Article adapted from a longer autobiographical essay, “My Way to (Neo) Hasidism,” from Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism. Reprinted with permission of Academic Studies Press, 2019.
Originally published in Tablet.
The ultra-Orthodox enclave of Boro Park, Brooklyn, is inhabited by various large Hasidic groups and many smaller ones that began to move into what was a Jewish and Italian neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s. By the mid-1970s, most of the non-Orthodox and even modern Orthodox synagogues in Boro Park had closed and the neighborhood became a bustling world of Hasidic life. In addition, it began to attract baalei teshuva (newly religious) Jews who sought the romantic life of Hasidism, many of whom, like myself, took on the garb (levush) and lifestyle of Hasidic Jews. We were a bit of an anomaly to many of our neighbors who could not quite make sense of our choices but they embraced us nonetheless albeit somewhat bemused by our passion and devotion. Boro Park in those years was a specific moment in postwar American Judaism when some Jewish refugees from the New Left began to envision Hasidism as an expression of the counterculture many of us left behind.
Life in Boro Park in those days was a macabre experience of living in an alternative universe that was a subway ride away from a city that offered everything. I lived with a group of friends in a dilapidated house in a mixed Hasidic and Hispanic neighborhood on the outskirts of Boro Park (10th Avenue and 43rd Street) that our teacher, the enigmatic Hasidic Rabbi Dovid Din had once lived in with his family before moving to the other side of Boro Park. They may have been evicted, I’m not quite sure. One was never quite certain who was actually living in that house on 43rd Street. Some of those I knew from Jerusalem had returned and then a variety of other stragglers, vagrants, hangers-on, or those simply traveling through inhabited that house at various times. If there was space on the floor we could accommodate one more. That house seemed to me like the love child of Roman Vishniac’s photographs and Phillip Roth’s “Eli, the Fanatic.”
Both the Hasidic and Hispanic neighbors were equally baffled as to who we were and what we were doing there. We were robbed many times, but the intruders eventually gave up because we had nothing worth stealing. (We once put up signs in Spanish in the house to let them know they had already stolen everything of value.) Once we came back from all-night learning on Shavuot morning and the front door was ripped off the hinges and lay in the front yard. They didn’t even bother breaking the locks, they just took off the front door. One of the most memorable robberies happened while we were eating the third meal on Shabbat, singing Hasidic niggunim together as the sky darkened. Little did we know that as we were singing, burglars had broken into a back room and stolen the backpack of someone who had just arrived from Jerusalem. The only thing of value, or that which we most lamented, were some tabs of LSD that were lost forever. A small price to pay for King David’s meal.
I first began studying in a small study house in Crown Heights with a young Lubavitcher Hasid named Baruch Wertzburger. I was contemplating moving to Crown Heights to attend Yeshivat Hadar Torah. Chabad seemed like a logical choice as it was much more structured than the more diffuse world of Boro Park, mirroring the more disciplined and conformist world of Chabad and the more free-flowing world of Polish Hasidism. I even packed all my things in my small Mazda to move into the dorms in Crown Heights. I arrived late at night, parked my car on Eastern Parkway and spent the night in the yeshiva without unpacking. In the morning I walked around and decided it wasn’t for me. So instead of unpacking my car I just pulled away and drove back to Boro Park. Chabad Hasidism was compelling and uplifting, but there was something about the rebbe worship in Chabad that turned me off. I attended many farbrengens with the Lubavitcher rebbe and the intensity was enormous as he carried the room with his charisma, but day-to-day Crown Heights just seemed too cultish for me. Boro Park was more eclectic and more dysfunctional. I liked that. I continued coming to Crown Heights daily to Wertzburger’s small classes in Chabad Hasidism, beginning with Sefer ha-Tanya and then reading through some of the present rebbe’s sichot, or talks. My Hebrew was getting much better and I began to get the map of the terrain of Hasidic texts.
