Moral Reprobates or Superstitious Lemmings?

I live in an apartment of Jewish hipsters in Brooklyn who despise, and are despised by, their Hasidic neighbors. This is the Jewish-American way: the secular have no time for primitive traditionalists, and the pious no time for Godless narcissists. … Read More

By / February 6, 2007

I live in an apartment of Jewish hipsters in Brooklyn who despise, and are despised by, their Hasidic neighbors. This is the Jewish-American way: the secular have no time for primitive traditionalists, and the pious no time for Godless narcissists. As a twenty-something Aussie living in the U.S., I’ve learned that American Jewry is less a “community” and more a pissing contest between two factions.

There is a different way. I know, because I am a Hasid who believes in Minor Threat slogans. I hang out with my non-religious, and non-Jewish, friends, and I also wrap tefillin every morning and am guided by Hasidic philosophy. According to the terms of the debate, I’m both a mindless reprobate and a superstitious lemming. But this didn’t come easy. I had to work at it.

As a kid in Sydney, Australia, I regarded the Hasidim as a pack of faceless zombies. I went to a Reform Jewish school and avoided the nearby Lubavitch neighborhood the same way I avoided the local Scientology center. So it came as something of a surprise to my family and my friends—and even to myself—when, at the age of twenty, in the summer of 2001, I pulled out of university indefinitely and enrolled in Mayanot, a Hasidic yeshiva in Jerusalem.

There was something rowdy and rebellious about these people that attracted me to them. “They conduct themselves like madmen,” read a 1772 denunciation of Hasidim from the Eastern European rabbinic authorities. “Every day is for them a holiday. When they pray…they raise such a din that the walls quake.” Their behavior mellowed out a bit in the intervening 225 years, and yet the same raw energy still permeates their spiritual life. I was a hipster and a punk, but I wanted to learn from the Hasidim.

On my first day at the yeshiva, I was introduced to Rabbi Vichnin, a burly, egg-shaped man with a towel hanging over his shoulder. He slid his arm under mine and insisted I come along with him to the mikvah. The mikvah was on the other side of Mea Shearim, the ultra-orthodox Jerusalem ghetto that is home to Mayanot. On the stairs of a crumbling synagogue complex, my rabbi exchanged furtive nods with a gaunt, yellow-bearded Hasid. “A big mekubal!” my rabbi whispered excitedly,
using the Hebrew word for an expert in Kabbalah. “He’s famous for exorcising demons.”

We arrived at the Skverer Mikvah, the biggest bathing house in the neighbourhood. Gawking at me in my brand-new maroon yarmulke were 200 naked, dripping Hasidim. I hesitantly removed my clothes and followed my nude rabbi to the shower room, where kids were sliding across the soap-sudded tiles on their stomachs, stopping at my feet and staring up at me inquisitively. There were five small pools of varying temperatures, and I headed towards the one with the thinnest film of floating hair. Some of the children followed behind me. As a defector from the secular world, I was a mystery to them.

After a few months, I managed to develop a patchy beard and purchase a pair of tzit-tzit. My boxer shorts, however, still gave me away in the mikvah – Hasidim wear white, knee-length underwear called gatkes. But I was fortunate in having no tattoos. For many of the ba’al teshuvahs, or newly observant “masters of repentance,” tattoos were the stigma of life on the other side of the divide.

Our most heavily tattooed student was named Aaron (everyone took Hebrew names), and he was also one of the yeshiva’s most devout. He had a manner so pious I initially assumed he was one of the rabbis. He was, rather, a former redneck gang member from Ottawa who regaled me with tales of chain-whipping his rivals. More than anything in the world, Aaron wanted to blend in with the Hasidim, but with his clothes gone, he looked like, well, a tattooed gang member.

One night I entered the dining area to find Aaron gripping his wrist, fingers splayed, squinting in agony. The room smelled like rotten vinegar. On the table stood an open bottle of corrosive acid. Aaron was burning off a girl’s initials, scrawled above the webbing between his thumb and forefingers. Every morning for a year he had wrapped his tefillin directly over the spot.

Pinchus, a poet from England whose work had been translated into Japanese, was begging Aaron to wash the acid off. “Meshuggah!” Pinchus sputtered. As a last resort, Pinchus pulled out his pocket book of Tehillim, anxiously rocking as he intoned verses reserved for calamities.

Zeal was your best ally as a new Hasid. It’s easier to make radical changes in your behavior and thought in a culture where passion always trumps doubt. So I wasn't surprised when the Charles Bukowski novel I was reading was stolen and later found in the trash. Mundane issues became crucial questions of faith: Can I wear my tie-dyed Jimi Hendrix T-shirt? Can I still go to the beach? Can I watch TV other than the Nature Channel?

The biggest challenge was the total absence of women. One hot topic was an obscure Maimonadean ruling that all unmarried students should be equipped with concubines, allowing them to concentrate on their studies. Aryeh, a hyperactive newcomer from Florida, once sat on my bed and confessed his inability to stop masturbating.

“Take things one step at a time,” I said, though I had no idea what I meant.

A week later I asked him how he was doing. “No good,” he responded, averting his eyes. “No good at all.”

While adopting the rules of religious life was hard, relating to some of the local Hasidim was often even harder. Two Vishnitzers who hung around our building were involved in burning down a local video store. They claimed Meretz, a leftist political party, had funded the place as a ploy to secularise their community. The newspaper called it a riot. The owner had lashed out at the crowd, knocking over an elderly Hasid who died in hospital. “If it reopens,” one of them confided, “we’ll burn it down again.”

This was what hap
pened when the Hasids’ intersection with the secular world went wrong. More often than not, however, the intersection went right. Our yeshiva was the gateway to the outside world, and though some yeshivas had banned their students from visiting us, there was always a handful hanging out. We had a VCR and monitor in the yeshiva library and they would watch anything and everything. Shmuel, a convert, was a former pro skater, and our visitors played his promo video over and over. Someone had brought a Playstation and an Umshinover Hasid had become invincible in Mortal Kombat. The slightly subversive few in that library grew closer slowly, without spectacle, adding texture to our identities, and gaining understanding about the wildly different worlds we came from.

Toward the end of my time at Mayanot, Maxim, a former Buddhist, invited everyone to his wedding. It was the only time I remember all the Mayanot Hasids leaving Mea Shearim. We were bussed to a marquee on a beach near Netanya. Before the main course, we had gone through most of the liquor and were running amok in the surf.

The stars were brighter than in Jerusalem, and were spinning out of control. Pinchus was passed out in the sand. Yoel was fighting waves in his gaberdine and hat. The Umshinover was leading a stumbling pack, carrying Maxim and his chair into the sea. I felt a drunken, intense love for God and his Hasidim. Passionate and peculiar, their life was a spiritual echo of punk, and it was exactly what I had been looking for.

And now, here, in Brooklyn, I live amongst these two groups of Jews, alike in so many ways, yet each with strengths and insights the other lacks. But there is no shared space, no neutral ground where secular Jews and orthodox ones can come together without feeling they’ve crossed into enemy territory. And so we stay behind our intra-communal walls and squander the wisdom of our coreligionists on the other side.

Perhaps we’re not yet ready to shatter those walls, but at the very least we must begin to peer over them. As I learned at Mayanot, the neighbors have far more to offer us than we know.

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