Saturday, March 22, 2014

After Purim reflections from Monsey and Brooklyn.


The week before Purim, somewhere in the west, I tried to convince a fellow Jew to visit one of the Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn on his trip to NY, which coincided with the day of Purim. I told him, "No matter how much I may try to explain the festivity on the streets of Boro Park or Williamsburg on Purim, there are just no adequate words to describe it."
Many of the Jews from the west never saw a Hasidic person in their lives altogether. For some of them I was the first, which is really an ironic fact. Some of my fellow Jews visited the Holy Land and encountered Hasidim or other Haredim there, but it was rather like a tourist–aborigine type of experience. To fully immerse oneself and participate in the Festival of Purim on the streets or in the better homes and Butei Medrushim in the areas most populated by Haredim in our country, is exceptional. Whoever wants can still find lots of pictures online, but well… it's like seeing the Grand Canyon in a 2-dimensional photo. Haredi neighborhoods are spiritual wonders of the world, and this alone makes them greater than even the most riveting panoramic beauty which, by the way, provides my means of livelihood as I make a living by giving tours to people through the Canyons in the Mountains. But although I love to travel, my family, friends, neighbors and just random fellow Yiden are sorely missed during my time away.
The morning after my arrival in New York I joined a minyan which, when I travel, is rather a luxury for me. In one of mid-sized Hasidic synagogues I davened (prayed) with a ten o’clock minyan, which in this particular synagogue is scheduled every half hour from morning until ten men can no longer be found for a minyan. When a quorum of ten men is no longer available at that location, everyone knows where there are other minyanim just a few streets away. In some other places the morning prayers are conducted all the way to Hatzois – midday or, with shame I have to admit, even after that hour. With shame; for it is prohibited by Shulchan Aruch – the Codex of Jewish Law - to say morning prayers after midday. But in the Hasidishe Velt people have all kinds of life situations and they sometimes break the law in such instances, praying after the prescribed time.
I was there still well before that time but as I said, it was not one of the big Butei Medrushim - maybe two hundred seats in two rooms separated by a removable wall. We got our minyan easily for there were still plenty of individuals and Havrusos – men learning in pairs. To pray with a minyan we need ten men older than bar mitzvah (13) but four of them can be counted even if they are not participating in the prayers. Six must be part of the actual praying group. A few minutes later we got well above the required quorum.
Some of the Yiden who finished a previous minyan sat around the table where they delighted in consuming a big loaf of marble cake while shmoozing – chattering about everything that Hasidim chat about – their Rebbes, work, world politics, etc.
Probably due to the Yom Tov Purim there were more men than usual in that place at the time, including Bucherim – unmarried Yeshiva students. They probably came home from out-of-town Yeshivos and now enjoyed not only the cake and herring with shnapps, but also the exchange of news with their peers from various Yeshivos. On one side of table, an older Hasid in his late thirties was sharing memories from his Yeshiva days with a few Bucherim. Apparently, some of the young students where learning under the guidance of the same Rabbis that he once learned from. The man visibly enjoyed the shmooze with the Bucherim, but he soon departed for whatever occupation he keeps.
We finished our prayers as others were learning or chattering in different spots of the Bais Medrash. I packed my Tallis and Tefilin and walked out to the cold streets of Brooklyn. Around the corner three little girls with their Pushkes were collecting Tzeduka – money for the financially impoverished, or to support their schools. I didn’t read what the purpose of their collection was, as it is usually written on the Tzeduka Pushke – the can with the opening for the money on the top of it. The view of those girls, the oldest not more than perhaps 9 or 10, in the cold and moist weather of NY, melted my heart. Whatever they collected for, it must be worth supporting.
The days around Purim are especially filled with boys and girls collecting everywhere - on the streets, from home to home, in the stores and in synagogues. I mean everywhere, of course, in Jewish neighborhoods. And so, on the day of Purim itself millions of dollars are transferred from hand to hand, from pocket to pocket - and this is only one of the major periods of the Jewish year when money for the needy is given even by those who are themselves less privileged, in even extra amounts, regardless of the routine Tzeduka they give all year round. And then Pesach is yet another occasion to give. Elul – the whole month of Elul. And then Chanukah gelt! These are just a few times that are worthy of mention.
