“Until one doesn’t know,” goes the traditional imprecation towards insobriety for Jews celebrating the hanging of Ahashueros’ evil minister Haman and his ten sons. The group had plotted to kill all the Hebrews in Persia, and were foiled only by the intervention of the King’s favorite dancing girl, the Jewess Esther, implored by her cousin, the courtier Mordecai, to whisper sweet nothings into Kingie-poo’s ear. A few words were all it took, and the Jews were saved. Once a year, Jews are commanded, “Drink until you don’t know the difference between the righteous Mordecai and the evil Haman.” In Williamsburg and Borough Park they do it up right.
My Israeli cousin Daniel, just out of the IDF and working as a waiter in Chestnut Hill, PA came up for Shushan Purim, the second day of the early spring holiday. His family, though not apikorsim, non-believers, live on a Labor Zionist kibbutz near the Lebanese border. Participants in many years in pacifist Conservative movement Reconstructionist congregations, they have no reason to go to the orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem or other Israeli cities and settlements, where the females of the family will be disparaged and the men disrespected. At a family bar-mitzvah last fall I encouraged Daniel to come to Hasidic Brooklyn with me to celebrate Esther and Mordecai’s triumph. I love to dance, and all Jewish men are welcome there on this special day.
Looking more like a pair of mismatched hipsters than Jewish wannabes, we sauntered off the #6 train in Manhattan at Spring Street, hoofed down Bowery to Delancey: Daniel, 23, all eyes and ears. The lower east side of Henry Roth and Chaim Potok is long gone; even the Yiddishkayt that remained hanging by a thread into the 70s is almost invisible. I hung us a sharp left onto the bridge, promising him a havdole, a separation, as sharp as that at the Wailing Wall sitting hard by the entrance to the Dome of the Rock.
It was late afternoon as we strolled over the Williamsburg Bridge in our multi-colored knit caps, the chill late winter air putting a spring in our step. We ambled off the pedestrian walkway and headed south on Bedford, across Broadway, the erstwhile dividing line between Jewish Williamsburg and the other world. Down Bedford we traipsed, children in costumes everywhere, baby strollers galore, while from every other street-corner Hasidic pop music blared from the rooftop speakers of kosher Winnebagos, rented for the holiday to bring party-goers from upstate communities down to the tukh, the core of Hasidic revelry.
A few blocks from the bridge we passed 440 Bedford, a nondescript edifice, perhaps 50 feet wide, four stories of 125-year old bricks, dating from the time that tenements were required to have neither windows on the sides of the buildings nor light and air wells. The original apartments were true railroad flats with the only ventilation coming through street and rear windows, many interior rooms fetid and dark. Today 440 houses a small congregation, the Strozhnitzer kehile, T’feres Asher Mordechai, (To the glory of Asher Mordechai), named, I believe after the Grand Rabbi Usher Mordechai Rosenbaum.
Out of the doors of 440 Bedford popped two silk caftan-clad young men, their celebratory shtraymlekh (those round, beaver or sable-trimmed hats worn on festive occasions and high holidays including Shabbes) glistening in the late afternoon sun. Bent on a mission, they lacked the requisite ten men to form a minyan, the legally-required number for full prayers to be recited at the prescribed thrice-daily times. With a bit of desperation in their eyes, Daniel and I were regarded, and then came a hesitant inquiry: “host shoyn gedavent minkhe ?” (Have you already said afternoon prayers?) Apparently the rule is that one can’t be counted towards the requisite ten if one has already done prayed for the afternoon.
Could beggars be choosers? We’d soon see….Though obviously lacking in other Jewish mayles (virtues), one thing was for sure: Daniel and I were white as the driven snow as far as the klotz kashe (the tough question) was concerned. Neither of us had been inside a shul at any time of the day or night in many months, much less earlier that afternoon. Too much information, though; we just answered the question, and soon were let in.
The Strozhnitzer Beys Medresh (house of study) serves the religious needs of many descendants of the survivors of the Romanian / Nazi massacre in Strozhnits, Ukraine, where 250+ of the local Jewry were shot in June, 1941 and placed in a mass grave, as others were herded off to the Transnistria camps. Like a typical yeshiva, the room was stuffed to the gills with long tables and dilapidated chairs of various provenance. Religious texts used for daily prayers lay strewn about and volumes of more arcane religious writings sat on overloaded shelves covering every inch of available wall space.
