When I first moved to Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, I was excited to live on a block populated by Hasidic Orthodox Jews. On Friday nights, I’d watch groups of black-clad men wearing furry hats, curly payot, and black or white stockings walk boldly down the centre of the street—highlighting their opposition to driving on the Sabbath, or Shabbos. These figures felt like a remnant of another age—the wandering Jew, living outside of time, presenting me with an awkward reminder of my own family’s European Jewish history. Personally, I’ll take Scotch and pepperoni pizza over kosher wine. And my friends are mostly atheist sinners. But I have an emotional soft spot for matters of faith, so I’m glad that there are people around me keeping the ancient Jewish traditions alive. Somebody has to not eat bacon, or else the world will fall apart. No, really: according to ultra-Orthodox Jewish dogma, some group of Jews must be studying the Torah at all times, or else the world will collapse.
On Shabbos, I hear—through my walls, and while sitting on my front stoop—traditional Yiddish melodies. The sounds transport me back to my visits to Jerusalem and to the ecstatic appeal of the religious. I love reminders of worlds beyond our own. I have heard those spiritual whispers beside the ocean, in the desert, during sex, on drugs, and, yes, sometimes even in incantations on those rare times I find myself in a house of worship. We heathens have a religion: the cult of busyness. We worship by continually humblebragging about how hard we are working. Living on a Hasidic street, Saturdays are a reminder of something that industrial, digital, capitalist modernity has forsaken: the eternal, the archaic, the transcendent.
But having lived among the Hasidim for more than a decade, I no longer hear those heavenly whispers as much. Instead, I smell garbage. The Hasidim generate more household waste than seems humanly possible: sitting on my front porch over the years, I’ve often been surrounded twice a week by dozens of garbage bags. My area is made up of duplexes, properties containing two separate units stacked vertically. Almost all of them house Hasids. Because it is their divine mission to procreate, that means roughly forty kids—“soldiers for God,” as they are sometimes thought of—on twenty feet of sidewalk. During past summers, the garbage did what garbage does in the blazing heat, which left the sidewalk unusable until the trucks arrived, after which a puddle of sweat remained for another day. The stench suffused time and space.
Occasionally, I worried whether all this Hasidic waste would attract rats—a thought that, in turn, caused me to wonder whether I was unconsciously repeating an ancient meme of European anti-Semitism. The Nazis eagerly emphasized the supposed link between Jews and vermin. Had I become a “self-hating Jew”? Not necessarily: my neighbour later told me that a family of rodents had moved in under my stoop.
The more religious aspects of Hasidic life sometimes offend my secular morality. The Hasidim are fundamentalists who apply Talmudic law in extreme ways. Homosexuality is a sin, they don’t teach their children evolution, and they tend to strictly segregate gender roles. Men study ancient religious laws and prayers, while women cook, clean, and care for their many kids. (Rabbis get to decide, on a case-by-case basis, when birth control will be allowed.) Men and women are not allowed to touch unless they are married. My aunt, an early Jewish feminist, always told me she could not relate to this profoundly patriarchal group. “I can’t wear tzitzit, can’t be part of a minyan, can’t say Kaddish. So how do I fit in?” she asked. “Where do I belong?”
The anglo-Canadian media regularly sounds the alarm about Muslim fundamentalists, but mostly turns a blind eye to their Jewish counterparts (unlike the Québécois media, which goes after both). While we hear a lot about women who adopt the niqab and hijab, many married Hasidic women arguably go further, cutting their hair off entirely as a testament to their modesty. (Head coverings and sometimes wigs are permissible, but a woman’s natural hair is considered too sexually powerful to be flaunted.) Hasidim try to avoid the Canadian secular legal system whenever possible, and their rabbis administer what they consider to be Talmudic law—the Jewish equivalent of sharia.
In Outremont, a more upscale neighbourhood just next to Mile End, some francophone residents lobby constantly against the Hasidic community. While Parc Avenue, which runs through Mile End, boasts several new synagogues, Outremont just had a referendum that upheld an earlier bylaw banning new places of worship on two major roads. When the Hasids apply for parade permits to honour visiting rabbis, when they request expansions for their synagogues, municipal officials have often said no. For the harvest-themed holiday of Sukkot, Hasids build temporary structures, called sukkahs, or tabernacles, that recall our time wandering as strangers in the desert. Some native-born Quebecers detest these and have pushed for legislation to limit them.
