July 1994

Shalom, Bonjour

A flourishing community of Chassidim await the Messiah in rural Quebec

by Gil Zohar

It is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and its supporters are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.

- Proverbs 3:17-18

BOISBRIAND, Quebec -

"L'chaim, l'chaim," - to life.

We raise our glasses brimming with home-made kosher wine and make a toast in Hebrew spiced with a heavy Yiddish accent - to life, to success, to a good living, and to the arrival of the Messiah speedily in our days. My fellow revellers are Tascher Chassidim, ultra-Orthodox Jews dressed in black gabardine robes and sable hats, their faces framed by bushy beards and long payes (sidecurls) in a style unchanged for generations. There are no women present.

It is a tradition-bound scenario straight out of Fiddler on the Roof, or the works of the Ukrainian-born novelist Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) on which the Broadway musical and the Hollywood movie were based. Here in Kiryas Tasch, Quebec, officially a neighbourhood within the municipality of Boisbriand (pop. 21,000), a thriving Yiddish-speaking Eastern European shtetl (village) has been recreated amidst the fields of francophone farmers. Kiryas means neighbourhood, while Tasch recalls the Hungarian home town of the sect's spiritual leader. Located at the foot of the rolling Laurentians 50 minutes north of Montreal, the 52-hectare enclave of 1,700 is unique in Canada, a truly distinct society.

In contrast with Mennonites and some other-worldly Christian Pentecostalist sects, Chassidim freely adapt modern technology to suit their hallowed laws and customs. These sacred teachings are collectively called Torah. In English the word is translated as the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses but more broadly Torah is the entire Hebrew Bible. And by extension, it encompasses a vast literary corpus including the extensive Oral Tradition written down in the 3rd century C.E. as the Mishnah, its 6th century exegesis the Talmud, and all subsequent commentaries.

The Tascher Rebbe

Chassidim (sing. Chassid), Hebrew for Pietists, are no strangers to Canada's two major cities. Dressed only in black, they add a dash of colour to Montreal's multicultural mosaic where they number 8,000 divided unequally into eight holy communities + Each of those dynastic sects - Belz, Lubavitch, Satmar, Klausenburg, Bobov, Skvar, Munkacs and Vishnitz - is named after a locale in Eastern Europe, der heim, where its spiritual founder, called a rebbe, originated.

Toronto has 3,000 followers of different rebbes. Educational emissaries or shluchim of the Brooklyn-based Chabad Lubavitch movement - the only Chassidic group to proselytize among non-observant Jews - have been stationed in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, London, Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. For the last seventeen hundred years, Judaism has discouraged converts as a shield against Christian and later Muslim persecution.

Putting Kiryas Tasch's 135 families in context, Canada's total Jewish population is 356,315 according to the 1991 national census. This is the fifth largest Jewish population in the world, behind the United States (5.5 million), Israel (4.5 million), Russia (1.2 million) and France (530,000). There are an estimated 13.5 million Jews in world.

Jews have lived in Canada since 1759, when Jewish soldiers arrived with Gen. James Wolfe to fight on the Plains of Abraham. But most Canadian Jews are either themselves immigrants, or the children or grandchildren of those who chose to settle here. Regardless of their degree of secularism or religious observance, almost all Jews in this country today are urban and urbane. The great majority speak English as their mother tongue, are well educated, and contribute to and partake of Canada's cultural scene. But the Tascher Chassidim, cloistered in their self-imposed ghetto in Boisbriand, lead a life of monastic (but hardly celibate) devotion. They are totally dedicated to carrying out on Earth the will of Ha-Shem (a euphemism used by observant Jews for God, literally meaning "the [ineffable] name," which is sometimes written by gentiles as Yahweh or Jehovah).

The geography and history of Boisbriand symbolize the community's separation and otherworldliness. In 1964, Rabbi Ferencz Meshullam Lowy, the Tascher Chassidim's saintly Grand Rebbe, led his flock from Montreal to a location near Ste-Therese. Struggling in the face of cultural and economic dislocation after moving to Canada in 1951 from eastern Hungary following a vision, the charismatic seer, today 73, believed a rural setting would be more conducive to worship and Torah study than the big city with all the distractions of its fleshpots. Three decades ago, the isolated site was ringed by fields and forests. Today exurban sprawl is encroaching on their rural colony. But Kiryas Tasch remains a foreign pied-a-terre on the fringe of the municipality - geographically, linguistically and metaphysically.

