Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. That sounds like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it?
But it isn’t. It is was what I saw the other day.
Imagine you’re taking a walk along a remote dirt road on the south side of a lake in rural Maine. You notice it’s green everywhere, the air is fresh; it smells of moss and moist earth.
Suddenly you hear a car approaching, the way tires sound on a pebbly road, and you prepare to step over to the side as what you now notice is a van, no wait, two vans with New York plates approach.
As the vans pass you, you see that they are full of young, religious Jewish dudes, with their payot or side curls flowing freely, and their black kippot or skullcaps propped loosely on their more or less shaven heads. The driver, a pimply, blond, round faced guy leans out of the window with a cigarette between his lips.
They slow down and ask us if we know of any public access here; they’d like to swim. My friend, who is also Jewish, but to them looks like just a “regular” guy (jeans, t-shirt, a cap) walks over to the window of the car, leans in and assesses the peering dark eyes, the cramped in young male bodies, and says “Shalom aleichem!” This startles the driver greatly, who exclaims, incredulously, “You’re Jewish!?”
They think they are the only Jews in Maine.
After a few introductory remarks, just to eliminate all doubt of imposture, my friend leans in again and says, in the tone of loving zayde or grandfather, “Come out here guys, so I can see you!” whereupon they all gladly pour out of both vans and begin to gather chaotically around us. Some have towels slung over their shoulders, they are all wearing tzitzit, the required fringes that hang down from their everyday undergarment, casually and loosely worn over white t-shirts. One guy is wearing a dark, blue terry cloth bath robe.
There’s laughter, questions, some light up cigarettes, others pace nervously between the cars, some smile at me while yet others shy away from my gaze when we answer their inquiries about where the best spot to swim might be. They tell my friend to come join them for davning – prayers – at their camp in the next town over, and stick a note in his hand with their phone number scribbled on it.
We know well where a great spot for swimming is. We direct them. We point and explain. As they climb back into the vans, they thank us, and we hear laughter and excitement as the drivers struggle a bit to turn the vans around on the narrow dirt road, and then they honk as they drive off.
When we approach the turn in the road, on the other side of the lake, where we had suggested they give the swimming a try, we hear them; shrieks of joyful sounds cutting through the woods, splashing water, and loud music. Religious, up-beat music blasting from the speakers in the vans.
The sight was worth a million dollars. There were the fifteen religious Jews having the time of their lives swimming, basking, splashing, jumping, dunking and diving. A couple had swum out to an orange, plastic, floating pier and were dancing on top of it. Holding each other’s arms and dancing the way you might see religious Jews dance at a simcha or a celebration.
Fifteen religious Jews jumping in the lake; it was such a great and refreshing vision to see them enjoying themselves freely and wholeheartedly, basking in some of God’s finest natural surroundings, far away from their native Brooklyn.
And that’s when it dawned on me why they may have been especially happy: With the Jewish day of morning just behind us; Tisha B’Av having ended a couple days before, and the Sabbath coming the next day, the young men were also using the spring fed lake as a mikvah, or a ritual bath. Getting ready for the holiness of the day of rest, and perhaps marking the possibilities born from new beginnings after a solemn fast day, which Tisha B’Av had been, they were indeed rejoicing.
Fifteen religious Jews jumping in a lake. I was lucky to meet them that day.