Behold a Rebbe Nachman story for the days of awe.
#3 Yoel Street
In 1995, I took a sabbatical and went to Israel. I wanted to study with the Chassidim in Jerusalem, but I didn’t know how to get in with the real deal. I got involved at the New Age yeshivah, it was nourishing but not entirely satisfying for me. I wanted to go to Meah Shearim.
Meah Shearim is one of the oldest Jewish settlements outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Meah Shearim was also walled off. In the nineteenth century, it was dangerous for Jews to live outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. They came to live in Meah Shearim beginning in 1875, and for many years Meah Shearim was protected by a wall that could only be entered through a series of gates. Tradition has it that the gates numbered one hundred, and that is what the name Meah Shearim means, one hundred gates. The name also refers to a verse in Genesis 26:12, “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year a hundredfold (in Hebrew meah shearim), and God blessed him.” There are many Chassidic yeshivot, places of learning, shtiebelach, places of prayer, and thousands of Chassidic families living behind the walls of Meah Shearim.
Meah Shearim is always teeming. The streets are narrow and pedestrians dodge the buses. There are cars parked on the streets of Meah Shearim, but people fill the streets, the sidewalks, the middle of the streets, mostly black hat Orthodox, Chassidim in long kapotehs, black coats, their wives, their children. The language of the street is Yiddish. If you follow Meah Shearim street south, towards the Old City, you will notice many Chassidim wearing knickers, long white socks, striped coats, and white knit yarmulkes. These are the Breslov Chassidim, and their yeshivah is on the southern end of Meah Shearim street, near the Russian Compound.
During the time I spent in Jerusalem, I would inquire of people who I thought would know where I could learn in Meah Shearim. There was sometimes a shiur [lesson] here, a Melaveh Malkah [Saturday night celebration of stories and songs] there, I heard that the Munkaczers chanted their mournful niggunim [songs without words] late Saturday nights, but I didn’t have anyone to go with, and I was too shy to go alone. I was preoccupied with music and other studies, so I tried to push it out of my mind. But I couldn’t push it out of my mind.
I didn’t go to Meah Shearim. Until one summer. I was alone much of that time staying in my friend’s apartment in Jerusalem. I spent much of my days practicing music and studying. The New Age yeshivah where I learned was a block away, so I made many sessions there.
They had a series of lectures at the New Age yeshivah on teachings from Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, taught by a Breslov writer-teacher from Meah Shearim. I went to the second installment. It was wonderful listening to one of the true Breslovers from Meah Shearim give the shiur [lesson] on the Rebbe. I had always been enchanted by Rebbe Nachman the great story master.
I sat in the front row. After the session, I went up to the teacher from Meah Shearim and I said, “all my life I have wanted to study at the source, do you learn in the Breslov yeshivah?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Could I come and learn there?”
“Of course,” he said. “We learn near there every afternoon, from two to five, you are welcome to come.” He gave me the address and directions.
It wasn’t the main Breslov yeshivah but a tiny yeshivah right off of Meah Shearim street. I went the next day. I took a bus through the center of Jerusalem, it turned off down Strauss street and headed east toward East Jerusalem. I got off in front of Lichtenstein’s book store, and walked another block down the hill to a four crossing intersection known as Kikar Shabbat though it was nowhere marked that way on any sign that I could discern.
It was a center of combustion. To the left, the west, were streets of small storefronts, candy stores, baby stores, many book stores, fleishig [meat] markets, fleishig restaurants, milchig [dairy] markets, milchig restaurants, a bank on the corner, men’s hat stores, women’s hat stores, wig stores, women’s dress stores, one after another little shops. Everyone was walking fast.
