On Sunday, the seventh day of Chanukah, my family took a Mitzvah Tank out for a ride.
My school, Lamplighters Yeshivah, rented one for the holiday so our students could live up to our name and share light – literally and figuratively – to Jews across Brooklyn. We, too, wanted to do something purposeful with our children so we decided to take the Lightmobile on the road to spread Chanukah cheer.
As a Chabad’nik, Mivtzoyim – going on on the streets and encouraging Jews to do mitzvot – is in our spiritual DNA. Who in New York hasn’t encountered in bochur in black and white running toward them with a pair of tefillin, or an eager girl giving them a prepacked kit to light Shabbat candles? “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” literally echoes throughout the streets of the world.
Where there is Chabad, there is the courage and passion to move others to action.
Where there is a Mitzvah Tank, there is the pride in spreading our mission to transform the world.
Still, I wasn’t one who’s done a whole lot of mivtzoyim. Compared to others, my Jew-dar was not as sharp. I wasn’t as practiced. I was rusty.
So, I decided, my children would get the training I wished I got. (There are some moments as a parent where you can gleefully pat yourself on the pat and feel like – for a moment in time – you’re doing a good job. This was one of them.)
My three daughters climbed into the 9 foot tank, excitedly exploring the inside. My husband proudly sat in the driver’s seat and turned on the transmitter radio – and just like that, prerecorded Chanukah songs began to blare from our RV-turned-into-do-gooder machine.
“We’re going on Mivtzoyim! Let’s go kids!”
Our first stop was buying two dozen donuts from the local bakery (the travails of shopping in Brooklyn must be explored in another piece). As I walked out of the store with two pizza boxes full of fresh sugar-dipped dough, I saw a super-bochur bringing two trays full of those iconic tin, semi-disposable Menorahs and boxes of those colorful, waxy candles into our tank.
Now, we were truly set.
We made our way down Eastern Parkway and turned onto Bedford Avenue, my daughters already stuffing their faces with pink-frosted-sprinkled donuts, the story of Chanukah blaring loudly from our tank. “Celebrate the miracle of Chanukah, where spirit was victorious over matter…” Already, I told myself, we were making a positive impact on our surroundings. We were on the right track.
We were on our way to Williamsburg.
For many, Williamsburg connotes the always expanding, ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Satmar and Belz chasidim of Brooklyn. But for many others, Williamsburg represents one of the most gentrified, overly-artsy neighborhoods you could imagine – and I love it.
We parked our Mitzvah tank on a super busy corner of hipster WillyB and eagerly stepped out of the Mitzvah Tank.
I wondered how we looked to others. Who was this family of three little girls with long, flowing brown hair, their bearded father wearing tailored, colorful clothes, a big blue kippah and shining Ray Bans, and their mother, sporting big, funky, wooden jewelry, a long asymmetrical dress and vintage boots?
On some level my family could totally blend in – yet we had just clamored out of an RV with the face of a chassidic Rebbe on its side, the Menorah blessings blaring from the loudspeaker.
Ya. We totally stood out.
My daughters ‘got to work’ right a way. Without even being prompted, my seven and five-year-old girls took to the street and asked every single person who walked by, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” while my youngest walked up and down the block, like Vanna White, holding a menorah and box of candles.
One after another, my little Emissaries-of-Light heard “No” to their sincere question. Yet they were unmoved. They kept on going – kept on seeking.
“Mommy, if they say they aren’t Jewish, just tell them ‘Happy Holidays!’ Ok?”
I felt kinda awkward standing in one place so I took my eldest daughter’s hand and we walked to the corner. She asked every person who walked by if they were Jewish – the African American man waddling with a cane, the Asian woman pushing her crying baby in the stroller, the Hispanic delivery man carrying bags over his shoulders – among many, many others. My daughter saw no color, no boundaries whatsoever. To her, every person could possibly be a Jew. To her, every person could possibly encase a Jewish soul.
How utterly, painfully beautiful.
Although we did give out some menorahs (and many more boxes of candles) and scored some potential Shabbat guests, we were mostly getting ‘No’ after ‘No’ – or even worse, getting completely brushed off.
I was becoming more and more uncomfortable. I wanted to escape. To run away.
I stood with the box of donuts, asserting to my husband why passing them out was a far better, less threatening, more appealing, approach than asking people if they were Jewish. (Right?!)
Somehow, offering food felt more safe — to me at least.
After about a half hour on that corner, my husband took our daughters to the bathroom and left me to ‘man’ the tank.
Suddenly, I was alone – no longer protected by my cute girls who proudly touted the menorahs, their faces streaked with frosting. All alone as streams of people shuttled past me, avoiding eye contact, suddenly walking quicker as I called out to them, “Would you like a fresh donut to celebrate the holiday?”
Why was I so embarrassed? So angry? Why was it so hard for me to stick out like this? Am I actually ashamed of my Judaism? Of being a practicing Jew?
Me, who speaks and writes so honesty abut my passion for Judaism. Me, who works in Jewish education. Me, who hosts many, many guests every Shabbat, my table like an artist’s palette, so colorful and diverse. Me, who’s led a group of unaffiliated Jews through the Land of Israel, pegged as the Rebbetzin, ready to talk about anything and everything related to G-d and His Torah.
Why was standing on a street corner, handing out menorahs and asking people if they were Jewish so anxiety-provoking for me?
Would I really rather be mistaken for a Hipster than a Hasid?
I hated every minute I stood by the Mitzvah tank, all alone, Chanukah songs blaring, people staring, avoiding me at all costs.
How ironic — over forty years ago, my newly-immigrated father, who was studying at the University of Minnesota, met a Chabad shliach on campus. The young Rabbi was driving a Sukkah-mobile and my father, curious and moved, agreed to step inside and make a blessing over a lulav and esrog.
Someone had asked my father, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” My father answered – and his life was never again the same.
How ironic — I am uncomfortable doing that which transformed my father (and my family) forever.
My heart skipped a beat. “Yes! Would you like one?” This vibrant guy and his three friends stopped by my outstretched arms, gazing at the donuts. I took a chance. “You know, tonight is the last night of Hanukkah! Do you have a menorah? We have some in the car with candles, too!”
Suddenly, his face transformed. “No way!!! That’s crazy! I was just telling my friend that I needed a menorah but had no idea where to find one!”
Like lightening I jumped into the tank, took out one of the menorahs my daughters already set up with a lovely pattern of colored candles, and gleefully handed it to the guy.
“Don’t forget to take a donut!” I exclaimed.
“Na, I it’s OK. I got what I really need.” His face beamed as he walked off with his new treasure, already recapping his Chanukah miracle to his friends.
Well, would you look at that
A Jew, searching for connection, lit up by the possibility to do a Mitzvah.
G-d, in His glory, bringing this Jew what he needs (and wants) to connect with Him.
And little old me, somehow, the catalyst to make it happen.
How glorious is this world we live in.
Suddenly, all the shame, awkwardness, discomfort and self-loathing became worth it, even for a brief moment of time.