Invoking French anti-Semitism is second nature for Jews in Quebec. (One of my father’s favourite jokes growing up: “Why are the boulevards of France lined with trees? Because the Nazis like to march in the shade.”) Anglophones, for their part, take any opportunity to call the Québécois xenophobic and defend the Hasidim vociferously. But I wonder whether these people really care about the rights of fundamentalist Jews, or whether they are just happy for the pretext to trash the province’s francophones.
Maybe I’ve become a self-hating anglo. But in recent years, I’ve developed a lot of sympathy for the Québécois activists who provoke public conversations about the integration of minorities. The issue hits closer to home, and to my own sense of belonging, now that I live on a block surrounded by a bunch of Jews who appear to want nothing to do with me.
The hasidic movement began in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe as a form of popular religious revival. At the time, rabbinic Judaism was an elitist pursuit reserved for those few community members wealthy or devoted enough to dedicate their lives to study. The Hasidim focused on the joy and spirituality of religious immersion, and emphasized dancing and singing over book learning.
What started as a dynamic populist movement eventually splintered into feuding sects, and different groups aligned themselves with competing rabbis from different villages. These sects became dynastic, with ruling authority passing from rabbinical father to rabbinical son. These rebbes became little kings, admired as men who lived closer to God. Outsiders assume, because of the beards and black clothing, that the Hasids are like the Amish: dour ascetics who hate fun. But, in fact, when the occasion calls for it, my religious neighbours love to party—like it’s 1799.
A few years ago, I was invited to a local Hasidic event for a visiting New York rabbi. (This was at a time when a few Hasids were reaching out to the secular world for help fighting Outremont’s zoning policies—they invited a municipal councillor and a few local Jews.) The rebbe, surrounded by his acolytes and male relatives in a strictly hierarchical pattern, ate from overflowing plates of food that were then passed around so that everyone could have his leftovers. After nibbling the sacred scraps—I think you got bonus karma if they had touched his beard—the collective sang and danced its heart out.
Different sects usually can be identified by slight variations in dress: outfits that imitate the styles favoured by the Polish and Lithuanian aristocracy of bygone centuries. Shtreimel—the circular hats with fur—can be worth thousands of dollars. (After witnessing a fire in a Hasidic home late one night, a friend joked that the first thing they get out are the children, and the second are their shtreimel.) Differences in hats and the length of pants and socks can signal important distinctions. Many sects won’t intermarry.
Steven Lapidus, a scholar at Concordia University in Montreal, has studied the Hasidim for twenty years. Many of their “traditional” customs, he tells me, are actually of modern origin. As with fundamentalist Muslims, their orthodoxy often is more austere than the historical practices they purport to imitate. Lapidus points out that the Montreal communities interact differently with the secular world than do the larger groups in Israel and New York. While many Brooklyn Hasidim are descended from Eastern European refugees who escaped before the Second World War, many Montreal Hasids were Hungarian and Czech Holocaust survivors. They came bearing a uniquely traumatic history. Perhaps this explains why Montreal’s Hasids are unusually closed off from outsiders.
One of the most common complaints I hear from others in the neighbourhood is that Hasids won’t speak to you if you meet them on the street. Visitors who come looking to patronize our world-leading bagel shops are charmed, but those of us who’ve lived here a while feel alienated. There are several men who have lived a few doors down from my house for more than five years, and not once have they even made eye contact with me.
As a good liberal, I know I’m not supposed to make generalizations about other groups. And yet, in the case of the Hasids, their whole lifestyle is intended (at least in its outward aspects) to both homogenize their community and differentiate them from everyone else. As historian Yuri Slezkine points out, clothing and food restrictions are often designed to keep ethnic minorities separate: if you don’t eat together, you don’t sleep together.
