Last night I went over to The Newtown, which is (according to about a dozen different people who told me this over the course of the evening) the only real "gay pub" in Sydney. By this they mean it's a place to talk with people and hang out without the overlay of cruising or attitude that people claim defines most gay clubs and bars, although I myself find that to be a simplification. No matter, the Newtown was a blast. It's nicely mixed, in the sense that there are male and female and straight and gay people there, although it's definitely at the core a gay place. It closes at midnight, because it's not too far from a residential area. The residential area in which I'm staying, as a matter of fact, although the Newtown Synagogue is about halfway between the pub and my rooms. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
A bit past midnight I was standing in the street with some folks I'd met that night: Two interesting guys from Scotland and the fun girlfriend of one of them. Three young men (very early twenties?) in Chasid garb went by: suits and black hats and tsitsis showing. This seemed an odd sight on King Street late on a Friday night, so as they passed I wished them good shabbos. They stopped in their tracks and surrounded me, equally baffled by me I guess. They started talking to me in Yiddish, and I answered in Hebrew that I don't speak Yiddish. (As people who knew me in college might remember, I can sometimes still speak a little Hebrew when I've been drinking, although quite honestly I can barely muster a phrase when stone sober.)
Is this starting to seem surreal? If not, then I'm not telling the story well.
These guys were full of tremendous sparkle and energy. I think they, too, had been doing a bit of drinking (at a Shabbos dinner). One of the Scotsmen came over and said, after hearing the language exchange, "Ok, what just happened here?" and I explained about the Yiddish and Hebrew. At which point we all divided up into small conversational groups. In time my earlier friends left and the Yeshiva guys stayed on for a while. It turns out that these guys were from a larger group of guys from the Yeshiva in Bondi who are spending the weekend at the synagogue in Newtown, an old synagogue that is currently struggling in the attendance department. Actually, one of the guys I talked with outside the bar is the new assistant rabbi at the synagogue (although I didn't find this out until much later and didn't really believe it until this morning).
After lots of talk about lots of things during which we mostly tried to figure each other out, the assistant rabbi kid (Mottel) tried to convince me to come to services in the morning. He did, in time, convince me that attending services would be at least as interesting of a way for me to see Sydney as heading down to the fish market and Australia Museum and Oxford Street, which were my plans for today. He didn't believe that I'd actually come, but then again I didn't believe he was a rabbi nor did I believe his promise that if I came he would call me up as Levi during the Torah reading -- which he did, in fact, arrange for and even remembered my Hebrew name (and my father's Hebrew name, which is part of being called to the Torah) which I'd told him the previous night. (He asked my Hebrew name. I told him my name and he said "ben...?" which means "son of" and is part of your ritual Hebrew name. Anyway, he remembered the next day and told the senior rabbi this information.)
Today was an absolutely gorgeous day, the perfect day to walk out for breakfast and then to shul. The synagogue is not Chasidic, per se, or at least the regular congregants aren't, but the brand new (and extremely young and nervous) rabbi is a chasid from Brooklyn. After services when some of the congregants came to talk to me (nice friendly Australians, of course, as aren't they all?) they said that the distinctions among the synagoges in America (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Chasid) don't mean as much here.
There was lots of chanting and interesting music during the services, when the Yeshiva guys were in charge. The last section of the service was led by the former rabbi, in what was described to me as the "standard English style" which was much more what I was used to. There were other visitors today, including the dignitary who read from the Torah. It was an extremely casual atmosphere. I was unfamiliar (and to some extent unremembering) of the rituals surrounding being called to the Torah -- and they had to hand me a tallis at the last second -- but they coached me along and I knew my bruchas.
It definitely was as interesting of a thing to do with a morning in Sydney as anything else I might have planned.
The only jarring part was that I haven't spend much time with young Chasidic men. But I have spent a lot of time with "bears" - gay men who display as sexual tokens the same physical features as the Chasids. In my memory Chasidic Jews are old, not drunken young bearded guys with open white shirts showing off their chest hair putting their arms around me and giving me big goodnight hugs. Remember that this took place right after leaving a world also of firm goodnight hugs with what I do believe is a different subtext.
Have we reached surreal yet?