If a community is to have any cohesiveness to speak of, they must share a commonality in dress, speech and deed, or at least some of them. Once the sharing is lost then the community is lost, people can still live in proximity to each other but they are no longer a community. Therefore, debating, arguing even bickering over what are those norms is to be expected.
The next invariability will be enforcement; will it be formally standardized, will policing be necessary, or will formal shunning do? How about a raised eyebrow, or the all-American polite smile as you ‘take your business elsewhere’? Vote with your feet as its sometimes called.
Clarity was handed to me by an unlikely but delightful source, a Satmar mechanech whose anonymity I will maintain because he didn’t offer to surrender it. He was touched by one of the men at minyan which led him to recount the story of his father in law.
A Holocaust survivor, he had arrived by way of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) which at the time helped place survivors in cities throughout America. He ended up in Pittsburgh but already before 1950 had relocated to Williamsburgh. Significantly, the Satmar Rebbe had approved of his remaining in Pittsburgh.
The Divrei Yoel, as he was known, was adamant that anyone who was serious about living frum in America, erlich it was called in his circles, must live in Williamsburg. Not more than kdei chimutz he insisted, borrowing the halachic term for the maximum time that dough can remain untouched without turning to chametz, approximately eighteen minutes. No one could live more than eighteen minutes away from Williamsburg.
It was when the BQE (Brooklyn–Queens Expressway) was built, significantly shortening the drive from Williamsburg to Boro Park (presumably traffic wasn’t as bad then and the drive was under 18 minutes) that his adherents requested his OK to move to Boro Park. His legendary quick wit was on full display when he answered, “if you insist, then make the move. But notice, as you leave Williamsburg, the sign on the yeshiva reads in Hebrew/Yiddish Torah Ve’Yirah D’Satmar. As you return from Boro Park the sign reads United Talmudical Academy. He was, of course, referring to the placement of a sign alongside the building’s corner, but his message was clear: here standards are upheld. So it was significant that the Divrei Yoel had faith in this man to maintain his Yiddishkeit in Pittsburgh, so far from a like-minded community.
When this man eventually moved to Williamsburg, he was very keen to see the Frierdiker Rebbe. Why? I was not told. As his son in law recounts, the Frierdiker Rebbe’s voice was too tortured to understand or even hear without the benefit of the Mazkirus. The Frierdiker Rebbe asked, “vos zeit ir avec fun Pittsburgh?” (why have you left Pittsburgh). “Ich hob gebrocht a sviva” the man answered, “I so badly wanted to live in an environment.” The response from the Frierdiker Rebbe was so forceful, passionate, loud and clear that no repetition was needed. “Mach a sviva!” the Rebbe answered. “Create an environment.”
The simple meaning was, I believe, that the man should have stayed in Pittsburgh and contributed to the growth of Yiddishkeit there. But maybe, just maybe, and I believe this the case, the Frierdiker Rebbe was giving a perhaps subtler but profound message. Perhaps the admonition was “don’t think that when you’re surrounded by thousands of like-minded individuals that the sviva is a given, that you can take a passive role, that you can go with the flow, tickle the water maybe, but no strong, broad strakes needed here.
Not so. An environment is the product of one. You are creating an environment and you must constantly question if that environment is the correct one. In other words, regardless of what you would have done or not done in Pittsburgh, do not think for a minute that your work in Brooklyn is less dependent on you. Don’t confuse standards, environments and comfort zones. If you chose to live in Williamsburg, mach a sviva!”
Insular communities rely heavily on standards. The precise, original meaning of a standard was a flag, the colors that served as a rallying point as an authorized exemplar. It is by definition clearly defined and of common usage.
Lubavitch brought something different to these shores. My father, Rabbi Zalman Posner, of blessed memory, and my uncle Rabbi Leibel Posner, may he live long and be well, would go into yechidus with the Frierdiker Rebbe before Pesach and go home (to Chicago at that time and later Pittsburgh). We’re very happy with you, the Rebbe began one year, you’re doing well. But when your father was in Lubavitch “iz geven gor andersh” it was very different, and as the Frierdiker Rebbe said the word gor he gestured with his partly-paralyzed arm. (I know this because my father and uncle lived with these words for all the ensuing decades) the davening iz geven andersh, di lernin iz geven andersh and continued in that vein. Zolst zich nisht mestin by boys fun street, zolst zich mestin beim tatten. Don’t compare yourself to the boys in the street (yes, speaking in Yiddish, but using those two English words, R’ Shmuel Levitin was astonished when he heard that) live towards your father.
Alan, a friend of mine who died young, had gone to college in New Orleans. His Manhattan office boasted citations from The Big Easy and was replete with ‘laissez les bons temps’. His college buddy eulogized him, some people come to New Orleans and leave, some come and stay. Alan took New Orleans with him. If you truly love something you will not only reflect it when it surrounds you, you will exude it.
It might be easy to grow up in a community with clear and strict standards, it is very hard to live in one as a grown up. Because as a grown up you see that there is no big THEY out there who can determine right from wrong. You are responsible to measure towards that barometer. And you are called to account for not doing so. Called to account by He who created you, called to account by those who came before you and called to account by those who come after you.
I was not raised among like-minded individuals, and I was at the (st)age that blending in was a strong value. We boys were taking our yarmulkes and jumping as high as we could to see if we could swipe the doorway lintel with the edge of our yarmulkes. So I was bareheaded for a moment and I took my shot. No one had ever told me not to, but somewhere, somehow, I knew that it was less than. Rabbi Zaklos was our teacher then, and with a barely perceptible notion that I’m sure no one else noticed, he squinted his eyes and shook his head, the message being clear “Iss passt nisht” the most life-affirming untranslatable Yiddishism that ever was. It was my own moment in a journey of not keeping up with the Joneses — or the Schwartzes.
Sometimes, I find it hard to articulate why something doesn’t sit right, but I learned that that’s okay. Years later Rabbi Mordechai Mentlick was farbrenging and suddenly cried out “I don’t know how to explain this, ober is muz zein andersh, things must be different!” as he dissolved in tears. I don’t know what prompted him but the message is clear. Comfort zones and other beckonings hold near-constant attention. Don’t make the mistake of seeking out others with like-minded comfort zones so you can be ordinary.
Yosef Hatzadik saw his father’s visage in the window; it was most certainly a disturbing sight in the most carnal sense of the word. He did not throw a shoe at the visage, nor he did he give it the gold-watch treatment, or ignore it. He lived towards it and was imprisoned and defamed for it. Yet in that very choice, he taught us to live towards our ess passt dir nisht.
You can be a reflection of your neighbor’s mutually-agreed comfort zones. We know well that there isn’t a one among us who doesn’t harbor an inner behaima who wants nothing better than to snort at the trough. And then it becomes the occupation of the community only to agree on the trough’s size and placement and first dibs.
But there isn’t a one among us whose heart doesn’t flutter with pride at our great and eternal legacy. Your inner light, though perhaps unseen by others, can beckon the noblest within said neighbors with such intensity as to instill within them the courage to exchange comfort for glory, cowardice for bravery, slovenliness for determination, Chamberlain for Churchill.
The standard you bear within becomes the standard that others call their own. In the world of Lubavitch, this is the lamternsh’chik.