Music played loudly while the men danced. On the women’s side of the mechitzah, we tried to speak over the sounds. I leaned over the table to hear what my co-worker’s wife was saying.
“Well, because we are both Belz, it just made sense,” Zeldy said with a smile, then continued picking at the chicken on her plate.
“The Belzer Rebbe even had a hand in our shidduch; he told both of our parents that it was a good idea.”
“By the time a young couple meets,” another woman, Toby, piped in, “the families know so much about each other. All that remains is for the couple to meet. They sometimes even get engaged that night. I remember when my brother was about to meet a girl for the first time, I caught my mother buying candy for a party, and I said, ‘Ma! You’ve already decided they’re getting engaged?’ But they actually did. They got engaged that night!” Toby said with a laugh.
Wow, I thought to myself. We come from such different worlds.
When I arrived home that night after the bar mitzvah of my boss’s son, I thought to myself how interesting it had been to interact with other Jews – but how strange it was not knowing much at all about their lifestyle.
Growing up as a second-generation Lubavitcher in Houston, the only chassidim to whom I had been exposed were the Chabad rabbis in my community. (And I never met the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who lived in New York from 1941 until his passing in 1994.)
My hometown community is an eclectic mix of observant Jews from various backgrounds, and as a child I was exposed to secular ideas and curriculums. Then, while attending a Lubavitch seminary in Israel, I observed other chassidim from afar.
I soon moved to Crown Heights to live near friends while attending university, and picked up the concentrated Lubavitch culture fairly quickly.
It was only four years later, when working alongside Belz, Satmar, and Bobov chassidim for a magazine based in Boro Park, that I developed an intense curiosity about the customs and lifestyle of these chassidim that seemed so different from my own.
Everything from their pronunciation of the holidays to the different ways they each curled their peyos to the mayonnaise-packed dishes for sale every few shops made me dizzy.
The chassidim around me at work periodically gave me a glimpse into their culture, but all I could see was how vastly theirs differed from mine. Still, I continued to observe them from a distance, figuring they valued their privacy.
Earlier that week I had attended a Satmar wedding. Everything seemed so new and exciting to me, but there was something that bothered me. These are my fellow Jews, I thought. Why do their ways seem so foreign to me?
Separate seating I was used to. The chuppah was traditionally Jewish. The fathers swayed back and forth in deep concentration as the bride approached the groom, stepping to the side as she encircled him seven times. The women looked radiant, angelic.
But some of the customs were, well, different. The mothers walked the bride down to the chuppah with an extra covering on their heads. The bride came down to the wedding reception with a wig on, her hair nowhere to be seen.
I had seen some of the customs before, of course. But there was a certain innocence, a purity I sensed, that made me yearn to know these people better. I looked at the girls around me and I ached inside; I didn’t quite know my own sisters, whom I loved nonetheless.
I decided to spend a Shabbos in Boro Park.
* * * * *
After lighting candles on Friday night, I left the house where I was staying to walk quickly through the raindrops to my co-worker’s house. Every person I passed rushed by me, looking in the other direction.
Soon I realized they were all men, so I should not expect a greeting nor should I offer one – of any kind. Men and women keep to their own gender in this neighborhood, I reminded myself. Greetings cannot be called out like in my hometown. Finally I spotted a woman and called out, “Good Shabbos,” to which she smiled and wished me the same.
A determined knock on the Reichenberg residence yielded soft pattering sounds coming down the steps from within. The door swung open and there was my co-worker’s wife, Zeldy, with a warm smile and big hug for me.
“So glad you made it!” she exclaimed, moving her 16-month-old from one hip to the other. “Yechezkel’s still at shul, but come sit.”
I followed her up the stairs and into a small two-bedroom apartment. The house was warm and cozy, candles flickering on the table and challah warming atop the stove.
Zeldy brought their wedding album to me on the couch and sat beside me as I thumbed through the pages, pausing on each page to take in every detail. I had a question about everything.
“So why is he wearing white socks and he’s wearing black socks?” I asked pointing first to her father and then to her father-in-law. She didn’t seem to mind.
“Why does he wind his peyos around his ears, but Yechezkel tucks his in tight curls behind them?” “You wore a sheitel after your chuppah?” “So you guys hold hands after the chuppah?”
I had so many questions. And I soon learned: It’s a Vizhnitz custom to wind the peyos around the ears and it’s a rebbishe custom of Belz and Satmar to wear the white socks. For years I had thought that many chassidim tuck their pants into their socks, when in actuality they wear shorter pants tied with a ribbon right below the knee.
Fuzzy hats versus furry hats; tall, short, round, flat. It was all very eye opening to me. How different we are, I mused.
We heard faint singing and in walked my co-worker Yechezkel, Zeldy’s husband. Upon his head sat a wide fur hat, a shtreimel, and he shed one bekeshe in exchange for another shiny, black patterned one with a wide belt.
I couldn’t stop staring, and I knew it was impolite, but he looked so calm and serene, the spirit of Shabbos just washing right over him, taking away all the worries that must come along with a growing family and a hectic work schedule.
