For more than a decade the semi-underground haven known as Chulent has served as the second home for young dropouts from New York’s fervently Orthodox communities.
Now, ironically, Chulent itself is homeless.
Until May, Chulent held its revels inside the upstairs room of the historic Millinery Synagogue, led by Rabbi Chaim Shimon Wahrman, in Midtown. According to Chulent founder Isaac Schonfeld, though there had been some past inconclusive discussions about the synagogue’s reclaiming the room for renovation, the reasons for the group’s ultimate ejection from the donated space are not altogether clear, beyond what he characterized as a somewhat clouded dispute about a broken door lock.
The Millinery Synagogue did not return repeated phone calls requesting comment.
“We have a constituency but no resources,” jibed Schonfeld. “The Millinery Synagogue has resources but no constituency.
“Even though we’re mystified and hurt,” he added more somberly, “we’re thankful to the synagogue for giving us a place under its roof these many years.”
During those years the threadbare upstairs room mixed talk (sample topics: anti-Orthodox media bias, religion as enemy of the truth, chasidism and Sufism), inventive and traditional music and holiday-centered events to draw disaffected youth from the area’s chasidic and “black hat” communities. Exemplars of a wider phenomenon of voluntary and forced exile from strongholds of the devout, these displaced young Jews and their kindred castoffs — many walking contradictions unable to close the doors of their heritage completely behind them — have gradually expanded their blip on the Jewish-American social and media radar.
“We’ve always tried to be accepting and nonjudgmental,” said Schonfeld, a 47-year-old bachelor, self-described “shy guy” and a never-deviating observant Jew. “You can bring a ham sandwich. Just don’t leave it on the table.
“We are not God’s policeman.”
Choosing service over sizzle, Chulent counted on word of mouth, generally shunning media attention. (A rare exception was its cooperation with director Jesse Zook Mann’s forthcoming documentary that features several Chulent members, “Punk Jews,” which was featured in these pages last month.) It has no website, though Schonfeld maintains an e-mail contact network.
“Our priority has always been to offer intimacy in a safe place,” said Schonfeld. “We tried to avoid an unwelcome spotlight.”
In more recent years, Chulent has opened its doors not only to lapsed “frummies,” but also practicing Orthodox Jews seeking an artistic or questing vibe off mainstream shul culture’s beaten path, as well as secular, “cultural” Jews. They are some of the very same people you might find at the more liturgically focused open-door conclaves like the Upper West Side’s Carlebach Shul or Jewish Renewal space Romemu or any of the numerous local Chabad Houses.
Through it all Chulent’s mainstay has been its weekly Thursday night get-togethers, an echo of traditional Thursday conversing and learning sessions that have long prevailed among New York’s yeshiva kids. Characteristically balancing the structured with the freeform, the evenings feature a planned agenda or none at all, but always provide a vegan version of the classic Jewish bean-based, all-melding, party pot-au-feu of chulent (hence the group’s handy metaphorical name). The point is to get people into the room and talking — people from some of the city’s most tightly nuclear communities, now painfully adrift and isolated.
Said filmmaker, onetime Crown Heights Lubavitcher yeshiva boy and Chulent veteran Baruch Thaler: “Chulent gave people with similar issues a time and a place to share. It told us we were not alone.”
Said Schonfeld: “Chulent is a supportive community. People in it will help you find a job. They’ll give you a couch if you lose your apartment. They’ll come to your show if you’re an artist or a singer.”
After Chulent’s pioneering emergence, other outlets for the young, venturesome and formerly frum have sprung up. Some are web based like unpious.com, while the private agency Footsteps specializes in the pragmatic tasks of job placement and psychological counseling for the ex-Orthodox.
Chulent’s own extended community holds steady at around 300 devotees.
Since its exit from its synagogue home, Chulent has skipped few beats, holding its gathering in homes and commercial spaces of sympathetic friends.
Medical photographer Mimi Klein has recently opened the doors of her Brooklyn apartment to her fellow “Chulenteers.” Though men outnumber women in the group, Klein, who grew up in Borough Park, said she doesn’t feel the weight of the imbalance.
