Shofar, sho good?

I had other things on my mind on the day this article came out, but I promised myself I would get around to writing about it eventually. Today, midway (almost) between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, seems like a good time.

The article is titled “A Booming Sect Sends Jewish Emissaries Abroad.” The subtitle reads, “The Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Hasidism consists of rabbi-and-wife teams that proselytize. Some call the movement extreme.”

Extreme Hasidim? What, do they daven while bungee jumping out of airplanes?

Chabad critics say the statistics are evidence that the movement is clannish, with an unhealthy devotion to its late leader, viewed by some as the Messiah, and with overly aggressive tactics.

“They have this sense of manifest destiny to promulgate, to proselytize, to spread the word everywhere, every day, throughout the world,” said Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa journalism professor. His best-selling book, “Postville,” chronicled the clash of cultures between residents of a small Iowa town and Lubavitchers who moved to the Midwest to operate a kosher slaughterhouse.

“For them, this is a deadly serious holy war,” he added.

After that terrifying warning, don’t you expect graphic tales of these “overly aggressive tactics?” But the article has nothing. In fact, only one other “critic” is cited at all, and her words seem less dire:

Stephanie Wellen Levine, author of “Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls,” spent a year living in Crown Heights and witnessed the pressure placed on the children of rabbis to become emissaries.


“They are passionate about their beliefs, their lifestyle, and it’s a beautiful thing for many of them,” Levine said. “On the other hand, I would not say this is proof that they have the truth or the way. It works for them.”

This apparent contradiction led me to look more closely at Mr. Bloom. According to Salon, his book, “Postville,” chronicles his own experiences perhaps more than those of the town and community. He uses his Jewish background to gain access to the Lubavitcher community.

Eventually Bloom and his son, Mikey, do eat a lavish Sabbath dinner (Hasidic women can do little besides cook and clean house), but it comes at a price — they become the targets of the Hasidic community’s evangelical zeal. (One of the sect’s primary goals is to bring nonobservant Jews to the true path.)

Says the New York Times,

Mr. Bloom is better at describing the fascinating situation in Postville than at analyzing it or placing it in moral or historic context. He does draw conclusions. He makes clear that his sympathies lie with the local people against the Lubavitchers, whose especially obtuse insularity leads them to bad behavior.

“What the Postville Hasidim ultimately offered me was a glimpse at the dark side of my own faith,” he writes, “a look at Jewish extremists whose behavior not only made the Postville locals wince, but made me wince, too.”

I’m not claiming that the Hasidim are faultless (I’ve seen how they drive), but I am bothered both by the LA Times’ dual failure to contextualize Bloom’s statements and to support its claims that Chabad-Lubavitch is “aggressive” with concrete evidence. Hasidic emissaries ask passers-by, “are you Jewish?” rather than trying to “make disciples of all nations,” or knocking on doors, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Sure, they have the Mitzvah Mobile, but how intimidating is that?

On Sunday, Husband and I had a direct encounter with the “overly aggressive” group. As we were walking through the busy Farmers Market, three young Hasidic men passed us. One of them turned and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

“Yes . . .” Shoot me. I was curious.

“Would you like to hear the Shofar for Rosh Hashanah?” He whipped the ram’s horn out of his coat and held it up.

“Sure,” I smiled.

“Okay, repeat after me,” and he led me through the Rosh Hashanah prayer. I remembered most of it, but stumbled at the shehechiyanu. When we finished, he lifted the horn to his lips and began to blow.

Toooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooot. I smiled and began to thank him, but was cut off. Toooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooot. Toooooooooooot-toooooot-tooot-tooot-tooot-tooot-toooooooooooooooooooot. It just kept going. I elbowed Husband, who was trying (and failing) to stifle his giggles. Toooooooooooot-toooooot-tooot-tooot-tooot-toooooooot-toot. People were staring. Eventually, the now red-faced young man lowered the horn. I thanked him; he nodded and walked away.

He didn’t press literature on me. He didn’t harangue me. He didn’t threaten me with supernatural punishment. He just tooted for an awkwardly long time in a public place. And who among us hasn’t done that at least once?

Seemed like a “deadly serious holy war” to me, all right.


