Give the Mitzvah Tank a Makeover


By Emily Bobrow

Published September 29, 2010, issue of October 08, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The sound of Hasidic music blasting from tinny speakers can inspire dread in the hearts of some Jews. The tune portends contact with men straight out of Shalom Aleichem’s shtetl. With their beards and peyes, their black suits and beseeching eyes, these merry soldiers in the Rebbe’s religious army will inevitably approach and deliver a challenge disguised as a question: Are you Jewish?

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, first conceived of these tanks in 1974 as mobile combat units in the war for the American Jewish soul. “A tank is undeterred by trenches and pits,” he explained, so in enemy territory these tanks can press forward, “to dispel evil and introduce good and godliness into the world.”

The concept is grand, but the effect is more complicated. By presenting Judaism as an internecine war, the mission inevitably puts recruits on the defensive. Some Jews are certainly moved by the chance to engage in ritual, but many are left cold by this point-system approach to spiritual fulfillment. Few estranged Yids care to be tangled in leather straps in the back of some van.

The Mitzvah Tank could use a makeover. Let’s start with the name. Why not something more stylish, like the “J Jitney”? And instead of those gas-guzzling vans and RVs, why not go green with a hybrid truck? As for the music, maybe it’s time to diversify the current playlist, which features a single Hebrew song (lyrics: “Messiah! Messiah! Messiah! Oy yoy yoy yoy yoy yoy!”). Let’s add a mix of Matisyahu and Gogol Bordello, with a bit of Leonard Cohen on rainy days.

The missionaries needn’t be so zealously confrontational. Jews and non-Jews could be welcomed with a shooter of cholent, a mini bagel and maybe a nice piece of honey cake. The atmosphere itself would be one of a salon, delicately immersing guests in the fruits of contemporary Jewish wisdom. A screen may feature some films by Woody Allen. A corner may feature a reading of selections of “Operation Shylock,” or perhaps a d’var Torah. The fact that the founder of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk, was Jewish might be mentioned.

The point is to create a thoughtful Jewish atmosphere, which must inevitably include heavy hits of anxiety mixed with vague pride. Thus inspired, anyone can then go and seek out the reasons for all of those mitzvot.

Emily Bobrow is an arts correspondent for The Economist and the editor of More Intelligent Life.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.