On Rosh Hashanah, New York City woke up to a cloudless blue sky. The Jewish New Year fell on Monday last week and the air was cool, the first breath of fall. In the Jewish calendar, we are entering the year 5776 and these days take on a special importance as a time for collective and personal repentance.
I spent the day worshiping with three different groups in Brooklyn: Hasidim in Crown Heights and two different Israelite communities in Bedford-Stuyvesant and East New York. They represent distinct Judaisms, each redrawing the boundaries and shape of the religion.
Though seemingly disconnected -- some are black, some are white, some call themselves Jews, others Israelites, some call Jesus a prophet, some don’t -- on this day they were retelling the same ancient stories, reflecting on what it means to return to God.
I go first to Crown Heights, the heart of Lubavitcher Hasidism, or Chabad, where groups of men walk with prayer books, white tallit blowing behind them like capes. Women push strollers and wear wigs of perfectly straight hair, even more children running ahead on the sidewalk.
All Hasidim trace their spiritual ancestry to the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, a 18th-century mystic from present-day Ukraine who challenged prevailing rabbinic traditions of his day and championed a joyful worship of God over rigid scholarship.
A bright yellow flag flutters from a fire escape, emblazoned with a crown and one word, Moshiach, Hebrew for Messiah, a name given by some to the last leader of the Lubavitcher dynasty, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Schneerson, who moved to Brooklyn in 1941, was a vanguard in his own right; his brand of Hasidism, which emphasized outreach to other Jews and an accessible, stripped-down mysticism, has become a global movement.
At the headquarters of Lubavitcher Hasidim on leafy Eastern Parkway, crowds spill out onto the street. The prayer space inside is packed to capacity. Young Israeli Hasids sit on the benches outside, wearing skinny jeans and black fedoras. Some smoke cigarettes in the sun; others rock back and forth in prayer.
One young hasid is from out of town but staying for the holiday in Brooklyn, he says. The young hasid holds a shofar, the ram’s horn, blown on these days to remember the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac. In the book of Genesis, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, in what is traditionally seen as a test of his faith. Abraham is torn but knows he must follow through. At the last moment, as Abraham is about to kill his own child, an angel intervenes; God provides a ram to sacrifice in place of Isaac. Abraham had passed the test of faith. He would do anything for his God.
The young Lubavitcher puts the horn to his lips and asks me to listen: to try and hear God coming into this world with each blast. He bunches up his face and blows. Afterwards, he seems exhausted. “I’ve been doing this all day,” he smiles, and blows the shofar again over the street, the thin sound of the ram’s horn blending with traffic.
The Ninth Tabernacle of the Church of God and Saints of Christ is deeper in Brooklyn, in East New York. This is a congregation of African-Americans who have been practicing a kind of Judaism for over a century, but also revere Jesus as a prophet. Their founder, William Saunders Crowdy, was born into slavery in Maryland and, after a vision, began preaching that blacks in this country had ancient links with the biblical Israelites and should practice the Jewish faith. He spread this message across the country, establishing outposts in New York around the turn of the century. Prophet Crowdy, as he’s known, amassed an international following. Some called him “Black Elijah,” after the ancient wonder-worker.
To reach the Brooklyn tabernacle, I pass through a bleak industrial corridor, a dozen storefront churches and low brick buildings with boarded up windows. The tabernacle finally emerges in sight, the front gate decorated with a Star of David. Inside, Rosh Hashanah service has begun.
“It’s okay to lean on your brother,” Elder Curtis Adair, Jr., a young leader in the community says. He wears a white yarmulke and paces back and forth on the pulpit. “It’s okay to lean on your sister. Because you help me get closer to God.”
There are murmurs of agreement from the crowd of around twenty. “When we pray, we don’t say ‘My God who is in heaven’,” Adair says. “No. We say ‘Our God.’ Yes, it’s okay to lean on your brother.”
Another Star of David, high above the pews, is patterned in stained glass and light filters into the sanctuary as Adair speaks. The tabernacle does not recognize this day as the New Year, but as a time for renewing the soul.
The choir sings slow multi-layered harmony, and the congregation stands, everyone shifting from right to left, a subtle dance accompanied by handclaps on the offbeat. The wooden floor bends and the building seems to shake.
In the late afternoon, musicians gather on the street outside B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They play drums and blow the shofar to passersby. This is one of the city’s main congregating points for Israelites and the group outside is wearing knit yarmulkes, turbans and dashikis. The sun has begun to drop in the sky and the shadows deepen on the Brooklyn streets. Somewhere, a train rumbles by on elevated tracks.
These Israelites are associated with the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, a group which has worked for many years toward inclusion in the broader Jewish world. They trace their spiritual lineage to a man named Rabbi Wentworth A. Matthew, a Caribbean-born cleric who established his congregation, the Commandment Keepers, in Harlem in 1919 -- also preaching that African-Americans had spiritual ties to the ancient Israelites. Matthew’s community developed along more Judaic lines (there are no Christological elements here) and still has an active rabbinical academy.
Inside, Rabbi Baruch A. Yehudah kneels and addresses God directly. Everyone assembled, around thirty men and women, bow their heads. “It is us, the children of your friend Abraham,” Rabbi Yehudah says. One older woman bows down in the aisle. She wears a loose, white dress that billows out below her, and she calls God’s name.
Yehudah stands, turns to the crowd and describes the binding of Isaac. The traditional interpretation is that God was testing Abraham. But Yehudah has his own take. “Do you think God didn’t know what Abraham was capable of? God knew! He wanted Abraham to know what he was capable of,” he says.
Then Yehudah turns to the crowd to drive his point home, taking an ancient story and making it new again: “Yes, God knows you. But he wants you to know you.”
The sun sets, and the drummers play a closing song. Congregants file into the night, elders escorted out first, some in wheelchairs. On a street not far from B’nai Adath, close enough that the drums might still be audible, I pass through another Hasidic neighborhood. A third story window has been left open, and the pleading call of a Hebrew blessing, recognizable anywhere, falls into the street.