I have a compulsion to collect coloring books. Specifically, Hasidic children’s coloring books that tell the creationist story of history. I have tens of these thing large books with the black lines and white empty insides. I buy the Yiddish books for me, the adult, who, but for this post, doesn’t color. I buy because I feel compelled to see, with adult eyes, the stories that were so innocent in my youth. When I was a kid, ah, I spent hours coloring a single stream in turquoise blue and cerulean and blue-green. I saw in the images just the lovey reflection of my own artistic creation. But with mature eyes, I see something else. I see that these books tell a terrible story of history.

The Biblical Coloring Books

Coloring books that illustrate the story of the Bible are the most important piece of religious education in the very young Hasidic years. From when a Hasidic child begins school, which is sometimes before age three, the child’s school curriculum consists of spending each week on the parsha. For the uninitiated, let me explain what the parsha is: The Torah is divided into parshes, or portions, one for each week of the year. Each week, Jews everywhere and of all ages will be focused on the same segment, studying it in schools, reading it in synagogues.

In a kindergarten class, the parsha is a big deal. It’s the basis of the curriculum. Children will have various programs to learn, read, create, around the weekly narrative. In the weeks of early October, it might be about how God created the world ex-nihiloh. A particularly good kindergarten teacher will turn off the lights and tell the story of how God said, “Let there be light!” slowly, unwinding the drama so that thirty little faces sit on the floor with their eyes bulging. The class will then create an arts and crafts project to depict this; perhaps to show the creation of the planets, children will eagerly tape star stickers on to a round paper plate and paste a yellow moon on the side. And as part of this weekly curriculum, for some hours of the week, the children will color the pictures of this story on copies from the famous biblical coloring books—those that I colored dozens of times myself, and that I now have here, white and uncolored.

Since Hasidic children do not watch television, there is very little visual storytelling for young children. Sure, there are picture books with cartoons, and there are some collectors books about nature. But the only coherent image of the story of the world comes from the parsha coloring books. The parsha drawings aren’t very sophisticated; some are decidedly bad. I remember us crowding around one and laughing at the awful angle that made the humans in the picture seem deformed. Other versions, especially the illustrations by a Mrs. Acker in Canada, were beloved by all.  

Of course, it never occurred to any of us to look beyond the drawing skills and analyze the historical correctness or to look for anachronisms. It was the Torah! It was god’s word! It was apostasy to question the stories with the texts of the Bible sitting right up there above the images! All of the problems, so glaring, are visible to me now.

 

How the books imagine Jews and Jewishness

In Hasidic coloring books, the Jewish guys look—yes, prepare to be a bit confused—a lot like modern Hasidim Jews. No, not just Moses at Mount Sinai. All the way down the line to the First Man, the look is twentieth century Ashkenazi shtetl Jew. From the very beginning, God said, “Let there be man,” and man came about with sidecurls styled just so with dippity-do gel, with a respectable beard, with a kaftan and belt. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, the Jewish kings, the story of Persia—all of them look just like this!

This is the story of Adam and Eve, the first people, the creation of man. This dates back some five thousand years. Recall also that Adam and Eve were supposed to have been naked in the Garden of Eden, along with some sensuous drama with a fruit, knowledge, Adam being lonely. Just for contrast, I’ve pulled up some non-Hasidic versions where naked means a mane of ginger hair and genitals, sexy stuff. But in the Hasidic version, despite the fact that we learned that Adam and Eve had no clothes, naked means Adam is girdled and yarmulke’d and has his shoes on, surely the left side first (or is it the right side first, but he tied the left laces first?). Eve shopped at the discount outlet and found a duster, complete with cuffs and collar. She has perfectly kempt hair that’s braided just so, like my first grade teacher Miss Weiss had hers. And also she has managed to even procure earrings and presumably, get her ears pierced in the Garden of Eden’s mall. I will never be able to imagine Adam and Eve as anyone but Yankel Podrigash from the shtetl and my first grade teacher, Miss Weiss. They were the first humans, now hush.

The first image below is the Hasidic creation story, the second and third are two illustrations culled from Google:

 

Imagining how a Jew looks.

Here is what happens when you grow up seeing all Jewish historical figures looking like a disciple of the Baal Shem and a customer of G&G Designer Men’s Hasidic Suits: you imagine that Jews all look a particular way. That to be a Jew is for a man to have sidecurls and a nice long beard and kaftan; to be a Jewess is to wear long robes and modestly covered hair upon marriage, to have many children as part of the look, and of course, to have a demure demeanor so distinct, it whispers shyly from a still black and white coloring page. You also learn that gentiles look a particular way, them Johnny-goys with the jeans and cap and hooligan-looking dungarees and t-shirts and goatees and balding heads and sideburns, feh.

 

 

The message absorbed is simple and so strong: that only people who look like Adam and Eve are Jews. There is a complete collapse of all forms of Judaism into Hasidism; there is no understanding of Jewish history. It’s no surprise then that Hasidic kids would think the folks on my tours are all “goyim.” I’ve been called a goy by a wide-eyed kid who said out loud “Mammi, the goy speaks Yiddish,” after which the parents apologized profusely. I had never taken offense, could never take offense. Of course the child would think me a goy, what with my dungarees and complete absence of a good brood of babies or a better show of demureness. Of course children would think that Jews in western dress are goyim. It’s what they see. Visual lessons are powerful.

Language complicates the problem: in Yiddish, a yid speaks Yiddish and observes Yiddishkeit. In English, we have two words: Yiddish and Jewish. So in English we might have a Yiddish speaking Jew and and an English speaking Jew. But for Hasidic kids, the line between Yiddish and Yid does not linguistically exist, so they believe that to be a Yid (Jew) one must speak Yiddish and express Yiddishkeit (religiosity).

Someone who left the fold told me that an Uber driver asked him where his accent was from. “I told him,” the friend tells me “that I used to be Jewish.” That was a strange answer, surely no one would be the wiser for hearing it! But the friend had meant to say that he left Yiddishkeit, and in literally translating it he also said something culturally completely different—because between Yiddish and Jewish lies a chasm of different contexts.

 

A History that Denies History 

But while this narrow definition of “Jew” is problematic, one can unlearn it simply enough. At some point in adulthood, we all realize that the umbrella for Jews is larger, that there are people who look like Johnny-goys who go to Temple and have bar mitzvahs and also know about the parsha, and after being tickled some, we recalibrate. We figure, okay, so the braided-Miss- Weiss look we once called “Jewish” is actually ”Hasidic,” or ”Orthodox,” and that Jews can look other ways too.

The bigger problem in these depictions is that they tell Hasidic kids that there is no history. History, as it happened in response to world events and inventions, never happened. History, as it developed driven by human inventions of the wheel, the boat, writing, money, printing, domesticated animals, weapons, etcetera, etcetera…none of this exists. This is because in the Hasidic children’s books, everything exists within the same historic time. It’s always a few hundred years ago, with plain houses, animal driven transportation, markets, weapons of arrows and batons, pants and linens (not running water—it’s always the age of wells). Adam, as soon as he is cast out of the Garden of Eden, dives right into agriculture. His first tool is not a jug or an arrow carved from stone; it’s a full shovel from Home Depot. Later, but still in the dawn of time, Noah sits inside his abode with the lovely curtains, while outside his window the Johnny-goyim have two story homes with chimneys and a lovely storefront with a little awning; we’re almost in Brooklyn. My favorite historical anachronism is from Genesis, when the matriarch Rivkah’s naughty and covetous brother takes off to steal some jewelry, and guess what he has in his pocket, of course, a Nokia car phone from 1999.

 

What happens when you think all of history stood still in the same technological time? You don’t understand the very basis for history. You don’t understand the mechanism. You don’t realize that many of the drastic changes in history were driven by inventions that were put to great and awful use. You have a completely timeless and confused mix of names and dates, but you don’t have the story.

This is hard to unlearn. So hard. For me, it was the most overwhelming education. It’s just too hard to piece the million fragments together. It clicked for me after I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I realized then that there was a timeline and that it was no use to know that there was a King Alexander and Columbus if I could not understand the larger context. I still lived in Monroe then, but I had a laptop, and every time I came across some new information, I put it inside a giant excel spreadsheet titled “timeline.” I had no idea which figure was important and which was the most irrelevant piece of information that only a weirdo would bring up. I had no idea what was part of the story and what was not. But I am a stubborn little johnny-Jew and I kind of figured it out enough that eventually, I could take in new information and place it into the larger story.

 

 

But it was a lot of deliberate work that most people will not do. That most people will not know to do. And so, Hasidic kids grow up without even knowing that they don’t know history. They might learn about this war and that treaty, but what a terrible thing it is not to know the story of humanity. Our great human strength is our ability to make stories out of all the disparate pieces, and as far as stories go, this one is a really good one.

