For the beginning of Chanukah, I decided to publish these photos taken last spring. On Saturday, May 5th, thousands of Hasidic Jews from the Belz community, as well as other Hasidim communities, converged towards the Mile-End in Montreal to celebrate the coming of Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, spiritual father of the community Belz.
A night walk of about one hour followed the celebration that took place in a large tent erected in a parking lot of a Mile-Ex grocery store. More than 6000 people then accompanied the rabbi’s motorcade to his temporary residence on Querbes Street in the adjacent area of Outremont.
The Hasidic Jews of the Mile-End
Living near the gathering place, I had already heard songs a few days before. These unusual songs had struck my curiosity. After some quick research, I learned that this event seemed to be of great importance to the Hasidic communities of the Montreal area and also of New York.
So I headed around 10:00 PM to the gathering place. Hundreds of people were confined outside for lack of space in the temporary stadium. I was also not able to enter it either (after seeing these images https://youtu.be/b-1346CQRE0, I should have insisted a little more…).
I walked in the midst of the increasingly large crowd. I was not sure what to expect from people’s reaction to my presence and especially to the presence of my camera. Aside from a few passersby and policemen came to ensure security, I was pretty much the only one who was not from the community.
To my surprise, the people were very friendly and even vocal. I have lived in the neighbourhood for more than 15 years and spent several months in Israel. Relations with the people of the Hasidic communities are always imbued with a certain strangeness. I use the word strangeness knowingly since it seems, beyond cohabitation,we are foreign to one another.
Besides some isolated smiles or a few words exchanged with local traders, it is a bit like a mutual invisibility separating us, as if two dimensions were rubbing shoulders without really being part of the same space.
At this gathering, this invisible border, this space so close and so distant that, on a daily basis, seems often impassable, this space had dissolved in the spirit of festivity that reigned.
Even if, this time, I was the one who clashed with my jeans jacket and my cap, I was able to blend in with the crowd. Without being anonymous on the other hand. The eyes betrayed a little surprise, but also curiosity. I had several conversations. Countless smiles, but also lots of questions. “Why are you taking pictures?” Who do you take pictures for? “Why are you here?” “Are you Jewish?” Women told me, “You could stop taking the men only in pictures and take us too!”. The tone was a little mocking, but also a little serious. They wanted their photo taken also. Many wanted portraits, wanted pictures with their children.
Some even gave me their email so I could send them the photo later. I have to say that the first one who gave me his email surprised me a bit. As if I had integrated that it was impossible to communicate, as if the way of life of the Hasidim rejected the whole of our modernity. The reality is much more complex. We tend to confuse the Hasidim with the rejection of modernity much like the Amish. That is not the case. In any case not entirely. Outside the Sabbath, they are on their cellphones, doing business, using the tools and technological means that we use.
It’s a world on another orbit. But, perhaps it obeys certain common rules, rules of a common universe.
For some time, when I have the opportunity, I continue to document my neighbourhood and the Hasidic communities are an important color. I hope to continue with some new relationships to build.
Little anecdote in closing, I had lost my wallet without realizing it while I was taking pictures. At the end of the evening, I got a text asking if, by chance, I hadn’t lost my wallet. A man had found it and had done some research online to end up finding my website. In chatting with a friend, who by a happy circumstance, had been one of my first long warm conversations, they made the connection with me. I had given my cell number to this man earlier in the evening so he could send me his email and I could send him the photos I had taken of his son. He immediately recognized me on my driver’s license and texted me. I called him back and he drove me with his car to the synagogue where the man who had found my wallet handed it to me. We chatted a little. It was late and we were all tired. A little curious, a little suspicious, he said to me: “I saw your iInstagram account, you take a lot of photos of Hasidim… What for?” I told him that I have been in the neighbourhood for more than 15 years and that I liked to document the daily lives of it. That the Hasidim were an important part of it. He looked at me a little aback. We shook hands and I went to bed completely destabilized by this extraordinary evening and by these thousands of people present to celebrate the coming of a rabbi.