:: SPRING 2018 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST WINNER ::
Unathletic necks, segregated students, forty-cent bagels, stocking feet, pale plain pine, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, velvet envelopes, redheaded wives, Solomon’s Mine & all your Judaic needs.
The day is hot, touching one hundred, the first warm day after weeks of cold rain, and the men in their black garb, felt hats, side curls and unhealthy pallor mill in front of the yeshiva praying, talking and smoking, confronted by a hostile or indifferent outside world several blocks away where regular New York life goes on. Here in Crown Heights, the Jews, with their beards and fringes, go forward as they study and do mitzvahs, or good deeds, while their wives, in long skirts and sleeves and sheitels despite the heat, push their baby strollers and read from prayer books. As they stand on the meridian, the center part of the street across from the yeshiva, separated from the men, they try to inspire another soul to transcend its flaws.
The yeshiva is large and important, taking up a good part of the block, and inside the men and boys with thin, unathletic necks ponder and pore over huge books and worship in a vast hall, sitting, standing, rocking, tefillin wrapped around their head and arms, carrying their deep-blue velvet zippered envelopes with their tallit and books in plastic when they leave. Upstairs, the women, preparing for when they will raise large families and pass on the traditions, sit and study on wooden benches for visitors, hard as prison seats, the area smelling of disinfectant as a black woman mops the floor of the new bathroom. In this place the women can look down through a glass window and watch the men in their age-old rituals, customs and devotions.
The women stand back, separate, but the wife and daughters wail with the plaints of a storm through the heavy summer air over the gravestones, amidst the many gray monuments with Hebrew letters announcing the deaths of fathers, soldiers, husbands, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, all beloved, all departed.
Surrounding the yeshiva, the neighborhood Crown Heights stores are small and disheveled. The Crown Bagel shop has no waiter and only three wooden tables and a side counter where a sink with paper towels sits in the front window. People stand in line and order their breakfast specials for three dollars and fifty cents or bagels for forty cents apiece. The students come in with their black jackets and curly sideburns, their shirts sticking out of their pants, with their fringes hanging, and eat quickly so they can return to their studies. The young girls come before they go to school, also devoted to Jewish learning, and sit in long skirts eating bagels and cream cheese. Every few hours a man with beads of sweat on his brow emerges from behind the counter and wipes the tables clean and restocks the cooler. This is the only eating establishment in this Jewish area and it hums with business all day long. A hat shop, a bakery advertising kosher challah and cakes, small grocery stores with shelves of Gold’s Borscht, Goodman’s Macaroons and gefilte fish, a jewelry store named Solomon’s Mine, an Israeli book shop announcing “All your Judaic needs,” a liquor store, and gift shops with signs that the Messiah is coming. Pictures of the founder of this Lubavitch sect, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, are scattered in the windows on the street.
However, it is at the yeshiva, at number 770, where the heart of Crown Heights lies. Here the long, silver buses line up to take the little Jewish children to the Catskills for the summer. Here is where the Haredi have the same worries and petty jealousies as the rest, but try to reach past their human frailties. Here is where many of the men, rabbis and students congregate, and the women in the center of the street, on the grass with benches, wait for the imposing black hearse as it pulls up with the deceased body of a revered rabbi.
“He was a tzaddik,” one woman says. “Helped the Russians. Never complained, even in his sickness. I’ve known the family for twenty years.”
The yeshiva is large and important, taking up a good part of the block, and inside the men and boys with thin, unathletic necks ponder and pore over huge books and worship in a vast hall, sitting, standing, rocking, tefillin wrapped around their head and arms, carrying their deep-blue velvet zippered envelopes with their tallit and books in plastic when they leave.
The back of the hearse is opened and the black-coated men gather around the casket, plain pine, simple, no ornaments, and kiss the pale wooden box, praying and rocking. The deceased rabbi had eleven children. Many are rabbis or studying to become one—one traveling from as far away as South Africa—and they stand at the back and sides of the hearse with their reddish beards and recite Hebrew words. The younger sons, leaner and fine boned, in black hats and sparse beards, bend their foreheads on the hearse’s window and weep.
The hearse drives away with the black-frocked men walking behind. A contingent follows the body to Long Island, six miles away, to a vast Jewish cemetery, to bury the esteemed rabbi. At the cemetery the man who guarded the body during the night stands in a gray box because he is not allowed to mingle with the others. He is a holy man. The body must be interred quickly because the soul will suffer if it is not covered. The men carry the pine box to the site and lower it into the grave. The women stand back, separate, but the wife and daughters wail with the plaints of a storm through the heavy summer air over the gravestones, amidst the many gray monuments with Hebrew letters announcing the deaths of fathers, soldiers, husbands, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, all beloved, all departed.
The sons, the rabbis and the students begin to shovel the dirt on the pine box, rapidly, over and over again until the entire coffin is covered with the dark earth. The laments of the women continue, the red-haired women and the red-bearded sons all brokenhearted because their papa or husband is gone. Papers are passed, covered with Hebrew words, and everyone prays. Then the mourners remove their leather shoes, which someone puts in bags, and soft cloth shoes are distributed to the family members and the mourning period begins. After the men walk away, some in stocking feet because there were not enough soft-soled shoes, the mother and daughters proceed to the gravesite and say their goodbyes. Weeping, their golden-red heads bobbing and moaning, they reluctantly let the rabbi go to heaven, absent from their lives forever.
At the cemetery the man who guarded the body during the night stands in a gray box because he is not allowed to mingle with the others. He is a holy man.
The men are instructed to leave the cemetery in one direction and women another. The sweltering summer heat and vast blue sky encircle the rows and rows of headstones, the black-coated men with their beards and prayer books, the women following. The family will sit shiva for seven days, wearing their ripped clothing and sitting in their home—mirrors covered—where they will hold a minyan, prayers held twice a day at 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., except on Saturday, the Shabbat, the Queen, when it will be held at 9:30 a.m. with at least ten men in attendance.
Special people, the ultra-orthodox, encased in the middle of New York, waking every day to the realization that the world isn’t as they would like it to be, going forward, doing another mitzvah, inspiring another soul, praying to God, giving to charity, observing the Shabbat and believing that Jewish existence is a miracle. Crown Heights is a world of its own with its collective head held high.
Patricia Striar Rohner is a graduate of Brandeis University and has an MSW from Simmons University. She has published seven short stories, was a top-ten finalist in the Arts and Letters Contest and won honorable mention in The Masters Literary Award for Titan Press. Her work has appeared in Flash Point! Golda, New York Stories and True Story. Her first novel, Tzippy the Thief, won first prize in the general fiction category at the Southeast Book Festival in 2016. She is currently writing her third novel and pursuing an MFA at Lesley University.
Lead image: Raw Herring/Flickr