Into The Promised Land

From a sign on a former warehouse in Williamsburg, now used as a religious academy:

“Danger to Life and Limb” – It is Absolutely Forbidden to Park Here From 800 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. – It is reserved for the Busses of the Talmud Torah”

The Torah says that the land of milk and honey lies thousands of miles east of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. It’s up to each of us, though, to gaze from our chosen mountaintops, out over the fertile plains we long for. For me, an Ashkenazic Jewish boy born and raised in East Tennessee, return from the diaspora required no overseas trip. The Greyhound to New York would do just fine.

I rode the overnight bus to New York in the mid-1960s, once, twice, then for good. I didn’t feel I had a choice. For decades, just being in the City sufficed, among so many Jewish people. Then my need to connect grew even stronger. I sated my desire by fulfilling a life-long dream: learning fluent Yiddish has lit my path anew. So I go often to one of New York’s major Yiddish-speaking enclaves, Borough Park, seeking something I can’t define. Maybe I’ll find it, one day soon. What it is and why I’m drawn.

My wife tells me that learning Yiddish has enlightened and enlarged me in a way that I have been unable to accomplish in English. “You sound so alive, so excited, so happy, when you turn a phrase,” she tells me. “ I love to listen even if I don’t understand each word; I hear and see you in a different way…” Yiddish for me is poetry in motion, a torrent of music and connection with the many things that only God can determine. I end so many English sentences (ostensibly about what we will do together the next day, how we will get to visit with our grown daughters), with “imertsHashem,” with God’s help. This phrase conveys the larger meaning of each utterance, that life is not bashert, no part thereof foreordained. The Yiddish word connects me with uncountable generations of ancestors who knew so well throughout lives of deprivation and random violence what I am only learning at advanced middle age.

I visited the cemetery in my East Tennessee hometown last year, where my father, may his memory be blessed, has lain for sixteen years in the tiny Jewish section. Many others who knew and loved me as a child lie close by. In that small congregation, I felt the warmth and caring of a family, of parents who watch over their children with the same intensity I imagine in the faces of Borough Park fathers and mothers. Though I have no desire to become orthodox, much less Hasidic, and I abjure many of the practices of ultra-observant Jews, nonetheless I am warmed and inspired when I wander in the streets of frum communities. My days in Borough Park and Brooklyn’s orthodox Williamsburg streets surrounded me, as I gazed from a bench near my father’s grave over the few dozen Jewish plots nestled together in kosher ground among the thousands of goyim surrounding them. What a strange place to lie for all eternity… Why did he and my mother flee so far from their Philadelphia home?

It’s late December 1960. Scrubbed little Southern Baptist faces stare wide-eyed at Miss Eula Mae Crabtree, my third grade teacher. They’d never known that I was different, never laid eyes on one of them before. I kept my secret deeply hidden, turning silent at “Christ, our Savior” as we sang verse after verse of Silent Night. I’d sooner have choked to death than say that name. All of a sudden, six foot tall Miss Crabtree singled me out with her hill-country twang: “Benjy, will you please stand up and tell the other children about the Jeeew-ish Chriss-mas ?” Decades passed, but I still burn with shame. Fleeing to New York was the only way to survive. And now I’ve learned what my ancestors would have said to frightened little me had I come home from public school in our Litvak village: nisht gefloygen, nisht geshtoygen, they would have comforted me – He didn’t fly up and he wasn’t nailed up – don’t worry, it’s all entirely untrue…

Since learning Yiddish, I’ve make a habit of going to New York’s Hasidic neighborhoods and nearby waterfronts during the intermediate days of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (hol hamoed Sukkes the period is called). In the streets and by the shore, families observe the holiday’s tradition of enjoying nature together, marveling at God’s many gifts. Street fairs and circuses abound, as well as sex-segregated performances of moralistic tales. This past October, I tried to think ahead for once, how best to enjoy the holiday. On a wall near Thirteenth Avenue, I spied a poster advertising a three-performance run of a play entitled Dos Zaydene Hemdl, “The Little Silk Shirt,” to be performed in Yiddish in a giant auditorium at Brooklyn College. Two performances had already passed, so I decided to try for the final show, late Saturday evening. Tickets were said to be available at electronics emporia and bookstores in many orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, so I put off making a decision until I could discuss it with my wife. Being apart on a Saturday night would have to be a joint decision. Sitting with the few women attending in the segregated vayber benklekh, the women’s seats, would be distasteful to Frances. She’d be in the dark amidst a Babel of Yiddish,and disapproving stares. With her endless generosity, Frances gave me leave.