Eventually I needed a bigger yeshiva with more subjects of study. I stumbled upon a new yeshiva in Flatbush run by two roshei yeshiva, one a Lakewood-trained rosh yeshiva named R. Chaim Friedman, proficient in the Lithuanian style of learning, and the second a Satmar Hasid named R. Yizhak Ashkenazi. Here I spent a little more than two years really honing my skills in Gemara and halacha and continued studying Hasidism and Kabbalah with Dovid and his circle (of which I had become by that time an inside member). Learning the Lithuanian method of Talmud by Rabbi Friedman and the broader rather than deep method popular among Hasidim was illuminating. Rabbi Ashkenazi was perhaps the first person I met who really knew the entire Talmud by heart. He was from the Aleksander Hasidic dynasty—people referred to him as the Alekser rebbe—and he set up a small Hasidic shul in the basement of his house. The Alekser dynasty was founded by R. Shraga Feivel of Gritsa, who was student of R. Yizhak Worka, a contemporary of R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk. R. Ashkenazi’s family had drifted to Satmar in America, but he retained the stature of Hasidic aristocracy and was viewed by others with reverence. Hasidim often wandered in the yeshiva to ask him questions or ask for money. He took a special liking to a few of us, especially me, perhaps because he knew Dovid and also saw I was heading in the Hasidic direction, whereas most of my classmates were not. My clothing had become more and more Hasidic in style, I wore a black hat and suit and white shirt all the time, and unlike many others in the yeshiva I was interested in Hasidism. I was appointed his driver, mostly because I was the one who had a car and had the proper dress for the occasion. We spent evenings traveling around Brooklyn and sometimes to New Jersey and Monsey, New York, a religious town in Rockland County, to raise money (what is called schnorring). R. Ashkenazi was a master. On one occasion we sat at an ornate dining room table of a rich Jew in Monsey. Conversation ensued but the topic of money was never mentioned. Then at one point, the man took out a checkbook, wrote a check, and slid it across the table. Without a break in the conversation R. Ashkenazi looked at the check and with no expression, slid it back to the gentlemen. The conversation continued. This went on two or three times until R. Ashkenazi put the check with the “right” amount into his pocket. Then we got up, shook hands, and left. That is how real Hasidic schnorring is done.
One other person worth mentioning from that yeshiva was a rabbi named Yona Frankel, probably in his 30s, a yeshivish Orthodox rabbi who lived in Long Beach, Long Island, but traveled every day to Boro Park to teach baalei teshuvah. He was a student of R. Dovid Feinstein, R. Moshe Feinstein’s son. He viewed the whole baal teshuva thing as something wondrous, and I felt this was his kind of pro bono for the cause of Torah. I studied Mishnah and Talmud with him for about a year, and his patience still remains with me. My most vivid memory of him was the time he asked me to drive him to deliver a hespid (eulogy) for an elderly woman who had died. We entered the chapel in the funeral home and I took a seat in the front and began reciting psalms, as is the custom. R. Frankel began delivering a long and impassioned eulogy for this woman. At some point I turned my head to the audience behind me. There was only one woman sitting there, the dead woman’s caretaker. The rest of the chapel was empty. R. Frankel had been delivering this passionate eulogy for this one woman, or maybe not even for her. I had never encountered such a person growing up.
At this time, my relationship with Dovid was deepening and I became one of his close disciples. I use the term “disciple” carefully, as that is what we were. He served as a rebbe and spiritual guide and we treated him as such. We did constitute a “family” of sorts and, in retrospect, we probably would have met the bar of being considered a cult, but we were so integrated into the Haredi community around us no one really noticed. Except one person.
In those days (the late 1970s) Aryeh Kaplan, who was already well known as an Orthodox writer, lived on the outskirts of Boro Park. His books on Kabbalah had been published by Samuel Weiser, who owned a New Age press from Maine. This bothered some of the more conformist Haredim in Boro Park, and thus I think Kaplan’s decision to live on the margins of Boro Park was more than symbolic. An ultra-Orthodox Jew of Sephardic descent, who was a baal teshuvah himself and once served as a rabbi in a Conservative synagogue (which in Boro Park is basically the same as a church), Kaplan decided to stay on the margins of that world. A deeply pious man, he would have an open house after Friday night dinner, and we sometimes walked there to listen to him. The neighborhood was not safe at night, and thus going to Kaplan’s home itself required a modicum of emunah (faith). His dining room was adorned with a series of bizarre oil paintings. At some point, with no training as an artist, Kaplan decided to refrain from study for a year and devote himself to painting. After the year he stopped and never painted again. Those paintings were the product of his experiment.
