Blindsided by their rapid approach before we made it to the corner of Church St. and Chicago, a young hatted Chabad Lubavitch student asked my husband Mark:
Excuse me. Are you Jewish?
Yes, he said,
Is your mother Jewish? “
Do you have Shabbat candles?
Yes, we echoed each other.
Friday mornings before sunset, Chabad Lubavitch hand out candles all over the world. These men wanted to help us to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. Years ago, on a Friday morning in Canada, as my daughter and I watched the powerful Niagara Falls, two Chabad Lubavitchers offered me candles. Uncomfortable in their presence because I thought I’d never be Jewish enough in their eyes, I didn’t accept the candles.
In Evanston Illinois, before we met our daughter at her university, they had candles for us too.
Read this, the short one with curly strawberry blond hair said, and handed me a Chabad newsletter.
Shabbat Shalom, they said.
Shabbat Shalom, I responded. How did they know you’re Jewish? I asked Mark.
X-Ray vision. They look for circumcision. Didn’t you notice the short one? He’s the perfect height to check me out. Hah, very funny, I said.
We walked faster in the brisk air by the steps of the library where an array of homeless people sunned next to their bags. The homeless of Evanston were a sharp contrast to those who ate outside the numerous cafes and sandwich shops, talking, and laughing surrounded in an air of academia. Students dressed in shorts and flip flops for the first day of spring fever clashed with the aged wrapped in down jackets and heavy sweaters. The sun was out, but I felt the chill off Lake Michigan and stopped to zip my jacket. After crossing Sherman Avenue, we went inside the bookstore to warm up and browse. Outside the bookstore, I noticed the Lubavitchers had reappeared, one short and one tall. “
Aren’t those the two we saw near Peets? I asked.
No, they’re different, Mark said. They’re everywhere..
Are you Jewish? they asked Mark. Would you like to put on Tefillin?
One held up a Ziploc bag containing the tefillin, the little black boxes with prayers inside, attached to leather straps to be wrapped around the man’s head and arms before prayer.
No thanks, I’m ok, he said.
They held up the bag again, but this time, they asked with their eyebrows raised. My husband nodded his head in a refusal. We were about to walk away, when a man ran by in a red t-shirt and shorts and stopped in front of the Lubavitchers, stared at the men, waiting for the question:
Are you Jewish? The man didn’t respond.
Is your mother Jewish? In a circle, we waited as he worked on a response.
I don’t know, he said. Does it count if my Bubbe was hidden for two years from the Nazis in a basement in Brussels?His nostrils flared; his face reddened.
Does that make me a Jew?
Yes, they said.
You hit your Dunbar number. You pathetic pieces of shit. Fuck you! the man said and stepped off the curb. In the middle of the street, he spun around, raised both arms high with his middle fingers erect and screamed,
Fuck you assholes!
Stunned by the man’s anger, the Lubavitchers remained on the corner. Mark guided me towards campus and away from the man’s fury. Their question had provoked the man in red, set him off about his grandmother being hidden during the holocaust. Had his Bubbe shared stories that terrified? Maybe he suffered from intergenerational trauma?
I’m uncomfortable when asked the question because I don’t think I’m religious enough for the Chabad. It’s why when I have seen them on street corners that I walk the other way, to avoid the question. I know that the mission of the Chabad Lubavitch is to encourage me to light candles on Friday nights, to give charity daily, to read holy books, to keep a kosher home, and six more mitzvot, to do Judaism their way. I’ve chosen to do it my way. Our sabbath is simple and has its own sweetness when we light the candles, reflect, and pause at the end of the week.