Hasidic Judaism summons images of wide-brim black hats, curling side-locks called payots and Polish noblemen. Of stern veneers and high-minded, ritualistic devotion to religious study. It probably doesn’t conjure up the Kolakowski household in the near West End.
There are signs of a strict Hasidic lifestyle, albeit a cluttered one: religious texts piled high on the dining-room table, a stack of boxes containing a variety of black felt hats threatening to avalanche onto the couch, not to mention a second-hand piano with replacement front legs made from what appears to be scrap lumber.
The austere clothing and seemingly equally austere approach to religious life plainly identify Rabbi Joseph Kolakowski and his wife, Chavah, as among a handful of strictly observant Hasidic Jewish families in the Richmond area. But appearances are deceiving; this community also knows how to let their payots down.
There’s a common misconception that Hasidic Jews, with their plain, almost Amish-looking clothing, general desire to live in homogeneous enclaves and awkward interactions with the non-Hasidic world — even with other Jews — aren’t exactly joyful in their celebration of faith. But it’s a religion, Rabbi Kolakowski explains, that also demands partaking in some worldly indulgences.
The Kolakowskis and their fellow Hasidic Jews — and other Ultra-Orthodox Jews like them — are far from opposed to a little faith on the rocks, recognizing that God hath provided good whiskey to enjoy. Boisterous expressions of devotion through song and dance that at times are almost raucously charismatic are fundamental to Hasid faith.
“It’s a movement based on joy,” says Rabbi Kolakowski. He’s a member at Congregation Kol Emes, a tiny Ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregation on Patterson Avenue within walking distance of his house, that’s welcomed him — despite the departure that Hasidism represents even from Ultra-Orthodox. Kolakowski says he understands how it’s difficult for outsiders to believe that the sect’s 18th-century founder, the Ba’al Shem Tov, rejected then-prevalent views that Judaism should be religion for scholars, and that God was best found through strict and continuous study.
Kolakowski looks the part of the Hasidic Jew so often stereotyped by Hollywood, and he realizes how outsiders might struggle to reconcile his appearance with the seemingly contradictory premise of Hasidism preached by the Ba’al Shem Tov: “He said you can be the best Jew just by being you.”
Hidden behind the uniform black clothes, the frequent whispered prayers that add ritualistic meaning to performance of simple daily tasks, there’s a near ecstatic joyfulness — an almost playful celebratory acknowledgement of God in everything.
“That was very revolutionary,” Kolakowski says of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s premise, which extended to encourage enjoyment of many worldly things, including drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. “In Orthodox Judaism, all of these things … are made holy,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to feel good and to thank God for something that God gave us.”
This little house just across the city line in Henrico County is the center of the Kolakowski’s spiritual world. It’s located within a few blocks of Congregation Kol Emes, and just a few steps through high weeds and a bent chain-link fence from the Jewish Community Center on Monument Avenue where Rabbi Kolakowski teaches regular Bible classes. God is as much a part of this house as the couple’s toddler daughter.
At first blush, the Kolakowskis seem as unlikely an association as Hasidism and good times.
Rabbi Kolakowski, still in his mid-20s, is a nearly lifelong adherent to Hasidism and to Ultra-Orthodox beliefs. Tall and pale, he’s a little awkward in his movements and his heavily lidded eyes have a naturally sad look. But they frequently sparkle with joy when he talks about his faith or his family.
Chavah is just as young, but her round, smiling face contrasts with her husband’s completely. She came late to her Hasidic lifestyle, and really only slightly earlier to her Jewish faith.
Born with the very much un-Jewish name Melissa Hayes into a devoted Mormon family in Idaho, Chavah traces her roots directly to the first followers of Latter Day Saints who followed Brigham Young into Utah.
While her husband was born to Judaism, Chavah literally arrived at her faith on a New York City subway.
“We were, like, progressive Mormons,” she says, her casual, easy speech belying an upbringing far away from the Hasidic world. “My father told me when I was 16, you should find your own faith.”
She spent years searching, attending college and eventually becoming an opera singer in New York. The search became desperate one afternoon on a subway ride home after discovering the store where she worked was closing — she was devastated and fearful of her future.
“I was crying,” she says. “This Hasidic man and woman got on. She asked me, ‘Why are you crying?’ We had a five-minute conversation — nothing spiritual.”
Yet Chavah found a lifeline during those few minutes.
“Something about the woman really touched me,” she says, recalling how easily she could look beyond the woman’s seemingly restrictive religious clothing to see the inner peace. “She knew where she was going. I wanted that.”
Not long after, during a life-altering medical crisis, she found out through her hospital roommate that Jews took converts.
“My world was stopped,” she says.
It wasn’t long afterward that Chavah met her husband, perhaps through the most thoroughly modern means possible. She’d posted a Craigslist ad looking for a teacher and Joseph Kolakowski answered.