He would gesture to someone to ask him a question about the weekly Torah portion and then he would just spin off of that for what seemed like hours (it probably wasn’t). In any event, Kaplan emphatically did not like Dovid Din. It was a kind of fissure in the scene because there was a lot of overlap in those years between Dovid and Aryeh Kaplan. Kaplan saw something in Dovid he didn’t trust, but he didn’t know what. We just never mentioned Dovid in Kaplan’s presence. Many years later Kaplan’s intuitions about Dovid turned out to be right. He was hiding something.
During this time, I began to integrate more into the Haredi world even as we were always looked upon as different. But we were “walking the walk” so intensely, and seeing us at the mikveh at 5:30 a.m. on a freezing January morning before davening made them respect us even as they probably would not allow us to marry their daughters. The quasi-monastic life we led was very conducive to me, and I began to feel like I was living like those Amish in Pennsylvania and the Hasidim walking over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway I had seen as a child. I felt like I had found some alterity. I was living “otherwise.” I once got a phone call from a high school girlfriend. It happened to be Thanksgiving and she asked where I was eating Thanksgiving dinner. “Thanksgiving?” I responded. “Oh, I didn’t know that.” I smiled at that remark. I had found a way off the grid. She later told me she thought I was living in a crack house in south Brooklyn. Who in America doesn’t know it’s Thanksgiving? Welcome to Hasidic Boro Park.
Hasidism opened itself to me as a textual tradition and a lived life simultaneously. I studied the texts and tried to live the life they professed, or expected. In the classic Augustinian sense, I took my return too far. I did not have the slight cynical edge many have who grow up in that world. Texts became an appendage: We carried them around (one always had a sefer in case of a few minutes to open it), we read them on the subway, we spoke of them to friends in the street, at airports, on lines in supermarkets, at Shabbos tables. In those years I felt that studying Torah wasn’t something we did, it was part of who we were. The line separating work from leisure did not exist. That itself was a kind of alterity. And yet we also lived it in subversive, countercultural ways. We allowed our past “hippie” lives a place at the table, as long as it played by the new rules. In that sense we had a secret from those around us. They had a right not to trust us. We were also interlopers, perhaps the worst kind, because we were offering a different rendering of their world, which seemed like a previous rendering of their world in terms of piety but a strange fruit culturally. Some of it came to the surface in culinary matters. We would bake whole wheat challah and rush it to our guests for Shabbos late Friday afternoon because we didn’t eat processed flour. We introduced many Hasidim to tofu, ginseng, vegetarianism, yoga, shiatsu, and health food. There were not many Hasidic Jews in Boro Park who had tasted vegetarian cholent (a traditional hot Shabbat dish normally made of beans, potatoes, and meat) until we came around.
One of the great spaces of cultural syncretism in those years was a kosher macrobiotic restaurant on 6th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues in Manhattan called the Caldron. It also had a small health food store right next door, Caldron’s Well. These were the late 1970s when punk was widespread. On a given night at the Caldron one could find a table of Hasidim talking Torah, a table of punks with pink mohawks and safety pins through their cheeks talking music, hippies with small disheveled kids, a shidduch date of straight-looking Orthodox Jews who had chosen the wrong kosher restaurant, a table of Hare Krishna folks, and next to them, black jazz musicians on a break from a gig a few blocks away talking Coltrane. The founder of the restaurant was an ex-biker hippie who had become a Lubavitcher Hasid, who was a kind of master of ceremonies of the bizarre syncretism he loved. He eventually moved to the Old City of Jerusalem, where he lives today, and left the restaurant to his first wife, who ran it for another decade until she had a child late in life and sold it. The Caldron was the main hangout for many of us in those years. We would sit there drinking bancha tea for hours and talk, learn, just breathe in the vibe of the East Village. We felt part of the counterculture and we secretly liked that. It was there I first met Yossi Klein Halevi, who was a one-time member of Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League and also part of the wider circle of Dovid’s “boys,” who had started a hip newspaper called The New Jewish Times. The front page of the inaugural edition in the late 1970s had a split screen photo of people at a raucous punk rock show and Friday-night davening at the Bobov Hasidic synagogue in Boro park—a study in comparative contrast. We felt like we were making a mark.
