Fishy Story Tests Chasidic Town’s Beliefs

By Max Gross

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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NEW SQUARE, N. Y. — Skver chasidim from Brooklyn to Montreal are discussing the latest miracle: New Square’s talking fish.

In the back of a local fish market, more than a month ago — so the story goes — a carp opened its mouth and declared that it was the soul of a childless Canadian chasid who died last year and was sent back to do good deeds on earth.

The carp allegedly first spoke to its would-be executioner, Luis Nivelo, a non-Jewish worker at the New Square Fish Market, shortly before he was about to be gutted.

Nivelo was stunned. He tells visitors to the shop that he had never seen anything like it. Nivelo ran out to the front of the store screaming: “The fish! The fish is talking!” His boss Zalmen Rosen and a third worker, Zalmen Moshe Rosenfeld, ran into the back room where the fish told them — in Hebrew — that it was the departed soul of a Jew.

The owners of the market will not say which departed Jew the fish claimed to be, but according to the general gossip it was a Canadian chasid, Moshe Yehuda Geshtetener, who frequently bought carp at the store.

The fish went on to say that he had come back to earth to perform tikkun, or healing.

Overwhelmed, Rosen accidentally cut himself with the knife he was carrying. And just as he cut himself, the fish jumped into a pile of other fish. Attempts to sift through the pile were fruitless, and the carp eventually wound up being sold with the rest of the fish.

The owner of the market says that he has received thousands of letters and phone calls asking about the tale. Of course, many people are skeptical. When Nivelo repeated the story to his family, they told him he had gone crazy.

But for others the loquacious carp is believed in as fervently as the law of gravity. Even local rival fish markets such as A&B Famous Fish and Monsey Glatt refuse to say the talking fish is a hoax. Rosen, one of the three men who claims to have heard the fish speak, is highly regarded in New Square. “This man is not a liar,” declared one New Square resident, who — like most residents here — insisted that his name not appear in a newspaper.

“Opinion varies within the community,” said Rabbi Mayer Schiller, who teaches on Sundays at New Square’s girls’ school, a few blocks from where the fish uttered his words. “Some people believe — others don’t.”

New Square is in many ways the most cut-off of any of the chasidic communities. An incorporated village founded in the 1950s by followers of the Skver chasidic sect, it basked in obscurity for years. It was briefly the focus of national attention after President Clinton pardoned several town officials who had been convicted of embezzling millions of dollars in federal funds, but once the scandal died down the town gracefully slipped back into anonymity. Today it looks like a suburban version of a medieval Jewish shtetl: SUVs are parked in driveways and toys are scattered across front lawns, but geese still walk casually down its streets. Strangers are eyed with caution.

But the fish tale has put New Square back on the map, as the story has become a source of fascination for Skver chasidim scattered throughout the world. And why not? The Skver chasidim believed in the parting of the seas and the sun standing still… why not a talking fish? “Certainly in Jewish mysticism there is the notion of [transmigration of] souls [into] other life forms,” Schiller said, “particularly fish.”

As reports of the New Square miracle have spread, the details have changed slightly. In one version, the fish had said that the Messiah was coming and that the community was approaching the end of days. There was another story that the local rebbe had decreed that everyone should eat carp that week because of this miracle. New Square residents deny this.

“When it first came out we were all like ‘Wow, really!’” said a Brooklyn Skver woman. “But as time went by we said, ‘Nah.’” She noted that the community had been stung by a phony miracle last year in Israel when they thought that a dybbuk had entered the body of a woman and made her speak in a man’s voice. It turned out that the woman was merely an Israeli actress. “This is the same kind of thing.”

Either way, something sounds fishy.






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