In 1941, Chabad opened a yeshivah for young boys at its headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. In those years, Crown Heights was a very affluent Jewish community. There were about a dozen students at the time, and my brother Leibel and I were two of them. I was thirteen years old, and I tell this story from the perspective of a young boy.

At that time, it was the custom on Rosh Hashanah for those praying at 770 to walk up to the Botanical Gardens off Eastern Parkway to do tashlich—a special High Holiday prayer—at the pond there. Everybody—the whole community—walked down the street. How many people that was I cannot tell you, because when you’re thirteen you can’t estimate crowds. But it was a lot of people.

“That’s not the right way to walk. You should march down the street and sing”

The Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, was rebbe at the time. The Rebbe was not yet the rebbe—he was better known then as the rebbe’s son-in-law, Ramash.

So that year, when we started going outside, Ramash stopped us and said, “Wait, that’s not the right way to walk. You should march down the street two-by-two, and you should sing.” It was unheard of—singing in the street. Nobody sings in the street!

I was very shy and self-effacing, and walking down the street and drawing attention to myself seemed awful to me—I just withered at the thought. All the people in the apartment houses we passed were watching us from their windows. I felt that they were staring directly at me and grinning. I felt terrible, and I was praying to G‑d—the way a thirteen-year-old prays to G‑d—to get me out of there.

G‑d didn’t answer my prayer that year, but the next year, as everybody lined up for the walk, Reb Shmuel Levitin, an elder chassid, said to me, “Zalman, I can’t keep up with these people; they walk too fast for me. But I don’t want to walk alone. Will you walk with me?”

“As we were walking, a fellow approached us. He grabbed my arm and asked me, ‘Why are they singing? Why are they singing?’”

And I said to G‑d: “You heard my prayer; You answered me!” I didn’t have to walk and sing with people looking at me.

I walked with Reb Shmuel and a few other stragglers, and we arrived at the pond and did tashlich there. The large crowd was already finished, and were walking back on Union Street, still singing. We followed them at a distance. As we were walking, a fellow approached us. He was dressed very nicely in holiday attire—a black suit and white shirt—but he did not have a yarmulke or a hat on, so he was obviously not a very religious person. This fellow grabbed my arm and asked me, “Why are they singing? Why are they singing?” I mumbled a reply, and then he said to me, “You know something—I have a spark in my soul, and when I heard those people walking down the street and singing because they are proud to be Jews, that spark just burst into a flame.” And with that, he turned and walked away.

I was old enough to realize that this guy was really touched by the singing crowd. It inspired him. Whatever his rabbi preached on Rosh Hashana didn’t touch him—the spark within him wasn’t affected. But when he heard people singing, as if to say, “Hooray, I’m a Jew”—that aroused him.

And later on I realized that the Frierdiker Rebbe’s son-in-law—who later became the Rebbe—knew what he was doing when he said, “March and sing.” He was able to see something that the rest of us weren’t able to see on our own—that when Jews go out singing in the street, people who are sensitive will respond, perhaps even without realizing it.

Only then could I see that it was worth it—to do all that singing and marching in two rows, so that somebody’s heart would burst open, and somebody would be able to say, “Hooray, I’m a Jew.”

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