Estranged from his sibling for years, a NEWSWEEK writer explores in an upcoming book why his brother took refuge in a new world: the ultra-Orthodox fringes of Judaism

Newsweek, November 8, 1999
By Joshua Hammer

For the better part of two decades, I almost never saw or spoke to my younger brother. Although we had grown up together, played together on the streets of New York and suffered through the trauma of our parents' painful divorce, the rift between us grew so wide by early adulthood that most people who knew me figured that I was an only child. The break had come shortly after Tony turned 21, when my brother seemed to shed his personality like an old skin. It was at that time that he decided to devote his life to God. He proclaimed himself to be a "Torah Jew"-identifying himself with the ultra-Orthodox fringe of Judaism, whose adherents maintain that every word of the Old Testament is the literal truth and isolate themselves as much as possible from the secular world. He professed the beliefs that God created heaven and earth 5,750 years ago, parted the Red Sea and revealed the Torah to the Israelites on the top of Mount Sinai. He avowed that the Jews are superior to the Gentiles, and that their principal obligation is to bring themselves close to the Almighty and proclaim his glory. His life was governed by the 613 mitzvahs, or divine commandments enumerated in the Torah, which regulate all facets of one's existence-from eating to bathing to sexual relations.

Unlike modern Orthodox Jews-whose acceptance of the Torah as the word of God goes together with a firm embrace of the temporal world-my brother regarded secularism as philosophically incompatible with his religious values, and he set out to build a life apart. For years my brother's religious transformation filled me with a rage and embarrassment so profound that I struggle even today to understand it. I had always hoped that Tony would find a focus, but ultra-Orthodox Judaism was never what I had had in mind. His embrace of fundamentalism marked a total rejection of who our family was-secular, liberal agnostics. I regarded his metamorphosis as a sign of psychological weakness, and even felt disgusted by his surrender to what I viewed as blind faith. Most repugnant, I felt, was the exclusionary nature of that faith-an oft-expressed disdain for homosexuals, African-Americans, Reform Jews and Gentiles that found its justification, according to my brother, in the words of the Torah.

As we grew older, my brother and I drifted farther and farther apart. By the time I reached my late 30s, we had become something like mirror opposites: I was an unmarried foreign correspondent. My brother worked in various part-time jobs and had six children-three boys and three girls-ranging from 2 to 12 years old. He often read the Torah 12 hours a day. I had lived on four continents in four years and in many ways thrived on the fact that I had no idea where I'd be two years hence. My brother rarely strayed from his community. As I reported on bodies piled high in Rwandan churches, child-killers in Liberia, paramilitary death squads in Colombia, the very idea of God seemed like an indulgence. To my brother, worshiping God was the very point of human existence. The more I thought about him, though, the more intrigued I found myself by the common psychological denominators that seemed to underpin our divergent lives.

The years passed, and my anger abated. Separated from him by many thousands of miles, I began to contemplate re-establishing contact with him. My motives were located at the nexus where blood, emotion, curiosity, ambition and self-interest all collide. Eventually, I considered writing a book about his transformation. It was only by approaching him with the cold eye of a journalist, I felt, that I could find a way to repair a rift and restore a semblance of completeness to my family. In the fall of 1997 I decided to move back to America after five years overseas. Just before the move, one rainy afternoon from my office in downtown Buenos Aires, I called my brother's house in the suburban village of Monsey, N.Y., and spoke to his wife, Ahuva-whom he had married 13 years earlier, following a shiddach, or engagement, set up by the matchmakers of his community. Startled by my phone call, she quickly warmed up to me, and invited me to visit the family on my next trip to New York. In my mind, it would be an exploratory journey-to see how my brother had changed, to make an overture, to discover if his world and our relationship were worth probing in depth. Then, on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, after turkey sandwiches and NFL football at my father's Manhattan apartment, I telephoned my brother, and heard his voice for the first time in five years. We exchanged pleasantries, and I scribbled down the directions to his house. "I'll see you around 3 o'clock?" "Three o'clock," he replied. My father regarded me fixedly as I hung up the phone. "You're really going through with this?" he asked. One bond we had always shared was a sense of embarrassment and regret about my brother's life. My father scornfully called him "the rabbi," and had shunned him over the years. He didn't think my writing about Tony was a good idea. I sensed that he regarded my overtures to Tony as a kind of betrayal.

