Tuesday, January 17, 2006

‘Are you Jewish?’ Yes, I am!

Senior Staff Reporter
— Cleveland Heights, Dec. 28 -
“Are you Jewish?”
That’s the last question I expect to hear while walking home from Coventry Road on a Thursday night. “Ya got a quarter?” maybe, but never “Are you Jewish?”
My inquisitor on this cold Cleveland night is a bearded young man in his early-20s. He is standing in front of a midsize RV parked in a lot next to the now defunct Medic Drug. Faint strains of klezmer music emanate from the vehicle; a banner on the side reads “Welcome to the Menorah Mobile.”
The smiling young guy is wearing a gray scarf and the black Borsalino-style hat favored by Orthodox men. It’s 11 p.m. on a work night and I’m tired, but the guy is so open and friendly, I can’t help but respond.
“Yeah, I’m Jewish,” I say. As this is the fourth day of Chanukah, the guy immediately invites me inside the RV to light the menorah. The warm, glowing interior of the vehicle is filled with similarly bearded and behatted young men.
All five of these guys, I discover, are Chabad yeshiva students hailing from Cleveland, Detroit and Tzfat, Israel, respectively. Three of them study in Brooklyn, N.Y., while the other two attend yeshiva in Morristown, N.J.
Chabad engages in public menorah lightings around the world, from Azerbaijan to New Zealand, at parks, stadiums, shopping malls, and other venues. In Venice the menorah is lit on a gondola; in Paris the Eiffel Tower serves as backdrop for the much-loved ceremony.
The RV is a “beautiful twist” on Chabad’s mission to spread the “miracle of Chanukah,” explains Rabbi Yossi Marozov of Chabad of Cleveland.
Marozov knows not every Jew has his own menorah or can attend a public lighting ceremony. Therefore, “you have to go outside and make people part of the miracle.”
Inside my “miracle” on wheels, I shake hands all around and explain that I’m a reporter with a local Jewish newspaper. I try to conduct an impromptu interview with one of the yeshiva guys, but there’s too much activity happening in and around the RV to get into a real conversation.
A bar patron from across the street, for example, is enthusiastically telling the group about Jewish life in Italy. Two pretty young women pose in front of the vehicle as someone takes their picture with a camera phone. One of my hosts asks them if they’re Jewish. “We’re Catholic!” they chirp in unison.
Amidst all this mishegoss, I stop being a reporter and decide to enjoy the moment. A tray filled with tin menorahs, many of them burning brightly, sits on a small table. My new friend hands me a pamphlet written in Hebrew and asks me to start the candle-lighting ceremony.
I don’t read Hebrew, so I read the transliterated prayer instead. It’s been years since I’ve done this myself, but childhood memories of the ornate menorah dripping wax onto my parents’ kitchen table gives me the confidence to light the shamash and complete the ceremony.
I didn’t get any interviews that night, but I caught up with one of my yeshiva guys this week. Sholom Mendelson, 23, along with his brother Yisroel, spent five days in Cleveland giving away menorahs and spreading joy. Three nights were spent on Coventry’s lively bar strip. Other stops included a bowling alley in Solon and several offices along Mayfield Road.
After a failed excursion to downtown’s Warehouse District one night, the boys parked their RV in front of the House of Blues, where Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James was celebrating his 21st birthday.
The guys did not see LeBron (he’s not Jewish anyway), but they did meet a half-Jewish valet. The valet lit a menorah outside the RV while police and bystanders looked on.
“We wanted to spread light,” remarks Mendelson, a native of Cleveland Heights. “People like it; it brings them happiness.”
I was happy when I left the RV with my very own tin menorah and Chanukah candles. I’ve never owned a menorah before, and I spent the rest of the holiday saying prayers and lighting candles.
Chabad’s menorah-equipped RVs have been roaming the country for 20 years, says Rabbi Marozov. As it happens, I wasn’t the only one who received a Chanukah surprise this year.
Brad Schlang, a financial adviser from Cleveland, e-mailed Marozov this note:
So, I’m in Chicago. We were planning on staying with my sister, but our plans changed at the last minute and we took a hotel room downtown. We forgot to pack our menorah since we were planning on celebrating with my sister and her family.
Disappointed, we left dinner and started walking down Michigan Avenue towards the hotel. Next thing we know, there is a giant menorah driving down the street. We walk by the John Hancock building, and who should be standing there, but a couple of yeshiva boys asking passers-by if they are Jewish. They proceed to give us our very own menorah, compliments of Chabad.
We are now sitting in our room on the fifteenth floor overlooking Michigan Avenue with our candles burning brightly in the window for holiday shoppers to see.
Another miracle of Chanukah.

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