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 Tales of the Chanukah Lights Tales of the Chanukah Lights

Jail House Rock

How the "Shpoler Zeide's Niggun" continues to rescue Jews in jail today

This story begins very slowly.

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 black hat and 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.

Scuffling sneakers.
Chewing gum.
Moving chairs.

Then the silence fell again.

The spider went back to its work.

All eyes were upon the man in black hat.

It was not at all unexpected that he opened his mouth to say, "Shalom Aleichem."

"Aleichem shalom," the Jewish inmates said back to him.

The man in black introduced himself.

He introduced why he was there.

He introduced the story of Chanukah.

He introduced the subject of niggunim (wordless chasidic songs), which was another way to introduce the inmates to their Jewish souls, although, in truth, some of them, who already wore yarmulkes and tzitzit, needed no introduction.

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 the Lubavitch Youth Organization (LYO), had arrived a week before Chanukah and was telling them what, of all things, a niggun was.

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 Zeide [1] 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 outdance his opponent, generally the best hand-picked, exquisite dancer in the tavern.

If the Jew fell first, he was guilty and would be whipped put to death. If the cossack fell first, the Jew would go free.

"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 Elijah the prophet in a dream.

The angel 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 (a strong alcoholic drink) 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 chasidic version: the cossack dancer's heart gave out and he fell dead.

So the Shpoler Zeide won and his fellow Jew was freed from prison.

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 tzitzit dangling in the air, others holding onto their yarmulkes with one hand, singing, "Deyamammamayayayayayayayayayayyadedeyi. Aiyidedeyiyiyidedeyiyi -- up 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 (a Brooklyn, NY audiologist named Levi Reiter) to tell his fellow Lubavitchers who also visit prisons through LYO, "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 Chanukah 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 am, already Jewish Students have arrived and are setting up chairs and tables.

Once that is done, they lay out kosher salami sandwiches, sour pickles, cole slaw 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 volunteer are looking forward to the dancing, although by no stretch of magination 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 and volunteers.

When 11:30 comes, kosher lunch is served to everybody.

During that time, Rabbi Wircberg talks about the joys and significance of Chanukah.

By 12:30, with a half hour left of the Chanukah 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 horah, 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 dance begins, faster than the previous one.

Then another dance, 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 dance, "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 jail!"

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 Chanukah party is over, the prison room regains its dreary silence.

But somewhere in the room, the jail house rock goes on, and the Shpoler Zeide, the greatest dancer in chasidic history, continues dancing till the end of time.


  1. (Back to text) Reb Aryeh Leib from Shpola in the Ukraine (1725-1812), known as the Shpoler Zeide (Grandfather), was known for his exceptional love for his Jewish brethren (Ahavas Yisroel), and would travel from village to village to help them materially and spiritually, to collect funds for pidyon shvooyim (ransom of Jewish captives), and to bring his estranged brethren closer to their Heavenly Father. The melody of "Hop Cossack" is very similar to the tune traditionally known as "The Zeide's Niggun." As a matter of fact, the song is sung at joyous occasions such as Simchat Torah and Pesach.

 Tales of the Chanukah Lights Tales of the Chanukah Lights

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