“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
It’s a question heard on the streets of New York and other cities this time of year as members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement approach other Jews and ask them to shake the lulav and the etrog — a sheath of palm fronds and a citrus fruit — in observance of Sukkot.
Chabad’s so-called “mitzvah campaigns,” which take place on several major Jewish holidays, endeavor to expose non-religious Jews to ritual practice. But they also have another, ulterior motive: to advance the number of mitzvahs in the world to hasten the arrival of the messiah.
For the thousands of Chabadniks who comb city streets in pairs over Sukkot, efficiency is paramount — they aim to discern who is Jewish before they even broach, “Excuse me…” But it’s not easy figuring out who is a member of the tribe and who is not, even in the most Jewish city in America.
On the second to last day of Sukkot, Yisroel and Levi Pekar, a pair of 25-year-old twins from Crown Heights, describe their three-prong formula for “prospecting” on a subway ride to Central Park. Yisroel, a teacher at a yeshiva, wears the typical Chabad uniform: a long black suit coat over black slacks. Levi wears a green sweater vest underneath a dark blazer; he is the assistant rabbi at the Hillel at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
First, said Yisroel, “we call it ‘racial profiling.’ Who looks Jewish?” (When asked to clarify later, Yisroel says it’s not about the nose — a “broad, clear forehead with no creases” indicates a non-Jew, while Jews’ foreheads are sometimes lined.) Next is detecting a subtle vibe of recognition, a process that Levi calls “bageling.” Third is playing the statistics game. One out of every five people in New York City are Jewish, said Yisroel. If you exclude African Americans and Asians, your odds are closer to one in three. (But it’s not a rule, the brothers concede. There was the time that Yisroel “did etrog” with a “homeless black guy” who said he was Jewish.)
Another surefire way to tell if someone’s Jewish? They react to your question with anger, like the man on the subway who said, “I’m not religious,” when Yisroel approached him moments earlier. “He didn’t ignore me,” said Yisroel. “In essence: mission accomplished.”
And if an obviously Jewish person answers the question with an adamant “no”? They’re not there to push an agenda. But ten years down the line, Levi says, maybe the person who said “no” will remember the interaction, and will make a choice to embrace his or her Judaism.
Exiting the subway at the Museum of Natural History, the brothers head into Central Park and pass a row of people sitting on park benches. “My goal is to get as many as possible,” said Yisroel. “Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish?” he asks. No luck. Where to next? “You feel divine providence,” said Yisroel. “I’m just walking and God will send me my people.”
They come to a grassy hill, where a white-haired man is leaning over a baby carriage. “Are you Jewish?” asks Yisroel. “That’s a racist question and it’s inappropriate,” comes the response. They turn a corner and pause next to a hotdog stand. It’s time for a bathroom break.
A woman wearing a “visitor services” badge asks if they’d like a map to find the bathroom. “Are you by any chance Jewish?” asks Yisroel. She is. She hesitates for a moment — she’s running late — and then agrees to let the brothers administer the blessing, their first mitzvah of the outing. Yisroel hands her the lulav and the etrog and asks her to repeat after him. Levi explains the meaning of the ritual — the four species represent four types of Jewish people, all bound together in good deeds.
“I like connecting to my Jewish roots,” she says. “This is a cool concept: to talk to people and get them engaged.”
The little patch of park turns out to be an auspicious locale for the brothers. A couple walks by. “Are you Jewish?” “No, I’m German,” the man, with a thick Israeli accent, says jokingly. Yisroel and Levi respond to him in Hebrew, and an easy camaraderie sets in. The man takes the lulav and etrog while his companion snaps photographs on her iPhone.
As Yisroel and Levi walk away, they analyze the encounter. “He was planning his response. He was dying to say that he’s German,” says Levi. “He knew it would trigger our reaction: ‘There’s no way in hell.’”
Next, they pass an elderly woman. “Are you Jewish?” “No, I’m not, but I grew up with Jewish people and I embrace you all,” she says.
Two Israelis later, Yisroel and Levi come across a man in a crisp linen shirt tucked into jeans. He’s walking a dog and talking on a cell phone. He slows down as the brothers approach and puts the phone in his pocket. Is he Jewish? “I’m not religious,” he says. “I have absolutely no idea, I haven’t been to temple in 20 years.” He grins as Yisroel hands him the lulav and etrog, stumbling over the word “va’higiy’anu” in the Shehecheyanu prayer.
“It’s, like, socially awkward not to say yes,” he says.
Yisroel and Levi continue on. “Are you Jewish?” Yisroel asks a woman with a radiology textbook in hand. “Of course she is!” says Levi. She says the blessing. Minutes later, five Israelis on bikes slow down. One by one, they take the lulav and etrog in hand. Three more people stop by, and then another two. The brothers move quickly from person to person. In nearly two hours they’ve talked to about 100 people; fewer than two dozen have done the ritual.
The Forward’s photographer snaps the encounters. Levi asks him: “Are you Jewish?”
Around 2 p.m., the brothers walk into a pavilion, where a young viola player is eking out a mournful tune. Yisroel looks at his brother: “Do you want to ask the violinist if he’s Jewish?” “I do want to ask the violinist if he’s Jewish,” Levi replies, also mistaking the viola for a violin.
The pair walk slowly by the player’s open case, which is filled with coins and bills. Then, a distraction: more Israelis. At first, they reject the lulav and etrog. Then jokingly, dramatically, the Israelis give in.
The viola player pauses between songs and Yisroel jots over. Is he Jewish? No, but he has a Jewish name: Tobias Kramer Roth.
A reporter asks Roth if he minded the interruption. “I thought it was great,” he says. “I’m interested in all things Jewish myself. I’m a Latter Day Saint.”