Hipster Hassids

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:36

    This summer’s latest flesh-hungry American Apparel ad features a black-hat Hassidic gentleman looking mysterious above some hot, gold-scripted Hebrew letters. Of course it triggered memories of Matisyahu, Y-love and last summer’s Australian post-orthodox “hipster Hassid” boyfriend. He led me to my own Jewish identity and granted me my first threesome—with an Israeli (formerly) ultra-conservative Jew, of course.

    The personal is political, and I, a half-Jewish girl, had never dated a Jewish guy. I always said that since my dad’s Jewish, it’d be just too close to home. As a 27-year-old feminist who’s lived around the world, I’ve gone global and dated almost every other nationality, religion and race. Maybe in more happy, traditionally Oedipal homes, girls want to date someone like Dad. I was always more into blue-eyed blondes: Germans, Scandinavians (very creepily like my Ukrainian-born mother) or Asian men.

    My mother married my New York Jewish dad most likely to spite her very old-school, anti-Semitic parents. I grew up agnostic, like both my parents: My Dad loves Christmas and my mom is into Zen. However, when my parents had a particularly bad fight, when all the usual insults weren’t quite enough, she’d use the most heinous: Jew.

    My father, full of his own brutal comebacks, seemed happy to escape the Yeshiva ghetto of the Bronx and celebrates Christmas with his goy wife and secular children. I studied philosophy, Buddhism and even taught yoga, but I’m still seeking a spiritual place that I can comfortably call home.

    My mother took us to her Orthodox Christian church on major holidays, but she was philosophically opposed to religion for what she called its “simplistic divisiveness,” and pulled us out of our Ukrainian cultural school when we brought home colorings of Jesus completed in religion class. It’s almost quaint: I deeply related to Margaret in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as a half and half whose parents left it to her to decide her final religion. My sister is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, and I keep it ambiguous and “spiritual.”

    But secretly, there was nothing I liked more than celebrating the Sabbath at my Orthodox Jewish neighbor’s home.

    Only with them did I attend synagogue and explore the wonder of the Purim tent. Their family, unlike at my atheist home, did not fight, did not strife and gave me the acceptance I was so urgently seeking.

    In college, I always called myself “culturally Jewish,” because kvetching and schticking were in my blood. It was only when studying in Paris—in the Marais, the gay/Jewish neighborhood of all places—that an Israeli hostel owner told me there was a Pinsker Street in Israel. I learned via the web that my ancestor, Leon Pinsker, helped found Zionism. At that time I was living with my German-blooded, Lutheran-raised very American boyfriend. So, of course I had to screw that up.

    Soon enough, I found myself (surprise, surprise) dating a self-declared “post-modern Orthodox Jew.” Where did I meet him? Well, the tall, handsome hipster—blond-haired and blue eyed with a lovely Australian accent—lived in Crown Heights. He played breakbeat music and could easily rock his yarmulke in Williamsburg as street fashion as well as for Friday nights at Temple. He chose not to wear his tassels and payos as I later learned he was a pick and chose Hassid. I met him on the vehicle for most twentysomethings in NYC: Myspace.

    After chatting each other up online, I met Ezra IRL, he seemed charming, like that world-beat boyfriend I’d always wanted. He also seemed into spirituality, a rarity for scenesters, and I guessed that he might be Jewish.

    “I consider myself a Heeb,” I told him. And then, on our first real date, I learned that Ezra was kosher, as in, he lived in rabbinical students’ quarters and worked for a kosher rabbi.

    I discovered he had taken Jewish Studies at uni and transformed into a post-modern Orthodox Jew by choice. Later I learned this movement, “baal teshuvah,” the return to faith, was becoming more and more common. Being born Jewish, his means of study became a kind of self-identity worship and greatly increased his self-esteem, if not arrogance. He reveled in Jewish holidays and keeping kosher—at least when he was not with me, the semi-shiksa.

    I invited him to a potluck hosted by a Jewish friend who hadn’t been to temple since her Bat Mitzvah. He told me that he announced to the community in Crown Heights he was looking for his b’shert (soulmate), a wife. After drinking and dancing, I asked Ezra if he wanted to come home with me. “Great, I’ve been wanting to all night,” he said, and my skin tingled. We kissed on the street and went back to my place. There were no holes in sheets involved; he took everything off when we got into bed—even his  fashion yarmulke.

    Soon I invited him to a concert in Central Park. He brought a friend, Moshe, a Chassidic womanizer. I asked Ezra how that was possible. “Well, the last time I saw Moshe, he told me that he’d discovered anal sex and that it was the perfect way to evade the virginity doctrine.” Moshe fully lived up to his reputation. Another handsome and well-dressed Aussie, the only tip off that his heart lived for God was his yarmulke and predilection for kosher wine, which Ezra had brought.

    “I see what you’re attracted to,” I told Ezra later that night in bed. “It’s like a community of people who will love and support you, and it’s awesome. I want to belong, too!” He agreed with me. “But you have to pay the price: the dogma,” I continued. “That part sucks.” He sighed, in agreement—or so I thought. 

    Drinking with M. and Ez at a local bar, we went out to share a cigarette and a kiss. “How does it feel to date a Goy?” I asked Ezra.

    “How does it feel to date a Yid?” he replied.

    “Well, I’m sort of easy,” I said.

    “I’m hard,” he said, and we kissed.

    Later, Ez invited me to a Chassidic hip-hop show with a black rapper, Y-Love, who, like Matisyahu, converted to Lubavitch Chassidism. For the first time, I saw NYC’s hipster Hassid community—everyone from jappy trustafarians to drunk Hassids in yarmulkes. One hit on my sister by yelling in Yiddish that they were just married. When he found out that she wasn’t (technically) Jewish, he shouted that they were divorced.

