MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The Jewish holiday of Purim is this weekend. It's an occasion marked with hamentaschen pastries and joyful celebrations. Revelers sometimes dress in costumes and dance in the street. And in Israel, it's well known that nobody parties at Purim quite like the Na Nachs. That's a whimsical orthodox group. They take having fun very seriously. As Marlon Bishop reports from Tel Aviv, it's their spiritual duty.
MARLON BISHOP, BYLINE: Natan Gabbay takes a gulp of clear liquor and warms up on his shofar, a trumpet made out of a ram's horn that is sacred in Judaism. He and a group of fellow Na Nachs have been hired as an entertainment act for a fancy wedding outside Tel Aviv. It's a surprise. The guests have no idea what's about to happen.
NATAN GABBAY: We barge in, all of us together, and start to dance with them. The people in the wedding will see a different kind of happiness. This is happiness with holiness, together.
BISHOP: They slip the DJ a special CD and suddenly, a dozen young men with big beards and long, curling sidelocks rush the dance floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BISHOP: Religious remixes of electronic dance tracks begin to pump from the speakers, and the Na Nachs jump around like teenagers at a music festival. The lyrics are about God and the Torah, but that doesn't stop the secular wedding guests from joining in and having a good time. After 15 minutes, the Na Nachs rush out as suddenly as they came, leaving big grins on everyone's faces.
The Na Nachs dance at weddings for money, but they're more than a novelty act. They're a growing religious movement with a very different vision of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. They began about 30 years ago as an offshoot of the Breslovers, a Hasidic sect that follows the mystical writings of Nachman of Breslov, a rabbi who lived in the Ukraine in the 1800s.
Their central belief is the idea that happiness is key to a rich relationship with God. Their divine mission is to spread that happiness around. Zohar Ginsberg is a 24-year-old member of the sect.
ZOHAR GINSBERG: You have to do whatever you can to be happy. Dance. Sing. Jokes. Nonsense.
BISHOP: For the Na Nachs, dancing to electronic music is actually a matter of the soul. That appealed to Ginsberg. He grew up in a religious family, but found himself slipping away from Judaism as a teenager. When he came across Nachman's teachings, it was a revelation.
GINSBERG: You have to find a way to connect with love, not to feel like it's just a bunch of rules that you do and it makes your life better. You want to feel like it's something that gives you liveliness, happiness.
SHAUL MAGID: So prayer, joy, celebration: This becomes, in a sense, the core of religious living.
BISHOP: Shaul Magid is a scholar of Hasidic Judaism. He says while most Orthodox movements focus on reading and studying, the Na Nachs are all about ecstatic experiences. He compares them to another subculture.
MAGID: Rave culture is very big in Israel. And I think that in some way the Na Nach people are replicating a particular certain kind of rave culture within the norms of ultraorthodox Judaism around the teachings of this Hasidic master from the 19th century.
BISHOP: In fact, many Na Nachs are former ravers and it shows. A few days after the wedding, I pile into a van with Zohar Ginsberg and his friends to take part in one of the famous Na Nach joyrides. They happen every week in cities all over Israel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BISHOP: We drive to through the curvy streets of Jerusalem, blasting holy house music from a speaker strapped to the roof. At red lights, the Na Nachs jump out and dance around in the intersections. What happens next is kind of amazing, random people going about their lives drop whatever they are doing for a few moments and dance along.
Passerby Gabriella Wernick found the good vibes to be contagious.
GABRIELLA WERNICK: I just felt acceptance and welcoming and love.
BISHOP: Secular Jews like her often really like the Na Nachs. Shaul Magid thinks this is extraordinary when you consider that tensions are high between secular and religious Israelis. He says the Na Nachs are helping to create some understanding between the two groups.
MAGID: They're really just interested in proselytizing joy, so in that sense, they're really a breath of fresh air for a lot of the secular Jews. They allow for a certain kind of exposure to traditional Judaism that secular Jews would never have because they would never have that kind of close contact with the ultraorthodox communities.
BISHOP: Still, Zohar Ginsberg feels that his movement is often misunderstood.
GINSBERG: I know the Na Nachs, a lot of people think we're crazy. Some people think we use drugs. But the truth is almost none of the Na Nachs use drugs and we're just happy from Rabbi Nachman himself. He gives us the power to dance in the streets.
BISHOP: Fellow Na Nach, Natan Gabbay, however, doesn't mind if you call him crazy.
GABBAY: We prefer to be crazy in happiness than normal and sad.
BISHOP: Being Na Nach opens your heart, he says, it makes you feel free. For NPR News, I'm Marlon Bishop.