Interview for a weekly column of the
Financial Times Weekend Magazine (April, 2013) 

First Person:
Simcha Hochmann

as told to David Leon Vajda

I was born in 1973 into a big Hasidic Jewish family in Toronto. My father is a rabbi and I went to an Orthodox Jewish school, where I got into loads of trouble. In fifth grade, I established an unofficial school canteen, selling all the junk food the kids weren’t allowed to have. At high school, I wore a suede kippah [skullcap] instead of a velvet one – a stupid thing to do. Sometimes, I would sneak out of school and walk for two hours to a cinema to watch a movie; it was the equivalent of doing something really bad in the secular world.

But at college I turned into a very serious and diligent Talmud student. I worked up to 20 hours a day and slowly transformed into a walking ghost. By the age of 24, I had moved to Israel and published books on the Talmud and the Bible. I had reached the pinnacle of the yeshiva [traditional schools for the study of sacred texts] system for a boy of my age, but something was missing. I went to consult the famous Hasidic rabbis but they couldn’t tell me where to look for an answer. So I started reading the more controversial rabbis and ended up questioning the whole system I was brought up in.

One of those I was reading was Rabbi Nachman, and one of his main teachings is to reach God through music, dancing and a state of happiness. That’s what happens when I hear techno music, so as a “Na Nach”, a follower of Rabbi Nachman, that’s what I decided to do. Today, we are known all over the country: we drive through Israel, jump out at red traffic lights and dance to techno or trance that is coming out of big speakers on the roofs of our multicoloured vans.

A few people are intimidated by us. They feel we are misrepresenting the Hasidic Jewish faith but most of the people we encounter join in and welcome us. Most ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t have much entertainment in their lives, so they find it exciting.

Some of my friends even took their van into the fighting zone during the 2006 Lebanon war. They jumped on an Israeli tank, started dancing on it, put Na Nach beanies on the soldiers’ heads and stickers on the tank.

Once, at the beginning of my career as a Na Nach, I was in front of the Wailing Wall during the official mourning time. I felt it was important to dance and this group of schoolgirls came by and joined in. In accordance with my faith, I have never touched a girl and here I was in front of the Wailing Wall, dancing disco with some non-Orthodox girls. I was like, “What are you doing, man?” But what was I supposed to do? Turn off the music and leave? So I continued dancing.

I have developed a few distinctive dance moves over the years. One of them is really exciting: I put my hands up in the air and wave them back and forth, forming the shape of “aleph”, the first letter of the Jewish alphabet – this goes back to a dance Rabbi Nachman described in his teachings. Not too many people attempt this dance, because it takes a lot of guts. You look like a bit of a maniac when you do it – I love it. You know when they put stickers on people at parties for lifting the mood of the crowd? At one party back in the States I got a couple of stickers for my aleph dance.

We often get hired out to weddings and bar mitzvahs. If people want to organise a good party, they call us up and we say: “Sure, how many people do you want there?” Just recently at the Wailing Wall, I saw one group of friends accompanying a bar mitzvah boy. When I turned around the corner, more Na Nachs with drums were walking towards me with another little boy – it seems we are doing well.