Sunday, January 09, 2005

Silent Nights

Chaim Potok, in The Chosen, describes the child of a Rebbe being brought up in silence.The boy suffers for years as he grows up with the only words exchanged between father and son concerning their learning. A very beautiful and poignant story that is, to best of my knowledge, pure claptrap. I am sorry Mr Potok, if you ever come across this, but I have never met anybody who has ever heard of this method. There is however a certain distance that is normal within the real Chassidic family (and here I mean the real true blue ones) that I suppose is where the idea comes from. You will never see a true Chassid embracing, even his teenage son. You will never see them playing together except maybe chess on nittel.

Nittel is what we call Christmas Eve. The night when it was normal for the villagers of the Shtetl to go for midnight mass and on return to get drunk in the inn, was no time for us to be on the streets. A law was decreed that, on that night, the learning of torah was forbidden. What do good yeshiva boys do on a night when Torah is forbidden? They go to sleep. Problem solved.

The anomaly here has tradition to blame. We, the archconservatives, are not going to allow a mere local church to reorganize ours. In Eastern Europe, where our dynasties were founded, the land lay in the grip of the Orthodox Church. They never recognized the Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas on the 6th of January. Chassidim originating in regions under that Church do learn on Christmas Eve bit don’t in January… Except we are not quite sure ourselves whether it is the fifth or the sixth, so some keep one and some the other.

The irony is that, since we have left the Sthtetl and landed in the western world, Nittel has also become the night when the Chassidishe Bucherim, the good boys, rent videos. There are many young men I know who would only ever admit to having seen a video if it was secretly watched on nittel. So the dark forces have their revenge.

Chess and videos diametrically oppose each other as forms of entertainment. One exercises the mind the other numbs it. What they have in common is they do not require any overt dedication. You don’t have to change your clothes or really prepare to play chess. It can almost seem as if you just passed by and stopped. That nonchalance proves you are really a learner at heart. The same goes for watching a video. You sit in a couch with your friends to watch for three hours and then go home. A great guys night out! The one day in the year you don’t have to feel guilty for not learning!

If you ever watch a Chassidic singer you will observe that they are careful not to move too much nor show too much facial expression. I don’t know if it is just shyness or repression or they are afraid lest they be accused of enjoying it too much. There are no real Chassidic entertainers because our overriding sense of propriety makes us watch, bemused, the few fools who actually ever drop their front for a moment. Any guy who dances too enthusiastically at a wedding will be surrounded by a two deep ring of fascinated observers who will forever smile at him indulgently whenever they meet. It is this reserve too that dictates I may pass a plate to my sister or even bandage her finger but I won’t shake her hand, heaven forbid, or even my mother’s.

I admit I have no wish to hug my brothers or sisters anyway. Or my parents for that matter. But I sometimes wonder, if things had been different when we were young, whether I then would have.

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