The road to l'Autoroute 13 nord and Boisbriand's Grand Allee detoured through Boulevard St. Laurent in central Montreal. The one-time Jewish immigrant slum, affectionately known as The Main, was immortalized by Mordecai Richler's novels The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and St. Urbain's Horseman. But the odyssey to a more distant diaspora began across the ocean in the village of Nyirtas, once a remote backwater of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire, 45 km mid-distant between Debrecen, Hungary's second largest city after the captial Budapest, and Kisvarda.

Canadian Geographic readers may recognize those places as cities near the pine-covered Carpathian mountains bordering Transylvania, Dracula's storied homeland. For the Chassidim of Boisbriand, they evoke a different kind of blood-thirsty vampire - Auschwitz. It was 50 years ago this March that the Germans occupied Hungary and began the systematic deportation of the country's Jewish population to slave labour and death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. This winter my eight-year-old daughter read The Big Lie by Isabella Leitner. In 1944, as a child in Kisvarda about the same age as my daughter is now, the author and her family were forced onto cattlecars bound for Auschwitz.

The saintly Rabbi Lowy's grandfather, the previous Grand Rebbe, perished in the Holocaust conflagration along with 365,000 Hungarian Jews. But Rabbi Lowy is a survivor, as are almost all of the older generation of his followers alive today. Though little discussed in Boisbriand, the horror and trauma of their Second World War persecution never seem far away. My host, Reb Israel Lowen, himself the scion of two Holocaust survivors, tells me he has vaguely heard of a popular new movie called Schindler's List. Chassidim don't go to the cinema, watch TV or videos, or read secular newspapers.

The road that led from rural Hungary, through the nightmarish SS kingdom of death and the dark days under godless Communism, to the malaise Montrealaise of inner city squalor, does not end in the boondocks of la belle province. The final and glorious segment remains to be travelled. Tascher Chassidim fully embrace Judaism's messianic promise. They fervently believe the hour of redemption is very close. Predisposed to find meta-historical portents within contemporary events, they see evidence of imminent salvation in the news of recent years: the collapse of the former Soviet Union has allowed 500,000 Jews once held captive behind the Iron Curtain to immigrate to Israel since 1990; Saddam Hussein's barrage of 39 Scud missiles which fell on Tel Aviv and Haifa during the 1991 Gulf War caused remarkably light casualties; and the entire 30,000-strong Jewish community in war-torn Ethiopia has been brought to Zion. Other less-publicized airlifts include the rescue of the tiny but endangered Jewish communities of Albania, Armenia, Syria and Yemen. In Kiryas Tasch, the ingathering of the exiles is taking place as foretold by the Prophets. The concluding words of the Passover seder, "Next year in Jerusalem," are no idle promise.

The details are murky of how the end of days will unfold when the long-awaited Messiah reveals himself. Certainly envisioned is a divinely inspired era of universal peace and brotherhood, and a return of the Jewish people to their biblical homeland. Solomon's Temple will be rebuilt atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, and animal sacrifices resumed there as commanded in Leviticus. (For the last thirteen hundred years, the site has been occupied by the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine marking Muhammad's ascent to heaven on his winged steed al-Buraq.) Less clear is how and when the generations of the dead will be resurrected and the Ten Lost Tribes brought back.

* * *

If time as money to business people, to the Tascher Chassidim appreciate it is the means of learning Torah, performing charitable acts and performing mitzvos - the rabbinic system of 613 God-given commandments and restrictions delineating how a devout Jew governs himself, what he eats and when he prays. (Non-Jews are only required to keep the seven laws of Noah - prohibitions against murder, stealing, blasphemy, eating living flesh, adultery and idolatry, and the promoting of civil justice.) Every minute is precious, and to use it frivolously is derided as bittul z'man (the annulling of time).

Speaking of her life's goals, Sura Chana, a 22-year-old housewife and mother of three - who lives in the basement of her parents' modest bungalow - explains: "The main thing is that I try to get the kids the best chinuch (education) they can. That's the ikar (principle). I don't care to own a house. The more gashmiyos (worldliness) you have, the less ruhaniyos (spirituality) you have. The main reason we're here is to have a house in olam ha-ba (the next world). You can't have a house in this world and that world too.

"I am very happy, baruch Ha-Shem (blessed be the Almighty). Happiness is in your mind. And if you decide being a housewife - the supporter of your husband and the mother of your children - is the happiest you can be, then you are a happy person."

The aesthetic precept of hiddur mitzvah (the beautification of the commandment) has shaped the Tascher Chassidim's physical realm. It is a sacred obligation to fulfil a mitzvah in the most elegant and aesthetic way possible. Thus while we eat off disposable styrofoam and paper plates using plastic cutlery - my host Reb Israel Lowen explaining that his wife Leah's time is too valuable to be squandered washing separate sets of dairy and meat dishes - no expense has been spared to buy the family's heirloom silver Sabbath and festival candlesticks, Chanukah candelabrum and other religious accoutrements.

