Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Shabbos in the City

By guest contributor Blake Landau

It’s 12pm and I’m in Crown Heights. It's my first time in this Jewish enclave in New York’s biggest borough. I have erased all material evidence that I come from another world, dressed modestly under a long black coat that belts at the waist. I spot two girls with long manes draping over the park bench. My Santa Cruz friends Sarah* and Rivkah* are waiting for me.

Sarah’s over-sized Jackie-O glasses greet me. I am happy to recognize my friend’s chutzpah. She hasn’t traded in her hippie-dom. Sarah wears a teal skirt covered in eyelets with many layers, like a cake.

Looking around, the young women here don’t wear clothing of the “old world.” They look chic and hip, in an Anthropologie sort of way. Like most New Yorkers, the men walk with intent. They are coming and going from 770. The older guys huddle in circles. The day is cold and the streets are scattered with giddy children in kippas.

We wander around East Broadway only walking the periphery of the Jewish area. The streets are quiet and calm farther away from the excitement outside of 770.

At 1:30pm Rivkah, Sarah and I head to the house of Shneur Zalman, a rabbi who has opened up his home to us for Shabbos lunch. We come upon a warm colored brownstone. A young pretty girl answers the door. Her name is Misha’el. She wears a black knit sweater, a shawl, and a skirt that drapes to the floor. She holds a prayer book, and, with an inviting smile, nods us to come in. We follow her quiet footsteps along the wood floor up to the kitchen where we meet Meirav.

At the top of the stairs a wide eyed three-year-old, Rachel, peaks her head out and squeaks in surprise. Her mother Meirav is close by in the kitchen doing light preparation for the meal.

Meirav appears to hold no skepticism. She doesn’t mention my Asics or Sarah’s teal layer cake. Toys are dispersed on the floor, and Meirav laughs about the inevitability of their destiny there.

While we wait for the other two children and the rabbi, Rachel plays target practice with our heads. When we cajoled her we hadn’t anticipated a three-year-old would have the arm-strength of Derek Jeter. We laugh when Sarah, without her Jackie O’s, almost loses an eye.

Children always succeed in doing two things: providing entertainment and neutralizing the atmosphere of any room.

Misha’el tells us about the shawl she is wearing. How grandmother’s cashmere flannel shawl from Russia, the fabric and style has been appropriated by the fashionistas of Park Avenue. Though the siblings fight for the relic, the grandmother prohibits it leaving the property.

We hear clumsy footsteps on the other side of the wall and Meirav casually confirms which child will tumble through the door first. Isaac then Joseph, both toddlers, come breathlessly bursting through the door. She knows the rhythm of her children’s footsteps.

Following the boyish energy that poured in the room is the rabbi, Shneur, a gentle, jovial man with the presence of a quarterback.

Hungry, we gather around the ornate table to say the prayer for the wine. But Shneur’s efforts are thwarted by syncopated outbursts from his children. I actually find the chaos comforting. The boisterous kids ease my nervousness about my own faux paus. On Shabbos, I often feel clumsy and awkward in my Reform-Judaism-skin. I am especially unversed in the nuances of the Lubavitch.

Fluffy New York challah is circulated. The gefilte fish glitters with pink rosy specks. Two different fresh salads, lox, hummus and babaganuoche are passed around the table. Rivkah, Sarah and I devour the meal with our eyes before lifting a fork.
I of course, forget there will be more food, and have my fill.

The conversation is polite, until the name Matisyahu is mentioned. Seemingly mild-mannered Misha’el bursts into an animated uproar. The next ten minutes the table engages in a heated back-and-forth about the future of Matisyahu’s career. Misha’el thinks the reggae rocker is a one hit wonder and his fifteen minutes of fame are almost up. Meirav’s British brother, clad in a pink collared shirt, vehemently disagrees. Shneur plays devil’s advocate to all parties.

The cholent is meaty and savory. A dish of carefully prepared fried chicken is shared. I am amazed by the nonchalance of everyone. They seem un-phased by the decadence of the meal.

Rachel grabs a fire truck from the floor and sets off the siren. After two minutes Meirav muffles the modern toy’s screams by moving the device into a neighboring room. The table is relieved when, all on her own accord, Rachel returns to the room that houses the truck and turns the noise off.

A diverse and colorful arrangement of cakes and candies are arranged on the table after dinner. Brownies, smooth, thick and dark, in pristinely cut squares, are placed under our noses. Sarah consumes enough kosher vodka to knock out a small army, and Shneur Zalman jokes that Rivkah will have to carry her home. As we serve ourselves I remember I have never met this group of people in my life, and they expect no return on this five star meal.

"Sarah consumes enough kosher vodka to knock out a small army, and Shneur Zalman jokes that Rivkah will have to carry her home."
Isaac sits on top of a cousin’s lap and eats sweets until his father encourages him to only have one more. Sarah, in her sweetest voice, reminds Isaac that if he eats treats he will get fat. Rivkah and I freeze. The California college kid-speak and the Crown Heights-speak have crossed. Seinfeld called it the “collision of worlds.”
On my way to the bathroom I notice the kitchen sink piled high with silverware. Nechama Dina rarely says anything through dinner but pleasantly sits watching her children.

I catch a moment when Shneur Zalman, with flushed cheeks, looks at Rachel with eyes of love and encourages her to smile. I imagine the strength it takes to take care of three little children, with another on the way, feeding extended family at a moment's notice, and college students. I forgot to mention her ability to do this all with grace and composure.

Shneur Zalman serves us black coffee in delicate glass cups. Misha’el and I lean in and whisper about dating and marriage. Mostly she talks and I listen. Misha’el tells me of her time in New York, away from Florida, where her parents run a Chabad center. She is here one year, teaching in Manhattan at a pre-school on the upper west side. We are the same age. She wants to meet her match, but informs me of the insular nature of the Lubavitch dating scene. She is very discrete in her language and polite in her word choice. She hardly touches the liquor poured for her.

She tells me of the way some girls daven on the subway each morning, but she likes to wake up in time to daven in the privacy of her aunt’s home. She talks of what it would be like to live in the “outside world,” and tells me of the choice she makes every day to fulfill her daily rituals.

Three quarters through the meal I realize how unbelievably relaxed and happy I am. I am unsure if it’s the Lubavitch community’s trademark liquor, the myriad of beautifully prepared foods, or the kindness of strangers.

I think about my gentile professor at UC Santa Cruz, Earl Jackson, Jr., and the way he praised Shabbos as a unique time for contemplation and reflection, and how surprised I was at this statement coming from him.

After many l'chaims, song, and the celebration of Sarah’s Jewish birthday, I am still genuinely shocked by the complete generosity of this family.

After three months in what has been described as the meanest city in the world, I am elated by the good nature of this family, and a religion I had all but abandoned.

*All the names have been changed.

Blake graduated UCSC in Fall of this year with a degree in Modern Literature and the History of Art and Visual Culture, and currently finished an internship at Blackbook Magazine in New York City, New York. During her time at UCSC, she edited the music and arts desks for City on a Hill Press. She has interned at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, SOMA Magazine, and a think tank on foreign policy.


Anonymous Zev said...

Sounds like a really meaningful experience. I've only experienced Jewish events with Chabbad Hassidim in California on Shluchos. It must have been sweet to be right smack in the middle of the Lubavitcher world (or their main headquarters) for Shabbat. I'm jealous-but then again I haven't even been to NY. To many more beautiful Jewish experiences, L'chaim.

Thu Apr 06, 07:05:00 PM 2006  

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