Shabbos with the Motorcycle Rabbi

I think it was the first time in my life that I heard the following from a Rabbi with a long white beard: “You can go to shul if you’d like, but I need to get some sleep before the meal.” I liked the rabbi right away — I knew I would. He came with high recommendations and I had pretty much stayed for shabbos in every frum community throughout the Bay Area other than Oakland and now I was progressing toward my goal of visiting all of the Chabad houses. Rabbi Langer is known as the Motorcycle Rabbi, because he uses a motorcycle as his mitzvah tank. In Crown Heights they use RV’s, but I doubt RV’s could handle the steep hills of San Francisco. Besides, long white bearded dudes that sound like hippies should be riding motorcycles.

It’s not like shul was that far — just a block away. You could open a random door and walk down a very random almost underground railroad type of passageway and wind up in a very random shul — a basement shul that was very small, containing folding wooden chairs with no slats to allow the Shabbos afternoon cholent gas to seep out the back.

I looked around and found that the shul was about the size of my apartment, full of white haired men hocking with each other in Russian. We could have been in a secret shul hiding our children from the Russian army, or maybe we were worshipping God illegally and someday Chassidim wouldn’t say tachnun in honor of the day we were let out of prison. The rabbi was distinctly Sephardic — he had the black hat and suit and appeared to be the only normal person in the room. Everyone else looked downright strange.

There were old white haired Russians with their white yarmulkes, the tall guy with the enormous hands that enveloped my hands in his meaty stubs when he welcomed me to the shul, and the kid who was picking his nose behind his siddur during all of shema. On top of all of them,of course, there was me. I don’t look too normal either, bringing down the average age by about 40 years. Despite this there wasn’t much more than a minyan in shul anyway.

I should mention that there were no rows, the seats were arranged around the bimah like the letter U and for the first time in my life I saw an entire shul sitting during baruch hu. When the time came to bow we did the modiim bow in which you lift your butt 3 inches off of the chair and plop back down as if it really required that much work.

I left the shul thankful that I could go to different shul the next day. Shul hopping is usually quite hard in the Bay Area, but for some reason the Richmond District in San Francisco has 5 orthodox shuls. Each of them have 15 people but that’s a lot of choice for someone like me who needs to see all of the Jewish venues.

There is a certain type of Chabad rabbi with whom I tend to get along. I don’t like the straight ones, I don’t get along with really frum chabadnicks; if you are part of Chabad or hang out in Chabad you know exactly what I’m describing. The meal went on and on, and I ended up hanging around the table until one in the morning, noshing and cold chilling. At one point during the meal I think I may have shocked my hosts when I told them that I really liked and Chassidus and Mussar – I think they thought I was a bit nuts. In my mind, it makes perfect sense. Mussar to me is more concrete and Chassidus is more abstract — like spiritual versus rational.

I get a real kick out of watching a Chabad chasid explain the difference between Mussar and Chassidus. Whereas most of the time it makes chassidus look way better rarely does it make mussar look good, my hosts actually did a good job explaining it – I was quite shocked, actually. I guess I was also shocked when the Rabbi had something nice to say about everyone in town, including the competition including the JSN Kollel which is like one of those random high paying kollels that shows up and starts turf wars with Chabad. I find it kind of interesting that Chabad in the bay area is much less separatist than in other out of town places I have been – sure they are somewhat separatist because they have different minhagim and different kasharus standards than most. As an example of how less separatist they can be, the Berkeley Chabad switches off minyanim with the Modern Orthodox shul, which I have never seen done. I have lived in cities where everyone went to their own shul and that was it. I really like the openness and willingness to share that appears to be the mantra here.

The next day I was woken up at 9:30 and decided to go and hit up the other shul around the corner. I met some other women walking to shul and they were very curious to know who I was – it became apparent why they were so curious when I entered the main sanctuary. There are over 600 seats in the shul and there were almost as many people up at the bimah by the torah laining than there were in the entire men’s section.

Empty would be an understatement. I thought about what I would do if I could build a skate park in the shul — they probably wouldn’t even notice. I did my davening, admired the mural of Sinai and God’s rays shining through clouds that occupied the space above the ark. I noticed that the balcony probably added another few hundred seats to the 600 downstairs. I then walked outside in search of the library.

I probably would have left if not for the fact I smelled cholent and found a biography of the Chasam Sofer. I am seriously addicted to any biographies of great Rabbis of the last 300 years. Although the Artscroll series “the life and times of” is greatly fantasized I still enjoy them enough to read close to a dozen of them including the life and times of Chaim Shmulevetz, Elchanan Wasserman, Moshe Feinstein, Chazon Ish, Yaakov Kaminetzky (the best one by far) Rav Dessler and a bunch more. I brought the Chasam Sofer biography back into shul and read it until they started musaf.

During kedusha for musaf I noticed that most of the congregants had no idea what was flying. The one guy I pinned as the token young and hip modern orthodox dude was walking around during kedusha, the president’s kids walked up to stand by him during the middle of kedusha and it seemed that only the Rabbi, myself and the token chabad guy in back understood the idea that kedusha required the feet to be together.

Kiddush was actually really good in that the food wasn’t great but compared to the other kiddushim I have been to in the area it really shined, for multiple reasons. Two bowls of cholent and lokshen kugel were put out before Kiddush was made so that expert Kiddush reconnaissance personnel like myself could get ready for strategic post rabbi’s Kiddush maneuvers. I have noticed that cholent and other hot delicacies seem to be on some sort of Kiddush lag system in the west coast. There was a nice looking bowl of cabbage salad, a plate of strawberries (I guess they didn’t hold by the ban) and there was a plate of brownies and some homemade salsa. I have noticed in recent years that shuls are obsessed with chips and salsa.

I waited until two kids pounced on the brownies and went straight for the cholent. It was mostly potatoes, no meat, but it was very good. I grabbed a piece of kugel with my hands – a middle piece since it appeared crunchy and hard to eat at the ends and heaped a mound of red and white cabbage salad on my plate standing off to the side of the table so I could see that with which I was working. I noticed that immediately after Kiddush, the crowd attacked the table — I liked it. I watched as people pounded food and loaded up their plates. The kugel ran out quick and the cholent soon followed until all that remained was a few potato scraps. I liked that people were violent, without actually being violent towards each other; they seemed like New Yorkers in their speed, but out of towners in their lack of pushing or shoving. There didn’t appear to be any cholent spoon chivalry, which is one of my pet peeves of out of town communities – cholent spoon chivalry is when no one wants to take before a woman.

I came back to lunch late, but no one seemed to care, it was so chilled I was super happy. One of the things I hate are formal meals, I hate when you feel like you can’t leave the table and sit on the couch, I just wish more people sat around without pants like my family, although I have met one family here that I could sit around my underwear and no one seems to mind, but that’s for another time.

I just wish I were anonymous, but that’s not possible anymore — on to the next Chabad house…