It was a chilly, windy afternoon. I picked up my rental car on East 92d Street, and headed north along the FDR Drive toward the George Washington Bridge. I was nervous, wondering how his life had changed over the past half decade, wondering if he bore me any ill will for the long silence between us. Crossing the bridge, I turned north toward Rockland County, the hotbed of New York's ultra-Orthodox population, where about 100,000 observant Jews dwell in a cluster of villages 30 miles northwest of New York City. Baseball diamonds and ranch houses peeked through thick stands of oak and maple trees along the highway. Forty minutes after leaving Manhattan, I turned off the Palisades Parkway at Spring Valley, a down-at-the-heels suburb of scruffy Victorian houses and strip malls. My heart beat a little quicker at the imminent prospect of seeing Tony. Remembering the sadness and anger I had felt during the last trip to Monsey, five years earlier, I fought off another impulse to make a U-turn.

Monsey announced itself with a flash of black: a Hasidic yeshiva boy raced across the street, payess flapping. Signs in both Hebrew and English adorned the facades of tidy shops on Main Street: Krausz Hatter, Monsey Glatt Kosher Wok, Kosher Komputer, "for all your Judaical software needs." Following the directions I had scribbled on a yellow Post-It note, I drove down a leafy street lined with ramshackle wood-shingle and brick bungalows, and stopped before the third house from the end. My first reaction to the scene was a mixture of shock and dismay. I remembered that my brother lived in humble circumstances, but the little red brick house, set against the relative tidiness of the other homes on the block, seemed almost a caricature of neglect. I slammed the car door shut, pushed open a gate in a rickety wire fence and descended three stone steps to the lawn. I was overwhelmed with a sense of total disorder. Dozens of broken toys littered the yard, like colorful debris washed up by the tide. I walked past a half-deflated toddler's pool filled with orange water and dead leaves, and nearly tripped over a red plastic fire engine missing its front wheels.

Hoping that I had come to the wrong house, I walked hesitantly up the wooden steps leading to the porch. At that moment a figure dressed in black stepped through the front door. I froze, studying the vision in front of me. A shapeless black coat draped his body to his ankles. A wide-brimmed black hat covered his head, and his features were almost completely concealed behind a wild bird's nest of a beard that dangled in uncombed strands nearly a foot below his chin, like a Biblical prophet's. In his arms he held his daughter-one of two children who had been born since the last time I'd seen him-a blond-haired 2-year-old who regarded me, wide-eyed. I stared in astonishment at the 18th-century apparition before me. The last time I had seen him, in the winter of 1993, he had been neatly attired in a black fedora and dark business suit, the standard uniform of the Americanized ultra-Orthodox Jews. But he had cast off that look for this more extreme incarnation, and I was not sure what to make of it. "Sholem aleichem," my brother said.

