It’s february in montreal, and outside it’s freezing. I am walking through the echoing corridors of the Jewish Y on Westbury Avenue with three Hasidic men, two of whom are playing wind instruments. Doron is on sax, and David is on piccolo. Another guy, a local, is running ahead of them, peering into the windows of closed doors, looking for possible audiences. We are being kicked out of every room we enter. The Sephardic centre asked us gently to leave, the restaurant less gently. The nursery school told us to go away right now, assuring us that if we went near the Jewish library across the street, security would be called, if not the police.
The boys and their instruments reach one of the Y’s banquet halls, where 300 sixty-something, very blond Jewish ladies in spangled sweaters sit at card tables. A lady whose bouffant peaks at my shoulder scolds us before slamming the door in our faces. What the hell do you think you’re doing? Can’t you see we’re playing bridge? Go back to wherever you came from.
“These are cold Jews,” says Doron. “Cold souls. There is a great darkness in this city.” Doron has this rather scriptural way of speaking. He has been asking me the same questions all day. Where is the light? Where are the young Jewish people?
He and his cohorts are a new kind of Hasidic Jew. They have a message to spread. And even though they are on what seems to me the least considered spread in the history of missionary positions, they are very much in Montreal to plant a stake. In Israel, their sect—the Na Nach—is already notorious, known for raucous, sometimes surreal guerrilla street parties in which Hasids pull up just about anywhere in white vans, cranking out ear-trouncing trance music. YouTube videos show them dancing everywhere from the trendiest street corners, to schoolyards in suburban slums, to Israeli Defence Forces checkpoints.
The Na Nachs create their scenes of urban misrule as part of what they call hafatza—outreach. In addition to dancing, they give out books and stickers and offer suggestions for classes, bookstores, and study groups. Why I am on this particular hafatza run with them is a question I have increasingly been asking myself, especially since they appointed me their Montreal Jewish community tour guide.
I met Doron in Tel Aviv a month ago, at the house of a Hasidic rav—a tzaddik, a holy man. I was there for what I thought was a purely journalistic mission: a long newspaper story on the new face of ultra-orthodoxy in Israel. But the article is now so late I’ve started to forget why I wanted to write it in the first place. The paper has likely given up hope that I’m ever going to file. It’s just me and three religious crazies, unceremoniously ousted from Ladies’ Bridge on the coldest February day Montreal can muster.
The Y was not the first stop on our tour. That was the Cavendish Mall, which is frequented mainly by assisted-living condo dwellers. “Why do you bring us to places of death? ” the Hasids asked me. “There is nothing we can do here.” So we went to the Hillel House, but it was closed. At one point, David and Doron stood outside Herzliah High, parping desolately into their instruments as they waited for school to let out, but they got too cold, so we headed for the Y, which at least was heated.
Finally, with dusk settling in and nowhere else to go, I tell them the only place they might find a captive audience is the Jewish General Hospital. We are, of course, evicted from every ward, until we reach the one for highly infectious diseases, the quarantine ward. David and Doron get into gloves and gowns, eschewing masks so they can play their Jewish music. The patients are enchanted. The doctors ask me where these guys came from, and if they can come again.
After visiting the room of a clearly dying patient, a woman, I remove my gown and wait for the Hasids by the elevators. The scene is more than I can bear. I think about how, not too long before, I might have looked like that woman in her bed: swaddled in hospital bedclothes, sicker than she’d ever thought possible, pitched toward an early grave. A thought keeps running through my head: No quest ends where you think it will. And if it does, was it ever a quest at all?
Ididn’t originally go to Israel to write about the ultra-Orthodox. I was hoping only to put in some beach time in Tel Aviv, maybe do some hiking. The hiking was of particular interest. Even before I stepped off the plane, I was fantasizing about the photos I would circulate to people back in Montreal—portraits of my extraordinary recovery. For five years, I’d been consigned to a bed or a wheelchair, the carrier of a spinal cord gone insane, its sheath shredding like Kleenex, the cerebrospinal fluid leaking everywhere but where it was most needed, which is around the brain, creating a cushion. I’d undergone fourteen spinal cord procedures, all of them failed. An aneurysm seemed like an inevitability. After my last, unsuccessful procedure, a doctor gave me a book on coping with extreme pain. One exercise encouraged patients to draw a picture of their pain. When I showed my drawing to my husband, he covered his eyes, then advised me to throw it away and never show it to anyone else.
There are hometowns of the body, and hometowns of the soul. Tel Aviv is the setting of many of my childhood memories, and most of my peak experiences after that. No matter where I lay my head, my dreams tend to travel there, amid the beautiful, crumbling Bauhaus buildings and the blue ribbon of the Mediterranean, never far from view.
My family are steadfast Tel Aviv people. If you’ve ever lived in Israel, you know what this means: not Jerusalem people. We are sandy beach, not ancient ruin; culture, not religion; earth, not sky. We reliably say we find Jerusalem “spooky” or “heavy.” My mother was a professional Israeli folk dancer in her heyday, the perfect barefoot archetype of the muscular, secular, free-spirited New Jew. My brother moved there from Montreal twenty-two years ago; he can count on one hand the number of times he’s graced the inside of a synagogue.
When I’m in Tel Aviv, I always stay at my uncle’s place. My mother’s brother, he is constantly under fire from ultra-Orthodox groups for keeping his chain of mini-marts open on the Sabbath. Upon arrival, I found my fourteen-year-old cousin, a budding journalist who pores over newspapers as if they were the Bible, reading God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, just out in Hebrew translation. Why, she asked, did Hitchens think he had to fight so much? “Everything he writes is so obviously true,” she declared.