Though reluctant at first, I accepted the invitation in Yiddish. In we went through the entry hall. But not so fast though: the sidewalk hookers may have been eager to count us in, but just inside I was stopped by another congregant and challenged as not being Jewish. Pointing at my semitic-cast nose, I said “take a look, it’s a noz fun ale nezer, a nose of noses, vu denn (what of it) ?” But it wasn’t enough to quiet the doubts of my interrogator. Ken zayn farshtelt… I was told (It could be a false one, that proboscis of mine). But I insisted , and we were in like Flint, taking our places in an empty row. Almost immediately, prayers began..
Though fluent enough with the prayer books used by Conservative movement Jews as well as Reform, I easily lose my way in the text commonly employed by the orthodox. Though the prayers are familiar, the order is somewhat different and I’m thrown off by the speed and the cantillation employed. Afternoon prayers start with the Amidah, a lengthy set of paragraphs that takes its name from the Hebrew word “standing.” I mumbled the 18 sections, rocking and bowing, doing as the Romans do, but my inability to follow along was soon rendered moot. From the corner of my eye, I’d been watching a particularly inebriated boy. This bokher, a young man, of no more than nineteen, braces still cladding his ill-kept teeth, wore a holiday caftan, gray silk instead of the usual black, with a bright, damask-like pattern. He’d regarded us with scorn from the very start.
I’d thought all was copacetic with our presence in shul, but in the midst of the davening a debate broke out. In Yiddish they thought I couldn’t understand, (or perhaps they didn’t care), Daniel’s and my bona fides were challenged again. The young man yelled to the ostensible prayer leader that we shouldn’t be counted and had no business being there.. A back and forth ensued, ending with a profuse apology issued to no one in particular, what a shandeh (how shameful) it was, said the leader, that guests for the minyan were to be embarassed so. Nisht neytig, I cried out: no need for apologies. The praying continued but not for long.
My eyes cast downward, I had no forewarning. Gvald, I cried as I clutched my groin. From my left a missle had flown across the aisle, a spray bottle full of water tossed grenade style to the left of my balls. Looking up I’d no doubt of who’d done the hefting: the drunken gray-clad youngster was feeling his oats. Shock broke out among the congregation, screams of derision headed his way. Turns out I was not the intended target. Behind me stood a khosid who was talking on his cell-phone in the middle of prayers. Order was regained but not before the aimless plaintiff himself made a call on his phone. I guess the truly pious are exempt from the rules.
Ten minutes later, prayers ended with the kaddish, the traditional verses for the peace of the dead. That I knew by heart and recited. Daniel and I were quickly on our way, running a friendly gauntlet towards the door, each congregant thanking us for joining them and wishing us a Happy Purim. I felt relieved in DMZ air.
For an hour we wandered, taking in the sights and sounds of Williamsburg on what is perhaps the happiest of holidays save only Simkhes Toyreh when Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah, their holiest possession. Up and down Lee Avenue we walked, Daniel’s mouth agape at the strange signs in Hebrew orthography, many a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish, a field day for me, translating the Yiddish for him, and he helping me with the Yeshivish Hebrew with which local broadsides are liberally sprinkled. Then it was time to get on board.
7:00 pm and darkness was falling. Children and their parents were headed homewards, the men now free to begin the beguine. Though a B110 bus roared off as Daniel and I rounded the corner, the wait was a short and rich one. Along came a couple, the wife pushing a stroller. A smile of recognition crossed the handsome young khosid’s face, his wife instantly falling a few feet behind him as he greeted us: “Mir hobn nur vus frier minkhe gedavent !” (We just said afternoon prayers together.) Though a mile from 440 Bedford, the young man recognized us and then we, the same
Try and envision a so-called normal New York street encounter: running into a young family with whom one has shared a police barricade at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It doesn’t translate, I maintain. The expression of welcome, of inclusion in what is ultimately a virtual community is peculiar:. Daven with me and we are brethren once more. Surely my grandparents were orthodox Jews, they think to themselves (and sometimes tell me). I’ve still got a chance to rescue my z’khus, my spiritual account.
Ken Kesey was crazy, it’s well established: the Merry Pranksters had a gas on Furthur, their bus. On Shushan Purim, I feel like Tom Wolfe, riding a ride high on Jewish Electric Kool-Aid. Psychedelia abounds on the private B110, shuttling the orthodox between their Brooklyn abodes. We boarded and paid at Lee and Division. The bus was jam packed and the party took off.
