Cirque du Soleil could not have staged the spectacle. More than 4,000 men, almost all in black and bearded and topped off with black hats or yarmulkes bouncing up and down in a gigantic conga line that swirls around table after table after hundreds of tables in the gigantic warehouse-like space of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, which is lit like a prom-dance-disco, complete with crystal chandeliers and a revolving center stage. And all the rabbis are singing in unison.
It was the finale of the 2013 convention of the Chabad Lubavitcher Shluchim, literally, the “emissaries” of an Orthodox Jewish movement that had its origins in a town called Lyubavich in Czarist Russia but which is now headquartered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The shluchim had assembled from 84 different countries and their exuberance swamped the space from wall to wall to wall to wall. The occasional youngster or younger rabbi was tossed in the air or borne on the shoulders of friends. Everyone seemed delighted to be there; everyone seemed ready to go back out into the world to do what they believed was divinely inspired work—if only for the chance to return and celebrate that work next year, in Brooklyn.
My hat could not approximate the stiff but elegant flatness of Hasidic headgear.
As the grandson of a fiery evangelical Chinese Presbyterian preacher, I felt awkward as I prepared to observe the Chabad annual. I wore a dress jacket and put on my favorite black hat, which I figured would evince some respect in a room full of men with their heads covered. My hat, however, had a brim that curled and as much as I tried to flatten the edges, it could not approximate the stiff but elegant flatness of Hasidic headgear.
A cop stopped me on the three- or four-block walk into the terminal. It also happened to be Marathon Sunday in New York, and the NYPD had been on alert all day, what with memories of Boston’s tragic race earlier this year. A huge gathering of Orthodox Jews did not exactly make the day any easier for the police. The officer looked at me—a Filipino-Chinese with a scruffy attempt at a beard, a black hat, a grey jacket and jeans, with a thick pocket key chain looping from my waist—and said she had to radio for an OK to allow me in. She did not seem moved when I said I was with the press.
Fortunately, I was able to utter the right name–Motti Seligson, the savvy and personable Lubavitcher P.R. guru (if that word is applicable to a rabbi)—and was soon ushered through metal detectors to join the gathered faithful. Motti doesn’t dress any differently from his co-religionists but he is one of the coolest guys I know. In fact, all off the shluchim—the emissaries–I spoke to were incredibly nice to me.
Yet some people find the Chabad unnerving. The day after I attended the Lubavitcher assembly I joined a special foodie event at one of my favorite restaurants and happened to be seated at a table with a lively and cosmopolitan retired physician who had grown up in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants, who spoke movingly of how his mother used to shop and prepare chicken in old New York. At one point during dinner conversation, he asked if we had seen the news stories about the thousands of rabbis who had gathered in Brooklyn When I happily volunteered that I had been at their big dance the night before, the doctor smiled wryly and described how he had been approached by the representatives of the Chabad on the street several times during his life. They asked him “Are you a Jew? Are you a Jew?” They wanted him to leave his secular ways, he said, and come back to the fold. He had been accosted so often, he said, that he had stopped saying he was Jewish. He recalled the story of a young female relative living in Scandinavia who fell in with the Chabad and joined them. Because the Lubavitchers are strict believers in Jewishness being passed on matrilineally, there is a premium, he hinted, to attracting young women of Jewish descent to Chabad. I felt as if he were describing a cult.