Men's clothing, sold in Chassidic outfitters in Brooklyn, is another illustration of this tenet. Adorning themselves like peacocks, married Tascher Chassidim wear a round fur hat trimmed with 26 sable tails, called a shtreiml, which costs $1,000 to $2,000 - no small change for people who subsist in near penury. Ironically, this head covering preserves a fashion in vogue with Poland's Roman Catholic nobility three centuries ago. As well, men wear a black cloth yarmulke (skullcap). Adding to the sartorial splendour is a bekeshe, a black gabardine kaftan which can cost upwards of $500 depending on the tailor and fabric. Indicating his status as a tzaddik (righteous saint), the Rebbe wears a vibrantly-hued polyester bekeshe - like the biblical Joseph and his coat of many colours.

Waistcoats are secured by a gartel or sash, symbolically separating the reproductive organs from the heart and head. Sexual imagery and tension, though hidden and never of the explicit, licentious variety skin magazines promote, subtly underrides the Chassidic way of life like an argumentum ex silentio. Men and women are strictly segregated and are never left alone together unless they are close family relatives.

One of the Rebbe's unmarried grandsons tells me he has never been to Florida to visit his ailing grandmother because of the pritzas, the immodest displays of female skin which would distract him from his discipline of holy scripture studies.

Purity is a grave preoccupation. I am taken aback when the Rebbe declines to shake the hand I have proffered. Since I haven't been to the mikveh that morning, I am a source of ritual pollution. Men immerse themselves daily in the rain water ablution bath for spiritual cleansing while women go to a separate facility following their menstrual period and after childbirth. Tascher Chassidim view hand shaking as a foreign formality.

At the age of 13, Jewish boys traditionally undergo a bar mitzvah, a manhood initiation ceremony consisting of the public reading from a Torah scroll in the synagogue, either on a Monday or Thursday - the market days in ancient Israel - or the Saturday Sabbath. From then to his wedding, which may be as soon as 18, a single Tascher Chassid is distinguished by his wide-brimmed modified bowler hat, called either a "high beaver" or "low beaver" depending on the height of its crown. These hats cost about $120. Both married and single men wear a white cotton shirt over a white ritual under garment, called a talis katan. The latter is embellished with tzitzis, ritual fringes which are kissed in devotion during the thrice-daily prayers. White is a symbol of purity, while black represents modesty and moral rectitude. Ties are not part of the uniform. Some men button their collars while others leave the necks open. The laws of shatnaz prohibit the mixing of different kinds of fabric in a single garment. The Tascher Chassidim's clothing needs, like those of similar sects, are provided for by specialty stores in Montreal and Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighbourhood.

Despite the 35 cm of snow which have fallen in the last day, most men are wearing clog-like shoes, called halbersich, rather than boots. This is a sign of poverty rather than piety. They simply don't have any warm footwear. Some of the youths have been slyly giving me jealous looks over my car, an unimaginable luxury for them. It makes me appreciate anew my aging and rusting second-hand sub-compact.

Unlike men, women have no ritualized uniforms. They wear fashionable but extremely modest Western styles. Hems fall a minimum of four inches below the knees, while socks cover up the legs. Long sleeves come to the wrists. Collars are buttoned up, and decolletage, tight fits and sheer material are taboo. Married women cover their hair with a kerchief or wear a shaitl (wig). They would no more reveal their locks in public than the average Canadian woman would wear a sleeveless blouse with unshaved armpits. A woman's hair is something private, reserved for the gaze of her husband's eyes.

Women live behind the scenes in Boisbriand. Though about half the population - the demographics are skewed by the teenage boys' dormitory where 170 yeshiva bochers (seminary students) have come from as far as Israel, England, Australia and Argentina - the fairer sex is by far the less visible. I am reminded of the 19th century German aphorism Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Though hardly the words these ladies would apply to themselves, the family-based ideal is the same. A more modern American cliché comes to mind - the family that prays together stays together. Divorce and family break-up are rare here, as are other social ills like alcoholism, drugs, gambling and spouse abuse.

At first glance, Kiryas Tasch looks much like a 1970s suburb anywhere in Canada. The main street, Rue Beth-Halevy, is named after the Rebbe who is a Levite - a member of the caste which aided the Priests or Cohenim in the Temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. - and who will resume their duty when the shrine is rebuilt. Descent in Judaism is patrilineal though one's status as a Jew comes from the mother. Most Jews today are Israelites, or commoners.