14 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Laurie Ann said,

    I see no difference between the Lubavitchers and any of the many other religiou groups out there. Pressure on the kids to follow the church and become rabbis? How many Pastors’ children out there DIDN’T get that. Even my Catholic friends were “encouraged” to consider the priesthood or join a convent.
    “They have this sense of manifest destiny to promulgate, to proselytize, to spread the word everywhere, every day, throughout the world,”–and this is different from televangelists or the people who wake me up Saturday mornings?

    Is this group considered aggressive because they’re Jews? I’d say it’s about time the Jews get into the game.

  2. 2

    uccellina said,

    That’s what I’m thinking, Laurie Ann. They don’t even bother to talk about the Christian proselytizing because everyone’s so accustomed to it.

  3. 3

    mom said,

    It may interest you to know that your great- uncle LArry (on my father’s side) claimed to have given the Mitzvah-Mobile its name when he lived in Crown Heights. The Lubavitchers drove him crazy but he never called them extremists. Just irritating.

  4. 4

    Red Diabla said,

    Reading all this makes me wanna watch “The Hebrew Hammer” again.

  5. 5

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    Heh. He tooted at you. 🙂

  6. 6

    Gwen said,

    I was approached once in college, while visiting UMass Amherst — My friend Elisa and I were having a cigarette before our comedy troupe was supposed to perform. A young Hasidic man approached us and asked Elisa, “Are you a Jew?” She immediately said “No, but SHE is!” and pointed at me. I was a little worried about getting chewed out, seeing as how Shabbat was about to start, and I was standing outside in pants, smoking, and obviously not on my way to services. The guy gave me a long song-and-dance about how I needed to light a special candle and say a special prayer, and then G-d would send me a Jewish boyfriend. He then gave me a bunch of literature and left.

    The whole thing was perfectly polite, much more so than encounters I’ve had with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (and let’s not even start on the Scientologists). The only thing that remotely offended me was the guy’s assumption that I was single.

  7. 7

    sb said,

    Nice post, as usual.

    I wanna see the mitzvah mobile. That might be even better than the peeps bus

  8. 8

    uccellina said,

    sb: Oh noes! I loves it!

  9. 9

    A said,

    if we’d had a mitzvah mobile anything like the peeps bus when I was a kid, I might still be practising. (Actually if there had more emphasis on mitzvahs that might have done it too)(um, doubtful, but possible)

  10. 10

    Carolyn J. said,

    I’m wondering how the guy knew you were Jewish? Or was he just asking everyone?

  11. 11

    uccellina said,

    Carolyn J: He wasn’t asking everyone; I assume something about me triggered his Jew-dar.

  12. 12

    Faith said,

    I have a lot to say about this. I actually admire and resent the Lubavitchers and am very very very annoyed, and frankly just a tad pissed off by them. I wish I had more time to write it all. I’ll probably do my next blog post on this. Yeesh. Had to get that off my chest… See y’all tomorrow.

  13. 13

    desiknitter said,

    There’s a Chabad cultural center near where I live and as I passed by there the other day one of the men leaned over the fence and asked me the same question: “are you a Jewish woman?” I said no (not as adventurous as you, Uccellina!) and he said, “Happy new year to you”, I thanked him and moved on. Now he smiles and waves whenever he sees me, which is nearly every day.

    I think it’s fascinating and deeply troubling that religiosity and identity is being expressed in these proselytising ways and that groups that didn’t have evangelism as part of their faith are also “getting into the game” in order to be on some global radar of religious visibility, or worse, survival. Some Hindus are doing it too: “converting” tribal groups who are on the ambivalen fringes of Hindu society and “reconverting” (sometimes aggressively) those who embrace Christianity or Islam.

  14. 14

    Hyphen said,

    The only Hasidic jew I’ve spent time with lately was very, very aggressive in trying to get a jewish friend of mine to go to her house to dinner, to be proper, etc. She wouldnt take no for an answer, and was aggressive to the point of obnoxiousness. She told my friend that she considered it a divine thing to…I dont know if convert is the word, but to “convert” a Jewish person to her religioius point of view.

    I just object generally to people trying to convert others to their religion, or politics, or point of view. A reasoned discussion, fine, but people who think they have all the right answers all the time offend me.

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