There was one young man in the circle of seats who was obviously not Jewish....I was relieved that I would not seem ill-mannered if I didn't hand him a Chanukah kit.
It was Chanukah and I [Mrs. Nechama Berenshtein] was at the mall. I was in a hurry, though not to do last minute shopping. I had brought a group of young women students with me from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to a shopping mall in New Jersey so that we could give out Chanukah menora kits. As Lubavitcher Chasidim we were shopping for opportunities to encourage our fellow Jews to kindle the candles for the Festival of Lights.
The drive out to New Jersey had taken longer than I had anticipated and we needed to head back just 45 minutes after we arrived. I had to return to Brooklyn to give a lecture. I was preoccupied with pacing the entrance of the mall to make sure that the girls would regroup on time.
As I looked up from my watch for the umpteenth time, I noticed a circle of seats in the center of the food court of the mall. There were a number of women of all ages sitting on the seats, chatting, laughing, eating their food or drinks. "This is going to be very easy," I told myself, as I sized up the situation, noting that many of the girls and women looked Jewish.
There was one young man sitting by himself in the circle of seats, but he was obviously not Jewish. It wasn't even his purple and green hair or the earrings that pierced his ears and other body parts. He just had a decidedly non-Jewish look. Keeping in mind that the Lubavitcher Rebbe always encouraged women to approach women (and men to approach men), I was relieved that I would not seem ill-mannered if I didn't attempt to hand the young man a Chanukah kit.
I went amongst the women and girls, asking them if they were Jewish and if they would like Chanukah menora kits. The Jewish women responded positively and eagerly took the kits. Some of them even asked if I had Shabbat candle lighting brochures with me, as well.
I spoke with the last of the women and turned to leave. I looked at my watch again and noted that I was at the end of the allotted 45 minutes. I quickly began walking toward the mall entrance to meet my students.
I hadn't walked more than a few steps when I heard someone say, "Nechama, go back."
Now, to be honest, I'm not the kind of person who hears voices. But then it came again, "Nechama, go back."
"Leave me alone," I protested. But it wouldn't.
"Nechama, go back and ask him if he's Jewish."
"What can it hurt?" I asked myself. So I turned around and started walking toward the young man, who was in the midst of munching on some kind of McDonalds concoction and drinking a huge soda. An order of fries, liberally sprinkled with ketchup, was perched on his knee.
"Excuse me, are you Jewish?" I asked him.
The next thing I knew, I was covered in soda, ketchup and mustard. The young man had been so shocked by my question that he had dropped everything. After apologizing profusely, he asked, "Please tell me, why did you ask me if I'm Jewish?"
To this day, I don't know how or why these words popped into my mind, but I said quite confidently, "You look Jewish!"
And then I heard a sob erupt from what could only have been the depths of his heart. The young man began to cry, but stopped and said, "Say that again, please."
"You look Jewish," I said once more. A new torrent of tears was unleashed. But once again, he stopped himself and asked, "Please, say that again." And I did a third time.
After calming himself down, the young man told me the following:
"My mother was Jewish but my father was not. Though my mother didn't really care about religion -- they celebrated all of the non-Jewish holidays at home -- she was adamant that I go to a Jewish school.
"Everyday in school, the other children used to mock me. It wasn't because we didn't celebrate the Jewish holidays at home; they didn't know that. It was because I was a carbon copy of my father. I look exactly like him. The kids in school used to say, 'Why are you here? You don't look Jewish. Why are you wearing tzitzit and a kipah, you don't look Jewish.' And it's true. I don't look Jewish at all. Day after day the children mocked me. I would return home each day in tears. My father begged my mother to let me leave the school. 'Look how miserable he is,' he would say to my mother. After a few years of mockery and torture, my mother agreed with my father and let me leave the Jewish day school and go to public school.
"To this day, I remember the mockery," the young man said, wincing in pain. "Today, I was sitting here and I was watching you go over to all of the women and girls, asking them if they are Jewish. 'G-d,' I said, 'I'm not guilty that I'm not doing anything Jewish. Look, this girl will go over to everyone else, but she won't come over to me, to ask me if I am Jewish. I don't look like a Jew!' As you neared the end of the circle, I looked up to G-d and said, 'I will even prove that I am righteous. If this girl will come over and ask me if I am Jewish, then I will give You another chance.' When you left, I said, 'Aha. You see, G-d!'
"And then, you turned around and walked back toward me. Well, now I guess I have to give G-d another chance."
I gave the young man a Chanukah menorah kit, and the phone number of his local Chabad-Lubavitch Center and we parted.
I do not know if he ever contacted the Chabad Center. But I do
know that the tiny flame in each one of us, even if it is untended or G-d forbid,
it is mocked, burns eternally within every Jew.
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