Kiryas Tasch's second street is a crescent, Place Andre Ouellet, honouring the long-sitting Quebecois MP who represented the riding of Montreal-Papineau from 1967 to 1984 and has sat as the member for Papineau-St-Michel since 1988. The two streets are lined with modest brick duplexes and bungalows. There are few cars. At the end of the main road stand two imposing two-storey structures - one a cheder (a boys elementary school), and the other the Rebbe's court - a sprawling complex housing several study halls and libraries, chapels, a ritual bath, the main synagogue and dormitories for the rabbinic seminarians. While the cheder includes a small playground, there are no soccer pitches, baseball diamonds or swimming pools. Chassidim frown upon sports, while co-ed bathing is forbidden.

French is barely taught, and is all but unknown in Kiryas Tasch. Yiddish is the lingua franca, and English the second language. This linguistic anomaly in francophone Quebec strikes me as soon as I arrive, when I stop some men on the street to ask for directions to the family with whom I will be staying. My "Excusé moi. Je cherche..." is greeted with blank stares, as if I were speaking Swahili. In the course of dinner conversation, Reb Lowen - who was born in New York City, grew up in Phoenix and Los Angeles, and speaks an idiomatic English - (He uses "bingo" to mean correct) - states matter-of-factly that once while driving to Williamsburg, his Kiryas Tasch-born teenage son was able to read "New York" but got stymied on "Thruway." With only the barest formal education in English, no TV or secular newspapers and few English books, children grow up here speaking English as a foreign language with an accent identical to that of their "greenhorn" grandparents who came over from eastern Europe. The process of acculturation among second and third generation Canadians has been halted - and reversed.

Surprisingly, none of the Chassidim can converse with me in modern Hebrew. The everyday language of the State of Israel remains for them loshen kodesh, the Holy Tongue, akin to Latin in the medieval ecclesiastic world.

The colony of Kiryas Tasch comprises a general store, kosher bakery, Passover matzah factory and strictly kosher turkey and chicken slaughterhouse - but no industry. Members support themselves either by commuting to businesses they own in Montreal or by trusting in God to provide a living. But in an era of economic recession, the large families here, many blessed with 10 or more children, are finding themselves pinched as charity becomes less dependable. Albert Reichmann, one of the brothers behind Toronto's now-defunct Olympia & York Developments Ltd., recently visited Kiryas Tasch distributing largesse and beseeching the Rebbe's blessing for a new mega-project in Mexico City. Kiryas Tasch has its benefactors like "Crazy Joe" Itzkovitch, the flamboyant owner of four drapery stores in Toronto who sometimes stars in late-night TV ads decked out in black and crowned by a fedora. Another patron is the Sussman family in Toronto, who own Denalt Paint. But many erstwhile supporters have gone bankrupt or are themselves experiencing financial reversals.

The Chassidic lifestyle poses heavy restrictions in terms of employment. The Sabbath labour prohibition prevents one from working past three o'clock on Friday afternoons in the winter. The various major holy days alone total 14. (See sidebar.) Thus many Chassidim prefer to be in business for themselves.

One long-term structural solution to the community's lack of employment may be to establish a diamond cutting business in Boisbriand, which would be the first in Canada. Many of the Tascher Chassidim have relatives who work on 47th Street in Manhattan - America's diamond bourse. Negotiations are taking place with the provincial government to set up a precious stone facetting industry in their colony. The Chassidim are seeking a $5-million grant from Quebec City for equipment and vocational training.

Giving tzedakah (alms but literally Hebrew/Yiddish for justice) is a mitzvah, a voluntary poor tax. Except for the 25-hour Sabbath - which extends from one hour before sunset Friday to Saturday evening - during which it is forbidden to handle money, I am continually dunned for handouts. The first time I am approached for tzedakah, about half an hour after arriving, I ask the supplicant, "Where's the pushka (alms box)?" The mortified look on his face tells me I have made a faux pas. The money is for his large family, or more elegantly, for dowries for his daughters, I realize. Salving my embarrassment, I add two more dollars to the bill I have already given him.

Kibbitzing, a Tascher Chassid confides that when he schnorrs money, he says he's doing so for his two favourite yeshivas - "Mir and Tasch" - a pun naming two famous Old World seminaries but also meaning "for me" and my "pocket" in Yiddish.

Davening (praying) shahris (the morning liturgy) the following day, teenagers constantly approach me waving fistfuls of U.S. and Canadian bills. I hand out all my two dollar bills and then all my loonies. Then I change $10 and $20 notes and continue. It is very awkward to refuse to give tzedaka. I estimate I donated more than $100 in the three days I was there, one of which was the cashless Sabbath.

