An American Orthodox Jewish Community: At Home with a Rabbi
by Yoshiji Hirose, Ph.D.
It had been a very quick year since I presented
at the 11th IAYC Conference in Ohio, USA. I
had great expectations, and a little anxiety, about what kinds of people I would encounter this year. Different from last year, this year I had a marathon two-month trip of researching and presenting.
On this trip, I stayed in a quiet, Orthodox Jewish residential neighborhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Most of the residents are followers of Orthodox Judaism. Because the landlord, Moshe Yarmish, of the house where I boarded is a rabbi, there were conditions that went along with the room I rented. First, I could not use the hot water in the kitchen sink. Second, I was not allowed to use any dishes that needed washing, only disposable ones made out of paper or plastic. While these conditions seemed strict, I accepted them. I did so because being able to board at a rabbi's home is a very rare and valuable opportunity.
While Rabbi Yarmish is a rabbi, he said that his main occupation is that of a university instructor. His wife, Ruth Yarmish, is a principal at a Jewish school. Both of them have an easy-going character. As we became closer they came to call me by my nickname of Yoshi, and invited me to dine with them on the Shabbat. Yoshi sounds like Josh, a common term of endearment for the historical Jewish leader Joshua. There are many Jewish people with that name. Yossi in Hebrew, as well
as Yosike and Yoyzl in Yiddish, are all variations
of the same name.
Every time the Yarmishes invited me to have dinner on the Shabbat, several topics of conversation were raised including my speaking about aspects of Japanese culture. While they showed an interest in Japanese culture, because they are Orthodox Jews it seemed to be distant
and difficult for them to relate to it.
The Jewish Shabbat is from sundown on Friday
to sundown on Saturday, and during that time
no work is permitted. Even cooking is finished beforehand and simply kept warm. The Sabbath
is a time when people remove themselves from everyday life, and place themselves in the world of religious worship. It is forbidden to use a car or to watch television during the Shabbat. A problem for modern day Orthodox Jews is the use of electricity, since turning a switch can cause a spark, which symbolizes the labor of lighting a fire, and thus cannot be done. Dinner on the Shabbat began a little after 9:00 p.m., after prayers at the local synagogue had finished and Rabbi Yarmish returned home. Before the meal there was a ritual hand-washing to purify our hands. Taking turns, we washed our hands using a two-handled pitcher that was sitting in the kitchen sink. First we filled the pitcher with water and picked it up with our right hand. We then poured the water twice over each hand. Remaining silent, we took our seats at the table. After Rabbi Yarmish, the head of the household, gave a blessing, called Hamotzi, over special loaves of braided bread, the bread was broken off by the piece and Rabbi Yarmish ate
one piece. After that, the remaining pieces were placed in a basket and passed to everyone. One
is not allowed to speak until he or she eats a piece of the bread. After that, the person may.
On one Shabbat, as I was conversing with the Yarmishes and their relatives, all of the lights
in the room went out. It was exactly midnight. Several years ago I experienced a blackout while I was in New York, and I thought we were having another one. However, the streetlights were still on. The Yarmishes did not appear to be surprised. It was no big matter as the lights were set to go off at midnight before the Shabbat. I mentioned that I should get going
to bed; however, they continued asking me questions. Although they wanted me to stay,
I retired to bed at around 1:00 a.m.
A scene like that – continuing to have a dinner party in darkness – is one that is not seen very often anywhere. This is what it is like living according to Jewish law. It may seem inefficient; however, the religious meaning remains. If nothing but efficiency were pursued, there would be no religious cultural tradition. It may superficially seem like an external reflection of
a custom, but it actually keeps one intimately intertwined with deep psychological tradition.
It is the formation of one’s individual identity.
