Tonight started bad and ended amazing, so read to the end.
I had my first Yiddish lesson in Israel tonight. I already speak pretty good Yiddish but I wanted to learn more and I specifically want to get accustomed to the Hasidic accent, which is distinct. I love visiting Bnei Brak, a Haredi community next to Tel Aviv.
I headed there for a lesson with a young Hasidic man, perhaps not above the age of 25. The lesson started off great as we got to know each other. Yosef’s family is made up entirely of Holocaust survivors. One of his grandparents actually grew up in the town of Auschwitz before escaping to Russia and then being forced by the Soviets to move to Siberia. Eventually they made their way to the U.K. and U.S. after the war and subsequently to Israel.
We spoke about 70% in Yiddish, 20% in Hebrew, and 10% in English over the course of two hours. We got to a point in the lesson where we were talking about music and I told him how I wrote a piyyut (liturgical poem) combining Hasidic words and melody with my own Arabic words. He was impressed. Then he asked me what kind of synagogue I go to. And, being the Israeli that I am, I told him it was Reform. Because hell if I’m not going to be myself in the country I worked so hard to come to- and now build.
His first response: “I would never go to a Reform synagogue if you invited me.” Like a bullet through my heart. I’ve worked so hard to protect my Judaism- from toxic relatives, from anti-Semites, even from Israelis antagonistic to religion. And here I was, the bravest Reform Jew I know, in the middle of Haredi city of 200,000 people, and the teacher (who I’m paying) is insulting my community. He proceeded to say all sorts of ignorant things. I tried to appeal to Jewish unity and desire for mutual respect, but it just didn’t really work. In his words, he practices “authentic Judaism” and I practice something “worse” than secular Jews.
You could probably draw a straight line from his grandparents’ Holocaust trauma to his rigid and judgmental attitudes, and I do empathize, but in the end I was pissed off. And in the end, we all make decisions about how to live our lives, just like I have. I did calmly explain to him how he hurt me and he apologized, but I’m just not sure I’d feel comfortable working with him anymore.
Feeling angry at Haredim, I started blasting music into my earphones and walking around Bnei Brak. This jerk of a teacher- he takes my tax dollars to sit around studying Torah and then has the audacity to lecture me about how I practice my faith!
I felt distant from Judaism and hurt, so I stopped into a Haredi bookstore hoping to find some solace. I love books and music and they really can heal. I picked up a Hasidic Yiddish children’s book (they’re publishing new ones all the time!) and a CD. It felt fine, but it didn’t really heal this kind of a wound. Although I got a major kick out of seeing 15 black hats turn towards me in shock as I asked the cashier where the CD’s were…in Yiddish.
I then got to the restaurant I was looking for. Home-cooked Ashkenazi food. Just what I wanted. The guy behind the counter, Yisroel, had a nice smile and a kind voice. He gave me extra food (for free) as we chatted. We talked about what it was like in Tel Aviv. He was surprised to hear from me that there are a lot of Jewish things in the city including biblical graffiti and the guy playing hinei mah tov on an electric guitar in Kerem Hateimanim last week.
His friend then walked in the restaurant and then started singing a niggun – a word-less melody – and then Yisroel, a Hasidic guy eating pasta, and I joined in. It was a surreal moment that happens nowhere else in the world.
They asked me why I was in Bnei Brak and I told them I had a Yiddish lesson that didn’t go so well. They asked why and I explained that the teacher was really judgmental. Yisroel asked me if the teacher was Haredi, like him. And I said yes. I could see the look of embarrassment on their faces. He said he could understand why I wouldn’t want to work with him and started asking around the restaurant to find me a new teacher.
Feeling lifted by Yisroel’s kindness, I told him this: “after my teacher hurt me, I could’ve just gone back to Tel Aviv and felt like all Haredim are mean. I could’ve chosen to close my heart. But instead, I decided to wander around and find someone to warm my heart, to show me that there are good people in this community too.”
Without skipping a beat, he grabs me by the neck and gives me the warmest, tightest, most generous hug I’ve received in my entire time in Israel. It was so filled with love I was almost taken aback, especially given the way some of my relatives used touch to hurt me. This man, who despite having to take the bus home to Ashdod, was keeping the restaurant open past 11pm just to keep me happy. Yisroel may be the kindest person I’ve met in Israel. And he is my first Israeli Haredi friend.
Lest you venture into the “oh but these must be less religious Hasidim” territory, you’re wrong. Yisroel is a Ger Hasid and his friend is a Bobover. They explained to me they don’t watch movies and they showed me they don’t have smartphones. And they told me why. And even though I practice Judaism differently, I listened respectfully and learned about their beliefs. Like a human being.
What brought me back from tonight’s pain was love. Every Shabbat in synagogue we pray the “ve’ahavta” – a prayer that starts “and you shall love…”. Tonight, a young Jew in jeans and a t-shirt and a Hasidic man in Bnei Brak embodied that verse. Because love wins.
Will I keep learning Yiddish? You bet! Because I want to know my Hasidic neighbors like Yisroel and it’s my heritage too, despite my teacher’s claims that he is the arbiter of Jewish identity.
It is said that Israel is the land of milk and honey. Wrong. Israel is the land of maror and honey. Maror is the horseradish we eat on Passover. The bitter people here are some of the bitterest you’ll meet. And there’s years of trauma behind that but it doesn’t change their toxicity- or your need to sometimes avoid them. But the honey- oh man. The honey here is the sweetest you’ll taste anywhere. The people here who love God by loving their fellow man- they are unparalleled the world over.
It can be so hard to remember that each person truly represents themselves first and foremost. It’s tempting to paint with a broad brush to protect yourself. To think that rather than an individual, an entire community hurt you- or will hurt you again. But in the end, if you go too far down this road, you won’t be protecting yourself, you’ll be hurting yourself. By denying yourself the chance to know some truly amazing friends.
Yisroel, perhaps aptly named, is now part of my chevreh, my “peeps”. He’s someone who brought me back to life tonight. So if you’re someone who likes to trash talk Haredim- I’m sure there’s a reason why. Maybe someone hurt you like I got hurt tonight. Or maybe someone taught you fear and prejudice. But I will not tolerate that hatred in my life and you’d better believe I’ll call you out on it. Because my tribe just got thickened and got its first Haredi member. And as far as I’m concerned, if you’re messing with him, you’re messing with me. Am yisrael chai. The People Israel lives.
As for my teacher- I have this drash, this spiritual note to offer. On my way to Bnei Brak I was listening to a Hasidic niggun on my phone, a melody from Vizhnitz. I recognized the tune but couldn’t place it. It reminded me of a secular Yiddish song I knew. Hours later, with the help of a French Jewish friend I met at Yiddish camp last summer, we discovered it was a 1960’s song by the legendary Barry Sisters. This kind of cultural overlap was once common when Jews truly lived together. Folks songs, Klezmer music, pop songs, Hasidic niggunim- there was a beautiful interplay at work. My hope is that this fluidity can be revived and we can enjoy the best of each of our communities while respecting our right to live differently.
Yisroel’s Bobover friend, impressed by my Hebrew, looked at my outfit and my flipflops and said “you look like a Sabra“. Perhaps, as we say in Yiddish, it’s bashert that I got my official Israeli ID card today. Because I’ve arrived. And I’m doing mitzvahs every step I take.