A Journey Through Hasidic Jewish Brooklyn
The Fellowship | November 6, 2019
I had one day left in New York and I wasn’t sure what to do. I had free tickets to a popular talk show – I wasn’t super excited about it, but it was something to do. And then I saw on AirBNB (an app that lets you rent rooms and take tours from locals in different cities) a tour called “Hasidic Brooklyn”. The description said: “Join a rabbi for a deeper exploration of Hasidic Jewish life in Brooklyn.” I tossed my talk show tickets aside and knew what I wanted to do with my last day in New York!
Stop One: A Chat With Rabbi Manis Friedman
Yoni Katz, our tour guide for the afternoon, first had us sit down with the renowned Rabbi Manis Friedman, a Hasidic scholar, author, and celebrity in the Hasidic world. He was dressed very casually, with his hat and long beard, looking like a storybook picture of a wise man. We were encouraged to ask him anything we wanted about Judaism, his life … anything. After fielding some questions with humor and depth, he ended up speaking (part of his talk is on the video above) mainly on the idea of purpose.
The rabbi emphasized that we all were created by God for a specific purpose, with a calling to make the world better. He encouraged us not to worry about “being religious,” but to find out what God’s purpose is for us and set about fulfilling it. He mentioned how he believed the Jewish people are called to follow God’s 613 commandments in the Torah — this was his and the Jewish people’s calling, and that non-Jews are only called to obey the Seven Noahide Laws (similar to the Ten Commandments). Our tour group was comprised of people from the US, Ireland, the UK, and China, who were all sitting and learning. “If anyone outside knew you were meeting with him, they would be jealous!” said Yoni.
Stop Two: Around the Hasidic Brooklyn Neighborhood
As we continued on our tour of Hasidic Brooklyn, Yoni talked to us about the changing demographics of Brooklyn. The community has always been heavily Jewish, but lately young artists have been moving in. Two very different cultures found themselves living side by side. Even though there is much difference, “the one thing in common,” joked Yoni, “is our beards!” This led to the creation of the “Unite the Beards” campaign, to build bridges and foster mutual understanding between urban hipsters and Hasidic Jews. Yoni now gives multiple tours a week, giving people a behind-the-scenes experience of his neighborhood, culture, and people.
Stop Three – Mikvah Bath
Orthodox Jewish men and women wash in a mikvah to purify themselves for worship, based on the many laws and commandments from the Book of Leviticus. A very plain building was filled with what looked like hot tubs and bathrooms. Yoni explained all the steps involved in this ritual. I found it interesting that the water in the baths is actually collected rain water, because according to Jewish law, a mikvah is supposed to be near a natural body of water, and this collected reservoir of rainwater fulfills that requirement.
Stop Four: The Scribe
A scribe working on a set of tefillin, making sure the scripture verses go into the correct compartment.
Again, what looked like a simple three-unit apartment building was a workshop filled with activity. We saw one gentleman working on tefillin (a ceremonial leather box and strap filled with scripture that males fasten to their head and arms and use for prayer). They demonstrated how people must have their tefillin checked periodically to make sure they are still kosher (up to the standards prescribed by Jewish law).
These scribes learn the intricate details of how to make and repair these holy items so they are worthy to be used for worship. I watched as he carefully checked each scroll to make sure the scripture went into the correct compartment of the tefillin box. Upstairs was the Torah room, with what looked like hundreds of Torah scrolls stacked up. People from all over the world send their scrolls to this group of scribes to make sure that they are readable, intact, and worthy to be read from. Their respect and dedication to God’s Word was really demonstrated by their meticulous care to make sure that each letter is how God intended.
“We’re so Jewish, even our stores have yarmulkes!” said Yoni as we passed a Judaica store on the way to our next stop.
Stop Five: Zlata Wigs
A whole wall of this store was covered in wigs of various hair lengths and styles – from bleach blonde to black, and everything in between. Orthodox women cover their natural hair when they get married as an act of modesty to fulfill Jewish law. The store owner, Zlata, shared with us her vision of celebrating both beauty and modesty, explaining that the two are not mutually exclusive. Zlata even let some of the ladies in our group try on some wigs! It was inspiring to be in a place that celebrated womanhood and beauty in such a unique way. Also unique was how every shop in this community – bakeries, butchers, clothing stores, barbers, beauty shops – all had the purpose of honoring God, not gratifying self. You can follow Zlata Wigs on Instagram @zlatawigs!
