Ex-Hasid at Rainbow: Memories of a Hasidic Tisch

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December 1, 2011
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Shulem Deen

Growing up as a Hasidic boy in Borough Park, Brooklyn, I would, on occasion, attend the tisch of one or another rebbe in my largely Hasidic neighborhood. None of them would have the impact of the tisch I attended in the all-Hasidic village of New Square, N.Y. — headquarters of the Skver Hasidim — one evening in December of 1988. I was thirteen years old, attending a Skver school in Brooklyn, and the principal had declared that all students were expected to participate.

We tend to use words to convey our experiences, but there are some experiences — including that evening in New Square — for which words are inadequate. For the first time, the tisch — the people, the food, bodies pressed tightly together, swaying in unison to slow and somber melodies, the Hasidim’s warm smiles, even their smells — inexplicably captivated me. Slowly, I was swept up in the fervor of the crowd, and when the tunes turned joyful, I joined the other Hasidim dancing in place, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, children and their fathers, yeshiva boys and the elderly, lifting their feet and stomping them on the floorboards. It occurred to me then, for the first time, that being a Hasid allowed for more than the daily grind of studying Talmud and adhering to the minutia of our religious laws.

Over the next decade or so, as my attachment to Hasidic teachings deepened and my religious views matured, I would come to see the tisch not merely as a place for song and dance, but as a vessel for experiencing the transcendent — what the behavioral psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences” — that is, moments of clarity when the whole cosmic mess that we call our universe is suddenly beautiful and orderly and one’s place within it is suddenly clear. In those moments, our very insignificance is suddenly magnified in a way that all we can do is tremble in awe at the wondrousness of our existence.

Twenty years after attending that first tisch, I left the Hasidic world, the only lifestyle I’d ever known. My departure was dramatic. The only way to assert my growing disenchantment with religious life — and a variety of psychological burdens it had imposed — was to detach from it completely, to undergo a change in appearance and behavior that led to the inevitable dissociation from former friends and family. Over the better part of the decade prior, beginning in my mid- to late-20s, I had begun to question and re-evaluate every one of my core beliefs, and, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay, found them lacking. Eventually, I found that I no longer believed in the Hasidic lifestyle, in the concept of divine revelation, in the very idea of the divine, or even the idea that we, as humans, can intuit the existence of anything beyond the empirical.

And then I was out, living as a secular New Yorker who didn’t observe Shabbat, didn’t keep kosher, didn’t attend synagogue or pray or perform any of the religious rituals that had, in my intensely religious years, been so meaningful. And through it all, I wondered: Where did secular folks go to experience that which I once felt at the tisch?

At one point, I wondered if a rock concert might do it. My mother, who had not been raised to be observant, told me of her experiences as a teenager listening to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, of attending Woodstock, and of the intensity of those experiences, to which she would later credit her religious awakening. I’d heard from Grateful Dead fans who described their experiences as being very similar to what they would later feel at a Hasidic rebbe’s tisch. But when I sought out such events, they evoked nothing at all.

And then one day it came, not with the full force that I’d wished for, but with an approximation of it, triggered by a Native American chant in the middle of the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. It was the summer of 2010, and I, along with a dozen friends, had taken off from our frenzied urban consumerist lives to participate in that year’s Rainbow Gathering, an annual event of living off the grid for several days with peace, love, and thousands of unshowered bohemians. We weren’t seeking spiritual experiences, but we went, rather, as tourists roughing it for the weekend, with scornful amusement.

Hai yana, ho yana, hai yah nah,” the crowd sang as several people sat on the ground and banged on their bongo drums. The steady rhythm increased as the numbers of percussion instruments of various shapes and sizes grew from an initial group of three or four into a circle of several dozen. Across an enormous meadow, several thousand people in circles like this waved their hands and shimmied their hips to the cacophonous symphony of drums, rattles, tambourines, and every other conceivable noise-making device, conventional or improvised.

