From Paris to Antwerp

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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.

Hush: a Short Book Review

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Hush by Eishes Chayil is a novel for young adults about sexual abuse in the Hassidic community of Boro Park. The story is told from the point of view of Gittel who – as a child – witnessed her best friend being abused. The narrative goes back and forth between the child-Gittel and the teenager who is about to get married.

This novel is quite subtle in that it is not a downright criticism of ultra-Orthodox Judaism but of the cover-up of such stories. Thus the guilty brother is sent to Israel and the narrator is prevented from testifying by her own mother. The narrator’s father is a complex character who obviously loves his daughter but fails to help her when she most needs it.

It is a powerful novel and one which stays with you for a long time after you have read the last page.

More thorough reviews:
Rabbi Fink’s review
Velveteen Rabbi’s review

A very poignant post: A Note From a Victim of Abuse

Mitzvah Girls

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This past week, I have been reading Mitzvah Girls – Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn by Ayala Fader. While Boychiks in the Hood reads like a travelogue with author Robert Eisenberg traveling around the United States and across the world to visit Hasidic communities and describing them rather briefly as he moves along, Mitzvah Girls is an in-depth ethnographic study of how Hasidic parents and communities educate girls so that they become “women responsible for rearing the next generation of nonliberal Jewish believers. ”

Ayala Fader did not concentrate on rituals and prayers, instead she listened to everyday talks between women and girls in homes, classrooms and other places where Hasidic interact. Sometimes she even recorded them. She thus primarily focuses on socialization through language and shows how it enforces strict gender roles.

I hope to find the time to review particular aspects of this book; for instance how girls are encouraged to “fit in” and how mothers and teachers deal with “defiance”. I was also very interested in the fact that men and women and thus boys and girls use different languages in their everyday lives – Hasidic Yiddish and Hasidic English respectively. The way these women see themselves and want to be perceived by the outside world is also quite fascinating.

The book is one which readers with an interest in Hasidic life, Jewish women and even gender studies will find riveting. Fader’s study is always respectful of the people she observes and she never guides our judgement, even when the attitudes she uncovers shed a negative light on Hasidic Jews.

10 Things I Love About Antwerp

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– It is a Belgian city. I have already mentioned how much I like Belgium. As the second largest Belgian city, Antwerp obviously has all the features I enjoy there.

– It has the largest Jewish community in Belgium.

– Walking through the Jewish area of the city feels a little like being thrown back into the sheitls of 20th century Europe.

– People speak Yiddish there in the streets, in the shops; even Indian diamond brokers speak it.

– There are dozens of Jewish stores, big and small. For someone like me for whom buying kosher products is a bit of a hurddle race, walking into those stores felt like being a child in a gift shop.

– The young butcher who served me was friendly and smiling and made me feel like an old customer.

– The linguist in me loves to hear people switch from one language to another. It is not unusual to hear people use three or four different languages in one store.

– We bought a new Chanukiah for the next holiday.

– We have some friends there so it is very nice to get some insiders’ insights into this place (its history, habits, food, …)

– I learned a lot more about Chasidism and feel far less judgemental about it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Who Is A Jew?

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This short post arose after a conversation I had last night with the mother of one of my friends.

My friend who was brought up in a French secular family married in Antwerp a year ago and has been living on the fringe of the Hassidim community since then. My friend’s mother was sharing news about her son’s various friends, some of whom I have met or at least heard of. She announced that one was getting married (to a Moroccon Jew) but that her son would not attend the wedding as this boy was not marrying a real Jew.

Later on in the conversation, she also mentioned that the same son had no desire to visit Israel since it is inhabited by people who are not real Jews.

I know Hassidic logic is not always easy to grasp but tese remarks left me with two questions.
– For a Hassid, who is a Jew?
– When the subject comes up with my friend, what can I answer him? I do not wish to argue for the sake of arguing but I do not want my silence to be interpretred as agreement.

Shavuot for Today

ruth-boaz.jpgAs Jews we don’t believe the Torah is a historical document, one to study like any other ancient text, but that God gave it to us to live with, in our time. Rabbi Levi Meier sums it up beautifully in Second Chances:

“The Torah is not meant to be understood only on an esoteric, philosophical level. It also constitutes a practical guide for how to live our daily lives.”

« Neither with you only (do I make this covenant), but with him that standeth here with us, and also with him that is not here with us this day » (Devarim 29:13-14)

Concerning the giving of the Torah, the Talmud is quite specific and understands the verses above as a clear reference to the generations of Jews to come and to the future converts who would later accept Judaism.

Consequently next week, when we hear the reading of the ten commandments and the following day that of the Book of Ruth, we are expected to hear these words not mainly as a historical record but as a message that is still relevant today.

Yet is it as easy today as it was 2,000 years ago? We live in a world that is shaped by painful historical events, rapid advance in science, psychoanalysis, new technologies… We have become more learned in lots of areas but also more sceptical.

Rabbi Levi Meier draws an interesting comparison between Naomi and the Klausenberger Rebbe that may be worth looking into and try to develop.

In Moab, Naomi lost a husband and two sons and her response to suffering was ethical. She was kind and made sure her daughter-in-law had a secure future. As for Ruth, after losing a husband and being left childless, she joined the Jewish people. The spiritual path she chose helped her make the right choices for herself and her mother-in-law who thus became the great grand mother of King David, the greatest king in Jewish history.

