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Tour guide Frieda Vizel calls on her Satmar childhood as she takes groups through Williamsburg

Frieda Vizel, born a Satmar chasid in Kiryat Joel, now leads tours explaining and exploring her world in Williamsburg. (Frieda Vizel)
Frieda Vizel, born a Satmar chasid in Kiryat Joel, now leads tours explaining and exploring her world in Williamsburg. (Frieda Vizel)

It’s hard being clearsighted.

It takes clarity and skill and will to be able to look at the culture that you were born into and then left without bitterness but with dispassionate love. It takes a kind of grace even to want to do that, much less to do it successfully.

That’s what Frieda Vizel does.

Ms. Vizel was born a Satmar chasid, the fifth child of 15, in Kiryas Joel, the Satmar enclave in New York’s Orange County; today she lives in Brooklyn, where she has close ties with the chasidic community in Williamsburg, leads respectful, intensive tours there, and learns as much as she can about the community to which she is both bound and untethered.

Ms. Vizel’s father grew up in Williamsburg; his father had become a Satmar after the Holocaust. Her mother also grew up in a chasidic family, and moved to the Satmar segment of that world after her marriage. They moved from neighborhood to neighborhood in Brooklyn — from Bensonhurst to Boro Park to Williamsburg — looking for the most chasidisch place. That was Williamsburg. Then, because families wanted more space, “there was a general migration, because a lot of people felt that,” she said. Soon before she was born, in 1984, the family moved upstate.

Freida Vizel as she was then,
with her baby son. (All photos courtesy Frieda Vizel)

Ms. Vizel’s family was well respected and well positioned in the community — she has requested that we leave them unnamed, to respect their privacy — “and we were considered well-off and comfortable,” she said. “I never thought as a child that I would leave.”

But from the time she was young, she remembers, something bothered her.

Men and women led very different lives in Kiryas Joel, Ms. Vizel said. “My father is very successful, as many of the men in those families are, but it’s different for women. They don’t get to partake in all the things that men do.

“Men travel. They go places. They live a lot more open lives than women do. My father travels on business, and also to visit the gravesites of rebbes and relatives.

“I found the role of women to be frustrating. I felt very excluded from where it felt like everything was happening.”

On the other hand, she said, “My mother definitely does not feel that.” And in defiance of the stereotypes that often accrue to stories like Ms. Vizel’s, she and her mother not only were but remain very close. When she talks about the community of her birth, Ms. Vizel sees it with nuance and with love.

Frieda as she is now, still working to understand her world.

“One of my strong memories is of Succus,” she said. (Ms. Vizel, whose first language was Yiddish, speaks a flawlessly unaccented English now, but she pronounces Hebrew words with a strong Yiddish accent that demand that the listener replay them slowly in her head, and then ask for help.) “It’s of my father and my brothers getting ready to sleep in the sukkah. I coveted that. They would get into their warm PJs, and it was so cozy, with the colored lights, and I really wanted to hang out with them. But my father would say no. No girls. No. No. It’s not appropriate. I felt so hurt by that, but of course there was no room to argue.”

Another strong, gendered memory was of Purim. “On Purim, the men get drunk,” she said. “Every year, my mother gets so anxious. She can’t wait for it to be over. She has to wipe up the vomit.” The men, who are not big drinkers during the rest of the year, always get so drunk that they throw up, Ms. Vizel said. And “of course it falls on the women, on my mother, to clean it up. And I’m like, ‘You don’t have to put up with it.’ But of course she has to put up with it. The women don’t drink. They’re the ones standing in the doorway, watching the men perform their antics.” (Ms. Vizel means “antics” literally. As once-a-year drunks, the men in her family get silly before they get sick.)

“My mother sees it as a trade-off,” Ms. Vizel continued. “For her, life is a package. Some of it is hard, but you have to get through it. You can’t escape the hard parts of life. I hear where she’s coming from, but in the deepest part of my being, my feeling is hell, no. But my mother believes that she gets a lot out of it; as she sees it, she gets taken care of. It’s a trade-off that’s very much worth it for her. My mother is very introverted and very emotionally astute.

“But it’s very much in my nature that it’s impossible for me to live in this world like that. For me, it is constricting.”

Ms. Vizel said that she learned English as a second language starting in first grade. Some of her education was pragmatic; “a big part of the system is preparing you for marriage,” she said. “Our school program ended in 11th grade. We got a diploma.” But the document has no legal significance, she continued. “After 11th grade, we all got jobs as secretaries or teachers and we waited to get engaged.” She worked in an insurance agency, a job that she held, on and off, for years.

Frieda Vizel and her ex-husband smile at the camera on their wedding day.

“I got engaged when I was 18 and three months,” but of course who’s counting, she said. “We got married seven months later, and we had a child together. My son is 16 now.