On a frigid February night three months later, my brother and I, with two of his children asleep in the back of his station wagon, sped north through the Catskill Mountains along the New York State Thruway. The four-lane ribbon of tarmac wound through pine forests and rolling hills toward Albany and Lake Placid and the Canadian border. From the cassette deck, a Jewish children's chorus sang martial hymns: "We're in the Army, yes, that's right. We fight for the Torah with all our might. Hashem gave us the Torah, which told us what to do. And I'm so proud that I'm a Jew." A light dusting of snow sprinkled the woods and fields of the Catskills, gradually thickening to a solid white blanket as we ventured farther north. Warm air blasted from the heater in my brother's ancient car, a gift from our mother a decade earlier. I reached behind the seat into a bag filled with snacks and pulled out a strawberry roll. "Say a bracha," my brother said. He was like a Jewish drill sergeant, tirelessly reminding me to perform the mitzvahs. This was only my third encounter with my brother after returning from overseas. Our first meeting had raised more questions than it had answered. We had sat in his dark living room for an hour, talking about our family while his baby daughter, Gnendi, played on the rug. My brother had been shockingly vicious-attacking our father for his second marriage to a non-Jew, making hostile comments about Christmas and referring to Jesus by the disparaging name "Yoshka." I had come close to walking out after the first 15 minutes of conversation, so alarmed was I by his venom. Why was he so angry? I wondered. Why was the house in such terrible shape? I was startled by the ferocity of his deepening religious extremism. Yet at the same time, I was intrigued by the arcane rituals of his life, the insular community in which he lived, the complexities of his psychological metamorphosis.

Days after my initial visit, I had called my brother again and proposed that I spend some time in Monsey with him and his family. My brother was hesitant at first, admitting he was concerned about the impact I might have on his children. But I assured him that I would live by his rules, and this led to this evening's road trip to the settlement of Tosh, a highly devout Hasidic community on a windswept prairie northwest of Montreal. My brother had become a frequent visitor to Tosh, I had learned, since he began his progression three years earlier from Americanized ultra-Orthodoxy to Hasidism, a mystical and pietistic movement that preserved the exact customs and dress of its 18th-century Polish origins. The community was a place that was coming to play an increasingly important role in his life, and he had invited me to join him on this wintertime pilgrimage. The leader of Tosh, known as the Tosh Rebbe, a Holocaust survivor who came from a centuries-old dynasty in Hungary, was one of the great tzaddikim-righteous men-of the Jewish world, and the 2,000 Hasidic inhabitants of Tosh lived as close to God, my brother declared, as was possible on earth. I felt a surprising degree of ease with him as we sat together in the warm cocoon of the station wagon; we were growing steadily more comfortable and spontaneous around each other. I had even consented to calling him Tuvia; it was impossible to think of my brother as Tony anymore. He had, I realized, shed himself of that secular identity forever, and there seemed to be no point in denying the truth. The car ride invigorated me. I had never taken a lengthy road trip with my brother before, and I was determined to take advantage of our time together. There was so much, I realized, that I had never asked him.

"Tell me about your wedding," I said, as we rolled on through the darkness. "Was Ahuva the first woman they introduced you to?"

I had worried that the wedding might be too private a subject for him to discuss, but he showed no hesitation.

"The second," he said. "The first moment that I saw Ahuva as I walked up the steps to her house I knew she was the right one. And she said the same thing about me. We spent an hour talking the first night, we talked another four hours, then another five hours, and then it was pretty much sealed."

"Three meetings, and then you were engaged?"

"Well, it wasn't that easy. Ahuva's boss and her rabbi objected. They had seen me davening in synagogue and they thought I was wild, too emotional. Too carried away with the love of Hashem. I was always like that. But they said it was inappropriate. They got the shiddach called off."

I was not surprised to discover that even during his early days as a Litvisher, or Americanized ultra-Orthodox Jew, my brother had hovered on the more extreme fringes of religious devotion.

"How did that make you feel?"

"Devastated. But that night I had this dream. Grandma Bea appeared, and she said, 'Give her a call, tell her you love her. That's the best thing you should do.' So I did call her up one night. Ahuva told me later she was shocked. For a boy to call a girl out of the blue, when the shiddach was called off? It wasn't heard of. But two days later, Rabbi Rosenman learned that all the objections from the two sides had been removed. I think the phone call opened up a door to heaven and made these men relent. The next day I got engaged. I went to a lake and asked her to marry me. Then we went back to Monsey and we made a L'chayim."