S’iz Purim, gib a shmeykl insisted one elder of Zion: (It’s Purim, so smile!)An old Jew kept intoning to anyone who caught his eye. Exhausted children sat on caftan-clad laps: on Purim even the men could relax and do a little child-care. Meanwhile, at stop after stop, Jews came aboard, the women with baby strollers, remaining unfolded, somehow herded to the back, where at one point no less than ten clogged the aisles. At our final stop in Williamsburg before we boogied onto the expressway towards Borough Park, a turban-clad mom, all of 20 years old, boarded with two children both clutching one of her child-like hands, a third babe in arms held barely aloft. The aisles were jammed, not a seat was empty, but did any of the dozens of seated men in the front offer this beryeh (a capable woman) a seat?. Fortune shined upon me and her: I was seated in the last “men’s” row, and promptly offered my window spot to her, getting up and squeezing past my seat mate, motioning and offering in Yiddish, my place. Slight astonishment greeted my largesse, but she accepted modestly, barely acknowledging my presence much less my act. The Jew beside me hopped up in an instant, and the woman and three children made themselves safe.
Off we hopped when we reached 13th Avenue. Almost everything was shuttered and we were ravenous Light gleamed in one porcelain-tiled eatery. The sign had Daniel instantly laughing: Sushi Meshuneh. Strange Sushi in English. The place was barely open and the menu boring. We decided to hoof it and head south of the border. I know a place on 13th south of the F-train station that probably was serving on a Sunday night. We stepped inside of Vostok’s doors.
Been there for lunch on a random weekday: cold fish par excellence and ambiance on wheels. Sunday night was even more promising: balloons were everywhere. An Uzbeki birthday party was ramping up. The owner, a 50-something man in a black kipah, a simple knitted version of the traditional men’s skullcap, greeted us a bit tentatively at the door. Did Daniel and I know what we were in for? I asked if dinner was being served. We were waved right in.
With a swipe or two from a dubious wash-rag, our Formica dining table was made aright, the Russophone waitress crisply solicitous, no alcohol offered. What the heck are you doing here gleamed from her eyes. We were seated near the entry door, I suppose not to disturb the evanescent party. Alongside us stood three long tables, one piled with prayer books, a character straight out of central casting sitting motionless alongside. In a full, white Uzbeki pate-cover and placquet-less black robe sat Mr. Natural. With his long white beard and olive-toned skin, he might as well have stepped into the boite with a crook from the sheep-pasture hills around Tashkent. The rabbi (it turned out) said not a word and soon made himself scarce as a polyester-suited, middle-aged crooner mounted the stage and started belting out Frank Sinatra-like tunes in Russian with a karaoke machine to his rear. The birthday party’s hostesses, two rotund ladies in their 60s, matched the Soviet-era My Way with toasts that went on (and on and on….)
Food from a former SSR is of one kind: animal protein, then more and more. Shashlik and kofta, beef throat on a skewer. Only some borscht broke the meat-eaters’ spell. Uzbeki round bread and some vodka from my backpack: Daniel and I relaxed as we gorged. We’d arrived in Borough Park too early to dance. Things get cooking well past 9:00 in most shuls; the Purim Shpieler (traditional Purim plays) begin at midnight or more.
Well-nigh comatose with lamb fat, we left Vostok by 9:30, taking our bearings on deserted 13th Avenue. Back and forth we wandered the avenues, first to the Stoliner shul, then Munkacz, then several ones unknown to me. Everywhere we entered was freylekh (jolly); the basement of a girl’s yeshiva, open to all for a now wound-down party, yielded some shmoozing with non-Hasidish young men. All doors were open, all I had to do was ask, particularly in Yiddish, and we were greeted and welcomed. It’s my magic ticket to get through the door. These young guys understood me fine but could not respond in kind. Only the Hasidim learn to speak Yiddish fluently as children.
The inside ground floor rooms of the larger shuls we visited were dominated by huge pipe-work grandstands. Hundreds of young men stood on them waiting for the Rebbe to enter and sit at the head of the tish, the table, where the acolytes would wait for him to bless a giant khallah, (braided bread) hoping to eat the remains from his plate, the shirayim, the leftovers. Upon those lucky ones a special blessing would fall.