I decided to avoid a pointless 90-minute round trip the following evening if the show was already sold out, and called the number I’d scribbled down from the theater broadside. The phone recording brought good news: “S’blaybt nor getseylte tikets far mener” – There are only a few tickets left for men . But was there a human being to talk to ? A website to consult ? A Yiddish language Ticketmaster maybe ? Not a chance. Even the vendors in orthodox communities were sold out. The only way to make sure of a seat was to run back out to Borough Park, and I’d better hustle. Shabbes comes early in the autumn. 1:30 p.m. and the gates would close on me. So I jumped in my van and headed out on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway once again, bent on a mission.

After first staring in disbelief, the white shirted yeshiva boy at the gift shop-cum-box office decided to accept my eager request at face value. He stepped into the back of the store and retrieved a well-used white envelope, packed with crumpled greenbacks. Five or six tickets were all that remained. “You have a top price seat for me near the front,
perhaps?” I was careful to employ the formal “you.” Tickets ranged from $29 to $46, and I naively assumed that the mostly lower middle class theatergoers would eschew the high-price seats. Not. Only a few cheap places high up in the balcony remained. The religious significance of the occasion began to sink in. The usual rules of economy were reversed. I took what I could get, telling the young man to stuff the change from the two twenties into the pushkes, the traditional tin charity boxes that lined the counter in his and his neighbors’ stores and adorn many ao orthodox kitchen table. Out I ran with my prize. A glitter-rimmed, pink-banded piece of stiff paper would take me where I wanted to go.

That Friday evening and the following Sabbath day I felt the promise of a spiritual experience aimed for by the truly religious. On Shabbes, observant Jews do no work, carry no money, and concentrate as much as humanly possible on awareness of God’s presence all about. Appreciation that life is not controlled by man, that so much is beyond our imagination, much less our control, is all important. As the hours passed, I meditated over and over on what was coming, this opportunity to immerse myself deeply in a true Yiddish-speaking environment, where the language is neither an academic experience nor a recreation. Just what one speaks, day in day out. I headed out to Brooklyn that Saturday at sunset, clutching my precious ticket in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, preparing myself for another try.

Though certain that the show would not start anywhere near on time, I jogged the few blocks from my parking spot to the Brooklyn College campus, overwhelmed with excitement. The concession counter inside the lobby bustled with activity. Black-clad teenage boys shouted and pushed, grabbing candy in sealed packages to sustain them through what promised to be a long evening’s entertainment. I’d brought my own sweets, though, ones these youngsters could not enjoy. Yiddish is just a language to these people, for the most part, the medium of daily commerce. Prohibited from reading most classic Yiddish literature because of its wordly impurities, proscribed by strict Rabbis from attending the so-called mainstream offerings of Yiddish song and drama in the New York area, Hasidim are denied the opportunity to taste what I consider to be the choicest fruit of the language. But I carry a supply of treasure in my own kit bag. It holds my command of literary Yiddish. No Rabbi looks over my shoulder, no avenging angel looms behind me. It’s like a prayer to me.

A few minutes remained before the scheduled start. I decided to use them wisely and make myself comfortable. The men’s restroom turned out to be its own one-acter. Standing at the row of urinals was as good as using the john at Yankee Stadium. When the Bombers hold a big lead in the top of the ninth, the lines for the men’s room are out the door. Guys wait ten deep behind each piece of porcelain. One hunk of manhood is more beer-soused than the next. Wisecracks assault the man at the plate, “Wussamattuh, big guy? Havin’ some trouble findin’ it?” Average time with your unit out: sixty seconds. Then the elaborate hitching up. A stop at the wash-stand is only for sissies.

