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Boychiks in the Hood is your passport to the Hasidic "underworld" -- a destination far different from popular expectations. Join Robert Eisenberg as he hangs out with an ex-Deadhead in Antwerp, makes a pilgrimage to the grave of the revered Rebbie Nachman in the Ukraine, munches mini-bagels with Rollerblading kosher butchers in Minnesota, discovers the last remaining religious Jews in Poland, talks sex with a karate-champion-turned-rabbi in Israel, and more.Simultaneously respectful and hilarious, Boychiks in the...
Boychiks in the Hood is your passport to the Hasidic "underworld" -- a destination far different from popular expectations. Join Robert Eisenberg as he hangs out with an ex-Deadhead in Antwerp, makes a pilgrimage to the grave of the revered Rebbie Nachman in the Ukraine, munches mini-bagels with Rollerblading kosher butchers in Minnesota, discovers the last remaining religious Jews in Poland, talks sex with a karate-champion-turned-rabbi in Israel, and more.Simultaneously respectful and hilarious, Boychiks in the Hood is a surprising and unforgettable journey through the world's flourishing Hasidic communities that reveals this vibrant tradition as never before.
Several years ago, crossing the English Channel from Belgium, I encountered a strange apparition: two gaunt yeshiva boys floating across the deck, their earlocks, or payess, swinging wildly. On an impulse, I called out to them in Yiddish, which I had learned as a child from my grandmother, one of the few people over age forty to have survived the concentration camps. I had extremely long hair, and they stared at me as if I were some sort of extraterrestrial. After a charged moment, they responded warmly, inviting me to their cabin, which had four beds but only two occupants. To the gentle lulling of the ship, the two pimply religious school lads — on their way home from a trip to Antwerp to get advice from a well-known sage — offered me a Judaic version of brimstone and hellfire, something I'd never encountered in the suburban Reform Sunday school I'd attended as a child.
Hell most certainly exists, they assured me. It is a place where the neshuma, the soul, is tossed back and forth like a hot potato, for eternity. This they began to act out, passing an imaginary basketball with the nimbleness of the Harlem Globetrotters. For eternity, one repeated, waving his finger at me. Not just the soul, the other added with a touch of drama, but the entire body. One is tossed into a vat of ordure and left to stew, also for eternity. They continued in this vein throughout much of the night, rocking back and forth on their beds, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Every so often, a bony hand wouldappear in front of my top bunk from somewhere below, clutching a piece of fruit. "Eat! Eat!" one of them commanded.
This was my first introduction to the Satmar Hasidim. Before the boat docked in England, they gave me their address in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and told me to stop in if I was ever in the neighborhood.
What Pat Buchanan is to the Republican Party, Satmars are to other Hasidim. In the ultra-Orthodox world, it just doesn't get any more religious than this.
To many, the word Satmar conjures up an amorphous mass of black protoplasm, 100,000 strong, gobbling up everything in sight. When Judaism struggles with assimilation, Satmar eats Haskala, the Enlightenment, for breakfast. When European Jewry succumbed, Satmar survived. Satmar takes on all comers — Hitler, acculturation, Zionist opprobrium — and prevails: Chasing down Lubavitchers with nunchakus. Burning the Israeli flag at anti-Zionist rallies. Greeting drivers on the Sabbath in Jerusalem with a brick through their windshields. Hogging the public trough in Williamsburg, to the distress of their Hispanic neighbors. Engaging in violent internal struggles. And even, according to some Hasidim, kidnapping gifted children in order to inculcate them with the Satmar's unique brand of Orthodox Judaism.
About 50,000 Satmars live in North America, three-quarters of them in the Williamsburg, section of Brooklyn, New York. There are also communities in Boro Park, upstate New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, Toronto, Antwerp, and Israel. Williamsburg is easily one of the most densely packed neighborhoods, in the United States, and the Satmar are by far the largest Hasidic group in America. The more visible Lubavitchers are a distant second or third, in a colorful constellation consisting of Bobovers, Belzers, Gerers, Vishnitzers, Munkaczers, Bratslavers, Klausenbergers, and Skverers, among others.
Almost all these groups participate in Israeli civic life by way of religious parties, but not the Satmar. Until the Messiah comes, they refuse to take any part in the Jewish state. Given their militant anti-Zionism, intense insularity, and inbred distrust of outsiders, it is understandable that very little has been written in English about the Satmar. This self-imposed pariah status is reinforced by their almost exclusive use of Yiddish, a language few American Jews actually speak. The most minute aspects of their lives — from which shoe to put on first in the morning, to which side of the bed to sleep on at night — are rigidly ritualized.
The Satmars originated in what many early-twentieth-century Jews considered the intellectual Appalachia of Europe-remote Transylvania, straddling the Hungarian-Romanian border. From the very beginning, the Satmar movement was a violent reaction to any sort of accommodation to the modern world.
A large proportion of the Satmar Hasidim perished during World War II, but not to the same extent as did Polish Jewry. Adolph Eichmann's liquidation machine didn't get around to the destruction of Hungary's Jews until the final months of the war, and then they found little official enthusiasm for the project among their Hungarian allies. The ragged survivors managed to transplant themselves to the streets of New York. The neighborhood they ended up in was Williamsburg, already a religious quarter and a home for Jewish immigrants from the Old World.
Some of my relatives ended up here too. Many years ago, in Hungary, my father's family were Satmars. Well before the war, however, part of the family broke from the group and went on to live largely secular lives in Budapest and the United States. The others seemed to disappear into a haze. Some, I'd heard, were in Brooklyn — the Williamsburg branch, my family called them. Although I had never given them much thought, after encountering those boys on the channel-crossing I felt compelled to go there: not so much to search out this phantom offshoot of my family, but to see how my life might have been had my grandfather's father not turned away from Hasidism.
I begin my travels in the Hasidic world on a warm Saturday afternoon in 1992, walking down the empty streets of Williamsburg. I have no idea what I will find, or even if it is possible to make any substantive contact.Boychiks in the Hood. Copyright © by Robert Eisenberg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted September 21, 2003
Boychicks in the Hood was a fun education read. The author takes you literally on a walked(sometimes rollerskating) laugh filled tour of the often unseeable and unreachable persons that are present in everyday life. If you read this be prepard to get hungry and laugh till milk comes out your nose. It made me feel as though I was back home. If your coming back to judaism this is amust read, thinking about converting.. definately. A good shabbos read.. absolutely.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.