On the way out of work yesterday, I was a little dazed — possibly by the sun, possibly by the fact that I’d been sitting in front of a computer all day and suddenly, the world was in three dimensions.
I put on my archaic CD player, started to listen to some Northern State, and just as I started really dancing (I know, I know) I passed a pair of guys on the street who looked more like me than most people do — big beards, bigger sidelocks. They stopped me and asked what I was doing around here.
They didn’t say it in a mean way, the way some people do when you walk into a synagogue and inadvertently sit in a seat that happens to be theirs. They were just curious. When I told them I was a writer, they were overwhelmed — “Oh, a writer! And in English!” and they said that any website called MyJewishLearning was sure to be doing something alright.
And then they asked if I wanted to donate a hundred bucks to their rebbe.
Okay, I’ve lived in San Francisco, Israel, Northeast Philadelphia and Brooklyn. I’m used to getting hit up for cash. On the Philly subway, however, people were rarely this up-front about it, or this friendly. I gaped — visibly, I guess — and they were quick to follow it up. “It’s a special sign,” they said. “Anyone who visits the rebbe, gives him $100, and kisses his cheek will receive whatever it is they wish to happen.”
I was not assuaged of my suspicions, but I have to admit, I was touched that the major part of their push seemed to be giving the rebbe a kiss, and not the financial part of the transaction.
But I told them that I was a writer, and I just started here (true!), and that I didn’t really have any money to fork over. This was the most surprising part of the experience. They didn’t sign off, or dismiss me, or walk away. No: this was the start of our conversation, not the end of it.
Then they asked if I’d grown up this way (I hadn’t), and when I started keeping Shabbos, and when I started growing those sidelocks of my own. They asked where I’d grown up, and where I lived now. With each question — and when they compared it to their own, Monsey, Williamsburg, all an hour’s distance from each other — they grew more curious, more excited, and more ready.
I talked and talked. (I’m pretty good at doing that.) But it wasn’t at all about money, or G-d, or even religious ecstasy. It was just shooting the breeze. Where they grew up. How I got where I am. One of the guys, it turned out, was the rebbe’s son (the other was just an admirer). When it was all over, they promised they’d stop by Crown Heights and try to find me some day.
I told them to ask for the kid with the big sidelocks (Lubavitchers, the prevalent Hasidim in Crown Heights, don’t grow them) and the weird wacky clothes. They said they were sure they’d find me.