“After I had my son, I started the journey out. It started because I had to watch myself be powerless.”

Ms. Vizel’s realization that the Satmar community was not the right place for her was catalyzed when she enrolled her son in a local cheder. “By that time, I had started to come to the understanding that women weren’t told to shave their heads by God at Mount Sinai,” she said. “We weren’t told that in the Torah. I was slowly starting to piece together some understanding of how customs happen. It’s not some mysterious, inexplicable divine order; rather, it’s a cultural hand-me-down.

“I started to understand that the history that we were taught in school, where you thought that God gave you Yiddish, and then you” — or at any rate, she — “start to understand that it came from German. That made me understand that women shaving their head when they marry is a strange, borrowed custom that had no religious value.

“And I didn’t want to do it.”

As she later learned, “there is a long tradition of showing commitment in marriage by cutting your hair,” Ms. Vizel said. “In many cultures, a virgin would have a long braid, and you’d cut it short. It would be a way of showing your commitment. There are records going back to the 1800s of Orthodox women shaving their heads; maybe they go back even earlier.

Frieda’s son, Seth, touches the Torah that the Satmar rebbe carries.

“But the shaving onto zero is a very contemporary chasidic thing.”

She detailed how it works. The morning after her wedding, working together, she and her mother shaved her head, down to the bare skin. And then a woman shaves her own head every month, just before she goes to the mikvah, so she can enter the water entirely hairless.

“Right after the war, the Satmar rebbe was a huge crusader for women shaving their heads. His stipulation was that if you want me to officiate at your wedding, if you want to be considered part of the community, the woman has to shave her head.

“It’s a strange image, given the trauma of the Holocaust,” Ms. Vizel mused. Nonetheless, for the rebbe and the community, “I think it was almost a test of faith. After the Holocaust, so many people were looking for a spiritual home. The rebbe wanted to make sure that people were serious and showed their full commitment.

“That’s my theory about why he expected that from people who hadn’t grown up with the custom.

It’s a celebration in Kiryat Joel; Seth holds a flag.

“I heard a story of a woman who had never heard of shaving her head,” she continued. “Her mother had beautiful blonde locks. The Klausenberger rebbe said, ‘I won’t if you don’t,’” — I won’t perform the wedding ceremony unless you shave your head — “and she didn’t and he didn’t. And now she is modern Orthodox and lives in a settlement in Israel.” The morning after her wedding, when she first shaved her head, “it didn’t bother me at all,” she said. “But she came to think that “there are a lot of things in the chasidic community that you can explain away, but not this one. It’s so mysterious, and so barbaric.”

So back to when Ms. Vizel tried to enroll her young son in school. “I already was learning a lot on the down low,” she said. “I started learning about head shaving, and about how bizarre it was, and it started to feel to me that I couldn’t do it to myself anymore. It felt like a humiliation ritual. So I stopped.

“When I tried to enroll my son, I got a call from a woman who worked for the school. She said that they got my application, and she had to check to make sure that my head was shaved.

“That was the beginning of my fight for independence.”

She had to shave her head that time. “When I did it, I stood in front of the mirror and I screamed. I just screamed. It was an animal roar.

“I realized that I was entirely powerless. I had to comply. It was one of the most horrible things that I could do to myself.”

Frieda and her ex-husband hold their baby.

She felt entirely alone. “I had zero allies,” she said. “Not a single ally. It left me with no choice. I couldn’t talk to anyone.”

Her husband, she realized, was not an ally. “A lot of people navigate living in a restrictive community by allying with their partners,” she said. “They keep each other’s secrets.

“I interviewed a woman in her 70s who read,” Ms. Vizel said. As in, read books from the outside; works that were not approved, and discussed foreign concepts and provided foreign images. “Her husband was okay with her having a rich intellectual life. If your husband is an ally, it is much more endurable. The system doesn’t dole out equal freedoms. If you’re lucky, you know it.

“But I wasn’t lucky in that way.

“My husband was very open about watching movies with me. That little indulgence was more than I expected.” But that was as far as it went.

Frieda Vizel leads tours inside and outside Williamsburg.

As she tried to open her world just a bit, she tried to convince her husband to move to Monsey, a place that the outside world does not see as the moral equivalent of Sodom or Gomorrah, but he refused.

She’d met her husband once before they were engaged. “You enter into marriage without having any expectations,” she said. “And that forces you to try to make it work.

“I was at a wedding with one of my sisters, who had been married for just a year. She looked at the kallah, the bride, and she said, ‘Why is she so happy? She doesn’t know what she’s in for.’” That’s after just a year of marriage, Ms. Vizel said.

“I thought that I could make marriage work,” she said. “But later, I felt entirely on my own, being thrown around in a system, being entirely powerless, being maneuvered around with zero autonomy and no one defending me. Then the marriage no longer felt possible. There was nothing to make it work anymore.”

