Division Ave., a new play that premiered on Wednesday by Texas playwright Miki Bone, explores not only the questions many Brooklynites have about the isolated community of Hasidic Jews, but also what happens when a member of that community decides to leave. Efraim, a young Hasidic man, encounters Sarah, a new transplant to South Williamsburg who also happens to be a Gentile. The relationship between Efraim and Sarah and their subsequent identity crises are exacerbated with the infamous bike lane controversy from a few years ago and, as we were reminded in the spring, the Hasidic community’s ongoing disdain for cyclists.
But Bone’s play focuses on the depth and extent of ruptured identity rather than municipal politics. It emphasizes the radical change Hasidim risk when they decide to leave their communities, and many of the desperate struggles they face in the world at large, struggles which aren't always immediately obvious to many Brooklynites and New Yorkers. I recently sat down with Bone and spoke with her about researching the Hasidim, speaking with outreach groups, and the power of empathy.
Why did you choose to tell this story as a play?
Let me go backwards. I enrolled in a Creative Performance class as a part of my graduate program, and most of my classmates had one-man or one-woman shows in mind, but I had no interest in acting myself. I have a good relationship with the professor, and he allowed me to develop this play. I began writing based on a whole lot of research I had done for another class. But the seed of the story came from a photograph I took while on a walking tour of Williamsburg in 2009. Something always bothered me about the photo, and it was my daughter, actually, who noticed that the Hasidim and non-Hasidim were walking along different sides of Division Ave. That photograph turned into a painting for another class, and in my scholarly research for that class I started reading articles about the Hasidic community, and stories from people who decided to leave the community. That was sort of the strange pathway of the play.
The story is underpinned by the bike lane controversy, which was quite the stir. Personally, I didn't like how either party responded to each other because it was reactionary on both sides, but it was a sort of metaphor for this social issue that we deride before we discuss. Namely, why they perceived the bike lane (and now CitiBike) as a threat. It surely isn't just because they were afraid of seeing bike-shorts clad female riders.
The controversy absolutely makes it into the play, in the form of the cycling activists re-painting the disappeared 14-block lanes in South Williamsburg. That's one avenue of the culture clash, but if you understand the fact that, for so long, the Satmar community has been able to maintain invisible walls around themselves, they’ve been continually forced to break those walls for the last decade or so with the increased necessity of smart phones and the internet, and why that’s such a difficult change.
Yeah, and it’s my understanding that the Satmar community in South Williamsburg was established from Holocaust survivors, after their communities had been eradicated throughout Europe. So it seems like any kind of spatial intrusion is a kind of personal threat to safety.
It's also important to remember that the Hasidim actually have a language barrier. English is their second language. So for those younger members who decide to leave, it’s a kind of immigration, they are coming to a new world. It's really the advent and necessity of smart phones and the Internet that's pierced through these invisible walls. And the way that it's contextualized in the play is that Efraim [the main character] says "And now, those walls are big enough for me to climb through."
Yeah, like it's a totally different cultural idiom just across one avenue. And that makes me wonder what kinds of questions, as a woman from Texas and a different kind of American culture, you had about the Hasidim, and if you came to any conclusions.
I had a lot of questions. It was a completely different world, and I simply wanted to understand them. Any time there is a true conflict about something, each side usually has a very valid beef with the other. A lot of my research for the play involved reading stories on sites like Unpious and speaking with the people at Footsteps. In one way, it was a good set-up for a play because both worlds were very committed to their ideals, but the main question I wanted to understand was why these young people were leaving. I think the hardest part about that is to understand that so many ex-Hasidim are just seeking greater knowledge about the outside world. And, for the play, it's further complicated when Efraim sees a woman he's interested in.
Yeah, like a world that has been forcefully barred from them.
Right, but not on the Internet and their smart phones.
That's a really interesting idea. Like, there are a lot of people in my generation who are concerned about how alienating the Internet can be, but for the Hasidim, it sounds like it’s one of their only ways of outside connection, and that arouses curiosity, but it also problematizes their ideas of self.
From what I know, many Hasidim are exploring the outside world privately. One of the people at Footsteps told me that, 100% of the time, when a person makes that decision to leave, their families totally cut them off. Rates of suicide and depression are, as you can imagine, very high. But they've noticed that, in the last year, some Footsteps members are saying "My sister will talk to me," or, "My mother will talk to me," and it’s often through the Internet. It's that bit of hope I'd like to instill because, as a mother, I couldn't imagine what it would feel like to turn my back on my child in order to maintain solidarity with my religion.
That makes me think about how much is at stake for those that do leave the Hasidic community. It is a loss, a total removal from the context of your self, but even when you do get closure on how to live this new life, it’s still ambiguous.
Writing the play and researching the community really showed me the essentials of conflicted Hasidim: the search for greater knowledge outside of the community. The chance to create that space of empathy between the story and the audience is the pay off for me, and that really comes alive because of the director [Dean Nolen] and the cast. At the end, I want the audience to empathize with both sides. The loss of a parent, and the parents' of their child, and the universality of finding your self in a new world.
For tickets to Division Ave., visit divisionave.net
Follow Ryan Chang on twitter @avantbored