I received an email last week from Miryam, one of Humans of New York’s Orthodox Jewish fans. She informed me that the Chabad Jews would be having a “car menorah” parade on December 22nd. The Chabad Jews are known to New Yorkers as “the Crown Heights Jews.” Other synonyms include “the friendly Jews” and the “laid-back Jews.” They stand in contrast to their nearby brethren the ”Williamsburg Jews”– who are wonderful people I’m sure, but who lean towards Gentilephobia and can be a bit intimidating.
The Car Menorah parade was departing from Crown Heights at 5PM. I met Miryam a few minutes early. “Let’s see if we can get you in a car,” she said, “they are all lining up on President’s Street.”
We walked toward the parade’s starting point. Along the curb, many people were preparing their vehicles for the event. The vast majority of the “cars” in the parade were mini-vans. There seems to be a very strong covenant between the mini-van and the Jewish people. Many of the participants had elaborate, hand-wired menorahs that had been constructed weeks in advance. Then there were the slackers, who were hurriedly duct-taping puny, last-minute menorahs to their roofs.
“The cars will go first,” Miryam explained. “Then come the Mitzvah Tanks.” Miryam pointed down a side-street, where twenty to thirty RVs were parked bumper to bumper. “The Mitzah Tanks are a sort of outreach program for out-of-practice and non-observant Jews. After the parade, they park at various points around the city and hand out free menorahs. If you want, you can ride in a car. Or we could probably get you in a Mitzvah Tank.”
“Mitzvah Tank,” I said. Mitzvah Tank, Mitzvah Tank, Mitzvah Tank!
“Follow me,” she said. She marched up to the first RV in line and began knocking on the door. “Who’s in charge here?” she asked. A man popped his head out the door, and Miryam began conversing with him in Hebrew. Then she turned back to me: “You’re good,” she said. “This is a class of 12 and 13 year olds. Most of them will probably be named Mendel.”I shook the man’s hand. “I’m Brandon,” I said. “Thanks for letting me ride.”
“I’m Mendel,” he said. I followed him into the RV, which was packed full of young boys. “Attention everyone!” said Mendel, “we are going to have a photographer with us tonight!” Everyone cheered.
The kids were great. They made me feel very welcome. They found out my full name, and kept saying: “Brandon Stanton, the world’s most famous photographer!”
“As Jews,” one of them explained, “we must decide who you are. And this is what we have decided for you.”
Eventually it was time to leave. Our driver, Mendel, pulled off the curb, and we followed the parade into the dark Gentile night. We were motorized symbols of Hanukkah joy and ambassadors of the Jewish faith. But things turned sour fast. Our first snag came a half-mile down the road when we hit a red light. A large group of Gentile pedestrians had begun to cross the road. But our driver Mendel did not want to get separated from the parade. So he began inching into the crowd of pedestrians, simultaneously pumping the gas and the brakes. He punctuated his impatience by laying on the horn. The Gentile mob scattered in a panic as the RV pushed through the intersection. There was lots of screaming, angry eyes, and a few hand gestures. All the while, the dreidel song was blaring from the RV speakers: dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay. As the crowd fled from our vehicle, the kids leaned out the windows and screamed “Happy Hannukah!” This is not good, I thought. We were ambassadors of the Jewish faith. And the Jewish faith was trying to run people over.
But soon things were back on track. We rejoined the line of cars and began to snake our way through Brooklyn. The kids were having a great time. There were spontaneous outbursts of clapping and singing. There were inside jokes. Occasionally, instead of “Happy Hannukah,” one of the kids would scream “Happy Latke!” This was cause for general laughter. Every once in a while, when the RV was stopped, everyone would pour out and dance in the street.
Our leader Mendel was keeping everyone’s spirits high. He was doing nothing to dampen the kids’ enthusiasm, and often led the cheers and dances himself. Unfortunately, our driver Mendel would not always wait for everyone to get back in the RV before taking off again. He’d just start driving. Getting back on the RV was like a scene from Mission Impossible. I’d be running beside the RV, trying to throw kids inside, all the while banging on the side of the vehicle with my free hand: “STOP THE CAR. STOP DRIVING.” This guy was out of control. At one point, I tried to poll the kids to see if anyone else was sharing my frustration: “So what do you think about this driver?” I whispered to one of the younger Mendels. ”He’s out of control. Am I right?”
“He’s awesome!” replied Mendel.
“I know,” I said. “He’s out of control awesome. Happy Latke!” These Jews stick together.
As we crossed the East River and drove into Manhattan, the crowds grew larger. They were mostly all Gentiles. I was curious as to what our reception would be. The kids were leaning far out the window, shouting “Happy Hannukah!” to thousands and thousands of strangers. We were part of a huge line of motorized menorahs. The dreidel song was blaring. We could not possibly have been more Jewish. We were screaming Jewishness. And I was a little worried. In contrast to the enthusiastic kids, I was a bit world-weary and guarded. There’s a lot of anti-Semitism in the world, isn’t there? I scanned the faces of the spectators for signs of disgust or disapproval. But discounting one wacko who was holding a statue of the Virgin Mary into the air, everyone seemed to love us. These kids seemed blissfully unaware of the existence of prejudice. Deep in their hearts, they believed they were improving the lives of every person they wished a Happy Hannukah. And it turned out they were right.