We see Rabbi X. walking down the streets of our small Southern city, and we see others staring at him. He wears the outfit of a Jew from Eastern Europe, circa1800—a long black wool coat, a fur hat—and it looks hot in the middle of a sunny North Carolina day. In October, we see him striding down the street carrying the lulav, the palm stalk that Jews wave in the direction of Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival. There is something strange and touching about him, one of a handful of Chasidic Jews in our city, a town with nothing but a small number of Jews in it, spread among the denominations of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
It is moving at first to see Rabbi X. I feel a sort of nostalgic bond with him. This is different from the way I felt about Chasidic Jews when I lived in New York City. On the streets of Manhattan, they would hand me leaflets about one aspect of Jewish observance or another, begging the question: how did they know I was one of them, a Jew? Back then, I felt as if they were trying to lure me into a world of complex, ancient rituals where I would be expected to spend all day in the kitchen making kosher meals and have a lot of babies. I always avoided the Chasidim in New York—but here in the South, Rabbi X. seems like a sweet representative from the Old World.
Then he comes knocking at our door.
Rabbi X. has moved to North Carolina to set up a Chabad, an outreach center of the Lubavitcher sect of ultra-orthodox Jews known as Chasidism. This does not affect me directly, or at least it should not. My family and I practice Reform Judaism, which focuses on a less-literal interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, the Torah. Unlike Chasidism, Reform Judaism allows women equal rights in religious practice, and it deemphasizes ritual in favor of things like social activism, which to me is the most compelling element of religion. But when Rabbi X. knocks on our door, it is the week of the High Holy Days and he is holding a traditional trumpet made of a ram’s horn, a shofar. “Can we blow the shofar for you?” he asks.
I say okay.
He steps into our home and blows the shofar. I have never heard the sound of a shofar in my home before; it sounds like we are not inside a living room in a small Southern city but perched on the edge of a desert cliff in the Sinai. The wail coming from the ram’s horn is ancient and wonderful.
Thank you, I say; we appreciate the visit. He stands in the living room, looking like he is thinking, and then he invites us to shabbat, the Friday night meal that marks the beginning of the Jewish sabbath.
Suddenly, I realize that I am a little bit afraid of Rabbi X; I am a little bit wary of having shabbat dinner with him.
The truth is that I am afraid of being absorbed. I am afraid that if I go to his house I will be somehow sucked into a vortex of Chasidism and find myself sitting on the other side of the synagogue from my husband (Chasidic worship is divided by gender) who will suddenly stop shaving and grow a long beard and side curls. I want to tell Rabbi X. that we have our own temple, our own rabbi, thank you. I do not want to be torn away from myself.
Months have gone by, and we have not yet been able to make it to shabbat with Rabbi X. He keeps inviting us, sweetly, to dinner at his house with his wife and children, and though we are somehow always busy, he keeps emailing us. Would this date work? How about this date? Would you like to come to a Chanukah party?
Finally, despite my fears, we went to the Chanukah party that Rabbi X. threw at a local restaurant. On the way over I worried quite a bit. What would it be like? Would there be endless prayers? Would it be boring? Would he try to entrap us into attending services?
Once there, we lined up with the dozens of other guests filing through the door. The restaurant, which had recently become kosher, the only kosher restaurant in the city, was packed; there was nowhere to sit. But the crowding felt festive, rather than uncomfortable, like an overflowing of family. There was a clown who did magic tricks for the kids. Rabbi X. lit the menorah and did a five-minute lecture on Chanukah, which was the right length for anyone, young or old. The kids got goodie bags. It was an excellent evening all around.
Heading home, the kids half asleep in the back of the car, it occurred to me that I had misunderstood Rabbi X. Sure, he would no doubt be delighted if I suddenly decided that I wanted to become a Chasid, but he wasn’t going to hypnotize me or trick me into taking that step—he wasn’t going to somehow, mysteriously absorb me. On the contrary, he seemed quite comfortable with who I am, and the ways in which he and I are different. Finally, I understood that if I gave up being afraid of him, I could actually relax and learn something from him, on my own terms. It’s an interesting idea. One of these days we may make it to shabbat dinner.