NEW YORK, Sept. 29 (JTA) — "Whoever did not see the joy at the Simchat Beit Hashoeva celebrations has not seen true joy in his days." Thus wrote the talmudist of the nightly Simchat Beit Hashoeva celebrations that used to take place in Jerusalem and elsewhere during the intermediary days of Sukkot. Literally the Celebration of the Water Drawing, Simchat Beit Hoshoeva festivities originally marked a ceremony that involved anointing with water and that took place in the Temple in Jerusalem on the second night of the holiday. The Talmud writes that righteous men used to dance for assembled crowds that juggled flaming torches, sang, made merry and praised God all night long. The nights of Sukkot are still filled with the sounds of Simchat Beit Hashoeva festivities in Jewish neighborhoods around the world. In Brooklyn, one can hardly pass through the borough’s Chasidic neighborhoods without hearing the nightly parties. In Borough Park, on 14th Avenue and 47th Street, there is so much pushing to get into the sukkah of the charismatic Munkatcher rebbe, Moshe Yehuda Leib Rabinowitz, that young children risk getting crushed in the crowd. Thousands of Chasidic Jews with long black coats, dark mink hats, long beards and sidecurls fill the bleachers in what is one of the biggest sukkahs in the world. Makeshift bleachers rock with young Chasidim swaying back and forth, singing paeans to God and to their rebbe, to whom they look with perfervid intensity and unabashed affection. Several tables line the floor in front of the rebbe’s. When the rebbe takes a bite of fish or kugel, food from his plate is then passed around the sukkah for tasting by devoted Chasidim who believe that it’s good luck to eat off the rebbe’s plate. A few dip their pinky fingers in mashed sweet potato pie, passing it around so hundreds of others can get a taste and a share of good luck. Behind the rebbe and out of sight, a young man plays the keyboard while two others sing Chasidic melodies into microphones, electrifying the crowd. Somewhere behind a dark one-way mirror at the rear of the sukkah, Chasidic women crane their necks to watch the festivities and catch a glimpse of the rebbe, dressed in a special white robe for the occasion. All over the neighborhood, sukkahs of Chasidic rebbes are filled to capacity with merrymakers singing, eating and dancing so feverishly that the floors shake. Multipiece bands play live music, and at one location a conga-style line of thousands of Chasidic men snakes around a yeshiva study hall. A few blocks away, the sukkah of the Bobover rebbe, Naphtali Halberstam, is decorated with dioramas depicting biblical scenes, the Jewish holidays and the story of the rebbe’s life in pre-World War II Europe and his arrival in America. Three years ago, U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio showed up here to campaign for the Senate seat being vacated by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Lazio’s holiday appearance befuddled young Chasidic men in the crowd who were trying to figure out if the youngish-looking man up front — who was wearing a big, black velvet yarmulke and taking a swig of vodka from a shot-glass — was Jewish or not. After a brief introduction in which a Chasid compared the four-term congressman to Moses, Lazio took to the podium to urge the assembled to vote. Lazio asked for the rebbe’s blessing. It was not given, and Lazio went on to lose that election to Hillary Clinton. In Brooklyn at midnight, the crowds in the sukkahs show no signs of thinning. Outdoors, enterprising young men sell fresh aravot — willow braches — for $3 a pair. Willows are one of the four species used for ritual purposes during Sukkot, along with the lemon-like etrog, the lulav palm stalk and myrtle-tree branches, called hadasim. Nearby, a take-out place does swift business selling myriad fresh and prepared meats, chicken dishes, kugels of every kind and sweet rugeloch pastries. The line stretches out the door and onto the sidewalk. Young men toting volumes of Talmud and soft drinks lean against cars and trees, dragging on their cigarettes in the cool night air. At the study hall of Karlin-Stolin Chasidim, dancers heat up the crowded room, stomping in tune while chanting over and over again a biblical verse set to upbeat music. Young men laugh as they rush back and forth across the floor hand in hand, snaking through constantly growing circles of men moving through the room. At the sukkah of the Skolye rebbe, the celebration is somewhat more subdued. A single table with about 60 Chasidic men sitting around it takes up most of the sukkah, and the men pause between songs to listen to words of Torah and stories of devotion from the rebbe, who narrates his tales in Yiddish, the lingua franca of Borough Park. The night’s festivities end in the wee hours of the morning. Some revelers sleep in their own sukkahs, built in backyards, on porches and in driveways around the neighborhood. The party goes on all week, until Sukkot turns into Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Then the sukkah huts come down, the willow and palm branches find their way onto garbage heaps, and Borough Park goes back to being, well, Borough Park.
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.