Samaritans, Russian Puppet Cabaret, and Hasidim

Today I heard or spoke Hebrew, ancient Samaritan Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English, Arabic, and Ukrainian.  Today I danced with Hasidim, watched a Russian man dance with life-sized puppets, and davvened in a messianic Chabad shul.

Here’s how it went down.

I wanted to get out of the house and explore.  Missing the fun of trekking up north, I decided to explore Gush Dan, or Central Israel (near Tel Aviv).  I went to the decidedly not-so-touristy Holon and Bat Yam, both a short bus ride away.

I had no plans and really no idea what to expect.

I got off the bus in Holon and noticed a sign pointing to the “Shomronim” neighborhood.  That’s the Hebrew word for “Samaritans“.  Maybe you learned about the “Good Samaritan” in your Bible class.  Yes, that’s them.  They claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, who are in turn tied to Samaria (Hebrew: Shomron).  Hence their name.

I immediately asked around and found my way to their neighborhood.  To give you an idea of how unique this is- there are 800 Samaritans in the entire world.  They are keepers of pre-rabbinic Judaism and they use an ancient form of Hebrew, including an alphabet much closer to the original since rabbinic Judaism adapted an alphabet based on Aramaic.

Here are some examples from today:

Because this is how I roll, after knocking on four or five doors (all of which had Samaritan Hebrew on them!), I got referred to Benny Tsedaka, a leader in the community.  He was sleeping, but his brother told me to walk in and wake him up.  So, to the horror of my friends in America, I walked into a total stranger’s home and basically kept talking and knocking on the door till the old man woke up.

He invited me in and gave me quite the lecture about the history of the Samaritans and their “original Judaism” (a phrase, incidentally, told to me several times by Haredim, but this guy might have them beat).  He, along with the other older men on the street, wore a white robe.  He showed me their prayer books, still written in the Samaritan script that I recognize from ancient Jewish tablets.  I almost asked him who their rabbi was, but caught myself 😉  It was like peering into the past, even as he told me to grab my smartphone and take pictures.

He chanted Torah for me using the Samaritan pronunciation and their trop, or cantillation system.  And he did it from memory.  Incidentally he chose the first day of Bereishit, or Genesis- the parashah I used to chant at synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.  The reason he could do it from memory is that unlike rabbinic Jews, like myself, they don’t read Torah in synagogue.  Instead, people pair off and go read in people’s homes- both men and women.  That way, he said, everyone learns to read.  A nice idea indeed.

He is very proud of his tradition and he has every right to- his community has survived conquest after conquest for thousands of years.  Before there were Christians or Muslims or Arabs or Byzantines or Persians here, Samaritans were here- and they managed to survive.  Or perhaps better put, since we are all Israelites, we managed to survive.  When I told him I was an oleh chadash- a newly minted Israeli- he made a point of saying “welcome home”.  A long delayed reunion, indeed.

He’s not a fan of Haredi Judaism because he feels it’s not traditional or authentic enough.  That it’s a product of Eastern Europe and interactions with Christians, unlike his authentic Judaism from here.  He also said he likes that in his community, women read Torah too and that if God didn’t want women to be front and center, why did Miriam sing as we crossed the sea?  An interesting point.  I won’t delve into the debate about what Judaism is best other than to say I think there’s something beautiful in all varieties.  I will say, though, that someone who wants to argue about what the most “original” form of Judaism is is going to have a tough time beating someone who prays in paleo-Hebrew script.

Still digesting my interaction with ancient Judaism, I hopped on a bus to Bat Yam to see the sunset.  I liked learning about Samaritan Judaism, but sometimes the conversation veered into (very) right-wing politics and religious debates that are less interesting to me.  Benny could certainly make Bibi (or a rabbi) blush.

As I made my way to the sea, I saw this ridiculous man dancing around with busty life-sized female puppets (and later, Jewish puppets with peyos!).  To disco music, to Russian music, to Mizrachi music, and even to Yiddish classics!  I can’t tell you how much this made me laugh and smile.  What a nice way to unwind after the meaningful but at times overwhelming experience I had in Holon.  Apparently his grandfather grew up with similar shows in the Soviet Union in the 50’s.  I was thoroughly entertained.  I gave him a nice tip and we exchanged words and smiles in Hebrew and a bisl Yiddish.  These are the people who make the world go round.