Rabbi Levi Meier recalls that despite losing his wife and eleven children during the Holocaust, the Klausenberger Rebbe still believed in life. He remarried, had seven more children and after settling in Israel in 1957 raised money for the establishment of key institutions to serve his neighborhood. These institutions include girls’ and boys’ schools and yeshivas, an orphanage, and an old-age home. He also set up a community hospital, “a very special institution where no patient is ever turned away and every employee is treated with dignity and respect.” He created a program called Mifal HaShas, in which students would master thirty folios of the Talmud in one month. Mifal HaShas continues to operate today worldwide.

His own response to his own suffering as well as that of the Jewish people was both ethical and spiritual. Could that be the message God still conveys to the Naomis, Ruths and Boazs of today?

For more posts on Shavuot, see:

– Leora: Ruth: Famine, Infertility and Ploni Almoni
– Leora: Truth and Beauty
– Leora: Ruth: Bitterness to Hope
Getting Ready for Shavuot?
Megillat Ruth

Hasidism: More Questions than Answers

hasidism.jpgAfter the wedding I attended two weeks ago, and because I was so amazed at the welcome we got there, I proceeded to buy a used copy of Boychiks in the Hood, by Robert Eisenberg, in order to broaden my knowledge and understanding of the Hasidic community. It arrived last week and I am currently reading it.

It is an easy and clearly written book yet, after having read about half of the book, I am left with more questions than answers.

After meeting two Satmar young men on a ferry and discovering that one branch, albeit a distant one, of his family were Satmar followers, Eisenberg decided to visit the Hasidic world. The book is an account of his journey into the Ultra-Orthodox world, a kind of travelogue. There are interesting meetings and the beautiful and moving story of the rebbe of Bobov, Shlomo Halberstam, who re-established the Bobover Hasidic dynasty in America after World War II.

However, pleasant as it is, the books also has its shortcomings. Although Eisenberg visited one community after the other and presents them in the seemingly chronological order of his trips, he never really explains the differences between the different groups. As a result I feel quite as frustrated as a coupe of weeks ago and wonder where I could find the answers to the numerous questions I have asked myself since.

What are the main differences between the numerous Hasidic dynasties? If you are new to Hasidism, how do you choose one group over another?

Do these various groups have minimal contact with one another or do they care what happens in the Hasidic world at large?

How can you distinguish one Hasid from another? If you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, why do clothes seem so important for Hasidic men? Does a low and broad shtreimel point to something different than a higher and more narrow one?

If women’s education is not encouraged in those circles, how come I sat next to a woman who could speak seven languages? I just can’t think that her family deemed it necessary for her to learn so many just to raise children and walk to the grocery store round the corner.

If computers are frowned upon, why did so many people at the wedding own a digital camera?

If they live apart from the rest of the world, what is their relation to modernity? Obviously they do not shun everything about our modern society. Unlike Amish people, they have modern dwellings complete with modern appliances.

If they are not Zionists, why do they sell far more Isreali products in their small kosher shops than American kosher items?

Any idea about where I could get more insightful understanding of the Hasidic world is more than wecome!

A Big Thank You

antwerp.jpgThe wedding is over. The ceremony took place yesterday and as the exchange with our Swedish partners starts in less than an hour, I have very little time to write about it.. Yet I want to say a big thank you to the kallah‘s community for their great welcome.

I am not sure why I had assumed the welcome would be tepid or at best pleasant but in fact it was warm and wholehearted. The hasidic community of Antwerp which hosted the wedding made sure everyone felt at ease and involved. They initiated conversations and expained the things that were not obvious to those who are not too familiar with their traditions and customs.

I am glad I was wrong. First because the whole evening was so festive and happy. We all enjoyed ourselves and will cherish the memories of this beautiful event. But above all, I am grateful to those people for having thrown me off base by such a display of kindness.

There is a saying in the Talmud which says that you should not ask your way to someone who knows you since you are sure never to get lost. I like the idea that we have to err before we can hope to get near the truth. Thus I feel I now have to ponder on the reasons for my assumptions, preconceived ideas and prejudices. An awesome task indeed!

Hasidic Judaism, Antwerp & Pictures

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Hasidic Judaism is a mystery to me. We share the same religion and pray the same G-d every day but I have very mixed feelings when I come across Hasidic Jews. I’ve met them mostly in Paris and Antwerp and they often make me feel uncomfortable. On the one hand I admire their seemingly unwavering faith but on the other hand I have a lot of problems with what I perceive of the way women are treated in those communities.

Girls are often married, at a very early age, to a man chosen by their fathers and soon have lots of children whom they push in prams that can contain two or three kids. lt usually makes me sad when I see the drawn faces of these still very young women pushing those carts. I guess I should not be judgemental yet I cannot help feeling that, in Hasidic circles, being born a man is a lot less hassle.

A young friend of mine, aged 29, is engaged to a woman from Antwerp. They met, through friends, at the end of October and announced their engagement in November. Thus Eli will be moving to Antwerp where they will live among the Hasidic community as his fiancée is a Chortkov Jew.

I’ve met her. She seems a nice and surprisingly open-minded woman, considering where she is from, but somehow it still makes me feel odd. I suppose I worry that one of the people I’ve been closest to in the past few years might become a bigoted, intolerant and prejudiced man who might start telling me why he no longer reads the books he used to enjoy reading, no longer visits museums or has stopped going to the movies.

Above all I fear I may lose a friend, someone I could confide to, since friendship between man and woman is frowned upon in those communities. Lastly I suppose his choices also makes me question my own and this is never easy nor painless.

To conclude (momentarily) on the subject, I’d like to share some photographs I’ve come across while browsing the web. They were taken in the Satmar community of Brooklyn.