We passed the exit for Saranac Lake, where my brother and I had gone to summer camp the year after our parents' divorce. I had been 14, he was 10 and we were both devastated. Later I often speculated what effect it had on my brother's radical choice. There were no easy explanations: the deaths of his two closest friends and our half sister certainly played a part-all in the same year. And he'd always had a restlessly searching nature. We pulled off the thruway to an illuminated service area. The children did not stir. My brother smeared a bagel with a dab of lox spread, said the bracha, ate the sandwich quickly and then steered the car back onto the thruway.

"I always wished that I'd seen you onstage in 'Equus' in 1979," I said, thinking back to his days as a star of the undergraduate theater program at Hobart College in upstate New York. After that stage triumph, everyone in our family had become convinced that Tony would become a professional actor. Instead, he dropped out of college and drifted off to Israel "to study German and read Marx." But he eventually wound up in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva.

He turned away at my question. "I don't want to talk about that. That was a terrible sin. I had to do tshuva for that."

"Tshuva? What was so sinful about a great performance?"

"It was one of the three cardinal sins-killing somebody, immorality and idol worship."

"What, taking off your clothes?"

"Not the nudity-the role itself. Worshiping the horse."

"But you were acting a part."

"It doesn't make a difference. Bringing such concepts into the world is one of the worst things that a Jew can do. The whole reason for a Jew to exist is to declare to the world, 'There is only one God.' If a person says, 'Jump in the fire or say that there is another God besides him,' a person is obligated to jump into the fire."

Shortly after 2 o'clock in the morning, exhausted, we arrived at the floodlit plaza marking the Canadian border. My brother stiffened as we approached the booth. Some of his Hasidic friends had been stopped and searched by American immigration officials while on their way to Tosh, forced to wait for an hour or more while their cars and luggage were pulled apart. Such petty harassment was, my brother said, another reminder that the Jews were still in the galus-the exile-never truly welcome anywhere they dwelled, looking forward to the day when Meshiach, the Messiah, a descendant of King David, appeared on earth to lead them to Zion. The triumphant arrival of the Messiah, he said, would be foreshadowed by the rise and fall of a terrible tyrant like Hitler. It would be the most catastrophic upheaval in human history. A sorting out of humanity would follow. Jews who had faithfully kept God's mitzvahs would stream back to Israel, to live again in the state of holiness. The Jews-religious Jews-would ascend to the top of the new world order. The Gentiles would seek out the Messiah as well, and happily labor in the fields of their Jewish masters. And a Third Temple, built from the prayers of all the Jews who ever lived in exile, would rise in Jerusalem.

"When is all of this supposed to happen?" I asked.

"It should be by the year 6000, according to the predictions-240 years from now. But it could even take place in our lifetime. It could happen tomorrow. There are rebbes who go to sleep every single night with their satchels packed waiting for the Messiah to arrive."

The arrival of the Messiah was subject to delays, he said. The failure of the Jews to do tshuva-to repent for their transgressions-could prolong the galus indefinitely. And there was also the matter of the Gentiles.

"Any time a goy does a yid a favor," my brother said, "another hour is added to the galus."

"So you're saying that Gentiles shouldn't do Jews any favors?"

"The point is that they have to be paid back immediately. Otherwise it all goes into the account book. No good deed ever goes unanswered by God."

"The Gentiles want the galus to continue?"

"Of course. They're on top. They're riding high. The Jews are on the bottom. It's going to be reversed when the exile ends."

"How can you say that the Jews are on the bottom?"

"I'm not talking about the Israeli state. I'm not talking about Steven Spielberg. I'm talking about the frum Jews-the real Jews."

In Boisbriand, 15 miles northeast of Montreal, we passed a General Motors

"It's 4 in the morning," I said, staring. My brother nodded.