I am so very grateful to Marcin Wodzinski for this Historical Atlas of Hasidism — and for his generosity with the material: he allowed me to use some of it in a printing for my tours. This book is the most helpful reference for anyone interested in the history of Hasidism. And it’s beautifully put together too.

The best bet for learning about the History of Hasidism is to buy this alongside the other major new tome (lots of activity in a sleepy field, ey?): Hasidism: A New History

Together, these books can be referenced again and again as our understanding of this unique history deepens.

With the Atlas, you get a really solid breakdown of the geographic movement of the dynasties, both within specific major dynasties as well as within Hasidism as a whole. I also came away with a better sense of Hasidism regionally rather than divided by dynasty.

Illustration of origins of sects. See how far north the Lubavitch dynasty began, in contrast to Satmar.

For the Hasidic history buff in your life (ehhem, lol), surely a great gift.

I’ve just listened to the pilot episode of the new podcast by the Association of Jewish Studies. They discuss how the Jewish Appetizing shop came to be – a really interesting story. Who could bother to prepare their own herring and smoked fish in the overcrowded Lower East Side tenements? It made sense to buy it at the pushcart, or the upgraded version, the “Appetizer”, where you got herring (with, presumably, kichel?), sour pickles, smoked lox (salmon) and various candy shop items.

It’s worth a listen!

AJS Podcast

Also, as with many things Jewish history, the Hasidic part of the story is often neglected and history is told only from the viewpoint of the pre-holocaust Eastern European immigrants. But in Hasidic Williamsburg, a lot of the traditions of the first half of the twentieth century were taken over by the Hasidim, so that Flaum’s Apppetizer on Lee Avenue (where our food tour stops) was established in 1918 and is now, a hundred years later, still run by a fifth generation family member.

My, my. All this “field research” is not good for my figah.

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Now Flaum’s is not only an Appetizing, they updated their store to include a large salad bar (a twenty first century mishigas in delis everywhere, Hasidic included) and they have an ice cream option. In other words, they are the dairy equivalent of the Fleishig Deli.

They are even better known for their line of containered appetizing foods; pickles, spreads, various delicious dips for the shabbes challah.

I love how much of the nostalgia for “home” in Europe (which is another thread connecting earlier Jewish immigrants to post Holocaust immigrant Hasidim) is captured in the food. You can apparently try different herrings for Breslov (from Ukraine), Volozhin (Russia) and Kotzk (Poland). I wonder how much of the various regional herrings are grounded in history, or are they just assigned names to give a sense of a connection to the past? It’s time to pick up some eyer-kichel from Tiferes Heimishe Bakery and go do some field research…

I’ll be sure to put some notes (with pictures, of course) of that up here.

My, my. All this “field research” is not good for my figah.

Among Satmar Hasidic Jews, women never smoke. It’s really unheard of. But quite common for men, even though it’s officially frowned upon. Smoking is seen as deviant and often a way men try to be “cool”, but it’s not the kind of transgression that can push someone out of the fold.

The reason Hasidic men often smoke probably goes back to ‘tabik’, or tobacco. Hasidic rabbis famously thought favorably of tobacco and often smoked/snuffed it themselves.

For example, Shivhei Habesht, [3] the legendary biography of the Baal Shem Tov, refers to the famous lulke [4] which the founder of the hasidic movement used to smoke. While recent scholarship [5] tends to treat this work with less skepticism than did earlier scholars, even if all references to the Baal Shem Tov smoking tobacco [6] are fabrications, it is true that hasidim were known to smoke, for their early opponents, the mitnagedim, repeatedly castigated them for wasting time on smoking, which the hasidim believed prepared them for prayer.[1]

As you can see, the early Hasidim not only didn’t reject tobacco but believed it prepared them for prayer!

I grew up in the US in the 80s in a Hasidic family, and by then it was well known that smoking wasn’t a-okay. It was no longer a part of Hasidic life the way coffee is. Even with cigarettes now seen as a vice, there were remnants of earlier embrace of tobacco. I remember that people still had tabik pishkelech, which were Snuff Boxes. Here are some antique Jewish samples:

Here is a rabbi sniffing tobacco:

In the book “Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge”, which is about a little American Jewish boy who lived with his Hungarian Hasidic grandfather in Williamsburg in the 1950s, the author describes getting curious about the ‘tabik’ that all the Hasidim carried around. He asked to try. He was offered a snuff by one of the men in the synagogue and when the tobacco hit him he responded in such shock, all the adults had a good laugh. (this was long ago, even before Mad Men parenting days.)

