Bnei Brak, the pulsating core of Charedic Judaism in Israel, was the destination for a recent trip I took with two friends. It has already become a tradition for us to go there on Sukkot. There are many events held during this special time in which Jews, and in Bnei Brak especially many Hasidim, sit, stand, dance, and joyfully pay homage to the one G-d together with their Rebbe in their huts. Bnei Brak isn’t merely another city. Its unique and distinct customs make it feel as if it’s a world unto its own. As we cross its borders, we often look at each other and say, joking, “We just left our planet.”
At this politically charged time in Israel, debates are intensifying around the structure and role of our judiciary – commonly referred to as ‘judicial reform.’ Often, these discussions, which touch upon the foundational governance and democratic systems of Israel, spiral into broader debates concerning the religious differences within Israeli society, highlighting the tension between secular and religious communities. There is an enormous amount of prejudice, and nothing is more dangerous than forming an opinion about a pre-judged person or society in one’s isolation at the screen. The point here is not to stand up for a group or society and remove prejudices, that would be quite unrealistic. It is a fact that we all have plenty to work on in our communities. The point is to show that sometimes when approaching and opening to the unknown, we get a mystical, almost sacred sense, that can occur across all divides and opinions, even if in the beginning we feel like aliens on a different planet.
Whenever entering new places it’s not a bad idea to do that with a clear and unbiased mind, otherwise, any positive experience can be ruled out from the start. And so, it is also part for the reader to read the following experience with a fresh perspective. As Rilke aptly said, ‘Works of art are so unattainable with anything as with criticism.’ The bottom line is that every moment and every person is a work of art after all. ‘Only love can grasp them and hold them and be just against them.’
How should I dress? From one side I hear, dress like everyone else there, and don’t stand out. The other side says to be as I am and not to change. I decide to stay as I am and go on my way in my joggers and comfortable polo shirt.
In Bnei Brak
A huge Sukkah, from which loud and cheerful music is booming, appears in front of us. From afar you can see the Hasidim jumping hand in hand on the bleachers. Between the stands sit the older Hasidim. Children are running around everywhere. The atmosphere is joyful. We are looked at but welcomed with a smile. Food lies openly outside. I look into a box with Challot (good bread). Should I take one? Or is it just for them? I am less risk-averse today and let it be.
In the Sukkah
Where should we stand? Stay outside where no one will see us, or go to the stands and dance with all the Hasidim?
On the Stands
To take the Hasid’s hand and dance, or not to? It is a question with two equally convincing answers, but deep down I feel that only by taking his hand, I’ll leave this place as a happier person. The Hasid next to us is probably asking himself the same question. Despite all the good music and kind smiles, there is a fear of contact. The alcohol-free malt beer on all the tables also doesn’t help to lose this fear.
When hot Kugel (baked casserole) blessed by the Rebbe is handed over to us
I am told to take only a tiny piece (with the hand of course) and eat it. My friend looks at me as I tear off a piece that already fifty other Hasidim had in their hands.
With the Kugel in front of my mouth
As uncertainty about the correct use of Jewish law strikes, I turn to my friend and ask: “Bro, I say a Bracha (blessing), right?”. I eat it and tell him „Please don’t tell anyone that I ate this.”
As my friends leave the Sukkah
Should I stay alone with all the Hasidim, or go outside to join my friends? Will I miss anything if I leave now? I think it through and try not to show any signs of uncertainty to the public, even if I’m now standing alone on the bleachers with two meters of space in all directions. Bearing in mind that I look completely different from everyone around me, there is no doubt that I have now attracted the attention of some bored Hasidim.
As the Rebbe looks me in the eyes (most likely he didn’t)
He probably noticed that I’m alone and don’t know where to go – I’m visibly torn. But I decide to stay and go up a step to dance hand in hand with the others.
Hand in hand with Hasidim
This is not the first time I’ve had this experience. But here I am, once again, intertwined in one of many human chains, each of us a link, dancing and swaying. That I even reached this point feels almost miraculous.
