National Geographic : 1975 Aug
skullcap traditionally worn by Jews. "The Hasidim wear them all the time-even when they're sleeping." I later inquired of a Hasidic acquaintance why he wore his yarmulke even when he went to bed. "Because a Jew covers his head as a sign of his respect for God," he answered. "And tell me, please-am I not still a Jew when I'm sleeping?" From the pocket of my coat I extracted a black skullcap and stopped before a shop window to position it on my head. At that moment a Hasidic lad, a beardless copy of his dark-clad elders, came to a sudden halt in front of me, eyebrows raised. "You should be ashamed!" he admonished, his earlocks quivering. "Do you mean that you put on your yarmulke only after you've gotten here? Are you a Jew only when you're in Williamsburg?" Eyes flashing darkly, he hurried off down Lee Avenue. I shrugged with a sense of utter helplessness. It would not be the last time that the admittedly un orthodox quality of my own Jewishness would be brought into open question by zealously observant Hasidim. Though I had become bar mitzvah-a "son of the commandment" or a "man of duty" at age 13, I had only occasionally attended a synagogue since then. Certainly I had no sense of obligation to follow all of the multi tude of mitzvahs, or commandments, that God had charged the Jews of Moses' time to obey in fulfillment of their covenant with Him. To the Hasidim, however, these mitz vahs are as important today as they were in ancient times. No fewer than 613 such mitzvahs are enun ciated in the five books of Moses comprising the Torah, or Pentateuch. They range from the Ten Commandments and such sublime moral precepts as "thou shalt love thy neigh bour as thyself" to so technical a regulation as "neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee." These latter two mitzvahs, seemingly worlds apart in significance, appear in con secutive verses of the Book of Leviticus (19: 18, 19). The Hasidim hew as strictly to the latter as to the former. To heed and safeguard the 613 mitzvahs, plus literally thousands of other laws and traditions that have evolved from them over the millenniums, becomes the very fulcrum of their daily existence. EACHING the Satmar bes medresh, Na than and I elbowed our way through a dense crowd of Hasidim toward a large inner doorway. Squeezing up as far as we could, we stood on tiptoe and peered into the main prayer hall, a great room into which, I later learned, some seven thousand peo ple had been packed. All were utterly ab sorbed in prayer, faces adrip with mingled sweat and tears of ecstasy, lips murmuring impassioned prayers at a furious pace, bodies rocking and swaying and trembling with emo tion-turning that huge prayer hall into an echo chamber of the spirit reverberating with passion for God. The Satmar Rebbe himself, leading the prayers at the front of the room, was com pletely blocked from our view by adoring crowds of Hasidim. A Hasid later explained to me why he tries to get physically near the "Thou shalt not...." A glinting tear of remorse burns the cheek of a Ha sidic youngster being admonished for some transgression by fellow students in the hallway of a cheder, or school for young boys. Such mutual chiding among peers discourages noncon formism and helps to bring about a strict adherence to the dos and don'ts in the prodigiously complex Hasidic code of behavior.