As we became closer, I introduced a bit of Japanese culture to Rabbi Yarmish and taught him some of the basic posture and footwork of kendo, Japanese swordsmanship, which has been my hobby for many years. While he said that he has only studied since he was young and was not very good at sports, he did show an interest in the basics of kendo and practiced seriously. He was delighted
to see that after two weeks his slightly slouching posture started to become better. Even though using Yiddish was fine, literal body language was also helpful for our communication. From then on, every time Rabbi Yarmish’s Jewish relatives came, they invited me to dine with them on the Shabbat and I instructed them in Yiddish on the basics of kendo. Since they were probably thinking that I
was a strange Japanese person, I joked that “I am
a meshugene (crazy guy) from Japan. That’s why I can speak Yiddish.” Everyone got a good laugh.
In Flatbush there are several synagogues and Orthodox Jewish schools (Yeshivas). Signs in the shopping area are written in both English and Hebrew, and Jewish run stores close during the Shabbat. Hebrew and Yiddish language newspapers are sold as a matter of course at the newsstands at Avenue J, the closest subway station, which was about a 20-minute walk away. Men pass by dressed in formal black Jewish attire with one hand holing a bag containing their prayer book,
the siddur, and tallis (prayer shawl.)
The women wear outfits with long sleeves and long, loose skirts even in the middle of summer. Married women cover their heads with scarves or kerchiefs. Orthodox Jewish women in pre-World War II Eastern Europe used to shave their heads when they got married and then cover them with scarves or wigs. This reminds me of ohaguro, the fashion of married women dying their teeth black in the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Japan.
It is not difficult to imagine how awkward I would have looked in the eyes of the people of this Orthodox Jewish neighborhood if I were wearing
a cowboy hat, short-sleeve shirt and blue jeans. I went several times to a nearby Jewish-run kosher eatery, and by speaking Yiddish with them, became close with the elderly owner and his wife, who operate it. While I was eating alone in a corner of the shop, I heard the owner’s wife call out to me from a table in the back where she was sitting.
She introduced me to her relatives and brought
up the topics of Yiddish dialects and Judaism.
They lived in Israel for several years; their parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe, and they knew about many Yiddish dialects.
They did not use the kind of Yiddish literary expressions that are taught at universities; they used mostly simple and straightforward expressions. The everyday Yiddish spoken by
the general Jewish population of Eastern Europe may quite possibly have sounded this simple. Whenever I spoke Yiddish, I was routinely asked, “Are you Jewish?” When I answered “no,” the
next question asked was, “Then how come you speak Ashkenazi (German/Eastern European) Yiddish?” After I gave a brief self-introduction,
I was able to join them. At any rate, thanks to Yiddish they opened up to me within a short time.
Winners of the J.I. Segal Awards
By Leo Huberan – Communication Director
The Jewish Public Library announced the recipients of the prestigious J.I. Segal Awards in eight categories on Jewish themes. The winners that have Yiddish themes are:
Hirsch and Dora Rosenfeld Prize for Yiddish and Hebrew Literature:
Dov-Ber Kerler for Elabrek: lider fun nayem yortoyznt, published by Eygns-farlag, Jerusalem.
• English Non-Fiction Prize on a Jewish Theme:
Mayer Kirshenblatt & Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett for They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, University of California Press, Berkeley.
• Canadian Jewish Studies Prize:
Ira Robinson for Rabbis & Their Community, published by University of Calgary Press, Calgary.
• The Jacob Zipper Prize in Education:
Nitza Parry, Chair, Jewish Studies and Israel Program, Dawson College.
• Ina Fichman, producer of Six
Days in June, Instinct Films Inc.; and
Dov Okouneff, producer of Montreal Jewish Memories Part IV, D.O. Film Production.
The winners were honoured in a special 40th Anniversary celebratory gala Tuesday, November 11, 2008 in the Jewish Public Library, 5151 Côte St-Catherine Road, Montreal. The public was invited to come to this free event.
The J.I. Segal Awards of the Jewish Public Library were established in 1968 to honour and perpetuate the memory of the great Canadian Yiddish poet J.I. Segal (1896-1954). The awards were developed to encourage and reward creative works on Jewish themes and to recognize contributions in Jewish education. Past recipients of these biennial awards have included Dora Wasserman, Gershon Hundert, Edeet Ravel, Miriam Waddington, David Homel, Chava Rosenberg, Gerald Tulchinsky and many others.
1, Carré Cummings Square
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