A few summers back, I had a series of conflicts with the Hasidic woman who lives next door, a scowling presence who tried to prevent my young daughter, Ruby, from playing on her portion of the sidewalk—despite the fact that her own kids (along with dozens of others) would run freely up and down the block all summer. When Ruby created hopscotch games, the woman told her not to use chalk. The final straw came when we got a dog—something that many Hasidic kids fear. Beside the iron rail fence that separates our two porches, she added an ugly corrugated green plastic barrier. After it was fastened, I found the business end of sharp screws sticking out onto my side.
Soon afterwards, three or four other Hasidic women on the block said hello to me—something they’d never done before. I can’t know for certain what this gesture meant, but I took it to imply: “Don’t measure us according to that woman.” I realized that the scowler didn’t represent the entire Hasidic community. She was just an individually shitty neighbour. I also realized that I had slipped into one of the classic forms of racism: projecting the scowler’s behaviour onto the larger group. I had walked around angry at Hasids for the entire summer, complaining to friends, photographing garbage, and mumbling to myself about how disgusting “they” were. But since the conflict, the women on either side of my home have extended greetings to me with increasing frequency. And so has Joseph, a young Hasid who lives in the duplex directly south of my own. He smiles warmly when we wish each other boker tov—“good morning” in Hebrew.
Buoyed by the newfound friendliness, I visit my other neighbour, Joseph, who lives in the duplex to the north side of my property, just above the scowler (yes, we’re three Josephs in a row). He’s been friendly ever since he found out I was of the tribe: he greets me on Jewish holidays, and we chat warmly every time he’s off to visit his rebbe in Israel. I bring a yarmulke so that my head will be covered if he invites me to enter his house.
As we speak on his doorstep, Joseph admits that Hasidic life is “closed” and “restricted,” but tells me it’s worth it to have many friends in a tight-knit group based on family values and community service. He volunteers to drive people to the hospital, and loves eating and singing on holidays. We’re standing right beside the green fence built by our neighbour, and I ask him what he thinks of it. He chooses his words carefully and tells me that he disagreed with putting it up. He does believe in separation from non-Jews, but thinks this should happen through education rather than physical barriers. I leave with my yarmulke still in my pocket; he never invited me into his home.
Ruby would play with the neighbouring Hasidic kids when she was three or four. It felt idyllic—like in the good old days, when kids ran around, unsupervised, until they were called in for dinner. At least Hasidic kids profit from what all the new books advise: free-range parenting. And children, left to their own devices, always figure out a way to play.
At the end of the day, Ruby would run inside and proudly tell me she spoke Yiddish. To prove her point, she would produce gibberish in a surprisingly authentic-sounding accent. Ruby even got to the point of knowing one boy by name—Joseph’s (that is, Joseph from the north’s) son Dovid. Ruby taught him some of the English ABCs, and he taught her part of the Hebrew alphabet. But, as they got older, the relationship changed: someone said something to someone, who said something to someone else. Soon, not a single Hasidic kid would play with her. Occasionally, the kids will taunt one another from afar: the fence erected between them, by adults, has turned neighbouring tykes into tribalized rivals. Now I have to tell Ruby she’s not allowed to stand on our porch and throw water balloons at Hasidic kids.
A few years ago, my elderly Italian-Canadian landlady, who lived in the apartment directly below my own, passed away, and her daughter had to rent out the space. When my partner called me at work to say that a Hasidic family was touring the place, my blood went cold. No way, I thought: now Ruby would be 100 percent surrounded by Hasidim, both horizontally and vertically. She’d never have anyone to play with—and I’d be living in the shadow of an even bigger mountain of garbage. I immediately got on the phone and called Ian, the father of one of Ruby’s classmates, because I knew he was unhappy where he was living. To my delight, he and his family moved in, and now we regularly have dinner together as our kids run around the sidewalk. “Thank God, it’s Gentiles moving in!” I thought after the lease was signed. My zaida—who fled Cossack pogroms in Russia—no doubt turned in his grave.
“I’m the devil,” Pierre Lacerte tells me. “So be it.”
