Photo by Marisha Camp
“Ach Sameach,” Chaim Rosenfelt said, writing the expression for me in Hebrew as he sipped clear liquor from a water bottle. “It’s one of the Mitzvahs for the holiday. Ach Sameach—Only Happy!”
It was 4 AM on Monday, September 23rd. I was in the Orthodox Jewish section of Brooklyn's Crown Heights nieghborhood. Around us other young teens were drinking and flirting in small groups, hundreds of men of all ages danced in ecstatic circles, trucks dolled out Kosher ice cream, and the streets were lined with hundreds of wooden shacks that hid groups of more men singing, drinking, and telling stories.
Chaim continued, “Should we pretend to be happy even though we’re sad? Or should we do what we otherwise shouldn’t to be happy? It’s unclear, but I will do anything in my power to be happy for the holiday.”
Grinning, he added, “Only legal stuff, of course!”
To less-Orthodox Jews and gentiles alike, the Hasidic lifestyle seems grim and austere. We imagine their days as gauntlets of prayer and synagogue visits, massive families in minivans, and a patriarchal rejection of modern life. Wild dancing in the streets until sunrise, cruising, and public intoxication are unusual associations, but for the first week of fall these are not uncommon sights in Crown Heights.
Capping off Judaism's High Holy Days at the beginning of fall, the harvest festival Sukkot is meant to remind Jews of their nomadic and agrarian past. Throughout the world Jews build wooden shacks with their neighbors. They eat all their meals inside for that week, and attempt to live the idealized social practices less possible year-round. Within this holiday is Chol HaMoed, a six-day reprieve from the rigors of typical holiday restrictions.
And within those days is Simchat Beit Hashoeiva, a resurrection of ancient Jerusalem’s water-bringing ceremony. When King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem still stood, Jews from around the region would bring their harvest to Jerusalem for a torch-lit and wine-soaked communal feast that Greek King Antiochus IV considered a parallel to Bacchanalian orgies.
In recent centuries the festival has been celebrated by Hasidic sects worldwide, but only by men and only in the synagogue. In the last two decades Crown Heights’s broader Jewish population has become renown for breaking the trend and bringing the party to the streets.
Photo by Gedalyal Gottdenger
The festival is funded and organized by the Hasidic sect Chabad, the world’s largest Jewish organization. An outgoing bunch, these are the guys who may have asked you if you’re Jewish, and if you said yes, may have wrapped a strap around your arm and put a box on your head—or just given you a Menorah. Unlike more conservative Hasidic sects, Chabad has a come-as-you-are attitude, believing that reawakening the souls of secular Jews will bring the Messiah sooner.
At midnight on Monday their huge synagogue on 770 Eastern Parkway (just 770 to locals) was filled with men praying, studying texts, and gathering around a television screen in the lobby to watch speeches by the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, thought by some to be the Messiah.
A few blocks from 770 was the block-long stage and dancing area for men. Women had a section on the sidewalk, but traditionally no dancing occurs there. Outside the cordon was a small clearing that my Hasidic friend Gedalya Gottdenger called the “singles area.” It was a scene out of a lowly fraternity’s mixer: drunk young boys milled about trying to attract the attention of the few girls their age in the periphery. The most ardent few might get lucky, Gedalya told me, but the vast majority, usually separated from the opposite sex during school and at synagogue, had no game and spent their night wandering in small packs, weaving around other groups of
“Jews from all over the world come to Crown Heights,” Isaac Davidson, a Jamaican-American Jew from Flatbush told us. Although Gedalya and I noticed none of this, Davidson even saw some same-sex cruising. “Don’t know if it’s the liquor or it that’s how they really fell, but you see a surprising amount of gay Jews here.”
And it’s not just for Hasids and their gallivanting offspring, Israelis like Laura Winkler plan their trips around Simchat Beit Hashoeva. Arriving in the US in August, she had a few weeks to travel and meet with family before the High Holy Days, and was able to end her trip with the Hasidic Mardi Gras.
It makes perfect sense that Israelis would feel so at home. The festival atmosphere on Kingston Avenue reminded me of my post-Birthright week stumbling around Jerusalem. The Hebrew lettering on signs and stores, unattended kids pushing each other around a sandwich shop while they waited for the falafel or schnitzel, and most of all, the warm communal feeling of a shared culture coupled with occasionally pangs of my own secular alienation.
