This story begins
The Riker’s Island
jail room had been silent for a long time. Suddenly, in a corner of the ceiling,
a spider ceased weaving its web as a key turned in a lock. The door opened. In
filed several men with guns in their holsters. Already seated in the room was a
man in a black hat and a black coat, who smiled at the guards. None of the armed
men had ever seen him before, but they had been briefed about his mission. So
they smiled back and unobtrusively took their seats around the perimeter of the
room. One of them spotted the spider and its web as he looked up at the ceiling.
Nobody knew what to expect.
Soon, other sounds
filled the room. Thirty men entered. Coughing. Scuffling sneakers. Chewing gum.
Sneezing. Moving chairs. Then the silence fell again. The spider went back to
its work. All eyes were upon the man in the black hat.
It was not at all
unexpected that he opened his mouth to say, "Shalom Aleichem."
the Jewish inmates said back to him. The man in black introduced himself. He
introduced why he was there. He introduced the story of Chanuka. He introduced
the subject of niggunim (wordless Chassidic songs), which was another way
to introduce the inmates to their Jewish souls, although, in truth, some of
them, who already wore yarmulkes and tzitzis, needed no
Still it came to most
of them as a culture shock that this man in black, who had come there as part of
an ongoing prison outreach program sponsored by Lubavitch Youth Organization (L.Y.O.),
had arrived a week before Chanuka and was telling them what, of all things, a
He told them the
story behind the "Shpoler Zeide’s niggun," which in its way touched every
men in that room.
As one version of the
story goes, the Shpoler Zeide1 wanted to save a Jew who was thrown into a deep
pit in prison for not paying his taxes. In those days - the 18th century - it
didn’t take much to jail Jews and to throw away the keys. The way to determine
the guilt or innocence of a Jew, decided the lords of the land, was to bring a
Jew to a big tavern where lords and Cossacks sat in judgment. There, dressed in
a bear skin, the Jew was forced to out-dance his opponent, generally the best
hand-picked, exquisite dancer in the tavern. If the Jew fell first, he was
guilty and would be put to death. If the Cossack fell first, the Jew would go
"You can believe it
when I tell you," said the man in black, "no Jew had a chance against such
accomplished and energetic dancers."
According to legend,
one night the Shpoler Zeide was visited by the prophet Eliyahu in a dream.
Eliyahu instructed him in the fine art of dancing, in order to outlast the
Cossack, and taught him what was to become forever known as the "Shpoler
Zeide’s Niggun." "The same niggun that I’ll sing for you shortly,"
the man in the black coat said to the prisoners.
The Shpoler Zeide
went to the prison, drank mashke with the guard until he fell asleep,
then lowered himself into the pit. Whereupon the Zeide exchanged clothes with
the other Jew, and told him to leave the prison unnoticed, which promptly the
Jew in the Shpoler Zeide’s clothing did.
Finally a messenger
from the nobles and Cossacks waiting in the tavern arrived with the bear skin
and threw it down into the pit. The Shpoler Zeide donned the bear skin and
pulled himself up by the rope. Then the messenger led him to the tavern, where
he was greeted by everybody there with jeers and hoots.
At once the musicians
started playing song after song, the Cossack and the Jew danced, and as the
hours went on everyone could see how evenly matched the dancers were. Never had
a Jew danced so hard and so excellently. Never had a Cossack met his match By
now the lords and Cossacks had stopped laughing and sat there stunned.
Finally the musicians
got tired, and even the Cossack dancer was willing to stop. Not so the old
Shpoler Zeide with his white beard hidden under the bear skin, who started
singing the niggun and danced as he had never danced before, and the
Cossack felt obliged to pick up the dance, too.
Slowly the niggun,
slowly the dance. Without realizing it, the dancers, caught up with the rapidly
accelerating tune, moved faster and faster and faster and faster and faster and
faster and faster - the Shpoler Zeide dancing with astonishing ease - until they
reached a pace that was so fast they couldn’t make out their own singing and
dancing of the niggun.
That’s when it
happened, according to one Chassidic version: the Cossack dancer’s heart gave
out and he fell dead. So the Shpoler Zeide won and his fellow Jew was freed from
The story was not
quite over, there were other details to be told, yet the excited inmates had
heard enough. All they wanted was to hear the "Shpoler Zeide’s Niggun."
So the man in black
stood up and started slowly to teach them the niggun. Within moments, as
the guards nervously fingered their guns, the Jewish inmates began to sing and
leaped up off their chairs, to form a large circle, and they danced with all
their hearts and souls. Never had the guards witnessed such a sight.
Thirty men, some with
their tzitzis dangling in the air, others holding onto their yarmulkes
with one hand, singing, "Deyamammamay-ayayayayayayayayayyadedeyi.
Aiyidedeyiyiyidede-yiyi - hup Cossack."
"Part of the song
means ‘Up, Cossack, Jump, Cossack!’" explained the man in black, quickly losing
breath, as he danced with the inmates.
And the tune got
faster and faster, and the Jews were singing and dancing until they reached a
pace that was so fast they too couldn’t make out the niggun. And the
spider quickly deserted its shaky web and sought refuge in a crack in the wall.
Later, the man in black [Crown Heights audiologist named Levi Reiter, who like
the Shpoler Zeide, is a grandfather] was to tell his fellow Lubavitcher
shluchim who also visit prisons through L.Y.O., "What energy these prisoners
had! Some of these Jews hardly had spent more than five minutes with another Jew
outside. Nevertheless, in this long-silent room with a heart, their Jewish spark
was kindled, and they all were thoroughly involved in this dance with me.