For my Hasidic brothers in similar need, though, the process is completely different. Religious men are, in general, very uncomfortable with their own bodies, all the more so with their genitals. Whether it’s sex or just oyspishen, handling your member is done briefly, and certainly without a look down there. At the theater, no one stood behind anyone, no one went near anyone else; no one said a single word. Clusters of men gathered at the doorway, waiting a turn at the gleaming fonts. Furtive glances filled the air, dicks were barely touched. One by one they rushed up, did their business and departed. Elapsed time per squirt: fifteen seconds, max. NO ONE could possibly piss so quickly. But 100% washed their hands, many taking longer at the sink than at the urinal.

I stepped up to bat, and the surreptitious looks I got darn near constricted me. My long tresses must have done them in. It’s a wonder a mashgiakh, a kosher certification expert, wasn’t summoned after I flushed. The porcelain probably had to be blessed to make it fit for further use. What if my bris was performed by a Reform moyel? (see f/n 1 below)

I high-tailed it out of there, brushing by a gaggle of boys who wore astonished looks. Up the stairs I climbed, one flight after another, until I finally reached the upper balcony entrance doors. After some effort, I found my seat in the last row. A sea of black-hatted disarray stretched below me. Not a woman was in sight. Outside I’d seen a few teenage girls furtively smoking and talking with their male friends. The entry lobby was divided by a gigantic floor to ceiling white curtain, the mekhitse, divided in the middle to create a clandestine entrance to the tiny women’s section in the theater. A stern-looking shoymer, a chaperone, watched over the part in the folds to prevent illegal mingling. From my seat I couldn’t see a trace of the women’s section.

9:30 p.m. was advertised as show time, and I made sure to be prompt so as not to miss even a crumb. What a joke that was. The appointed hour came and went. 9:45, 10:00, and no sign of settling down. Up on stage, men with their coats off and their kipot askew ran back and forth, adjusting video cameras, arguing over heaven knows what. At 10:15, with most of the audience inside the auditorium (albeit unseated) Hasidic rock music began to blare. The audience went wild, clapping and cheering as if the late, great Rebbe, Lubavitch Reb Schneerson, was expected on a return visit from yener velt, the other world. Then an announcement boomed out: Hoshever fraynd, mir bagrisn aykh tsu undzer vorshtellung . . . Valued friends: we welcome you to our presentation. The show would start in just a few minutes. . .

To my left and in front of me sat a half-dozen teenage religious day school students. None had even a sprout of a beard, and few wore payes. These boys attend modern orthodox yeshives in Brooklyn, and although they speak Yiddish poorly, if at all, they nonetheless comprehend it. I exchanged a few polite sentences, but we soon fell silent. Whether the age difference made it tough to converse or simply my being a fremder, someone from outside the culture, our interchange soon failed, and the boys moved down to be with the rest of their compatriots.

Two minutes later an overweight, bearded man strode through the entrance nearest me and rushed into his seat. Dressed in full Hasidic garb but a bit short on personal hygiene, the thirty-ish fellow clutched a wrinkled black plastic bag. With the left he wiped the sweat off his brow. Rivulets ran down onto the crooked glasses perched on his nose. Once he settled in, the contents of the black sack were revealed: a new, expensive looking pair of binoculars emerged together with a crumpled instruction booklet.
My neighbor grasped the specs, first with one hand and then the other, tentatively raising them to his eyes to peer at the stage. Each time, nothing. A blank stare of incomprehension. Down the instrument went and back up. Again nothing. The instructions were consulted. The language gap between English, translated from Chinese by a factory manual writer, and this fellow’s Yiddish train of thought was too much for me to bear. I leaned over, tapped my neighbor on the shoulder, and told him politely in Yiddish to look through the other end of the binocs. Perhaps he’d have better luck. The fellow took a shot at it, smiled with joy, and bestowed upon me his profuse thanks (with apologies for being so naive). I closed my eyes and tried to remember how old I was when I first learned of the magic residing between the two ends of a pair of binoculars.

