The chasid walked down the aisle, as the shul collectively held its breath. It was a modern orthodox shul, an establishment known for its treading of a moderate middle ground in the orthodox landscape. There were those among the congregation who were Israeli, Sephardic, Ashkenazi and a few veering towards the traditional Yeshiva, Litvak mode, donning black hats and pronouncing the Hebrew words slightly differently. But there were limits to the diversity.
When the chasid showed up over the holidays, nobody paid him much heed. He could have after all been a Jewish traveler far from home, looking for a minyan over the holidays. But this chasid did not stay on the sidelines as was expected.
He at first sat hunched in his chair beside a friend, surveying the shul with keen, watching eyes. Then as if satisfied with the measure he had taken of the place, he got ambitious and made an audacious request. He wished to daven mussaf.
The rabbi was slightly taken aback, but quickly recovered and graciously granted his request.
The congregation looked their normal self, conversing in low tones, making their way to and from kiddush club, candyman furnishing the kids with his stock — but the normal veneer was deceptive. People, regulars as they were called, shifted their gaze constantly, suspiciously to the audacious newcomer with his big black yarmulke covering the bulk of his head atop the shiny bald pate of his forehead, his long, swinging, neatly curled payos flanking his face like two dancing sentries and long black, trimmed beard, giving his face a dignified and austere look reminiscent of the great kings of ancient times. He walked, or strode confidently, almost haughtily, a self assured look on his religious face, his eye slightly sunken in from some family genetic variance, giving him a distinct look, above the majestic costume which drew narrowed, skeptical eyes to him.
He seemed to be aware of and indeed revel in all the attention, as he seemed to almost slide, lightly on his feet, up the bimah to be the main attraction for the next 20 or so minutes.
Clearing his throat, he began in a low, beckoning contralto, as if hinting at things to come, in the centuries old melody he was brought up with, the kaddish preceding and leading into the mussaf amidah.
The shul became silent as everyone engaged in his own private shmoneh esrei. However on the back of people’s mind it was clear was the big question mark around the foreign chazzan with his unusual pronunciation. For after all, when the kaddish was said, they had all heard, unmistakably, the chasidish way of pronouncing Hebrew. While the different factions which attended the shul had reconciled themselves to each other’s peculiarities, this peculiarity which none had enough time to accustom themselves to, was way off the reserve.
People muttered as they looked darkly at the swaying back of the black clad man on the bimah. Uncomfortable titters flitted through the room. If the chasid heard, he didn’t acknowledge. He seemed perfectly comfortable where he was up there and indeed seemed ready and almost excited to present these mellow modern orthodox Jews with a performance they had never heard.
He began and that was when the shul was further divided into two factions. Those open minded free spirits who were willing to give him a chance regardless of the unfamiliarity of the way he said the words they knew so intimately and those who stood stiffly, staring frostily at this newcomer, this stranger who thought he could just come in and change the way they’ve been doing things for years.
The leader of this opposition group was a testy, moody Israeli named Yair. He stood tall and angry, looking incredulously around at his fellow shul goers who were so willing to accommodate this stranger.
When the chasid began his repetition with a haunting lullaby, it seemed he would try to meet the congregation halfway. He dropped his chasidic pronunciation and might have been like any Litvak if not for his clothing.
But then he let a budich and a meilech out and it was as if, he had raised expectations and then failed to meet them.
“Budichhhh.” Yair mimicked in a loud voice. “Meilech.”
Once again, if the chasid heard anything, he did not show any sign.
Except that, as if in retaliation for that reaction, he decided to give up all effort of compromise and dove right into the full chasidish pronunciation, even almost seeming to stress and relish those sounds as weapons of revenge against his enemies. He skillfully parried and thrust with his words like a sword, lengthening a sound here and there.
As for Yair, his face was twisted in fury and he turned to his friends in outrage.
But it was no use.
The chasid had taken control of the room and had won himself a swift victory, with his refusal to engage, with his confident belting out of his sect’s tradition.
By the time he was finished, he left the bimah in dignity, the way he had come, his eye meeting his rival’s and the barest hint of a smile curling the corner of his lips.
Someone in the shul swept up by his performance, gave a clap, hoping it seemed to start an applause.
Alas though, the shul was not ready for that yet.
The chasid walked back to his seat and the rabbi cleared his throat.
“Turn to page 112 please, for ein keiloikaini.”