’m always fascinated by groups–the jocks, the hipsters, the sorority girls, the academics, the devoutly religious. I find myself staring at them in public, 20 blonde college girls in leggings and Uggs shuffling down the street together, and I’m both intrigued and terrified. I don’t think I could ever fit neatly into any group, and that actually makes me happy.

    (yes, Kaisa is my given name:)

  2. Traci responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    Loved what you had to say about playing and being yourself as an adolescent. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately–our PLAY as a child was actually our WORK in that it showed where our true curiosities lied, and created such powerful learning in our developments. I wish more people would remember what it was like to feel that way and get back into some of what they loved during childhood.

    The fact that you’re thinking about letting your daughter figure out who she is and what she loves means that you’re a great mother and she will figure that stuff out. :]

  3. Abby responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    Interesting as always. I don’t always have a lot to say on posts about motherhood and being a mom because that’s something that’s a little far away and something people haven’t forced me to make opinions about yet.

    I think regardless of if Eden is schooled or homeschooled or unschooled she’ll grow up to be independent and amazing like her mom, because that’s the way you want to raise her. I think homeschooling can be great, and I’ve met a lot of awesome people who have been homeschooled. I personally went to public school, where maybe we weren’t supposed to have a whole lot of fun but we somehow fit it in anyways (I distinctly remember playing spies on the playground using my new glasses case as a ‘communicator’…not too off from what a smartphone would look like, actually)!

    I think the most important thing about community is that it’s alive. It has to move to let people in and let people out, to adapt into something new and different but still fundamentally the same. That might be because the main communities I interact with are college ones – the theater people, my capoeira club – that are forced to have a higher changeover rate. They’re all different communities and it’s always been fascinating to me how what’s missing to me in one group is what I find in another. Oftentimes, they aren’t better or worse, just different. And sometimes you need what one community gives you more than the others, but it changes as we grow older and change.

    It wasn’t supposed to be that long but there it is. Anyways, lovely post, and Eden’s hair already looks ridiculously awesome :D

  4. Emily responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    I don’t have a physical community. I am part of a far-flung (literally worldwide) pastiche of a bunch of weirdos and savants and risk-takers who came together in about 2000 to start a new industry on the interwebs – pay-per-click advertising. And boy has it changed. And boy have we. But our shared history is not just history, and it’s not just present. It is who we are together (even when we aren’t together, which is most of the time).

  5. Lisa responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 2:50 pm #

    LOVE the picture of all you children. So very whimsical! The little girl in front of you captured my heart. The setting looks very inviting, too. How I wish for such abandonment!

  6. teegan responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    lots of things, but thomas was awake from 1:45-3:15 am for no reason and his naps have gone to hell today (thank you UPS man, little dog, and stupid man on a moped going up and down our street!), so I apologize for incoherence.

    mark and I were talking about this last night, looking at an article a parent of 12 (12!) kids wrote on his rules for them – study time from 6-8, build your own computer, family breakfast and dinner at 5:15 and 5:30 respectively, etc. they were all good ideas, but the list made it look so regimented, and all I could think was that those kids must be photoshopped pod people. I was thinking, like you said, that I want to know what thomas is like and what he likes before I start setting rules in stone for his entire youth. Yes, I would LIKE for him to take AP classes, unless he loves music and would rather take french horn lessons and be in a rock band and also help teach little kids trumpet, in which case maybe he won’t have time for AP everything? Or what if he wants to do a trade – baking or auto repair or something – and the ivy league isn’t as important?
    but I also did want to go to Harvard as a kindergartner (seriously – it’s on a worksheet my mother saved), and I had no trouble with school work and I never got into trouble, so my parents never had to push me in the “right” direction – I was pulled that way by an internal magnet. I like to believe thomas will be the same way, even though it’s entirely possible he won’t be.

    it’s like your mom said – there are a lot of right things. I’d much rather go with the flow until there’s some kind of problem. innocent until proven guilty?

  7. SolariC responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    I think Eden will be grateful to you when she grows up and finds you haven’t planned her life and tried to force her to accept it. I know I would resent my parents if they had tried to preset my life for me!

