It is Christmas Day and the country is quiet as most Americans celebrate the birth of Jesus by gathering with family members around festively decorated trees and honey-baked hams.
In most places – even the usually teeming metropolis of Manhattan – nearly every store is shuttered and the streets are empty of cars. No one works, Silence has settled eerily over every public space.
Until one gets to Borough Park in Brooklyn.
Along 13th Avenue, cars are double – and triple-parked against sidewalks swollen with throngs of haredim out for a stroll and a browse along the main shopping street of what today seems like a neighborhood inhabited solely by fervently Orthodox Jews.
Babies and toddlers bundled against the sharp December wind whistling down the avenue are pushed in double strollers by mothers whose youth would defy their parenthood but for the wigs they wear in accordance with their custom as married Chasidic women.
Men, grateful today for the warmth of the long black coats – called kapotas – they wear even in the sweltering heat, cluster in two and threes to chat on street corners, their heads covered by black shearling hats and their faces protected from the wind by long beards.
A dozen major Chasidic sects – and at least two dozen minor ones – are based in this lively Brooklyn neighborhood and today, it seems, everyone is out on the avenue.
Christmas is just a regular shopping day in Borough Park.
Snippets of conversation in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Hungarian are overheard as often as English. Posters taped to streetlights and between storefronts tout the “Dial-a-Daf” and “Mishna-on-the-phone” programs offered by the Torah Communications Network as well as a special Chanukah concert by Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men.
There are no risque Clavin Klein billboards in this neighborhood.
The Le Bon lingerie shop – just up the block from the Viznitz Chasidic sect’s synagogue – is crowded with housecoats and nightgowns closer to Lanz of Switzerland flannel than Frederick’s of Hollywood satin.
A dozen disembodied mannequin heads wearing wigs in several shades of brown and blond occupy the store front of the International Studio, a shop that sells sheitels, or wigs, worn by the married women. A large sign on the front door warns customers, “For your shopping pleasure – no carriages and no `lashon hara’ please,” instructing them not to gossip.
Inside Amnon’s Strictly Kosher Rabbinically Supervised Pizza Shop, the line of customers sweating in their long winter coats is long and the narrow aisles between the handful of tables are clogged with strollers as parents fuel the several children they each have in tow with pizza and falafel for further shopping on the avenue.
Evelyn Polakoff has come to 13th Avenue from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, bringing the youngest of her four children to shop for a special dress to wear to the “sheva brochos,” or post-wedding, dinners of her eldest daughter, who is scheduled to be married in February.
Evelyn Polakoff is not her real name. Like almost all of the haredim interviewed about why Borough Park is bustling Dec. 25, she asked that her real name not be used.
As did others in the famously shy community, she demurred by saying that “I just don’t like my name to be in the newspaper.”
With every assurance from a visiting reporter that her true identity would not be revealed, she confided why she had made the hourlong trek from her own neighborhood.
“The clothing here is geared to the Orthodox community. The length of the sleeves and the skirts is right,” she said as she and her daughter, who appeared to be about 13, finished up their cheese knishes and Cokes.
“I don’t usually come because the traffic here is crazy and it’s hard to find parking, but everything in Manhattan is closed, even the Jewish stores.”
Eichler’s bookstore, a block down the street, is jammed with shoppers eager to buy Torah-shaped nightlights, refrigerator magnets boasting that they hold to the refrigerator door the “Shabbos Shopping Lise” or leather-bound volumes of rabbinic commentary.
Clerks frantically ring up purchases as two dozen haredim wait on line, juggling novels with jewish themes, packages of Judaic computer software and menorahs, which they are buying on the last day of Chanukah for 30 percent off their regular price. “It’s always busy here” on Christmas, said store manager Aryeh Eichler (his real name, he promised). “On legal holidays, Manhattan is closed so people come to Borough Park.”
A block away, G&Sons Department Store is only a degree less packed than it is the day before Rosh Hashanah or Purim, when there are as many people squeezed into the enormous store as there are commuters on the subway at rush hour.
A Brooklyn institution, G&Sons sells kiddush cups and plush “kiddie” Torahs alongside packages of ladies’ panties, toilet-bowl brushes, clock radios, armoires and cans of Unger’s ready-to-serve cholent beans, all at prices not even a veteran New York “holder” can dispute. It is also one of the rare stores in New York that lets a neighborhood beggar sit at the front, near the cash registers. The wizened and ancient woman rattles the few coins in her coffee can as she mutters “tzedakah, tzedakah,” to exiting customers.
In a bow to the 40 percent of its customers who are not Jewish, said Fred, who is a manager of the store and would not divulge his last name, the store has a small room of Christmas decorations and wrapping paper, a few plastic Santa Clauses waiting forlornly in a bin as if they knew that their day has come and was going fast.
One wall is covered with tree-trimming decorations that obviously were not much of a hit at this time of year with the store’s primary clientele.
However, in about 10 months the very same packages of Mylar sunbursts and strings of plastic fruit will line the walls of the room filled top to bottom with everything that the Jews of Borough Park and beyond will ever need to decorate their sukkahs.