Eventually, they split. “I didn’t want to lose custody of my son.” But after a year, he remarried. “I moved,” ironically, “to Monsey with my son. It was a slow process, finding my place. I wore a wig. He went to yeshiva. And then eventually, slowly, we ended up in Brooklyn, and my son ended up in public school.” In Brooklyn Tech, to be specific, a highly selective public high school, its borough’s equivalent of Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. (Which, to be clear, is not information that Ms. Vizel offered.) She even learned to ride a bike, a feat forbidden even to Satmar men. “The Satmar rebbe called it a shaygetz bike,” she said.

Ms. Vizel never really got a straightforward college education, but she is academically inclined. She was accepted to the women’s history master’s program at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville.

She has maintained a close, loving relationship with her mother and a more guarded but still strong one with her father. She’s still a sister to her sisters and brothers, and her grandmother has become warmer to her since she left.

“She will constantly hold my hand, say ‘My Friede, my Friede,’” Ms. Vizel said. “Until I left, I was hardly noticed.” To be fair, it’s hard to make an impression on a grandparent who has somewhere between 10 and 15 children, each of whom has between 10 and 15 of their own kids. Usually, Ms. Vizel said, you introduce yourself with your parent’s name. If your father is Moishe, for example, you introduce yourself, as most likely you will have to do, as Moishe’s. “My grandmother is a critical Hungarian woman, but because I have become who I am, she feels she needs to draw nearer,” Ms. Vizel said.

And now she not only gives tours of Williamsburg and teaches as she guides, but she also learns, and with the permission of the community members she meets she documents what she sees and hears.

“I think of my tours as my personal education,” she said. “As my own journey. I went from being terrified to giving tours. The very first tour I gave was when my professor from Sarah Lawrence, Glenn Dynner” — Dr. Dynner has been an important force in Ms. Vizel’s growth as an observer and historian — “asked me if I would do it. So I started to do it, once a month.

“At first I was terrified. I was afraid that I would run into someone I know” — many of her relatives live there — “and I was afraid that people would yell at me. That they’d scream at me. I don’t milk confrontations. I did have some nasty experiences, but I defuse things.

“And over time I’ve started to become a fixture in the neighborhood. People have gotten used to me, and I feel that I have introduced a new version of me.”

She documents what she sees on her tours, photographs and records when she’s allowed to, because “I am trying to create, as much as possible, the story of the neighborhood,” she said. “I watch, I collect stories and people’s takes on them. So it’s like I’m understanding more about the world I came from, and also finding a new way to be part of it.

“It’s like a rebirth.”

She’s developing a YouTube channel that includes some of the oral histories she’s gathered; just google YouTube Frieda Vizel. “I am trying to document chasidic life,” she said. “I just published a tour of a woman’s home in Williamsburg. We sometimes get to enter people’s homes with my tours. Sometimes we can have a spontaneous visit to someone’s home.” Often she cannot film what she sees, but “I am trying to used my slowly earned credentials” to gain people’s trust.

“What drives me to keep going back is that I feel it is important to document and to understand and to have a conversation about this unique Jewish world. I feel the importance in my bones. If we don’t have these conversations, it will all be lost. What I really want to do in the long run is try to create, in bits and pieces, a look at that community. My audience is anyone who is interested in the culture.”

Some of her audience are chasidim. “A lot of the people who are watching say ‘Thank you for defending us.’” That’s because, for example, she said, she’s interested in chasidic women’s clothing, but “I don’t point at it and say, ‘This is the dress of oppression!’

Ms. Vizel shows some of the posters that are taped to the walls through chasidic Williamsburg.

“A lot of chasidim are very used to a negative spin. They’re not entirely sure what to do with someone who is just interested.”

One of the reasons she finds the work so compelling is “this is an important world to share. Particularly the Satmar world. The population in Kiryas Joel is doubling every seven years. They’re becoming a really important political player in the tristate area.” The Satmar community is growing rapidly in Israel too. That situation might prove increasingly complicated, because unlike most other chasidic groups, Satmar chasidim are virulently anti-Zionist.

Another reason for Ms. Vizel to do the work she’s been doing is deeply personal.

“This is a way of making the chasidic community accessible to me, so I can enter it and relate to it,” she said.

She’s not angry at the community that nurtured her. “I believe that every society has its faults and its merits,” she said. “I don’t believe that it has evil intentions. I try to respect people’s intentions. I try to see how people find meaning in their lives.

“I am not angry or resentful. I am curious. I think it is fascinating to see what came out of the Holocaust. I think that my version of being a Jew is being fascinated.”

Frieda Vizel’s website is friedavizel.com; logically, her business is called Tours by Frieda.

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