September 19, 2018

A Smile Unto the Nations

On a recent Friday evening, I walked up my street at a brisk pace. One of the great blessings in my life is Rabbi Yekusiel Kalmenson’s Kabbalos Shabbos (Sabbath-welcoming) service at his home in Hancock Park. His Judaism is Chabad Chassidic, but a good mix of Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish guys always drop in.

What we all share is a love of exuberant prayer and composer and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s spirited melodies. Unlike most of the participants, I haven’t been religious all my life, and I’m very grateful for the welcoming atmosphere at Kalmenson’s service.

I was humming a Carlebach tune and walking north on Orange Drive when I noticed a group of black-hatted males walking east on Third Street. They appeared to be three generations: two grandpas, two dads and three teenagers, all in black suits, white shirts, assorted ties and black fedoras.

I could tell these guys weren’t headed for Kalmenson’s service. I surmised that we’d reach the intersection at about the same time, I’d call out a warm “Good Shabbos!” and one or two of them would mutter “Good Shabbos” in return. That’s how it usually goes.

I acquired the big “Good Shabbos!” habit a decade ago, when I lived in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood and attended Kabbalos Shabbos services at Happy Minyan, a direct offshoot of the Carlebach tradition.

“Good Shabbos!” is more than a greeting. It implies, “What a blessing to share this moment with you! We’re alive, we’re on the move, the Day of Peace is here, and we both recognize that these gifts flow from the Master of the Universe!”

Some people fulfill the Jewish mission by teaching Torah. Some do it by living a life free of sin. And some do it with a great smile.

Carlebach’s life and music were all about manifesting this idea everywhere he went. He was a visibly grateful and giving Jew, and he made countless people happy with nothing more — and nothing less — than his manner.

Some people fulfill the Jewish mission by teaching Torah. Some do it by living a life free of sin. And some do it with a great smile.

Whenever we, as visible Jews, perform a good deed in the world, it’s known as a Kiddush HaShem, a sanctification of God’s name. When we do wrong in public, it’s a chillul HaShem, a desecration of the name.

Is friendliness really a Kiddush HaShem? Not everyone thinks so. Jews have been persecuted so ruthlessly, and for so long, that in many communities it’s standard operating procedure to keep your head down, avoid outsiders and live to observe the commandments another day. One can even admire the keenly honed survival instinct behind this perspective. And that’s what I expected to encounter from the gentlemen heading east on Third Street.

Living in the United States in 2018, however, we probably enjoy the greatest liberty to be openly Jewish in our history. We don’t need to keep our heads down. In fact, there are many non-Jews who wish we’d be more Jewish. They’re often Christians who believe in the Bible, and feel fortunate whenever they get a chance to confer a blessing upon the children of Israel.
I often encounter these folks in my work at Accidental Talmudist. Such people would love to exchange a warm greeting, and learn a bit about the Jewish faith, from the fellows approaching my corner, if only they’d be open to it.

And it was the sage Rabbi Yishmael who said, “Greet every person with joy!” (Pirkei Avot 3:12)

All of this flashed through my mind as I approached the corner. Before I could call out, “Good Shabbos!” however, an unexpected third party crashed our little scene.

A middle-aged, African-American guy driving south on Orange reached the intersection first, rolled down his window, and addressed the black-hatted males.

“Why do you guys always look so serious?” he challenged with a grin.

This was exactly the moment that my trajectory brought me between him and the group. I was stunned that such an opportunity to heed Rabbi Yishmael’s edict had suddenly presented itself, but I embraced it.

Smiling broadly, I opened my arms and greeted him with an “Ayyyyyyyyyyyy. Good evening!”

“There you go. I knew it was possible!”

We all chuckled, and carried on with our journeys.

Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.