Friends, thankfully, lead us in directions we might not go on our own. When my friend, Marian, suggested a Jewish Hasidic Walking Tour in Brooklyn, I said, “Sure,” barely familiar with the term Hasidic, but intrigued to learn more. She had discovered the tour after watching a TV segment of Oprah’s visit with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. My own experience was limited, primarily, to seeing Hasidic Jewish men walking New York streets dressed in dark, loose-fitting suits, black hats with large crowns, often bearded, often with side curls.
On the morning of the tour, we met Rabbi Beryl Epstein at the Crown Heights Rabbinical Study Hall and Rebbe’s Library, a half block from the Kingston subway stop. “I’ve been leading these tours since 1982,” he explained. “It’s a way to help people outside the Hasidic community to better understand it.”
Two other people joined the group, both Jewish. Marian and I added a Catholic and Episcopalian flavor to the tour; we just hoped the rabbi didn’t call on us to answer any Jewish questions.
Our first stop was a few doors down in a skinny-looking building with a skinnier staircase. With a refreshing sense of humor, the rabbi joked, “Hold on to the banister. “I haven’t lost anyone yet.” Comforted, but not totally reassured, I didn’t look down as the stairs curved upwards to a landing, then into a room filled with Torahs and a scribe.
“This is one of the few places in the world where Torahs can be repaired,” the rabbi explained. As he detailed the process, I picked up a hollow quill, the tip blackened with ink, and tried to imagine the patience and precision necessary to hand write each character, perfectly.
One floor down, three men sat at desks intently crafting Tefillin, black leather boxes containing Torah verses written on parchment. “Men wear them on their foreheads and arms during weekday morning prayers,” said Epstein, as we wandered from one to the next observing the intricate steps.
I looked for men wearing Tefillin when we visited the synagogue next, but did not see any from the women’s gallery where we sat behind a plexiglass partition.
The room was filled with men chanting, reading, walking, rocking, talking, and perhaps arguing. Rabbi Epstein accompanied the male member of our group to the floor of the synagogue, and without a guide, we understood little of what was happening. However, the significance to the participants was obvious.
Leaving the synagogue, Epstein led us through a typical Crown Heights neighborhood where he and many members of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect live. He stopped in front of a windowless building and motioned for us to follow him. “This is a bakery,” he shouted over his shoulder. “If you’re looking for a bakery that will put pounds on you just by walking by, that’s down the street. This one makes matzo bread only,” he continued as we entered a room piled high with matzo bread boxes and men’s frenzied voices. “They have 18 minutes from the time the bread and water combine to the time the bread comes out of the oven,” the rabbi explained. “After 18 minutes, it is no longer unleavened bread.”
Over the heads of the workers, I saw a long, narrow table with women on both sides rolling balls of dough into thin, round circles.
The circles were placed onto longer, rounded sticks, then passed along to the oven room, where the dough was cooked in a flaming oven. (No pictures were allowed except in the oven room.)
Matzo bread ready to be boxed and shipped.
Ending the three-hour tour with a kosher deli lunch, we thanked Rabbi Epstein. I extended my hand to shake his, but he nicely refused. “We do not touch women other than our wives,” he said. Marian and I walked away with more questions than answers, but deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn.
For more information about the tours, you can visit the website, Jewish Hasidic Walking Tours. The site provides a five-minute video of tour highlights, along with a link to buy tickets.