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Who Are Those Chabad Guys, and What’s with the Telethon?

My friend Brad, a Zen Buddhist Monk, emailed me a few days ago with this:

"Oh & for your Jewish blog, here's something I was thinking about. As a gentile I am slightly freaked out by all the Chabad Telethon banners all over town. Not seriously freaked out. But here's a whole telethon on a major station about something I have never even heard of. Chabad might be a type of soup for all I know! Maybe a column on "things that weird out our gentile friends." Explain to us what the hell is going on with those table cloths you see guys wearing on their shoulders on Saturday mornings (actually, I know a bit about prayer shawls, but maybe most of us goyum don't). That kind of thing."

It's funny, because having grown up in Los Angeles, I always took this kind of stuff for granted. Up through about 12th grade, most of the people I knew were Jewish. Even in college in Portland, Oregon, a large number of my friends and classmates identified as Jewish, or "part" Jewish. The first time I felt really alone as a Jew was when I went backpacking through Europe by myself. One night in Corfu, Greece, after a rip-roaring good time with a group of fellow globetrekkers and a bottle (or two, or three) of ouzo, a part of me surfaced that I'd never encountered before. I began to feel my aloneness in the world, and became miserable at the idea that none of the people I was with could possibly, really, truly understand me, and that a few of them probably hated me blindly and by default. Being that I was soused, I expressed these sentiments to the group, loudly, and with pathos.

That moment of solitary (and embarrassing) self-pity was diffused when, after a beat of shocked silence (I really put on quite a show) other travelers began to say, "I'm Jewish, too," and "I'm half Jewish," and "My grandma on my mom's side was Jewish, so…" Then we all sang that song that goes, "Wherever you go, there's always someone Jewish. You're never alone, when you say you're a Jew," and Israeli-danced our way into the ocean for a midnight swim. Just kidding. But really, everything up until the singing and dancing bit happened.

Anyway, I guess my point is, having grown up in such a Jew-drenched city, I don't often consider how we appear to non-Jews. Not only that, but frankly, there are so many different Jewish cultural and religious communities in Los Angeles, sometimes I think we don't even know what to make of each other. The Hasidic Jews all in black, the Kabbalists all in white, the Persian Jews, the Israeli Jews, the Moroccan and Tunisian Jews…it's a never ending story. So, I sort of don't know how to explain Chabad and their Telethon to Brad, other than to say that Chabad is one of the largest branches of Hasidic Judaism, and that their Telethon raises a buttload of money for non-sectarian educational and social service programs. It's pretty straightforward to me, but maybe not to a gentile.

What aspects of Judaism, whether cultural or religious, have you been asked to explain to non-Jews? Were you happy with your answers? Were they?

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