We were quintessential redneck children, children of the forest oblivious to nuances of society. The expanses of space in which we had lived in the Catskills had given us an appreciation for the wind, for flowers, for all living things, but not much about norms with which most people lived.
My father’s close friend owned a summer home just out on the fringe of Kiryas Yoel, a Satmar enclave located a bit closer to New York City than our upstate home. With largesse typical of the Satmar community, this friend told my father to move our family into this summer home until we located a house closer to the City where my father had found a new job.
Our new village, Kiryas Yoel, was founded by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, of blessed memory, as a place where his followers could replicate the lives of their ancestors of Europe, in a close-knit, communal shtetl. We Rosenberg children were coming from a typical American rural village to a place where there was a homogenous group of people with distinct cultural patterns of which we had no clue. We also had no clue that we had no clue.
My parents were not home one day when my brother and I had a brainstorm. My father had been close to the previous Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum of blessed memory. We now realized we were within walking distance to his burial grounds. With the idealism of youth, we decided we were going to storm the heavens with prayers at that great man’s gravesite. Without much ado, and without much of a “by your leave” to whomever was babysitting, we were off, hand in hand.
My brother was wearing a plaid yarmulke, shorts, and Israeli sandals without socks, whilst boys in this little shtetl wear long pants, starched shirts and large black yarmulkes. I don’t think I was dressed more in line with the community than my brother. In order to get to our destination, we had to traverse the entire village of Kiryas Yoel, much to the surprise of its denizens. Two children emerging out of the woods (for that is the way we cut through to get there) seeming to have walked out of some other world into Kiryas Yoel.
We cut through town and headed onto Schenumunk Road. At that time, this road was not yet built up with homes. Rather, it was an endless road with bare fields on each side waving overgrown grass into our faces as we passed. Finally, finally, we came upon a clearing with a brick edifice set alone in a bare field. We had arrived. With confidence, we two little kids cut through the green grass, making our way to the brick building, feeling like we had arrived at a place where Heaven met earth. Up close, we leaned our foreheads against the red bricks and began praying. That moment I prayed like I’d never prayed before, emotions, sincerity and joy at being at the rabbi’s gravesite giving fuel to my childish requests.
Finished with our prayers, my brother and I began our way home, a skip to our steps, still swinging hands, still raising eyebrows and curiosity as we passed. I felt sated, as if all my worries and requests had found their way wafting straight to G-d. For years, the memory of that moment of prayer, the connection to the One Above I felt at that great man’s gravesite, made me strive to reach that feeling again.
I was already a teen when I traversed Schenumunk Road again. Looking carefully for the markers of the way I’d been down here before, I spotted the brick edifice. It was then I realized my brother and I had never ever made it to the Satmar Rebbe’s gravesite which was a bit further down the road. In fact, it was the utility company’s power house where I had stood deep in prayer those many years ago. My brother and I still tease each other about the fact that there was a reason we had found our prayers electrifying. We got a jolt alright.
Yet, somewhere within me, there is a stubbornness of a redneck little girl. I still want to walk the long road to a place where a brick wall I come across can jolt me to higher spheres, where reality finally shows through and where all that matters and all there is centers on G-d. To be there again, electrified by spirituality, close to G-d, the memory still pulls me, making me pray for a way to find that place again where brothers and sisters can walk hand-in-hand, intent on spirituality, clueless to the nuances of a world governed by outside appearances and categories. Jewish brothers and sisters, can’t we “hold hands”, getting past our differences s as we search for spirituality together?