Seated between two hipsters on the Brooklyn L train, I rush toward my tiny studio in Williamsburg. It’s the second night of Hanukkah, but I’m not thinking about candles — not yet, anyway.
With a guarded glance to my left, I notice a tall figure decked out in black gothic attire; his ears are pierced and studded. On my right stands a fairy. An actual, glittering fairy. It’s not Halloween, just a typical NYC Wednesday.
The amalgam of radically different people who commute beneath the city twice each day is oddly charming. Since returning to New York from military service in Israel, I’ve enjoyed watching fascinating people as they pass by, never to be seen again.
After a few moments of sly reconnaissance, my brain reaches capacity. You can absorb only so much “diversity.” I look down at my Kindle, but I can’t focus on the text. Something is nagging me and I can’t quite put my finger on it. After a few moments, I realize that I’m feeling slightly out of place.
It isn’t because of my attire or my haircut. I don’t look much different (“much” is relative) from the average yuppie commuter. In fact, that’s exactly what’s bugging me. I feel out of place, I realize with surprise, because I’m so well placed here. I imagine how I must appear to the other travelers. I probably don’t register at all. I blend in perfectly: unassuming, average, harmless. Shouldn’t someone who grew up in an Orthodox home look different from the typical passenger on the L train? Maybe not.
Years have come and gone since I severed my connection with organized religion. In fact, were it not for my career as a motivational speaker, which on many occasions leads me back to Chabad, I’d have little meaningful interaction with Judaism.
That’s actually where I found the book that now lights up the display sitting on my lap. I stumbled across this title while I was doing a speaking engagement at George Washington University. GW’s Chabad Rabbi flew me out for the weekend and, doing my best to respect the Sabbath, I picked out a book from his shelf, a biography written by Joseph Telushkin, about the extraordinary life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
That Friday night, as I sat surrounded by students, the tenth man in the Minyan, I read with astonishment how The Rebbe influenced Judaism so drastically. All the stories I’d heard about him during my childhood came flooding back.
But I must be honest: I’m not a regular reader of theology, theodicy, or faith. That weekend, I read about The Rebbe because, well … I couldn’t do anything else—not without disrespecting my host. I couldn’t pray—that’s for sure. I haven’t been able to daven since a mortar tore off my left arm on the border of Gaza during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. When I say I haven’t been able to, what I mean is …
Oh, have I tried. Countless times, I’ve opened the Siddur and peered down at the sacred letters, tried to discern the meaning they form. But I always end up recollecting the events that transpired shortly after Hanukkah, 2008. This is not a comfort.
I and the rest of my platoon slump in our tent to unburden ourselves for a moment. We’re minutes from our first entry into Gaza. Everyone’s occupied with the contents of their own tightly-coiled minds. Everyone except Aveshi, our ad hoc rabbi. “Anyone want to wrap tefillin?” he asks, breaking the tense silence.
I hadn’t worn those black straps since the start of basic training; most of the other soldiers hadn’t donned them since their Bar Mitzvahs. But, “Sure,” we each agree, and Aveshi travels through the tent, reciting the proper blessings with each of us.
These were welcome words, as the last we’d heard, only minutes earlier, that we were to lead a mission over the border to retrieve the body of a fallen comrade. We were covered in armor, but any additional layer of godly protection couldn’t hurt.
I’m not sure it helped us, either.
And now, each time I open a Siddur, each time I try to mouth words I sang so often as a child, I can’t help but travel back to that tent, to the day He took my arm moments after I wrapped my arm in his blessing, performed His command.
All I see now when I try to focus on the Siddur is shrapnel shattering Aveshi’s femur, ripping open Elgozi’s stomach, nearly ending his life. I see my dismembered arm resting beside me.
Back on the L train, I realize that each Shaliach I’ve visited shares a similar story with me. They said that The Rebbe – always searching for the positive called the IDF’s wounded veterans “exceptional,” not “disabled.” He broke his longstanding custom of speaking Yiddish to address his “exceptional” veterans in Hebrew, and took the time to walk down the line and shake hands with each of them. The Rebbe adored his soldiers, as every Chabad Rabbi recounts with unabashed pride.
Last year, someone did nearly startle me into reconsidering my position on teffilin for the first time since my injury. But he was no Rabbi. In fact, according to traditional rabbinical doctrine, he was going to have a harder time getting into heaven than a camel would passing through the eye of a needle.
