With wives away, NY haredim find camaraderie at $10 a plate

Borough Park Jews admit that having their families holidaying in the Catskills isn't all bad.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Walk the streets in the middle of the week, and it's hard not to notice what's missing - or rather, who. In predominantly haredi neighborhoods such as Borough Park, where the sounds of children usually echo through the streets at all hours of the day and baby carriages abound, the change is noticeable even to the outsider. The women and kids have all but disappeared. For eight weeks over the summer, thousands of haredi families migrate to bungalow colonies in the Catskills in upstate New York for a country getaway. The haredim have largely replaced an earlier generation of secular Jews who used to frequent the mountain resorts, known as the "Borscht Belt" or the "Jewish Alps." As with many generations of summer vacationers, religious women and children usually stay the full eight weeks of July and August and are joined by the men only on the weekends. Most men make the one- to two-hour trek on Thursday evening or early Friday morning, before Shabbat begins, and return Sunday night or early Monday morning for work. In a community with clearly defined gender roles, coping with the separation isn't simple, but even in the summer months, it isn't common to find men in the kitchen. On the other hand, the haredim do not have a real restaurant culture. Though Borough Park is home to several restaurants, many haredim find restaurants uncomfortable, even those run by haredim. The price of eating out is part of the reason, but many simply find the ambience distasteful. One man, however, has capitalized on the women's absence. Seven summers ago, Luzy Glick began renting out space and offering take-out dinners to men in the neighborhood. This year he moved up a notch, offering sit-down meals in Menorah Hall, an upscale place with chandeliers and enough space for crowds. For $10 a meal, men can get a three-course sit-down meal, just the way they like it - cheap, good food in a comfortable, no-frills environment. Unlike restaurants, which are usually coed, the hall is only for men, there is no music in the background (which some haredim find inappropriate) and the kosher supervision is trustworthy. "Every man needs a home-cooked meal at the end of the day," said diner Yosef Podrigal. The only problem, he said, is that the service "makes you miss your wife less." The menu includes standards like spaghetti and meatballs, with a piece of kugel for dessert. "We eat more here than at home," said Moishe. "The wives know they can get away with less, but here they have to prepare for the big eaters." The dining hall Glick operates is not a new idea in the community, which has been vacationing in the Catskills since shortly after World War II. Most of the other venues are under the auspices of specific religious institutions, such as Satmar or Bobov, but Glick's is a private institution where men can eat their dinner regardless of affiliation. Though the summertime can be lonely, some men were quick to admit that having their wives and kids gone for a few weeks was not all bad. Generally speaking, haredi men eat solely in the company of their families. Eating with other families is rare, because men try to avoid socializing with women other than their wives. Socializing with a group of men happens on occasion, but is in no way the norm. So in the summer weeks, when men have the neighborhood to themselves, they get a chance to socialize more with each other. Some play sports or poker or pool. Many end up studying more. And then there are those who sneak in a movie, or gather together in someone's office to watch an episode of The Sopranos - taboo activities in the haredi world. But at dinner time, there is no denying it: Men are at a loss. "No one wants to be alone," said Moishe, who ate at the hall on Wednesday night with his friend Amram. "This environment turns an inconvenience into a pleasure."