I met Laura Winker at the Cay—a small synagogue for the more progressive Chabad branch Chevra Ahavas. Their Sukkah covered the entirety of the backyard, where men and women drank Lost Tribe beer and passed around drums and an acoustic guitar on the cool Fall night.
If Crown Heights had transformed into Israel for the night, the scene at Cay was like a party on some remote Kibbutz. “I think the separation between men and women is fine,” Laura told me. “But some prefer more of the family atmosphere.”
Cay’s Rabbi Ezekial, a few Tribes deep, explained his take on the holiday. “Literally they wanted to draw water, but metaphorically the water is the Torah. Any person, just by virtue of the fact that they are alive, can draw from the Torah—the simplest Jew or the most learned scholar. We’re all the same, all brothers and sisters. Like Simon and Garfunkel said, ‘We are all citizens of the planet. I was born here and I’m going to die here… Blah blah blah…’"
“Any person who never saw the joy of Simcha never saw true joy in their life,” he concluded, paraphrasing the famous tract from the Mishna, the first major work of rabbinic literature, which would be recited to me many times that night.
Photo by Marisha Camp
At around 3 AM I headed back to the corner of Kingston and Montgomery Avenues. The celebration was now in full swing: hundreds of men, ages 13-80, danced in thick circles to music played by a band featuring Yudi Simon, a drummer who kept tempo for an organist blasting modern versions of Eastern European Hasidic folk songs to the still-gathering throngs of suited men.
Many in the crowd waved golden flags emblazoned with a crown, meant to boost the idea popular among some Chabad-Lebavitch that the deceased Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was likely the Messiah and his return from the dead is imminent.
This is when I began to notice the rifts in the Orthodox community manifesting even on this day of celebration. Some members of non-Messianic sects of Chabad were outraged by the flag waving and waved flags of their own. One couple told me that although they had been enjoying the festivities, they were put off by the Messianiasm. “This isn’t what Judaism is about. They’re like Christians!”
While tensions often run high between the sects, the unifying message of the holiday usually keeps the peace. A major Sukkot tradition is the metaphor of the etrog (citrus), hadas (fig), lulav (myrtle branch), and aravah (willow). The Midrash explains:
“The etrog has both a taste and an aroma; so, too, do the people of Israel include individuals who have both Torah learning and good deeds.... The date (the fruit of the lulav) has a taste but does not have an aroma; so, too, do the people of Israel include individuals who have Torah but do not have good deeds.... The hadashas an aroma but not a taste; so, too, do the people of Israel include individuals who have good deeds but do not have Torah.... The aravahhas no taste and no aroma; so, too, do the people of Israel include individuals who do not have Torah and do not have good deeds.... Says G-d: "Let them all bond together in one bundle and atone for each other."
It takes all kinds of fruit to make a fruitcake, but the deep-seated schisms within the Orthodoxy are not always so peachy. I heard rumors that scuffles sometimes break out in front of 770, and that there was even a public assault on festival organizer Rabbi Shemtov during a previous year’s Simchat.
There were no signs of such flare-ups Sunday night. The competitive flag-waving and interloping Jews of different sects all seemed to mix well and in good fun. The most hostility I witnessed was when local photographer Marisha Camp got into an argument with a group of teenage boys after she started taking some photos too close to the male section.
A man with sidelocks (which Chabad Hasids do not wear) got into the mix, pulling his locks at Camp and yelling “See these? Men only!” spitting on her in the process. Eventually another man came up to him, calmed him down, and recognizing from his hairstyle that he was not local, said, “This is Crown Heights. Men and women can mix here.” Another man apologized, to Marisha, saying the man was drunk and spinning his finger to the side of his head in the international gesture for “he’s crazy.”
At 5 AM it seemed like the crowds were still somehow growing. Women watching the bands pressed against their barricade like parade-spectators, narrowing the passageway between their area and the men’s section. Occasionally members of the Shomrim, the neighborhood Jewish police force, intervened to assure the integrity of the no man’s land.
Simchat Beit Hashoeiva, despite its compulsory happiness can hide schisms within the Hasidic community. But it serves as a space for unity amongst all kinds of Jews. Despite Chabad’s intention of bringing secular Jews closer to a devout lifestyle, the opposite effect appears to be happening these days. Some orthodox Hasids are edging towards the modern life. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see Hasids on bikes, Hasids in bars, even Hasidic blogs. What’s next—a co-ed dance party?
More Stuff About Religion: