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.