Sometimes you need the perspective of an outsider. “Division Avenue,” a new play about tension between Hasidim and hipsters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is written by Miki Bone, a Catholic playwright from Texas. The family drama, which manages some comedic moments while dealing with serious issues, is currently having a short debut run at New York’s Midtown International Theater Festival through August 3.
Fascinated by what she observed on a 2009 walking tour of Brooklyn, Bone couldn’t get the image of three Hasidic men crossing the street and averting their eyes from a young woman in modern dress as she passed them. Bone, a 52-year-old former high school drama teacher, captured the scene in a photograph and later turned the image into a painting for a class she was taking for her Masters degree at the University of Texas at Dallas. Eventually, the painting gave rise to a script.
“I took the men’s shielding their eyes as an act of respect, not rudeness,” Bone tells The Times of Israel in an interview from New York as she prepares for the play’s opening with director Dean Nolen. But further research led to a deeper and more complex understanding of the Hasidim’s behavior, perhaps in response to the gentrification and technological advances that have breached the figurative wall they’ve erected around their communities.
To dramatize this, Bone zoomed in on Williamsburg’s highly publicized ongoing bike lane wars, in which Hasidim are fighting their neighbors and the city over bike lanes that sometimes bring scantily clad (at least, by Hasidic standards) female cyclists riding through the area. Various characters in the play — Hasidic and hipster both—take sides (sometimes unexpected ones) in the battle, but the real fight is not really about two-wheeled vehicles.
“Division Avenue” (a real street in Williamsburg) presents Efraim Hershfeltz (played by Jordan Feltner), a widowed Satmar Hasid in his late 20s. In the wake of the death of his wife (who apparently used to ditch her sheitel and put on jeans to go partying every so often), he shaves his beard and peyos and begins to take on a less Hasidic appearance. This, of course, raises the eyebrows of his parents, Moishe (Mitch Greenberg) and Gita (Joanna Gluskak).
Moishe, in the meantime, is on the warpath against the cyclists and enlists a young attorney named Dean Civell (Colby Lane Chambers) to take on the case. Dean happens to be a gay Texan Baptist, and he lives with his roommate Sarah (Mary Rasmussen), a childhood friend. Sarah, a social worker working with dysfunctional families in the Hasidic community, is an avid cyclist. Dean, whose good friend was killed in a cycling accident, is not.
While the middle aged Hasidic Moishe and the hipster Dean team up to fight a legal battle, Efraim and Sarah get to together for other reasons. Drawn to the outside world, Efraim falls in love with the non-Jewish Sarah and decides to leave the Hasidic way of live of life.
The immediate lead up to Efraim’s departure is portrayed as a comedy of errors, with Moishe looking for Dean at his apartment and discovering not only that Dean is gay, but also that a pantless Efraim is there getting an intimate shave from Sarah. But dialogue in the play reveals the heaviness of the conflict underlying the momentary laughs.
“I will no longer be coerced to conform. The use of fear and shame — that is oppression,” Efraim tells his parents.
“There are no sidewalks here paved with the desecrated gravestones of your ancestors! To me, Williamsburg is an oasis,” Moishe responds. “Still there are seeds of hatred everywhere… You leave and you lose everything.”
An angry and hurt Moishe addresses Efraim as he leaves, saying “I feel sorry, very sorry that our oasis here in Williamsburg has become your spiritual desert. And I do hope you will find ways to succeed and prosper – you will need the success to fill the space… the emptiness you will feel in your life.”
However, Gita, the mother, gets the last word. “This is also my home. And when you visit, you will remember the rules of this house, yes?… One more thing. You remember that you are a good problem to have,” she tells her son.
Bone was very deliberate about the ending. “I was surprised by how women’s voices seem silent in the Hasidic community, so I purposely wrote the mother speaking up at the end of the play,” notes the playwright. “It’s a small moment, but an important one.”
Bone, who was originally interested in investigating the gentrification that artists and developers have brought to Williamsburg, did not set out to write a story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jew leaving the fold. However, when she came across Hella Winston’s book, “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels,” she knew that this would be her focus.
She discovered Footsteps, an organization providing educational, vocational and emotional support to those who choose to leave the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and community, through Winston’s footnotes. People at Footsteps helped her refine scenes and pointed her to other resources she used in shaping her script.
‘I was surprised by how women’s voices seem silent in the Hasidic community, so I purposely wrote the mother speaking up at the end of the play’
It’s been an interesting journey to “Division Avenue” for Bone.
“I love studying other cultures,” she says. “I found it interesting that for so long, despite other communities moving in, the Satmars were able to live within invisible walls. But technology has pierced those walls.”
It was a challenge for her to deal with the idea that a person would be ostracized for wanting to live or believe differently.
“I’m a very liberal Catholic, but I have not been pushed away by my church or community,” she explains.
She says she was careful to make sure that the voices of the play’s various characters were balanced, especially in the scenes dealing with the conflict between Efraim and his parents. “This play is not about one side of an issue.”
No matter what one’s religious background, one can relate to a story about “being in a place where you are forced to turn you back on a family member,” as Bone puts it.
In setting “Division Avenue” in Hasidic Williamsburg, the Texan married mother of three may have ventured into extremely new territory, but she feels it is not really so far from home.
“The empathy I have is for the family unit, regardless of their beliefs,” she says.
“Division Avenue” is being staged at New York’s June Havoc Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex July 28, 29 and August 1,3.
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