The bike kept wobbling and falling, but the man seemed cheerfully determined to ride it.
He noticed the boys watching him and said, "It must seem pretty odd to see a guy learning how to ride a bicycle at my age, eh?"
The boys smiled bashfully and nodded.
The chassid spoke the kind of Hebrew that, while clearly fluent, still indicated that he was more used to speaking Yiddish.
"Well," he said, "I grew up in the Geula-Meah Shearim area of Jerusalem and we weren’t allowed to ride bikes."
He didn’t seem at all resentful about it and added that he really liked how he grew up—"but bicycles just weren’t an acceptable activity in my circles, that's all."
My son nodded. He learns in a Geula yeshiva and is familiar with the different customs of different groups in that area.
"But now," the chassid continued, "I live in Bnei Brak and in order to go to hasadeh (the field) to do hitbodedut (personal prayer), I need a bicycle. It’s too far to walk and the buses don’t really go there."
The boys stared at him without replying.
Hitbodedut? Hasadeh? He could only be Breslov.
But in those boys' world, all Breslovers were Sefardi Israeli baalei teshuvah.
So it was easy for them to forget that Breslov—like every other Chassidus—started out in Eastern Europe among Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews whose descendents ended up in Jerusalem and who wore black pants tucked into white socks just below the knee.
My son also enjoyed how this seemingly typical chalmer (a Chassid born and raised in the Geula-Meah Shearim area) still used Breslov terms like hitbodedut and hasadeh (literally "the field," but Breslovers use it colloquially to indicate a place in nature in which to do hitbodedut).
The boys asked him if he knew Rav Shalom Arush and he said that he had run into Rav Arush b’sadeh ("in the field") a couple of times and had liked him very much, and felt a lot of respect and admiration for all the work Rav Arush was doing.
Then he asked the boys for bicycle-riding tips and they told him he needed to pedal faster to maintain balance, even giving him a personal demonstration.
After watching them do it, he got back on his bicycle and tried pedaling faster. Sure enough, the riding went a lot smoother.
He thanked the boys and, with a cheerful wave, he rode away to keep on practicing.
It was the kind of encounter that only Hashem can orchestrate, the kind that no matter good a parent you try to be, you really need an interaction like this to inculcate certain principles into your child:
- The most mundane objects can be used for kedushah and to increase ahavat Yisrael—even a bicycle.
- Intimate connection with Hashem via personal prayer is normal enough to mention in casual conversation (as opposed to being something that only tzaddikim or fervent eccentrics do).
- Hitbodedut is so personally desirable and pleasurable that it compels one to learn a new skill and go out of one’s way to pursue it.
- Childhood "deprivations" don’t need to be experienced as "deprivation" and can be made up for and even enhanced in adulthood.
- Jews of different—even wildly different—ethnicities and backgrounds can still really like and appreciate each other.
And there you have it.