By Johan (Yoel) Schaper
Great—so you found Judaism and figured out that Orthodoxy is the way to go. That’s it, right? Wrong. We converts soon discover that there is a whole world of different Orthodox flavors out there. There are, of course, the dominant voices in the Kiruv world that we, although not their targets, are exposed to online. Soon we figure out that Chabad is not the only Chassidic group, that Litvish and Yeshivish are synonymous, and that Open Orthodoxy is something you want to avoid because you don’t want to invoke controversy on your conversion. Then there are the Sefardim, that group of exotic mysterious people from the Middle East and Brooklyn. Let’s not forget about that whole slew of other ideological movements, organizations, and individuals, some of which only exist online.
Where do you belong? Should you even care? As a convert myself, I went through this stage. It was quite the quest, and often a rather silly one. In this two-part series, I would like to share with you the story of my Jewish communal search among ideas, movements, and groups.
I converted 13 years ago in Bnei Brak while living in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, the two bastions of over-the-top-mega-ultra-Orthodox. At the time, this was where I was ideologically ‘holding,’ as they say in Jinglish. I picked the Hebrew name Yoel after the late Satmar Rav, who was, in my mind, the last of the lions and my platonic ideal Jew.
As I rose out of that conversion Mikvah, I was a fresh religious fanatic ready to do the battle for the Lord. I also was completely at a loss as to what the next step of my life would be. But that is for a different story.
At the time, I had all the outward trappings of a Chassidic Jew: the long peyos, untrimmed beard, flat bieber hat, and long black coat. These were, of course, clumsily thrown together the way only converts, baalei teshuvah, and Hollywood can spectacularly fail at getting those darn dress code details right. Despite my garb, I did not bother putting in any effort to assimilate into a Chassidic community. For me, it had always primarily been about ideas, not culture and community. The cultural stuff was sometimes fun and sometimes annoying, but always secondary.
Looking back, this Chassidic stage lasted for a relatively short period. I did not start out that way, and I did not end up that way either.
I was born and raised in the beautiful Kingdom of the Netherlands. Although my mother had strong neo-pagan and New Age leanings, the world we grew up in was that good old classical Western European secular humanism. Like many converts, I found Judaism while sitting at home reading books. Exploring religions through books is advantageous in that you will be exposed to the ideas of the religion without the muddling of the ill-informed lay practitioners of said religion. The down side is that without real world context, you might cobble together a religion in your head that doesn’t reflect anything existing in the real world. The invented Judaism I was attracted to in that early stage was not the one I eventually converted to.
After visiting the real life Jewish community in Amsterdam, I was blessed to find myself a teacher, a yeshiva and kollel trained Lubavitcher who was himself also a convert. Besides for him being a knowledgeable person, he also had that no nonsense down-to-earth Dutch personality and was willing to answer even my most ridiculous questions. He was a real mensch. I met him once a week at his home. Those few precious hours probably shaped me not only as a Jew, but as a human being.
I had a strong attraction to Chassidus. First, it appeared to me to take Judaism much more seriously than the plain Orthodox Dutch Judaism in the synagogues around me. Second, it seemed much more spiritually engaging than the dry yeshivish Judaism I saw in the local Amsterdam kollel. Chabad Chassidus had a strong appeal in that it presented a clear systematic theology. It has its own philosophy of the Divine, the Universe and the role of a Jew in the world. Even today, I can only think of Maimonides and Ramchal as having as complete and systematic an approach to Judaism as that of Chabad.
Another appealing Chassidic group, introduced to me in the writings of the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, was Breslov. Breslov was far less systematic than Chabad, but had a path of personal devotion and study that was compatible with my western individualistic sensibilities. Ultimately, Breslov gained the upper hand, and when I moved to Israel to convert, I joined Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum, who at the time had a Breslov yeshiva in Mea Shearim. There, in Jerusalem, I explored a whole smorgasbord of Jewish movements and ideas.
