Sign In Forgot Password

“The ‘Look,’ Or, How a Shabbat-Desecrating ‘Chasid’ Threw Me For a Loop”

09/08/2023 07:19:03 PM


Rabbi Peter H. Grumbacher

E X P L A I N A N D P U T O N F U L L – F U N C T I O N A L T A L I T “The ‘Look,’ Or, How a Shabbat-Desecrating ‘Chasid’ Threw Me For a Loop” Rabbi Peter H. Grumbacher September 8, 2023 – Temple Beth El ______________________ So it was a very warm Saturday afternoon. I was driving back to Wilmington from one of my interim gigs in Virginia. I wanted a drink, and only a WaWa Diet Peach iced tea would do. Would I have to wait ‘til I got to Delaware to find a WaWa? Lo and behold, there’s one WaWa in Frederick, Maryland, a city I pass coming and going to the Shenandoah Valley. When I entered I saw something that truly made me believe I was in another dimension. There was a young guy behind the counter making subs and what have you. Nothing unusual about that, nothing except for the fact that he was wearing a white shirt, black slacks, kipah, with tzitzis hanging from his waist. There’s usually no reason for me to speak to an employee unless to just say “Hi” or give in my order if there isn’t a gizmo screens to take care of that. But how could I resist! I walked over and said, “Well, at least you’re not eating it.” He looked at me, giggled a bit and waited for me to speak. I asked him, “What’s with the clothing?” He said, “I’m not even Jewish but I like the look.” You could have knocked me over with a feather! The “look.” Interesting. Anyway I still wasn’t sure if it was a dream, a nightmare, or some bad tuna I had eaten that created this vision. I therefore came back the next time I was driving through Frederick. There he was, but he didn’t have his tzitzis and there was no kipah. I said, “Remember me?” When he acknowledged in the positive, I asked, “What happened? You didn’t like the ‘look’ anymore?” My friend (whose name was Charlie) answered, “Well, people did make comments.” I told him I wasn’t at all surprised. He added, “And I have to tell you, I AM Jewish.” He then told me he was pretty much involved in the Frederick Jewish community. He really wasn’t sure why he donned his gay apparel but his experiment was over. Truth be told, he seemed like a really nice guy and not as meshugah as first I thought he might be. I was intrigued by the “look,” however. What was it that was so compelling for him to wear the clothing of a Chasid? And why didn’t he go all the way and grow pe’ot, and wear a schreimel, a fur hat, and a kapote, a long black coat? That adds to the “look,” I would think. And then I thought, “There’s a sermon in everything,” and in that vein I also thought, “Is there a Jewish ‘look’?” Ask an antisemite and he’ll tell you “Sure there is.” He’ll say that you can tell who’s a Jew by his fat curved nose, his beady eyes, his thick lips. That’s how Julius Streicher, the antisemitic publisher of the German weekly newspaper Der Sturmer portrayed Jews until he went out of business at the end of the war. Look, I understand that for my generation and except for much younger Jews, we always wonder just looking at someone if he or she is a “member of the tribe.” We “feel” a Jewish look. In fact, you might ask a few leading questions or make a few “Jewish” comments, and there might even be a wink of the eye. But I’ve been wrong just as often as I’ve been correct…and amazingly I haven’t been arrested. But then I think of the fact that despite being called a “race” of people, we are definitely NOT a race if that word is defined as a group with similar physical characteristics. Indeed, go to Israel and you’ll find the Ethiopian Jews, who have the most beautiful skin, and there isn’t a bad-looking one among those I’ve seen, and I’ve seen many. They’re black and they’re Jewish. The “look”? Go to Sweden and you’ll see the exact opposite: Caucasians with whiter-than-white skin who probably burn like crazy in the sun. The “look”? Or Puerto Rico, or Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay. There are Jews in that neck of the woods who look like Hispanics from West Side Story or In The Heights. The “look”? Interestingly if you were in Poland in the 1700s and saw Christian nobility, son-of-a-gun, you’d think they were Chabad Lubavitch. That’s because the Chasidim took the garb of the nobility from that century and adopted it as their own. So just think…it’s a three-hundred-year fashion statement! And as a fruitful aside – only because I know this irony – the Satmar Chasidim, the superduper ultra-ultra Orthodox who live the most isolated of all the Chasidim, and who view other Chasidic sects with disdain (they probably think Chabad is a sub-branch of Reform Judaism), derive their name Satmar from the Hungarian city in which they began. Satmar translates as Saint Mary. But, wait!!! Hold the presses!!! What about those who have chosen Judaism, converts to our faith…and to our people. A man named Wolfgang Schmidt was studying for his Ph.D in the Christian Studies program at Hebrew Union College. Wolfgang’s father and uncle were members of the S.S., dyed-in-the-wool Nazis, and he had that Germanic “look.” Well, Wolfgang Schmidt can be found in the shuls and yeshivas of the Old City of Jerusalem under the name Aharon Sh’aryashuv, RABBI Aharon Sh’aryashuv. The graves of his father and uncle starting turning when he converted back in the late 1960s. Julius Streicher would have had a hard time giving Aharon the “look.” And then there was Praveen. He came to me for the purpose of conversion. I directed him to Rabbi Gewirtz of Adas Kodesch shel Emeth, because Praveen considered himself more traditional than Reform. It turns out that Rabbi Gewirtz wasn’t frum enough. Praveen, born in India, also became an Orthodox rabbi. The “look”? No, not at all. We define ourselves not by looks, not by any means. We define ourselves by a host of other variables. There are some who are cultural Jews; some are halachic Jews; some are atheists (but let’s be clear, they’re Jewish atheists); some are gastronomical Jews who eat only Jewish food. Truth be told, the scholars of old even said that someone who converts out of Judaism is still a Jew. Now let me just say that while Charley, my pseudo-Chasid is Jewish, what he did doesn’t make him a good Jew. It’s offensive to insult an observant Jew by working on Shabbat while you’re wearing the “look.” Wolfgang Schmidt, aka Aharon Sh’aryashuv, absolutely refused to acknowledge that he had studied in the Reform seminary when someone who knew him in those days asked a question at a lecture he was delivering in Jerusalem just a few years ago. Not nice. Historically, there were m’shumadim, those who left our fold across the centuries, and told terrible lies about us to the Christian authorities so that they burned our sacred books and killed hundreds if not thousands of our people. As I mentioned, technically they still might have been Jews according to Halacha, but these m’shumadim were rotten to the core. Friends, we are in no position to exhibit anything but our most priceless values to each other and to others. The “look” doesn’t matter; being decent and upstanding, living by the tenets of Prophetic if not Rabbinic Judaism, does matter. We have to be “good” Jews, whether bearded or not, headcovered or not, Sephardic or Ashkenazic, atheist or believer, black or white. I have on the Beged Ivri, the clothing worn during the time of the Temple, but our sages have been adamant that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans not because of what the Romans did, rather because of what we did. It’s called sin’at chinam, “senseless hatred,” brother against brother, sister against sister, friend against friend, that lowered our resolve allowing the enemy to overtake us. And it doesn’t matter if you wear what I’m wearing, or (to sort of repeat myself), the schreimel of the Chasid, the knitted kipah of a modern Orthodox Jew, the bathing suit of the secular Israeli on Yom Kippur; it doesn’t matter at all. A Jew is a Jew, but a good Jew? Well, you answer that for yourself.

Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784