* * *

Writing about Kiryas Tasch without mentioning the Rebbe would be akin to a feature on the Vatican that omitted the Pope. Rabbi Lowy, who traces his ancestry back to King David - a lineage that is a prerequisite for the Messiah - is the lodestar in the Tascher universe. Everything here orbits around him, and his gravitational pull brings in chartered coaches from Montreal and Monsey, N.Y. - a major Chassidic centre outside New York City, and students from five continents. A diminutive man who is perhaps 150 cm, his stooped presence towers over everyone else.

The Chassidim revere their Rebbe as groupies throng around a rock idol. Rabbi Lowy's followers, in particular teenagers and men in their early 20s, swarm around him en masse wherever he walks - making a mobile mob scene.

The Rebbe holds court in the main sanctuary on the second floor of the yeshiva building. The large synagogue hall, measuring perhaps 20 by 40 metres, is aligned facing Jerusalem. The east wall is a tromp d'oeil fresco showing drapes framing a stylized pastoral scene - presumably the Land of Israel in the future messianic era. The shul, the Yiddish word for synagogue, lacks stained glass windows or other ornamentation. The few women who have come to pray - or gossip - sit upstairs in a separate hall overlooking the men's area but hidden behind glass with a reflective surface.

The handsome aron kodesh (Torah ark) is faced with striking white marble, representing purity. The ark has been trimmed with a faux marble formica to match but the veneer is chipped. A wrought-iron bima (pulpit) stands in the centre of the room and it is here that the Torah scrolls are read. I judge the elegant chandeliers are made of glass and not crystal. The whole place has a look of genteel shabbiness and is badly in need of a fresh coat of paint.

The shul's most striking feature is its seats, beginning with the Rebbe's throne-like ornately carved and upholstered chair. The central area between the ark and pulpit is strewn with pews and long banquet tables upon which lie a jumble of prayer books and miscellaneous religious texts and brochures, all in Hebrew. Bleachers rise five tiers high flanking this front part of the synagogue. Dozens of Chassidim are clambering up the twin structures as if the grandstands were a playground jungle gym.

They are intent on watching the Rebbe assail the heavens with his prayers. Though Rabbi Lowy has obliged them by perching atop a wooden step in front of the Aron Kodesh so as to be more easily visible, he doesn't offer a dramatic recital. The Rebbe has covered his head with his tallis (prayer shawl) and his face is hidden. Only his hands are visible, reaching out and shaking violently, supplicating God, praying in sign language as it were.

The Rebbe's fur coat is draped over his chair, and some children are reverentially stroking the pelts as if it were alive. There are no pets in Kiryas Tasch, just as there are no cats or dogs named in the Bible.

The Chassidim believe their Rebbe intercedes with heaven on their behalf. "Any person who devotes himself to God, and davens every day and has a community of thousands of people all over the world definitely has insight," explains one devotee. "We believe it's insight from Ha-Shem. He's closer to Ha-Shem than all of us put together."

The Rebbe keeps an insomniac and grinding schedule, and his Chassidim have adjusted their clocks and lives accordingly. When I arrive, Reb Lowen advises me to remove my watch. I come to appreciate Kiryas Tasch lives in its own unofficial time zone, Jewish Standard Time, in which everything is late. Prayer services that are supposed to begin at 10 a.m. may start at 11, with an hour-long build-up of anticipation till the Rebbe arrives. On the Sabbath morning, worship gets underway at noon - by which point they would have been finished in most other synagogues.

"People are ready to change their schedule at any second because the Rebbe said to, even if it's hard for them," one devotee explains. Routinely the Rebbe rises at six a.m. to go to the mikveh and recite the entire Book of Psalms. He then spends several hours engaged in Talmud study. Reb Lowen turns evasive when asked if the Rebbe is a mekubal, a practitioner of the esoteric mystic teachings known as the Kabbalah. One must be over 40 and well versed in the Talmud before beginning to study these secrets.

In the late afternoon, after devoting several hours to audiences with his Chassidim, the Rebbe then dons his tefillin for the morning prayers. Removing the leather and parchment relics which he has wrapped around his left arm and draped over his head, he then continues with the afternoon and evening prayers. I query Reb Lowen if this doesn't violate the halacha (Jewish law, literaly the way) about the permissable hours of worship. He draws an analogy: a king fixes specific times for meeting with his courtiers, but his chief minister may enter the throne room whenever he wishes.

The holy routine continues till the early morning when the Rebbe finally retires. Except on the Sabbath and festivals, he limits himself to one small meal a day, eaten after praying. His Chassidim understand his good health for his age - notwithstanding his limited diet and sleep deprivation - as a blessing from God.