    On a tangent…I read your book in a couple of sittings last week. I really loved it. Also, based on that book and on her comment you recorded in this post, I have developed an enormous admiration of your mom. She sounds awesome. I hope I’ll be a mother like her someday in the future :)

  8. Joyce responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    i love that unroast! Totally agree :)

  9. alex responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 3:42 am #

    Thank your Mum for her words, they leave me breathless and I needed them…2014 has had a lot of fear for so many I know, it is a big month in a big year…and I am feeling a bit fearful, so I will heed your Mum’s advice and not make any silly decisions that fear is trying to get me to :)
    You are a gift Kate, please keep on writing, I am sure it has saved many, I know it has helped me deeply when I have been full of despair!

  10. Meg responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 5:56 am #

    I’m the mother of the little girl in front of you, Kate! She’s now a Sophomore in college, majoring in Musical Theater. I enjoy reading this blog. Congratulations on your lovely baby!

  11. Kate responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 12:02 pm #

    YES! I really believe this, about play. I think it’s so essential to creating whole, interesting and interested people. I’m glad people are starting to research it and talk about it like it’s important

  12. Kate responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    well said!!! I know that feeling, exactly, of watching this distinct obvious group of people in action and being intrigued and a little bewildered. It’s fun to be an outsider in that way, though. Like anthropology :-)

  13. Kate responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    P.S. LOVE your name
    I think I’ve mentioned that

  14. Kate responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 12:05 pm #

    Thank you for this compliment about my mom! I passed it along to her.

    Also, please think about writing me a review on Amazon if you liked the book! No pressure, of course, but it’s nice to have them :-)

  15. Kate responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    I like to believe this of Eden, too. I also am already trying to make sure I stay open, because I’m afraid I’ll secretly want certain things for her so much that they won’t be secret anymore. I think it’s good at we’re at least thinking about this stuff. Or maybe that’s just what we have to tell ourselves? God, who knows!

    I have every confidence that Thomas will turn out awesome, no matter what he likes and wants to do, because he’s coming from you, and you are thoughtful, which maybe is really what matters anyway? Oh no, I’ve turned around in a full circle.

  16. Kate responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    That’s so awesome! Does she still have blue eyes? :-)

  17. Sarah responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    I was homeschooled in Brooklyn (where I still live), and though obviously it’s a huge choice, whether or not to homeschool, New York is a magical place to do it.

    I also work with a lot of those little kids- the ones on the twenty-year pre-planned career paths at the age of two or three. Their lives are so inflexible, and they’re already so exhausted and stressed. I can’t imagine raising my child like that.

    I don’t know, I think I would want to keep my children home, at least for the first few years.

  18. Baiba responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    This is my most favourite blog post of ETDC ever. Probably even of all blogs I have ever read.

  19. Sophie responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    “The parents in my neighborhood are always talking about preschools—which are prestigious, which are better, have I signed Eden up yet, for the wait list for the more exclusive wait list for this one down the street? It’s important because of the matriculation rate to Harvard. It’s important to have put her on the path to Harvard, now, at six months.”
    This sounds like a script in a movie! I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this scene in Baby Boom, at least – that film with Diane Keaton.

  20. Annie responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    I am convinced that Eden holds the secrets of the universe in those cheeks.

  21. teegan responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    Well, if Thomas is going to turn out awesome because of me, then Eden will totally turn out awesome because of… Bear? Kidding! Sort of. I think it’s good that both of our kids have very relaxed, steady fathers, since their mothers seem to be worriers/overthinkers.

    Also – I have started thinking about sending him to a Montessori preschool near here. They’re known for giving scholarships, especially to young couples who are educators (hey, that’s us!). I think the orderliness + other kids would be good for him, plus, if he did go, he would start going right around the time we would probably be having baby #2. Then again, is the orderliness good, or would it be better for him to run around with me at the beach and the farm and all? And what will be better for me? You know, since it IS my life, too, contrary to what some people may believe. Gah. I don’t know. It’ll happen how it happens.

    What Sarah mentioned above about homeschooling in Brooklyn being magical, though – I imagine it is! Geez, Endless opportunities. Maybe we should trade kids back and forth a few times? Country mouse and the city mouse?

  22. Meg responded on 17 Jan 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Yep, blue eyes and curly hair!

  23. Kate responded on 17 Jan 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    It’s one of my favorites, too. Thank you for liking it! I’m trying to write more like this now– more whole-heartedly. It’s maybe not as catchy, but it feels good, and it means a lot when it touches someone

  24. Kate responded on 17 Jan 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Yes, we probably should

  25. Kate responded on 17 Jan 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    What a great combination!!

  26. April responded on 17 Jan 2014 at 2:43 pm #

    “It makes me think fun is essential.”