I spent my first days in Tel Aviv refamiliarizing myself with the city. There were jags of pleasure from the most mundane things. Walking to the beach in flip-flops after years of lurching around in puffy Brooks jogging sneakers was nothing less than joy distilled. Swinging grocery bags around by myself, I was the richest woman alive.
At night, I’d wander the blackened streets of the White City, not so much looking for trouble as trying to remember how I’d once so effortlessly found it. I sat on café terraces, drinking wine and soda and trying to look nonchalant, contemplating my normalcy in a notebook. I’d once had a good and exciting circle in Tel Aviv: editors, authors, and journalists famous enough that my family was proud of me for knowing them. But I couldn’t phone anyone from that fast scene. I was afraid I still carried some tail of nightmare. One wrong move, and everything would turn to shit again.
Back in Montreal, the people in my everyday life had changed, too. Since I’d left my sickbed, my social tolerance had been limited to a handful of friends and family, and what I jokingly called “assorted people in robes.” I’d become a walking cliché: the mid-thirties Jewish female seeker. There had been silent “mindfulness” retreats with Vietnamese monks, sessions with qigong masters, trips to a Vedic palm reader. Eventually, I’d joined a small, serious Rinzai Zen centre and started going every week.
The teacher had helped me find a Rinzai place in Tel Aviv, telling me she was surprised how many branches of Buddhism were represented there. This was not news to me. Since the mid-1990s, Israel has seen a boom in Eastern religions and spirituality. By the time Yitzhak Rabin was shot in 1995, a new social type had even emerged. Israelis sometimes described these dharma-minded, ashram-centric bohemians as being shanti. It was a novel word for members of a new cultural class in what some were seeing as a new post-Zionist age.
By 2001, more than 50,000 Israeli backpackers—close to 10 percent of the country’s population—were heading to south Asia every year, the overwhelming majority right after completing their compulsory military service. They arrived in Goa or Koh Samui, Rishikesh or Dharamsala, wounded by wars that were increasingly difficult to comprehend. Many found drugs. Others found Tantra, or Mahayana, or Tibetan Buddhism, often taught by landed Israelis who could translate the dharma or the Bhagavad-Gita for export back home. In 2005, the last time I was in Tel Aviv for an extended time, shanti types lined the beach in the early morning, adroit on their meditation cushions, earnestly displaying their citizenry in the New Age.
So when I struck out from my uncle’s one morning at 6 a.m., bound for that same beach with a meditation cushion of my own, I was expecting some shared vibrations. To my surprise, I found myself sitting completely alone. As the days passed and my jet lag eased, I started doing my morning session later and later, until one day I was sitting at 9 a.m., with American tourists and oily brown retirees starting to populate the beach. A Russian couple took a photo of me. I sat like a statue, the space between my ears increasingly colonized by the question one might expect of any highly self-identified Jew sitting alone on an Israeli beach in silent, folded, ninth-century Japanese style: in short, what the fuck am I doing?
I got up and walked to Sheinkin Street, a good place for shanti spotting. I decided to get breakfast at a crepe stand advertising a brand of pomegranate juice it claimed would fight “even the worst hangovers and H1N1.” In true Tel Aviv style, the stall blared terrible Euro-techno music, music like a demented pipe organ scoring an Estonian porn set. (Put your hands up! Now get that ass up!)
In line behind me stood a security guard, off duty from a nearby café. He looked like a hippie, probably a year or two out of the army, with a holstered gun and a few budding dreadlocks. As we waited for our orders, the sound of yet more godawful techno came rumbling down Sheinkin, growing louder and louder until the source, a white van with several loudspeakers on the roof, stopped in the middle of a busy intersection. The lyrics bellowing from the speakers were definitely not about getting one’s ass up: Rabbi Nachman! Nachman me’Uman! Rabbi Nachman me’Uman! Na Nach Nachma Nachman me’Uman!
The van was festooned with banners and stickers bearing the same words. From its back doors, a parade of dancing Hasidic men emerged, pumping their arms or pogoing up and down, forelocks flying. Traffic had stopped in all directions, drivers were screaming out their windows, and patrons were spilling out of cafés. A clutch of teenagers started dancing with the Hasids, who were distributing books and stickers as they bounced around.
The security guard looked over at me and encouraged me to clap to the music.
“You know these guys? ” I asked.
“Everyone here knows them. They’re here every day.”
“What are they? ”
“These guys? They’re the Na Nach. They’re cool. I go to classes they give down the road there.”
“Are you religious? ”
“Me? No. But I’m into Breslov. With Rabbi Nachman, you don’t have to be religious. You just have to be, like, open.”
I looked at him again: Van Morrison Astral Weeks T-shirt, leather amulets, dreadlocks—mega-shanti. The last I knew about anything, he’d have been on the beach with his meditation cushion, talking about the mystical yogic breakthrough he’d had in Goa after the hell he’d witnessed in Gaza. Like most of his kind, and indeed most seculars in Israel, he’d have seen Hasidic Jews and thought: cloistered, backward. And what good do they do anyone, praying in their closed yeshivas? Not going to the army? He’d have said the religious were the source of nearly every problem in the state of Israel. That there would be civil war, if it weren’t for the fact that Israel was surrounded by Arab enemies. It was all or nothing. Orthodox or bust. Black or white. But this guy seemed fully grey area.
