Be happy! The Breslav joy patrol

The Jerusalem Post joins the Breslav joy patrol on its holy mission to eradicate sadness.

October 5, 2006 10:33
Studied Jew 298

Studied Jew 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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I hear them before I see them. Three hundred meters from my rendezvous the lyrics "Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman," are clearly discernible. I hear people yelling happily and I know that Alon and his friends, all Breslav Hassidim, are already in action. As I pass around the Jerusalem's ICC they come into view. Two are dancing on the roof of a GMC van with huge loudspeakers strapped to the rear. Two more are dancing on the side of the street as bumper to bumper traffic passes by honking and shouting. A predominantly smiling crowd gathers around them on the sidewalk to watch. Some pull out cameras. One soldier joins in the dancing. "I'm from The Jerusalem Post," I scream over the sound system to one of the Breslav Hassidim, a short Yemenite with a small child on his shoulders. "Alon is up there," he says pointing in the direction of the GMC. I spot a tall, skinny, swarthy man in his late thirties jumping, twisting and clapping his hands in rhythm with the music. His long, unkempt beard and side locks flap across his face and chest. I get his attention and he climbs down the ladder. His light brown, semi-translucent glasses are taped on both temples. On my head he places a white knitted cap identical to the one he and his friends are wearing. Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman is written around the edge. "Come on, let's go for a ride and make some Jews happy," says Alon. Alon and his friends pile into the GMC van. They make room for me upfront. Alon steers the van into the early evening traffic. I ask where we are headed. "Wherever the Holiest blessed be He takes us," replies Alon. "We're just gonna go with the flow." Breslav Hassidism, named after a town in Eastern Europe where Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the dynasty, settled seven years before his death in 1810, is probably the most salient example of Jewish joy. He was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem-Tov, who was the founder of the Hassidic movement. "It's a big mitzva to be happy always," Rabbi Nachman famously taught his Hassidim. Succot more than any other Jewish holiday symbolizes joyousness. Ebullience builds during the seven days of Succot and reaches its peak on Simhat Torah (literally the joy of the Torah). An especially joyous celebration took place every day of Succot before the destruction of the Temple called Simhat Beit Hashoeva. Water was poured into the wine trough of the sacrificial altar. The Mishna in chapter 5 of Succa states that whoever has never seen the ceremony has never seen real joy in his lifetime. To this day religious Jews commemorate Simhat Beit Hashoeva, which according to Jewish tradition, symbolizes our rectified relationship with God after being atoned for our sins on Yom Kippur. Any discussion of Jewish joy on Succot would be incomplete without a focus on Breslav hassidic thought. Still, it would be misleading and unfair to give the impression that Breslav has a monopoly on Jewish joy. It is central to mainstream Orthodoxy as well. Hebrew has no less than ten synonyms for the word, writes rabbi and linguist Meir Leib son of Yehiel Michel (1809-1879) in his Ayelet Hashahar. Meir Leib, known by the acronym Malbim, says that all of them express different nuances of joy and happiness. "Simha" implies a constant joy while "gila," for instance, expresses a sudden, spontaneous peak in joy. According to Rabbi Noah Weinberg, founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Aish Hatorah, an institution that arguably embodies normative, mainstream non-hassidic Orthodoxy, joy is the very essence of serving God. "God created everything in this world - time, space, matter, energy. What can we possibly do for Him? He does not need us," says Weinberg. "The answer is: We can enjoy His world and serve Him with joy and appreciate His creation. If you keep all of the commandments in the Torah, but you do not serve Him with joy, than it is all worthless." Weinberg likens our relationship with God to a son's relationship with his mother. "If you visit your mother and she bakes you a cake, the best way to thank her is to show her you enjoy it. Mom gets pleasure from your pleasure and you get pleasure