Hai yana, ho yana, hai yah nah,” the crowd kept repeating, and after every repetition, they chanted a line or verse to the elements of nature, the trees, the mountains, the rivers, the sun, the moon, and the sky. One man sat on the ground in the circle’s center, swaying back and forth almost exactly like a Hasid in prayer or one sitting over a Talmud volume, and suddenly all I wanted was to join this circle and be part of it, to dance with these people, to feel what they were feeling.

“The rivers are our sisters… The trees are our brothers…

“We are one with the infinite sun, forever and ever and ever.

“Hai yana, ho yana….”

But I was no longer thirteen years old, no longer able to embrace the immediately gratifying without being cynical or detached. Though I wanted to join them, I kept wondering: “We are one with the infinite sun”? Really? “The rivers are our brothers”? What does that mean? The concepts didn’t work for me — even on the level of metaphor. As beautiful as the sentiments were, I wasn’t sure what I would do with them once I got back to Brooklyn, to alternate-side parking, to my cable bill, and to the perpetually unreliable G-train. I now lived deeply and fundamentally suspicious of anything that smacked of ideology or dogma, of subjective values presented as Great Truths. While I wanted to care more about the sun and the rivers and the sky, about loving my fellow humans radically, and about finding the sacred within our universe somewhere, I found that I simply didn’t.

Over time, as I thought back to that weekend, I realized that what I longed for was not the tisch of my past, but a return to a time and place when ideas moved me even if they didn’t make perfect sense — a time when I allowed myself to be fired up with passion for something, anything, because it held a “truth” that had made itself evident during a moment of inspired consciousness.

The following year, I accepted the invitation of a friend to attend a non-Orthodox Shabbat service at a synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Having spent a lifetime among the Hasidim and the ultra-Orthodox, I thought I had done enough praying to last me a lifetime. I had never before experienced a musical service — and when the congregation sang the traditional “Mizmor L’David,” I found myself unexpectedly moved. When the crowd rose to dance at the end of “Lecha Dodi,” I recalled the dancing at the rebbe’s tisch, the endless circle snaking around the large shul that often lasted for hours.

The congregation quieted down for the Amidah, the silent prayer, into which each worshiper disappeared with his or her private meditations. It had been years since I recited it, and I found myself tripping over some of the words, surprised at my loss of fluency — however minor.

Atah kidashta… You have blessed this day out of all days, as it is written in Your Torah: Vayechulu…”

I imagined a primordial world in which only God, Adam, and Eve had each other for company, when the two solitary humans looked around at the sun and the rivers and the trees and the sky, and declared, as the Midrash tells us they did: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai.” “How wondrous are your works, O God.” And for the loss of my faith, for being unable to fully embrace the mythic beauty of those words, from feeling detached from all those things that I once held dear, I stood and wept.

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Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious.com, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His articles have appeared in the Forward, Tablet, The Brooklyn Rail, the New York Daily News, and elsewhere. A former Skver Hasid, he now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this beautiful and poignant essay. Sometimes I can find some of what you describe, that sense of merging together in access to the transcendent, in Jewish Renewal circles — though it’s not the same; I come to Renewal as an adult, which means that these moments of connection are inevitably different for me than they would be for a child living in the immersive world you describe. Still: thanks for this meditation.

    Posted by
  2. A couple of points:

    1. Maslow wasn’t a behaviorist; he defined himself as a “humanist”.

    2. You claim you found something approaching the old feeling of transcendence at the Native American gathering – then go on to say you couldn’t become involved in it. You seem to be contradicting yourself.

    I sympathize with your experience. This is the problem with all religions, including Judaism. They present themselves as “theories of everything”, as being universally applicable – yet they can be demonstrated to fail. People genuinely try to use them to approach the “transcendent” – yet it doesn’t always work, and there is nothing in any of the world’s faith traditions that can deal with this in a way that doesn’t blame the victim.

    Posted by
    JDE
  3. I was wondering if Mr. Deen ever felt looked down because of him being a BT? and if he did, was it a reason for him leaving the faith?

    Posted by
    Jingle
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