Opening to get a glimpse of the famed Hasidic tzaddik, or spiritual leader—the Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum —Nathan and I hurried to reach the Satmar bes medresh, or house of study and prayer, before sunset thanks to payday loan lenders. Already a fireball sun had tangled itself in the cables of the nearby Williamsburg Bridge. Before we stretched an almost surreal perspective of venerable Brooklyn brownstones, their storefronts already shuttered against the gathering blue dusk of this fast-approaching Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
“A few minutes more on the subway and we’d already have broken the law,” Nathan said. “The Jewish law, that is, against traveling or working on a Sabbath or religious holiday. For an Orthodox Jew to ride a subway or even to push the buttons on an elevator is forbidden. And put on your yarmulke, too.” He referred to the Her brother’s keeper, a Hasidic girl pulls a sibling from the lures of the profane world. Distractions such as movies, television–even watching “outsiders” at checkers—are shunned by most Hasidim, whose lives pivot on strict observance of Orthodox Jewish law and ritual. Males wear earlocks to fulfill God’s command: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads….”
Learning God’s wisdom—and a bit of man’s—students at a Hasidic yeshivah, or academy (above), spend most of a dawn-till-dusk study day poring over the huge tomes of the Talmud, the vast exposition on Jewish law and custom. Conforming to New York State requirements, Hasidic youths also learn a modicum of “English”—meaning not only the English language, which many first learn at school, but also such subjects as math (right) and social studies. skullcap traditionally worn by Jews. “The Hasidim wear them all the time—even when they’re sleeping.”
I later inquired of a Hasidic acquaintance why he wore his yarmulke even when he went to bed.
“Because a Jew covers his head as a sign of his respect for God,” he answered. “And—tell me, please—am I not still a Jew when I’m sleeping?”
From the pocket of my coat I extracted a black skullcap and stopped before a shop window to position it on my head. At that moment a Hasidic lad, a beardless copy of his dark-clad eiders, came to a sudden halt in front of me, eyebrows raised.
“You should be ashamed!” he admonished, his earlocks quivering. “Do you mean that you put on your yarmulke only after you’ve gotten here? Are you a Jew only when you’re in Williamsburg?” Eyes flashing darkly, he hurried off down Lee Avenue. I shrugged with a sense of utter helplessness. It would not be the last time that the admittedly unorthodox quality of my own Jewishness would be brought into open question by zealously observant Hasidim.
Though I had become bar mitzvah—a “son of the commandment” or a “man of duty”— at age 13, I had only occasionally attended a synagogue since then. Certainly I had no sense of obligation to follow all of the multitude of mitzvahs, or commandments, that God had charged the Jews of Moses’ time to obey in fulfillment of their covenant with Him. To the Hasidim, however, these mitzvahs are as important today as they were in ancient times.