The apogee of the Tascher Chassidim's devotion to their Rebbe is the festive tisch, literally the table, which take place in the main synagogue. Like dinner in Spain, these celebrations, held in honour of the Sabbath and holy days, can begin as late as midnight. The format includes the Rebbe sampling from enormous platters. The leftovers, called shirayim, are then eagerly devoured by the Chassidim who consider the food to have been elevated in holiness because the Rebbe partook of it. No utensils are used, and the food is torn and consumed with one's fingers. This ritual continues for course after course, interspersed with the raucous singing of Hebrew spirituals and wordless but haunting niggunim (melodies).

Table-side seats are reserved for older men with the highest status. The crush of younger Chassidim fill the bleachers, contorting themselves to get a better view of the action below. When the Rebbe looks up, the Chassidim frantically wave to catch his eye and exchange silent ritualistic salutes which mean "to life." They are toasting him without drinking.

The tension mounts as the banquet draws to a close, and then the tables are pushed aside to make room for a men-only dance floor. At one tisch I attend, the wildly exuberant dancing continues till 7 a.m. Meanwhile, the Rebbe has departed to his wood-panelled office for yechidos - private audiences with anyone who wishes to seek his counsel. Scores of men are waiting in line, each with a kvittl - a note penned in Yiddish for the Rebbe. After several hours when I finally enter the inner sanctum, the seer's sublime quality is immediately evident; the Rebbe's aura can make one forget what you meant to ask him. Call it the magnetic force of his personality or the palpable sense of holiness he exudes, the Rebbe is without a doubt the most God-fearing and spiritual man I have ever encountered. Showing a penetrating analysis of human behaviour, he advises me on personal affairs. Leaving his study, I burst into tears of joy.

* * *

Dressed sombrely, Chassidim give outsiders the impression of being stern and taciturn. But as they warm to me, I see they have a refined - if peculiar - sense of humour. Framed by Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) tradition, it is a set of cultural values untouched by Madison Avenue hype.

Purim is a startling departure at Kiryas Tasch. The Mardi Gras-like carnival complete with costumes marks the Jewish people's salvation from the genocidal plans of Haman the Agagite in ancient Persia as described in the Book of Esther. It is the only date in the Jewish calendar when levity and drunkenness are sanctioned - a release of tension in an otherwise intensely disciplined year.

In honour of the festival, many of the teenagers have accessorised their holiday finery with outlandish hats - oversize orange stetsons from some American football game, a policeman's cap (without any badge or identification), and a fez from a Shiner's club rather than Morocco. No one catches my joke about my keffiyeh scarf (checkered headdress which has become a symbol of the Palestinian intifada), and I am left puzzled wondering whatever happened to the famous Jewish sense of humour. The Arab-Israeli conflict, so topical for many Canadian Jews, is remote on this island in the sea of Torah.

Speaking on the telephone, I learn of the February 25 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs - where the founders of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah, are buried. The tragedy in the shrine in the Israeli-controlled West Bank, perpetrated by a follower of the racist idealogue Rabbi Meir Kahane, makes headlines for weeks. But in Kiryas Tasch it passes barely noticed. None of the people I tell about the slaughter condemn it.

The yeshiva bochers have picked one of their classmates as their "Purim Rebbe" and adorned him with a white shtreiml made of faux fur and one of the Rebbe's colourful kaftans. The visually striking insider's joke takes me some time to appreciate. The teenage boy spends four days in his humorous role, parodying and lovingly roasting the Rebbe. Sitting in his pseudo-court, in reality a study room in the main yeshiva building, surrounded by his "followers" - many of whom are inebriated - he pronounces in a solemn Yiddish sing-song: "Why is Haman considered such an evildoer? Because he wanted to slaughter the Jewish people on Purim." It is the Chassidic equivalent of "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?".

We feast on triangular pastries filled with poppy seeds or prunes, called hamentaschen in Yiddish. In the spirit of the festival, I suggest that the Chassidim should refer to themselves as "Hamentascher" rather Tascher. They are struck by the originality of my joke, so obvious to me yet so foreign to them. I follow that with the riddle, "What kind of aftershave does a rabbi use? Lotion kodesh." But their weak grasp of English and unfamiliarity with shaving prevents them from catching the pun. (Loshen kodesh means holy tongue, i.e. Hebrew).

Typing away on my notebook computer in the middle of the night during Purim, a high-decibel klezmer band is blaring out over the loudspeakers in a relentlessly up-tempo beat. I recognize one of the songs - "Next year in Jerusalem, in Jerusalem rebuilt."

