Young working mother and baby in a strollerBy Larry Gordon

Two things about spending this past Shabbos in Boro Park remain indelibly engraved in my mind’s eye. One is a constant and has been present over the many decades, and the other is a seeming anomaly or a heretofore unusual sight. The first is the white socks that so many of the men wear as part of their Shabbos dress. Everywhere you look, there are flashes of white walking in your direction or away from you.

The second is a new addition to the Shabbos-in-Boro-Park mix and that is the proliferation of baby carriages being wheeled by both men and women (mostly women) on the streets and avenues of the neighborhood. As in many other religiously observant Jewish communities, there is a split when it comes to the idea of an eiruv that allows transporting items on Shabbos, such as wheeling a baby carriage or carrying a tallis to shul.

While I’m not familiar with the technical mechanics of this particular Brooklyn eiruv construction, the various religious factions and their use of the eiruv are probably as diverse as the opinions that exist about whether it is proper according to Jewish law that it be freely utilized.

While adherence to the laws of eiruv is no doubt a matter of halachah, there seems to also be an element of social consideration when interpreting the law. And that consideration is specifically about how an eiruv impacts on the social fabric of a community.

It comes down to this. Without the use of the eiruv in Boro Park, the young women with babies would simply be stuck at home on Shabbos for long stretches of time–months and years. This is not a suggestion that the laws of eiruv and the matter of carrying on Shabbos have been loosened to accommodate this social reality. But it may have been weighed in the decision in the halachic context.

My wife was born and raised in Boro Park and her parents still reside there, but we had not been in the community for a Shabbos in over two decades, according to our loosely structured calculations and recollections. So it was a new experience for us to arrive in the community about an hour or so before Shabbos, park the car near where we were spending Shabbos, and then feed the Muni-Meter with enough money to get us to 7:00 p.m., which is the time until which you have to pay for parking.

I mentioned to one of the people we saw over Shabbos that until Friday night, Boro Park had been a one-dimensional place–a location where it is virtually impossible to find a parking space when you need one (or even when you do not need one). Friday afternoon was busy. Thirteenth Avenue was congested with cars double-parked on both sides of the street, mostly in front of the florists and candy stores. Something would be missing over Shabbos without floral designs and fancy chocolates to munch on between those lavish multi-course meals. But then at about 4 p.m. on these short Fridays, the cars stop, and for about an hour or so the foot traffic abates as well. Then the sun sets and it is Shabbos.

We were in Boro Park, by the way, because my mother-in-law was in Maimonides Hospital and we anticipated that she might be there over Shabbos. As it turned out, she was discharged Friday afternoon and we wanted to be there to facilitate the move back home for her. Any hospital experience is inconvenient and filled with both delay and frustration. But that is the nature of the system. Whether it is testing or figuring out if the patient needs to be admitted or finding a bed for them in the proper department, it all takes a long time.

But I also have to say for those who have experienced Maimonides that they have a secret weapon named Douglas Jablon, the head of patient services at the hospital. Douglas has a way of making something that is usually painful actually painless. You can call on him at just about any time and he is there to help. And that is all one requires at a difficult time like that, someone who can help you navigate the system.

And then in the ER late last Tuesday night, we met an angel named Isaac Sabbagh. The tag hanging around his neck identified him as an RPN, or registered practical nurse. Just a few minutes after we arrived at the ER, he saw us and immediately took to the task of seeing our way through the system. He helped secure pain medication, sped up the X-ray and then the CT scan; in other words, he was just making it happen instead of the endless waiting that is often possible in these circumstances. In chatting with Mr. Sabbagh through parts of the night, I at one point asked him what time his shift ends. He said that it ends at 11:00 p.m.–but this was at about 1:30 a.m. I looked up at the wall clock and saw the time and mentioned it to him. “Yeah,” he said, “I do have to get going.”

When it looked like we would be spending Shabbos in Boro Park, I wrote to Mrs. Y. Samuels (not her real name), an affable woman who contributes on occasion to this paper. I told her that we would most likely be in Boro Park for a day and she immediately extended an invitation to join her and her husband for both seudos.

What can I say? In a sense we are different in so many ways but we also have so much in common. Her husband wears a shtreimel and those high white socks. She wears one of those white tichels that some chassidic women wear over their sheitels on Friday night. Later in the evening I met two of her daughters and they were wearing them too.

Yet while we look different we are more alike than we are dissimilar. She and I are both from Crown Heights. When we mention which streets we were raised on, we can both picture each other’s actual blocks. At both meals–at which the food was excellent–we had spirited conversations on a variety of topics. One subject in particular was about shidduchim and the shidduch crisis that exists out there. Mrs. Samuels was illustrating a bit of an open mind when she said that she insisted on her children meeting their eventual partners at least two times before announcing that they were engaged and ready to get married.

In most of our more immediate circles, the dating is slightly more complicated than that. One of Mrs. Samuels’s sons-in-law came to visit them toward the end of the Friday-night meal and joined in the conversation. He is an active shadchan in the community and mentioned that while the so-called crisis is not as pronounced in the chassidic community, there are issues there too.

I mentioned that as I understood it, most of the boys are 18 years old when a shidduch is found for them and the girls are usually about a year older. The families discuss the practicality of the match along with other pertinent issues about economic support and so on, then the boy and girl meet–and if that goes well, it’s a match.

Anyway, we had a great time. We talked about the Boro Park community and the tribal nature of the different sects within the community that from the outside may look basically the same. Rabbi Samuels assured me that not everyone is alike.

On Shabbos morning, I took a slow walk up 47th Street from 13th Avenue to 15th Avenue. I wasn’t sure where I was going to daven but passed by the larger-than-life buildings of both Munkacs and Vizhnitz. I looked inside but did not go in. I continued on to the Young Israel-Bet El shul where I knew that the chazzan Ben Zion Miller would be davening at the amud and leading the service. I’m not a big fan of chazzanus, but I decided to enter the shul and daven there with an open and objective mind and with no preconceived notions.

What can I say? I was surprised that I was so taken by the Miller range. The high notes and the high points in the Birkas HaChodesh were titillating and made the spirits soar. I had not heard a rosh chodesh bentching like that in a long time.

Bet El, in the center of one of the most densely populated and congested Jewish communities in the world, is a shul that is sparsely attented. The men’s shul probably seats about 500 and I counted around 125 people. Some come there just to hear Birkas HaChodesh and then they leave. It looks like others daven there because they have been doing so for decades, while others have had it with their usual shuls and this is something different. Cantor Miller’s son Shimi leads an excellent choir, and overall this was a special treat and an enjoyable experience.

So this was Shabbos in Boro Park, a community and neighborhood that hustles and bustles to the max all week, all day and all night. But when 4:12 p.m. arrived last Friday, everything stopped and reversed course. As Saturday night arrived and three stars were visible in the sky above, the white socks and the shtreimels began to disappear from the streets. And it looked now like everyone was wheeling a carriage or a stroller without any restrictions whatsoever.

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