After a few months, Rabbi Kolakowski’s mentor, a respected Hasidic teacher, the Biala Rebbe, thought there should be more to the relationship.
“He said, you know, maybe it’s a good match,” says Rabbi Kolakowski, a toothy grin spreading across his face. “In the Hasidic world, converts are really respected. It says in the Bible you should love the stranger and the same word for stranger is [for] convert.”
They married soon after, and moved to Richmond about two years ago when Kolakowski was brought on by Congregation Kol Emes as a rabbi with hopes he might help breathe a bit of new life into the synagogue‘s dwindling membership.
Kol Emes has perhaps the most Ultra-Orthodox reputation of all of Richmond’s Orthodox congregations. That’s been both its strength and its weakness.
The history of Kol Emes begins in 1964 with its founding by two brothers, Emil and Abraham Dere. David Lowitz, a retired physicist with Philip Morris, was among the congregation’s first members.
“I arrived in 1967,” Lowitz says, not long after those brothers “decided Richmond needed a genuine Jewish congregation.”
In the Ultra-Orthodox tradition, the brothers built a synagogue that set strict partitions between men and women — a high wall separates the two groups.
“It’s not so much to keep the women out of sight,” Lowitz says, jokingly dismissing liberal preconceptions that might see this as dismissive of women. “It’s to keep the communal traffic down. Us Mediterranean people are easily distracted.”
The brothers’ influence was felt not only within these walls, but also throughout Richmond’s historic Jewish community.
“There’s more observation of Jewish traditions as a result of this synagogue,” Lowitz says, now laughing at his fellow Richmond Jews who 40 years ago believed women would reject being separated from men during services.
For Chavah Kolakowski and other Ultra-Orthodox women, it’s exactly this segregation, the recognition of the weaknesses inherent in both sexes, from which she draws comfort.
“Being modest is hard,” says Chavah, who in the tradition of Hasidic married women cuts her hair razor-short and wears a wig and scarf to cover that bow to modesty. High-necked shirts and thick stockings complete the look. It seems an unlikely path to freedom, giving up society’s notion of beauty as central to a woman’s character, but Chavah’s spiritual comfort is somewhat synonymous to a Moslem woman’s adoption of the Chador.
“It’s worth it, and I feel a sense of pride,” she says. “There’s no pressure anymore to reveal certain aspects of my body — because the attraction [with her husband] is not physical anymore, it’s spiritual.”
That load off her mind has freed her to more fully evolve in her faith, she says. “When I found Judaism, I felt like I could breathe again,” she says. “I feel very blessed because I feel like some people never find that.”
Paradoxically, it was the very influence of Kol Emes on other less-observant Jewish congregations that has slowly led to its membership anemia. As years went by, its traditions rubbed off on a larger congregation nearby in Richmond’s West End that previously had been less observant to Orthodoxy. As that congregation began to adopt more of the Orthodox observances, the smaller synagogue’s membership dwindled.
Youth offers renewed strength. Since Kolakowski’s arrival two years ago, the congregation is able to hold services with its Biblically required “minyan” or quorum of 10 men “most weeks,” Kolakowski says.
Today Kol Emes is an unusual blend of Jewish traditions. Kolakowski is the lone strictly observant Hasidic member.
Like Kol Emes with its struggle to maintain itself in the face of newer, less Orthodox ideals, Jewish history is peppered with adversity, with seemingly epic and continuous stories of decline and renewal.
As Kolakowski sees it, Judaism is different from other major world religions, most of which were founded on the word of a single prophet or messiah who claimed to have been given all the answers by God. According Biblical tradition, Kolakowski notes, no single witness convinced the first Jewish follows to trust blind faith. Rather, it was 600,000 men who saw God at once.
“That’s unique in human history,” Kolakowski says. “This was something that was clear. This is really truth. This was really the word of God.”
Call it human nature that when 600,000 men see God, they’re not necessarily likely to have the same takeaway. And so it’s not unexpected that Judaism is filled — much like Christianity — with its share of splits, schisms and ideological differences.
And unsurprising in a religion filled with so many strong-minded philosophers and thinkers, the schisms are not so simple. Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jewish movements all ascribe to various degrees of observance to traditional Jewish law. Reform and Conservative Jews tend toward the more liberal observances, some eat pork, Jewish rules are suggestions rather than law. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox both ascribe to a view that the law is the law and is not there for believers to pick and choose from at their convenience.
Hasidic Jews like Rabbi Kolakowski are on the ultra end of Ultra-Orthodox observance, but Hasidism still is a major departure that is not well understood, even by other Ultra-Orthodox sects.