Across the street from Meah Shearim was a labyrinth of more streets with many synagogues, yeshivot [houses of study], kollels [houses of advanced study], book stalls, sellers, scribes, religious objects, everywhere. I took the first side street off of Meah Shearim street, across from the walls of the Meah Shearim compound, and three doors down I passed through a gate that connected to a low lying brick wall and into #3 Yoel Street, Yeshivat Shuvah Yisrael, Return O Israel, the text that is read in the synagogue from Hosea on Shabbes Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I walked into a hallway with a kitchen on the left, next to the kitchen was an Israeli style bathroom with the sinks outside and the toilets in small rooms within. Everything was dirty. The hallway led to a large room in the rear which was the synagogue and where there were always individuals studying in chevrusa, in groups usually of two, chanting the texts out loud to each other.
I passed a smaller room in front which had a long wobbly table, the unstable table, and some industrial shelving where the holy books were stacked. This was the room in which we studied. The unstable table had two long benches, one on each long side of the table, and we shuttled the table up and down the length of the room with the benches with it to make the teacher comfortable. He liked to sit at the western end of the table. I arrived there early and helped to prepare the table for our teacher.
Our teacher showed up at precisely two o’clock. He unpacked his water bottle and a bag full of sophisticated recording devices which he set up on the table in front of him. He recorded all of our sessions studying the Rebbe’s texts. He wore a white shirt, a white knit kepah [yarmulkeh] and sometimes over it one of those long fur lined Russian caps. His eyes were always soft and searching. He greeted us warmly and we began to study.
There were six or seven other men around the table. No one talked much to anyone else. Everyone was dressed differently. It was an interesting looking group and I was curious to know the stories of everyone around the table, but it never came up. In a month of studying every day, except Shabbat, we barely talked to each other. We arrived at two o’clock, set the room up and put our noses into the texts and didn’t come up for air until five o’clock and everyone scattered.
We talked but always about the texts. We became quite familiar with each other, but always in the context of the sefer, the book we were studying. We knew each other’s names, we often cited each other’s comments days and weeks later, but we never exchanged a morsel of personal information.
Toward the end of my time there, my thirteen year old son Jacob asked me “where are you going today?”
“Can I go with you?” I thought for a second, “sure. . .why not. I’ll tell you what, you come with me to the yeshivah, leave me there, I’ll study for the first hour and then meet you out front, and we’ll go into town.” Town meant the Midrachov, the commercial part of West Jerusalem where kids hung out.
We drove down to Meah Shearim, by this time I knew the place like it was my neighborhood, I knew just where to leave my car, where to eat, where to buy books. We parked the car and walked down to Kikar Shabbat, turned the corner and stood on Meah Shearim street, next to the Hundred Gates and the high walls and the teeming throngs of Meah Shearim and a dozen Chassidic dynasties. “This is it,” I said to Jake, “watch carefully where we are. I’ll take you to where I am studying.”
Meah Shearim street was completely torn up by street workers, you could hardly walk on it in some places, they were repaving the street and replacing much of the stone sidewalks. It was even more of a balagan [confusion] than usual but we made our way over the rocks and turmoil to Yoel Street. “Watch carefully,” I said to Jake.
I went to #3 Yoel street, through the gate, and stood there just before the open door of the yeshivah. “You know where we are? That’s Meah Shearim Street over there, this is a little side street, Yoel, #3, don’t forget. Come get me right here in one hour. Meet me here, by the gate, on the stone wall.” We sat down on the stone wall to make sure he had his bearings, I asked him twice, three times, and sent him off.
Before he left me, he turned to me and asked in a completely uncharacteristic Jake way, “is it safe here?” “Yes, it’s safe here,” I said, “but be careful.”
I walked inside the yeshivah and prepared the table for our teacher. I moved the unstable table away from the wall just the way I knew he preferred, sat down, and waited. Everybody arrived and we began.
I couldn’t concentrate on the texts that day. As I was sitting there staring into the texts, I realized that I had just sent my son off into a world with which he had no familiarity.
I stared into the text and realized that we had all just moved into an apartment on a street in Jerusalem I myself was not familiar with. I had the address and the phone number in a notebook in my pocket. I hadn’t given it to my son. What if he gets lost? How will he find us? How will I find him? What if he gets into something here? What if I can’t find him?