Lacerte has been called an anti-Semite many times—especially when he is spotted walking around his neighbourhood with a camera, seeking proof that Hasidic neighbours are breaking municipal laws. In 2007, he was sued by a Hasid—unsuccessfully—for libel. In response, he started an acerbic blog that takes aim at the allegedly illegal habits of Outremont Hasids. When accused of holding oppressive beliefs, he turns the tables, casting himself as an underdog who’s going up against a powerful Hasidic PR machine. In 2008, he wrote: “We have asked questions, turned over stones, uncovered questionable and revolting practices. It’s crazy how many bugs came running out when we shone our flashlights in shadowy corners.” The association of Jews with vermin carries awful historical connotations. But given my own rat fixation, who am I to judge?
Lacerte arrives at my place prepared for a fight, but carefully avoids saying anything that is explicitly anti-Semitic. He differentiates the Hasidim from other Jews, and tells me he has Jewish friends (though he is sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge that this fact alone does not mean he isn’t anti-Semitic). I try to put him at ease by admitting that even I have complaints about my Hasidic neighbours. He jokes that I must be one of those “self-hating Jews.”
I know why I hate myself, so I try to find out what Lacerte’s beef is. “Every single thing they do in their life is religious,” he tells me, perhaps echoing lapsed French Catholics’ distaste for Quebec’s old theocratic order. He describes them as Jewish segregationists who “don’t want their kids to have contact with us.”
I’d known of Lacerte for years and long dismissed him as an angry reactionary. But after my decade among the Hasids, I find myself more sympathetic. And I wonder whether he simply says things that polite anglophones only whisper among close friends and family.
Lacerte’s list of complaints about Outremont’s Hasids is long, and mostly relates to public space: dirty yards, poorly kept house facades, illegal flophouses, double parking and illegal booze at one synagogue, an illegal expansion at another. But when he rants about bylaw breaking at street events celebrating Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that marks the beginning of a new cycle of Torah readings, I feel he’s gone too far. The Torah sits at the centre of Jewish life, Jewish bookishness, Jewish culture. But Lacerte doesn’t want Hasids in the street parading the creation of a holy object. “Somebody paid $10,000, $20,000, or $30,000 to have a new Torah [created] with the silver, and all handwritten on a special kind of animal skin or whatever,” he says.
I’m not sure the price of a new Torah is relevant. Many of us spend money on all sorts of things that seem ridiculous to others. Moreover, Montreal is a city of parades, street parties, and public festivals. “The difference I see,” retorts Lacerte, “is that when the borough does it, it’s not for one particular section of the population. It’s a celebration for the whole community, no matter your language, your colour, your religion.” I mention the nearby event at a Catholic church that effectively shuts down a corner of St. Urbain—a major street made famous by Mordecai Richler—for Festival Portugal. “That’s once a year!” he replies. It feels as if he’s playing favourites, but his complaints are not entirely bereft of logic. Like many French speakers in Quebec and France, he has a strong sense of how public space should be shared.
I don’t have close relationships with my neighbours, but a few Hasids are open to chatting with secular Jews about their lifestyle. “Why are the Hasidic homes so ugly?” I ask a friendly Hasid named Naftuli. He answers that many of these residences are well kept on the inside, but that “one doesn’t advertise one’s wealth.” Given the Hasids’ origins in Eastern Europe, there may be some logic in that: Why give anti-Semitic mobs a tipoff to pillage your home?
A few months later, I invite Naftuli over to my house, and he expands upon the topic. Hasidic mothers with up to a dozen kids don’t have time for landscaping, he says. It’s not a priority. Many don’t even have time to wash all the dishes, apparently: on Shabbos, they often eat dinner using disposable plates and crockery, which helps explain all the garbage.
Cities can produce strange bedfellows. In my neighbourhood, the Hasids have found an unlikely friend in Leila Marshy, a Palestinian-Canadian who became concerned when she saw a group of francophone residents of Outremont—including Lacerte—propagandizing against the Hasidim. She responded by co-founding a group intended to foster dialogue between Hasidic and secular neighbours.
