What It’s Like to Be A Modern Chasidic Jew (AKA Heimish)
You’ve heard the term “modern Orthodox,” but have you ever heard of “modern chasidic,” also known as heimish? At Jew in the City, we love to show the nuances in the Orthodox Jewish world that many people are completely unaware of. In some cases, this lack of understanding even exists between one Orthodox community and the next! People tend to see what they perceive to be the most extreme of the “other” group while they remain completely unaware of the people who might be more like them than they realize. We recently sat down with a businessman who is part of the heimish or “modern chasidic” world to discuss what his community is like and what being heimish means.
JITC: What do you call yourself, group-wise?
Well, there’s the group I affiliate with (my Chasidic sect) and the group I fit myself into (the Heimish world). That makes me Heimish Chasidish. I belong to a major Chasidic (sect), but I’m not the typical of this group. I don’t look like them. I don’t wear their levush (dress), so calling myself “Heimish” is more accurate. Heimish means “homey.” So, it’s someone who comes from a Chasidic background, but does not dress or behave 100% Chasidic. It’s Chasidic with a few modern tweaks. We speak Yiddish, but not exclusively Yiddish. Most of us have a good English.
There are a lot of Heimish people in Lakewood, Borough Park, and Flatbush who will wear a hat with a bekishe (long black coat). I wear a shtreimel (fur hat), but I don’t wear my peyos in the front (rather tucked behind my ears). Otherwise, we try to maintain all the Chasidic minhagim (traditions) that our fathers got from our ancestors.
JITC: So you look Chasidic on Shabbos (except with a short beard and peyos tucked behind the ears). How Heimish people dress during the week?
In the winter, I wear a white dress shirt and dark suit. In the summer, I wear white polo shirts and dark pants. I wear black velvet yarmulke all year round. My wife (and the women in my community) dress modestly but stylishly. Most wear makeup and have attractive wigs
JITC: What percent of the Chasidic world is this modern flavor?
It’s hard to know exactly, but a complete guess would be something like 20%. So maybe there are over 100,000 of us in the world.
JITC: How did the Heimish Chasidic community evolve?
The Heimish phenomenon occurred after World Ward II as a result of people coming to America and getting modernized. These people went through absolute hell in the Holocaust, so some of them started to depart from some of their dress, which we obviously can’t judge them for. The attitude was “I don’t feel comfortable in full Hasidish garb, but I will still wear a bekishe and a hat on Shabbos.” They’d also think, “You know what? My father wore a long beard, but I will wear it short (or take it off) to live more in the American lifestyle.”
Keeping traditions in the privacy of the home – like Rabbeinu Tam (ending Shabbos later) and Gebrochts (not wetting matzah on Pesach) was easier to maintain because those practices didn’t occur in a public setting. But even typical Chasidim have changed a lot in the last 10 years. They are not just on 47th street working in the Diamond District. People made a lot of money there, but unfortunately, that died. I have a cousin, a really Chasidish guy, who just became a CPA. That would have been unheard of 30 years ago. The online business world is now filled with Chasidish people. So even while my modern Chasidic/Heimishe group is one thing, centrist Chasidim are having their own evolution.
JITC: What makes you Chasidic?
My minhagim (traditions) – doing what my father does or did. Having a connection to our rebbe. There are a lot of Heimish people that send to Heimish schools but keep their own minhagim from their specific Chasidus. My daughter doesn’t go to the Chasidic girls school of our community, but instead to the Heimish one. Heimish schools tend to have better secular studies. But some of us send to Chasidic schools too. My son goes to a Chasidic school.
JITC: Explain your pride in maintaining your minhagim and dress on Shabbos.
I’m carrying the torch of what my father and his fathers did before him. I think that with any minhag, you have to try to understand it. I enjoy the deeper appreciation of why the people before me chose to continue it. There’s a common saying that even though I don’t understand it, I’m doing it on the daas (intention) of the ones before me. They understood it. I’m doing it with the intention that their thoughts should be incorporated in that. If my rebbe saw that it was important, I’ll try to understand, to the best of my ability.
JITC: What makes you “modern?”
Dress is the number one way. Long jacket vs. short jacket, trimming beard, type of hat. Number two is how we interact with the world. Some traditional Chasidim won’t take their kids to amusement parks or watch movies. In the Hemish world, no one has a TV at home, but you don’t need one if you have a cellphone or computer. That’s why there is a big push for filters in our community. Technology has the capacity for great things. But it can also be very dangerous. It must be handled with care. So we bring secular knowledge and media into our lives, but we are discerning about what types.
JITC: But don’t Chasidim have strict rules of conduct? Does anyone care or bother you for not being the strictest?
As a kid, yes. I went to a Chasidic school, so it was sometimes challenging to be a Heimish kid there. As I grew older, I gained an appreciation of my family’s (Heimish) way of doing things, and I became more assertive as to how I want to live. Children are influenced by their friends. It’s something I’m very concerned about. If my child is not succeeding because of a minhag or a levush, then I’ll change it. I don’t want my child to be picked on because of that. Right now, my kids integrate with Chasidic kids without problems. My son doesn’t want to change his Heimish peyos, even though they don’t look like those of his Chasidic classmates, and it’s OK.
JITC: For people who have either experienced the most extreme Chasidic community and it hasn’t worked for them, what would you want them to know?
There are options! You don’t need to give up completely because one part doesn’t work for you. For instance, every community has a disagreement regarding the eruv. There are those who don’t hold by it. They are those who do. If I carry with an eruv, it doesn’t mean that I’m not Jewish or mechallel (breaking) Shabbos. It means that my rebbe or my shitta (method) calls for this. It’s not black and white, Yiddishkeit is full of grays.
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