It’s a labyrinth out there, a maze of mystery, I myself could easily get lost any day. What if he doesn’t find his way back? I was beginning to panic, I couldn’t wait until the hour was up, and when it was, I bolted out of the room and into the street in front of #3 Yoel street.
No Jake. I looked up and down the street, I sat down on the wall next to the gate where I told him to meet me. I waited one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, no Jake. I went to the corner of Meah Shearim street and Yoel street and looked up and down for him. By this time, the work crew had torn up the street even more and you could barely walk though that didn’t deter the Egged buses from careening down the middle of the streets in their customarily fearsome way. No Jake.
I went back to #3 Yoel, the stone wall, sat down on it, no Jake. Fifteen minutes after the hour, twenty minutes after the hour. I went back to Meah Shearim street, hopping over the upturned stones like a mine field, up and down, looking for Jake, no Jake, a half hour, I wondered where the nearest police station was and began to prepare my best Hebrew for the police.
I returned to #3 Yoel. No Jake. I stood in the courtyard and hollered as loud as I could “Ja-a-a-a-a-a-a-ke!” I turned around and there was Jake, sitting on the stone wall in front of the Shuvah Yisrael yeshivah, next to the gate just as I had instructed him, eating candy from a bag.
“Jake! Where’ve you been?”
Jake has many expressions in his eyes. Sometimes his eyes are soft and engaging, sometimes they are full of mischief, sometimes his eyes are teasing, sometimes they are deep pools, attentive, penetrating, this time they were all of these. I looked into his eyes and he stared straight back into mine, mischievous, attentive, serious, kind, soft, loving, teasing, and calm. Steady. He said, “I was here. The whole time. Where were you?”
“You weren’t here. I looked everywhere for you.”
“I was right here the whole time,” Jake said. “Sitting right here, that’s the truth.”
“You weren’t here. I looked.”
“I was right here. The whole time.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” he said softly, his eyes opening wider and burrowing deeper into mine.
“Jake,” I said, “I was here.”
“So was I,” Jake said, “the whole time. I was here.”
He was holding a white knit yarmulke in his hand, similar to the one my teacher wore. “Here,” he said, “it’s for you. The Breslovers wear them.”
Confused, I looked around, there was no other place like this one. “Is that what really happened?” I asked out loud, not to Jake in particular but to the stones, to the wind, to the Chassidim, to my own Chassidic progenitors, to the stories, the songs, the beautiful texts and dirty yeshivahs. To those here, and those not here. “Is that the truth?” I said, my hands stretched out in front of me, looking up into the sky.
“Yes, Dad,” said Jacob, “that’s the truth. That’s really the truth. I was right here the whole time.”
Every Saturday night, we sing a song which repeats the chorus “do not be afraid, my servant Jacob. Al tira avdi Yaakov.” What might Jacob be afraid of?
There is a story in the midrash about Jacob, who is also known as Israel, on his deathbed. All his children are surrounding him. Jacob is afraid that he had not fulfilled his responsibility as a father. He is wondering whether he gave his children the most fundamental thing, the most essential teaching. His children are looking down at him and smiling, they say, “shema Yisraeil, listen Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, God is in our hearts, Adonai echad, God alone.” Jacob’s children tell him that the most essential teaching is in their hearts, and they got it from him, their father Jacob. Don’t be afraid, they tell him. In an expression of profound gratitude and relief, Jacob/Israel says “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va-ed,” thank God.
I told the story of my son Jacob, the Breslov Chassidim, Meah Shearim, on the evening of Yom Kippur one year, and there was something missing in the telling for me. I was up the entire night, something pulling at me from without, something pulling at me from within. The next morning I realized that I had written a Rebbe Nachman story, with lost princes, exile, return, but who was the lost prince, my son? Or me.