Saturday, July 20, 2013

Meet the Hasids: Getting to know the people who scared me 

This past spring, I went looking for a family of Hasidic Jews, neighbors I had avoided in my youth, to make amends and learn about Judaism. As someone who grew up with no religion, I saw this effort as my own tiny project to promote harmony. Maybe I couldn’t solve conflict in the Middle East, but I could increase my own understanding and tolerance.

I lived a few doors down from the Hasidic family when I first moved from Dallas to Los Angeles to stay with my dad and stepmom. The three of us occupied a tiny house of 500 square feet, like an outhouse that had sprouted additional rooms as an afterthought. I was 10 and slept on a sofa. That house was dwarfed on all sides by apartment buildings. We tumbled out the front door like a clown family from a too-small car. I would have felt more self-conscious, but this was a neighborhood of misfits: single moms, eccentric elders, late-night yellers. Perhaps none more strange to me than the family of Hasidic Jews who occupied a shabby apartment complex on the corner, the front yard crammed with old playground equipment and quarantined by a low but sturdy fence.

Some of the Hasidic boys were my age. I had never seen anything like them. They had tassels at their waists and curls at their ears. In those years, I went “boy crazy” and even they were weighed as romantic partners; we made odd imaginary pairs. I would see them in the evenings walking in their uniform of tiny suits with the rest of their family: one dad and one mom, and a string of siblings from big to small like stairs stepping down.

For all the time I had spent eyeing those kids, I never once spoke to them, nor they to me. Whatever made their world operate was so different from the particulars of mine; it was like we occupied dimensions so distant that any sound I might utter would dissipate before it reached their ears. I had the idea that they might be an optical illusion, a projected image on a screen; if I sneaked up and looked behind it, I’d see only dust bunnies and boxes.

Back in L.A. for a visit, I drove past the old apartment building and spied a Hasidic man standing nearby, though whether it was the same family as before I didn’t know. Almost 20 years had passed.

I looked at a map of the area and found an Orthodox synagogue seven blocks from that corner. I knew that, as ultra-Orthodox Jews, they’d live within walking distance of their place of worship. I didn’t know if that was the right synagogue, but decided it was worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen? I’d celebrate Sabbath with some Jews. I called, and made sure they were all right with visitors and to see if I needed to cover my hair. A rabbi with a voice like Joe Pesci said, “It’s not important your hair.”


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