I recently interviewed a friend who was born and bred in France and has moved to the Jewish community of Antwerp. The interview was conducted in French and translated by the owner of this blog. Thanks to SuperRaizy for proofreading it.
– Can you introduce yourself briefly?
I am 32 years old, have been married for almost 3 years and have a one-year old daughter.
– Where do you live and why did you choose to live there?
We live in Antwerp, right in the heart of the Jewish district. Leaving Paris for Antwerp seemed quite obvious for two reasons. First, my then future wife had been living there for three years and I was dissatisfied with the level of observance in Paris. Besides, I could not imagine asking my wife to move to Paris where life is so different from anything she had known in either Antwerp or in Amsterdam where she had grown up.
– What do you like best about living in Antwerp?
When you go to Antwerp for the first time you are struck by a number of things. First, the omnipresence of Jewish life; here every day life and Jewish life are synonymous. There is no place for religion as a hobby. Being religious is as natural and as vital as breathing.
Another striking element is the convenience. Hechsherim (religious certifications) are serious and one needn’t question their validity. It is not necessary to check them out. You can buy practically all Kosher certified products.
In addition, there is a wide variety of Jewish communities. Almost all Jewish movements exist here, with a strong emphasis on Orthodoxy – from Modern Orthodox to the strictest of Chassidim.
Finally, Antwerp has a vibrant Jewish community. Unlike other communities in Europe (Paris or Amsterdam for instance), the trauma of the Second World War did not shake the foundations of the “edifice”. Here there is no memorial to a lost world; life is steeped in the present.
In my opinion the strongest proof of the everlasting quality of the Jewish people is to hear children speaking Yiddish as a mother tongue right here in Europe, as if nothing had happened 60 years ago.
– Do you identify yourself as a Chassid?
I studied at a yeshiva in Paris (Yeshivat Yad Mordechai) whose Rosh Yeshiva was a strict Litvak, so I was rather prejudiced against Chassidism. Yet even before I was married I decided to wear a lange rekel (a long coat) and since my daughter’s birth I have been wearing a shtreimel. Then I discovered traditional Chassidic writers and what this movement had meant for the Jews of Eastern Europe. My overall vision of life gradually evolved as I witnessed how Chassidim live their faith in a festive atmosphere, which is joyous without ever being “light”.
– What Chasidic group do you associate with?
Last December I officially became a Makhnovka Chassid. It is a tiny group that has members in Antwerp, New York, London and Bnei Brak where the present rebbe lives. It is an old dynasty which originated in the village of Makhnovka (the former Komsomolske) in Southern Ukraine. Progressively it established ties with other Chassidic groups, particularly Belz, to which the present rebbe is linked via his mother. We have shared the same minhagim as Belz for quite a while now.
– Why did you choose this particular group?
I had been attending the Makhnovka shul in Antwerp for two years when I decided to go and visit the rebbe. I had the time to see if their minhagim and their point of view were for me. The visit to the rebbe in December confirmed what I had been feeling for two years.
Becoming a rebbe-chassid implies accepting him as a guide in all the momentous decisions of one’s life. You consider him to be the person who is able, through his insights into the “secrets” of the Torah and his knowledge of the sacred texts to perceive more truths than the rest of us. At the birth of our next child, im yirtsa Hashem, we’ll ask for his advice on what to name the baby.