A visit to Crown Heights
My wife had arranged a tour of the Lubavitch-Chasidic communirty in Crown Heights Brooklyn .I was aware of the Chasidic movement and had encountered Chasidic Jews in various sections of New York City, Philadelphia, and other cities. I had seen the men with dark suits, long beards, and braided hair hanging from their temples.. I knew that the movement had started in the late eighteenth century in Poland and had spread to the United States and other countries. I had seen references to the founder of the movement , the Ba'al Shem Tov, who taught that G-d should be served with joy. I had seen that joy expressed in the exuberant dancing at Chasidic weddings and certain religious festivals. That was the extent of my knowledge.
A forty-five minute ride on the Seventh Avenue Subway from mid-town Manhattan brought us to Crown Heights. A few short blocks along Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway housed about 15,000 people who lived and dressed in ways similar to that of the group who uprooted themselves from their village in Russia to escape persecution in 1950
. The unshaven beards of the adult men, their life of study and prayer, and the modest coverings and wigs of the women, from neck to toe, seem a total anachronism to me in 2008, in an age of television, Internet, videogames, cell phones, and women's liberation.
We meet the Rabbi
We met Rabbi Isaac Ginsberg in his office in the community library. It was his job to handle public relations and to greet visitors.
'Rabbi, it is a pleasure to meet you," I began. We are eager to learn about Chasidic life. This is my wife, Joyce." Before I had time to warn her, Joyce reached out to shake his hand. The Rabbi jumped back."We must not touch a woman. It is forbidden." Joyce quickly apologized.
"So, by your name I assume you are Jewish," the rabbi began.
"I am. My wife is not'"
"I'm a shiksa," she offered.
Your Hebrew name is..." he asked me.
"Then that is what I will call you. You were bar mitzvah?"
"I was but I am no longer observant."
"That is unfortunate. What do you do for a living...a teacher?
"I am a psychologist."
"They do G-d's work also. Why are you interested in Chasidism?"
"I have an intellectual interest, I am interested in philosophy. I have read of Maimonides and other Jewish schols. I wish to know more."
"You brought a yarmulka? We will visit the synagogue., Your head must be covered. For Gentiles it doesn't matter."
"Will a basebvall cap do?"
"That us perfectly acceptable."
"What does Chasid mean?"
It derives from a Hebrew word meaning piety or loving kindness."
"But there are different groups of Chasidic people, are there not?"
Yes. Our foundimg father was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer."
The B'al Shem Tov?"
"Yes. We ae the Chabad-Lubavitch, one of the largest movements with over 200,000 adherents world wide. Our movement took its name froim Lyubavichi, a Russian town that served as our headquarters for over a hundred years. Our headquarters is now here in Crown Heights. We will visit it but we will start with our synagogue.".
When we arrived at the synagogue the rabbi inroduced us to a young woman who escorted Joyce upstairs. Women are not allowed to enter the main chapel but may glimpse below over a railing. The synagogue was like no other I had ever seen before. There was no service going on but the huge room was filled with men in prayer shawls (tallises) praying or studying. Those praying sat on benches and rocked back and forth in the traditiuonal manner. "Like a flame burning," the rabbi explained. Some approached us with their hands out asking for charity. Some were wrapping their arms and head with tsvillan, phikadactyles. The head wrapping contained a small, wooden black box enclosing sacred writings from the Torah. I too wore them, to say a prayer each morning, for a short time after my bar mitzvah. "He thinks there is still hope for, me," I told myself.
'Rabbi," i asked, "What do children study in school?"
"They study Torah and its commentaries. One page of the sacred writing can take an entire year to fully understand. We study our whole lives."
"And girls, do they study as well?"
"They are often better scholars than the boys."
"They tackle philosophical issues, do they not--ethics, morality, the meaning of life?"
"So do they also study traditional philosophers- Plato., Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant?"
"They do not."
"But surely they are important. Why not?
"Perhaps those thinkers had important insights but they are only approximations of the truth. The Torah is the word of G-d. Why bother with poorer substitutes?"
"Rabbi, I noticed the faces of men and young boys. They are pale, pasty.
"They spend their time studing, not playing outside. And they don't get skin diseases or need to see the dermtologist."
I was filled with questions as we toured the community. We passed the mikva, a ritual bath where women go each,month to cleanse themselves after their menstrual period. We were shown the place where old Torahs are repaired, a time consuming job but vital. When Torahs are too damaged to be salvaged they are given a religious burial. We visited the Lubavitch World Headquarters preserving the history of the movement and the writings of its early rabbis. These scrolls were smuggled out of Russia under the noses of the NKVD. Capture would have meant torture and certain death.
Why do you do this--conduct tours, I mean? Are you seeking converts?
"Not at all. If you wanted to convert to Chasidism I would try to talk you out of it. You don't need to be Chasidic to get to Heaven. There are only seven rules for entrance to Heaven. We need to follow over 600 rules."
"You seem to be different from the others here...more worldly."
"I was not born into a Chasiidic family. I know about Madonna, Briitanny Spears, the stock market."
"Yet your people are not allowed access to the media."
"We have no TV, no radios, no Internet."
"But you have a website. That's how we learned about your tours"
"We want others to know about us. Yes, we have a website and people like myself to take care of it."
"Isn't that a contradiction?
"So, do you vote...form political opinions?
"We voted in the last election. W elect a council that remains informed and tells us how to vote. We all vote the same."
"And what about work? I've seen Chasidic men on the subways and in the jewerlry district."
"We work because we must support ourselves, like everyone else. But we do not let work consume us. If we can get by on five hours of work, why work eight hours?
"It is like a time warp here. Things have not changed in hundreds of years"
"Tradition. Like "Fiddler on the roof." It is G-d's wish that we preserve our ways."
"G-d does not want you to progress?"
"We do not judge you. For us the past lives on."
"And how do you handle persecution, prejudice, aggression, wars? You are a peaceful people. Do you ever fight back?"
"We look to G-d for guidance."
Excerpted from: "Finding Jackson" (Publish America); "Nightmare" (Create Space) by the author.
See also: Psychmarv: Bronx apartment, circa 1935-1950; Bronx School, circa 1938-1950