"It's a great mitzvah to study on the day before Shabbos," he said, pulling into the ice-covered driveway of the large wood-shingle house where we would be spending the night. My brother's paradise on earth, I discovered the next morning, was an austere enclave almost completely cut off from the outside world. A howling Arctic wind blew snow across Rue Beth Halevy, the settlement's U-shaped main street. Beyond the settlement of blandly functional red and yellow brick apartment blocks, snow-covered tundra stretched toward distant clumps of fir trees, enhancing the sense of isolation. Bundled-up, black-clad figures shuffled across an undulating crust of ice that would likely remain on the ground until late March. I saw no women: they were shut up indoors, my brother said approvingly, tending to their children and cooking Shabbos dinner. There was not much gender mixing in Tosh, nor was there much to do besides pray, study and wait for an audience with the Tosh Rebbe-who had, it was said, cured cancer and made some acolytes wealthy with his shrewd investment advice.

Ferenz Lowy, the Tosh Rebbe, epitomized a life lived in absolute devotion to the Almighty. When the Germans marched into Hungary in 1944, Lowy's sect was annihilated, along with most other Hasidic communities, and a great oral tradition and body of Jewish literature destroyed with it. Lowy was dispatched to Auschwitz, where he spent his days davening in the barracks, dismissed as meshuggener-crazy-by his Jewish supervisor. After the war, Lowy settled in Austria, then received a vision from God telling him to rebuild his movement in Quebec. So, in 1951, Lowy and 18 families arrived in Montreal-the first Hasidim ever to set foot in Canada.

Eleven years later, they abandoned the big city, claiming that it was too materialistic and corrupt, and purchased 160 acres of farmland in the Catholic outpost of Boisbriand. Tosh had since grown to 300 families-more than 2,000 Hasidim. Hundreds of other Jews, such as my brother, also trooped into the remote community on Shabbos and during yomtovs, often waiting for days for a two-minute audience with the tzaddik. The Tosh Hasidim spoke Yiddish as their first-and sometimes only-language. All wore the costume of their ancestors in the shtetl, including the long dangling side-curls, the ankle-length black overcoat, or rekel, and, on Sabbaths and holidays, the ceremonial beaver-fur streimel.

"Where does the Tosh Rebbe rank among the leaders of the Jews?" I asked my brother as we shuffled over the ice toward the synagogue for evening services. I sank myself lower into the hoodless parka, trying to remember the last time I had felt so cold.

"He's a tzaddik, but the Rebbe doesn't come to the ankles of people two generations before him," my brother acknowledged, his voice muffled by his heavy scarf. "Each generation is further away from hearing the voice of Hashem on Mount Sinai. People today look at their rebbe, and compared to their rebbe's rebbe, he's a yeshiva boy."

"So who do you consider to be the greatest tzaddik?"

"The Rugachuver Goan, for instance, never got a haircut, because it required taking off his yarmulke, which would have obligated him to stop learning. He read all day standing up so he wouldn't fall asleep. The rabbi's wife put pillows around him so he didn't hurt himself." My brother-who once idolized such people as Al Pacino and Teddy Kennedy-had developed some odd new role models. The Tosh synagogue's vaulted ceilings soared 50 feet above a shimmering white tile floor. A white satin curtain shielded the Holy Ark of the Torah. Elegant brass chandeliers dangled from the ceiling. Yet there was an austerity about this house of worship. The only imagery was a mural behind the Holy Ark that depicted, in pastel shades, the classical facade of King Solomon's Temple. My brother and I took seats in the balcony, high above a sea of 500 Hasidic worshipers, and watched as, far below us, the Tosh Rebbe-a stooped figure draped in a white gown-read from the Torah in a feeble voice, his gnarled white fingers dancing across the yellow parchment.

"We're eating by Rabbi Krausz tonight," my brother said, as we stepped back into the frigid night. The Hasidic influence now permeated his speech. People didn't eat "at" somebody's house, they ate "by" him-a transliteration of the Yiddish word bei, meaning "at." Instead of asking, "How are you doing?" my brother always said, "Where are you holding?" That was a literal translation of the Yiddish expression Wie hauft die? It implied: what section of the Talmud are you currently reading? His conversations were sprinkled with Yiddish words. Talking to him often left me dizzy.

