My First Haredi Hug: On Making an Unexpected Friend in Israel
My first Yiddish lesson in Israel did not go well.
I speak pretty good Yiddish, but I wanted to learn more and get accustomed to the distinct Hasidic accent – and I love visiting Bnei Brak, a Haredi community next to Tel Aviv.
My lesson was with Yosef, a Hasidic man in his twenties. The lesson started off great as we got to know each other, talking about our families and their histories. During the course of two hours, we spoke about 70% Yiddish, 20% Hebrew, and 10% English. Eventually, Yosef asked what kind of synagogue I go to, and I told him it was Reform.
Yosef’s response was, “I would never go to a Reform synagogue if you invited me.” Like a bullet through my heart.
I’ve worked so hard to protect my Judaism from toxic relatives, from anti-Semites, and even from Israelis antagonistic to religion. Yet there I was, a Reform Jew in the middle of a Haredi city, the teacher insulting my community. I tried to appeal to Jewish unity and mutual respect, but it didn’t work. In Yosef’s words, he practices “authentic Judaism,” and I practice something “worse” than even secular Judaism.
I explained how he’d hurt me, and though he apologized, I didn’t think I’d feel comfortable working with him anymore.
Walking around Bnei Brak with music blasting through my earphones, I felt hurt, angry, and distant from Judaism. That jerk of a teacher! He takes my tax dollars but has the audacity to lecture me about my faith!
Finally, I reached a restaurant that served home-cooked Ashkenazi food, just what I wanted. The guy behind the counter, Yisroel, had a kind smile, and he gave me extra food as we chatted about life in Tel Aviv. I told him about the city’s biblical graffiti and the guy playing “Hinei Mah Tov” on an electric guitar in Kerem Hateimanim last week.
Then, his friend walked in the restaurant singing a niggun, a wordless melody – and Yisroel and I both joined in. It was a surreal moment that happens nowhere else in the world except Israel.
When they asked me why I was in Bnei Brak, I told them about my Yiddish lesson. Yisroel asked if the teacher was Haredi, like him, and when I said yes, I could see the look of embarrassment on their faces. He started asking around the restaurant to find me a new teacher.
Lifted by Yisroel’s kindness, I told him, “I could’ve just gone back to Tel Aviv and felt like all Haredim are mean. I could’ve chosen to close my heart. But instead, I decided to wander around and find someone to warm my heart, to show me that there are good people in this community.”
Without skipping a beat, Yisroel gave me the warmest, tightest, most generous hug I’ve received in my entire time in Israel. It was so filled with love I was almost taken aback! Yisroel may be the kindest person I’ve met in Israel – and he is my first Israeli Haredi friend.
And if you think, “Oh, but these must be less religious Hasidim,” you’d be wrong. Yisroel and his friend explained to me that they don’t watch movies or have smartphones. And even though I practice Judaism differently, I listened respectfully and learned about their beliefs – like I wish Yosef had done for me.
Every Shabbat, we pray the “Ve’ahavta,” a prayer that starts “And you shall love…” That night, a Reform Jew and two Hasidic men embodied that verse together. Their love brought me back from my pain. Yisroel is now part of my chevreh, my “peeps.” He’s someone who brought me back to life.
It is said that Israel is the land of milk and honey, but I believe Israel is the land of maror and honey. Maror is the horseradish we eat on Passover. The bitter people here are some of the bitterest you’ll meet, and there’s years of trauma behind that – but it doesn’t change their toxicity, or your need to sometimes avoid them.
But the honey here? It’s the sweetest you’ll taste anywhere. The people here who love God by loving their fellow man – they are unparalleled the world over.
Each person represents themselves, first and foremost. It’s tempting to paint with a broad brush to protect yourself, to think an entire community hurt you (or hurt you again). But if you go too far down this road, you’ll only be hurting yourself, denying yourself the chance to know some truly amazing friends.
Will I keep learning Yiddish? You bet! I want to know my Hasidic neighbors, like Yisroel, and it’s my heritage too, despite my teacher’s claims that he is the arbiter of Jewish identity.
Yisroel’s friend, impressed by my Hebrew, looked at my outfit and my flip-flops and said, “You seem like a Sabra,” someone native to Israel. Perhaps, as we say in Yiddish, it’s bashert (fate) that I got my official Israeli ID card the same day. Because I’ve arrived – and I’m doing mitvot with every step I take.
This piece is adapted from the original, first published on Planting Roots Bearing Fruits.