Hardened criminals some, others I never would have taken to be Jewish, these
people were dancing around and around and around and around, and somebody
shouted, ‘Hey, I think I see the Shpoler Zeide in the circle opposite me,’ and
another one said, ‘Yeah, I think I see him too,’ and others amiably agreed to
join in on the fun: ‘Yeah, he’s right here.’ ‘No, he’s over there.’ ‘Hey, he’s
holding my hand.’ There was no doubt," added the man in black, "these inmates
were being touched by the hand of G-d."
Finally the prisoners
and the man in the black coat fell back exhausted onto their chairs, perhaps
leaving the Shpoler Zeide to continue the dance till the end of time.
* * *
The other part to
this story also starts slowly.
It’s Chanuka party
time at Riker’s Island. Very early in the morning, Jewish men and women inmates
are gathered from their cells all over the metropolitan area and bused in to a
big correctional room on Riker’s Island. It is one of the few times each year
that Jewish inmates come together, and nobody really fully knows what to expect.
But the Lubavitcher prison outreach volunteers plan and hope for the best, and
so do the prison officials.
As the buses make
their way to Riker’s, scheduled to arrive at 9:30 a.m., already Jewish
bachurim have arrived and are setting up chairs and tables. Once that is
done, they lay out kosher salami sandwiches, sour pickles, coleslaw, and potato
salad. Soon they are joined by Feygah Sarah Friedman and the other volunteers.
One of them complains
that there is no mechitza. "How are we going to separate the men from the
women dancing?" she wants to know.
One of the
bachurim suggests that rows of chairs, stacked two or three high, serve as a
mechitza, and everybody, although not entirely happy with the makeshift
alternative, pitches in to set up the "mechitza."
By 9:25, the music
equipment is set up. The female volunteers are looking forward to the dancing,
although by no stretch of imagination is the big, dreary room designed to bring
out the best in dancing.
"I bet even Fred
Astaire and Ginger Rogers would have trouble tripping the light fantastic here,"
quipped Mrs. Friedman.
Finally, promptly at
9:30, the doors of the big room are opened. Entering first are armed guards who
bring in separately the groups of female and men inmates, each wearing a band
around their wrists, saying "KOSHER" or "JEW," which is a standard procedure in
prison to separate kosher food eaters from non-kosher food eaters. They are
followed by family members and numerous other people, including some Orthodox
rabbis, Jewish prison chaplains, and prison officials. The group also includes
Rabbi Josef Baruch Wircberg of Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah in Crown Heights. At the
right moment, he’ll give a special talk to the inmates.
But right now it’s
time to eat. After that, there will be plenty of time for one-on-one talks
between prisoners and families, between prisoners and rabbis, between prisoners
When 11:30 comes,
kosher lunch is served to everybody. During that time, Rabbi Wircberg talks
about the joys and significance of Chanuka.
By 12:30, with a half
hour left of the Chanuka party, everybody feels the need to dance. They rise
from their tables, see the makeshift mechitza, and separate themselves,
the men to one side of the room and the women to the other side, forming two
circles as they hold hands. As yet the music hasn’t started. With their feet and
hands poised for dance, they still have time to look around and take in an
eyeful of the big, dreary room they’re in, the armed guards looking at everybody
with suspicious eyes. This is the last place, many of them feel, that they can
dance and sing freely, but that’s all they got for now. So they intend to give
the dance their all, and dance as they never danced before.
Men will forget
women, women will forget men, and everybody, hopefully, will forget the prison.
When the bachurim
play the music of the hora, all the inmates and family members and prison
outreach volunteers pour their entire souls in the dance; they dance for the
sake of dancing, for the pure ecstasy of it, for rejoicing exclusively in its
movement and energy. The men - and the women in their own "room" - interlock
arms, each man holding fast to his neighbors’ shoulders. The circle is joined, a
simple melody breaks forth from the throats of the male dancers, and the circle
begins to turn with an ever increasing velocity. The onlookers almost feel
sucked into the swirl. Here and there a pair of interlocked arms give way, a new
dancer thrusts himself into the gap, and the dance widens and quickens to ever
new feet. Then the circles dissolve, and in a few moments reform, as some
dancers join the onlookers. A new hora begins, faster than the previous
one. Then another hora, even faster.
Gone is the prison,
gone the dreary life. The cup of joy overflows. The dancers are light of heart
as they whirl around: things are moving forward in their lives, in their
newfound Yiddishkeit. What more is needed to be happy, even in prison!
For those brief moments the prisoners are no longer prisoners but Jews: they
dance as Jews, with Jews.
"We’ve outlived Haman
and Rome and Nazi Germany," somebody sings to the music of the hora, "and
we’ll outlive all the enemies of Hashem that fight against us."
"Yes, yes," shouts
another male inmate, "yes, we’re going to live, sing, and dance. And there can
only be one answer: to remain loyal Jews as long as we breathe. Jail or no
Then abruptly the
music stops, the two circles dissolve, and all the Jews breathlessly look at
each other, and smile. In the end, the guards lead the inmates back to their
cells, and everybody else files out to various destinations. The Chanuka party
is over, the prison room regains its dreary silence.
But somewhere in the
room, the jail house niggun goes on, and the Shpoler Zeide, the greatest
dancer in Chassidic history, continues dancing till the end of time.2