Stop Six of the Hasidic Brooklyn Tour: The Joy of Keeping Kosher with Brocha
Yoni then took us down the street to the home where his wife grew up. His mother-in-law, Brocha (Hebrew for blessing), greeted us and let us in. (Yoni played a little joke, telling us, “Watch, we are so welcoming, you can knock on any Hasidic person’s home and they’ll let you in!” Only after we were warmly received at the door did he reveal that the owner of this home was a close relative. He got us!)
Brocha took us into her own personal kitchen, where she explained why she had two stoves and two sinks to separate meat from dairy. She shared how the custom of keeping meat and dairy separate when cooking kosher is based on the biblical commandment to not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21). She gave us a basic run down of kosher cooking and how it reminds us that God even cares about the food we eat and how we prepare it. She then treated us to coffee, snacks, and homemade baked goods at her large dining room table that seated twelve.
Stop Seven: A Performance by Eli Marcus
As we sat around the dining room table enjoying tasty treats, we were given another treat: Hebrew and Yiddish songs by Eli Marcus, a very successful and sought-after Hasidic performer. “I will now show you the ancient Jewish tradition of tuning up.” he joked before starting a song. You can watch some of his performance for us above! Search “Eli Marcus” on YouTube, Spotify, or visit www.elimarcusmusic.com to hear more of his amazing music. He said that he even played on Broadway once….until the police told him to play on the next street over. (More Jewish humor!)
Final Stop: Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters and Synagogue
Our last stop on the Hasidic Brooklyn tour was the local synagogue, Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters.
Most cities have a “Chabad House” to spread Jewish life, religion, and culture around the world, and this is the movement behind it. After Yoni took the women of the group inside the synagogue (he had to take the men and women in separately because the Hasidic tradition separates the genders for worship) it was our turn to enter.
There were dozens of suitcases left outside in front of the doors by Jews who had traveled just to visit this iconic synagogue. As we approached, Yoni asked me, “Have you ever been inside a Hasidic synagogue?” “I haven’t,” I replied. “Well, that’s about to change,” he said as he opened the door revealing a large room filled with a flurry of activity. I expected a calm, serene, quiet environment – my conception of a house of worship – but what I encountered was exactly the opposite. The low murmuring of men praying filled the room, there were desks and tables all around with young men praying, chanting, or talking with each other. (I saw one young man asleep, laying his head on his scriptures or prayer book—must be studying hard, I thought!)
In my Christian tradition, a slang term for personal praying and scripture reading is known as a “quiet time” but this was definitely not quiet. It was like a bee hive of activity. Yoni explained that this was a low time in the synagogue. It was lunch time, and these were just the Yeshiva students who stayed behind during lunch! During afternoon prayers or services, he said, they call it the “washing machine” because there are so many people inside the room to pray. I felt very privileged to be invited into this community’s place of worship to see how this culture encounters God together through scripture and prayer. A sacred place can look and feel many different ways. Before we left one older Jewish gentleman from the UK on our group was invited to put on some tefillin for a quick prayer, and he obliged.
A Priestly Blessing
As the group gathered back outside the synagogue Yoni said, “at the beginning of every tour we start as strangers but leave as friends.” He invited us to share our reflections on the day. I shared with the group how I was impressed with the spirit of unity, oneness, and bridge-building that his community showed us. Other people said they loved the jokes. One older gentleman joked that he loved Yoni’s mother-in-law’s baking. His wife shared that she loved seeing her husband wear the tefillin and pray in the synagogue. Two people who lived in New York City said they especially loved the time with Rabbi Friedman, and that it had allowed them to take a few minutes from their everyday lives to reflect about their purpose. Yoni then ended the tour by saying a quick Hebrew prayer for us. He shook hands with the men, and gave air high fives to the women (explaining that Hasidic men and women don’t touch members of the opposite sex).
It was amazing to see this group of people so touched by this shared experience. I truly believe that this was more than a tour – it was a holy encounter. Some may think that a community focused around ancient traditions doesn’t really fit into a bustling, modern metropolis like New York City, but I think it is exactly what is needed. As the world gets busier, filled with more distractions, more activities to numb ourselves, we NEED to be reminded of what is truly important in life, and re-center ourselves on God’s purposes.
As I look back on my choice to attend the tour over the daytime talk show, I know I made the right choice. I will remember this tour forever. I can watch dozens of talk shows every day, most of which I will forget. But I can’t wait to go back to experience Jewish Brooklyn again!