    The other day on my Facebook status I put up a quote from an old Barenaked Ladies song, “It doesn’t make sense not to live for fun.” I think it makes sense. Who wants to live not to have fun? But it was ridiculous how some old men in my family reacted to it. I personally didn’t think was a quote that required pessimism, but they apparently thought so.

    One said, “hard work allows us to have fun…..never forget there is no easy way to achieve this!” Alright, fine. But I disagree. There are simple things that are fun. Playing cards with a friend is fun, and it’s not exactly a hard thing to manage.

    Then the other one said, “If you work hard and really get into your profession, then a day of fun is the reward and you enjoy it a lot more. But if all you live for is fun, you can never take a break to enjoy something. Does that make sense?”

    That was the second instance of someone referring to work ethic. I’m not quite sure at which point I said I didn’t want to work hard or didn’t want to work hard. I’ve always worked hard, at everything! Even this really shitty job I have now. I’m not really sure what this uncle was getting at. Does he think I’m lazy? And since he’s the apparently expert, how many hard working days = one “fun” day? Is there a scale or an equation I’m missing out on?

    This was when I was waiting to hear back from a job interview. A job that I might actually ENJOY, which I might find FUN. I was excited about it. I was thinking about how everybody says if you love your job, then it’s not really like you’re working. Because you love it and you think it’s FUN. Doesn’t that make sense? Apparently not to these old uncles. Which is precisely why I can’t stand having old relatives on Facebook!

    I didn’t get the job anyway. I’ve been really bummed out. Goodness knows I work hard at a job I positively hate, but I don’t have much fun these days. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you have fun, and just because you have fun doesn’t reflect how hard or much you work.

    *I* think fun is essential too. And it really doesn’t make sense not to live for it along with other good things. Who ever says “it doesn’t make sense not to live for hard work”? Just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  27. R responded on 18 Jan 2014 at 12:43 pm #

    I’d like to read that book about the brave girl saving the world. The one you keep mentioning.

    I was not home schooled, but I feel like I have similar memories of my youth. My mother gave me imagination, a love of reading, and time for both. I was taught to swim and I had music lessons, but beyond that I wasn’t highly scheduled outside of school. I spent a lot of time exploring the woods for fairies and dragons. I don’t think that that is dependent on whether or not you do traditional schooling. Perhaps it is more about being given the space for it. I think that imaginative games are so valuable. Some of my friends who were very scheduled seemed to get bored so easily later in life.

    And I’m not really sure that Harvard is equal to happiness and success. Rather than giving our kids Harvard, shouldn’t we be giving them strength, compassion, creativity, joy. . . all those things that will be useful to them whether they go to Harvard or somewhere else?

    (Plus, while my parents were very good at being parents they weren’t so good at being married, and imagination and fantasy books really gave me a lovely place to escape to when the real world wasn’t looking so great. It still does–that ability to retreat really lowers my stress levels, I think.)

  28. carolina responded on 22 Jan 2014 at 4:50 am #

    your mom is awesome.

  29. Eat the Damn Cake » sexy naked women absolutely everywhere responded on 29 Jan 2014 at 10:49 am #

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  30. Joycelyn responded on 10 Feb 2014 at 7:44 am #

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  31. Tovah responded on 16 Feb 2014 at 8:57 pm #

    That was so beautifully written. Even though I’m Jewish and have lived in New york, it seemed that I never quite fit in. I wasn’t orthodox enough, I was too conservative, the Reform Temples seenmed a little bit too Reform.

    I don’t know…I just couldn’t find my place and I eventually moved.

    I don’t know if people realize how small NY really is. How you keep running into people you know all the time. I was amazed by that.

    Anyway…moving on: HOW CUTE IS YOUR BABY? Oh my gosh. That baby is so gorgeous and you are so blessed.

    I say, “follow your heart”.

  32. Kate responded on 19 Feb 2014 at 8:17 am #

    I haven’t found my place as a Jew here, either. I’m nervous about looking for synagogues soon, but I want to find a place for us to go while Eden is growing up, and going to NJ every week to the one I work at doesn’t really work.

    And thank you!

    And yes! I run into people I know here all the time, in the street! I love that, actually

    Where do you live now? Do you feel like you’re in the right place?