Baruch Hashem I spent a few days with my children and granddaughters. I visited my Rav and participated in a private Seuda – a meal in his house, where we always have arch and interesting discussions with him and his sons and sons in law who are all Magidei Shiur – Teachers of Talmud and Mashgiahim – supervisors of spiritual growth in various Hasidic Yeshivos. Besides some basic hashkafa – life philosophy and current issues which we talked about, I got another glimpse into the present stage of Haredi education in general.
I had a few short hours to take care of some other issues that life on this earth required, but somehow a few of my closest friends managed to get together with me for a meal. This meal was not connected to the festival of Purim as it took place on the evening after Shushan Purim. They caught up with me in my Monsey Shul – synagogue - and convinced me to wash (to eat a meal with bread) to celebrate the occasion of my arrival.
There are not enough words to convey my appreciation for their devotion as they left their various occupations just to shmooze with their old friend. They do it every time I come, but usually they know in advance when I am coming and there are more of my haverim and havrusos – friends and learning partners. This time I called last minute and there were only four of us, not including my host’s boys and girls.
Reb Aizyk the Soifer – scribe was my host. He is one of the greatest people I have ever met. He and his rebetzin and kein ain hara their sixteen children and unspecified number of grandchildren are all amazing individuals. Reb Aizyk can sometimes give two kidushim – meals in the Bais Medrash for the occasion of the birth of a new granddaughter, or attend two brisen - circumcisions of his grandsons, just a few days apart.
His wisdom guided me countless times in life. His way of giving me mussar – ethical instruction - doesn’t sound anything close to criticism or censure. Always dressed in some Mushal – a parable - he makes my brain work intensely to figure out if this is really the reproof I think it is. Not because the message is unclear, but because it is so softly hidden behind the delicate veil of his kind words.
Then there is Reb Mendel. He used to be a Dayan – a judge of rabbinical court in one of the major Hasidic groups of the east coast. He gave up this occupation as his delicate soul couldn’t deal with some of the problems and issues of the world. He knows Talmud by heart but he claims that for this position one must also have extraordinary Koichos – strength.
To give you a glimpse of my friend’s holiness; he is my age, a grandpa already, who grew up here in America. He only just learned from me a few months ago that there are such places as pubs and bars and what people do in those places. You don't believe me? I don’t blame you. But there are people on a level of holiness which most of us cannot even imagine! Like this man, my Rabbi and my friend, who spends his days only involved in learning and doing good deeds of all kinds for his fellow people, supporting his family mostly by tutoring. I consult with him about most of the ideas which I later publicize on this blog and in other places. Of the three friends listed here, it is Reb Mendel's opinion that I take most into consideration, for many reasons. He also sometimes likes to share his thoughts or Hidushim – Torah novelties with me and then tells me "You can use that on your thing on the Internet."
The youngest among us was Reb Yankel, my Tanya havruso from the time when I still resided more in Monsey than anywhere else. Although he never learned English in his school, as it was not allowed for reasons of moral purity in his Moisad – the faction which is led by his father, he was nevertheless able to fluently explain to me the depths of this beautiful Sefer Tanya – (I think 'good book' would be the best translation of the word ‘sefer’) in English rather than in Yiddish, as my articulacy is limited in that language. He is in his early thirties with a few children running around in his house, and yet he is still learning in Kollel – a learning institution for married men. I hope that his brilliant mind will one day serve our people in a much broader sphere.

These are just a few words about the friends whom I met during my visit home. There are still others whom I couldn’t manage to meet, but who are also extraordinary people. What they all have in common is that each of them is struggling toward the same singular goal: to live a life according to the will of their Creator and to ultimately be a better person tomorrow, than they are today.
Matys Weiser

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