Although the core teachings of Breslov—hisbododus (improvised prayer) and serving God with joy—were and are very uplifting, there was much I could not commit myself to intellectually. First and foremost, Rabbi Nachman, the late 18th century founder and only Rebbe of Breslov, radically rejected philosophy. Although it was on a very low burner at the time, it had still been philosophy that had initially brought me to Judaism. A second obstacle was the Breslov doctrine of the tzadik ha-emmes, the true righteous man. This idea places Rabbi Nachman as the fifth and final revelation until the coming of the Messiah. Such metaphysical importance is given to Rabbi Nachman that a popular Breslov pamphlet claims that anyone who does not know Rabbi Nachman in this lifetime must be reincarnated again and again until they know him (Seven Pillars of Faith, 7:19).
The great codes of Jewish law never lay down an obligation to seek this one elevated tzadik. True, Rabbi Nachman’s own teachings clearly point in this direction about himself, but this only made the Rabbi suspicious in my eyes. Also, as a group, Breslov had a certain radical emotionalism that almost glorified irrationality. That was very off putting, to say the least.
Mea Shearim is known as the stronghold of ultra-Orthodox opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel. As a post WW2 European, the idea of nationalism, even Jewish nationalism, was intuitively repulsive to me. Hence I had no cultural blockage to keep me from exploring religious based anti-Zionism, which at the time made a very strong and coherent case to me. I became interested in the person and teachings of the late Satmar Rav, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1887–1979), arguably the most prolific anti-Zionist Rabbinic scholar in the Jewish world. The Satmar Rav was also interested in the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov but seemingly without feeling the need to elevate him to a new level of divine revelation. Such an approach allows one to take the edifying parts of Breslov without having to commit to the more cultic aspects. I am probably the only person in Jewish history who wanted to be Satmar because it seemed like less of a cult.
By the time I finished the conversion process, I was conflicted as to whether I should identify as Satmar or Breslov. I decided that if I chose Breslov, I would name myself ‘Yoel’ after the Satmar Rav, and if I would go for Satmar, I would name myself ‘Nachman’ after the Breslover Rebbe. Before I went into the mikvah, I decided to be a Breslover chosid, and named myself Yoel. It was only several months later that I dropped Breslov and started identifying as an aspiring Satmar chosid.
Looking back at it now, there was no real systematic approach to my quest for authenticity. I was not only lacking in maturity, I was lacking in education and rigor. I didn’t know enough about Judaism and I did not know how to properly analyze a subject. I walked around playing Satmar without any real interest in joining a Satmar community, a group of people so alien to me that I just allowed them to be exotic from afar. I certainly did not need Satmar for a social life; I had my own friends and books.
After having been in Jerusalem for a year, I spent a couple of weeks back in Netherlands and then moved to the mystical city of Tzfat in northern Israel, where, of all places, I would be demystified. I joined Yeshivas Shalom Rav, a hippie yeshiva originally meant for baalei teshuvah, but when I arrived, was filled with FFBs trying to figure out their own relationship with Judaism, aided by alcohol and marijuana. It was a blast.
It did not take long before I had become a real Tzfat character. I was that tall Dutch Satmar guy. My combined knowledge of Dutch, broken German, and Hebrew jargon allowed me to fake a decent Yiddish. You know, to people who didn’t actually speak Yiddish. It was fun but silly. The highlight of my silliness was probably when the previous Satmar Rebbe had passed away, and two of his sons were fighting over who would be the next Rebbe.
Being Satmar, I figured I should pick one. So I called up a Satmar posek I respected to ask him who I should pick. The posek gave me a politically correct answer that left me with nothing. The absurdity, of course, was that I had called someone I met once to have him tell me who of two people I never met, who lived on the other side of the world, should be my official Rebbe. The whole thing was meaningless and completely self-imposed.
Doing the Satmar thing, I really enjoyed getting into Zionist vs anti-Zionist debates. Like a Christian missionary memorizing Old Testament proof-texts I had memorized every Chazal, Rishon, and Acharon I could get my hands on to support the Satmar claim against the State of Israel. This was all in good spirit; it never got antagonistic. Until this very day I don’t know if there is really anything more to the Satmar derech. Certainly my spirituality came from other Chassidic literature such as Breslov, Slonim and Kotzk.
In part 2, I’ll take a look at how I came to leave Chassidus, matured a little, and embarked on a new journey exposing me to a more philosophical Judaism, and how I eventually came to deconstruct my entire worldview to rebuild it again from its most fundamental level.