* * *

Reb Lowen, his wife Leah and their three children define their lives by the cardinal precepts of keeping the laws of the Sabbath, eating only kosher food, and preserving family purity - abstruse rules which render a woman unclean while menstruating and for seven days thereafter. Naturally their home is equipped with the essentials standard to any Orthodox Jewish household - from a mezuzah (hand-written parchment with the verses Deut. 6:4-9, 11:13-21) on every doorpost, to separate sets of dairy and meat pots and pans, and twin beds in the master bedroom. The fridge contains only kosher meat while the milk, cheese and dairy products are similarly labelled Cholov Israel.

No electricity may be turned on or off during the Sabbath. A 20-litre percolator, decorated with an insulated cover inscribed in Hebrew "Holy Sabbath," keeps water at a near boil so we can enjoy tea. Lights in the kitchen, dining room, bathrooms and other strategic locations are kept on for the duration. In order to avoid tearing, a forbidden act on the Sabbath, the family only uses industrial toilet paper which comes in single sheets.

Shabbes dinner Friday night is an elaborate multi-course affair that begins with kiddush (sanctification) chanted over a silver goblet filled to overflowing with kosher wine followed by the hands-on blessing of twin challot - braided egg bread. The wine, loaves and candles symbolize the sacrifices of grapes, wheat and olive oil Jewish pilgrims used to offer in the Temple. Dinner consists of sweet gefilte fish, chicken soup, brisket, noodle pie and beets, followed by fruit compote.

The next afternoon, Leah serves cholent for lunch, the traditional hearty Sabbath afternoon fare made of potatoes, barley and kishke (stuffed derma) which have been stewing in a crock pot since Friday. The Lowens are unaware of the dish's etymology - from the medieval French chaud lent (hot slow). This is a 1,000-year-old recipe predating the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1390. Tascher Chassidim show little interest in history, seeing time as a continuum culminating in the apocalypse - the only epoch that really matters.

Reality keeps shattering my preconceived ideas about the Lowens' life of isolation from the mainstream. For so-called unworldly people, these two are better informed and more aware than many sophisticated urbanites. Reb Lowen holds an ambulance driver's license, while his wife works as a medical technician growing bacteria cultures. With so many young children and pregnant women in the community but no doctor and few vehicles, the ambulance he keeps in his heated garage is in constant demand for paediatric and obstetric emergencies. Their kitchen is equipped with four telephones. One, hooked up to a computer to register every incoming call, is used exclusively for the ambulance service. Looking around, I note a box of high-quality Korean ginseng root. Reb Lowen explains he uses the expensive herb to brew medicinal tea for the Rebbe. Meanwhile, his wife stays in touch with a network of physicians and medical experts in order to make health care recommendations within the community.

Their survival skills extend into the political arena. In contrast to the vast majority of Quebec's 100,000 Jews, almost all of whom live in Montreal, the Tascher Chassidim say they are pro-independence. Reb Lowen shows me a letter from the Bloc Quebecois thanking the community for its support in the 1993 federal election. Having taught himself French in order to act as the community's shtadlan (intercessor), Reb Lowen reasons that since Jews are a tiny minority in the province, there is little but animosity to be gained by vocally opposing the majority's will. Should Quebec opt to separate in a referendum following a Parti Quebecois sweep in this fall's provincial election, so be it, he observes fatalistically. The Tascher Chassidim will remain in Boisbriand till the Messiah comes.

Quebec City has also adopted a laissez-faire attitude to Kiryas Tasch. The Chassidim are visible evidence of the province's tolerance and good will to minorities who are not Québécois pur laine (dyed-in-the-wool ethnic Quebecers). In order to remain totally autonomous in their Torah-based curriculum, the schools of Kiryas Tasch decline to accept one sous from the province's Ministry of Education.

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Sura Chana tells me about her wedding four years ago. "It was a shidduch (an arranged marriage). We met once on Friday night. Then we met again at the tnaiim (engagement party). We met for the third time at the chuppa (wedding canopy)."

Out of modesty, the family economized on the celebration, which was held in the basement of the girls' academy. "It was the cheapest," she says, underscoring the lack of ostentation. "We even served on paper plates. I borrowed a wedding dress. For things that pass very quickly, we try to spend as little as possible. Most people buy flowers, but we didn't."

Separate wedding parties were held for men and women. Entering the men's section, the bride danced with her grandfathers and the Rebbe using a gartel (sash). "Then I danced with hands only with my father and with my husband. We finished extremely early - around 12:30, 1. It started 6-7-ish." In lieu of a honeymoon, Chassidim have a week-long celebration, called sheva brachos (seven blessings).