from her getting pleasure in your pleasure." NOTWITHSTANDING THE importance of joy in normative Orthodox Judaism, the outward expressions of the emotion, such as dancing and singing and clapping, are few and far between. They are restricted to special occasions such as weddings or during Simhat Torah and Purim. Techniques for achieving joy and the dangers of falling out of joy into depression and despair are not central to Orthodox teaching. The same is not true of Breslav Hassidism. Demonstrative joy is integral to everyday life. Robust dancing ends every morning and evening prayer (except during the nine days preceding the Ninth of Av). Ecstatic handclapping is common during prayer. In the shtetl towns of Eastern Europe where Breslav Hassidism spread, acrobatics such as handstands and back flips were part of prayer. Outside at least one synagogue, Hassidim erected a slide, not for the congregants' children, but for the congregants themselves to get them in the proper happy mood for prayer. Why are Breslav Hassidim so happy? Rabbi Yitzhak Bezinson, head of Shir Hadash, a Tel Aviv-based community of Breslav Hassidim, most of whom, like Bezinson, are new to Orthodox Judaism, says that without happiness and joy a Jew falls into physical and spiritual disease. "Being basically happy and positive enables a person to see things in the right proportion," says Bezinson. "In contrast, if someone is sad or depressed, his perception is distorted. Small problems seem insurmountable and big things seem insignificant. "Also, Rabbi Nachman taught that all diseases, both physical and mental, originate from sadness and depression." Quoting from Rabbi Nachman, Bezinson states, "God hates sadness." This is the case, according to Rabbi Shimon Teichler, a Breslav Hassid who travels the country teaching, because depression is really nothing but a crisis of faith. Despair and sadness imply that a Jew has given up hope in God and in God's plan for the world. A Jew's ties with God are severed when he is sad. "If we believe that God is with us and that He does everything for our own good then sadness or depression are impossible," says Teichler. "The yetzer hara [evil inclination] causes us to sin so that we experience the guilt and self disgust that lead to despair. Despair, in turn, leads to inaction which results in more guilt and depression," says Teichler. For Breslav Hassidim, being happy and helping make other people happy is a religious act because it opens the way to faith in God. ALON'S GMC Happy-mobile is on a holy mission to eradicate sadness. After only a few hundred meters we stop at a red light. Elad, Lahav, Natan, Avichai, Lior and Micha'el pile out of the van and start dancing around the other cars stopped at the red light. The huge loudspeakers pound out another song about Rabbi Nachman. Suddenly, the door of one of the cars opens. A young man in jeans and a T-shirt, sans kippa, jumps out of his car to dance with the Hassidim. A chubby, redheaded haredi man joins him. They hold hands and dance round and round as people in the waiting cars watch and smile. The light turns green and everyone jumps back in their cars. "Have you ever seen anything like that before?" shouts Alon. "Only the powers of that righteous man Rabbi Nachman can make this happen." I ask Alon how he and his friends, some of whom are in their late thirties, support themselves and their families. "Oh, each of us manages somehow. We keep our overhead low and we get a lot of Heavenly aid." I ask if they don't ever get tired of being so happy all the time. "Often when I first start out it is difficult to get in the mood," admits Natan, 23, "but after a few minutes of dancing, I get into it." We drive through Jerusalem waving at pedestrians. We drive past Arab road workers who wave. No one in the GMC waves back. "Is it a mitzva to make gentiles happy?" I ask. "Gentiles yes, but not Arabs," says Lahav, but does not explain why. On Rehov Agrippas we stop in front of a demonstration organized by animals' rights groups protesting kapparot, a controversial Jewish tradition before Yom Kippur in which the slaughtering of a chicken is believed to expiate the sins of a man. The picketers, who stand outside where the chickens are slaughtered, clench their signs tightly, shout their slogans and ignore the dancing Hassidim. Unfazed, Alon and his friends continue to their next apparently God-directed destination. We spot a group of religious high-school kids who see us and pour into the street screaming "Na Nach Nachma Nachman." Alon parks the van on the side of the road and everyone gets out and starts dancing again. The kids' teacher, who looks annoyed, pushes his students out of the street and back onto the sidewalk. I approach the teacher, who is visiting Jerusalem from Rishon Lezion, and ask what he thinks of Alon and his friends. "Those guys are not real Breslav Hassidim," he answers. "They are just a bunch of jokers." ALON AND his friends belong to a fringe group of about 80 families within Breslav Hassidism known as "Na Nachmanim." Na Nachmanim believe that reciting Rabbi Nachman's name in gradually increasing letters - Na Nach Nachma Nachman - has redemptive powers. Most Na Nachmanim come from secular families who embraced Orthodoxy relatively late in life, while others grew up religious, but are newcomers to Breslav Hassidism. A disproportionate number of them tend to be Sephardic Jews. Na Nachmanim are followers of Rabbi Israel Dov Odeser, who passed away 12 years ago at the age of between 100 and 114 - depending who you ask. Odeser's followers believe that 84 years ago, over a hundred years after Rabbi Nachman passed away, the founder of Breslav Hassidism miraculously contacted Odeser who was at the time in his late teens or twenties. The contact was made at a particularly low point in Odeser's life. He had fallen into a deep depression after he was forced to eat on a fast day due to his poor health. The knowledge that he had been forced to eat, even if technically it was permitted according to Jewish law, made Odeser, who took his worshipping seriously, fall into an irreconcilable despair. Alon and his friends argue excitedly over the exact details as they recount Odeser's metaphysical encounter. But according to all the versions, Odeser was directed by a heavenly voice to his room where he was told to open one of Rabbi Nachman's books. In the book Odeser found a piece a paper. "It was very difficult for me to come down to you my dear student," writes none other than the deceased Rabbi Nachman. "I enjoyed your work and I said that thanks to you, 'my fire will burn until the Messiah comes.' And now I will reveal to you a secret, 'full and overflowing from side to side.'" Odeser understood the statement about something overflowing to mean that he must fill the Jewish world with the teachings of Rabbi Nachman until it overflows. When Odeser passed away he left behind a small sum of money that was to be used to spread Rabbi Nachman's message. Today most of Rabbi Nachman's books, which are all sold cost price, are published by the Odeser Fund which is replenished regularly by aggressive fundraising. (Alon gave the Post an opportunity to support the Rabbi Nachman effort: He requested, but was refused, a payment of NIS 3,000 in exchange for a photo op. Alon ended up agreeing to a pro bono.) According to Alon and his friends, the fund also helps purchase and maintain six GMC vans with ample stereo systems that travel the country disseminating Rabbi Nachman's teachings. The motif of joy is central to Odeser's legend. The night Odeser received the piece of paper, say the holy man's followers, Odeser underwent a transformation from deep depression to ecstatic joy. According Alon and his friends, Odeser danced non-stop for three days and three nights after the revelation. But Aish Hatorah's Weinberg, like the teacher from Rishon Lezion, is skeptical about Na Nachmanim. "I'm not much of a Hassid to begin with," admits Weinberg, who represents the more rational, Lithuanian school of Orthodoxy. "And I don't want to say a bad word about anybody. But I can tell you this: there is such a thing as counterfeit happiness." EVEN WITHIN Breslav Hassidism, Odeser's followers are looked down upon with a bit of disdain. "We have both a written and a verbal tradition," explains Nehemia Cheshin, 28, who is a fundraiser and manager of Breslav Hassidism's educational institutions in Brachfeld, a neighborhood in Kiryat Sefer with a Breslav population of 200 families. "If you don't have the verbal tradition to accompany and interpret what Rabbi Nachman wrote in his books, you end up distorting things," says Cheshin. We are sitting in an apartment in Brachfeld that is empty of everything but a few chairs and seven laptops. The apartment was used to organize flights to Uman, Ukraine, Rabbi Nachman's burial place, for Rosh Hashana. Cheshin worked with Israel Singer, a Breslav Hassid businessman from the US who subsidized $500 of a $700 plane ticket for 3,000 