One Hundred Young Americans: Bentzy

Bentzy, 19, New York

Bentzy has never heard of MySpace. He's lived in New York since he was 11, but he lives in a different world from most American teenagers.

"We are here for a purpose."

"We are not here for enjoyment. God created us to do something. And the something isn't to play basketball all day or to eat pizza. If teenagers in America knew this, it would be good."

We're inside a storefront synagogue in Brooklyn, and Bentzy - who is studying to be a Hasidic rabbi - gets excited when he learns I was born a Jew.

My mother was a jew, and Bentzy says that makes me a Jew. Period. It doesn't matter that I don't consider myself Jewish.

Brett, my producer, does consider himself a Jew. He had a bar mitzvah and can recite Hebrew scripture from memory. But his mom converted to Judaism - she wasn't born a Jew.

Bentzy told us that "a Jew is a Jew is a Jew; there's no such thing as half a Jew." But it's clear to everyone in the room that he doesn't really consider Brett a Jew. This is most apparent when he pulls out a pair of small wooden box he calls tefillin.

He asks if I will join him in a prayer, and he proceeds to attach the boxes to my head and arm using long leather straps, which he says are made from the skins of kosher animals. He tells me they are filled with tiny scrolls of biblical verses.

Bentzy recites lines from the Torah in Hebrew, and I do my best to repeat them. This is what Bentzy does. He tries to connect with the "Jewish" soul in every Jew - especially nonpracticing Jews like me.

Bentzy spends nine hours each day studying the Jewish scripture and three hours praying. Sometimes at night he'll play basketball, but only after a full day of study and prayer.

"We are here for a reason, and the reason is not pleasure. Pleasure is not truth. When you think about it, pleasure is here today and gone tomorrow and it doesn't get you anywhere in life."

Soon he's talking about the 613 commandments, and I'm embarrassed to ask if the Ten Commandments are included. (They are; Jews have another 603 they need to follow.)

Bentzy is standing in front of the ark, the cabinet where the Torah scrolls he holds are stored. This is the spot where they read from the Torah during services.

At his feet is something that looks like a sidewalk grate. Desperate to get back to talking about things we can fully understand, we ask him what that is.

"That's so the women downstairs can hear the reading of the Torah." During the services, they send all the women to the basement.

At first, Bentzy gives the simple explanation that "there just isn't room up here for them." But then he adds that having women present would, obviously, be distracting for the men who are trying to pray. And they can hear just fine through the grate.

We ask if the women mind, and he says they complain all the time about it, but they're used to it.








The story above is from Michael Franzini's One Hundred Young Americans, reprinted on Neatorama with permission.

Check out our review of the One Hundred Young Americans book and website - or get your copy here.


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