Unusual Ingredients Make Social Group Simmer

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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Where can you find a lively venue these days in which more than a third of the attendees under the age of 30 are fluent Yiddish speakers?

Every Thursday, from 10 p.m. until about 2:30 a.m., a group called Chulent meets on the third floor of the Millinery Centre Synagogue — an old building in the once-thriving garment district of Manhattan — to shmooze (in English and Yiddish), play music and, of course, snack on the hot chulent in the giant crock pot.

The Yiddish word chulent (also pronounced “cholent”) refers to a stew of meat, potatoes and beans, usually served for lunch on the Sabbath. Yeshiva students, however, also consume chulent on Thursday nights after studying late into the night, as a taste of the Shabbos to come. But the chulent here isn’t the kind that Bubbe used to make. It’s meatless and, although quite tasty, so spicy that this writer needed to down it with a glass of water.

Most of the attendees are men between 20 and 45 years old who were raised in ultra-Orthodox homes but now find themselves on the periphery of their communities. Some of them are still observant; others have lapsed. “These are not the Hasidic kids at risk, like the ones doing drugs,” remarked Isaac Schonfeld, the 44-year old business consultant from Boro Park section of Brooklyn who prepares the weekly chulent. “They may be divorced, or never married, or are having problems buying into the belief system.”

Chulent has also started attracting Jews from other backgrounds, including Israelis and musicians, who are apparently drawn to its unique, eclectic atmosphere. According to Schonfeld, who maintains the e-mail list, about 1,000 people have attended Chulent since it started in 2002. “Our goal is to create a safe haven, where people of diverse backgrounds can be themselves, where you can say what you really think without anybody judging you,” Schonfeld explained.

One recent Thursday night, as the room was filling up, a young bearded man with peyes and a warm smile strummed his guitar while singing the songs of Shlomo Carlebach — a self-styled “rebbe” who passed away in 1994. Carlebach was regarded by many as the foremost Jewish religious songwriter of the past century, but was rejected in ultra-Orthodox circles because of his liberal outreach tactics.

Between songs, the guitar player explained, in Yiddish, that he was 26 years old and lived with his wife and children in Kiryas Joel, the Satmar community near Monroe, N.Y. The young man’s name was Yoel, Yiddish for Joel (like most of the Orthodox attendees at Chulent, he requested that his last name and photograph not appear in print). He explained that it was very common for men his age to have his name, because they were born in the year in which the previous rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, had passed away, inspiring many parents to name their newborn sons after him: “In my heder there were 25 boys — and 20 of them were called Yoel.” When asked if his wife knew that he came to Chulent, he responded: “Of course. I don’t hide anything from her. She even came along a couple of times, but she decided it wasn’t for her.”

At a nearby table, piled with coats, sat Reb Hershl, a broad-shouldered, bearded man whom Schonfeld half-jokingly, yet respectfully, referred to as “the famed scholar/raconteur/Hasidic icon/storyteller.” Partly in Yiddish, partly in English, Reb Hershl told a group of curious listeners about the little-known Hasidic background of famous secular figures. “You probably aren’t aware that the Zionist leader Ahad Ha’am was a child prodigy of the Sadigerer Hasidim and knew all of Talmud!” he said, adding a little later that Yankev Friedman, a well-known Yiddish writer in Israel, “was the eldest son of the Milnetser rebbe in Czernowicz and was supposed to become the next rebbe, but instead he became a Yiddishist.” As Reb Hershl related these historic tidbits, his listeners nodded with enthusiasm. At Chulent, apparently, a tish (a celebration of Hasidim gathered around their rebbe) is held by a very different kind of rebbe.

Reb Hershl had been invited by Schonfeld after several non-Hasidic regulars expressed an interest in learning Yiddish. One of them was Eve Annenberg, a blond woman in her 30s who works in film production on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Annenberg explained how she came to discover Chulent: “One evening I was passing by and heard singing that sounded like the old Jews who used to sing in my shul when I was growing up in Massachusetts. So I went in and found three guys, between 25 and 35 years old, singing in the old style — slow, drawn out, like they were crying in the minor key. Now that really gets to me! That is sexy!”

Ronit Milo, who was educated in the Hasidic schools of Jerusalem, said that she enjoyed coming here because “everyone is welcome; doesn’t matter who you are, how you dress. You come in your pajamas and they’ll let you in.”

Kalila Hirschorn, a 19-year-old clad in a long, colorful dress, said that she found out about Chulent from her friends in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot and started attending last October. “At first I felt uncomfortable with so many Hasidim — I didn’t know how to talk to them. But when you come with friends, it’s easier.”

One of the most interesting people that night, and one of the only ultra-Orthodox Jews willing to give their last name, was Shimon Gereidi, a Yemenite yeshiva bokher who spoke fluent Yiddish. “Chulent is really a chasidishe fargrengen,” he remarked. “In fact, some people who weren’t at all connected to Yiddishkeit have come closer to it through coming to Chulent.”

Born in Israel, one of nine siblings, Gereidi learned Yiddish after settling in Monsey, N.Y. He explained that since he learned Yiddish, his mother has been trying to pick it up, too, in order to understand what her children are saying. Gereidi’s father, who lives in Israel, told his son that he was pleased that he knows Yiddish. “Till this day he dresses in traditional Yemenite garb, and doesn’t vote in the elections. But he knows all of Talmud by heart, and even Rabbi Eliahsiv consults with him,” Gereidi remarked proudly. Rabbi Yosef Sholem Eliahsiv is the leading authority in Jewish law among Israel’s Lithuanian Haredi Jews.

David Grotell, a film and media studies professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., who stood nearby chatting with friends, said that he, too, knows Yiddish — not from a yeshiva but from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s summer program, where he studied last summer. “I stop by [Chulent] whenever I’m in New York,” he said. “I like seeing so many different kinds of Jews welcoming Shabbos together.”

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