I realized I’d read a story in the Haaretz newspaper not long before that breezily mentioned the “growing interest in studying Jewish texts among non-religious people.” And hadn’t I been seeing flyers for “Prophetic Jewish meditation” courses on city shop counters that would normally advertise art exhibits or music festivals? On cable television, there was now a twenty-four hour Kabbalah channel, featuring an instructor teaching seculars the deepest meanings and minutiae of the Zohar. On the army radio station—usually a neverending playlist of Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, and their thousands of Israeli balladeer descendants—I heard Etti Ankri crooning the lyrics of the eleventh-century rabbi Yehuda Halevi. “Ah, Hasidic bliss,” the announcer said after the song had ended. Hasidic bliss? On idf Radio?
One of the dancers approached us. He gave a sticker to the security guard, gave a sticker to me. It was a yellow happy face with sidelocks. The dancer was wearing an open black robe that had seen better days, and a large white skullcap bearing that same slogan again: Na Nach Nachma Nachman me’Uman. I’d seen it before. Since arriving in Israel, I’d seen it a lot, actually. The most common graffiti in Israel used to be Am Israel Chai—“the nation of Israel lives,” an old Zionist nugget. But this new one, yes, it was everywhere.
“You read Hebrew? ” the Hasid asked.
I nodded dumbly, unused to having Hasidic men speak to me. He handed me a book.
“You can give me a few shekels,” he said, “or you can give me just a smile.” I gave him money.
As the Hasids barrelled back into the van and drove off, the security guy asked to see the book: Rabbi Nachman’s Stories.
“Oh. This is the best one they have,” he said.
“You know this book? ”
“Absolutely I know it. Read ‘The Sophisticate and the Simpleton.’ That’s the best one.”
The security guard got his crepe and turned to leave.
“Remember,” he said, gun bouncing off his hip, “ ‘The Sophisticate and the Simpleton.’ That’s your story.”
I stood there, watching this guy, with his dreadlocks and his love of a nineteenth-century Hasidic mystic, walk away. And I thought, “No dude, you’re my story.” Something new was going on in this country. Seculars dancing with Hasids. There was an article here. I was sure of it. I went home and called the newspaper I used to write for. “I don’t know what this story is yet,” I said, “but I know it’s big.” I got the assignment and booked a trip to Jerusalem.
It had been years since I’d reported an article. My illness had made this kind of journalism too difficult, with its interviews and interactions and towering stacks of research. But now I threw myself at the task with an enthusiasm that brought to mind the words “pent up.” In Jerusalem, I met with experts at universities and institutes, and scoured through an encyclopedia’s worth of books and papers in a hotel room atop Mount Zion.
The more I read, the more the Na Nachs fascinated me. Hasidism is generally thought of as very conservative, but this sect seemed to remember more than any other that the movement had started out as countercultural. During the religious tension that defined the Jewish eighteenth century in Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe, the original Hasids were like the Merry Pranksters—wilfully wild protesters of a rabbinical Judaism that had grown too text and rule bound, too spiritually dour and hierarchical. These Hasids prized emotional exuberance, spiritual freedom, personal eccentricity, and extreme positivity over almost everything else.
The Breslov, the sect from which the Na Nachs derive, held that to reach God, Jews needed to fly far from the rational, via intense bouts of ecstatic singing, dancing, and prayer. Its members have long been associated in the Hasidic world with mayhem, misrule, and what might be termed hardcore originality. This reputation arose largely thanks to Breslov’s unusual, leaderless structure. The sect’s Ukrainian founder, the mystic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, was the great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov. Nachman was known as a great storyteller, penning fables that became well studied and well loved, both within and outside the court of Breslov. After Nachman died in 1810, in the town of Uman, the sect chose not to name a new leader, maintaining that Nachman was the greatest spiritual master of all time, and that his teachings alone could usher in the messianic era.
This leaderless configuration made the Breslov seem weak and weird to other Hasidic sects, who mocked them as “Dead Hasids” and sometimes actively persecuted them. But it also made Breslov more elastic than other forms of Hasidut, a kind of ultra-orthodoxy one could practise individually. Not surprisingly, the Breslov are keen meditators; one notable practice, called hitbodedut (“self-seclusion,” roughly), involves going to an isolated area and talking aloud to God, no matter how mundane the subject. Even plain old complaining is acceptable in hitbodedut, aligning it not so much with the related Christian custom of confession as with the arguably Jewish one of psychotherapy.
The origins of the Na Nach go back to 1922, to an outcast, impoverished Breslover named Israel Odesser, who is believed to have found an eleven-line “letter from heaven” in one of his yeshiva books that year. Na Nachs believe the note—in Hebrew, the petek—was sent from Rabbi Nachman himself. It became a foundational artifact, the wellspring of Na Nach culture, if only because of the numerological tongue twister—and eventual trance lyric and graffiti tag—that makes up its seventh line: Na Nach Nachma Nachman me’Uman.
The young Odesser, already scorned for being Breslov, barely told anyone about the petek. He might have taken the note to the grave had an eager returnee to Judaism not found him, and the note, in a retirement home in Ra’anana in the mid-1980s. Odesser soon had busloads of disciples seeking him out, most of them young returnees. By the time he died in 1994, a new brand of Hasidism had been born. Significantly, it appears to be the first sect founded in Israel.
