Not your average bubbies and zaydies

For Toronto’s Yidden on Wheels Jewish Motorcycle Touring Club, president Gadi Prager says, ‘We are just a bunch of Jews who like to dress up in leather on weekends.’

THE YIDDEN on Wheels Motorcycle Touring Club is the largest Jewish motorcycle club in Canada. (photo credit: LAUREN IZSO)
THE YIDDEN on Wheels Motorcycle Touring Club is the largest Jewish motorcycle club in Canada.
(photo credit: LAUREN IZSO)
The most common stereotype about motorcycle gangs is their link to drugs and crime, a myth reinforced by the rebellious drug users who portray bikers on television. Even The Simpsons had an episode about the infamous Hell’s Angels wreaking havoc in Springfield.
But for Yidden on Wheels, the opposite is true. “We are just a bunch of Jews who like to dress up in leather on weekends,” says YOW president Gadi Prager.
Founded in 1995, the Yidden on Wheels Motorcycle Touring Club, as YOW is formally known, is the largest Jewish motorcycle club in Canada, and the first Canadian delegation to join the International Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance (JMA). Brought together by their religious beliefs and love of two-wheeled vehicles, these folks religiously sport two forms of headwear: kippot and helmets.
While a helmet is a clear indicator of their vehicle of choice, these folks do not take biker fashion lightly.
Dressed head-to-toe in Harley Davidson-brand gear, members take group gatherings as an opportunity to put on their bandannas and leather vests, and show off their alternative style. Many even joke about the inaccuracy of common biker stereotypes.
“When I was president, we wanted to start a drug business,” says 75-year-old ponytail and leather vest-wearing Marvin Talsky. “Anti-inflammatories and coated aspirin; we could have made a fortune,” he joked.
From doctors to lawyers, these unlikely bikers are faithful to the Harley brand, with their large, impressive (and expensive) motorcycles. Many have Israeli flags attached to the back of their bikes, and even one had a mezuza.
In order to maintain a sense of community, the group organizes rides throughout Canada and the US. The events always have a Jewish theme. YOW collaborates with other Jewish biker clubs – Cleveland’s Shul Boys, New York’s Chai Riders and Virginia Beach’s Lost Tribe are just a few of the cleverly named regulars at events.
JMA events are usually based around a Holocaust-related theme because of the average age of club members.
Since the age range varies from around 40 to over 80, Prager says there is a lot of personal connection to the Holocaust. Many events are themed accordingly, because “everyone directly understands the significance of never forgetting.” The group also holds an annual “Ride to Remember,” an event the YOWs have always participated in. The special ride usually attracts up to 500 Jewish bikers, and each year it is held in a different city. Last year’s was held in Orange County, California, and this June, the JMA will host the event in Oswego, New York.
YOW’s only Holocaust survivor member, Andy Reti, admits it may be unorthodox, but his bike is the only thing that makes him feel truly free: “Motorcycles are freedom machines,” he says.
Rabbi Sruly Koval of the Cleveland Jewish community says motorcycles are a perfect expression of Judaism. Koval, who does not own a bike but is an honorary member of the Shul Boys, says he enjoys the idea of using motorcycles “as a vehicle for Jewish pride.”
Fifty-two-year-old retired police officer Steve Spector’s goatee and powerful stature paint an image of a typical American Harley-riding biker. He joined the Shul Boys last year, but says he has always ridden a bike to connect to a higher power. “There is no way to feel God but being on a bike,” he maintains.
For Spector, riding his motorcycle is as spiritual as any act of religion. He explains that hopping on the back of his Harley for 20 minutes can cure any illness.
“Eating the sun with the wind in your face” is how he describes it. “It’s the cure.”
While religious observance within the biker groups comes in many forms, “Jewish identity is the backbone of the group,” ponytail-sporting Scott Wynn says. “We know the same Jewish jokes and celebrate the same holidays.” It’s about a sense of community, he says. “It’s a brotherhood.”
Wynn, of New York’s Chai Riders, jokes that even among brothers there are often disagreements, and that club members often argue while planning trips or organizing events. “You know what they say,” he laughs, “two Jews, three opinions.”
Wynn was never a particularly observant Jew, but being a part of the club sparked a curiosity within him. He now has weekly Mishna study sessions with a member of the club who happens to be a rabbi.
At last year’s kickoff event for the season, Cleveland’s Shul Boys arranged a “Blessing of the Bikes” ceremony at a local Jewish museum, and invited Jewish bikers from all over to participate in a motorcycle procession to the museum. “Always remember rule No. 1 of our rides: Come with a full tank and an empty bladder,” was the announcement made prior to the ride.
A Blessing of the Bikes is a somewhat rare religious service for a rabbi to perform, but Koval agreed to lead the service in honor of the new motorcycle season.
“Jews have been traveling for centuries,” he quipped before the ceremony. He did not agree to take it seriously.
“Let’s face it, Jews on bikes is not exactly what our Yiddish bubbies would have envisioned for us.”
When Rabbi Koval approached the podium in the lobby of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, he was less dismissive. “Everything in Judaism is a vehicle to bring more light into the world,” he said. In this case, it just so happened that the vehicle in question was a motorcycle.
After several more speeches and presentations, the rabbi once again approached the podium. This time, in a more somber tone, he began to sing Shalom Aleichem.
One by one, members of the crowd removed their helmets to expose their kippot, and began to sing as well.
Eventually, everyone joined in prayer and the Holocaust museum rang with voices.
Singing together in prayer is a spiritual sound, but for these bubbies and zaydies, nothing is more powerful than the ambient sound of their “freedom machines” roaring down the highway in unison.