Madly swirling, the men in a large shul east of 12th Avenue, grabbed at me and Daniel as we do-see-do’d our partners. Tables were strewn with empty wine bottles, no hard liquor in evidence. Round and round we went,he music unending, Hasidic rock blared at deafening levels: AD D’LO YADA… until you don’t know (the difference between Mordecai and Haman). The words rang out, filling my ears. When Moses came down from the heights of Mount Sinai, there were the Jews, dancing round the Golden Calf. All hell broke loose, but this time the opposite: On Purim Hashem commands his flock to uncork. Thirty minutes and I was exhausted. Sweat poured from my brow, and I’d tired of being grabbed by drunken strangers in their dubious embraces. We hit the bricks and breathed deeply, the cool night air refreshing our brains. I had no idea what was still in store.
Borough Park is a low-rise neighborhood. Even the side-street McMansions built on tiny lots where tear-downs from the 1920s once stood are no more than three stories. Private parties lit up the windows of many two and three-family houses, each glimmering plate glass luring me inside. Halloween-esque creations adorned certain lamp-posts, retelling the fate of the bad guys du jour.
As we sauntered along, I heard some electronica, spied a strobe-lit disco ball crackling with lightning from an otherwise darkened second floor. I stopped and motioned to Daniel. “Should we give it a try?” Two young men in traditional attire stood on the house’s concrete steps at the sidewalk, smoking and talking as we passed by. An open door disclosed a stairway to heaven. “Megn mir arayngeyen?” (May we enter?) I ventured in my politest tone. “Ihr zaynen fun du?” (You’re from around here?) came a polite but firm question. I didn’t dissemble, but pushed a bit forward. “Neyn, ober mir zaynen dokh yidn und avadeh nisht kayn farbrekher.” I shot back.: (No, but we’re certainly Jewish and not criminals.) Again the Yiddish had magical charms. With a smile and a wave we were sent right up and instructed to enjoy ourselves.
The tower of Babel could not have been noisier. Rave and house filled my every pore. The floor-boards groaned in a free-style bedlam. Young men of very Jewish persuasion, but not a caftan in sight, danced feverishly. I was at home. From the corner of the room, a rabbi watched over us, a middle-aged man, his tish loaded not with candlesticks and khallah, but other kley kodesh, (tools of sanctification) in the form of sound boards and speakers, Hashem’s shekhineh (holy presence) roaring forth. From a backroom door at the corner of this disco-converted parlor of the host’s floor-through, a group of young women in colorful dresses stood and mingled, peering into the fun, but forbidden to join. Out on the dance floor scared looks greeted one dervish. Even I was totally fooled. In a babushka and a gray-blue, tightly fitted but otherwise modest straight skirt, a not-so-young, pancake make-up laden brieh (creature of God) danced by herself in a frenzy, fear and condemnation from the onlookers swirling about her. The prize goes to the best drag queen of the evening. I should have asked her if she had lost the beauty contest to Queen Esther and was dancing away her disappointment. King Ahashueros (shades of the Donald…) held a beauty pageant when his queen, Vashti, refused to dance naked for his courtiers. Esther won her place on the throne.
Track after dance track exploded my eardrums, stomping and writhing, I’d dance all night long. Off in an anteroom jello-shots multiplied while onto the sun-porch we were urged by the locals. There a catered spread fit for a Shushan harem was served up by an Hispanic maid. The mix was fantastic, people and procas (stuffed cabbage). I had to enjoy a little bit of all: Chinese dumplings, beef keiebasa, brisket and chulent and salads galore. We fressed and we sampled, on beyond zebra. I name it a smorgas, definitely not bored
Ultimately, finally, we’d had our full serving, so out we stumbled to head back home. Thinking gypsy cabs would be cruising I stood forlornly at curbside on 13th Avenue a good ten minutes. Gornisht. (nothing, absolute zero) came along. My heart full, my desires sated, we clambered up the stairs at New Utrecht and 55th Street, just as a D-train roared out of the station. The chill night air assaulted us as we waited on the wind-swept platform. Inside, though my soul felt toasty warm.
Next year I’m a baln (Yiddish for “you can count me in”). And the next and the next, and all night long. Here’s to Mordecai, Esther and Slivovitz. Ad D’ Lo Yada is my new favorite song.