Photo by Marisha Camp
“Ach Sameach,” Chaim Rosenfelt said, writing the expression for me in Hebrew as he sipped clear liquor from a water bottle. “It’s one of the Mitzvahs for the holiday. Ach Sameach—O...
Photo by Marisha Camp
“Ach Sameach,” Chaim Rosenfelt said, writing the expression for me in Hebrew as he sipped clear liquor from a water bottle. “It’s one of the Mitzvahs for the holiday. Ach Sameach—Only Happy!”
It was 4 AM on Monday, September 23rd. I was in the Orthodox Jewish section of Brooklyn's Crown Heights nieghborhood. Around us other young teens were drinking and flirting in small groups, hundreds of men of all ages danced in ecstatic circles, trucks dolled out Kosher ice cream, and the streets were lined with hundreds of wooden shacks that hid groups of more men singing, drinking, and telling stories.
Chaim continued, “Should we pretend to be happy even though we’re sad? Or should we do what we otherwise shouldn’t to be happy? It’s unclear, but I will do anything in my power to be happy for the holiday.”
Grinning, he added, “Only legal stuff, of course!”
To less-Orthodox Jews and gentiles alike, the Hasidic lifestyle seems grim and austere. We imagine their days as gauntlets of prayer and synagogue visits, massive families in minivans, and a patriarchal rejection of modern life. Wild dancing in the streets until sunrise, cruising, and public intoxication are unusual associations, but for the first week of fall these are not uncommon sights in Crown Heights.
Capping off Judaism's High Holy Days at the beginning of fall, the harvest festival Sukkot is meant to remind Jews of their nomadic and agrarian past. Throughout the world Jews build wooden shacks with their neighbors. They eat all their meals inside for that week, and attempt to live the idealized social practices less possible year-round. Within this holiday is Chol HaMoed, a six-day reprieve from the rigors of typical holiday restrictions.
And within those days is Simchat Beit Hashoeiva, a resurrection of ancient Jerusalem’s water-bringing ceremony. When King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem still stood, Jews from around the region would bring their harvest to Jerusalem for a torch-lit and wine-soaked communal feast that Greek King Antiochus IV considered a parallel to Bacchanalian orgies.
In recent centuries the festival has been celebrated by Hasidic sects worldwide, but only by men and only in the synagogue. In the last two decades Crown Heights’s broader Jewish population has become renown for breaking the trend and bringing the party to the streets.
Photo by Gedalyal Gottdenger
The festival is funded and organized by the Hasidic sect Chabad, the world’s largest Jewish organization. An outgoing bunch, these are the guys who may have asked you if you’re Jewish, and if you said yes, may have wrapped a strap around your arm and put a box on your head—or just given you a Menorah. Unlike more conservative Hasidic sects, Chabad has a come-as-you-are attitude, believing that reawakening the souls of secular Jews will bring the Messiah sooner.
At midnight on Monday their huge synagogue on 770 Eastern Parkway (just 770 to locals) was filled with men praying, studying texts, and gathering around a television screen in the lobby to watch speeches by the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, thought by some to be the Messiah.
A few blocks from 770 was the block-long stage and dancing area for men. Women had a section on the sidewalk, but traditionally no dancing occurs there. Outside the cordon was a small clearing that my Hasidic friend Gedalya Gottdenger called the “singles area.” It was a scene out of a lowly fraternity’s mixer: drunk young boys milled about trying to attract the attention of the few girls their age in the periphery. The most ardent few might get lucky, Gedalya told me, but the vast majority, usually separated from the opposite sex during school and at synagogue, had no game and spent their night wandering in small packs, weaving around other groups of