Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hasidic Crown Heights

After reading in the news about the Crown Heights Hasidic Jewish Tours last week, I decided to embark myself. Advertised as a three-hour tour, get ready for something more like a jam-packed five hours, as knowledgeable and generous rabbi guides lead you through a world ancient and Mittel-European.

In an uncertain time, especially, this tour through Hasidic Crown Heights can be grounding. You enter another country, where the people are thinking and behaving differently, beyond the vagaries of the economy and the allure of conspicuous consumption. To take this tour is to step outside of your life for a day and to see another way.

First we got a history lesson in the Rebbes Library, a room filled with antique books and documents belonging to the Rebbes of Lubavitch, and received a frank discussion of marital relations in the women's mikvah, where wives go at night to cleanse and purify after their menstrual cycle. But the most impressive moments were spent at Congregation Lubavitch, the community's synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway.

The women in our group went upstairs and the men went down into the main room of the shul, a hive of activity, filled with men and boys in study and prayer. Books littered the tables. Congregants wrapped their arms and heads in the leather straps of Tefillin, a leather box that holds a holy scroll.

If you are a Jewish man on this tour, someone will be happy to wrap the Tefillin to your arm and head, as Rabbi Schneerson said, "once a Jew wears Tefillin on his head--even one time in his life--he falls into a different category as a Jew." Or, as our tour guide Rabbi Epstein told us, to put on the Tefillin is to mainline a Jewish "booster shot."

The Tefillin are created at the neighborhood Hasofer. Here, in a room smelling strongly of leather and black paint, we saw how the boxes are made from kosher hides and filled with handwritten parchment scrolls. Our guide held in his hand miniature Tefillin that were made small enough to be smuggled into Nazi concentration camps so that Jewish prisoners could stay better connected to their God.

Also at the Hasofer we watched a scribe at work repairing a 100-year-old Torah scroll. Words and their letters are of extreme importance in Judaism. If one letter in the Torah is broken, it cannot be uttered. The scribe, with black ink, went line by line along the parchment, filling in the broken spaces. There are over 300,000 letters he must inspect.

Whatever your personal feelings about organized religion, you cannot deny the poignancy of spending a day in the presence of deeply devout people. Everything they do, every thought they think, is directed to one place. And all of it is done with intention. This word came up frequently in the tour. The scribe's mind must be filled with intention throughout every stroke of his pen. If a scroll is not written with intention (each word must be looked at, spoken, written, and looked at again) it will not be imbued with holy power.

This intention acts like a walking meditation. The mind is controlled and energy is channelled upwards. The animal side of man is bound in leather straps. Love and fear keep him on the path. Call it repression, obsession, an omnipotent fantasy, but you cannot be left unimpressed with the depth and passion of this way of living.

Whose life could not benefit from a little more mindful intention?

Tomorrow: The Matzoh Bakery


john said...

beautifully done JM

Barbara L. Hanson said...

I think I'll wait for the annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams event in June; less religion, more food!

ShatteredYarmulke said...

You gonna do a piece about the Shmira Patrol?

J. said...

As a Jew and a fan of your blog, allow me to say, Jesus F'in Christ, Jeremiah! Waxing poetic over these bearded Rush Limbaughs? The Hasidim are the antithesis of the New York City community you hope to see revived. They buy real estate and sell only to other Hasidim. They treat interlopers in their neighborhood like vermin. They are dinosaurs, pining for the days of the First Temple the way your Wall Street yunnies long for the Reagan Era. Go ahead and visit them, New York's very own Amish! But rest assured they were glad to see you go.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i'm not saying i agree with their politics, but i appreciate the seriousness with which they approach study and life. the tour was a fascinating experience and a glimpse into an otherwise rarely seen way of new york life.

Anonymous said...

The treatment afforded here is perfectly consistent with the rest of this blog. The exotic gets fetishized, and the familiar demonized. Thus, the orthodox are written about in respectful tones, and white kids from the suburbs who work desk jobs are called soulless and destroyers. Of course, Jeremiah would never write like this about some megachurch in Dallas, even though those zealots would find a lot in common with the ones described here. It's must easier to apply an aesthetic filter than a substantive one.

I guess one can try and conjure up a more symphathetic interpretation. Jeremiah is reverent and respectful because these people were here before he got here, from NJ or Connecticut or Ohio or something. But then again, so were the yuppies. This whole city was built on money, business and hustle, not on a desire to maintain grit and "character" and generally perpetuate the conditions of two decades ago. Without money, finance and whatever the yuppies of previous eras were called, the city would look nothing like it does now. Even those tenements that you love so much were once built by "greedy developers" with no sense of proportion or whatever.