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Chassidim believe Ha-Shem makes life's adventures and vicissitudes beshiert (fated) leaving man to puzzle over their true meaning. As I'm about to leave Boisbriand, one wellwisher tells me: "You'll become Chassidic one day. We'll see you with a big kipa and curls. Ha-Shem wants it." The thought occurs to me that this magazine assignment was divinely ordained - as a way of bringing me here. In my heart, I am envious of the Tascher Chassidim's faith, sincerity and naiveté. For truly theirs is a way of life that offers abiding happiness to its adherents.

Where Chassidim fit in Jewish history

Jews are among the world's oldest peoples, claiming a 37-century-long pedigree dating back to Abraham and Sarah as described in the Old Testament, which they call the Torah. In 721 B.C.E. they were first exiled from their biblical homeland, a sliver of a country at the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean Sea, when the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and scattered its population. Known as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, these people assimilated in the ancient Near East and disappeared from the stage of history. A second mass deportation occurred after 586 B.C.E. when the southern Kingdom of Judah was vanquished and many Jews forced to dwell in Babylon, today's Iraq. A third exile followed the calamitous Great Revolt against Rome in 66-70 C.E. which resulted in the destruction of the Temple.

Chassidim are ultimately descended from this third group who, in the centuries following the Crucifixion of Jesus, emigrated to Italy and then across the Alps into Germany. Following the Crusader massacres of Jewish communities in the Rhine Valley in 1096, the survivors fled eastward bringing their professional and entrepreneurial skills to the less developed countries of Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Hungary. Yiddish is a melange of the medieval German and Hebrew they spoke, with a smattering of Slavic borrowings.

Following yet another revolt by the stubborn Jews in the second century, the Roman Emperor Hadrian renamed the Land of Israel "Palestine" - after the ancient Philistines - in a futile effort to sever the link between the Jews and the tiny country promised them by their God - whom they consider the universal and only deity. Over the centuries the political longing to return to the Land of Israel assumed an increasingly religious / messianic colouring. The concept evolved that just as God sent Moses to free the Children of Israel from slavery in pharaonic Egypt, a redeemer would lead the Jews back from their evermore burdensome exile.

The notion of God's anointed one or messiah, anglicized from the Hebrew word mashiach, has ancient roots in Judaism. That wellspring, which has fed such modern secular movements as socialism and political Zionism (the Jewish people's national liberation movement), has erupted in apocalyptic hysteria dozens of times across the last two millennia. For Jews, Jesus is but one in a long series of false messiahs. Equally infamous was Shabtai Zvi (1626-1676), a Turkish Jew who in 1666 - faced with the choice of martyrdom or apostasy - converted to Islam, a move that convulsed the Jewish world in anguish and despair after the leading sages of his generation all acclaimed him.

The intense disappointment of the Sabbatean heresy set the stage half a century later for Israel Ben Eliezer, (c.1698-1760), an obscure and much mythologized Polish-Jewish shepherd who founded Chassidism. Popularly known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of [God's] Good Name) or by the acronym the Besht, this miracle worker emphasized the simple piety of celebrating Ha-Shem through song and dance, spiritual spontaneity and unabashed emotionalism in prayer.

His joy-filled, populist mysticism for the masses led to a counter reactionary movement to preserve traditional dour Talmud study-oriented Judaism. Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon (1720-1797), better known as the Vilna Gaon, leader of the Misnagdim (Opponents), excommunicated the Chassidim - but to little effect. Both parties of fundamentalist Jews found a common threat with the rise in the nineteenth century of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement, the precursor to modern secular Jewish life, though their theological feud reverberates till this day.

The traditional fabric of Eastern European Jewish culture began to unravel in the late 19th century as modern racial anti-Semitism - the nationality-based hatred of Jews qua people - replaced the Church's teaching of contempt for Judaism as a religion. Some three million Jews fled westward in the face of Czarist pogroms, above all to America, the new promised land. After the 1917 revolution, Communism suppressed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and later the East Bloc, while about 5.9 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1939-1945 in a catastrophe called the Holocaust.

The pressure of the refugee survivors of Adolf Hitler's genocide led to Britain's decision to evacuate its League of Nations mandate in Palestine, which it had captured from Ottoman Turkey in 1917 during World War I. In 1948, after half a century of Zionist settlement, the State of Israel was founded and has since absorbed nearly three million immigrants, including tens of thousands of Chassidim. Today, after 46 years of conflict and six wars, the Jewish state stands on the brink of peace with its Arab neighbours.

But a Middle East rapprochement will bring little comfort to the Tascher Chassidim and other similar ultra-Orthodox groups, constituting about 10 per cent of Israel's population, who view the secular Jewish state as an anathema. They prefer to wait for the Almighty to send His Messiah to rebuild Zion.