When I mention my own frustrations over the ugliness of Hasidic yards, Marshy jumps in enthusiastically: “We had to tackle that!” In the summer of 2014, her group created an event called Jardinage Voisinage and sent flyers to Hasids with messy properties. “We said, ‘We’ll come and do your garden for free,’” she explains. Along with a group of volunteers, Marshy bought dirt and mulch and plants, and did about six gardens. One of the Hasidic women who participated, she says, has now become a gardening enthusiast.
Marshy has become quite close with the community, but admits that some repeat negative stereotypes about Arabs. “Many Hasidim share the Zionist perspective that Arabs are obstacles to the fulfillment of their scripture,” she says. But she focuses on common elements. “As Palestinians,” she points out, “your culture, your place is always under attack and never legitimized. I think that makes you feel empathetic toward a group of people that might be in the same situation.” For years, Marshy had been engaged in Palestinian activism, but over time, she began to deal more with injustices happening nearby. “I don’t live in Palestine anymore. There are only so many petitions I can sign,” she says. “But what I can do is look at the issues in my own community and try to make a difference.”
When I ask whether she thinks anti-Semitism drives the anti-Hasidic movement, she situates things in a larger context. “In the ’70s and ’80s, anglos like us were opening up to the world—there was a new term, multiculturalism,” she tells me. “Immigrants were supposed to come here and share who they were with us; we were all supposed to celebrate who we were. Canadians were defining ourselves, and this included immigrants.” But the Québécois sat this project out and instead focused on defining their own identity in opposition to English Canada. “I think after the ’80s, they looked around and started seeing all these people who weren’t like them. And they haven’t moved to the next phase yet. They’re still in a navel-gazing phase—especially people forty and over,” she says.
Rachad Antonius, a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal who specializes in immigration issues and racism in Quebec, has a more generous interpretation. “I wouldn’t say it’s racism. I would say it’s a desire to fully engage,” says Antonius, who came to Quebec from Egypt forty-seven years ago and considers himself well accepted by the people of the province. “Quebec[ers] have been very open to difference as long as you are willing to interact with them and to be part of them.” It is insecurity about their own group identity that makes Quebec nationalists so focused on ensuring that minorities participate in public life.
“I don’t ask [others] to stop talking English, Yiddish, Chinese at home,” Lacerte tells me. “They can pray with their head on the floor and their feet on the ceiling: it doesn’t bother me. I mean, that’s private matters.” But integration requires a respect for fundamental values, Lacerte maintains, including French as the common language, gender equality, and education.
This is what anglophones miss when they jump to accusations of racism: to maintain their own identity, francophone Quebecers want to include minorities more fully in the public realm.
When Yohanan Lowen was growing up in Kiryas Tosh, a secluded suburban Montreal community, he wasn’t allowed to read books—even ones by observant Jews—unless they were written in Yiddish or Hasidic Hebrew and had been approved by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. The community, Lowen says, was founded to keep “pure souls” from being “poisoned by the world.” Accidentally overhearing a weather forecast on the radio would purportedly be enough to damage his soul. Cellphones were seen as a profound danger, and had to be of an approved type—flip-phones, typically—with limited access to the internet.
“They call [their rules] religious, but it’s basically just more and more limits on your life to keep you under control,” says Lowen, who, along with his wife Shifra and their four children, left the Hasidic life in 2009.
Lowen is now suing the government of Quebec, as well as his former school, school board, and rebbe. While he can read and write in Babylonian Aramaic, he can’t speak French, and he didn’t become fluent in English until he was in his late twenties. After exiting Tosh—itself a trying ordeal—he found he didn’t have the basic tools to work in the secular world. So he’s taking the government and his Tosh school to court, alleging that they did not ensure he received the education ministry’s mandatory curriculum. While hardcore multiculturalists might consider it anti-Semitic to force the Hasidim to assimilate, Lowen argues the opposite. In an interview on the popular TV show Tout le monde en parle, he said that it was anti-Semitic for Quebec not to provide Jewish children with an equal education.
His lawyer, Clara Poissant-Lespérance, explains that since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s broke down the authority of the Catholic Church, Quebecers have insisted upon secular education as a foundation of citizenship. But at Tosh schools, she says, teachers can’t discuss evolution or issues related to reproduction or women’s liberation.