The Na Nach were instantly controversial. They pounded the pavement everywhere in search of an audience. Prison yards. After-hours clubs. Non-Jewish neighbourhoods. Some Breslovers believed they were too extreme, that their ranks swelled with unsavoury types, and that their practice of devoting compassionate energy to non-Jews was corrosive. And because the Na Nach thrived on craziness, Na Nach society was in some ways crazy. Drugs abounded. Transience, too, since many returnees found they couldn’t manage the responsibilities and prescriptions of ultra-orthodoxy for long. Some traditional Breslovers campaigned for total disassociation from the Na Nach.
But the Na Nachs had their Hasidic supporters, in large part because of their contribution to the process of Jewish religious return known as teshuva. This movement has tended to run in waves over the past half century; the largest began around the turn of the millennium. It’s hard to find definite numbers on teshuva, but in Israel an oft-claimed statistic asserts that 120,000 Israelis are actively returning to serious Jewish observance—orthodoxy, if not ultra-orthodoxy. In the US, a similarly repeated stat holds that while Orthodox Jews make up only 12 percent of American Jewry over the age of sixty, the number jumps to 34 percent between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.
The Breslov are believed in the Hasidic and academic worlds to be more effective than other sects at attracting Israeli seculars to religious life. In this, they have been greatly aided by the Na Nach, who have distributed more than a million books about Nachman and Hasidic theology in Israel. The Breslovers’ achievement has become their grand “I told you so” to the rest of the Hasidic world. Because it is the very amorphousness of Breslov, the very fact that it has no living leader, that has brought this success. With no top-down structure, Breslov converts can, for lack of a better word, freestyle. They can make up their own path, and they can do it more or less on their own, with only a few books and classes to buttress them. In a state newly struggling with questions of individual identity after decades of ingrained Zionist collectivism, the Breslov, dancing to their own beat for so long, might have found the perfect moment to move into the Israeli mainstream.
After a week in jerusalem, I had conducted fourteen interviews. Some were with highly Orthodox people or in highly Orthodox places. For the sake of getting better quotes, and of not making a spectacle, I began donning religious drag. In my long skirt and sleeves, with my head covered, I came to know the autonomy of cruising a sidewalk without thinking, “Does my ass look as good in these jeans as it did when I was twenty-five? ” I took a guilty pleasure in being off display, reminding myself that I had only just begun walking again. When I went to bed at night in Jerusalem, my whole body ached, softened from so many years of disuse.
For days, I’d been trying unsuccessfully to reach the traditional Breslov headquarters in Meah Shearim, a sector of the city where different Hasidic factions live cheek by jowl. Finally, I took a cab to the only address I had, and found nothing. I walked into a Judaica shop a few doors away.
“Do you know where the Breslov are? ” I asked the Hasid running the store.
“Are you from America? ”
“What do you want from them? ”
“I am a journalist.”
“Ha-ha. You can knock until you are blue in the face. Go see the young guys in the Cardo. They will talk to you. They are Na Nach. You know the Na Nach? ”
At the front of the shop was a rack of white Na Nach skullcaps. Some had long fake sidelocks attached to them. I asked the man what they were for, envisioning overeager teshuva cases whose faith was growing faster than their sideburns.
“It’s for Purim,” said the Hasid, referring to the Jewish holiday on which children wear costumes and boisterousness is encouraged. “All the kids wanted to be Na Nach. Last year, it was Santa Claus.”
“Santa Claus? Are you joking? ”
“Oh, no. Every year there is a controversy. A few years ago, it was Osama bin Laden. And of course, there is always the question of whether it is okay to dress like a soldier. But this year? Na Nach. All the children.”
Being in Meah Shearim feels like being teleported back a few centuries. After leaving the store, I was stunned to realize that I blended in. I walked up and down narrow stone stairways and through medieval lanes, past bakeries and other shops. In one, I saw a woodworker carving children’s toys. The men averted their eyes; the women nodded like I was part of their club. The woodworker asked if I needed something for my children. I have none, but I answered as if I had five: “Oh, the last thing I need is more toys!” I bought lunch from an open window, where a dark Hasid cooked a huge pot of couscous on a hot plate. He showed me where to wash my hands, then looked at me carefully. “You are from America? ” he asked. The question of the day. I decided I was probably washing my hands wrong. There must be some ultra-Orthodox way to wash. A prayer. I began mumbling, “Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha olam, asher kidshanu beh mitzvotav ve tzivanu al netilat yadaim.”
And it was the correct prayer, left over from my Jewish day school years, emanating from who knew where, entirely intact. I remembered the prayer one recites before eating, too, and said it over the couscous. The last time I had prayed before eating was at a silent meditation retreat in Massachusetts, where I was supposed to look at a card and mouth words translated from Sanskrit. It was my favourite thing about the retreat, which otherwise seemed like a spiritual zombieland—weekend Buddhists trying to stay calm, and all of us coming off lobotomized.
It felt good to say thank you for food again. You remember what sustains you. I should do it more often, I thought. The question was, if I had known the Jewish prayers all along, why had it not occurred to me to recite them before? Why had I been miming translated cards from Buddhist monks when my own tradition was already stored inside me, in its original language, no less?
In the months following my years in bed, Judaism hadn’t seemed like the best place to find answers to my growing roster of spiritual questions. It would have been very difficult if it had. I was raised with secularity as total creed, with six generations of Tel Aviv people on one side, and the other side defined by my paternal grandfather, a bootstrapping Jewish labour leader who was born in Ireland and bred in the Workmen’s Circle of Montreal. My Buddhism was funny to my family. Weekly synagogue would have been repellent.
