No this blog isn’t about feuding Hasidic dynasties. Rather, it’s about my dinner in Bnei Brak and a Hasidic man who likes Game of Thrones.
Last night, I was hungry. I had a busy day and hadn’t eaten enough. I reasoned that this justified eating a calorie-rich Ashkenazi meal and kugel. So I hopped on a bus to Bnei Brak.
The restaurant was supposed to close at 10 so I hustled from the bus stop because it was 9:45. Of course, this is Israel, so actually the place stayed open till past 11, so I was fine 🙂 Nice to know Jewish Standard Time really is an international thing.
I ordered grilled salmon, a potato blintz, apple kugel, and chicken soup. Mmmmm. Foods of my people and of my childhood.
Much to the surprise of some people reading this blog, Moti speaks both Hebrew and Yiddish fluently. Many people assume Hasidim only speak Yiddish in Israel. I think he prefers Yiddish as he told me in the mamaloshn “Yiddish iz mayn shprakh” which means “Yiddish is my tongue”. Also he called Hebrew “loshn koydesh” (the holy tongue), which is cool because I haven’t heard that phrase since I was at Yiddish camp last summer. It’s the traditional way of saying “Hebrew” and could also be tied to Hasidic concepts of how to use the languages (Hebrew=holy tongue, Yiddish=daily tongue). Yet here he was floating effortlessly between Yiddish and Hebrew with me.
Interestingly, he can only read and write in Hebrew. He said Hasidim in Bnei Brak, with the exception of Satmarers, read and write in Hebrew even if they often speak in Yiddish. Maybe next time I’ll offer to teach him how to read and write in Yiddish 🙂 . If a queer Reform Jew teaching his new Hasidic friend how to write in Yiddish isn’t an incredibly rich and unexpected act of Jewish solidarity and continuity, then I don’t know what is.
As I was asking Moti about Thursdays (apparently that’s the day when the best food comes out, including homemade gefilte fish mmmm), another Hasid named Kivi approached me. He needed help translating English on an appliance he bought. He then told me he loves English and that even though he doesn’t get to speak it much, he loves reading it and watching…YouTube.
YouTube. Hasidim watching YouTube. What does Kivi watch on YouTube? What’s his favorite show? Game of Thrones. The blood-soaked, sex-filled show that’s too gruesome for me to even watch. He then asked me if I had seen the last “fight”. I didn’t understand. But then he explained that he’s a boxing fan and loves to watch the fights online.
Scared shitless and super excited, I said yes. Keep in mind that I have never prayed at an Orthodox synagogue, much less a Hasidic one (yes, this was a Hasidic shtiebel). I have also never prayed in a single-gender environment (Reform Jews sit with men and women together). And this was a step beyond that- there were no women anywhere, just men davvening together. Also, it should be said that as a gay person, I felt scared. Clearly if nobody knew I was gay, nobody would do anything. But having read stories of Haredim stabbing people at pride parades, pushing conversion therapy, and protesting against gays in the military, I felt nervous. And I understood for a moment the pressure gay people must face in this community. To be fair, I didn’t know exactly how they’d react (perhaps people wouldn’t harm me or might even be more open than I’d expect). And I didn’t want to risk my safety or well-being by coming out.
My experience was really interesting. First off, there is a beautiful rhythm and musicality to Hasidic prayer. It is not just mumbling. There is a beautiful entropy within the framework of fixed prayers, with people improvising and singing whatever words speak to them. And I joined in.
Second, all the prayers were said by the chazzan (cantor) and the other men in the room in an Ashkenazi accent. Even though the vast majority of American Reform Jews are Ashkenazi, under pressure from the Israeli pronunciation in the 1950s and 60s, we abandoned it. It was perceived as “old world” and “backwards”. And so we lost touch with a beautiful part of our heritage, much like Mizrachim in Israel were pressured to abandon their fascinating accents. Here in this shul, the accent lives. I felt like I was transported back to the shtetl where my ancestors came from. The culture murderously ripped apart by Nazis. The culture that lives to this day despite them.
I did miss the voices of women (and I did make a point of including the matriarchs in my prayers as well as sometimes using the female gender for God – bruchah at yah…). At the same time, it was intriguing to pray with men. When I came out of the closet at 18, I felt like my masculinity was ripped away from me by society. I distinctly remember a moment in college where a female friend said “when are we going shopping?” To which I said “I didn’t know we had plans.” She responded: “oh we didn’t, I just know gay people like to shop all the time.” I could literally give hundreds of examples like this. I wasn’t allowed to define my gender as I wanted. Just as hyper masculinity was thrust on me as a child, an invasive femininity was imposed on me as a queer person. Here, in this shul, I actually felt like I could be a man. No questions asked. With my fellow Hebrew bros.
There were also moments when I felt like the prayer structure was rigid. The man next to me kept pointing me to this page or that. At first, I found this irritating because I wanted to go at my own pace and to speak the words in my heart. I then came to realize that in this setting, prayer was very much a team effort even if there’s room for improvisation. And secondly, that I think his intention was to help me participate more than to tell me what to do. As a Reform Jew used to extensive independence and autonomy in prayer, I found this confusing at first. I then just kind of observed it around me as I found new ways of expressing the prayer in my heart. A different style, for sure, but not without its own merits.
The prayer concluded and the Yemenite man, who I was kind of concerned was going to proselytize me, simply came up and said: “it was nice to meet you, I hope to see you again.” With that, I walked down the street and picked up a call from one of my rabbis in the States- a woman. We laughed about my experiences in Israel and I told her how I was getting involved with the Reform community here. And then I realized- I was practically shouting the word Reform over and over again in the middle of a Haredi city. And literally nobody batted an eye.
Not because there aren’t conflicts here or prejudice. But because perhaps there’s a more fluid co-existence than you might expect. It’s a place where queer Jews speak Yiddish to Hasidim. Where I can talk to my female rabbi on the phone after davvening with a bunch of men. Where a Hasidic man loves English, and even watches Game of Thrones.