Yechezkel made Kiddush. I lifted my gaze to watch him – his eyes were squeezed tightly shut – to listen – the melody filling the small, glowing dining room – and to take it all in. No translations, no analysis. Just be present and experience, I told myself. And it was beautiful.
Soon we were sitting and chatting like old friends. The challah was warm and delicious, the dips unique in flavor, the fish sweet and covered in fish goo. That’s when things started to really strike me as different. Zeldy told me she makes the same dishes every single Shabbos, such as chicken soup with sliced radishes on the side. Radishes!
When I asked her about the custom she said, “It must be a Hungarian thing. It’s been in our families forever.” She added, “Wait till tomorrow – you’ll be eating eggs between the fish and meat courses.” I wanted to know where the egg custom originated and her answer was the same: “It’s just tradition…we’ve been doing that for generations.”
The night wore on without our notice; so busy were we in vetting dissimilarity and likeness between our communities.
“What’s the dating process like in your community?” I was asked.
I explained as best as I could that it’s different for everyone. Most Lubavitch singles from out of town move to Crown Heights in order to live near friends and be more available to date other Lubavitchers.
“Who sets you up?”
Way to put a girl on the spot! But I didn’t mind. I tried my best to paint an accurate picture of the shadchan/single relationship. In my situation, I mused, shadchanim hadn’t suggested many boys for me to date as of yet, but some had facilitated shidduchim suggested by friends of mine.
“Sometimes a shidduch is suggested by a host at whose table I’ve eaten on Shabbos; other times a guy who met me at an event asks me out through a friend.”
This seemed to be a novelty to my hosts.
“I don’t think other neighborhoods have as much of a singles scene as Crown Heights,” Yechezkel remarked. I explained that it’s only in recent years that there are events for singles aged 25 and older in Crown Heights; it’s become more accepted over the years. Times have changed.
In other chassidic communities, “singles meals” and “singles events” aren’t the norm. Most singles stick with their family and friends until they are married, and even then they tend to settle nearby.
I imagined what it would be like to live with my family and marry a boy from my neighborhood who grew up just like me – and then live down the block from both of our families. It sounded so simple, so easy, so safe.
How very different are our lifestyles.
Toward the end of our meal, after two and a half hours of “So, in your community do they….” and “Wait, so you don’t have….?” as we dissected each other’s communities and cultures, the couple suggested I catch the end of a rebbe’s tisch a few short blocks away. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but it felt like an adventure and I was there to explore, so off I went.
* * * * *
Sitting in the gallery above, with my nose pressed against the glass overlooking hundreds of Bobover chassidim below, I shivered slightly. I felt out of place. There were only about 15 women on the benches and I had found an empty seat toward the middle where not too many women were seated.
Each woman was covered neck to toe in a refined, black, loose-fitting outfit, a white kerchief tied atop her wig. Feeling a bit out of place, I pulled my shawl tighter and looked around me anxiously.
Finally I caught a woman’s eye; we smiled and wished each other “Good Shabbos.” She had a kind glint in her eye and was looking at me inquisitively, so I decided to make a friend of her.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?” I asked, gesturing toward the Rebbe below, in his shiny gold garb, who was shukling back and forth, waving his arms as he spoke passionately to his people.
The woman moved closer to me. She explained that the Rebbe was speaking to them about the New Year. She patiently translated from Yiddish to English some of what he was imparting to his followers. Then, all at once, the Rebbe stopped and a young man placed a very large gold bowl filled with steaming soup broth and spaghetti before him.
After taking a few bites, the Rebbe pushed the bowl forward and a serving bowl-sized portion of liver was put down in its place. As the Rebbe ate a few bites of the meat, a young man apportioned the soup in the oversized gold bowl into about 20 regular-sized bowls, which were passed to more young men standing on bleachers on either side of a huge table in front of the Rebbe.
One by one, each boy stuck his fingers into the bowl and pulled out what looked to be a thin piece of spaghetti and brought it to his lips before passing the bowl to the next boy in line. This process happened over and over as the Rebbe sampled the meat, some kugels, and finally dried fruit and cake for dessert.
In between his bites, the Rebbe led the congregation in song. With sweeping motions, he riled the crowd, their voices soaring, blending. At one point, the Rebbe looked at each of the chassidim in turn, raising his hand and shaking it in their direction. As his eyes met those of each of his followers for a full moment, allowing a pause in which their eyes locked, they responded in kind, each raising his hand and shaking it in the Rebbe’s direction.
This moment of connection, this purity in their worship of G-d through bonding with their leader, made my insides tremble. Who was this man who could arouse such fervent, simple devotion? Who was this man who elicited such an unwavering reverence for Hashem and His mitzvos? And who were these chassidim who so differed from me?
In that moment I remembered something I had learned many years ago: Be not jealous of another, but for his spiritual height.
I looked at those chassidim and wished so fiercely to be one of them.
If only to have that one moment of physical connection with my Rebbe – the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, the eighteenth anniversary of whose passing we marked this past Shabbos – I’d give anything.
Yonit Tanenbaum is a freelance writer and the founder of YQ Media, a public relations and social media marketing firm in Brooklyn. She spends her time promoting small businesses and non-profit organizations, and teaching English to Jewish high school girls.
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