Yet if you looked at my CV, this might have seemed perplexing. Before falling ill, I was something of a professional Jew. I edited a Jewish literary magazine, I wrote Jewish essays, I launched a string of Jewish discussion salons, I gave Jewish speeches at conferences and community centres. I was even invited to the White House as one of America’s “Jewish leaders.” I am a woman with fluent Hebrew, good Yiddish, a subscription to Tikkun, big hair, and halvah in the pantry. I am, in short, very Jewish.
Just not that kind of very Jewish. The project was always cultural. At the salons, it was Jewishness, not Judaism. If there was Torah, it was literature, not scripture. Before the illness, I barely thought about spirit. Even the word would have embarrassed me. But after five supine years, there were things I had to figure out, things I couldn’t talk to anyone in my family or my old Jewish network about, things I’d seen while very ill.
In 2006, I was forced to spend my days in bed at a steep decline, to keep my unbuttressed brain from sinking into my occipital skull. When people asked me what it was like to live so narrowly, so unnaturally, with so much pain and so little movement, I sometimes said it was like meditation. I had lost my past, I had lost my future, and the pain seemed to supersize the present.
Sometimes I felt there was only the most transparent of scrims between normative reality and some other, mystical realm. And in my upside-down world, things started poking through. I had strings of premonitory dreams, and thought—often—that my dream life might be more real than my waking one. I would lie, only breathing, for hours, imagining my spinal cord coming back together, a cool, perfect straw transporting fluid up, up, up. When I opened my eyes, I’d see halos, sparks coming off my brass bed, the green treetops at my window exploding with a beauty so searing I could barely hang on.
It felt like transcendence. Or at least a vibration in that direction. Maybe it was just my unbuffered brain playing tricks on me. Maybe transcendence and brain tricks are the same thing. But there was nothing in my Jewish tool box to help me deal with it. “Jewish” had been my work, my intellect, my community. It was not trees screaming beauty. How could Judaism blow my mind when it was all about having a sharp, fierce, Yiddishe kop? How could Judaism be my freedom when it was my responsibility?
I’d visited many synagogues during my life: the staid, moneyed Conservative ones; the bloodless Reform; the apologetic Reconstructionist. For me, these were not places where magic dwelt. They were places that had long since sacrificed wonder for rational respectability, leaving mysticism, meditation, the kabbalistic universe as a whole—anything with the feel of Old World hocus-pocus—to the ultra-Orthodox, who kept all the good stuff under lock and key.
For a Jew like me, there was no point in exploring that sort of high-dais orthodoxy. They’d have made me daven and wear a wig. I would have had to adopt a grave demeanour, then hone it to the point of extreme intolerance. And even then, they wouldn’t have let me look at the kabbalistic texts, because I’m a woman. Had I considered orthodoxy, even during my inmost period of illness, I’m sure the outcome would have been the same: thank you, but please pass that pamphlet for the nice, silent Buddhists.
After finishing my meal, I walked into the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, then along the narrow passage of the Cardo, the reconstructed main street of Byzantine Jerusalem. It was early afternoon, and swarms of Hasidic boys were running back to yeshiva from lunch. Between their squawks, I heard the unmistakable pulses of trance music. Don’t worry about the Na Nachs’ address, the shopkeeper in Meah Shearim had told me—“you’ll hear them.”
I followed the sound, and soon found a man dancing in the doorway of a tiny bookshop. He was wearing a white sweatshirt over a white shirt, and white pants tucked into white socks tucked into white running shoes. I struck up a conversation, and he told me he was from Chicago. Then he told me that crews of Israeli Na Nachs were raising money to buy white vans for America. They were, he said, gearing up to take over Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Miami. I asked about Canada.
“Is Montreal in Canada? ”
“Oh, there’s some stuff going on there. You need to see Besançon.”
“Who is Besançon? ”
“The big Na Nach guy in Tel Aviv. He’s French. Holy, holy guy.”
A Sephardic family entered the shop, all wearing skullcaps emblazoned with the Na Nach slogan. The mother wore hers over straightened, glossy hair and a silver halter top. She carried an enormous faux Vuitton bag. “Do you have black skullcaps with the Na Nach slogan? ” she asked. “Only white? We’ve seen black ones.”
When they left, I asked the clerk if the family were Breslovers. “I think they were playing dress-up,” he said, “but who knows? If those people have pure intention in relation to God, they are Breslov as far as I am concerned. If they’re no bullshit, they’re Breslov.”
I returned that evening to Tel Aviv, arriving at my uncle’s house on Emile Zola Street still wearing my long skirt. My Hitchens-reading cousin decided to take a photo. “Nobody,” she said, “will believe this without documentation.” When she put down the camera, she looked worried. Teshuva is an under-reported phenomenon in the secular press, but Israelis must see it happen all the time. One girl in my cousin’s class finished grade nine in short shorts and returned for grade ten in a floor-sweeping skirt. For grade eleven, she’s switching schools.
“Don’t worry—it’s just for the interviews,” I assured her. “I’m not becoming religious.”
The next day, I called the home of the Rav Besançon. His wife, the Rabbanit, answered. She sounded thrilled to speak with me. “Come, come to the house tomorrow,” she said. “Should I dress modestly? ” I asked. “Sure, why not? ” she replied. “It’s cold outside. You’d have to be crazy to wear anything else in this weather.”
