This July, I will celebrate my two-year odyssey of living in Israel. To commemorate this most unlikely milestone, welcome summer and lighten up a bit (as my last few columns have been decidedly heavy), I present to you what I hope will be a humorous look at life in Jerusalem.
Like many uninformed, non-observant Jews, I made the mistake of generalizing that all ultra-Orthodox Jews were singularly insulated, inaccessible and elitist. For the better part of my life, any time I saw a man on the street wearing a black fedora, suit and tzitzit, I registered an almost Pavlovian reflex of discomfort, assuming the person in question would view me as an inferior Jew.
It made perfect sense to me: As a bacon-cheese-burger-and- milkshake-loving, multiple-tattooed, synagogue-dodging, Hebrew-deficient, Shabbat-electricity-using member of the tribe, I just assumed that all ultra-Orthodox Jews viewed me as a heretic, if not an embarrassment altogether.
That said, living in New York City and Israel, I have seen countless images of the late and revered leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, plastered on virtually every street one of his followers has walked.
I also knew that he was considered by many Lubavitchers to be the Messiah, although I was not sure why.
Indeed, in my ignorance, I saw him no differently than any other Jewish “zealot” who would dismiss me as unworthy of the privilege of being born a Jew. In my mind, I was likely anathema to everything he represented, and therefore persona non grata within his community.
I could not have been more wrong.
I learned this a couple of weeks ago (better late than never!), upon attending the wedding of the daughter of a proud Lubavitch friend and colleague of mine at The Jerusalem Post, named Baruch.
While I always considered Baruch an anomaly in terms of his uncompromised warmth and friendship toward me, considering his orthodoxy and my secularism, I’m delighted to say that after attending his daughter’s wedding, I now know unequivocally that he is far from an aberration within the Lubavitch community.
Despite feeling initial trepidation upon arriving at the wedding hall, which was divided by an austere, gray curtain separating men and women (thus eliminating what is traditionally my favorite part of any wedding) and feeling like the odd man out in my comparatively loud Banana Republic slacks and shirt, when the celebrating commenced I realized my concerns were profoundly unfounded, and unfair.
Indeed, after the beautiful ceremony under the huppa, when we returned to the wedding hall and the music started thumping and the celebrating began, it became crystal clear to me that the Lubavitchers couldn’t care less about my clothes or degree of religious observance. Without exception, in their eyes, I was one of them, and they treated me like family.
To my surprise, I quickly became part of a fascinating and beautiful phenomenon – where brotherhood and community conquered individuality of any kind. It was as if my sense of self and insecurities dissipated into the ether, and what remained joined the wonderfully pure energy of all the Lubavitchers, until we became one happy entity.
And let me be clear: These guys party like a cross between (peaceful) Vikings and ZZ Top (after being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Every able-bodied man was on the dance floor moving in ways that defied gravity, and perhaps logic. But it was beautiful to behold.
When these revelers weren’t dancing, they made sure I always had beer or whiskey in front of me, food on my plate, and enough time on the dance floor doing the hora to break a sweat. I had never met more accommodating, fun and gregarious people.
When I expressed my surprise to another colleague from the paper at how much fun I was having, and how warm the Chabadniks were being to me, he explained that one of Schneerson’s greatest contributions to the Lubavitch movement was reaching out to all Jews – despite levels of observance – thus creating a far more inclusive dynamic than had traditionally been the case.
Schneerson’s mandate has clearly been taken to heart.
And despite being segregated from the ladies, I had so much fun with my Lubavitch brothers that I almost forgot about them. Almost.
Meanwhile, as Baruch sat proudly on a dais with his in-laws, only leaving to happily refill people’s drinks and dance, I knew that I was experiencing something special – even transcendental.
In fact, after I left for the night, I seriously discussed the viability of becoming a professional Chabad wedding- crasher with a friend of mine.
That said, to all my brothers and sisters in the Chabad community: Thank you. I’m sorry I misjudged you.