SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – It’s five o’clock in the morning but I sleep not lest the magic slip away to where magic inevitably always slips away, which is to say it wears off.
Imagine then the West Side Institutional Synagogue on W. 76th St. in Manhattan late late on Saturday night, one thousand people strong crowded into the main sanctuary, long beards, short beards and no beards, velvet yarmulkes, knit yarmulkes and Yankee caps, sheitels, kerchiefs and uncovered hair in ponytails, all awaiting the beginning of the 1:00 a.m. Selichot service to be led by Yehuda Green, Carlebachian extraordinaire. On the bimah, he is surrounded by his posse, a bass guitar, backup vocalists and an expressive violinist with curly red sidecurls and a ripped t-shirt, the perfect blend of hasid and hipster. Yehuda only has to sing the two first words of the opening prayer, Avinu Malkeinu, and the entire crowd joins in as one and we are off, as in off our feet, off of the clock and off whatever state of mind we came in with (i.e., off our rockers).
It is literally four hours later before anyone stops to think, hey, what time is it, I have things to do in the morning, or, hey, I’ve been jumping up and down and singing for four hours and I have chronically bad knees and really need some water. If the High Holidays are sometimes a slog through prayer sessions of interminable length and growling stomachs, this night is different from all other nights. A little more, a little longer, three hundred people exclaim when the singing of a single tune draws to a close after 35 nonstop minutes.
How do you explain this – people who are normally winded from riding escalators jump up and down for 35 straight minutes with arms around the shoulders of people they do not know singing Hashivenu Hashem Eilecha, and ask for more? Is it the music – Carlebach is sweet and catchy but does that explain the adrenaline rush, this suspension of time? Maybe it is the time of year or maybe just the time of night, a Saturday night in New York City after all? I do not know but offer this: while everyone sang the same song, they sang with very different voices. To the many hasidim, still in their Shabbat finery and furry hats (but smartphones in hand), perhaps the collective energy of the service brought them back in time to the courts of their rebbes of a bygone era. For the sizable New York urbanite crowd, perhaps here was an opportunity to connect to a living tradition otherwise elusive in the streets of Gotham. There were handfuls of people who seemed to have genuinely just wandered in off those very streets. And for the misnagdim, well this was an opportunity to anonymously let their neshamas out for a while ….
In fact, I leave you with the indelible image of a black-felt-hat-adorned misnaged, plain white button-down shirt with necktie fastened so tightly at his throat so as to strangle him, striving mightily amidst a pressing sea of joyful dancers to hold his prayer book aloft so that he might recite the words with the appropriately prescribed deliberateness, when as if from the sky our hipster violinist reaches down from the bimah and swipes the prayer book out of the dear man’s hands and slams it shut. For a moment, our misnaged stares, uncomprehending, and then in a rush he pulls loose the knot of his tie, throws his arms around the shoulders of his neighbors and joins in full-throated song – Hashiveinu Hashem Eilecha, dear G-d, bring us back to you. If this were a true story, you could actually have seen his neshama bubble forth from under that tie.
Yoel Kranz, formerly of Swampscott, writes from Riverdale, N.Y.