I had never been to the Shapira district of Tel Aviv, near the old bus terminal, where Besançon lived. There, I passed a Moroccan kiosk selling religious amulets, a rundown Filipino food market, and a Russian furniture shop filled with what looked like Soviet-era Formica. On one street, I saw a group of Sudanese people waiting outside a soup kitchen. These were the most heroic illegal immigrants in Israel today, men and women who had escaped Darfur, arriving in Eilat, sometimes barefoot, after walking for weeks through the Egyptian desert. The neighbourhood hadn’t always been home to such a vast spectrum of recent immigrants, nor had it always been this poor; it told a story few Israelis could have envisioned even two decades ago.
I reached the Besançon house and knocked on the door. The Rabbanit answered, wearing a stretchy slip-on turban and a zippered housedress, that staple of the bubbe wardrobe. Born a New York secular, the Rabbanit had been in the Israeli Hasidic world for so long she sounded as if she’d learned English in the Latvian countryside. You wanna piece cake? You wanna tea?
She gave me the grilling any unknown gets when entering an ultra-Orthodox house. Are you married? Yes. Do you practise good deeds? In my own way. You have children? No. She told me to read the stories of Rabbi Nachman on the Sabbath. “I told the man who makes spraying on my cockroaches to do this, and he just now came to tell me that after five years he and his wife are expecting. So what more proof do you need? ”
The house was pleasant, hung floor to ceiling with paintings and Rabbi Nachman quotes in calligraphy. Some of the Rav’s followers were hanging out in the living room. Their extra-long sidelocks were carelessly curled, and their big white skullcaps sat high on their heads, like seamen’s toques. Their black pants were slung low. Orthodox dudesters, I supposed. One of them, Doron, told me that before he found Rabbi Nachman he was a lost and unhappy tae kwon do champion who spent most of his time travelling through Asia. He had an imposing build, tall and lanky, with a single finger as long as my whole hand. His eyes were enormous and heavy lidded. Bong eyes. Weary Jewish eyes. Possibly both.
He started talking with his friend about the last Sabbath they’d spent together.
“There was light.”
“Oh, yeah man, big light.”
“Yeah. Really big light. With God’s help. Wow.”
“Wow. Totally. With God’s help. Yeah.”
The Rav arrived, cleaning his hands with a rag. His beard and sidelocks were grey and droopy. Instead of the typical Hasidic long jacket or belted caftan, he was wearing an old terry cloth bathrobe. He nodded to his disciples, then slowly turned his head and nodded to his wife. In the world of Na Nach, he is known for his composure and simplicity. And indeed, the energy in the room felt concentrated, like molasses in a pan. He raised his eyes heavenward, then lowered his gaze in my direction.
“What do you want from me? ” he asked. His voice was soft and surprisingly high; his Hebrew had an unmistakable French accent.
“I’m a journalist,” I replied. “I want to know more about what you Breslov guys are doing.”
He nodded again and put his rag in his bathrobe pocket. “But what do you want from me? ”
I looked at his wife. She waved for me to go on. Don’t worry, he’s heard everything.
“I’m interested in the changing landscape of spirituality in Israel,” I said.
“I’d just like to interview you. It’s a very reputable newspaper.”
The Rav closed his eyes. A painter, he had probably just come from his studio. His art is spoken of with reverence by his followers. I’d seen some canvases online, mostly the colourful ersatz Chagall stuff you see in Israel’s touristy areas. Dancing rabbis. Flying harpists. The difference was that the Rav sold his paintings for thousands of dollars, to support his work with the Na Nach.
I looked at his work on the wall and started thinking about what religion does to taste, to style. Illness was terrible for style. It’s embarrassing to admit, but there were months when the orthopaedic shoes I had to wear when upright felt almost more painful than the physical distress. At one point, I became so disturbed by the dozens of beautiful designer shoes taunting me from my closet that I had the nurse caring for me pack them up and take them away. She sent them to her hometown. There is a village in the Philippines today where half the female population might well be shod in Proenza Schoulers and Christian Louboutins.
Needless to say, the shoes in this room were not good. And yet Besançon was at one time a bohemian with a deep lineage in cool. Before turning Hasidic, he owned a fashionable art gallery in the Marais district of Paris. His first wife, Barbara Rubin, was an erotic film artist best known as one of Bob Dylan’s more famous and delirious girlfriends. She was hanging out with Allen Ginsberg before she and Besançon married and made a full return to Judaism together. She later died while giving birth to their fifth child.
The Rabbanit spent her own hippie years meditating in a mountaintop cabin in California. I tried to imagine her as she might have been had she not had a Jewish epiphany in her early thirties. Yoga arms instead of zippered housedress, perhaps. Sacred dance classes and a raw vegan regime in Taos instead of you wanna piece cake? on the fringes of Tel Aviv.
The Rav opened his eyes and regarded me plainly, clearly not buying the journalism bit. He extended a hand, palm up, a gesture that felt curiously compassionate.
“I want to know how you believe,” I said.
“You from Toronto? ”
He looked at his wife and nodded once more.
“Tea, I am bringing,” she said, as Rav Besançon led me to his back office.
He wanted to show me videos of some far-flung Na Nach dance parties. I’d seen one such clip online just that morning: a Na Nach van clamouring through the Lebanese front during the 2006 war. The group went around finding clutches of Israeli soldiers, giving them books and affixing Na Nach stickers to their tanks. Watching the video, I’d teared up. The soldiers looked so young, and so visibly relieved that someone, anyone, was reaching out to them. One group broke into a wild hora with the Hasids. Then a kid left the circle to tell the camera, “You guys have guts! Who comes here to be with us? Bring us happiness? Nobody understands how much we need happiness. Only you guys! Big up Rabbi Nachman!”