Twenty minutes after the Hasid took my hand
The Sukkah is shaking. Our hands are tightly chained and wet with sweat. The Rebbe cheers the crowd on with his hands. By now, I also know the song and sing it wholeheartedly while jumping up and down. We hold on tighter to each other as the sweat constantly causes our hands to slip. My glasses slip down from my nose, and at one point, I take them off and put them in my pants. A short look at the Hasid: He has now closed his eyes and seems to be in another world. Is it because of me? Because he knows that I’m not one of them and that this moment is a precious opening to the outside? Is it these moments that give our lives meaning? That you can step out of your comfort zone? That you can dance and sing and sweat with a person you would hardly notice on the street because they are so obviously different? Is that why the Rebbe looked at me? Because he knows it too? Is that why I left the house in my regular outfit, to allow such a moment to unfold?
As the sweat drips into my eyes
I can’t see the faces anymore, first because my glasses are gone, and second because the sweat trickles into my eyes and makes them blush and burn. What do the other Hasidim think when they see me like this? They think I’m crying. I try to look normal, but the huge sweat stain on my shirt, which is very visible due to the lack of a Bekishe (Chassidic coat) or suit, makes it very difficult for me. Do they think I’m just a crazy dude who comes for his portion of spirituality? But then I gaze at the crowd and (barely) see that at least half of them are all sweating and crying just like me.
When the fast music ends
Our hands come off after half an hour, and I swipe the sweat off my already-wet shirt. I don’t know the guy next to me, but I feel closer to him than to many people that I know. I wish the Hasid a “gut moyed” (greeting for a holiday on a weekday) and wake him up from his trance. He smiles at me and wishes it back to me. I stumble down the bleachers to find my way out. As another Hasid asks me if I need a paper towel, I think to myself, Oh Lord, let me please attract no more attention.
Back with my friends
They talk to each other, look at me briefly and go back to their conversation. They know nothing of my experience. I want to tell them, but understand with a heavy heart that this experience and confirmation of life and love cannot be described in a few sentences. It will have to be kept quietly by myself.
This experience was too big, too strong, and intense not to share. I will write it down. And in case my friends read it now, I like to imagine a smile on their faces, now that they know what stream of emotions was flowing through me at that moment when I met them outside the Sukkah. For them, I disappeared for a few minutes. But what I experienced in this half an hour will forever serve me as a well of inspiration and motivation in less joyful times.
My shared experience is neither a travel recommendation to Bnei Brak nor a praise to the Hasidic way of living. Such moments can happen anywhere and at any time. I simply want to show that personal encounters, which we can have so often, are more decisive than public widespread opinions about other societies. These superficial opinions adhere to society like a fine layer of dust, which, if you want, can be removed with a wipe, and the true relationship between two human beings becomes visible and shiny.
Eventually, it is up to the decision of offering a hand to the other or not. If I had not joined the Hasidim on the bleachers because of some uncomfortable feelings and doubts, I would have left the Sukkah shortly after, and what remained would have been a nice evening with some very different Jews. But this handshake, which lasted thirty minutes, strengthened something in me, and I strongly suspect also in the other, namely the certainty that despite everything we are not so different as everyone says, and together we have brought ourselves to a level where we are simply human beings who can dance before their Creator.
The fact that we are different is not bad, but our luck! What else would we work on all day? What else would we live for, to argue about non-existing problems in politics, to prepare for non-existing street fights in the gym? To escape into the mountains from inexistent stress and noise? What would we live for if we knew that there was complete peace in the world? What would there be interesting in the news? What would all the documentaries and movies we watch every day be about? We should be jumping for joy when realizing that being different is what gives life meaning!
I don’t think that the goal of us humans should be to pull others into our circle but to reach out our hands beyond the borders of our circle. This way we all end up in one big circle, in which the innumerable smaller circles seem to melt together. We reach out to each other to bring us to the certainty that you and I are nothing more than human beings who love each other – whether in traditional clothes or just joggers.