After some delicious kebabs, I grabbed a bus home.  Except that on the way, I heard Hasidic music blasting.  I hopped off the bus and ran and joined in dancing with a bunch of men in a circle.  Speakers blasted Hasidic hits (some of which I knew and are on my phone) as we oy yoy yoy’ed and danced.  Just when it couldn’t get any cooler, they started blasting Mizrachi music, including songs entirely in Arabic.  I swerved my queer Jewish hips and my hands suavely bounced around.  I felt a little out of place (I think some of the men just didn’t know what to think of me- it’s not every day someone like me is at a Hasidic street party in Bat Yam), but in the end, it’s my God too so I rolled with it.  And although I wish that the women and men could dance together, I had some fun.

Based on the signange, I knew it was Chabad that put on the event for Sukkot, the holiday currently being celebrated.  Chabad is a Hasidic group focused on kiruv, or outreach to other Judaism.  As Judaism is not evangelical, they only reach out to other Jews.  I don’t identify as Chabad, but I do appreciate some of the work they do.  Anywhere you go in the world, Chabad is there to give you a kosher meal, a place to pray, a place to do Jewish.  In my neighborhood, I frequently stop by to buy supplies for various Jewish holidays.  The best part about Chabad is whether it’s your style of Judaism or not, they’re always there.  And that is a mitzvah.

Now as my sweaty body prepared to hop back on the bus, a cute young Chabadnik asked me if I had davvened arvit (evening prayers).  I hadn’t (because that’s not usually how I approach Judaism), but I told him I’d join their minyan.  Jews are supposed to pray in groups of 10 (men only for Orthodox- men or women for progressive Jews).  I haven’t generally found the Orthodox prayer style meaningful for me (it feels too fast for what I’m used to), but I think it’s a mitzvah to help these people out so I joined in.

We went downstairs into a shtiebel (small synagogue) and prayed.  The cute guy helped me keep up with the pages (they move really fast!) and before you knew it, we were done.  By the way, when I say cute, he’s not a cute kid- he’s a cute adult.  He’s a “your kippah is super sexy I’d like to daven maariv and make a mitzvah” adult.

I digress.  As I’m leaving, another hot young Chabadnik starts talking with me.  He’s from Ukraine and the woman sitting next to us is half Georgian half Ukrainian.  They are both olim like me- new Israelis.  I’m starting to think I might want to learn Russian for an even richer Israeli experience.  I notice a sign in the synagogue about the former leader of Chabad, Rabbi Schneerson being the moshiach (messiah).  Not the typical generic “moshiach” signs, but much more direct and specific.  There are some Chabadniks who think he was just a great leader and others that veer into messianism, thinking this particular rabbi will come back as the moshiach.  Playing dumb, I ask the Ukrainian guy if the sign meant that the rebbe was the moshiach and he said yes.  I am far, far, far from an expert on Chabad, but I’m pretty sure I just prayed in a synagogue of the more messianic stream of the movement.

As I headed back to Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help but think what a messy, meaningful, and deeply satisfying day I had had.  I had been lectured about my progressive politics and rabbinic Judaism by a man who speaks ancient Hebrew.  I had felt kind of out of place as a Hasidic dance party as a queer person and a Reform Jew.  And I ended up praying with (maybe?) messianic Chabadniks when I absolutely never would have prayed with them if that’s what their synagogue was about.

And on the same day, I met an ancient relative of mine.  I saw ancient Hebrew script written on doors and flyers.  I danced to Hasidic music – for free – in public.  I saw a Russian guy dance around with ginormous puppets to Yiddish and Slavic dance music.  In short, I experienced thousands of years of history in the course of minutes.  I lived it up.

Sukkot is, in English, called the “Feast of Booths”.  It’s one of the few holidays that doesn’t commemorate an event.  Rather, by setting up sukkot, temporary structures, we remind ourselves of the fragility of life and of our wandering in the desert for 40 long years.  Wandering in search of a home, a more permanent structure than the ragtag hut of a sukkah.

This Sukkot, I’ve found my home.  A home where yes, things are sometimes complicated and messy and take a while to untangle.  And also a home filled with more meaning per square foot than anywhere else on the planet.

Some Israelis ask me if Americans make more money.  “You’re crazy!” some say, “you’d make so much more money there and have a bigger house!”.  So the f*ck what?  You can give me the biggest mansion on the highest hill with the best view, and I’m not interested one bit.  Because there’s no way in hell I’m going to spend Sukkot there with a Samaritan, a Russian puppet dancer, and Hasidim.

America has better air conditioning and cleaner toilets.  But I don’t really care.  I’ll be too busy out and about exploring thousands of years of history, dancing and laughing along the way.

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": & Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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