Besançon told me that his guys had also gone dancing at the Lebanese front. “Life is singing and dancing,” he said. “Even in war, life is a song. The creation of the world is a song. God sang to create the world. All of nature is a song. And every man has an interior song. The question is whether he finds the proper voice to express it or not.”
The Rav described his own spiritual development somewhat prosaically. There was no flash of lightning, just a series of chance worldly encounters with uncommon people, including wealthy Californian art patrons, New York bohemians, a few Belgians, and a couple of people he describes as kooky, dishevelled, penniless bearded guys with special books in their pockets. Lone Breslovers, plopped into his path.
By the mid-1990s, he’d become a full Breslover, the traditional kind. “But I felt strangled by even that system,” he said. “It was then that I discovered the petek.” On a trip to Israel, Besançon met Israel Odesser. “He had a spirit of extase permanente,” Besançon told me, “but with very great lucidity. The type of character you never, ever forget.” He joined Odesser’s growing flock just in time to witness the old man’s death. “I was one of the guys at Hadassah hospital the day when he died,” the Rav said.
“That night, he came to me in a dream,” he continued. “He said I must make a yeshiva.” Besançon’s school opened in 1999, next to a pizza parlour on a busy downtown street in Tel Aviv (it later moved to a courtyard space behind a hair salon). Also under his wing was the Breslov bookstore on Sheinkin, the place where the shanti-looking security guard had told me he took lessons. Besançon seemed to share the Jerusalem Na Nachs’ preoccupation with border crossing—with getting word out to the Diaspora, to America. A significant group of Montreal Breslovers, he noted, listened to his online sermons in French. They were distributing his books throughout the Francophonie.
Hasids don’t have much use for the idea of meaningless coincidence. Before I left, Besançon told me he believed I had been sent to him for a reason. That there was some importance yet to unfold from my reaching his home. “Did you meet Doron? ” he asked. “You know he is travelling to Montreal very soon.”
When I left the office, Doron was waiting outside the door. He gave me some possible dates for his arrival, and I made noncommittal noises about helping him find buyers for the Rav’s paintings. He asked me if I knew any other “nice, simple people” who might help him in Montreal. I replied that journalistic ethics prevented me from doing too much, but that I might be able to assist him a little.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said.
“Don’t thank me. I haven’t done anything.”
“Oh, but you will. With God’s help, you will.”
The next evening, I sat in on a course Besançon was teaching at his school, again in my long clothing, surrounded by similarly dressed women. I felt something unusual in the room—like a shared air of crisis receding into the distance. I had yet to meet one teshuva case my age who hadn’t turned to religion after enduring some personal hell. A few days earlier, a young woman at Besançon’s bookstore on Sheinkin Street had recited a Leonard Cohen lyric to me: “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I was touched to hear the line in Hebrew. Back when my spine seemed beyond repair, I’d encountered the original, from the song “Anthem.” Like so much when one is in a state of pain, it had felt targeted to me.
It was around that time that I, too, had ceased to believe in meaningless coincidence. And once I’d started feeling better, this sense of connective magic had begun to harden. I now desired a concrete narrative for the unavoidable question why me? That I was one way, then almost died, and was now just damaged goods was not a story that appealed to me. There was something undeniably attractive in the idea that in switching rails, I would find a better one. I’d once seen teshuva as depressing, a dropping out. Now I understood it more laterally, as people moving sideways to where things made more sense for them.
I thought of how the women sitting next to me had rules for everything, from how they put on their shoes in the morning to how they went to the bathroom. I wondered if this level of prescription is what attracted them to teshuva. Having one’s choices restricted could unleash previously unsuspected freedoms, I knew. Even the type of Zen meditation I practised reflected this. In Rinzai, there’s a specific way to drink your tea, a prescribed way to enter the zendo. My Zen teacher in Montreal had told me that the students who tended to stick with her were usually Jews or Catholics.
So now there I was, sitting in a class filled with Jewish returnees, people pledging their lives to Hasidut, and it was no longer about the article. The Rav had been right about that. I had ten times more research than I needed for any newspaper story. Was I here because I was hoping to miraculously morph into one of these returnees? Was I one of them? I, who had stopped believing in the central macher-God when I was still in high school?
I had by then experimented with hitbodedut a few times. In every instance, it felt crazy and indulgent, like clumsy, inelegant complaining. I talk enough. I’m always talking. The last thing I needed was more talking. Zen, by contrast, felt simple and logical to me, almost like common sense, and requiring no suspension of disbelief.
Never mind all the petek babble. Wise and interesting as Besançon and his Na Nachs seemed, their belief in Odesser’s note remained unfathomable to me. Faith is by definition an engagement with that which is impossible to fully understand, but a letter from heaven? The petek in Odesser’s school book seemed so much more likely to have been a practical joke planted by some rascally yeshiva kid. It was no less foreign than chanting in Japanese. Less, even. The petek felt silly.
I left Besançon’s class at the break, and when I boarded my plane to Montreal days later it was without the long skirt. Within twenty-four hours of my return, I was back at the Zen centre, ready to resume my practice.
Then, not long after, the Na Nachs from Tel Aviv touched down in Montreal.
And that’s how I ended up in this hallway outside the infectious disease ward at the Jewish General. I’ve had an intermittent headache, like ropes pulling at my skull, since the Na Nachs arrived. There have been impatient messages from the newspaper. Never mind if there’s a new development. Can’t I just send the thing in?