When it comes to sexual education, the lack of knowledge among Hasids is pervasive. Tamara (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) grew up fully Hasidic, but never quite fit in. By eight, she began feeling like an imposter. By seventeen, she knew she would never belong. She also knew she didn’t want to just be somebody’s wife or mother—even without secular education, she found her way to feminism. Hasidic men, she says, inhabit a constant state of sexual repression. “A Hasidic man does not have sex in the light,” she says. “The whole hole-in-the-sheet [urban legend] is actually not that far off.”
Tamara tells the story, related to her by a psychologist, of a Hasidic couple who went to the doctor because of infertility. It turns out he was inserting his penis, but failing to move it around. More surprising than his lack of mechanical knowledge was his capacity to ignore the natural instincts of his body. She notes that some Hasidic men aren’t even allowed to sleep on their stomachs, starting from as young as three, for fear that the stimulation of the sheets on their genitals will cause them to “spill their seed”—and every sperm is sacred. This powerful repression, according to Tamara, explains why so many Hasidic men stare at the ground when walking past women from outside their community—in a sense, it is a form of psychological hijab.
Quebec has, for the most part, allowed the Hasidim to run their own education system. But Lowen’s case may be part of a shift in how Hasidic schools are regulated in Quebec. Following our conversation, a Hasidic school in Montreal operating without a permit was raided by child-services officers. At an earlier time in my life, I would have been in support of letting the Hasidim determine their own curriculum. But now I take a different view: I’m fine with Torah study, but I don’t want kids systematically denied access to knowledge of science, sexuality, and feminism.
One Friday, just before Shabbos, Joey Tanny was playing hockey with some Mexican kids outside his Montreal home when his father came out and stopped the interaction with the non-Jews. Tanny, then twelve, remembers thinking, “But it’s a kiddush Hashem [an honour to God]”—because he was winning. By the time Tanny was fifteen, he’d had enough of Hasidic life, and he began to think about leaving the community. In addition to reciting the usual criticisms of repressive Hasidic life, Tanny lists racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia as widespread problems.
“I grew up thinking that when the Messiah comes, there’d be seventy-two Gentiles holding each one of my tzitzit [the fringe at the end of a religious garment],” he says. He remembers being told a story in which somebody’s donkey has collapsed and died on the road. “If it’s a Jewish person, you have to stop and help them. If it’s a non-Jewish person, you don’t have to,” he says. “[And] disrespecting the French teacher is okay because she’s not Jewish. She’s a shiksa.”
Tanny’s story about the donkey reminds me of an incident from a few years ago, when a young woman crashed her bike on my street. I was up on my balcony and could see four or five Hasidic women milling about, but no one helped her. I ran down and yelled to my partner to bring towels—the girl was bleeding badly, and it looked like she needed stitches. Perhaps, as Concordia scholar Steven Lapidus suggests, my passive neighbours were not representative of most Hasids and were too scared of any contact with secular society to call EMS. Maybe they would have helped eventually. But I was shaken by their reluctance to engage. What would happen if my own daughter were hurt? Would they leave her on the road because they consider her a shiksa, too?
The Hasidim erect a barrier that appears cold or even hostile to outsiders. But inside that wall, the community is warm and generous. Lapidus tells me he has many Hasidic friends. He visits their synagogues and homes, attends their bar mitzvahs and weddings. He also understands the benefits of the tight-knit community. They have communal medicine banks, where they stockpile supplies for those in need. They give away food and furniture to the poor. The Hasidim have a charitable and highly functional form of civil society. It just happens to be completely separate from the rest of us.
“This is why they hate us. They see a system that works, and it’s in their territory—it’s not because we’re Jewish,” says Naftuli, the Hasid who talked to me about the garbage problem. When Quebecers look at the Hasidim, he says, they see a thriving culture, with lots of kids, and a vigorously protected language. Jealousy, he says, leads to xenophobia and demands for assimilation: “Without our wall, we wouldn’t be we—we would be you.”
Leila Marshy holds a similar point of view. “I’ve always felt that the Québécois, more than anybody, should understand the Hasidim,” she says. “The protection of the language, the culture, the protection of the history, the unwillingness to let outside elements dilute that culture, that’s what the Québécois do.”
