When the Rebbe came to America in 1941, (his father-in-law was the Lubavitcher Rebbe at that time) he found a Judaism that was very much in a defensive mode. Public Jewish displays were rare. One of his first bold innovative visionary projects was the Lag B’Omer Parade where Jewish children would parade in New York City streets, with banners and floats and lots of Jewish pride. I experienced the Lag B’Omer Parades of the early 1980’s as a child, and the later 1980’s and early 1990’s as a Yeshiva student who took some part in the preparations or activities. Here are 3 memories from my small part in serving in the Lag B’Omer Parade and little life lessons from each.
THE DRUM CORPS
Each Yeshiva would have tryouts after Passover and somehow a ragtag group of Yeshiva kids would be transformed into a smart marching and confident drum corps to drum away and march in the parade. I liked to bang on things, and very much wanted to join the drum corps at the Brooklyn Yeshiva I was at the time. I was probably 11 years old then. But my skills didn’t past muster. I tried and tried, but couldn’t make the grade. I don’t remember the exact instructor, not sure but he might have been Mendy Lipsker, but he obviously sensed my disappointment. He was sweet about it, and came up with an idea (come to think of it, it might have been Rabbi Baras who thought of this). As the drum corps would approach the grandstand and the Rebbe’s viewing platform, I could be the one to greet the Rebbe with a salutation (something like: Long live the Rebbe!). This was an honor, I could march along with the band, I could be part of it! I eagerly agreed.
The day of the Parade came, it was a glorious day. Our drum corps got in line, and after some wait, we were marching down the service lane surrounded by throngs of people, huge crowd. The guys were drumming away, and I marched right along next to the big kid in my class with the big base drum. I was so nervous and excited. I didn’t see anyone or watch anything, I was anxious about those highly anticipated 10-seconds before the Rebbe. The guys did a dramatic drumroll, I quickly said my thing, the Rebbe was looking right at us, and then we marched off and turned the corner of Eastern Parkway and up Kingston Ave.
On the way to the Rebbe’s grandstand, I didn’t see or hear anyone. But after that moment, I became aware of a bunch of curious and questioning taunts. “Who is that kid marching along with the band? He has no drum!” and all kinds of things like that. I realized I must indeed look quite silly, everyone else had a drum or cymbal. Here I was marching along two blocks later with nothing aside for that one incredible moment in front of the Rebbe!
The non-drumming lesson: The bus driver is driving a bus, the carpenter builds a bookcase, the cashier scans food product. Sometimes its self-evident what people do, and sometimes its hard to tell. People do things in life, people are part of things, sometimes in ways that we can’t observe or recognize from our vantage point.
BEING A DUCK
Fast forward a couple of years, I was now in my later teens, and I heard that NCFJE (Rabbi Hecht’s organization which was behind the Lag B’Omer Parade) was looking for yeshiva students to dress up in animal or clown costumes to add to the parade’s festivity. I signed up and got a big heavy yellow duck costume. That year Lag B’Omer was a hot and sunny, the heat inside the costume was almost unbearable. But that was my job. I was a little self-conscious to go duck-ing around right in front of the Rebbe, so I chose the area to the Rebbe’s left, near the approach of the parade going down Eastern Parkway. I danced and pranced about, lively and energetically – with abandon! No one knew who was inside the duck, I could go all out without worrying what others might think. And I did!
The duck lesson: We are often too intimidated by others to fully express ourselves. While some inhibition is obviously a good thing, and peer pressure can be a positive influence, it can also stifle us and keep us from reaching our full potential. Go all out! Give it all you’ve got!
Another year, on one of the nights leading up to Lag B’Omer, a friend and I were were out and about in Crown Heights looking for ways to help out. There were garages and backyards and basements humming with construction of floats and props and signs. We ended up in an old cavernous synagogue that was run down and no longer in use at the time. (It has since been very nicely renovated and is now in use as a Yeshiva and synagogue and an active social hall). Older yeshiva students were tracing huge letters of the “Twelve Pesukim” on canvas sheets, to be hung up on the fire-escape balconies of Lubavitch World Headquarters. We asked to help, so my friend and I were assigned to help paint the traced letters. Each letter was maybe a foot and a half tall, they were huge letters. Above the “Twelve Pesukim” was another verse, in much larger letters, maybe 3 or 4 feet high each, or more, it ran the whole width of a double-wide Brooklyn apartment building.
They closed off Eastern Parkway for the Parade, and children sat in rented seats that filled the parkway lanes. Looking at the verses up on the fire-escapes, the letters we painted were bold, clear and legible. They certainly didn’t appear as tall as they did when we were leaning over and painting them, but they were clearly visible from hundreds of feet, maybe a football field length away.
The painting letters lesson: For memories and experiences to remain vivid and visible from longer lengths and spans of time, they ought to be of over-sized significance and disproportionately meaningful in their original moment.
Once I got started thinking of and recalling these Lag B’Omer Parade memories from my youth, more memories started to surface. Perhaps another time. It is certainly a most memorable, creative, vividly colorful and vibrant time in Chabad. It brought out a colorfully creative side to Chabad yeshiva students.