Bleachers, to me, are reminiscent of a baseball game. I imagine Wrigley Field and the few Cubs games I have attended, the scent of popcorn, hot dogs and sweat in the air. People are cheering, loudly attired in the colors of their team. They bounce their children on their knees, dandling them there while they carefully introduce them to the intricacies of the game. Their expressions rise and fall with each pitch, hit or home run. The throng of people bands together in their shared concern and joy over the sight that takes place below.
As I look out over the sea of black, the flesh-colored hands clapping rhythmically, ecstatically together in joy, I am awed. Bleachers line all three walls of the shul and men and boys sway, stamp and jump ecstatically. Their hands are expressive, the outlet for their unified euphoria. The air is celebratory; below, in an expansive square bordered by tables draped in sparkling white cloths, fifty-two men hold fifty-two Sifrei Torah. They march together around the edge of this dance-floor, clad in their finest bekishes and shtreimels, some with young children in tow. In the middle of the dance floor, the king who presides over all, is the Bobover Rav.
The Rav, or Ruv as it is pronounced in the Hasidic dialect, wears a talis that is crowned by a silver atara. He pulls it over his face so that his eyes are completely covered and it hangs like a holy cowl; only his white beard remains uncovered. He wears a bekishe, white socks and black shoes. The energy in his manner and his dance is unparallelled. The tallis flies out behind him as he dances, forming the letters of the alef-bet with the patterns his feet trace across the floor; he looks like nothing so much as an angel. He holds out his hands before him and claps them vigorously, all the while dancing across the expansive floor, his men marching around him with their Torahs held loftily in their hands. The men in the bleachers focus on him; they clap in time with him. The energy that fills the air is explosive, combustible. This is not just joy; it is transcendent. The hall has been dipped in the elixir of ecstasy.
Those who are not jumping on the bleachers but stand outside of the white tables form a circle (really, it is more of a square), widthwise, five men across. Hundreds to thousands of men join this circle, each one putting his hands on the shoulders of the person in front of him. They bob up and down, jumping and singing passionately, their whole souls contained in these moments. They are carried forward by the momentum, a sea of black with brown shtreimels and black hats dotting the horizon. Children ride on their fathers' shoulders or scramble along within the crowd, thrilled by the rapture that fills the room. They are transported by the experience, taken to another world, a piece of heaven that is solely theirs.
These multitudes are observed by thousands of equally moved women, who fill two balconies that curve into an L-shape. The women stand atop chairs or shtenders; they clamber to the highest bench on the set of bleachers. They crane their necks, struggling to catch sight of the tremendous foray into exaltation below them. Their white kerchiefs make them identifiable to the onlooker, as does the sparkle of their jewelery. They lift up their children and struggle to locate their husbands, brothers and sons in the crowd. A curious sense of pride swells their hearts; they too vicariously take part in this fervent dance before God, the celebration of the gift of His holy Torah.
The hakafos go on till the wee hours of the morning. Men, boys and women are seen walking the streets till 4 or 5 AM, their menfolk having only just returned from the joyful celebration. While the Chasidim perform hakafos on Shmini Atzeres night and day as well, it's nothing as compared to the transcendent rotations they describe on Simchas Torah itself. That is the night when all is uncovered, the normally quiet man who is shy of demonstrating his feelings for God is lost in the incredible experience of being one with many in a blessed union with the soul of the Torah. Like an orchestra that is divided into many sections and yet all have their parts, so too this Simchas Torah celebration. The percussion section is perhaps equivalent to the jubilant men on the bleachers who stamp their feet, jump and clap together while singing joyfully. The strings section is comprised of the men within the white tables holding the Torahs, marching in a dignified fashion while still expressing their gladness. And the flutes and windpipes can serve as the men outside of the tables who form the mass of humanity that pushes, leaps and gambols forward with an intense, fervent concentration upon the holiness of the day. The Rav, of course, is the conductor.
The ecstasy does not end here. At the conclusion of the Shalosh Regalim, all of Bobov, men, women and children, gather outside of the Rav's house on 48th street. This ritual is called Neilas HaChag. The streets are shut down and police monitor them to ensure that nothing untoward happens. Usually it takes about 15 minutes, although this time the wait went for about 2 hours and 15 minutes. The Rav then steps out onto his porch to applause and singing, after which a shamash holds up his silent and the crowd goes silent. He speaks in Yiddish, wishing them a good year, a good winter, warning them against the evils of the outside world, telling them to be kovea itim (learn at set times) and wishing them joy in their smachot. He is their leader and they gather before him in nothing so much as a modern-day Hakhel. Instead of reading Sefer Devarim, however, he speaks to their hearts.
I am conflicted by these scenes. I am drawn to the beauty in them, the holiness, the spirituality, the transcendent and irrepressible joy. It calls out to me and my heart answers, for there is much in this that speaks to my soul. But the warning against the "goyishe velt" in which I live, the casual references to "my goyta" and what she has or hasn't done, the fact that shidduchim are determined at least in part based on "levush" and a b'sho generally involves having met only two or three times before one's marriage, the preeminence of white socks and beige socks in marital decisions, the idea that one marries the child of geirim as a last resort, if that- these things make me breathe a sigh of pleasure when I return to Washingon Heights, which is more of my home.
But it does not make me forget the sight that I saw in the twilight of Boro Park, the joy and ecstasy that filled the room, the creativity and beauty resplendent in their sukkot and the miniatures that fill them. Similar to the Macy's and Lord and Taylor Christmas windows, Bobov creates miniature figurines that portray Jewish scenes and displays them in their sukkot, although this year only the sukkah on 45th had them. These are masterpieces of artistry and creativity created by unprofessional bochurim who have never been taught art in a formal setting and they are beautiful.
The beautiful and the ugly lodge side-by-side, and in the night tinged with the scent of smoke from Yom Tov cigarettes, I find myself both moved and perplexed by what I see.