Again the balcony door opened. Another young Hasid came up the stairs, looking wildly to the left and to the right, anxious to take his seat before the show started. Sure enough, he plunked himself down next to me, though first recoiling at the sight of the shtik treyf, the piece of impurity, fated to be his seatmate for the evening. Dressed in a long, dull kapote and black slacks, a not too recently laundered long-sleeve white shirt, white socks and scuffed black dress shoes, the young man looked like he stepped straight out of a 19th century study hall. He settled uncomfortably beside me, and removed his broad brimmed black hat.

We must have made quite a sight, me looking like some cleanly dressed refugee from Tompkins Square Park, and my neighbor in full regalia, oysgeputzt, as his people say. This boy had two of the longest, most elaborately curled and beautifully coiffed, blond silk payes I have ever seen. But the hairstyle was not about attracting members of the opposite sex. Wearing payes is a mitsveh, a commandment. The more you do it up, the greater your zkhus, your spiritual account will increase, towards ultimate weighing in oylem habe, the world to come.

I took a breath and launched right in. “Sholem Aleykhem,” I offered, and got the customary mirror reply. But it didn’t take long for my seatmate to go on the offensive. With an insistent “Vi bistu du?” the pastiest of faces held me to account: “What the bleep are you DOING here?” is a serviceable translation of the young man’s politesse. But nothing I said would satisfy this bokher. In a world clothed in black and white, gray cannot exist. All my plopl, my careless rant, about being a Yiddishist, being interested in all manner of theater pieces done in my favorite language, it was all puste reyd to this fellow: empty talk. We were on to the next and main subject forthwith.

His arms and neck gyrating wildly, the astonished boy laid into me with the klotz kashe, the difficult question. I’ve come to expect it in all extended interchanges, the inquiry that interests them most. First one way, then another, (due to my inability to comprehend the verb this boy used in his first formulation), I was asked to furnish the details of my personal financial statement to a complete stranger. “Vi basheftigstu?” (How are you employed?) came out, over and over, and when three repetitions and my blank stares and requests for slower pronunciation had gotten him good and enraged, my interrogator used a phrase I recognized: “Vi nemstu parnose?” {How is it you make a living?). I understood those words just fine, but it pleased him not a bit when he heard that I was retired at an obviously young age. “Host shoyn genig gelt? (“You have enough money, ALREADY?”) He stared with incredulity as his eyes bugged out.

For a people so deeply involved in the world of the spirit, this obsession with others’ pocket linings is strange to me, but it’s a totally predictable part of my journey. I, like so many of the grown men in the auditorium, have no visible means of support, and live my life studying and seeking enlightenment. They go on foot, I by bike. They to yeshives and I to the New York Public Library. Our heads are both in the clouds, though, chasing wonder. Somehow, on some level, despite the total disconnect in dress and religious observance, I know we’re close, and I’m at the ready with as oblique but polite an answer a guy can muster who is obviously not from the frum world. But my neighbor didn’t buy my story. Ashmoday himself might as well have been his neighbor in our narrow row. (see footnote 2 below) My new acquaintance was not to last: the boy jumped the seat backs in front of us forthwith, brushing my bacon-bit breath from his dandruff-coated collar.

Twenty minutes of Hasidic folk-rock later, the lights finally dimmed, and we were told to please turn off all cell-phones, pagers, and other electronic devices. Not since the days of the golden calf have Jewish people so roundly and soundly disobeyed a commandment. Despite the cacophony of ring-tones, darkness filled the auditorium, and the curtain rose. Sitting in a stone dwelling, Yankev Avinu, the patriarch Jacob of Genesis, bent over a table, squinting his dim eyes at a scroll. Dressed in Bedouin attire, our holy ancestor consulted with his man-servant over what to do about the fighting among his twelve sons. The play progressed in a Yiddish so thickly accented I could barely understand it, one scene more wooden than the next. Production values and thespian skills were of no concern to this audience, though. Each entrance of even a minor Old Testament figure was greeted with joyous hooting and applause. Again the stadium came to mind. Root, root, root for the home team.

