For the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, it is a mitzvah (good deed) to waive a lulav (branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; i.e. – a big bundle of leaves and branches) and etrog (special type of citrus fruit) in six directions (east, south, west, north, above and below) each day for seven days. When I was a kid in Hebrew school, we did this. I have not done it in ages.
However, in New York City at this time of year, it is very common to see groups of young Chabad Hasidic men wandering around with lulavs and etrogs. They approach random people on the street (generally those with white skin, brown hair, and brown eyes, or those with larger noses). “Are you Jewish?” they will ask.
Generally, people ignore them or mumble no. The proselytizers usually let those people pass, as there are many people on the street to stop and single out as potentially Jewish. Once in a while, someone will say yes, and they will ask that person if he or she wants to engage in the mitzvah of shaking the lulav and etrog. If the person says yes, they help them, which is nice. If they say no, they let the person move on.
I was not surprised during rush hour yesterday evening to find a particularly sweaty Chabadnik on the subway, holding his lulav tightly. I figured he was heading home after a hard day of work. It turned out that he was not done with his outreach. In this case, people didn’t have anywhere to go, and he didn’t take no for an answer.
I watched for a few minutes as he harassed a woman standing near me after she made the mistake of admitting that she was Jewish.
“Do you want to shake the lulav?” he asked.
“No,” she said. Her facial expression was very clear that she wanted him to go away.
“But it’s a mitzvah. You need to shake the lulav.”
“I don’t want to,” she said again. And again. Because he kept asking her, until he finally gave up and moved on to an Asian guy.
“Are you Jewish?” the sweaty beard asked.
Asian guy wisely said no. Then Chabad looked at me. I knew that I would be nasty if he asked me, and I knew that he would ask me.
“Are you Jewish?” he asked. He seemed somewhat desperate.
“Yes, I’m Jewish,” I said, “and no, I do not want to shake your lulav. Get it away from me.” I wanted to laugh after I said it because it sounded so loaded with innuendo. This did not stop him from trying to shove it in my face.
“But it’s a mitzvah to shake it.”
“How is pushing people to shake a lulav against their will a mitzvah? Doesn’t that seem wrong?” I said. OK, I kind of yelled. I was pretty annoyed.
“I’m not pushing anyone,” he said.
“Then why are you bothering me? I said I don’t want to touch your lulav. Stop asking me and get away.”
He made a face at me, and moved a bit down the subway car. It was decently crowded so he couldn’t go very far. I heard him harassing another person, insisting that he had to shake the lulav because it was a mitzvah.
A few minutes later, the subway came to my stop. The Hasid was now near the door, clutching his lulav like a weapon of destruction. As I moved passed him to exit the train, we made eye contact.
“Happy Sukkas,” he said in a nasty tone.
“Chag sameach,” I sneered at him.