When I think about my exposure to Hasidic texts, I realize the very notion of critical study of these texts was so foreign, so utterly odd in those days, that I never thought much about it. I suppose we had the typical insider’s critique that those “scholars” could not really understand these texts, because a full understanding would require living the life, being “on the path,” as they say. Decades later, as I have spent a good part of my academic career doing that which I didn’t take seriously then, I can still sense the difference, and there is still some small voice in me that says, “If you hadn’t been there in some fashion, something would be missed here.” I don’t know if I believe it, and I also think those there miss something precisely because of that “thereness.” In any case, I can, and do, study these texts in a variety of often contradictory ways. My own academic approach does not eschew the traditional approach in principle. In fact, in my work on Hasidism I try to show that, in many cases, the texts lend themselves to the undoing of the traditional ways of reading them. This is not to suggest I have unearthed any esoteric meaning or have disclosed any essential nature of Hasidism. Rather, it is to suggest that the texts themselves contain multivalent layers and the lens one chooses to use as a reader can yield a variety of results that the texts themselves can sustain, even though in some cases those readings may stand in contradiction to one another. Here deconstruction has served me as a useful tool. My own allergy to normative readings of these texts comes in part because at a certain time in my life I was convinced that was the only way to read them. In that sense, my readings are products of my own internal battle with normativity and innovation.
Even during my years in Boro Park and Haredi Jerusalem these texts we studied often seemed to some of us to rub against the grain of the world that used them as a template for life and practice. Perhaps that is because some of our teachers, like Dovid and Aryeh Kaplan, were teaching these texts in quite iconoclastic ways, not necessary by choice but by design. Neither had received the tradition from the inside alone, each came to it from the outside and then, gaining literacy in the tradition, began to teach themselves. Kaplan was much more adept textually and also more conservative, albeit not as pious, as Dovid. But in general, what was happening among the subcultural Boro Park baalei teshvah Hasidim was a syncretistic exercise under the auspices of Haredism. We were living the life, in many ways more fully than our Hasidic neighbors, and we were spending the thousands of hours in study required to get our credentials. But we were a subculture. And although we would have denied it then, we were forming a new kind of neo-Hasidism.
This “movement” was being fed by Zalman Schachter, Shlomo Carlebach, the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, Chabad, Breslov, and the Orientalist veneration of Eastern Europe one can see in The Jewish Catalogs. We knew about Buber, Heschel, Gershom Scholem, and even Joseph Soloveitchik—but they didn’t interest us that much. We felt we were in the belly of the beast, and their writings were for outsiders: They were modern, they were not countercultural enough. We would rather just study the Hasidic texts they were studying and skip the scholars as intermediaries. We had no idea that they had value as more than interpreters of Hasidism. Years later, I learned how wrong I was.
Upon reflection, all of us were full of hubris in those years, the hubris of the “convert,” the discoverer of lost treasures, the late adolescence of thinking protest itself is a virtue. Maybe the same kind of hubris that, in earlier times, gave us Hasidism, or Woodstock Nation, or the American Revolution. But our battles were far smaller and more banal, but no less interesting for us. We were taken in by the romanticism of Hasidism until we realized that whatever Hasidism was, Hasidim were mostly like everyone else. That was our rude awakening. Those of us who stayed “inside” came to see our naiveté, but many thankfully never abandoned the notion that the world could be different than it is. In the end, Boro Park had its own conventionality and a dark side we only discovered later on. But for a few years in the late 1970s and early ’80s that immigrant neighborhood between the B train and the F train in Brooklyn seemed to us like a panacea where change was really possible.