Israelis who had never before visited Uman. The wealthy Singer is a rarity among Breslav Hassidim, who spurn material goals or serious business careers in favor of spiritual pursuits. Breslav Hassidim may emphasize the spiritual over the material, but they are not oblivious to rules of civility. Many more mainstream Breslav Hassidim are embarrassed by the antics of people like Alon and his friends. "They see it as self-degradation," says Teichler. "And this embarrasses some Breslav Hassidim, because Na Nachmanim are identified with Breslav." However, making a serious distinction between authentic and inauthentic Breslav Hassidism is tough since all but about 50 of the original Breslav families were murdered in the Holocaust. Many of the offspring, who grew up mostly in Israel, abandoned the Hassidic dynasty. As a result, the vast majority of approximately 20,000 Breslav Hassidim living in Israel are at the most second-generation Hassidim with a few third- and fourth-generation ones. True, the extreme centrality of joy, especially the external manifestations of it, among the Na Nachmanim sets them apart from the more mainstream Breslav circles. However, even among these more subdued Hassidim, joy is important. One of the most common and accepted techniques for maintaining a joyful attitude is what is known among Breslav Hassidim as "milta d'shtuta," literally "a crazy thing" or a prank. A Jew who has fallen into depression or sorrow is in a critical spiritual condition, according to Rabbi Nachman, and is in desperate need of spiritual first aid. Just as first aid uses extreme measures to revive someone who has lost consciousness, such as smelling salts or a splash of cold water, so too when a Jew is depressed, drastic techniques are utilized to snap him out of it. T., a third-generation Breslav Hassid, recounts an example of how milta d'shtuta is used: T. and two friends sat in a police station waiting to be interrogated regarding their connection to a pirate radio station. "I was so nervous," recalls T. "All sorts of horrible thoughts went through my mind, 'What if I say something stupid and end up in jail for a long time? What's gonna happen to my wife and kids?' "I felt completely lost. But then I remembered what Rebbi Nachman said, 'never despair.' So we stood up right there in the middle of the police station, held hands, and started dancing around and around." T. says the police enjoyed the dancing. "I guess it broke the monotony of police work." I FIND myself dancing on the top of the GMC van with Micha'el at Jerusalem's Zion Square. I've been recruited into Alon's joy patrol. Below a crowd has gathered to watch. For NIS 72 Lahav is selling necklace talismans made of leather with Na Nach Nachma Nachman written on them. Natan is accepting charity which, with the help of Rabbi Nachman, is supposed to help expiate before Yom Kippur. Rabbi Nachman's books are also available. Yosef Eliasian, still in his security guard uniform after work, buys a talisman, puts it around his neck and breaks into a tearful prayer for his daughter who is in her ninth month. "If she has a healthy birth I will believe," cries Eliasian, who sounds drunk. Young men hanging out at the square, some of whom clearly under the influence of mind-altering substances, approach the bouncing Na Nachmanim for long, meaningful hugs. Several secular passersby stop to receive a blessing from Alon and his dancing friends, who appear to be these unobservant people's only mediators between man and God. "Rabbi Nachman knows how to reach down to the lowest depths and pull people up," says Micha'el as we dance on the van. I think to myself that there is a slim chance that a short, albeit joyous, encounter with a few dancing men with beards, side locks and large white knitted kippot will have a lasting impact on anyone at Zion Square. My thoughts are interrupted by a police patrol car. Two cops get out and tell Alon and his friends to turn off the music and leave. The talismans and books are packed up and Alon and his friends pile into the GMC. "Remember that God gave you a huge opportunity tonight to promulgate Rabbi Nachman's teachings," Alon says before I part with him and his friends. "Take advantage of it. You can be part of the spreading of our master's holy message." The next morning as I sit down to write I notice the cap that Alon gave me with Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman written on it. I smile. n

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