A Hasid in the Park
by Akiva Rube
I took a seat under the 40 foot stained glass windows of the Bobover synagogue. My father was sitting to my right, rolling his wet sidelocks around his finger. When the rabbi entered, the man at the front pounded once on the lectern signaling that services would soon begin. We prayed for half an hour and then I stepped out for a short break between the early and late evening prayers. Up the street the sun was setting and all around the shops had their metal gates pulled down and locked for Shabbos.
Standing outside on the curb I noticed Meir Miller and his younger brother Zalman by another synagogue across the street. I went over to say hi and we gathered around a low brick wall that surrounded a brownstone’s front yard. I sat on the wall and Zalman teetered on it with his arms out by his side.
“What do you want to do tonight?” I asked. Meir, who was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, suggested we stay home and play Risk. Zalman waved a hand dismissively, “Let’s get drunk and go to the park.”
Zalman was excited because we had gone to Gravesend Park — the newly renovated playground on 18th avenue– the previous Friday night, and found a group of teenage Hasidim, like ourselves, smoking on Shabbos. To top it off they were a mixture of boys and girls. Zalman grabbed his crotch and clutching it said, “Maybe I’ll get my dick sucked.”
“I’m down,” I said and Meir said he was too.
The side door of their synagogue creaked open and their father stepped out. Mr. Miller looked around and told his sons to come back inside. I wished him Good Shabbos and crossed the street back to Bobov.
When prayer ended my father stuck around to catch up with a few friends. I walked home ahead of him. Children playing tag ran in and out of the empty streets while their mothers and older sisters sat on their stoops and waited for the men to return.
At home, my mother was sitting at the table praying and my younger sister Chavi, all showered and dressed for Shabbos, was reading to the rest of the kids on the carpeted dining room floor.
“Can you see George peeking from under the yellow hat? Can you see him, Shloimy?” She asked. Shloimy nodded. My mother’s glasses rested near the tip of her nose and she looked over the lenses to Chavi. Then she turned to me and asked, “How was it tonight?”
“Good,” I said. I’m so zonked and hungry, what did you make?”
“The usual, gefilte fish, soup, salad, and chicken.” She pointed to each on the counter and gently rocked a bassinet with her foot. I gave Shloimy a little pinch on the cheek but he turned his face and put his arms around Chavi. We sat quietly then, listening, as Chavi read on.
After a few minutes, we turned to the sound of my father’s footsteps coming up the stairs and then his voice, he began to sing, welcoming the Shabbos angels in a short hymn. Chavi closed the book and my father came in bellowing, “Good Shabbos.” Shloimy stood up and ran into his legs yelling “Good Shabbos, Tati.”
The Miller house was the next one over and as familiar to me as my own. Our parents had been friends and neighbors before any of the kids were born, and my earliest memories featured Meir and Zalman, the two oldest of the family. As kids, the three of us would ride our bikes up and around every block in Borough Park. And when we got bored, we climbed the garage that was behind their house and jumped along those annexed to every subsequent house on the street.
After my Friday night meal, I walked to the Miller house, as I did every week. I turned the knob to their apartment, which, like ours, was always unlocked. Mr. Miller sat with his back to the door at the head of their long dining table, beneath a crystal chandelier. As soon as I entered, Zalman, who was sitting at the other end and facing me, shouted in Yiddish, “Ah, Good Shabbos Reb Pinchus, how are you?” and I shouted back, “Thank God Reb Zalman, and you?” The little girls and boys started giggling and then imitating, screaming to each other, “Good Shabbos Reb” so and so or “Good Shabbos Rebitzin” so and so. Mr. Miller turned to me with a smile and wished me Good Shabbos.
“Good Shabbos Pinchus,” Mrs. Miller said as she walked from the kitchen with a bowl of soup that she set down in front of Mr. Miller.
“Good Shabbos,” I said and stepped over all the Yiddish childrens books spilled from capsized storage containers. I sat down near Zalman. I turned around and Shifra, who’d just come in from the kitchen, was behind me, also carrying soup.
