There is a young Hasidic Jewish man who weaves frenetically through the pedestrians on Broadway in the Garment District—I see him usually after 6 p.m.—with a stack of used paperback books forming a pilaster on his chest between his clenched hands at his waist and his neck.
He swivels his head from side to side, looking for people to whom he might give a book. He is choosing from among the crowd of Germans, Scandinavians, Japanese and commuters who traipse north and south on the Great White Way. In front of my office building at 36th Street and Broadway, there is occasionally a parked 40-foot RV with “Moshiach is Coming” painted in plum and teal on the side and music playing from a loudspeaker. Next to the writing there is a picture of a man in a black hat and long white beard, with a slight smile, which invites in passers-by. He looks kind, and serious. People enter by a five-step staircase toward the front of the RV and exit 25 feet or so toward the back. On a recent Monday, I saw a man from my floor coming out of the vehicle, smiling and talking to someone behind him who remained in the RV. He’s a businessman, and from my albeit brief exchanges with him I would not have guessed he was very religious. Young men, somewhere between 14 and 21 years old, wearing black hats and suits with white shirts open at the collar, the fringe of the tallit katan falling to their thighs, stand a few feet apart facing opposite directions in front of the RV handing out tracts, directing people to the entrance steps. They first ask, “Are you Jewish?” They don’t ask everyone. They ask me this. Over the summer a young man with red hair and fair skin asked me multiple times on different days. One time he asked me on my way to the gym and again on my way back. I always answered “no.” He was undeterred, moving on to the next person, letting me walk by without a second glance or visible trace of disappointment.