Finally, we leave the hospital. Doron’s cellphone rings. A space has been found for an exhibit of Besançon’s paintings, a crate of which they’d brought over, roughly packed, from Israel. I am relieved. The Na Nachs landed without anything resembling a game plan—Do you know any nice people who might want to buy some paintings? Your mother? Does your mother have any nice, simple friends?—and a host of more basic problems—Where we can get organic vegan kosher food? Only organic and vegan? No, no, it must be kosher, too. Since then, they’ve been getting increasingly crabby. But now their high hopes for Canadian hafatza return: an art gallery filled with curious young Jews, two nights from now.
On the eve of the exhibition, I arrive at the Ghetto Shul, an indie prayer house on avenue du Parc that’s popular with McGill students. When I enter the place, I am relieved to find it welcoming. The night before, I went with Doron and David to a gloomy Breslov centre and synagogue in a strip mall in Montreal West, segregating myself alongside two other women in a kitchen with a dripping faucet—the shul’s only room for females—while a man in the main room gave a hateful talk filled with sentences like “Sick people get sick because they have no purpose in life.” It was a far cry from Besançon in Tel Aviv. I left in disgust.
At the Ghetto Shul, I take a seat across from Doron, who sits, spent and dejected, on a sofa. It is becoming increasingly clear that the turnout at the Ghetto Shul will be essentially me. Doron was telling potential buyers to go to the Hillel House, which is blocks away, and I wonder if the exhibit has been advertised incorrectly as well. The Na Nachs will leave without selling a single painting, and, I suspect, without helping any young Canadian Jews step toward teshuva.
I offer Doron a toothless platitude about how his Canadian excursion could have some not-yet-discernible positive effect. The divine works in mysterious ways. Et cetera.
His always-heavy eyelids are now slits. “Tell me,” he says, waving a long hand at my presence, “why are you even still here? What do you want? ”
This time, I answer the question straight.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I thought the story with you guys was finished. But then it wasn’t. Sometimes stories don’t end the way you think they will.”
“Ah!” says Doron, nodding deeply. “That is a good answer. That is an answer Rabbi Nachman would have liked.”
Soon after david and Doron leave Montreal, I have what feels like a near-total relapse. A fluid leak reopens, bringing much of the old brutality and none of the built-up tolerance. It’s hard not to think of the reversion as a punishment. I have pangs of nostalgia for the time when I never knew I could again be well.
One day, from my bed, I peer at one of the stacks of Breslov books still littering the house. I see Rabbi Nachman’s Stories and remember the shanti security guard on Sheinkin. “‘The Simpleton and the Sophisticate,’” he’d said. “That’s your story.” I finally crack it open.
The tale is supposed to be Nachman’s easiest, but it turns out to be long and obscure, layered with kabbalistic sub-stories and Talmudic tiers, and what feels like several consecutive endings tacked on to each other. I get the gist, though. The Sophisticate travels too much, learns too much, questions too much, and desires too much, which leads him to cynicism and ultimate ruin. His friend, the Simpleton, remains close to home, stays satisfied with what he has, and never questions whether it is the best thing. The Simpleton is happy. And even though he is simple, his ability to savour whatever is on his plate, even if it’s only dry bread, leads him to become a great leader. I can’t stop thinking of Peter Sellers in Being There. Still, the story stays with me.
By spring, I recover most of my strength. The relapse wasn’t a false alarm, more like a reminder bell. (Don’t desire too much / Savour what is on your plate.) I get a phone call from Leibish Hundert, the rabbi at Ghetto Shul. Hundert, thirty-four, considers himself a Breslover, but an independent one—not Na Nach, not one of the more old-school strains, just a Hasid of his own making. Besançon exhibit notwithstanding, his shul is a Montreal success story. On “big Shabbats,” he can draw a hundred youngsters. He’s phoning now to see what happened to my article about Breslov.
I can’t bring myself to tell him the whole deal: that after sinking thousands of my own dollars into research, after collecting forty-six hours of interview tape, after bringing that encyclopedia’s worth of Breslov books back to Montreal, I’d pulled the story from the newspaper. Back in Canada, the journalistic instinct that had compelled me to pitch it in the first place had come to seem flawed, compromised. Stories of secular-religious discord filled the Israeli news. My proposed paean to rapprochement and bridge-building, to some hitherto unrecognized Israeli kumbaya moment, had come to feel out of alignment.
Instead, I ask Hundert about “The Simpleton and the Sophisticate.” There were many leaps in it that I found impossible to follow, I tell him. And it bothered me, because I’d heard it was Nachman’s most readable tale.
“Oh. Nachman leaves those spaces in on purpose,” Hundert replies. “Those are the places where your yearning to connect to God bridges the synaptic gap between the concepts.”
But what if one can’t connect to that God? What if the connection is to a different concept? To interconnectedness itself?
Hundert doesn’t dismiss me. He says that what he finds, with any story, is that the practice of being immersed is what matters most.
“No story stays the same,” he says. “Not even stories on the page. What you read today will not be the same if you read it again in a year. So you will never find the meaning. Because a story exists in the world of experience—always reopening itself to interpretation. You work on stories, and stories work on you, and that’s where the real truth emerges.”
He asks me if I’d be interested in joining a study group for Nachman’s stories. He’s been thinking of starting one. Sounds intriguing, I respond. Maybe one day it could even feel like more than that. But sometimes, I tell the rabbi, you have to get your own story straight before you can do anything with anyone else’s.
This appeared in the November 2010 issue.