I’d like to tell you a story about nothing. It’s kind of refreshing in a place where shit is constantly hitting the fan (although much less than someone from abroad might think). As I write this blog piece, an Israeli plane bombed some military facility in Syria and air raid sirens went off in southern Israel. I heard some loud noise in my neighborhood and so I checked the news and found out about these events- I have no idea what the connection is but it can be scary here sometimes.
And then life continues.
So right, the other day I went to Bnei Brak. At this point, we can say that Bnei Brak- and Hasidic Judaism– is a part of my identity. I don’t just go as a “tourist”- I go because it’s part of my heritage and my people and it’s absolutely fascinating to see a living, breathing Yiddish community.
After eating delightful gefilte fish and kugel and buying loads of Hasidic music, I headed to the Satmar part of town. The Satmar part of town? Yes. In Bnei Brak, each Hasidic group has a yeshiva where people study and it’s kind of their neighborhood. In a small way, it’s a way of bringing back their former towns in Europe destroyed in the Holocaust. Because the way you get around Bnei Brak is to say: “where is Vizhnitz? Where is Belz? Where is Satmar?” These are all Hasidic groups- all named after the towns in Eastern Europe where they were founded. And there’s an eerie and beautiful ring to being able to ask where they are- still- as if you’re heading to the village itself.
So why did I go to the Satmar part of town? First of all, what is Satmar? Satmar Hasidim are one of the largest Hasidic groups in the world, with members in multiple countries. This still makes them a small minority of Jews, but they are influential and growing. While most Hasidim are not Zionists, they are very much in favor of the Jewish people, love the Land of Israel, and have varying degrees of affinity for the Jewish state itself.
For instance, there are Haredi parties in the Knesset- the Israeli parliament. These parties are dominated by Hasidim and participate in the lively (and often chaotic) Israeli political process. Secular Israelis often bemoan these parties’ political influence and that their voters sometimes get government stipends to learn Torah. I’m not interested in the politics here, just setting the stage.
On the contrary, Satmar are much more insistent on maintaining separation from the Israeli government. To the surprise of some reading this blog, Satmar Hasidim do not accept any stipends from the Israeli government and do not even vote in national elections. Say what you will about their politics, at least they’re consistent. To those secular Israelis bemoaning Haredi “leeches” stealing our tax dollars- that simply doesn’t apply to Satmar. You might wish they were Zionist, but they aren’t hypocrites.
Anyways, I don’t want to get sidetracked into messy political and ideological debates. I’m clearly not a Satmar Hasid- I’m a queer Reform Jew- but I find the community interesting, especially since they are often a target for secular disdain.
One of the cool things about Satmar Hasidim is their love of Yiddish. Most Hasidim in the U.S. both speak and read/write Yiddish. I’ve discovered that most Hasidim in Israel speak Yiddish as a native tongue but write in “loshn koydesh”- or what we call Hebrew. That in and of itself is a fascinating linguistic dichotomy worth a separate blog entry.
But Satmar, they speak and read and write and live and breathe Yiddish. So, wanting some books in Yiddish, I headed to their part of town. I found a bookstore (one of the cool things about Bnei Brak is the plethora of Jewish bookstores) and immediately noticed there were more Yiddish books than elsewhere in Bnei Brak. I then asked the shop owner (in Yiddish) where I could buy a Yiddish newspaper. Seeing I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, he knew I wasn’t Hasidic even though I wore a yarmulke. So he told me I could talk to him in Hebrew. But when I told him “ober ikh hob lib yiddish” – but I loooove Yiddish – he grinned from ear to ear. And told me to go to the grocery store around the corner.
At the grocery store, I talked to a bunch of people to get help finding a paper. Because the new papers come in on Friday morning before shabbes, there weren’t any left. Although there were some interesting looking magazines. Because I’m a creative person and an Israeli, I then asked if they had last week’s papers. And sure enough, there were some. I got a copy of Der Blatt, a Satmar newspaper printed in the U.S. and read around the world.
The two guys behind the counter shmoozed with me. It was so fun! One of them, when I couldn’t find the word in Yiddish, would revert to Hebrew. But the other guy- he was a real mensch. He would answer me- in Yiddish. THIS is how you know a language is strong. When the speakers stick to their guns- either out of ideology or monolingualism- those are the people to talk to. Because that’s ultimately how I learn best.
They were really impressed that I came to buy a Yiddish newspaper to practice the mamaloshn- the smiles, the kind words- they were real. Before leaving, I thanked the guy who answered me in Yiddish, saying I appreciated him helping me learn. He gave me a wink and I was on my way.
On my way out, I noticed a sign (in the cover photo): “Satmar Market: a homey supermarket”. For my fellow linguists, there’s something interesting here. While Satmar Hasidim stick to Yiddish out of a desire not to use Hebrew (the holy tongue for prayer), the sign is actually bilingual. The words “market” and “supermarket” are written like you would in Hebrew and the other words in Yiddish spelling. Guess things are a bit more complex than meets the eye. I love it.
A few days later, I sat and started reading the paper. And I noticed the most fascinating headline. On the front page was an article about the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe being deposed. Based on my own preconceptions about Satmar- their opposition to the Israeli government, their intense and strict Judaism, and their focus on study- I expected a bunch of articles about Torah.
But lo and behold, in a residential neighborhood of Bnei Brak, people are reading in Yiddish about Zimbabwe. And Saudi Arabia. And tax reform. And the Warsaw Ghetto. Just in this week’s edition.
So what’s my story? I have absolutely no story. During a stressful week, I took a bus to Bnei Brak, ate delicious food, bought good music, and found an interesting newspaper in the language my ancestors spoke for 1,000 years. I felt at ease, I hopped on a bus, and met a gay Reform friend for ice cream in Tel Aviv.
Want to live in a bubble where you know more about trekking in Cambodia than about your Hasidic neighbors? Your loss. There’s a fascinating civilization down the road begging to be discovered. Begging for you to rediscover it inside you.
It’s not about agreeing on everything- or much at all. It’s just about being a curious, open-minded human being and finding sparks of light to illuminate your path- wherever you might find them.