Founded in the mid-18th century in modern-day Ukraine by a common laborer named Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, Hasidism is a rejection of more austere Jewish traditions that long emphasized study of the Torah as the only way to be close to God. Instead, ben Eliezer, who became know as the Ba’al Shem Tov, taught joyful expression and spirituality attainable by the common man.
The Ba’al Shem Tov was a teacher who taught largely through parables and cryptic sayings. He wrote nothing down, leaving that to his followers. he emphasized emotional and spiritual awakening over legalistic study. He performed miracles and taught that God is good and observable in everything.
What he didn’t teach — and for that matter though it certainly didn’t stop his followers from making the logical leap — was that he was the Messiah.
In the Jewish faith, where believers also await the arrival of a messiah (and other sects have occasionally claimed to have found him without being tossed out as heretics), that messiah is seen “not so much as a savior as an earthly king,” Kolakowski says. “Everyone will like him and he’ll be a wise man, maybe as great as a Moses. But he’s not God.”
The men of Congregation Kol Emes filter casually in and out of the sanctuary throughout Sabbath service, though they keep a lookout to ensure they’re available at the certain important times when a minyan — a kind of quorum — is required to continue.
While they enter they join in with the rhythmic swaying and chanting.
At the front of the sanctuary is the Ark, a simple, curtain-shrouded vestibule that contains the holy Torah scrolls. The Torah, each of four separate scrolls, is adorned in a dark-blue, velvet covering with a silver shield on a silver chain draped around it. On top is a silver crown with twinkling bells around its edges.
“Arise, oh Lord,” Kolakowski chants. “Blessed is your name, the master of the universe.” The ceremony continues as the Torah is brought from the Ark to the Bima, a central raised platform, where Kolakowski waits, reading passionately from another book of prayers, his voice rising occasionally for emphasis and his fist hammering the Bima occasionally.
When the Torah arrives, Kolakowski dons a massive mink hat called a shtreimel, an eastern European or Russian style that seems exaggeratedly large.
Hasidic dress ascribes to an early tenant of Judaism, a commandment to Jews not to look like other nations of the world.
And their religious services likewise set Jews apart. An almost paradoxical relaxed formality flows through the service.
Unlike Christian traditions in which such ceremonies are performed with uninterrupted reverence, or even less rigid Protestant traditions where the line between sacred and profane maintains the boundary between minister and flock, this high ceremony occasionally gives way to light conversation and laughter.
Today the congregation celebrates the bar mitzvah of Blake Glover, 13. He’s an unbelievably fresh-faced kid from Mechanicsville with longish curly hair in the current style; he chews gum throughout the service. Only the yarmulke from which his curls splay indicates he’s not on the way to hang out at the mall.
When Glover finishes his brief part in the ceremony — he’s not made to read long passages from the Torah as is common in Reform and Conservative Jewish tradition — the handful of men still in the pews begins throwing hard candy at him and the other men gathered around the Bima. Tradition calls for them to try to hit the boy who’s celebrating his mitzvah.
They clap and sing, holding hands as they dance.
At the back of the sanctuary, another rabbi looks on, smiling, as he unwraps a piece of the hard candy and pops it in his mouth.
“Rabbi, you’re supposed to throw it, not eat it,” a celebrant says, jokingly admonishing him.
Glover’s arrival in this Ultra-Orthodox community is another unlikely tale. His dad is Baptist, his mother is Jewish.
“My brother, he doesn’t know what to believe,” says Glover, who says he’s never had his mother’s faith thrust on him.
Despite this, “I knew I was Jewish,” he says. “I always felt like I needed to learn. [And now], I feel a lot better and a lot closer to God.”
Hurtling hard candies at congregants and laughing during the proceedings aren’t the only joyful expressions that work their way into the ceremony.
This is, after all, a bar mitzvah — a celebration. As the service ends, members head to a table filled with food and booze. Another table nearby is filled with Manishevitz, a traditional sweet Jewish wine, as well as not-so-traditional bottles of scotch, whiskey and beer.
Rabbi Kolakowski has changed into a long, shimmery white silken robe. Around him, people drink, eat and laugh.
Again, for all of Hasidic Judaism’s pretense of formality, it’s remarkably relaxed in practice. The simple approach to bar mitzvah is a perfect example.
“The bar mitzvah isn’t something you do — it’s not a graduation from Judaism,” Kolakowski says. “A bar mitzvah is just something that happens.”
The words themselves mean “son of the commandment,” Kolakowski says, and celebrating it is simply an acknowledgement of a 13-year-old having reached the age where he’s old enough to participate as part of the required minyan of 10 men needed to hold a service.
Today, Glover is a son of that commandment. And, Kolakowski hopes, he’ll be another son to share a sacred spot at the Kol Emes’ table each Saturday. One more step toward rebuilding this congregation.
“I guess that’s the commandment, really,” Kolakowski says, “God’s first commandment is faith.”