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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Renegade Litvak as appeared in Hamodia

Despite my having told all my friends that under no circumstances would I ever marry anyone chassidish, and especially not anyone having anything to do with Breslov, I ended up marrying a chassid, and not just any chassid, but a Breslov Chassid, which means that (gulp) I am too. And that just goes to prove that the old adage of never say never, because very often you will, is often true – and especially when it comes to shidduchim.

Being associated with Breslov does have its funny moments: like the time my sister called me all in a tizzy to ask if my husband regularly dances on truck rooftops. Just the thought of my extremely staid, very stick-in-the mud husband jumping up and down on a Nanach truck caused me to break down in hysterical giggles. And then to add insult to injury (which is what would happen to my dear hubby if he were to ever start dancing on the top of a truck) my sister assumed that her words had struck a painful chord, and that I was crying over my bitter destiny. After all, it really must be extremely challenging to be married to a rooftop dancer.

Before I got married, I thought that once I'd become chassidish, Shabbos morning I would have the luxury of sleeping in until ten o'clock, and then relaxing with Hamodia while enjoying with a delicious milchig Kiddush. After all, don't all chassidim daven late?  I very quickly discovered that some do, some don't, and mine most certainly does not. During the week, he gets up to learn fertug (that's Yiddish for a meshugenah hour before daybreak, when any normal person should be sound asleep) then he dunks in the mikveh before davening with the netz.  On Shabbos and Yom Tov we get to sleep in until quarter to six (oh, such decadence); after all, shul doesn’t start until a quarter to seven, but prior to, there is mikveh and Tehillim. So no, we do not eat before davening (there goes my dream of cheese cakes).

Before my husband and I decided to tie the knot, he informed me in no uncertain terms that if I decide to marry him, it would be with the understanding that he would never be home for Rosh Hashana. Although the whole idea of traveling to spend Yom Tov with a Rebbe, or, in this case, at the kever of a tzaddik, was foreign to me, I readily agreed. After all, it was only two days of the year. I could manage, right?

I'll never forget that first Rosh Hashana. In those days, when travel to Uman was nothing more than a pipe dream, the annual Rosh Hashanah kibutz took place in Meiron, adjacent to the Kever of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.  As I watched my husband walk to the waiting bus, schlepping a large suitcase of clothes, seforim and some homemade goodies, I tried hard to quell my feelings of jealousy, but it was almost impossible. He's off camping; having a great time while I have to go to my neighbors for the meals, I silently fumed.

That year, as usual, I davened in the local Litvish yeshiva. And my neighbors were all great cooks, so the food was delicous. But at the same time, I couldn't help but envy the other ladies as they walked home from shul together with their husbands. They all looked so happy and beautiful together. "He's having a great time up in the mountains, while I'm at home, miserable. Why did I agree to this insanity? I asked myself.

My husband returned home very late Motzaei Yom Tov, totally exhausted. When I asked him if he had had a good time, he looked at me as if I was out of my mind. "A good time?" he asked. "I barely had time to eat! Davening started at five, and by the time we finished, it was nearly four in the afternoon! Between davening, mikveh and reciting Tehillim, I barely managed to sleep three hours a night."

He proceeded to tell me about toilets that didn't work, blankets that were scratchy and way too small, and mosquitoes that practically ate him alive.
 I felt sorry for him. "That's terrible," I began, trying to sound empathetic (although for the life of me I couldn't figure out why anyone would put themselves through such torture), "It must have been such a disappointment."

 "A disappointment?" he was shocked. "The davening was incredible!" His face glowed with enthusiasm. His elation was obvious..

By now, I was totally confused. Was I married to a strange masochist?
The following evening, after breaking our fast, my husband and I went outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air. We ended up walking, and talking, for a very long time. We spoke about Rosh Hashana, davening, and what it means to be an eved Hashem. We talked about our dreams, the home that we hoped to build, and the importance of our being on the same path in our Yiddishkeit. He explained to me the chashivus of limud Torah l'shma, and how his kesher to the chassidus is what gives him the inner strength to devote so many hours per day to the avoda of learning Torah.

And that's why, on Yom Kippur, I found myself squished into a tiny makeshift women's section, trying to daven with a small Breslov minyan held in the local bomb shelter. I missed the familiar tunes, and the singing in unison.  Instead of the orderly tefilla that I was used to, there were wordless niggunim that rose to a crescendo, followed by the Chazon screaming something that, for the life of me,  I could not understand but that concluded with a long, drawn amen.  The lady sitting to my right smiled as she noticed my confusion and pointed to the correct place in the machzor (for the umpteenth time). Then she began rapidly flipping the pages while recited something under her breath. I took off my glasses, closed one eye, and held the machzor so close to my face that it almost touched my nose. There were at least five (five!) pages of tiny letters, all of which, in the yeshivishe shuls where I had always davened, we would just skip over (oh, how I loved skipping over pages in the mazhzor, and seeing the end getting that much closer – and now that I mention it, that is one of the reasons I am writing this under a pseudonym). I didn't even try to catch up. 

Every time the tzibbur exuberantly sang (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, kvetched) a niggun between reciting the words of the piyutim in total disharmony, I would, quietly, under my breath (feeling like a spy from a different camp) sing the words to the familiar tunes that I loved.

But then a funny thing happened: I started to cry. Tears were flowing freely down my face. Me, the girl who never expressed her emotions, and who was always careful to show a pleasant, matter-of-fact mask to the world (and to myself) was sobbing – yes, sobbing - as I begged Hashem to grant me a kaparah. Slach lanu, kapar lanu, machal lanu… The loud, discordant cacophony of the tzibbur crying to Hashem unleashed a dormant emotion within me, and I became one with it.

The following year, there were no questions. A week before Rosh Hashanah, I was already urging my husband to finalize his plans to travel to Meiron. And as soon as travel to Uman became a reality, he was among the first to go. When people asked me about our plans for Yom Tov, I was proud to respond that my husband was traveling to Meiron, and later on, to Uman, because Rosh Hashana is about davening, and that's where he can daven best.  

Today, if anyone asks me if we're litvish or chassidish, I respond that we're chassidim, and not just any chassidim, but Breslov chassidim. And people who know me well are always surprised when they discover that I once considered myself to be a modern American yeshivishe-litvishe girl.

I guess you could say that I've come home. 


  1. Wonderful piece, Debbie.
    My youngest son is now in a pre-army mechina for a year where there seems to be alot of Breslav influence and he loves it. I'm not at all sure about the early rising, though. But I am rooting for it.

  2. We all have our special place that tugs at our heartstrings and that opens the gates to Hashem. I am happy you have found yours and I wish all Klal Yisroel find theirs.