I don’t know that Hasidic men really carry tobacco anymore except maybe on fast days, when you are allowed to smell it. It helps ease the hunger pangs. It helps with fasting.

In spite of some objections, snuff-taking was permitted at any time—Sabbaths, holy days, fast-days, and Yom Kippur [2]

On the Yiddish forum Ivelt, in a discussion in 2013 about preparation for a Jewish fast, someone wrote: “און לאמיר לויפן קויפן טאביק!”

“Let’s run and buy tobacco!”


What does the permissiveness vis a vis tobacco in pipe or snuff box mean for men smoking?

Well, once upon a time, back in der heim in Europe before the war, cigerattes made their way into Jewish shtetl life.

When we were Hasidic kids, I knew this Yiddish song, called “koyft zshe papirosen”, which means “buy cigarettes”.

Buy cigarettes…

Dry and from not ruined…

Buy very cheap…

Buy and have mercy…

Save me from hunger now.

Buy matches that are old…

With it you will nourish an orphan…

For naught is my screaming and my running…

No one wants to buy from me…

I will perish like a dog…

Here is an ad from Warsaw, Poland in Hebrew where a Chaim Leib Shpitsz advertises that over the last five years, cigarettes in his factory substantially improved.

Obviously, the papirussen and tabik made its way to Americhke with our immigrant grandparents, albeit not for all of them.

And while in America it became increasingly problematic as its health consequences were understood, relics remain.


Here is a Hasidic rabbi lighting another’s smoke. Although not a common sight, I found it on the Ivelt thread on smoking. All the men there drool as they speak of their next tsigeret’l.


Last I heard (a few years ago), the tradition is still that when a boy gets engaged at about age eighteen, he goes to his yeshiva and to celebrate and share his mazel tov with his friends, he hands out pens and cigarettes. The cigeratte is called a חתן ציגרעטל…A groom cigarette. I’m not sure if the majority people even light it or just throw it out.

Of course there are those who smoke it or their own packs. Young men of marriageable age who want to look cool and be rebellious will often take up smoking.

When I was a still a kid my oldest brother came home one day with his long Hasidic coat drenched in the smell of smoke. We were all sent to our rooms. I remember how terrified I was of what was to come next, fearing my brother was on the road to self destruction. I worried that this was the beginning of his downward slide from smoking to a small yarmulke to trimmed sidecurls to a downward slide into an unrecognizable brother.

I was so relieved when he soon got engaged and didn’t smoke again.

I recently asked a Hasidic restaurateur who was smoking outside his shop why he smokes.

“Why I smoke? You know, because I can’t stop.”

“Why did you start?”

He knows I’m ex-Hasidic, so he nodded like it was obvious. “I was a bochur, nu.” Meaning, he was a young boy of marriageable age. He might have started as a small act of rebellion, but those things from our youths follow you, and now he’s grown and I’m sure hoping his kids won’t do the same.


So Hasidim are more lax about smoking than about many, many other things. And often when that’s the case, you can often look into its history and see that long ago, a seed was sown that made it okay. And once it starts to flow in the cultural veins, it’s much harder to remove.

Footnotes

[1] Tobacco and the Hasidim – Friends of Louis Jacobs

[2] TOBACCO – JewishEncyclopedia.com

The Jewish comedian Jackie Mason who grew up in NYC during the period of most cultural output from New York Jews (he was born in 1931 and was of the Borscht Belt generation), has recently been visiting Gottlieb’s restaurant in the Hasidic community for a bit of deli-style Jewish food.

This is where the deli food is moving to: the Hasidic and ultra-orthodox communities.

I know it hasn’t yet taken off, but you can find many of the specialties that people rave about when they think “Kosher pastrami” in the meat restaurants in Borough Park and Williamsburg. I’m guessing people will realize this sooner or later, and this will only further feed the Hasidic/Ultra-Orthodox kosher deli niche.

As others have noted, the delis disappeared because of changes in the culture. Many of the early immigrants assimilated and moved away, changed their diets, became more American. Now the mantel has been passed to the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who in resisting assimilation are holding on to their culinary imports from Eastern Europe.

We recently had divine chollent at Grill on Lee. I’ve had also excellent chollent from the Satmar Butcher. Deli rolls and kishka on the grill from VIP Grill. Dips and overnight kugel from Dips. Pastrami sandwiches and chicken soup and pickles and cucumber salad. So much kosher-deli food, if only you know where to look.

PS: I give food tours of this community. I’m going to start a regular schedule in Borough Park come fall 2018, so check out my website sometime and come decide for yourself.