Almost every Friday afternoon for the last few months, I've been visited at my office by a pair of young Chasidic Jews -- high school students in big black hats and sporting the wispy beginnings of what I am certain will someday be fine beards.
"Howdy boys," I say, welcoming them.
They are exercising that peculiarity of the Lubavitch sect of Chasidism that, perhaps unique among religions, holds the door of faith open to those who care to walk in, without criticism or condemnation. They want to speak about the Torah and want me to daven or put on tefillin. I indulge them. First, they are young, and youth should be encouraged. I don't know what, if any, reward they get for each Jew they snag into putting on tefillin. I'd like to think they get points toward a Schwinn bicycle, with a bell and a light, but I doubt it.
Second, the regular arrival of a religious team endeavoring to save my soul raises eyebrows at the office, and so meshes nicely with my own self-image of a hellbound reprobate, envious of H.L. Mencken and his reputation as the Antichrist of Baltimore.
Blessed Are You, Lord our God
And, third, I suppose there is a pleasure in ritual, in binding the Word upon my forehead, in rolling up my sleeve and wrapping my arm in the leather thong of the phylacteries, in having the prayer box bound to the back of my left hand. It's an oddly dramatic moment, for me anyway, to stand in the office, my arm outstretched, wrapped to the fingers in a leather strap, saying the ancient prayers.
I've always been fascinated with the Lubavitch because they have solved, for them, for now, the problem of being an insular traditional religious group in a wide-open secular world. Their kids don't have the problem of standing out in school because they form their own schools. They never have to deal with not being able to wear their big Borsalino hats while working as a fry cook at Wendy's because they don't work at Wendy's. They form their own businesses and hire each other. Their numbers aren't decimated by intermarriage because they don't shake a strange woman's hand, never mind date, never mind marry. At least generally.
A lot of the bad news in the papers boils down to groups trying to maintain their identity in a world full of people such as myself -- secular, flexible, creedless. Whatever else you can say about the Muslim world and how it is grinding like a tectonic plate against the West, they are absolutely correct in their belief that modern capitalistic society will eventually crush them to a powder, as it has done to most every group since the Navajo.
Society presses upon them, and they press back. It's fascinating to watch France trying to cope with its undigested mass of 5 million Muslim immigrants by banning head scarves in schools. By our standards this is ludicrous and oppressive. A teenage girl can wear a Chanel scarf to keep her coiffure from the wind, but if she's doing it for Allah, she's in trouble.
This seems to put the government in the mind-reading business and, besides, would force into private religious schools those who feel they can't send their children into public scarfless, or yarmulke-less, as the French are also banning skullcaps (so typical; France slaps at the Muslims and hits the Jews).
I don't think France wants that. The beauty of Western society is that you don't need men with sticks to make people embrace it. They dress in jeans, they guzzle Coke, they blast Britney, all of their own accord. I say, let the kids wear the trappings of their faiths. Ripping them off only encourages zeal. Religious extremism is difficult, and unremunerative -- nobody pays you to pray -- and history shows that the fundamentalists do not prevail, but fade. Video games prevail.
The religious groups know this. That's why they circle the wagons. They know that five minutes of watching Diane Lane can overturn 1,000 years of theology. Given their claims to the power of God, it strikes me as an awfully fragile brand of philosophy.
God Doesn't Condone Neil's Books
One recent Friday, our business concluded, I was ushering the boys out of the office, so I could return to the deity-denying, institution-wrecking work that is journalism. I don't remember how it came up, but I yanked one of my books off the shelf -- I'm always forcing my books on people; it's the only way anybody ever reads them.
"Here, take this," I said, "Give it a read. You might enjoy it."
They drew back as if I'd offered a puppy head on a plate.
"No thank you," one said. "We're not supposed to read outside books."
That moment needs no commentary. But were I convinced that God was on my shoulder, and my life was being led in accordance to the secrets of Creation, I don't think I'd feel the need to shield myself from the contamination of inferior thoughts. That would be like my shunning seed catalogs out of fear of being drawn into farming. Nor would I make my daughters wear scarves to guard them against harlotry. That wouldn't say very much about my view of their character.
Still, I'll pray with the boys, if they return, and I think they will. Grant the faithful this: They don't give up easily. One advantage they do have against the steady erosive pressure of the secular world.
Neil Steinberg is an author and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.