Simchas Torah is a festive Jewish holiday, a commemoration of the completion of the year-long cycle of reading the Torah. I’d heard that many particularly exuberant celebrations took place in the ultra-orthodox Jewish enclaves.
Because I was curious to witness these celebrations, and because I was, in a larger sense, searching for my own Jewish identity, I decided to ride up to the Hasidic enclave in Williamsburg to see what was going on.
In the early evening, I got on the bus heading up Bedford Avenue. I was alone because my wife didn't think going there was necessary enough to hire a babysitter for our two-year-old. I actually preferred it that way; I felt I was on my own exciting expedition. I was surprised that the number of people on the bus sharply dwindled as we approached Williamsburg until I realized that this was, of course, a Jewish holiday with traveling restrictions.
When I stepped off the bus, I took a few deep breaths to settle myself before I set out. I passed mothers pushing large, plush carriages with chrome-spoked wheels, always with several small, well-disciplined children hanging on. In many of the families, the children were wearing matching outfits, as if they were all cut from the same mold. I supposed clothes were easier to pass down that way.
Men rushed by in black satin suits, their long coats flaring out from behind as they hurried past. I started to follow a group of several men, a discrete distance behind, for a couple of blocks. When they reached their destination, they turned together, like a flock of black birds, and climbed up the concrete steps into an otherwise nondescript building. The only thing that would differentiate it from any other building on the block was a white sign over the door that bore a string of black Yiddish lettering.
I was astonished to see Max Sussman, the metal-shop teacher with whom I worked in our junior high, standing outside this shtebl. He was wearing a simple gray suit, rather than the black uniform of the ultra-orthodox. I was speechless. I walked over to him and said, “Hey, Max. What the fuck are you doing here?” I had long known that unexpected profanity was humorously ingratiating, but also kept people at arm’s length.
He smiled at me but revealed little. We were never particularly close at school but I told him, “You know, I’m kinda uptight about going in.” Then, “Look at me.” I had a well-trimmed goatee rather than a full beard, and my hair was fashionably long, for the era. And I was wearing a tan sports jacket and a shirt and tie.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be okay,” he replied, then asked, “You got a yarmulke?”
I shook my head. He pulled a plain black skull cap out of his coat pocket. “Here you go.”
“I don’t know, Max. I don’t know if I should.”
“Aw, go ahead, already. Go on in.”
So I pressed the yarmulke against my wavy hair and walked up the steps. The front doors were wide open and I heard muffled music that seemed to draw me further in. I slowly passed several young boys standing in the doorway who stared at me as if I were an alien. Their deep dark eyes, contrasted against their pasty white faces, were filled with suspicion, or, perhaps, they were examining me because I was so obviously different. The place was crowded with boys and young men who let me pass as they, too, gave me the once-over. The music grew louder and more insistent.
I found myself looking out into an wide-open expanse, below street level, that seemed much too large for the building that housed it. Men were dancing together in a large circle, and I was enthralled by the hypnotic energy emanating from the center. I stood watching for a while. I marveled at the exuberance of the dancers and their unbridled joy, their ecstatic faces turned upwards amidst the delirium and frenzy. Larger circles spawned smaller ones and then these circles, too, became concentric. Writhing wheels of jumping, twirling, gyrating men were spinning faster and faster to the quickening music. I felt I was being inexorably drawn into this vortex of immense passion and intense longing – a force field of raw energy, an emotional inferno of dreams and terrors, of amorphous cravings and yearning.
I stood on the top stair and held onto the bannister for dear life, for, all of a sudden, I was stricken with panic. I felt woozy and dizzy and out of control. My heart was pounding and my head was throbbing and I had trouble catching my breath. I was holding onto that bannister not only to stop from falling, but also to stop myself from descending into that maelstrom of madness, for what else, I wondered, could it have been?
The room darkened and I became aware of a smoky, hazy, almost non-existent luminosity right in the center that had not been there only moments before. The undulating mass of delirious dancers whirled and swirled, their unrelenting momentum swelling and heightening around it. This disturbance, this disruption, this unexpected quantum shift in the fundamental fabric of a reality that was no longer so absolute, seemed to quiver and flicker like an afterglow, like a vague reminiscence, like a phantasm that exists only far out on the periphery.
Suddenly, there was silence, utter stillness. The music stopped between notes. The dancers stopped mid-step.
Whatever it was remained there for uncountable seconds as time lost meaning. Then, that singular essence began to slowly recede. When nothing perceptible remained, several overhead lights abruptly went back on. At once, men and boys ran to the center of the room. Many of them were moaning and prostrating themselves, kissing the floor, as others were pounding their chests and wailing, a collective ululation, a cry of thankfulness and a desperate desire for more.
When I exhaled, I realized I had been holding my breath. I had to get the hell out of there; it was all too damn much. I turned and frantically careened through the crowd of oblivious men who were forcing their way in. I stumbled down the steps to the sidewalk. Then I looked for Sussman, but he was no longer out there, nonchalantly leaning against the wrought iron fence, handing out his black yarmulkes.
Somehow, word had gotten out. I had to fight my way through a mob of black-garbed men with crazed looks on their faces who were maniacally running in the direction I was coming from, the soles of their leather shoes clacking and scuffling and resounding like hoof beats against the concrete sidewalk. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was so much fever, so much fervor, so much faith and hunger, so much reverence inflamed by hysteria.
Finally, I got to Lee Avenue, where I was able to catch the B-44 bus back to our Brooklyn apartment. As I sat, stunned, in the back of the almost empty bus, I tried to figure out what had happened, and, perhaps equally as important, what to say to people. Ultimately, I decided to keep my mouth shut – until now, that is. After all, who would actually believe me?
Now, after more than forty years have passed, I still find myself running in the opposite direction, running away from what others run towards. I sometimes feel like the cartoon character who backpedals and brakes with a screech as he nears the dangerous cliff of commitment or conviction.
The drum that reverberates within often seems to be one beat off, or its rhythm is too fast or too slow, or its syncopation never quite matches the dance steps of those around me.
My music is sweet, yet sorrowful, and the melody is almost always in a minor key.
Rev 6 / March 6, 2004 .. Rev 8 / September 27, 2017
September 27, 2017 Copyright © 2017, Lloyd B. Abrams
-- Appeared in Grassroot Reflections Number 44, November 2017