“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 nonreligious Jews to ritual practice. But they also have another 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 the subject: “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 one of the intermediate days of Sukkot, on a subway ride to Central Park, Yisroel and Levi Pekar, 25-year-old twins from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, described their three-prong formula for “prospecting.” Yisroel, a teacher at a yeshiva, wore the typical Chabad uniform: a long black suit coat over black slacks. Levi wore a green sweater vest underneath a dark blazer; he is the assistant rabbi of the Hillel at Brookyln’s Pratt Institute. The brothers are experienced “mitzvah campaigners” — Yisroel claims to have administered the ritual to Jon Stewart and Levi says he prayed with Natalie Portman.
First, Yisroel said, “we call it ‘racial profiling.’ Who looks Jewish?” (When asked to clarify later, Yisroel said 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 is Jewish, Yisroel said. If you exclude African Americans and Asians, your odds are closer to one in three. (But it’s not a rule, the brothers conceded. 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? The person reacts to the question with anger, like the man on the subway who said “I’m not religious” when Yisroel approached him. “He didn’t ignore me,” Yisroel said. “In essence: mission accomplished.”