Eisenbud's Odyssey: Chabad, the heat and the street

Observations of Israel from a not-so-innocent abroad.

Image of Rabbi Schneerson 521 (photo credit: Wiki commons)
Image of Rabbi Schneerson 521
(photo credit: Wiki commons)
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 saw 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.
I have long had the misfortune of sweating profusely, even in mild weather. Therefore, you can only begin to imagine the overtime my pores put in Israel during the summertime.
To say that Israel is “pretty hot” in the summer is like saying Mel Gibson “kinda dislikes” Jews, in that it’s probably much worse than you think. And like Gibson, the heat in Israel is about as entertaining as a colonoscopy, makes you dumber than before you were exposed to it and strongly supports the possibility that there is a hell.
To be sure, at high noon, when that hard sun beats down on you like the New York Giants’ defensive line on Tom Brady, it is difficult to think straight, let alone function.
This turns loitering in random air-conditioned stores – that have absolutely nothing you would ever want to buy – into an art form.
I have literally spent hours attempting to look like a viable customer in stores selling everything from women’s accessories to infant apparel across the city, with no shame.
Still, it’s a small price to pay to live in the most awe-inspiring city in the world.
For reasons that defy common sense – and frustrate me to no end – I have found that in Jerusalem, sidewalk etiquette is in startling short supply. Indeed, I walk two miles to and from work every day, and perennially have men, women and children walk into me like absent-minded homing pigeons, only without messages.
Now, in New York City – perhaps one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the world – conscientious sidewalk etiquette can be a matter of life or serious beat-down. To be sure, I have seen my share of street fights and general tantrums over perceived slights regarding right of way.
New Yorkers are already pretty tightly wound in terms of space limitations, so on a hot day when some schmo decides it’s not good enough to have his portion of the sidewalk and wants a piece of yours too, tempers can flare. That said, anyone who has lived in the city for a sustained period thoroughly understands the unspoken code of the sidewalk.
However, in Jerusalem – a city populated with some of the finest, most thoughtful minds I have ever encountered – there appears to be a ubiquitous learning disability in terms of spatial relationships.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked down the street, minding my own business – with enough sidewalk for all – only to be nearly body-checked by an oblivious Sabra.
The thing is, it’s not as if they’re looking for trouble.
Believe me when I tell you I have called out a few of the more egregious perpetrators, only to receive a genuinely effusive apology, without a hint of recognition that they were out of line.
It boggles the mind that these are the same people who made a desert bloom.
What can I say? You win some, you lose some.
ON A serious note, two years ago I came here alone, without a friend or family member to speak of. Today, I am blessed to have some of the best friends I’ve ever had, and frequently feel as if I’m surrounded by brothers and sisters.
Living in Israel is the adventure of a lifetime, filled with wonderment, friendship, meaning – and yes, sometimes horrific and unconscionable hatred that surrounds this holy land, and occasionally permeates its borders.
However, I consider myself privileged to be a small part of the greatest story ever told, and honored to live among men women and children who inspire me every single day.
I wish you all a happy and peaceful summer.