“It’s a good place for men and women, people from super-religious backgrounds, to learn to communicate, really, for the first time,” she observed. “There can be a little awkwardness, and some of the men’s behavior can border on the inappropriate. But I personally don’t think about it too much.”
Inevitably, some romantic bonding occurs. And, perhaps just as inevitably, many if not most of these relationships founder.
“There are a lot of unresolved issues about where people come from,” said Klein. “And that will be a part of what can get in the way.”
This is not the first turf rift between Chulent and the Millinery Synagogue. In 2007 differences prompted Chulent to leave the Millinery shul for other synagogue space in the East Village. The group carried on inside its new home for more than a year until noise complaints from neighbors, among other issues, drove Chulent full circle back to the Millinery Synagogue.
This migratory pattern has been one constant in the life of Chulent, not unlike the fate of much of its less-than-rooted constituency, if not the tribe at large.
“Being driven from one place to another,” said Schonfeld. “It’s the quintessential Jewish story.”
Chulent’s long, occasionally strange trip began in the late 1990s, inside the Borough Park offices of Schonfeld’s electronics mail-order company, Corporate Raider. Young Orthodox guys in different stages of disaffection from their families and schools hung out, explored common ground and occasionally put some change in their pockets working the service’s phones.
“I really started the business more as a refuge in mind than a moneymaker,” said Schonfeld, citing the Talmudic injunction to provide a community for those without.
The crew, picking up new recruits, bounced around several more or less temporary roosts, most notably a ramshackle apartment on Flatbush’s bustling Church Avenue, before it found what looked like a permanent home at the Millinery Synagogue. Somewhere along the way Schonfeld dropped his mail-order business and the group picked up a name, Chulent.
Despite its stoutly egalitarian mission, a few acknowledged legends have risen from Chulent’s ranks: Levi Okunov, the iconoclastic young clothing designer who made waves with Jewish ritual objects incorporated into his fashions; black-Jewish rapper Y-Love who mixes caustic wit and keening spirituality in his rhymes; and Johnny Abraham, a free-ranging scholar who died, mysteriously and tragically, poring over his books in 2008.
Chulent mixers served as the cradle for Eve Annenberg’s cult-classic Yiddish film version of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Chulent regular Aaron Keller is another émigré from the Lubavitcher stronghold of Crown Heights; the group offered him a harbor from the ritual compulsions of Orthodox life while affording him a space to belt out chasidic zemiros (Jewish hymns) with friends. “Chulent,” said Keller, “is a place where I can more or less be myself.”
He added: “Life without Chulent would be a lot less colorful.”
Chulent’s efforts to avoid close public scrutiny have apparently paid off. Calls to spokespersons for several major Orthodox organizations elicited admissions of sketchy knowledge of the group.
Still, the group has its admirers, as well as detractors.
“Some run-of-the-mill Jews say that Chulent promotes anti-religious activities,” reported Rabbi Naftali Citron, spiritual leader of the Carlebach Shul. Rabbi Citron himself disagrees.
“Chulent offers more of a genuinely neutral ground,” he said. “It’s a warm and welcoming place that meets people on their own terms.”
Defending the importance of alternative institutions like Chulent, he cited the legendary chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who perceived the “evil inclination” haunting traditional gathering places like synagogues.
“So Reb Nachman would go where God was least expected, deep into the forest, to say his prayers,” recounted Rabbi Citron.
“Chulent is really the tip of the iceberg,” he added. “There are thousands of young people from New York’s traditional communities who are struggling.”
Even as Chulent for the moment rides the winds, Schonfeld contemplates the future of what he calls his “disorganization,” in the form of more hands-on services like job brokering and medical help. Or — shades of Ken Kesey and his ’60s Merry Pranskters — “our own traveling Chulent bus.”
“There will always be a need for a place like Chulent, as a refuge not only for people who leave the community, but Jews of all stripes,” he said. “We’re hoping it can become part of a new understanding of a Jew, as expressed in practice and community.”