“Good Shabbos,” she said to me. She was the third child and only a year younger than Zalman. She wore a white, long sleeve shirt under a sleeveless, blue-belted dress, and a studded headband that puffed her hair in the front. She rounded the table and handed Meir his bowl with two bobbing knaidlach.
“Good Shabbos.” I said.
“What are you doing tonight?” she whispered. We’d told her last week about the people in the park.
“Not sure yet” I said smiling.
“You want soup?” she asked.
Mr. Miller began a song about the beauty of Shabbos and all the boys joined in. When we were done, Meir and Mr. Miller began to argue about the meaning of a verse in that week’s Torah reading. Occasionally, I turned to see Meir stroking his hairless chin and furrowing his brow.
By the wall near Zalman and I there was a small table with a mix of silver and earthenware candlesticks, one for each family member. The wax had burned down and over. On the same wall there was a picture of a rabbi over a book with candles by his side.
There was a synagogue with an open liquor cabinet in its basement just a few blocks down. When we arrived we sat on padded folding chairs among stacked bookcases and drank from Styrofoam cups. Zalman found some orange juice in the fridge and added it to his cup.
“Screwdrivers all around,” he said. I smiled. Zalman had just learned this word and was now apt to say at any time. “Ah, I could really go for a screwdriver. You know?”
Within an hour we finished the bottle. Meir was rolling on the cold marble floor with his hand down his pants, and Zalman waved the bottle in triumph.
Even before entering the park we heard teenagers speaking in English and Yiddish, and pretty soon we were among them.
Clouds of smoke rose from the groups scattered around the playground, and coming up I could see a teenage boy with gelled black hair. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and had a cigarette in his hand. He and another guy stood beside a girl. She wore a sweetheart top that revealed a five-inch tattoo of the sun on her upper back. I asked the smoking guy for a cigarette. He stuck his hand in his pocket and opened a pack of Newports toward me. I removed one and placed it between my lips; he pressed on his lighter and I inhaled.
He turned to the girl and continued “So, which is it?”
“Sukkis” she said.
He had asked what Jewish holiday she most missed celebrating. She went on to describe how decorating the Sukkah had meant a lot to her. Yes, it was her father and older brother who lugged the wood panels and bamboo sticks from the garage, laid them out in the driveway and built the structure that they would sleep, eat and sing in for a week. But she was the one who went to the arts and crafts store and bought paint, string, glue, and paper and designed much of the interior.
Then she looked at me and said “Hi, I’m Esty, and this” she said pointing to the boy who gave me the cigarette “is Baruch.” The other one who was slouching and had shoulder length curly hair was Yoni.
“My name is Pinchus” I said. “What do you all do?”
“I’m studying psychology at Hunter College,” she said. “I want to be a therapist.” Baruch was an EMT and Yoni was an English major at Brooklyn College. I told them what I did, which was go to high school. And even though not one of them was a day over 20 they went on about how much younger I was, and about how fast time passes.
“To tell you the truth, I think that as soon as you’re born you start missing opportunities,” Yoni said.
“Why stop there?” Esty asked. “Some opportunities might be lost in utero, no?”
“Exactly!” and he clapped his hands together.
Yoni’s favorite holiday was Shavuous. He still celebrated, he added proudly. Every year he and his “buddies” stayed up all night reading, instead of the Talmud, whatever books they’d read and appreciated that year.
They had a certain pride in the way they sounded and even lapsed back into Yiddish if they felt a point could be better made by its use. For two hours we talked and almost finished Baruch’s cigarettes, who, by the way, smoked them not like some inexperienced teenager, but like the Marlboro Man himself.
Later I found Zalman, who told me that Meir was lying passed out near the swings. Zalman poked Meir, “Hello, wake up.” But Meir was out. We got under his arms and carried him home.