Jacob’s manservant provided the strangest counterpoint. The authors of the script had improved on the traditional story in many places, carefully announcing at the outset that the version presented was not intended to portray what actually occurred nor be totally faithful to the holy words vos shteyt in posek geshribn, those written in the holy verses themselves. Fartaysht and farbessert ruled the day: the drama was translated into Yiddish and improved, which in this case meant the confabulation of the story of Joseph and his brothers with Grampa from the TV program “Hee Haw.” A witless ancient bumbler in bib overalls speaking Galitzianer Yiddish a mile a minute was interjected into desert scenes at his master Jacob’s side as if nothing could be more plausible. Had women been permitted on stage, Minnie Pearl would have stepped from the wings as a housemaid, price-tag still dangling from her new straw hat. Yiddish, English, what’s the difference : the distance between poor folks in the hills of my childhood Appalachia and the Polish shtetl people in front of me amounts to a mere katzen-shpring, the leap of a cat.

I tried my best, now alone in my row, straining to understand the actors’ words, watching dramatic technique straight from a typical high-school play. But the clock got the better of me. Half-past midnight rolled around, and we’d made it through 30% of the scenes listed in the program. I was exhausted. Few new opportunities would present themselves to interact with my fellow theatergoers, or so it seemed. A kind of quarantine zone had formed around me. I felt a little defeated, but glad I’d tried. This promised land certainly didn’t measure up to the one that had beckoned to me from my personal Mount Nebo. I slipped out the balcony doors unnoticed, and headed down into the chilly black night. Wearily, I stumbled down Nostrand Avenue, alone and confused, condemned again to only look upon Canaan from a distance.

Maybe it will come to me one day, why I love to keep trying, to approach and involve myself in interactions with native Yiddish speakers, how it acts as a palliative for my soul. Each time I try, though, for better or worse, I know I feel better than I did in days gone by. That graveyard in the Appalachian foothills sat nearly empty forty-six years ago while I did Miss Crabtree’s bidding, trying my best to relate the Maccabean tale. The few stones set in the fescued burying ground bore names I didn’t know. Back then, the yizkor plaque in our shul, the bronze tablet of remembrance, hung virtually empty on the sanctuary wall. The sockets for electric lamps by each blank name strip stared creepily at me while I fidgeted through services on Friday night before we got to the cake and grape juice happy ending.

The cemetery section is well-tenanted now, and the words of the kaddish, the prayer for the dead, are heard every Shabbes at Temple Beth-el. I walk the rows and read the names in disbelief during my visits, laying a pebble on the graves of those I loved, warding off with magic the evil spirits that might steal my mind. But in my appointed task, that of living and dying, I’ve taken on a more powerful tool than a mere rock. Language is lighter than a feather but mightier than a stone, easier to wield a thousand-fold.
Learning Yiddish will entitle me to a proper Jewish burial, even though I do not observe all of God’s commandments, despite the theater-goers avoiding me. My grave will now be where it should, among Jewish people, in sanctified ground, nisht hintern ployt: not under the fence near suicides and ex-communicants. Soon one day I’ll take my rest, and then no longer be alone. When I arrive in the world to come, I’ll talk and joke in the language of my forefathers. God will listen and I’ll be blessed.


Footnote 1: The Jewish rite of circumcision, the bris, short for bris milah, the covenant of the word, is performed on Jewish male infants in memory of Abraham’s promise given to God at the altar where Isaac was to be sacrificed. The surgical procedure is performed by a moyel, a man trained in religious as well as applicable medical technique.

Footnote 2: Ashmoday (pronounced ah-shmo-dye) is one of the many Hebrew names for Satan, taken from a three letter Hebrew root that pertains to annihilation. The great annihilator does countless evil deeds; likewise the infinitive of the reflexive Yiddish verb employed for a Jew who converts to Christianity is shmadn zikh, literally to annihilate oneself.

Note on transliteration:

In transliterating the Yiddish words above, I have used the system devised by YIVO, the pre-eminent secular Yiddish language cultural and linguistic organization, founded in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the late 1920s, and transplanted to New York in 1940. The overwhelming majority of modern academic Yiddishists employ this transliteration system, known to them as “di klal transliteratsiye system,” the rulebook transliteration system

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