I visit the mikvah twice a year: Erev Rosh Hashana and Erev Yom Kippur. Because I usually can’t make it till the afternoon, I go to the mikvah in a hassidishe shtiebel the next town over. They don’t provide towels, but they’re open all day.
This year, as I opened the door to leave the mikvah area for the anteroom, I faced a Hassid about to enter. He shoved past me and went inside.
A few paces later, another young Hassid with a red beard came briskly toward me. Avoiding eye contact, he elbowed me out of the way and walked past.
In the course of my day, I go in and out of many doors: of houses, office buildings, elevators. The general rule is for the person entering to stand aside to let the person coming out leave. This does not appear to be the usual case in our local hassidishe mikvah.
There are no printed rules or official training guides for entering and exiting doors. Parents don’t sit their kids down and tell them how it’s done. You generally learn from experience: watch what other people do, notice when people thank you for holding the door for them, or scowl at you if you don’t step out of the way when they’re trying to get out. Basically, you learn the rules by getting out and paying attention.
Some of the people I meet in the mikvah don’t seem to get out much.
But others do. A few years ago, as a number of men were getting dressed in the anteroom, a Hassidic man was speaking amiably and telling delightful stories out loud. Here is one:
A man answers the door and sees a woman with a suitcase. “Mother-in-law!” he says. “How long will you be staying?”
“As long as you’ll have me, son-in-law,” says the woman.
“What do you mean, mother-in-law?” says the man. “You won’t even stay for coffee?”
As you might possibly have guessed, this Hassid was Chabad. One reason for Chabad’s phenomenal worldwide success is that they take all comers. Every emissary (and wife) is warm, welcoming, and able to speak to anybody on his or her own terms.
This is helpful. If Chabad Hassidim spelled out their beliefs more clearly — about moshiach, about purity of Jewish bloodlines — the people they welcome might get a little uncomfortable. But most of the time, basic beliefs count less than a warm smile, a sympathetic ear, a good story, and maybe some schnapps.
Other Hassidim have beliefs too — about the role of their rebbe, about Kabbala — but these can be less important than their overall stance toward the rest of the world. Chabad gets out and about, while using its own techniques for shielding its inner core. The Big Idea for most Hassidim, however, is to turn within and stay in a kind of communal crouch that shuts out everything else as much as possible. This strategy helps preserve one’s way of life, but works against learning much about how other people lead theirs.
Of course it’s not just Hassidim who are ignorant of ways of life other than their own. I have the same problem with bars, never having entered one. If I did visit a bar, I wouldn’t know where to stand, what to order, where to sit, or how to behave. So I don’t go into bars, as much out of fear of seeming foolish and out of place and not knowing anybody as from any kind of principle.
Another sphere I know nothing about is the military. One of my zaydes was a drummer in the army of the Czar for several years. During his tour of duty, he was somehow able to keep kosher and go home every Shabbos. (Did the Czar’s enemies know about this?) I never served in the armed forces myself, spared by deferments for professional training and the end of the Vietnam War.
If I got a conscription notice today, I would fly into a panic: Would I have to stop covering my head? Shave off my beard? Eat non-kosher? Violate Shabbat and holidays? Whom could I ask? Nobody I know in my generation has served in the military either.
From my remote vantage in galut, I watch with concern the Israeli debate in the aftermath of the end of the Tal Law. I share the outrage of many that a large and growing segment of the population of the State of Israel feels alienated from the nation they live in and no obligation to defend it.
But here too there is more to people than the official policy pronouncements of their spokesmen. Haredim in Israel are much more insulated from society at large than even the most closed-off Hassidim in America.
I know how I would feel if someone told me I had to serve in the military. If I might hope that people could cut some slack in that area for me, Mr. Sophisticate himself, then perhaps I could work up some understanding, even compassion, for 600,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, or even how to step out of the way when a stranger opens a door in front of them and tries to walk past.