Standing outside the Miller house, I was scared that a neighbor would come out and see us, maybe walk too close and smell the cigarettes. But we got in quickly enough and took Meir through the dining room where we had been earlier and into the room that Zalman and Meir shared. Zalman put Meir down on his bed and said to me “he owes me at least one cigarette.” He sat down near Meir and asked, “Who the hell were these people? They’re from here?” He put his hand on the window sill and opened the window. Then we heard a noise in the hallway. Zalman opened the door and it was Shifra. She was in pajamas, my view of her mostly obscured but I could see her briefly in a formless white robe, her hair undone.
“Go to sleep” he told her. She argued for a moment but then she was gone.
Zalman sat down again on the bed. “What’s up with these guys?” he said to me, his voice lower now.
“Some are in college.”
“Yup, Hunter and Brooklyn.”
“What I don’t understand, is where they go the first day.” He said.
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s say some guy decides ‘I’m going off,’ you know, ‘I’m leaving.’”
“Where does he go? Where does he sleep that night?” he emphasized ‘that’ by pressing his finger on the bed.
Meir rolled in the bed to face us and muttered, “It’s silly.”
“Oh welcome back.” Zalman said.
“What’s the point in ‘going off’?” Meir said. “Just to smoke a couple cigarettes on Shabbos? Big deal.”
“It’s not about that.” I said.
“What is it then, sex? You think the whole world is going to line up to have sex with you?”
“Why not?” Zalman said.
“It’s not about that either,” I said. “The question is whether it’s true. Do you believe it?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Meir asked.
“Why should you, is the question, not, why shouldn’t you.”
“I believe in God.” Zalman said.
“Then how can you smoke on Shabbos?” I asked.
“I don’t know; I just want to.”
“I don’t understand that.” I said.
“You know, you’re talking all the time about the truth,” Meir said. “’Is it true? Do I believe it?’ But this has nothing to do with the truth. This is about two things,” he held two fingers in the air, “freedom and happiness. You go to the park and see people dressing how they want to dress and you think to yourself, I want to have the freedom of controlling how I look, which is really the freedom to control how other people see you. And I understand that, they are definitely more free in that and many other ways, but are they really any happier? I’m not so sure. Now ask me if I’m happy.”
“Ask me. ‘Are you happy?’”
“Ok, Are you happy?” I asked.
“Yes, very.” he said. “Are you?”
I leaned back in my chair and looked at Zalman. Out the window I could see the yeshiva the three of us had gone to. Not far beyond that is where my grandparents lived. The nest to which I and my many cousins from across New York and New Jersey would flock for endless holiday and family celebrations, Sukkis among them. I like pulling wood from the shed and building the sukkah, I thought. And I like staying up all night on Shavuous learning with Zalman and Meir. I also like looking for bread crumbs by candlelight and unabashedly dancing with Torah scrolls.
“I am.” I said.
Zalman climbed the bunk bed and threw his pants over. I lay down on the floor but couldn’t sleep. After a while I walked home.
The next morning a cone of light shone into my room, the clock read 11:00 AM. I dressed quickly and masked the smell of cigarettes with Old Spice. When my father arrived I was waiting for him at the dining room table. The meal passed, as it usually did, with singing, discussion, and questions and answers. Exiting my house, I decided not to visit the Millers but to take a walk near the outskirts of our community. As I approached the implicit boundary between our neighborhood and the Italian one on 18th Avenue, the sound of running cars became more frequent.
I noticed Shifra on the opposite side of the avenue in much the same clothing she’d worn at last night’s meal. She looked both ways before crossing.
Good Shabbos, we said to each other. We walked for a minute and then she said, “Let’s go to Manhattan.” When I looked at her, she showed me a Metro Card, cupped in her hand.
“I have enough on here for both” she said “to come back too.”
“What will we do?”
“Nothing, just walk around.”
“I don’t know yet but we have to go soon.”
“Have you done this before?”
“Yes, are you coming?”
“Yes” I said and I followed her to the Fort Hamilton station where, out of view, we darted down the stairs and ran to the end of the platform.
Akiva Rube is a chemistry research assistant and laboratory instructor at Yeshiva University. He enjoys writing, cycling, and being involved in collaborative projects.