Location: Continental reception hall, Bnei Brak
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Time: 11 p.m.
In the neighborhood: The teeming center of the predominantly ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, 10 minutes east of Tel Aviv, hours after the end of Shabbat. Haredi men and women rush this way and that, little girls in plaid dresses and white stockings play near a safety banister sprinkled with charity boxes of various sizes and colors. Next to the reception hall, an imposing sign announces a tefillin workshop, with the building housing the Ohel Moshe yeshiva, complete with an adjacent kindergarten serving students with children (avrechim), serving as the neighborhood skyscraper. The hum of murmured Yiddish engulfs streets intermittently lit by passing headlights.
Venue: An industrial-looking façade, housing a long, narrow and florescent-lit space, abruptly severed by a partition separating the men's side from the women's, made of wood and squares of opaque glass. On the men's side, long and narrow communal tables are set perpendicular to a dais, with every plate pre-set with one challah roll. On the dais, a long table is covered with sizable challas, with an especially long and slightly burnt challah at the center. On a women's side, the strict linear order is replaced with round tables scattered throughout the room. A clock at the center of the hall announces the time using Hebrew letters.
Simcha: Yitzhak Yaakov Rabinowicz's pidyon haben ceremony
Number of guests: ~150
Fact #1: Pidyon haben is a ceremony in which a first-born son is ceremoniously "redeemed" from priestly service by paying a Cohen – traditionally descending from the priests who served in Jerusalem's Great Temple – a token sum of five silver shekels. The ceremony can take place within 30 days of birth, and is considered a mitzvah meal, one which takes place even in times when other celebrations are forbidden (such as in this simcha, taking place during Bein ha-Metzarim, a period of mourning marking the destruction of Jerusalem's temples).
Home: Yitzhak Yaakov is the first child of Esther and Moshe, both descendents of proud Hassidic lineages, or yichus. Fresh-faced Moshe is the son of the current Great Rabbi, or admor, of Hassidut Biale of the Bnei Brak section of Ramat Aharon, Rabbi Tzvi Rabinowicz. The elegantly dressed Esther is the daughter of Rabbi Elimelech Biderman, a leading figure in the local Hassidic community and brother of the current admor of the Lelov Hassidut. The couple, and baby Yitzhak Yaakov, live in Bnei Brak.
Family history: The heads of both families claim a direct lineage back from their hassiduyot's founding admors in the Polish towns of Biale and Lelov in the 19th century.
Rites: The male guests trickle into the hall, some staying behind for a first post-Sabbath smoke, slowly filing into their seats, and chatting in Yiddish. What at first looks like a monolithic sea of black coats and head covers reveals itself, upon closer inspection, to be an endless variety. In the hat section, there's anything from the festive furry shtreimel, to the less fancy high-brimmed shtaf and low-brimmed kneitsh. In coats, the wear goes from the more mundane black fraks, to fanciful bekishes embroidered with squares, leaves, diamonds, and dots. On the dais, Rabbi Biderman stands out brightly with his grey-and-white striped bekishe, customary to those Haddiduyot historically based in Jerusalem, and introduced into the Lelov dynasty by the Hassidut's former admor, Rabbi Shimon Noson Nuta Biderman - baby Yitzhak Yaakov's great grandfather.
On the women's side, meanwhile, excitement is building, as the infant of the hour, dressed in a white suit and cap and set on a silver, four-legged platter, is surrounded by women, chatting mainly in Hebrew, and holding on to their finest jewelry. Bit by bit, mom Esther, with the aide of family and friends, applies the myriad gold, silver, and diamond trinkets and watches – representing the five silver shekels meant to redeem the child from the Cohen – to every square inch of baby. A group of photographers sent by Haredi newspapers and websites are stationed next to the table, their flashbulbs causing the bejeweled newborn to glow like a disco ball. On the opposite side of the table, a row of little girls in skirts and white stockings aims a scattered line of small digital cameras back at the photographers, giggling as they capture the motley scene.
After a few minutes of bedecking, Yitzhak Yaakov's grandmother takes out a large nylon bag and begins stuffing the hollow pillow on which the infant has been placed with light blue baggies, each filled with one clove of garlic and two sugar cubes. The strongly flavored foods can then be used at the guests' house, widening the circle of those participating in the mitzvah meal as much as possible. One of the photographers points at the growing pile of baby-blue baggies, and wearily says: "That's where the action's at." He wasn't kidding.
Finally, after the baby seems almost to float on a cloud of blue garlic and gold ("no such thing as too much," says one woman who helped bedecking the baby), and after the photographers are told to rush the proceedings, Esther picks up the now packed platter and hands it over to Moshe, standing on the other side of the divide. By this point, the dais, holding honorable family and guests, is completely covered in black coats and hats, as Hassids fight for pole position ahead of the ceremony. Standing opposite the Cohen, a role filled here by Rabbi Paksher, leader of the Vizhnitz Hassidut in the Haredi city of Elad, Moshe starts the ceremony by declaring that his "Israelite wife" bore his firstborn son. In return, the Cohen asks whether or not the father would rather keep his son and five silver shekels, to which the father says he would rather keep his son, providing the necessary pay vis-à-vis the jewels. Blessings are said, the wine is sanctified, and, well, the action begins.
Swift as a hawk, Rabbi Paksher lifts the newborn up in a split second, just as dozens of Hassids, young and old, swarm in to get hold of the precious blue baggies. Bodies clad in black in white fly this way, furry shtreimels fly the other, with the moving mass of men resembling something out of a rock concert mosh pit. Following several moments of intense struggle (with confused, perspiring photographers quickly escaping the fray), all is settled again, with Hassids passing by with noticeable bulges under their jackets. Singing can be heard commencing overhead, as the post-Sabbath dinner, known as Melaveh Malkah, is served.
Music: Yiddish spiritual songs, or niguns, as sung by a small a capella group of three Hassids.
Food: Challahs, a variety of salads, potato burekas, baked potatoes and schnitzel. For dessert, huge pans of noodle kugel are set out, with Hassids rushing back to their tables with sweet, steaming squares of the sweet pie..
Drink: Orange drink and a variety of juices, along with the customary red Kiddush wine.
In my spiritual doggy bag: The ability to look at a different community and see nuance and difference, and not just homogeny.
Random quote: One Hassid, when asked to describe the content of Rabbi Biderman's post-ceremony speech in Yiddish: "I'm not sure I know what he's been saying, but it sounds great."
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