Shoshana Olidort reports for The Current:
In a small, rundown synagogue in midtown Manhattan on a recent Thursday evening, an old, clean-shaven man hums a Hasidic melody as he plans his next chess move, a woman wearing ripped jeans tells Yiddish jokes, and a man in Hasidic garb argues against the State of Israel's right to exist. The social gathering is "the most organic grassroots center of the Jewish renaissance," according to one regular of Chulent, so called for the traditional Sabbath stew of beef, beans, and potatoes that's served up here each Thursday.
The hodgepodge stew is also an apt symbol of the eclectic crowd the weekly event attracts: the side-lock-sporting yeshiva boy, the Williamsburg artist looking for God, and the Italian non-Jew who just likes the chulent. They come because by all accounts, Chulent is one-of-a-kind, offering a social scene that brings together Jews from diverse backgrounds for late discussions about anything from Talmud to politics, with an abundant supply of free food and alcohol to boot. And because it's an underground event that doesn't answer to any establishment, Chulent often attracts the curious journalist interested in exploring the ultra-Orthodox underworld.
Dave, a yeshiva boy currently enrolled at Touro College, came here hunting down a free joint. But if rumors of weed brought him here the first time, what keeps him coming back are the people, the ideas, and the "crazy intellectuals." Chulent, Dave says, is the "unorthodox orthodox," encouraging the individual to reexamine Judaism through a critical lens.
Chulent started fifteen years ago as an after-business schmooze at the offices of its founder, Isaac Schonfeld, a thirty-something bachelor from Boro Park. The event began with a small circle of friends, mostly Hasidic men, many of them divorced, going through divorces, or single past the age of twenty-five—all aberrations in the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic world, where men and women are typically married by their late teens or early twenties and where divorce carries with it a social stigma more in sync with the early twentieth century than our own decade. These men "found themselves at the periphery of society because their religious convictions were being challenged internally," says Schonfeld. Together they created a "mini-society" with Chulent serving as their "ir miklat," or "city of refuge" (a reference to the biblical cities of refuge to which a accidental killer was sent to escape a potential avenger). Though Schonfeld initially hoped to keep the crowd somewhat exclusive, he never made a secret of Chulent. News of it spread, mostly by word-of-mouth, and Chulent soon gained popularity among a fringe group of ultra-Orthodox men, some women, and eventually a larger, more diverse group of Jews.…
Chulent now has its own website.
Trivia watch: I believe Shoshana is the daughter of Baila Olidort who writes for various Chabad outlets. Shoshana is on the staff of SIW's CampusJ, and reports from Columbia, where the Current is also based.
[Hat Tip: Dr. R-F.]
SERENDIPITY: I went to CampusJ so I could add a link to this post. Staring me in the face is a large picture of my old friend Professor Stephen Feinstein and a story from the Minnesota Daily. What makes this especially bizarre, beside the fact that Minnesota is hardly known for Jewish news, is what happened the last time I checked CampusJ in order to generate a link. As I noted, staring me in the face then was another story from Minnesota, this one about another friend, Professor Arie Zmora. Bizarre.