Over a glass of fine wine, I sit across from the war hero and billionaire, Moshe Levy. A light breeze wafts in from the bay beside his Ft. Lauderdale mansion and, without too much thought, I voice my slightly profane opinions on the God of our people. “Izzy, how can you talk that way?” he interrupts, his eyes ablaze. I shut up instantly. Then he tells me his story.
Moshe, too, was on the eve of battle when an Orthodox soldier in his tank squad traveled the ranks to wrap tefillin and pray with every soldier. Moshe – who didn’t wrap daily – and who was about to head into a deadly tank battle, pledged to put on tefillin every morning if God in turn carried him through the battle unscathed. This was a personal pact, and Moshe is very much a man of honor, a man who keeps his vows.
Later, when the dust settled, and the Israeli tanks had vanquished the Egyptian forces, Moshe lay bloodied on the battlefield. He had lost his arm, as I would, and most of his teeth. He’d also been shot through the back. The soldier who’d earlier put on teffilin with the squad lay dead beside him. “For many years,” Moshe shared, “I asked rabbi after rabbi for an answer to the cause of this terrible tragedy. But I never got an answer that satisfied. Not until I visited The Rebbe from Lubavitch.” His eyes penetrated mine as he said this, and I admit I got a chill in the warm Florida air.
Sitting across from Moshe I felt a great sense of peace and comfort wash over me, glad that the answer he received worked for him. I wished The Rebbe were still around to help me figure out my own struggles.
The L screeches to a stop in the First Avenue station, and a few more interesting passengers pour onto the already packed car. I tilt my head down and begin to read. I’m just finishing up a chapter that details the progressive leaps The Rebbe took toward “outreach”—essentially, toward reaching people like me. One of his goals was to touch as many Jewish lives as possible, and he achieved it through multiple emissaries who traversed the world stopping people on the street, in schools, airports, and trains, asking, “Excuse me! Are you Jewish?”
Despite the massive backlash The Rebbe received from all other sectors of Judaism, he pushed, and he pushed, and today most of the Jewish world has learned to follow in his footsteps. Most now know that outreach is crucial to our continued existence.
The train reaches my stop, Bedford Avenue. I step off and walk up the stairs where the frigid winter awaits me. My mind begins to dwell on my only memory of The Rebbe.
I’m four years old, and I’m standing with my father at the entrance to 770 Eastern Parkway. The wind is blowing. “Moshe,” he says, using my Hebrew name, “Are you ready to see him?” My father’s entire face is a smile; I know I’m about to experience something special. This Rebbe, he must be truly holy, an angel, a figure that beams the light of a thousand suns.
My hand safe in my father’s, we walk into 770. It is chaos inside. A clamorous throng of visitors towers above me, a sea of black coats, and the undersides of beards. Before I know what’s happening, the rapid current of humanity pushing and shoving toward the Rebbe separates me from my father. Normally, this would petrify me, but I’m thrilled somehow, curious and anxious to see this holy man whom I’ve heard so many grownups speak of with such reverence. The rush of people continues to propel me forward, and all the while, I hear my father shouting my name in a panic, “Moshe, Moshe!” But where is this Rebbe?
“There you are!” My father’s giant hands grab my shoulders and pull me toward him. He lifts me into his unbreakable embrace, and I can feel the relief in his grasp. “Do you see him?”
I shake my head.
“There,” my father points. And there he is. I see an old man, a white beard, piercing blue eyes that seem to dance from view to view. But his spine is hunched over and he’s sitting in a wheelchair. Then the old man smiles. He seems to be… is he waving right at us? The swarm of people quickly propels us out of the room.
The Brooklyn cold seeps into my wandering thoughts. Shivering, I reach into my pocket for my ear buds. Music can soothe the racing mind. I stand on the corner with a tightlipped smile, searching for a song to accompany me on the dark walk home. Once again, I catch myself wishing I’d met the man; I’m disappointed he’s not around to light up the darkness.
This jubilant shout comes from behind. When I see the young bocher rushing toward me, his fringes blowing in the wind, I feel the blood leaving my face. I stare at him, utterly spellbound.
“Excuse me, sir,” he says, already reaching out with a tin Hanukia and a box full of light. “But are you Jewish?”