    “I hope I brought my sheet tonight,” said M. He met a gorgeous mocha-skinned model at the Y-Love show and came back excitedly after talking to her and shouted, “She’s Muslim! I might have to tear out some stitches tonight!” I discounted M. from my feminist in-circle and suspected that I, too, might be a wild oat that Ezra was sowing, so I confronted him with this.

    “You’re confusing me with Moshe,” he said and put his arm around me and kissed my forehead. I was relieved.

    Then, Ezra went off to Israel to renew his visa. He came back from Tel Aviv, knocking on my door just as I was exiting a lavender bath filled with a few tears for my missed one. How did he create these intense romantic moments? We kissed each other’s eyes. He gave me a chamsa (a talisman). As we lay in bed, he promised he’d call me for Shabbat dinner after he revealed he’d become even more religious. I told him that he loved God and I trailed off—not knowing what else to say.

    Ezra never called for Shabbat, and I wound up going alone. On the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, I dragged my sister and her Bengali-born (and therefore Muslim) boyfriend to the Chabad House, home of Hipster Hassids everywhere. This one was hosted by a 28-year-old, formerly-dreadlocked rabbi and his 21-year-old wife who used the word “dude” a lot.

    Religiously, Shabbat is supposed to be a time of freedom from ordinary concerns to focus on family and one’s relationship with God, to relax and trust Hashem to keep you alive for one day without your own efforts. Socially, Shabbat is a dinner party which doubles as a dating service—and people get hammered.

    “I’m Orthodox, I can hold my liquor!” the hosts’ brother shouted after his sixth shot. The boys were high-fiving across the table.

    I told those gathered that I was dating a Lubavitch guy much to the disappointment of the Parisians I’d met. (“What a mitzvah,” they’d laughed, “She’s a French teacher!”) We, the guests, confessed to our backgrounds: non-Jewish mother and a Christmas-loving Dad who were both agnostic; my sister’s boyfriend, a Muslim. We’d all have to convert according to the Lubavitch.

    After that lonely Rosh New Year, I emailed Ezra. “If you can’t welcome me into your world, then I can’t welcome you into mine.” We met for tea, and he told me that I was beautiful, intelligent, amazing, fantastic and would make a wonderful wife.

    “So what’s the problem?” I asked.

    “You’re not Jewish,” he said.

    “I am; I’m Reform,” I told him, knowing I hadn’t been to synagogue since my friends’ Bat Mitzvahs.

    “You’re not halachically Jewish.” Oh, of course, I thought. Why was he thinking marriage after only a few months? This was unheard of in New York and quite possibly the most flattering break-up I’d ever had. I went home immediately to look at my new bookmarked website, jewfaq.com, to find out what the word meant. It meant Jewish according to Jewish law that, since my mother wasn’t Jewish, I wasn’t. I was excluded on a technicality.

    The wandering Jewess in me was heartbroken, I started dating a grafitti artist named Jon but I continued to see Ez. It was a classic love triangle: Jon loved me, I loved Ezra and Ezra loved God.

    Perhaps for the worst reasons, I decided to go to Israel to explore my roots, through an organization that specializes in educating Jews with little or no religious background. When I told my mother I was going to Israel, she encouraged me to read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and to exercise caution. Dad said the same and added a small, “Mazel tov.”

    In Israel, God was everywhere. He was in the cobble alleyways of Tsafat (where the Material Momma owns property), lit by Hanukkiah and echoing with prayer. I went to Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum) and saw my relatives’ names: 150 had perished during the War.

    When I first told Ezra that I was of Ukrainian origin, he said the words “Babi Yar.” I nodded, pretending to understand, but I had no clue what he was talking about. At the massacres at Babi Yar in the Ukraine, over 300 Jews died. At that time, my grandparents were enslaved in German forced-labor camps. Hitler hated both my parents’ identities; it was another unifying theme for a half-Jew like me.

    I saw Pinsker Street in Jerusalem; it was snowing that day in December and was pronounced a small miracle. Over challah and wine, I told my hosts that, like many young people, I was rebelling against my hippy parentage by seeking structure and returning to the faith. A pantheist bookshop owner sat at the table, along with the owners of a healing arts center in Tsafat and a feminist transdenominational female rabbi, all  said that I was welcome there.

    In a hike in the desert, I crawled on my belly in a narrow cave where Jews hid from the Romans. There were no lights, but we sang the classic Jewish song of survival: “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear, no fear at all.”

    I found a path back to spirituality that I never really owned as a yoga teacher. The book, The Jew in the Lotus, tells the story of all those who come to the Dalai Lama asking for spiritual guidance; his response was, “Look to your own faith.”

    The question for me became, was it mine to have?

    One day I summoned all the courage I had, and I asked our rabbi and trip leader if I was Jewish or not? “You have a Jewish soul,” he told me. I breathed a sigh of relief. Good, I’d always thought so. “You are a part of the Jewish people but not part of the Jewish religion.” That was exactly how I had felt growing up. “Besides if you meet a nice Jewish boy…” he began. I already had, and he broke my heart.

    When I came home, I saw my grandmother in the Bronx and handed her a talisman. I told my grandma what brought me to Israel. “You’re Jewish to me,” she said. Put better by another famous half-Jew, Gloria Steinem, “Some of us are becoming the men they want to marry.” I had shabbos with my childhood friends in Brooklyn, and I have been going to temple almost every Shabbat (it’s Reform). This summer, I’m planning to go to the Ukraine.

    I still think of Ezra and what he meant to me. He’s moved on. He’s back home in Australia still playing breakbeat music and remains “a frightening testament to the faith.” Maybe it didn’t work, and he’ll never accept me as Jewish. But I’ll wear my chamsa with pride and say, “Yes, I am Jewish” to all those Lubavitchers.