Until You Do Not Know, Part II: Ad Lo Yada, Ha’kheylek ha’sheyni


Alone, down a darkened block in Brooklyn’s Borough Park I sauntered past midnight, a few weeks ago, unafraid.  Street crime within the eruv, the religious boundaries of this ultra-orthodox nabe, is very low.  To boot, I never feel anxious because I know well the local tongue.  Speaking to myself in Yiddish as I took the holday in, I bathed in the still night time.  Once again it was Purim, the Feast of Lots, and I’d come to make my claim.

Out of nowhere an arm clad in black silk encircled my waist.  Suddenly, this year would be different, another bubble burst, another dream punctured.  Up close and personal I’d learn a new game.

Until one does not know, goes the riff from the Talmud, the sages’ imprecation to the faithful to drink in insensate celebration of the story of Queen Esther and her adoptive father and cousin Mordecai saving the Jews from evil Haman’s murderous plot.

Pieter Pietersz. Lastman – The Triumph of Mordechai

King Ahashueros’ minister and his many sons came close to victory in Persia’s Shushan of old, but ended at the gallows, all strung up.  Drink until you cannot distinguish between Mordecai and Haman is the religious obligation of a Jewish male above bar mitzvah age on Purim, the feast of lots which were cast by Haman to pick a day to carry out his slaughter plot.

“How are you enjoying Purim?” came my new friend’s first salvo, Yiddish-inflected English from a bearded, earlocked face.  Drink having sullied his senses, Zalmen didn’t even blink when I answered him in mellifluous Yiddish.  On we walked, me essaying a decent conversation, he with other things in mind.

“That’s a beautiful ring you have on there,” offered Zalmen with a smile, his arm removed now from my skinny waist. Looking me straight in the eye with a desperate fixation, he searched for something as we traipsed along.  “Where are you going, and where do you live now?”  Nothing was out of bounds if I kept up the pace. “How long are you married?” he questioned me.  I answered politely.  We exchanged agreements on the impurity of popular culture and all things treyf.

Suddenly, though, his hands took a detour, one clasping my left warmly, no tkias kaf, no ritual handshake in his mind.  “What brings you pleasure in life?” I was asked demonstratively.  His name had not been offered yet.  This was all on the  very down low.  Little by little I got the picture.  It was dark.  He was drunk, farshikert.  With a man, a fortiori, not a Hasid, it wouldn’t be such a sin.  Perhaps I’d show him what turns me on, up a dark alley, between one of those many multi-story houses, driveways crammed with baby buggies and discarded packing boxes from junky household furniture…

Zalmen, perhaps 30 years old, is also married.  This he admitted.  But only one child.  I don’t think he’s currently getting laid.  Divorce is difficult in the Hasidic community.  Not unknown but painful.  God knows his complaints.  But one child at his age is strange.  No money for prostitutes either girls or boys, afraid to wander in  his black clothing and hirsute looks outside of Borough Park or Williamsburg, Zalmen’s a prisoner in his own cage.

“What gives me pleasure?” I deflected his inquiry.  “On Purim I come here to drink and dance, in the synagogues and private parties.”  I know a favorite place west of 12th Avenue on 46th or 47th Streets.  He’s coming with me.  “Keep the ball rolling and all will be fine in a public place,” I told myself. It’s edgy commerce but fascinating to manage.  Speaking Yiddish fluently with a native trumps all fears in this race.

Purim parties take many forms, all costumed, from orthodox and heterodox to secular gay.  The choices in New York are limitless, but each year I head to Brooklyn to mix with the Hasidim, to witness the Yiddish-language Purim-shpiln, the traditional plays, usually set in Roman times having zilch to do with Shushan at least in 500 BCE.  Triumph is had against imperial forces though in these plays, like the Maccabean tale, and all melds together as the Jews are saved.  With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khameini on the run this year, and Obama earning points by the bucketful with pro-Israeli Americans, I thought it a particularly resonant time to visit again, taking care with my calendar:  Purim celebrations in Hasidic communities begin on the day of Purim itself, after the previous evening recitation of the Megilat Ester, the scroll of Esther of the Old Testament is read aloud to the assembled multitude with evil Haman’s name booed and groggers, all manner of noise-making devices, traditionally in rattle form, spun violently to curse his name.

Rapidly we walked now, approaching my favored destination. Outside, four little boys blocked our way, dressed in the pirate attire.  I commented on the yam-gazlonim to Zalmen, and received a blank stare.  Watching no Yiddish-language video, reading no worldly literature, he doesn’t know the term commonly used for pirates.  I explained the simplistic combination that forms the term.  Linguistic connections are the pleasure I come seeking.  Zalmen couldn’t be less interested.  He wanted meat.

Into the sanctuary we pushed.  The scene was incredible.  Pipe bleachers filled the space, beteemed with over a thousand of the faithful, dressed identically in long black silk frock coats, beaver-trimmed shtraymeln, hats of wide proportions, and white shirts of varying degrees of cleanliness, black pants and shoes.  Hasidic chants filled the air as the faithful swayed and rocked, the bleachers creeking within and inch of collapse.  A big fat participant, drunk as a lord, grabbed me violently as I approached, swinging me clumsily into a circle-dance, insisting that I mount the bleachers and partake.  At the top of my lungs I yelled over and over, “I can’t, I’m a bit lame.  It would be dangerous.  NO.”

The detachment from him now over, Zalmen approached again, wondering if I would leave or stay.  Suddenly his cell phone buzzed and he excused himself briefly.  For a man on the come, his technique needed polishing.  On your mark, you take no detours.  Inner conflicts ruined his play.  The call ended quickly but not before I’d taken a powder, to the opposite side of the room to observe.

Somehow through it all, I hadn’t felt threatened, even pursued would be too strong a word.  What was really happening, what was being asked of me, all remained nebulous in the conversations, putatively about spiritual and socio-political matters.  Double entendres filled the air.  How to ask and not really say so.  That was this boy’s purpose and his way to live.  Keep up appearances, don’t join the bad team.  Make like you’re Mordecai when Haman’s your game.

After a while, I tired of the action.  There were other parties to source and scenes to observe.  Out I strode into the night air, a sea of black-clad figures hanging outside. As quick as you could say Jack Robinson, though, who should appear?  Zalmen had been waiting outside for my face.  A big grin and a troubled how d’ya do followed.  But I quickly deferred and made clear he understood.  “I’m going off to a private party.  ALONE. Have a happy Purim.”   He blanched but stayed put.

Ad d’lo yada goes the imprecation.  Drink ‘til you’re senseless.  I’ve learned a new take.  I come to Brooklyn ,searching Yiddishkayt and connection.  Usually it works without the underbelly of human-ness exposed beneath the tsitses of the talis-koton, the ritual fringes of the ritual shawl that Hasidic men wear all day long.  In the black clothing and deep knowledge of spirit and Bible, I see and I generalize frumkayt, piousness and decency.  Ad d’lo Yada now tells me it just ain’t so.

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