My favorite recent case is the DKNY mural. Heck, I'll be sad to see it go, I associate it with good times. But with this one, I actually remember it going up, and people like Jeremiah screamed bloody murder back then. Now, they are screaming that someone wants to replace DKNY with Hollister. It's all such a joke.

Jill said...

Wow that was really fascinating, I would like to read more. I remember going on a tour of a matzoh factory in the Lower East Side sometime around 1973, and the tone you describe was just the same.

Jeremiah Moss said...

if the yunnies all decide to move to some enclave in the outer boroughs and create an intricate, ritualistic society based on mystical and moral beliefs, and then if they decide to give tours to interested outsiders, i'll happily go on that tour and probably would find it fascinating and enlightening.

in fact, that all sounds like a pretty good idea.

Brooklyn AIr COnditioning said...

Very cool. Sounds like a very interesting and informative tour.

Ed said...

If the city got an influx of several hundred thousand Hasidic Jews, who were wealthy (or leveraged) enough to outbid the locals and drive up real estate prices, and take over most of the neighborhoods in the center of the city, believe me I would get pretty upset about them.

Likewise if the yunnie phenomenon was just confined to, for example, Park Slope it wouldn't have been a big deal. Though there is the additional factor that you have never had to travel far in the US if you want to see yunnie culture, they are what people in the old days called "babbits".

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I am conflicted about the Hasidim. On the one hand, I appreciate how they keep things very old world in Boro Park and similar places. On the other hand, I often feel that they are not very warm to outsiders, even other Jews, unless you are paying money to go on a tour with them. But that doesn't take away from the fact that this was a very lovely post indeed. (:

Postcards From New York said...

Loved the post! I was one of the folks on the tour, after reading many of the comments I can only say, take the tour. It will give you an completely different take than the one you have on the Hasidim, whether that is positive or negative. There is a joy and camaraderie in this community that should be experienced upclose.

Anonymous said...

I'm a non-jew white. I'm fascinated by the Hasidim and have read a lot of books and own DVDs like "A life Apart." I'm likewise fascinated by the Amish. Two reasons: They are like living museums, and important and relevant to humanity for the same reasons that museums are.
Secondly: I lost my parents at 14 years. I remember the sense of family and belonging and rituals, even of a middle class white family in the 60s. My fascination with the Hasidim is like a kid pressing its nose against the glass of a sweet shop. They have what I lost and miss - and everybody else takes for granted.
It's odd that criticism and ridicule of the Hasidim and Amish is perfectly OK. Yet, despite poverty, albeit self-imposed, they are otherwise successful communities with low crime rates, and high on self-reliance and other values prized by modern society.
However, you're considered akin to Hitler if you were to criticize failed communities with high crime rates, drug abuse, dysfunctional families or non-families where individuals just wander around and scavenge, with no sense of community other than a shared hatred of whoever they can blame for their blighted lives.

JAZ said...

Wow, what a great piece. Thanks to the previous commenter for bumping this! It's a great look into a part of NYC's tradition and history that most of us don't get a chance to ever see.

As someone who is in no way religious, I think it's unfortunate that people seem to have such difficulty taking the story for what it is, and are instead trying to squeeze in their own feelings on religion, politics, etc. And the comments re: relating them to yunnies, etc. are particularly baffling.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks JAZ. it's a fantastic tour, inexpensive, and i recommend it to anyone. here's the other post on it:


Brendan said...

I've also always been fascinated by the Hasidim. I do think we have to guard against a tendency to fetishize them as colorful exotics, and to overlook the dark side of this kind of religious fanaticism and attendant social dysfunction. If there were large Arab communities in Brooklyn treating women the way the Hasidim do, the media would be freaking out non-stop about shariah law in the America. Other communities that rely as heavily on public assistance as the Hasidim are already routinely demonized.

I'm not saying that we as outsiders are called upon to render some kind of verdict on Hasidic Judaism, but treating them as quaint local color doesn't really acknowledge their humanity either.

lauran said...

there are many different groups of hasidim. sects w/in sects, all w/different rules. i lived w/them in their homes. also & studied w/them in the old city in jerusalem. if anyone is interested (even a non jew), get in touch w/your local LUBAVITCH group. personally it is no my cup of tea. i remember them from boro park when i would visit my grandparents. my grandfather was a custom tailor he made those long silk & wool coats. they were his clients. all that glitters is not gold. i wont tell the "other side"-