While the Hasidic way of life works well for those who conform, it’s a different story for anyone who, like Joey Tanny, wants to have the option of playing hockey with non-Jewish kids and wearing orange parachute pants. Still, there are things that he misses about his old days among the Hasidim. “Community is not something that’s inherent to our society here in Canada,” he tells me. Tanny still respects the engaged nature of the Hasidic community, and he sees how people suffer in secular society. “Now when I wake up on a Saturday morning, I can decide if I want to scratch my balls or watch The Matrix Revolutions [instead of attending synagogue],” he says. “I’ll enjoy myself, but what’s the investment?” At a brunch for Forward, a new Montreal organization that helps Hasids who leave the fold, another ex-member tells me that Hasidic happiness is a state of being rather than a result of material acquisitions or secular achievements.
It’s an observation that hits at the ache inside me—and a lot of other people I know on the secular side of the wall. Our modern, individualist lifestyles come at the price of a deeper sense of belonging. The Hasids who freeze me out aren’t doing so because they dislike me per se. It’s that they worry their own hard-won sense of community won’t survive if they don’t draw a hard boundary around it—a boundary that happens to include part of my porch.
There’s a synagogue on my street that I’ve never attended. Four residential houses have, over the decades, been fused into the main shul of the Belz sect. Men stream in and out every day. It feels intimidating—a foreign country, a dozen houses away.
I call up Cheskie Weiss, an open-minded Hasid who runs Outremont Hassid—a blog intended to open a dialogue with the larger Québécois society—and ask him to meet me there one Shabbos. The man isn’t shy or doctrinaire: earlier, he’d told me that he volunteers for a mentorship program for newlywed Hasidic couples. Part of the advice he gives husbands comes from an ancient Talmudic suggestion that men should let women have their pleasure first. Some truths transcend religion.
I walk into a sea of Hasids. But before I have time to feel anxious, a figure rushes up to me. “Looking for Cheskie? Right this way.” He leads me to Weiss’s pew as kids stare unabashedly at my foreignness. Soon after I arrive, we sing the Shema—a key prayer declaring, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” As I invoke the unity of the Jewish people, my critical distance drops away and I feel a part of everything. My own wall, constructed out of atheistic hipster judgment, tumbles away. For a euphoric moment, I feel at one with these strangers, and I accept them with all their differences.
Seconds later, I look up to the second-floor balcony, where the female synagogue-goers are hidden. Four or five shadows move behind the mechitza (a separation made of fake wooden lattice). My trance is broken by the realization that this whole sex-segregated set piece is a microcosm of Hasidic sexism. My kids—born of a shiksa and well versed in secular feminism—will never be welcome here. Neither will my aunt.
In between the Hebrew incantations, people schmooze. Unlike many churches I’ve visited, the synagogue is abuzz with social life. After service ends, Hasids greet me. My neighbours Joseph and Joseph beam with warmth; Yoshua—a stranger whose mail I’ve been receiving for years—introduces himself as the previous resident of my address. “You see,” he exclaims, “your house is connected to the shul!” Another man crosses the synagogue to shake my hands warmly, greeting me like an old friend. When he sees I don’t recognize him, he looks almost hurt, and says emphatically, “But I’m your neighbour!”
Afterwards, I express my surprise to Weiss. “None of these men ever say hello or even look at me,” I say. “The street’s no place to talk,” responds Weiss, pointing out a key cultural difference between French and Hasidic public realms. “Shul is the place.”
On the way out, a trio of strangers wishes me a good Shabbos, asking why I had never come before. They look at me as if it’s completely crazy that I’ve lived here for years without visiting. Were they just waiting for me to take the first step by coming here, to the spiritual heart of their community?
It’s at this moment that I feel the appeal of Hasidic life most powerfully, to the extent any outsider can. My job as a social commentator is to critique their way of life, but as a neighbour I just want to interact with them. My anger and irritability are the flip side of my frustrated desire to connect, my desire to feel a part of my street, to feel I belong to this place. In our hunger for this, we all inhabit the same sect.
This appeared in the March 2017 issue.