Our motley crew of revelers, carrying our stereotypes of chasidic Brooklyn with us like so much baggage, step onto the D train, bound for the 19th century. It’s a recent Purim and we’re headed to Borough Park, where chasidim are known to host some of the most raucous festivities to mark the improbable victory over Haman.
The greenhorns among us — professional musicians, Modern Orthodox rabbinical students, teachers and online techies — hail from the Upper West Side. Most of us have never stepped foot in Borough Park, and we sound like it.
“What do we wear?” inquire several, never the types to be preoccupied with their appearances. I explain that we’ll look like outsiders no matter our garb; we opt for dark suits, hoping to be as inconspicuous as possible. Our faiths and levels of religious observance vary, but the common denominator is that we’re all men who believe that our critical views about ultra-Orthodoxy shouldn’t keep us from visiting its communities.
On the train, though, we can’t help ourselves. “Now, are these the type of people who spit on little girls?” asks one friend sarcastically but with a hint of sincere curiosity, referring to last year’s widely-covered incident in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. “Will we see any women?” asks another. “How can you not teach science to your children?”
But Purim is a time of masks and masquerades, when the world is turned topsy-turvy. And so, as the whiskey trickles in, our biases start to melt away. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 38a teaches, “When wine enters, secrets are released.” By the time the D roars into the 55th Street station, we start to sing some chasidic tunes.
For much of the Jewish community, the Brooklyn neighborhood between 11th and 18th avenues and 40th and 60th streets remains a mystery. Yeshivas, kosher restaurants, the synagogues of a number of chasidic sects, markets and banks line the streets as the vernacular becomes Yiddish — even the Metro Card vending machines have a Yiddish option.
Small boys with long side curls are collecting charity as we make our way inside the Stoliner synagogue. The music is blaringly loud klezmer coming from a synthesizer keyboard played by a man with sweat pouring down his face. Before him are hundreds of chasidim dancing in a snake-like formation. We get pulled in by the flow of the crowd. I hold hands with a friend behind me, and a stranger before me, close my eyes, and let the repetitive choreography guide us. When I open my eyes and see the sea of chasidim bobbing before me, the walls lined with holy books, I wonder where I am: a 20-minte minute drive from hipster Brooklyn or 1930s Warsaw?
The Monkatcher rebbe becomes a conductor. There’s a small kapelye, a band of musicians, playing, with a few men singing. We stand on bleachers among chasidim and half-eaten kugel. All eyes are locked on the rebbe sitting near a table, but my eyes fluctuate between him and the musicians. The kapelye adjusts the tempo to the rebbe’s hand gestures and facial expressions, attempting to read his body language. All singing and murmuring comes to a halt when the rebbe recites a blessing. We watch the crowds walk the rebbe home, as throngs of people gather in the streets, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
We make our way to the Bovov synagogue, known for its elaborate Purim shpiels. The hall is the size of a large gym, with hundreds of chasidim inside, and an upstairs room for women onlookers. As we wait for the show to begin and look out over the crowd, we notice a number of people watching us. I schmooze, in Yiddish, with the man next to me. He explains that about 70 percent of the men in attendance are Bobover chasidim, the other 30 percent are like me.
“Like me?” I ask.
“Like us,” he explains. Turns out he’s a chasid, albeit from a different sect. “Look at the socks, the hats,” he says to my friends, explaining that plenty of men are “shul-hopping,” like we are. He asks me about my Yiddish, and I wonder if he thinks I am a lapsed chasid.
The shpiel begins with a klezmer tune as the Purim rebbe appears in a white kapote, or robe, and dramatically lowers his white streimel and replaces it with a … cowboy hat. The spoofs are in Yiddish and carry a moral; the chasidim laugh periodically, turning to check in on the rebbe to see if he’s enjoying the show. His pleasure seems to dictate theirs.
“What power,” my friends say watching the rebbe.
“These are men who control voting blocs,” says a friend, as he wonders what the rebbe leadership would look like if it were chosen by a democratic process, or by merit (OK, so the wine didn’t wash away all our perceived stereotypes). He gets hushed by neighbors on the bleachers.
“Mayriv! Mayriv!” are the calls once we exit the main hall. The shpiel is still going, but it’s past 2 a.m., as a few guys try to arrange a late-night minyan. While the Yiddish separates those of us who are able and unable to converse in it, the Hebrew unites, and not just us, but the generations of people who have prayed before us.
We leave the Bobov beit midrash, or study hall, and slowly make our way to the streets. We are caught in the rain; a chasid grabs us and leads us into the middle of 48th Street for some impromptu dancing. By the end of the night, we’ve been invited to a number of homes as Shabbat guests.
Do we try and rationalize the kindness shown to us and attribute it to the liquor? What does it mean that we live a train ride away from the “fundamentalists” in our own Jewish community? Can you respect another’s lifestyle if you inherently disagree with it?
The questions get lost in a Purim haze as the D train shuttles us back to the Upper West Side.
Avram Mlotek is a second-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale. He was recently named in the The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” section as a leading innovator in Jewish life.