Nebraska Center for Writers

by Robert Eisenberg

Several years ago, crossing the English Channel from Belgium, I encountered a strange apparition: two gaunt yeshiva boys floating across the deck, their earlocks, or payess, swinging wildly. On an impulse, I called out to them in Yiddish, which I had learned as a child from my grandmother, one of the few people over age forty to have survived the concentration camps. I had extremely long hair, and they stared at me as if I were some sort of extraterrestrial. After a charged moment, they responded warmly, inviting me to their cabin, which had four beds but only two occupants. To the gentle lulling of the ship, the two pimply religious school lads — on their way home from a trip to Antwerp to get advice from a well-known sage — offered me a Judaic version of brimstone and hellfire, something I'd never encountered in the suburban Reform Sunday school I'd attended as a child.
Hell most certainly exists, they assured me. It is a place where the neshuma, the soul, is tossed back and forth like a hot potato, for eternity. This they began to act out, passing an imaginary basketball with the nimbleness of the Harlem Globetrotters. For eternity, one repeated, waving his finger at me. Not just the soul, the other added with a touch of drama, but the entire body. One is tossed into a vat of ordure and left to stew, also for eternity. They continued in this vein throughout much of the night, rocking back and forth on their beds, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. Every so often, a bony hand would appear in front of my top bunk from somewhere below, clutching a piece of fruit. "Eat! Eat!" one of them commanded.
This was my first introduction to the Satmar Hasidim. Before the boat docked in England, they gave me their address in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and told me to stop in if I was ever in the neighborhood.
What Pat Buchanan is to the Republican Party, Satmars are to other Hasidim. In the ultra-Orthodox world, it just doesn't get any more religious than this.

Reprinted with permission
from Boychiks in the Hood
Copyright © 1996
by Robert Eisenberg

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