The Mitzvah Tank and the Parking Ticket

Article excerpt

Life has a habit of throwing up images that even the most fertile of imaginations could not invent. There I was, strolling through Crown Heights, Brooklyn -- an area nearly equally divided between blacks and Lubavitcher Chasidim -- when what should I spy but a New York City parking ticket tucked under the wiper blade of an oversized vehicle affectionately known as the "Mitzvah tank." In much the same way that bloodmobiles roll into a shopping mall and offer to check people's blood pressure, Mitzvah tanks carry the good news about Jewish observance, and the Jewish soul, in college campuses and selected sites in midtown Manhattan. They approach (some would say "accost") men on 53rd Street and ask them, point-blank but politely, if they are Jewish. Say "No" and the Lubavitchers quickly move on. However, say "Yes" and the next question will invariably be, "Have you put on tefillin today?" And pretty soon the man, reluctant or not, finds himself inside the tank, winding leather straps around his arms and reciting the ancient blessings.

The parking ticket on the Mitzvah tank represents in powerful miniature the collision between the sacred and the secular that comes with the territory of life in America. And while I kept sniffing out layers of irony in the clash between Mammon and the eternal, my host took all this -- and my metaphors -- in stride. After all, he said (the he being Zalman Shmotkin, public relations director for Lubavitch), our Chasidim are more involved with the world than most -- and not only in terms of selling state of the art electronic equipment or diamonds. True enough, they are aware of secular temptation, but they also realize that one renders to Caesar what is Caesar's (no matter that the sentiment is lifted from the New Testament, it applies with equal force in Crown Heights), and that parking tickets are part of the business of doing business. Nonetheless, to see the Mitzvah tank ticketed on Kingston Avenue, just a short block from the Lubavitchers' main headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, struck me as too delicious an irony to overlook.

After all, during 1972, I lived with the Lubavitchers on a day-to-day basis, studying Talmud in their school and celebrating the Jewish holidays with various Chasidic families. Put charitably, I was a near bust at the former (gematria turned out not to be my strong suit, and much of their mysticism struck me as, well, "mysticism"); I did much better with the latter, as I came to see the individual Chasid as, well, an individual. For all the insistence that they were so many puppets and that the Rebbe Menachem Schneerson was their puppet-master, what I saw suggested otherwise.

In short, I developed a good feel for the human side of people with earlocks, broad-brimmed black hats, black suits, white shirts, and white fringes just sticking their heads out at pocket level. To lump them, as is often the case, with other ultra-Orthodox Jews is simultaneously correct (so far as generalizations go) and rather off the mark -- for what distinguishes the Lubavitcher Chasidim is a commitment to spiritual outreach that now literally circles the globe. They are, in short, the very opposite of those separatists who regard nearly everything about the secular world with suspicion, and from a distance. …