The next morning, after prayers, the tosh Rebbe's private secretary shouted to me and my brother across the crowded synagogue: "Come to a tish at the rebbe's house." Every Saturday afternoon, my brother explained, the rebbe hosted a communal Sabbath meal known as a tish for guests in the community. The tish -Yiddish for "table"-took place in the Tosh Rebbe's dining room, a high-ceilinged hall painted baby blue. In the center of the room stood a long table draped in white linen, surrounded by three tiers of wooden benches. A turbulent sea of men wearing black robes, streimels, beards and payess-some thick as ropes, others coiled tightly like telephone cords-spilled over the benches. The room smelled of gefilte fish and unwashed bodies. My brother and I squeezed into the first row behind and above the table. I was the only person in the room not wearing black, but nobody appeared to notice. At the head of the table, in a high-backed carved oak chair upholstered with red leather, the Tosh Rebbe surveyed his guests. He reminded me of children's book portraits of Merlin the Magician. Silky payess flowed down his parchmentlike cheeks, a massive streimel dwarfed his head and a flowing snow-white beard spilled down his white linen gown.

He began to slice the air feebly with karate-chop waves of his right hand, turning toward each member of his flock standing before him. The Hasidim leaned from the benches and chopped back feverishly, eager to catch the rebbe's glance and receive his blessing. A clean-shaven yeshiva boy approached the rebbe from behind, bearing a golden goblet filled with wine. The rebbe accepted the chalice with trembling white hands, mumbled an inaudible blessing and sipped. All around me, Hasidim began to chant with joy. The sound rolled over me like the blast from a great church organ:

Ay yay yay yay yay, Ay yay yay yay yay.

My brother clasped my hand and began to sing. Then the young Hasid to my right grabbed my other hand. We began to sway back and forth. At first I was silent, but as the chanting welled up around me I began to lose my inhibitions. It was impossible not to feel stirred by so much emotion. I gripped the damp hand of my brother and the stranger on my right and joined in singing the wordless melody. Several Hasidim grinned at me across the table. Their smiles emboldened me, and I started to chant even louder. As we sang and rocked back and forth, the meal proceeded. Yeshiva boys brought the rebbe two giant challahs-bulbous loaves as big as medicine balls. The rebbe's assistant sliced him a piece of bread with a pearl-handled knife, and the rebbe uttered another blessing. The assistant began to toss bits of challah down the table and pass the bread into the benches above and behind us. Soon plates of cornbread and minced herring came sailing toward us on a sea of black.

"Watch him. He never takes too much," my brother said, pointing to the rebbe. "He brings the fork up to his mouth; he doesn't go down to the food. He's showing his control over his earthly appetites."

The tish, my brother explained, was a holy act with multiple layers of meaning. It engraved in a person "tremendous love for other Jews." It was a symbolic re-enactment of the ritual sacrifices that took place at the Temple in Jerusalem-and it brought the Tosh Rebbe and his acolytes into a sacred bond. Suddenly, the man to my right grabbed my hand in a viselike grip and pulled me from the table. Scores of Hasidim surged from the benches toward the front of the room. The meal was ending, and the Hasidim were rushing to receive a morsel of food directly from the Tosh Rebbe's hand. The sweaty knot of humanity shoved and elbowed one another in their efforts to be first in line. "These guys are pushy," I yelled to my brother.

"They're pushing with love," he replied.

I was compressed inside a scrum. Excited cries in Yiddish wafted over me. An elbow caught my ribs, a knee dug into my lower back. As I neared the table, the black sea parted, and a dozen hands shoved and tugged me forward. The rebbe's assistant, standing protectively beside his leader, motioned for me to approach. The rebbe gazed impassively from his high-backed chair, surrounded by stern-looking, bearded minions. I extended my hand. With quivering fingers, the ancient patriarch scooped a hot lump of black potato kugel from a silver platter and placed it directly into my palm. The sticky mass scorched my hand through the paper napkin.

"Danke," I said.

He nodded, expressionless, and I was swept aside to make way for the next

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