I am passing the library when I see them. Fourteen men walking down a side street, all dressed alike, all stepping to the same steady rhythm. They wear black-brimmed hats with black ribbons, the kind all men used to wear before Jack Kennedy made the bare head appealing. They wear black suits and white shirts and unkempt beards of black and gray and red. There are two clusters of them, one a few yards in front of the other. The air around them is the color of the ocean, and as they walk, their bodies bob up and down, and I see bottles, black bottles with white labels, floating in the sea.
The dusk air has weight to it, as if it must be pushed aside as I walk, as if it is water for my arms to paddle through. The humidity on this July night is almost visible. As I walk home from the pharmacy, the neighborhood looks softer than usual, as if everything is beginning to melt together. Gone are the hard corners that separate the bank from the post office, the milk store from the church that sells hot dogs on summer nights to raise money for victims of war and hurricanes.
The men head toward me. Fourteen men in black. A gang, headed toward one small woman wearing shorts and a tank top. Should I fear them? Normally I would scurry away from such a bunch. But these are Hasidic Jews, on their way home from the local shul after welcoming the Sabbath. They are not allowed to touch women who are not their wives—and are not allowed to touch even their wives on certain days of the month. Surely, they would not attack me, a Reform Jew, not even a Jew in their eyes, showing flesh and carrying children’s vitamins and a copy of Harper’s Bazaar on the Sabbath. Surely, they are harmless.
Unless in their fervor—the fervor that inspires them to wear black suits on hot nights and follow the ancient laws of our people— they want to teach me a lesson, to punish me for not being a modest and hidden Jewish woman.
But this is foolish. They are too absorbed in talk to notice me. I turn the corner toward my house, and they follow on the other side of the street. Our edges blend in the dark, thick air. We are one.